In which the beleaguered reviewer attempts to make some headway into the mounds of CDs seeking reviews accumulating daily by providing quick hits on a few recordings at a time.
John Moulder - "Bifrost"
The burning rainbow and Norse bridge to the afterlife - "Bifrost" is an especially apt title for guitarist John Moulder's new release given the musician's spiritual nature (he is, after all, a Catholic priest) and also due to the fact that Norweigian musicians Arild Andersen (acoustic bass) and Bendik Hofseth (tenor sax) play prominent roles. Andersen is well known for his work beginning with Jan Garabeck in the 1960s and as a leading light in European jazz, having released several albums as a leader on the ECM label over the decades. Hofseth meanwhile, is most famous in the U.S. for replacing Michael Brecker in the seminal '70s fusion band Steps Ahead, when, as legend has it, he sent a demo tape to Mike Maineri while still a student. The presence of these two veterans, along with longtime associate Paul Wertico on drums shows the respect that Moulder commands for his mastery of his instrument. Electric fretless bassist and programmer Brian Peters rounds out this fine assembly, while also engineering, mixing and serving as producer.
As to be expected, some of the music is placid and otherworldly (with a noticeable undercurrent of questioning and angst), enhanced by Moulder's melodic acoustic guitar work (both on six and 12-string), but have no fear - the man brings the fire when necessary - creating burning solos that prove again that the kind and mild mannered gentleman can shred with the best of them. Hofseth also adds skillful sax solos that captivate, while working well within the framework. The opening title track is a perfect example: it starts off with Moulder's chiming guitars and the rhythm section setting the stage for Hofseth to take the melody and the first solo. Then Moulder enters with a twisting solo that ascends like smoke in the air. The band navigates Moulder's shifting time signatures (11/4 in alternating 5/4 & 6/4 and 6/4 & 5/4 counts) with abandon. Later Andersen's lovely bass solo introduces the haunting "Magical Spaces" while "Echoes of Home" and "Watch Your Step" tread some of the same Americana territory Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell travel, albeit with a European flavor that gives the music a different and quite intriguing dimension.
The "Cold Sea Tryptych" centerpiece seems to musically evoke the loneliness of humanity in the face of the mysteries of the universe as represented by a deep, cold and overwhelming ocean, with Hofesth's sax playing the part of a screaming seabird in the opening section. Moulder's guitars navigate the fragile boat through the stormy seas (Wertico's cymbals as the crashing waves), but the finale is anything but reassuring - instead it is a chilling and achingly austere sense of awe. In the aftermath, the album ending 15:18 "Time Being" features some of Moulder's (and the group's) best playing. His sublime electric solo is proof that guitarists can tear it up, while still playing with intelligence and feeling, while Hofseth and Andersen reply in kind. Wertico takes a solo spot that builds like an unstoppable force of nature and leads into Moulder's distorted screaming guitar. An excellent recording from one of the finest guitarists working today.
Dana Hall - "Into the Light"
Dana Hall is such a respected musician and educator on the Chicago (and NYC) scene that it is hard to believe that his debut album has only recently been released by Origin Records. Into the Light presents a mature and thoughtful drummer/composer and his top-notch quintet performing songs that blend great classic sounds from the 1960s with modern directions. Hall provides most of the compositions and says he looked at drummer/band leaders like Victor Lewis, Tain Watts, Max Roach and Billy Higgins as role models who write their music with the talents of the band members in mind. In this he succeeds greatly - the band features trumpet star Terell Stafford, saxophonist Tim Warfield, Jr. on tenor and soprano, bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianist Bruce Barth - all of whom have played together for many years. Bandleader Hall gives the players plenty of room to shine and everyone comes through with memorable work. Stafford does his usual stellar work, Whitaker rips off some of the best bass solos I've heard this year, while "Tough Young Tenor" Warfield shows why he has been the choice of Nicolas Payton and Stafford as longtime members of each trumpeters' band. Barth is a true surprise - well known in New York, he may be an unfamiliar name here in Chicago - but not for long as his solos are utterly engaging. Of course, Hall's drumming centers everything and he plays with his famous energy and abandon, without overplaying. Stylistically the songs move from the opening cover of Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream" through mid-tempo, swinging pieces ("Conversion Song," "The Path to Love"), a ballad ('Orchids"), the McCoy Tyner-inspired 'Black Mountain" to the free jazz/ Herbie suite "Jabali.' Whitaker adds a lovely and understated piece "For Rockelle," while Warfield's burner "Tin Soldier" ends the album on a hard bop high note, complete with a satisfying Hall solo.
