Monday, January 7. 2008
This is the last jazz prospecting of a cycle that has gone on way too long. The column is done except for the long procrastinated annointment of the featured dud. I actually have more candidates than usual this time, but little stomach for working on them. Some finished high on the Village Voice's Jazz Poll: Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (the winner); Herbie Hancock, The River: The Joni Letters (#6); Paul Motian, Time and Time Again (#15); Chris Potter, Song for Anyone (#35). Others include folks I've previously recommended, like Eric Alexander, Satoko Fujii, David Hazeltine, Nicole Mitchell, and Miroslav Vitous. Or I could look for something I don't care about at all. I dug up an awful Brazilian album by Ed Johnson, played a few cuts, then took it off -- why bother? Hancock would be easiest to explain, but I don't feel right singling him out twice in a row. Schneider is too daunting to deal with at the last minute. I have no clue why so many critics like her albums so much, while my own reaction is invariably numb -- not much to write about there.
I'm not real happy with my pick hits either, but they'll do. Chris Byars was the top-rated still-unreviewed album from the year-end list, so that one should be obvious. It was a tough one to write about, and I must have played it ten times hoping for inspiration, but I never quite felt compelled to kick the grade up to A. My A grades have been stingy this year: only 3 jazz albums, and only 4 non-jazz. (Christgau has at least 11. I'm actually only down 1 from 2006, but down 22 through A-.)
The album that would have complemented it best is Mostly Other People Do the Killing's Shamokin!!!, which plays off the same bebop tradition in a very different way. But I got to it too late to plan on getting it in -- for that matter it likely would have made my year-end list had I played it a week sooner. Besides, I have much more to say about Allen Lowe's That Devilin' Tune, which I reviewed as a unit, rounding the grade up (for once) -- the A almost insists that it head the list.
While I've had trouble all year with pick hits, the main section and honorable mentions have always had way too many contenders. Jazz CG 14 ran with 11 main section reviews (not counting the 3 obligatory) and 14 honorable mentions. Right now, I have 22 and 21, respectively, so my next task will be to cut both nearly in half. You'd think that would make the next one easier to write, and maybe even make it come out sooner. Hope that's the case.
So I still have a bit of tuning before I hand this in. Next time I'll start prospecting for next round.
Cynthia Sayer: Attractions (2006 , Plunk): Plays banjo, sings; originally from Massachusetts, now in New York. Resume spotlights 10 years with Woody Allen's New Orleans Jazz Band, and soundtrack work on Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and with Marvin Hamlisch on Sophie's Choice, but I'm more curious about "The New Spike Jones Show." Several albums, starting with The Jazz Banjo of Cynthia Sayer, which I don't have a date on. That one had "featuring" credits for Dick Wellstood and Milt Hinton. This one features Bucky Pizzarelli, but aside from a duet he hardly stands out beyond a superb trad-oriented band, with Scott Robinson (saxes, clarinet), Randy Sandke (trumpet), Jim Fryer (trombone), Sara Caswell (violin), Greg Cohen (bass), and Joe Ascione (percussion). Half vocals, starting with Sidney Bechet's reefer song "Viper Mad" and Hank Williams' "Half as Much," and winding on through "Romance Without Finance" and "You Are My Sunshine" and "Aba Daba Honeymoon." Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" is reduced to a banjo feature, which is fine with me. B+(***) [Mar. 1]
Arjun: Pieces (2007, Pheromone): Guitar-bass-drums trio, with namesake Eddie Arjun Peters playing the guitar, composing, arranging, and producing. Website features a news item announcing that Pieces "is number 14 on the Jamband Top 40!" I don't recognize most of the competitors, but those I do seem to be an arbitrary mix of rock (Wilco, Patti Smith, Son Volt) and semipop jazz (Chick Corea/Bela Fleck, Will Bernard, Bad Plus). This is rockish guitar bop, or boppish guitar rock -- at times reminds me of Cream, but then doesn't deliver much on the hint. B
Jon Larsen: Strange News From Mars (2007, Zonic Entertainment): Norwegian painter-guitarist, traces his inspirations back to Salvador Dali and Django Reinhardt and is able to confuse them. The Reinhardt connection is presumably developed fully in his Hot Club de Norvège group, which has 17 albums going back to 1981. Add another half-dozen under his own name, which look to be scattered all over the map, with a string quartet on one end and this piece of sci-fi fusion on the other. Jimmy Carl Black narrates short bits like "Unwanted Sexual Attention in Space." The music is spacey, racey keybs, marimba, guitar, and trombone -- amusing stuff. B+(*)
