Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two Down the Middle For You

Picked up two great CDs yesterday that are both really worth hearing and both grounded solidly in the tradition of hard bop and swing.

The first is drummer Winard Harper's "Coexist" (Jazz Legacy Productions (JLP) 2012) with his sextet, called the Jeli Posse. The word jeli is West African and reflects Harper's interest in African traditions and in particular African drumming. A jeli, sometimes called a griot, is a storyteller, praise singer, poet and musician -- the repository of oral history for his community. Harper is that, a musician consumed with the history of jazz drumming as well as the traditions of African drumming, and he is equally strong on the drum set as well as on the West African balafon, a marimba-like instrument. His influences are many -- the JLP website lists Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley, Dr. Billy Taylor, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins but there are many others he has learned from and played with during his career. For example, Harper's first major playing date was with Dexter Gordon in 1982, and shortly thereafter he played with Johnny Griffin.

The African influence over this CD can be heard on selected pieces through the drumset and use of some african rhythm instruments, but in truth this CD hews most closely to the Blue Note tradition on the 50s, with its selection of songs, playing styles, groupings and composition. And what a group this is, a roster of some of the best and brightest new talent. Bruce Harper plays trumpet and flugelhorn, Jovan Alexandre is on tenor, Michael Dease is on trombone, Roy Assaf on piano, Stephen Porter handles bass, and three musicians handle percussion, bongos, talking drums, and ddjembe --- Abdou Mboup, Alioune Faye, and Jean Marie. And then there are the guests, the best known being Frank Wess on flute for a wonderfully romantic take on "In a Sentimental Mood", and Sharel Cassity, the young and upcoming sax player. Picking highlights is difficult, but the soulful piano and muted trumpet on "Amazing Grace" is transformative, and "Jeli Posse" a rhythmic wonder. And I cannot keep from bopping and smiling in my seat when I hear the romp through "Hard Times." Whether new song or old, the group cooks together to produce wonderful results, with outstanding soloing by each player and tight ensemble play.  This is one for those steeped in the traditions of Art Blakely and his Jazz Messengers an all the rest of the hard bop sounds of the 50s and 60s.

Even more traditional are the sounds of Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton on "'Round Midnight" (Challenge Records 2012). No challenges to the ear here, just some beautiful play by two of the most traditional saxaphonists of our times, backed by the equally traditional play of Rossano Sportiello, a young pianist from Italy who has been making a name for himself recently on Arbors (and to me a man who is a dead ringer for the young Robin Williams); Joel Forbes on bass; and Chuck Riggs on drums. Whether playing in unison or trading solos, the two sax players are terrific, with large roounded tones, thoughtful improvisations, and a lot of toe-tapping beats. Take "Flight of the Foo Birds" , a bouncy mid-tempo romp that sets a smile on the face, or the standard "My Melancholy Baby" which harkens back to the days of swing with the ensemble play, rhythmic timekeeping of the bass and drums, and light touch of Sportiello, who has many a fine solo herein. These are men who are following in the grand traditions of their predecessors, which to some may sound boring, but could never be so in the hands of these masters. Ballads and mid-tempo romps, the players find new phrases to liven the action, and are bringing along Sportiello as a first rate up and coming traditionalist as well. Hamilton and Allen are a reincarmation of the days of Al and Zoot, Johnny and Eddie "Lockjaw", and Sonny and Gene. A masterpiece of traditional jazz.

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