Friday, September 30, 2005

Sonny listens

originally uploaded by mrgreg.
Here's a nice New York Times article with Sonny Rollins listening to some jazz he likes and commenting on it, jazz in general and his music in particular.

Off hand, I can't think of any jazz musician who's gotten cooler with age than Sonny Rollins, and there are darn few who have been playing as well at 75.

Pops redux

originally uploaded by mrgreg.
I attended the fantastic, if hot (as in 108 degrees Sunday), Austin City Limits music festival over the weekend with my friends Carl Abernathy, Kathy Willhoite and Rodd Zolkos. One of the best sets I caught came from New Orleans retro-trumpeter and -singer Kermit Ruffins, who opened with "Sleepy Time Down South," Louis Armstrong's traditional closer, as if to say, "I'm taking up where Pops left off."

OK, Kermit Ruffins can't play the trumpet like Louis Armstrong (Who can?) and he probably doesn't sing as well either. But he's close on both counts, there is the same joy to his playing as there was to Armstrong's and he's got a modern funky element to his music on top of that.

I really like the CD "Kermit Ruffins," an 11-song sampler, some of the material out of print otherwise, from the folks at Putumayo World Music. The disk gives you an excellent picture of what Ruffins does, and just try not moving to "Kermit's Second Line."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Trumpeting Bridgewater

Champaign-Urbana native Cecil Bridgewater may be more acclaimed for his composing and arranging than his trumpeting, but that doesn't mean he can't blow a horn, as stints with Max Roach, Horace Silver and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra ought to make plain. He's also a fine jazz educator, as I had occasion to find out at the Jazz Threads program here last year.

And while few in number, Bridgewater has produced some good CDs. I like "I Love Your Smile," a collection of Bridgewater compositions and "Sophisticated Lady" performed with saxophonist Antonio Hart, trombonist Steve Turre and pianist Roland Hanna, plus Roach on some tunes. Think of the Modern Jazz Quartet-plus and you get the idea, which is to say sophisticated, straight-ahead jazz immaculately played with plenty of room for Cecil B. to show off that trumpet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Stands out

Another non-Jack McDuff Jack McDuff CD I like is "Grantstand," one of guitarist Grant Green's greatest sessions, with Brother Jack and saxophonist (also flute) Yusef Lateef accompanying, as well as Al Harewood on drums. The music ranges from the high-energy title track to a version of "My Funny Valentine" where McDuff lets you know he probably spent some time playing in church back home in Champaign-Urbana. These guys just play seamlessly on what is a desert island disk.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Like finding a Rembrandt

Earlier this year, I raved about a new CD from an old tape, newly discovered, of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker live at Town Hall in New York in 1945. Now comes "Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall," released today thanks to folks at the Library of Congress, who were archiving old Voice of America tapes in February and found this one, and to Blue Note, which put out the disk with dispatch.

The first thing that struck me was the really good sound, I mean studio quality. The second thing that caught my attention was the fascinating, I want to say highly intellectual interplay between Monk and Coltrane. They sometimes seem to be channeling each other's musical thoughts, as on "Evidence," "Nutty" or "Sweet and Lovely," the latter an incredibly creative version of the standard. The playing from both on "Blue Monk" is riveting.

Fascinating to hear Coltrane blooming less than two months after recording "Blue Trane" and well on his way to "Giant Steps" a year and a half later. As for Monk, I don't known if it's the venue or what, but while he still sounds like Monk he plays snatches where he almost seems to be saying, "See, I could be Horowitz if I wanted." Coltrane is right with him on "Monk's Mood." Marvelous stuff.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Bro. Jack and Capt. Kirk

If Gene Ammons and Jack McDuff are a natural pairing, I'd say Brother Jack and Roland Kirk aren't the first two guys you would think of putting together. But let me tell you, "Kirk's Work," a 1961 Prestige date which pairs the multi-instrumentalist (sometimes several instruments at a time) with the B-3 master and Champaign-Urbana native is a really good CD.