Normal Love: 2007 (2007, High Two): Inscrutable record, not much helped by the lack of information -- I'm not even sure I'm parsing the title correctly. Group consists of violin (Carlos Santiago Jr.), two guitars (Alex Nagle and Amnon D. Freidlin), bass (Evan Lipson), and drums (Eli Litwin). No vocals. Rough sound, sort of a postpunk fusion that might turn interesting but never quite coheres. B
Dion: Son of Skip James (2007, Verve Forecast): Nephew of Muddy Waters, cousin of Chuck Berry, both of whom figure larger here than James, but it's worth noting that the latter's comeback came after Dion's Belmonts faded into doo-wop history. At the time, Dion was refashioning himself as a folk singer, and he was remarkably good at it -- cf. Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965). He makes a pretty fair bluesman too. B+(*)
Ellen Johnson: These Days (2005 , Vocal Visions): Singer. Grew up in Chicago, teaches in San Diego. Has three albums starting with Too Good to Title in 1993, plus a couple of instructional things. This particular album puts her in line behind Sheila Jordan, who repays the compliment with two guest vocals: a duet on Jordan's "The Crossing" and background on Johnson's tribute to Jordan, "Little Messenger." Elsewhere, Johnson acknowledges such Jordan signatures as duetting with bassist Darek Oleskiewicz (Oles here) and adding words to Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square" reminiscent of Jordan's birdwatching. B+(**)
Andy Bey: Ain't Necessarily So (1997 , 12th Street): Recorded live at Birdland in 1997, with Bey singing and playing piano and the Washingtons for rhythm (Vito Leszak subs for drummer Kenny Washington on two cuts). Bey's a subtle, graceful singer, able to turn even "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" into seduction. The live format lets the band stretch out agreeably. B+(**)
Louise Rogers: Come Ready and See Me (2007 , Rilo): Singer, originally from New Hampshire, in New York since 1997. Three previous albums include two jazz-for-kids things and a duo with husband/bassist Rick Strong. This is a good sample of her range: scoring a Nikki Giovanni poem, adding lyrics to pieces by Mike Mainieri and Jerry Bergonzi, arranging a trad folk song, reworking an original from 1991, sailing through a couple of standard standards. She scales the high notes, scats, swings, gets a song and some nice sax from Gottfried Stoger. The ballads drag a bit, but "The Song Is You" is a choice cut. B+(*) [Feb. 1]
Júlio Resende: Da Alma (2007, Clean Feed): Portuguese pianist, don't know much about him other than that he studied in France. Leads a quartet here with either Alexandra Grimal or Zé Pedro Coehlo on tenor sax, João Custódio on bass, and either João Lobo or João Rijo on drums. I'm not familiar with any of these names, and have very little to go on, other than the music, which is attractive postbop with a free edge. Label website claims: "The future of jazz in Portugal will come from here." I'm not convinced they're wrong. [B+(**)]
Tony Malaby: Tamarindo (2007, Clean Feed): A trio, with Malaby playing tenor and soprano sax, William Parker on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums. Malaby owns all the song credits, but it has a loose improv feel. Parker gets quite a bit of space, and his arco work is spectacular. But the album doesn't quite click for me: maybe too much soprano, or maybe there's a mismatch between Parker and Waits -- the latter is best known for his work with Jason Moran and Fred Hersch. Malaby is remarkably adaptable at playing with both types, but not quite forceful enough to lead them. B+(**)
MI3: Free Advice (2004 , Clean Feed): Boston group, consisting of pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and two-thirds of Ken Vandermark's Boston trio, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton. Karayorgis' website lists 18 records going back to 1989, and I'm way behind the learning curve on them. MI3 was formed to play in Boston's Abbey Lounge, a bar usually featuring rock bands. On their previous album (We Will Make a Home for You) Karayorgis played Fender Rhodes and featured pieces by Monk and Dolphy, while McBride recycled his Spaceways Inc. funk grooves. This is more conventionally an avant-garde piano trio, with acoustic piano and bass, more originals, but also pieces from Sun Ra and Ellington -- the latter filtered through Steve Lacy. The result is one of the more satisfying piano trios I've heard lately, a mix of strong rhythms and surprising offsets. A-
