Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Look Behind the Leader: An On-Going Theme

I think I last used this blog title in July 2012. Here it goes once more:

Do you know the following names? Dann Zinn, Peter and Will Anderson, or David Caldwell-Mason? Probably not.

How about these names? Taylor Eigsti, Kenny Barron, Ben Wolfe, Kenny Washington, or Ari Hoenig? Those should be more familiar; some are pretty well established veterans, some are newer to the ranks, but each has a pretty long list of accomplishments as  leader or sideman.

So once again, its time for introductions.

Product DetailsFirst up, Peter and Will Anderson, brothers and graudates of Julliard whose debut disc is a beauty of straight ahead jazz entitled "Correspondence" (Smalls 2013).  Peter plays tenor sax, Will plays alto sax, and the rest of the band is Kenny Barron on piano, Ben Wolfe on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums. This is a first class, A-One pedigree piano trio/percussion group backing the Andersons, which has to mean something, right? And it does. The two both possess lovely tones, fast fingers, and great emotional range, captured in six originals by the brothers as well as some classics like "Shaw Nuff" from Dizzy Gillespie, "Let's Get Out of Town" by Cole Porter, "Slipped Again" by Thad Jones, and "I'll Keep Loving You" by Bud Powell. And you'll love both the originals and arrangements of the others, which give plenty of time and space for the brothers to stretch out solos, play heads, and interweave their two instruments. Meanwhile the piano trio is supportive, driving the beat, playing interesting fills, and taking some lovely leads. From the first two bars of the title song "Correspondence" you know the two young leaders know their jazz history and their instruments, as they immediately go into a tune that could have been recorded in the 50s. Ballads or upbeat tempos, this is a great debut. And Phil Schaap's notes will add to your pleasure in knowing them.

Product DetailsNext up, "Cold Snap" (Self-produced 2013) by David Caldwell-Mason, pianist,with support by Kellen Harrison on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums. Hoenig is the veteran here, a drummer who has led a number of outings as well as a sideman to such players as Kenny Werner, Jean-Michel Pilc, and Ben Wendel, to name just three. Caldwell-Mason wrote six of the eight songs on the CD, which are modern mainstram fare. The opener "Unfold" is a nice, lively song that picks up speed as it progresses and demonstrates Caldwell-Mason's light touch as well as his ear for interesting melodies and turns. Hoenig keeps the rhythm moving ahead with a similarly light touch on the cymbals and high hat and quiet use of the snares. As Caldwell-Mason varies the tempo and dynamics, Hoenig shifts his use to more of the drums, and Harrison comes in and takes a turn in the lead. The CD continues with other similarly balanced tunes among the trio and lively play. "With Fear and Trembling" slows the tempo and quiets the mood as it begins with a gentle rolling piano melody and clear bass support mirroring the piano's notes. It's a nice change of pace on the CD and Caldwell-Mason has a chance to stretch out into quiet and somewhat haunting melody that peaks and recedes several times. Very nicely played throughout, whether it is the simple notes and tune of "Single Ladies"  up next or the larger sounds of "Without Fear and Trembling."  Pick this up if you like piano trios playing modern mainstream tunes.

Product DetailsThe last of the three CDs caught my attention for the pianist, Taylor Eigsti, who is young but making a name for himself as a leader and sideman, most recently as a sideman on this and on Kendrick Scott's latest (out today) "Conviction" (Concord 2013). I've been a fan of Eigsti's since hearing "Lucky to Be Me" (Concord 2006) and his renditions of "Giant Steps", "True Colors", and particularly his take on the Soprano's theme song "Woke Up this Morning." Here he and John Shifflett on bass and Alan Hall on drums are in support of the tenorist Dann Zinn on "Grace's Song" (Z Music 2012). Zinn composed seven of the nine songs, and included "Stardust" and "King of Pain" (Sting) as the other  two. Zinn ranges widely over his instrument, plays mellow with a bit of vibrato on the opener "Live and Learn" to start and then increasingly edgy/bluesy as the song increases in intensity. He gets to the edge at times, but not over it as he explores and improvises into his upper register in particular. He turns things over to Eigsti in the opener just as he gets to that edge, which provides a nice change of pace as Eigsti proceeds with a bouncy melodic turn. "Western Sky" starts out with an edgy solo tenor part that sounds over-dubbed with a second tenor, and then shifts into a nice straight ahead up-tempo melody that gets everyone involved, with Eigsti once again taking a solo that slows down the growing frenetic pace from Zinn just as it reaches the edge. "Grace's Song" and "King of Pain" by Sting show Zinn's other side, the mellow ballad player, and have really nice Eigsti parts as well. "Grace's Song" features a really nice bass solo part as well.  "Jumpstep" returns to the up-beat tempo, with lots of nice driving rhythm provided by Hall on the drums, and solid piano support including Eigsti's outstanding solo.  "Stardust", the closing tune, is an opportunity for Zinn to once more play it straight and narrow, with less vibrato or bravado, and with quiet support from the others. Its a nice rendition and demonstrates just how skilled the young tenorist is with a standard. Good disc, nice variety, with a bit more edge than the others but still really modern mainstream. 