Highlights include a rollicking version of "Makin' Whoopee" and the title track, where Kirk creates some of his trademark sound variety. Throughout the disk, he plays tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, flute and siren, generally in a more straight-ahead fashion than some of his other disks. You might be surprised at just how skilled the guy was in a "normal" context, his flute work on "Funk Underneath," for example. Meanwhile, I think McDuff has rarely sounded better and Joe Benjamin and Arthur Taylor are quite complimentary on bass and drums.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bossy Brother

"Brother Jacks Meets the Boss" is another good Jack McDuff CD. If there was ever a saxophonist made for pairing with a B-3 master it's Gene "The Boss" Ammons, plus on all but one track you also get the underappreciated tenorman Harold Vick, who's right there with Ammons. I could do the funky chicken all day to "Strollin'" and "Mr. Clean" is a flat-out romp.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Branford's Eternal

At the Ravinia Festival jazz series outside Chicago in June, I caught Ellis Marsalis and a group of young players, son Branford Marsalis and his quartet and Chick Corea, who's playing with several Spanish musicians these days and is supposed to record with them, which I hope he does because the music they made was excellent.

I was as interested, however, in the contrast provided by listening to an Ellis Marsalis-led group followed by a Branford Marsalis-led group. Both were great, as you might expect, but the Ellis Marsalis contingent, as you also might expect, played pretty firmly in traditional jazz mode. I think Branford Marsalis, as I've said before, is the Coltrane of his generation (to James Carter's Sonny Rollins) not in sound, because he very much has developed his own, but in the expansiveness of his conceptions, which are rooted in tradition, as I think Coltrane was even on something like "Ascension," but branch far beyond it

The recent Branford Marsalis Quartet CD "Eternal" is representative of what I heard at Ravinia. "Reika's Loss" and "The Lonely Swan" are good examples of the kind of what I think of as "controlled avant-garde" playing I admired during the concert, the latter quite intricate. Meanwhile, there are heroic runs in "Gloomy Sunday" and "Muldoon" that remind me of Coltrane's breakout LP "Giant Steps," an early manifestation of what came to be known as sheets of sound, if in a uniquely Marsalis style. Joey Calderazzo is quite good and complimentary on piano throughout. I doubt you will be dancing to this advanced music, but you're likely to find yourself listening closely to catch its intricacies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More Brother Jack and the boys

Cecil and Ron Bridgewater also appear on "Another Real Good 'Un," which is as far as Jack McDuff CDs go. The three Champaign-Urbana natives again play with Houston Person in this sequel to "The Re-entry", which includes some nice guitar playing from John Hart, too. Brother Jack's version of "Summertime" makes me forget how many times I've heard the song and the rendition of his hit "Rock Candy" is a particularly real good 'un. I got this disk from the late, lamented 32 Jazz label but you can still find it for a decent price through Amazon.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Brother Jack re-enters

I've got enough disks from Champaign-Urbana native and Hammond B-3 master Jack McDuff, variously a captain and a brother, that I had pretty much decided not to buy any more until I saw the Savoy reissue "The Re-entry" earlier this summer. At $9.99, I'd have been tempted in any event. But the presence of Bridgewater brothers Cecil, trumpet, and Ron, saxophone, who also hail from C-U, made it a must.

The 1988 session recorded by no less than Rudy Van Gelder opens with the lively "Cap'n Jack" and McDuff in great form. I guarantee you will be boogie shaking your butt. Even the ballads, such as "One Hundred Years," and the blues, like "Blues for 'Paign," are toe tapping. (You do get a soulful, slow burner in "Laura.") Houston Person also plays tenor on the CD and John Hart and Grady Tate do fine guitar and drum work. A bargain.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Big bad baritone

I'm a sucker for the baritone saxophone, which may be why the most I've ever spent on a CD set was $78 for the Mosaic box of the complete recordings of Gerry Mulligan and his Concert Jazz Band. Something about the deep sound of the big horn attracts me, as well of the challenge of making such a beast produce jazz, especially up-tempo jazz.