Stefano Bollani, Jesper Bodilsen, Morten Lund - "Stone in the Water"
Stefano Bollani is an Italian pianist whose luminous, liquescent technique on the piano has been opening eyes ever since trumpet great Enrico Rava plucked him from the pop ranks and set him on a course to success within the European jazz world. He opened our eyes with his brilliant Solo Piano (see our review here) as well as on Rava's latest release New York Days (review here). Bollani has been playing with this rhythm section (his so-called "Danish Trio") since 2003, and this group has released two prior albums in Europe. This is their first release on ECM, and they certainly make the most of it, creating a shimmering and sublime sensual delight of a recording. Bollani provides most of the material and is not afraid to mix in Monk-like intervals despite the mostly smooth and subdued nature of the music. Nor is the music simply placid, an energy bubbles beneath the surface, erupting when necessary (as on the exciting "Ii cervello del pavone"). The pianist again shows his love of classical music - "Improvisation 13 en la minuer" is based on Poulenc, while "Dom de iludir" (Caetano Veloso) and "Brigas nuanca mais" (Jobim) - although fairly unrecognizable from the originals - show Bollani's love of Brazilian music. Bassist Bodilsen brings some lovely solos and two original compositions of his own, while Lund's drumming is a model of sensitivity. Somewhat reminiscent of Bill Evans' trio recordings, Bollani and his Danish friends have created perhaps the best and loveliest piano trio recording of the year.
Jeff Chan - "Horns of Plenty"
(Asian Improv Records)
Some of the best improvised music I've heard this year comes from Asian American jazz artist Jeff Chan on his Horns of Plenty release. Besides featuring a stunning cover design by Lauren Deutsch, this recording showcases Chan on tenor sax and bass clarinet, accompanied by some of Chicago's finest. Ed Wilkerson, Jr. provides clarinets and tenor sax, Francis Wong adds the flute and tenor sax, Tastu Aoki the bass. This is the core group, and they are joined by alto saxophonists Jimmy Ellis and Lewis Jordan - horns of plenty is right! But what could be cacophonous is surprisingly musical and melodic with great and sensitive interplay by all. The threads of each player runs through and interweaves an overall pattern that draws from Asian music, traditional jazz themes, classical and free-form jazz into a beautiful musical tableau. The wonderful "Up Above" starts things off delightfully, while the deliciously-titled "Licorice Stick Licorice Stick and Nice Like" is a candy-covered treat of swirling flute and clarinets. The haunting "Waiting" offers layers of sound to be peeled like an onion and savored, while"Decisions" presents variations on a traditional Japanese song, anchored by Aoki's ominous pedal-point bass. You can almost sense Mount Fuji looming in the distance. The ballad "Song for Ava" places Chan the spotlight to demonstrate his full, rich tone and lyrical sweetness on the tenor in a rewarding duet with the accomplished Aoki, while the blusey "Strutting With Tatsu" and a blow out version of the Taiwanese traditional song "Alishan" round out this worthy release. Nice to hear some great jazz blowing in from across the Pacific.
Sarah Marie Young - "Expressive"
Possessor of one of the loveliest voices around, vocalist Sarah Marie Young brings us Expressive - a six-song CD showcasing her abilities across several styles. Opener "Goodbye to You and Me" is an agreeable "new standard" written by Young and her husband, bassist Matt Young. Pianist Tom Vaitsas and guitarist Rob Block accompany the duo on this tune. Block, one of the most underrated musicians in the city flies out from under the radar on his solo, while Vaitsas also acquaints himself well. Sarah Young shows great talent for being "expressive" with a sensitive sense of dynamics. The crowd-pleasing Brazilian number "O Pato" (The Duck) gives Sarah a chance to "quack" melodiously, and Matt to take a chewy solo turn, while she also takes on "Born to Be Blue" with pleasing results. Vaitsas switches to tasty organ on this bluesy number. The highlights for me, however are her wonderful version of "Autumn Nocturne" and her original "Winter Song." The former truly highlights Young's incredible range, accompanied only by Block's Joe Pass-flavored guitar. The latter is an incredible gospel-drenched pop composition centered by Vaitsas's churchy piano and organ and Young's killer vocal delivery. This satisfying song is a hit waiting to be discovered. This too-short recording ends continuing the gospel trend with an enjoyable version of "Amazing Grace" that leaves the listener craving more from this talented singer.