Monday, March 25, 2013

Aquarium: Places

Aquarium is Sam Leak on piano, James Allsopp on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Calum Gourlay on bass, and Joshua Blackmore on drums. In 2009 they released their debut CD "Aquarium" (Babel 2009) to glowing reviews, and now they have just released their second CD "Places" (Jellymould 2013) which is fantastic and to my ears better even than the first one.

Leak is both the pianist and composer for Aquarium, at at age 26  already has a wonderfully lyrical ear for melody and arranging. He displays a classical sensibility in shaping his melodies, and allows his partners ample space for complex improvisations that spice up the program. Allsopp's tenor sax is tone is wonderfully smooth and almost vibratoless, reminding one of the characteristics of Paul Desmond's alto play. albeit on the tenor and for one lovbely piece on the bass clarinet. His smooth play, coupled with his smooth tone, works well with the soft, lyrical touch of Leak on the piano, and with the modulated percussion and bass play gives the group a chamber jazz touch even as the pieces are more emotive and tempo driven than what one thinks of by that description. The four musicians are finely attunded to each other's notes which results in perfectly balanced, harmonious songs, a tribute to Leak's compositions.

The music begins right away with the lovely notes of Allsopp's tenor, with the title piece "Places" coming right out of the box as a lovely and lyrical work. The piano comps with some lovely fills underneath the legato sax lines, and the quiet but noticable bass and brushwork keep the music moving right along. When the tune shifts to the piano, Leak follows with his own lovely improvisation on the tune. Other places that are noted by the song titles are equally wonderfully played --"Marrakech", Milan" and "Catherine Grove" all feature the same things -- assertive melodies played lyrically, great harmonies, and subtle but noticable contributions by the bass and percussionist. "Milan" is  a bit darker in mood, with a more prominent bass part played on the piano with a heavier touch, but also features perhaps the most beautiful piano solo in the middle of the piece.

My personal favorite  is "February", with its quiet, thoughtful opening by Leak on piano, and then the entry of Allsopp on the bass clarinet, first in its lower register and later in its upper register, but always smooth and mellow to the ear. The movement in the song is noticably driven as well by a quiet yet demanding drum part.

This is a first rate CD that will be high on my list of the best of 2013 at the end of the year. There are no false steps, just eight small masterpieces to the ear.

More Zorn! And More Reasons to Look Beyond the Names

Masada GuitarsYesterday I had a couple of hours to kill while I was waiting for my daughter, who was participating in a Chemistry Olympiad, and found a used copy of "Masada Guitars" (Tzadik 2003) at the FYE Store in the nearby Mall. First off, I was shocked that the FYE even had a jazz section and second, though it was small, was also surprised to find it had both new and used CDs. And finally, was pleased to find not only this disc but also Keith Jarrett's 1992 ECM recording "Changeless", one of the few of the Standards Trio's works I did not have and an unusual one at that as it is one of the few to feature that group doing totally improvised works. But I digress.

As I have written in the past I have overcome my immediate knee-jerk reaction to pass on Zorn as I have found more and more pieces that are appealing, like "Alhambra Love Songs", "O'o", "Mount Analogue", and "The Gnostic Preludes". So I picked up Masada Guitars to look at what it was and who was playing and saw that it was Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot,  and Tim Sparks. That wasn't so good -- I am not a fan of what I hear from Ribot for the most part -- too much electic guitar skronks and squealing. Frisell I know can go either way, but when he is mellow his playing is wonderful. And I had no clue about Sparks, a new name to me. And was it made up of solos, duets, or trios? Acoustic or electric? And what was the format -- one song or many -- the jewel case was blank on all of that.