Two cases in point, the boppy opener "Glad Lad" and the fast-moving "VI" on the new Blue Note reissue of the 1961 Leo Parker date "Let Me Tell You 'Bout It." Parker does more than just run with his bari, however. You get some blues ("Blue Leo"), R&B ("Parker's Pals") and even a little funky gospel (the title track) in the bargain, which the disk is at $11.99.

John Burks, trumpet, Bill Swindell, tenor sax, Yusef Salim, piano, Stan Conover, bass, and Purnell Rice, drums, aren't exactly household names, but they play really well here. I'm glad Blue Note reissued this. Leo Parker would make one more LP and be dead of a heart attack a few months later at 36.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Third Rowe

The third CD I got from Simon Rowe's Catalyst Productions is "When a Smile Overtakes a Frown" featuring Kansas City-based pianist and singer Luqman Hamza, who is somewhere between Nat King Cole and Joe Williams with a voice, if you ask me, just as mellifluous.

Besides "Golden Earrings," "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and other standards I haven't heard so much of that they tend to be uninteresting unless performed abstractly, Hamza does a few originals, ranging from the ballady "Expressing What She Means to Me" to the catchy, upbeat title track. Saxophonist Willie Akins and guitarist Will Matthews have some nice solos. Very pleasant straight-ahead vocal jazz.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Willie play it

Another CD I picked up from Simon Rowe's Catalyst Productions is "Alima" featuring St. Louis saxophonist (tenor and soprano) Willie Akins in a quartet with Rowe playing piano.

Akins wouldn't have any problem holding his own in a blowing session with Jimmy Forrest or Oliver Nelson, two other big-league sax players from St. Louis. The liner notes say he's a big Hank Mobley fan, and I hear a resemblance. The program is three Akins originals, including a title track that's by turns a hot run and cooly soulful, and pops and standards you don't, for the most part, hear a lot, "Summertime" the exception. Nothing earthshaking, but some nice touches like the "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" quotes he slips seamlessly into "You Taught My Heart to Sing." Good stuff.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Heard on my street

Champaign-Urbana has a lot of live jazz going on, outside of what you would expect from a major university town with a facility like the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. (It's the hometown of Brother Jack McDuff and Cecil Bridgewater, too.)

While it lasted, I used to catch pianist Simon Rowe and his trio, which played every Wednesday night for several months at Jackson's Ribs -N- Tips a few blocks from my house. (Great food besides the music. Try the smothered pork chops for lunch.)

Rowe, who's originally from Australia and has since moved to Minnesota, started a little jazz record label, Catalyst Productions, with the idea of producing disks from some outstanding Midwest musicians who aren't well known nationally. You can generally find them on Amazon.

I picked up three, including the Simon Rowe Trio's "Flamingo," a CD where Rowe, who's comparable to Mulgrew Miller, bassist John Huber and drummer Peter Wilhoit, both quite good, have at a Rowe composition "The Visit", standards like "God Bless the Child" (done up tempo) and some less-often-played goodies such as Sam Rivers's "Beatrice" and "Tequila." The version of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" on here is super. If you're having a rotten day, this disk would be a good antidote.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Vijay's way

A JazzTimes piece on pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, who's got to be the only jazz musician with a PhD in music AND cognitive science, prompted me to pick up his new CD "Reimagining." It's one of the most interesting things I've heard this year, adventurous 21st century jazz bordering on, and sometimes in, the avant-garde.

"Revolutions" and "Inertia," which open the session, remind me of The Bad Plus, high volume, dense, group-oriented sonic explorations in a jazz context. "Song for Midwood" works some Indian rhythms (Iyer's parents are Indian immigrants) into a McCoy Tynerish-sounding piece and he continues to do so elsewhere ("The Big Almost") on the disk, which is attention grabbing from beginning to end. All the compositions are Iyer's, except for a near-classical recasting of John Lennon's "Imagine."