Carlos Barbosa-Lima - "Merengue"
Brazilian guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima has been recognized as one of the premier interpreters of canon for over 50 years, during which he has recorded over 50 albums. On Merengue, he performs a wide range of music from across all of Latin America and even Hawaii. The composers whose works appear here are a "who's-who" of guitar literature: Almeida, Villa-Lobos, Jobim, Gnattali, Lauro, Riera, Mangore, Montana, Nazareth and more. Barbosa-Lima tackles most of these compositions unaccompanied and displaying his impeccable technique on the nylon-string guitar. He is joined by Gustavo Colina on cuatro on three tracks, a guitar trio setting on three tracks, percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca on several tracks and harmonica star Henrick Meurkens on two tracks. Leaning more toward the classical than jazz, this recording is nonetheless a treat for lovers of Latin American guitar music and shows the love of melody that is inherent in the music. Byron Yasui's beautiful "Fantasy on a Hawaiian Lullaby" closes the album and reminds the listener of the universality of music.
David Widelock Trio - "Skating on the Sidewalk"
Bay Area-guitarist David Widelock is another of those talented musicians who has been under-recognized for his talents. On Skating on the Sidewalk, his first trio album since 1985's Too Many Vitamins, Widelock displays his impressive abilities across several styles and on several different electric and acoustic instruments. "Chitchat" shows the guitarist in a tasty jazz vein with a notable gypsy tang, while Leadbelly's "Black Betty" and Tom Waits' "Sixteen Shells from a 30-06" and the originals "Something Easy" and "Little Orphunk Annie" have a distinct blues influence. "A Colorful Dream Underwater" features Widelock in a Brazilian mode - something for which he has been touted by no less than Luis Bonfa. Most of the songs are written by Widelock, and many, like "Peeling the Magic Onion" blend jazz, rock, pop, folk, blues and other styles into a pleasing collage. A guitar fans delight - with nice work by bassist Fred Randolph and drummer Jim Kassis as well in creating a comfortable and enchanting recording.
Tony Foster - "In Between Moods"
I admire the chutzpah of pianist Tony Foster in starting off things with a version of "Take the 'A' Train." My admiration grows even more when the arrangement of Strayhorn's classic refurbishes the beloved old train into a bullet train, while still retaining the old charms. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, B.C. & Seattle, WA) - where there is good jazz, that is unfortunately at times nearly elusive as the Bigfoot, Foster, drummer Joe Poole and bassist Russell Botten recorded all nine songs on In Between Moods live in different sessions for CBC Radio. Fans of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Cedar Walton and Dave Brubeck will throughly enjoy Foster's approach to the keys, which brilliantly blends the traditional with new directions in a pleasing and harmonious manner. Poole and Botten are a powerful rhythm section, keeping the beat pumping on pieces like Oscar Peterson's "Cakewalk" and laying back on ballads like the Foster originals "Colors of Siena" and the waltzing "How I Miss the Rain" (only a Seattle resident would say it and mean it). This recording is already making serious waves on the radio charts in Canada and it deserves attention here in the U.S. for its impressive songs, playing and warm clear recording. Other highlights include the up-tempo originals "Mr. J" and the ever-shifting title track, along with a down-home, bluesy take on John Clayton's "Serious Grease." The clever integration of "Someone to Watch Over Me" (as solo piano) into a trio version of "You've Changed" (with the bass taking the melody) also should not be overlooked on this strong release, which hopefully will gain some recognition for this pianist from the rainy Northwest.
Mark Moultrup - "Dar Cho"
Has anyone written a better song about a food item than Mark Moultrup's delicious "Avant Garlic" since Michael Franks wrote "Eggplant" ? (and even then the actual subject was in question) Multi-talented pianist/singer/composer Moultrup takes his listeners a journey through his wide-ranging talents and interests on Dar Cho. Backed by Rodney Whitaker on bass, George Fludas on drums and John Wojociechowski on saxes and flutes (with Ernie Adams, Kurt Schweitz and Michael Levin guesting in spots) - it is clear that the Detroit-born/Chicago-based artist knows his sidemen. It is also clear, upon listening, that this cat can play and sing and write at a high level indeed. Examples of his composition and piano skills abound, as on the complex opener "When Then Was Now" - which was improvised and recorded on piano and then arranged for the group after the fact. Here waves of piano make way for Wojiechowski's assured tenor, and Whitaker's skittering solo. The energized "What About" also is driven by Moultrup's percussive piano, but adds in vocals that remind me of Roy Kral although in a higher register. "Ted's Last Song" is a ballad for departed canine, something we dog lovers can all relate to, while "Good Will in the Wind" lives up to its title and is another highlight along with the contrapuntal "Of a Dream." The oddly-titled "Burger Bush" is a fun and funky hip-hopper, but these flights of fancy are paired with rather straight-forward standards like "Corcovado," "Come Fly With Me," and "Summer Wind,' as well as originals like "It Has Always Been You" and "I Know It's Only Be bop" that demonstrate that Moultrup can croon and scat in a more traditional vein as well.