Good to have the iPhone and allmusic.com to refer to, since clearly nobody at the store was going to know about this disc. To make a long story short(er), All Music let me know that it was made up of 21 solo pieces from the body of Masada songs, in celebration of Masada's 10th anniversary, each selected by the individual guitarist. Seven works are played by Frisell, nine by Ribot, and five by Sparks. But that was okay too, because all but two of the works are acoustic, and surprisingly those two are played by Frisell.  All Music in fact says "Those expecting an electric romp through the Masada songbook might be disappointed; Masada Guitars consists entirely of solo, mostly acoustic performances. Preconceptions aside, this is a beautiful album." Further, "Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Tim Sparks each bring their own voice to these tunes: Sparks with his rich fingerpicking... Ribot coming from his classical guitar background, [and] Bill Frisell with his unmistakable ethereal tone.  Sparks' renditions are on steel string acoustic ... [and] Marc Ribot's playing on what sounds like a nylon-string classical guitar." Less was said about Sparks, but it turns out he too was classical trained, in this case by Andre Segovia, and his background is in  classical, folk, and new age music.

The music lives up to the descriptions above. The mood is meditative, very mellow, and the playing is wonderfully soothing. Unfortunately the two electic pieces by Frisell break up that mood, but since all the pieces are short -- 2 to 4 minutes -- the two departures are not deal-breakers. The names of the songs may be derived from Jewish themes, but the music is not noticably middle eastern. It is just pure guitar work, some of it amazingly intricate, by three masters, and a tip of the hat to Ribot in particular for his beautiful work on those nylon strings.

For those who like Zorn and/or for those who like accoutic guitar play this is a must listen delight. Once again I am glad I didn't react immediately in the negative to the names Zorn and Ribot.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Trio of Piano Trios

From a large pile of recent releases I have three outstanding piano trios to suggest to readers, two by lesser known leaders and one by a long-time leader. What ties them together besides the format is the wonderful quality of the music, the lyricism, and the fact that all three groups are from outsie the U.S.

Product DetailsFirst up is "Sound of My Colors" (Prophone 2012) from Sweden, a trio featuring leader Thomas Fonnesbaek on bass with Lars Jansson on piano and Paul Svanberg on drums. This may sound like a familiar grouping and indeed it is --- Lars Jansson has recorded several outstanding works with the same trio which has been noted here previously. What makes this outing different is Fonnesbaek as leader and composer of 9 of the 12 peices, mixing in one by Jansson and two standards, "Autumn Leaves" and "Summertime". The other difference is the tempo of the songs; unlike the Jansson lead CDs, these tunes are more driven by the beat and framed more by their melodies, rather than the atmospheric tone poetry that one might expect. And the two standards are play luxuriously within that context. All three players get their chances at soloing and demonstrating their firstrate abilities. A great recording that keeps one's interest from start to finish.

Item: full_album_8052405140883_CDSpeaking of a luxurious sound and maintaining interest throughout, there is no better piano trio than that of Enrico Pieranunzi, Marc Johnson, and the late Paul Motian. The most recent and presumably last recording by the group is "Live at the Village Vanguard" (CamJazz 2013), recorded during their stay there in July 2010. Pieranunzi is my favorite pianist, playing with such emotional attachment with each piece and with an ear towards his two sympathetic partners on this disc. He plays both within the melody and outside it with some of the most beautiful and creative improvisations around, with a grand imagination that spins beautful stories for the ear.  Johnson and Motian are ideal for his imagination; one only has to listen to Johnson's pairing with Eliane Elias on ECM last year to appreciate his talents and lyricism, and Motian was of course the ultimate conversationalist and colorist on percussion. This is a masterwork of style, beauty and imagination, whether the tunes are originals by Pieranunzi or classics like "My Funny Valentine", "I Mean You" or "La Dolce Vita." Simply gorgeous and not to be missed.

