Monday, January 7, 2013

Bad Covers, Great Music: You Can't Tell a Disc By its Cover

Ted Nash's CD from 2012 "The Creep" (Plastic Sax Records 2012) brought this to mind, CDs that I have seen languish on the shelf at my local store with covers that do not suggest that they are full of serious music, let alone serious and great music.
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I know Ted Nash. I have a number of his previous outings which are uniformly excellent -- they include "Portrait in Seven Shades" with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (JLC 2010), "The Mancini Project (Palmetto 2008),  and "In the Loop (Palmetto 2006).  Nash is a bop and post-bop tenor and alto saxophonist also comfortable in the more avant-garde world. From L.A., he was introduced to jazz by his namesake uncle, a player with Les Brown and Henry Mancini in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and his trombonist father Dick. By the time he reached 17, he had played lead alto for Quincy Jones' band and was performing regularly with the bands of  others like Louis Bellson and Don Ellis. By 18 he recorded his first date as a leader for Concord Jazz and since has had a long career as a leader and sideman.

Still, the goofy cover, even though I understand it as conciously ironic and referential to '50s comics and noire films, put me off for quite a while, and only when I started reading other reviews and seeing end of year lists did I finally pick this up, and of course am now glad that I did. This is a CD full of great music and great playing, by Nash on saxes and his sidemen -- Ron Horton on trumpet, Paul Sikivie on bass, and Ulysses Owen on drums (Owens himself produced an outstanding CD as leader last year, "Unanimous" (Criss Cross 2012)).

This is sort of a mix of modern-bop and free-jazz but  tightly controlled and structured. The two leads on trumpet and sax have lots of room for improvisation, for wending their way around each other and generally keeping the energy flowing at a high level, with great rhythmic support by Sikivie and Owens.  Seven Nash originals are joined by an Ornette tune "Kaleidoscope" and a Sherman Irby tune "Twilight Sounds" and feature these trade-offs between unison play, counterpoint, and free play, but the music never goes out of control for these ears. There is much bop here, some West Coast sounds, some noirish themes, and overall just great play.

Product DetailsThe Red Mitchell Trio "One Long String" (Mercury 1969) may have looked normal in 1969 when it was issued -- heck I had a Studebaker plastered with flower decals like those on the cover -- but as a reissue it just looks weird. And yet look at the players. Mitchell was a first rate, in-demand bassist who played alongside Ornette Coleman, Harold Land, Dizzy Gillespie, Phil Woods and on and on with a huge discography as sideman and leader, recognized for his large woody sound, creativity, and writing. He was 42 at the time of this recording and in the prime of his career. Bobo Stenson had yet to make an international name for himself and was still two years away from his first recording as leader, but already was a remarkably limber pianist. Drummer Rune Carlsson was a fixture on the Scandanavian scene who would go onto a long career backing Stenson and others in Europe as well as visiting Americans like Bill Evans and Ben Webster. Mitchell had moved to Sweden at the time of this recording, which is a very open, modern bop effort with a great deal of energy provided from his bass and the drumming of Carlsson. Stenson gets a chance to really open up on some soulful, energetic and wholly exciting tunes, mostly by Nash but also one by Stenson as well as the standard "Stella by Starlight." Close your eyes if you must but seek this one out and enjoy.

The first two CDs herein were by established, recognized players, maybe not of the highest profile but still recognizable names. What happens when a relative unknown produces a marvelous CD with a whacky cover? That is what we have with Igor Butman's "Magic Land" (Sony 2007). Butman is on the cover with his ear over the bell of his saxophone, with the title splashed in multi-colors. It does not scream serious music -- it screams goofy -- and does not invite one to pick it up -- who is this anyway? Is he for real? But if you do pick it up and flip it over, here is what you get: a band that inlcudes Randy Brecker, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Stefon Harris, and John Patitucci. Now are you interested?

Yes, this is one of those CDs where you need to look past the leader to the sidemen, and oh what sidemen. Does anyone believe that they would be playing behind a no-talent sax player? So who is Igor Butman?

Product DetailsBorn in Leningrad in 1961, Butman was provided with a musical education from an early age, first on piano and then at age 11 on clarinet. He studied at top institutes in Russia, and then played in several major Russian bands. He picked up the tenor saxophone along the way for the charts in one of these bands, and never looked back. Butman, who had taught himself English, played with Gary Burton’s band during its 1982 tour with Chick Corea. In 1987 he came to Berklee and afterwards, with degrees as concert saxophonist and as composer, Butman went to New York where he played with Billy Taylor and Grover Washington Jr. first and later with Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton and Pat Metheny. He also formed bands for tours at home with John Abercrombie, Cindy Blackman, Joe Locke, and Adam Nussbaum. In 1998, Butman was guest soloist with Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He owns a club in Moscow and has brought jazz to Russia; in addition to his jazz, Butman has played and recorded with classical violinist Yuri Bashmet and his Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra. He currently continues to play and also now produces jazz recordings for his own recording label.

This is a very nice album, not earth-shaking or amazingly innovative, but a very solid outing featuring a mix of songs that include some Carribean influenced phythms and harmonies, some ballads, some bop, and some lullabyes. Brecker is a standout on the CD, and Harris' vibraphone adds a flair on those Carribean sounds, and Butman has a smooth tone and plays some lovely melodies particularly on the slower tunes. The band impresses throughout.

Got any other funky covers to share that hide solid outings? Let me know.

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