Ellynne Plotnick - "Life is Beautiful"
Always a shock when a talented individual springs from seemingly out of nowhere to share their artistic gift with the world. NYC singer/composer and keyboardist Ellynne Plotnick is rumored to have a day gig as a school teacher in Connecticut. Lucky kids, the woman is also an engaging multi-talented jazz artist, as evidenced on her album Life is Beautiful, on which she wrote all nine songs. The title track is sheer exuberance and joy of life, but don't think that she is a Pollyanna, she explores all moods equally. Her wordless vocals on "Changing Voices/Changing Beauty" evoke wistfulness, while "A House Abandoned" is a heart-rending piece written about her great-grandfather - who abandoned his family during the Great Depression. The former features tenor saxophonist Steve Moran, while trumpeter Fred Mariano highlights the latter. Plotnick handles the piano on three tunes, while Dan Furman is a rock on the keys throughout the rest. Special notice should be given to drummers and percussionists Jun Saito, Gerard Vito Diacri and Bob Leonard for the sonically interesting array they provide to the atmosphere. As a singer, Plotnick's vocals are fresh, clean and sweet (she has been compared to early Chris Connor). As both lyricist and interpreter, Plotnick achives an especially insightful delivery. Serious numbers like "Song for Barbara" and "Recurrence" are balanced by songs like the luscious "Midnight Shades of Blue" (with John Cain's Brazilian guitar), the R&B-inflected "I Wonder" (should be the "hit"), and "When the Going Gets Tough." Meanwhile, the humorous "As Rare as You"'s rhymes will have you laughing out loud, and marveling at the clever wit of the writer. Well done, "Teach."
Saltman Knowles - "Yesterday's Man"
(Pacific Coast Jazz)
I must admit that this Washington D.C.-based group's debut - The Return of the Composer. didn't really do much for me. The compositions by bassist Mark Saltman and pianist William Knowles were fine, but didn't really knock me over. Additionally, I was not a fan of their use of singer Lori Williams-Chisholm to provide wordless vocalese and scatting. She is a fine singer, but the mixture didn't really feel right to me. On Yesterday's Man, the duo maintain their approach, while adding soprano steel pan player Victor Provost and allowing Williams-Chisholm at times to sing real words. The difference is striking and an obvious step in the right direction. The duo do indeed have talent and their vision is much clearer to determine this time around.
The opening "Theme in Search of a Film" (in 5/4) - featuring excellent drum work by Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson (perhaps the star of the show), gets the Saltman Knowles-style moodiness and quirkiness right. "Cry" reverts to the wordless vocals, but is enhanced by Provost's steel pan solo. "Shesh" delves into Middle-Eastern themes with interesting results and nice solos, but the album really starts to kick in with "What Was I to You" where Williams-Parker is allowed to just sing in a straight-ahead manner and she turns out to be a revelation on this appealing and snappy number. The mostly wordless vocals return on "Blues for Sale" but this time the combination with the steel pans works well on a very catchy tune, while the use of the voice as an additional instrument is restrained on "Folk Song." "They Don't Really Care for Us" (written about New Orleans after Katrina) allows "Junebug" to strut on the drums, while the moody and somewhat odd title track is ultimately memorable - both with fine vocals singing interesting lyrics. Meanwhile, he down-home "East Orange Blues" ends things nicely on this effort.
Trio West - "Plays Holiday Songs Vol. 2"
Trio West is back again with a second volume of Christmas songs played with a jazz feel. If you are getting tired of the same old Nat King Cole, Andy Williams and Bing and Bowie, pianist Eldad Zvulun, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Tobias Gebb will help you get your jazz fix on without disrupting the holiday spirit or offending the relatives. Tunes like "We Three Kings," "Jingle Bells" and "O Tannebaum" (presented as both a salsa and a funky number) lend themselves surprisingly well to jazz - something Vince Guaraldi discovered and ran with on the Peanuts Christmas special. If the idea of a "Silent Night Samba" appeals to you, this is the only holiday album you need.