Product DetailsReturning back over the Atlantic from Sweden and Italy, Canadian Jeff Johnston has a trio recording out called "returning" (Jeff Johnston Music 2013) with Jim Vivian on bass and Michael Billard on drums. Don't know much about the group except that they have been together for quite sometime and were Juno Award winners in 2002, but I do know that they are making some lovely, tuneful music together, with seven compositions by Johnston and the standard "As Time Goes By." Each tune is a small gem that at about eight or nine minutes allows the tunes to develop, the improvisations time to breathe, and the teamwork of the players to provide us with a lush and timeless feel. From first to last, the music is endearing and recommended.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Worth the Long Wait: Enrico Tomasso, "Al Dente"

It is said that Enrico Tomasso started playing the trumpet at age five after listening to Louis Armstrong play Basin Street Blues. His father, a well known clarinetist in England, took him to meet many of the American jazz greats when they visited -- including Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, and Dizzy Gillespie. The most important meeting of all was with Louis Armstrong, for whom he played at age 7 during Louis’ last visits to England in 1968 and 1969. This led to friendship which lasted for the remainder of Louis’ life.  

His musical education was fostered by his father, who would transcribe  great trumpeters’ solos, would take him to live gigs, and would provide excellent trumpet teachers for him. Tomasso later went on to study at the Leeds College of Music, and then spent many years working in bands and with visiting Amerian players. Among those he has played with are Scott Hamilton, Ken Peplowski, Bucky Pizzarelli, John Dankworth, and Tommy Whittle and the Pizza Express All Stars. His first recording as a sideman was in 1984, and today he is considered one of the top jazz trumpeters and recently won best trumpet category in the British Jazz Awards.

Al DenteAs Tomasso enters his fifties he has finally produced his frist album as leader, "Al Dente" (Woodville Records 2013) and it is a stunning display of maturity, with virtuoso performances on the trumpet and flugelhorn and a wonderful backing piano trio of John Pearce on piano, Andrew Cleyndert on bass, and Bobby Worth on drums.  

The CD is full of classic pieces like "Who Cares", "Lullaby in Rhythm", "Rockin' Chair", and "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good". These songs and others allow Tomasso to demonstrate his range, be it the lyrical flugelhorn he displays on "Gone and Crazy", a Johnny Hodges tune, or the up-tempo swinging "Brotherhood of Man" from the play "How to Succeed in Business" that closes the CD.  "The Good Life", a tune made famous by Tony Bennett, is emotionally charged by Tomasso's burnished tone and lyrical flowing lines.

A really strong mainstream outing by a wonderfully quartet.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Two Big Brawny Tenors

Two new CDs to report on by two veteran tenor players. The first is "Lower East Side" (Posi-Tone 2013) by Ehud Asherie with Harry Allen, and the second "Remembering Billie" (Blue Dutchess 2013) by Scott Hamilton. Both are exactly what you would expect given the players and titles -- classic compositions, smoothly swinging (swung?) sounds, and tight arrangements. Nothing fancy, just meat and potatoes for those who love classic sounds.

Product Details"Lower East Side"  follows on the heels of the duo's collaboration on "Upper West Side" (Posi-Tone 2011) and is strictly a duo -- no bass or drum support -- by two players whose classic sound enriches such songs as "Hey There" by Adler and Ross, "Some Other Time" by Leonard Bernstein, and "Always" by Irving Berlin. Allen has a big, round and luscious sound reminiscent of Ben Webster or of his contemporary Houson Person, and Asherie the touch and love of the classic pianism of the swing era. Together they produce a sound that is wonderfully romantic, nostalgic at times but never stale, and relaxing  to hear.

Product Details"Remembering Billie" is a tribute to the songs of Billie Holiday, featuring Scott Hamilton with a trio of Tim Ray on piano, Dave Zinno on bass, and Jim Gwinn on drums, none a name I recognized but clearly a capable bunch in support of Hamilton's wonderously large tenor sound. Hamilton's an old pro at taking classic tunes and producing marvellously listenable albums without ever being boring. He is clearly the featured player here, though the others take some nice turns, and Hamilton produces. "Them There Eyes" is taken up-tempo and is fiery and fun, "God Bless the Child" as wonderfully burnished as one would expect, and elsewhere there are nice turns on tunes like "When You're Smiling" and "Good Morning Heartache." Finally, Blue Dutchess is the label of Duke Robillard and he contributes his accoustic guitar play on two tunes -- "Fooling Myself" and "I'll Never be the Same."

Two great straight-ahead albums.