As a pianist, I don't believe Iyer can be pigeonholed, but if you think of a mix of Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Dave Brubeck you've got an idea. Rudresh Mahanthappa is powerful and creative on alto sax in a Tony Malaby or Joshua Redman way and Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore are a perfect fit on bass and drums. This is special stuff.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

More Lomax goodies

When I bought the Alan Lomax recording collection "Prison Songs Volume One: Murderous Home" from Rounder I also bought "Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook," a two-CD sampler of the legendary in-field recordings made by Lomax and his father John.

With cuts from Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Jelly Roll Morton, Skip James, Blind Willie McTell and a host of other blues notables, it's a gem of a collection that I recommend highly. The sound is improved nicely and the extensive liner notes are an education.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

This is not about jazz

Except, of course, that the blues is a key part of the foundation on which jazz is built. From reading the instructive book "Stagolee Shot Billy" by Cecil Brown this summer I got interested in the recordings made by Alan Lomax and his father John, which preserved, among other things, traditional work songs sung by prisoners, mostly black, in the Jim Crow South.

"Prison Songs Volume One: Murderous Home" from Rounder is an excellent sampler of recordings made at the notorious Parchman Farm in 1947-48. It's visceral music with nary an instrument other than the human voice but as gripping and emotive as anything I've ever heard. Won't be everybody's bottle of gin, but if you have a desire to probe the roots of the blues and of jazz, and to get a great version of "Stackerlee" as well, this disk is a winner.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A birthday greeting

A happy birthday to Sonny Rollins, the first jazz musician whose recordings I ever bought and my all-time favorite. The maestro is 75 years young today and still making magic with his tenor saxophone.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ravel was jazzed

Incredible, you can get, and I did, a butt-kicking full version of Maurice Ravel's jazzy "Piano Concerto in G Major," with big-hitter Andrew Litton playing piano and directing, on Amazon for seven bucks. It's a Virgin Classics label disk that starts with Ravel's "Bolero," which dudes my age will forever associate with Bo Derek and swimming in the ocean, or something.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Honoring Duke

"In Honor of Duke" from Columbia is another good Marcus Roberts CD. Roberts doesn't honor Duke Ellington by playing his way through a slice of Ellington's songbook but rather by performing his own intricate, sophisticated set of Ellington-like arrangements.

One thing I find particularly cool about this mostly trio disk is the way Roberts makes drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Roland Guerin coequal partners not simply the rhythm section. In fact, Marsalis is pretty much the leader in the opener "Ricktick Tick" as Guerin is on "Promises, Promises." Percussionist Antonio Sanchez adds a Latin tinge to a couple tracks.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sad for the Big Easy

Jazz fans in particular have reason to be upset by the devastation in New Orleans and tonight I'm listening to "Authentic New Orleans Jazz Funeral," a cool disk I bought some time ago from Mardi Gras Records. It seemed appropriate. Here's a link as well to contribute to Red Cross relief efforts. And remember, the music of jazz funerals always ends on a decidedly upbeat note.


Herbie Hancock doesn't touch "Rhapsody in Blue" on his outstanding CD "Gershwin's World" (Verve) but pianist Marcus Roberts, along with the Lincoln Center Jazz and St. Luke's classical orchestras, gives it an epic 28-minute jazzed treatment on "Portraits in Blue" from Columbia/Sony Classical. This may be my favorite version of what I rate as one of the greatest pieces of any kind of music ever. I'm enthralled every time I play it.

The disk also includes an extended treatment (20 minutes) of James P. Johnson's rarely heard "Yamekraw" and a set of fairly abstract variations off Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Roberts wouldn't be out of place on a classical stage, nor in a stride cutting contest.

I've heard Marcus Roberts, a Wynton Marsalis acolyte, in concert, too, and the guy is a) an extremely talented arranger and pianist and b) an intellect when it comes to jazz history, a tool he uses in creating and performing his music, and some would say limiting it. I disagree. "Portraits in Blue" is a great place to see for yourself.