Stephen Gauci's Basso Profundo: Nididhyasana (2007, Clean Feed): Gauci is a tenor saxophonist, b. 1966, based in Brooklyn, has appeared on 10+ records since 2001, mostly with bassist Mike Bisio. The group here is a quartet with two basses presumably the source of the name: Bisio and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (of various Ken Vandermark bands). The fourth member is trumpeter Nate Wooley, which gives the group a two horn front line. No drummer, but there is some percussion, presumably from tapping on the bass. The horns split free, but they're less interested in fireworks than in coloring. [A-]
Steve Lehman Quartet: Manifold (2007, Clean Feed): First, apologies to Nasheet Waits, who has no problems with Lehman's difficult music, and whose assertive free drumming makes the opener, "Interface D." Lehman plays alto and sopranino sax, the latter on an exercise titled "For Evan Parker" which I can't swear isn't a parody, although I doubt it. Jonathan Finlayson's trumpet adds a freewheeling second horn, and John Hebert is expert as usual on bass. Recorded live in Brazil, this is more off the cuff than Lehman's Pi albums. B+(***)
Chris Barber: Can't Stop Now (European Tour 2007) (1986-2007 , MVD Audio): The cover is misleading in several respects: only one cut was recorded in 2007 (although it's given two dates and locations); all but two of the rest were recorded in the UK in February and November 2006, which isn't exactly what you'd expect from a European Tour; the two loose ends date from 1988 or 1986 (one is listed both ways); Andy Fairweather Low is pictured as "special guest," but he's only appears on three songs (more/less those named on the cover, with "Worried Man Blues" advertised as "It Takes a Worried Man," and a medley with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" reduced to "Lay My Burden Down." Barber sings two others, including "Can't Stop Now," which I originally took as Low making a joke of his foundered rock and roll career. Still, this confusion has remarkably little effect on the music. Low's "Worried Man Blues" triangulates perfectly with Barber's skiffle sideline, picking up where Lonnie Donegan left off. And Barber's trad jazz is timeless: he's done it for 53 years, so slipping a couple decades is hardly noticeable. B+(**)
Jim Snidero: Tippin' (2007, Savant): Alto sax player, has a bunch of records since 1987, hard bop or postbop, of varying levels of ambition. He takes it easy with this organ quartet, letting Mike LeDonne and guitarist Paul Bollenbeck do the heavy lifting, topping it off with his exquisite riffs. Evidently there's a market for this sort of thing, and this is much better than par for the course. B+(**)
John Stein: Green Street (1996-98 , Whaling City Sound): Guitarist, originally from Kansas City, MO; now based in Boston, teaching at Berklee. Has a half-dozen albums starting in 1995. This was his second, released in 1999 on A Records (or Challenge; sources differ, but if I recall correctly Challenge is the parent label). It's a fairly conventional organ-guitar-drums trio with guest tenor sax on 5 of 12 cuts. Stein's guitar and Ken Clark's organ hit the right notes, but the real soul jazz comes from Fathead Newman's tenor sax. Wish there was more of it. B+(**)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Happy Apple: Happy Apple Back on Top (2007, Sunnyside): Bad Plus drummer Dave King's other power trio, with Erik Fratzke's bass plugged in and Michael Lewis leading on one sax or another. Given their Minneapolis address, it's tempting to call them the Husker Du of free jazz, assuming you can make all the necessary translations. It is jazz, after all, and while they like rock grooves more than most, they never leave it at that. A-
Rafi Malkiel: My Island (2007, Raftone): Latin jazz, with all the bells and maracas and a few old fashioned vocals, the songs broken down by style and country, ranging from Brazil to New Orleans, with Cuba predominant. The leader is an Israeli trombonist, and occasionally a klezmer vibe slips in. His island is Manhattan. A-
Freddy Cole: Music Maestro Please (2006 , High Note): A pretty good soft crooner album with Bill Charlap's trio for backup, a high class move that doesn't translate into anything fancy. He has a lock on the family sound, but has moved on to a new level of maturity. B+(**)
Robert Wyatt: Comicopera (2007, Domino): I used to think I was one of his biggest fans, but I'm not able to come up with the enthusiasm of more than a few bigger fans who've posted this on their year-end lists. (In fact, The Wire has given their top spot to his last two albums.) The album does have its moments, including "Hasta Siempre Comandante," his best Che Guevara song since "Song for Che" on Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. I like the duet on "Just as You Are," the sax and vibes, his less-than-virtuosic trumpet/cornet, and a few other things. But I also find it awkward and ungainly, difficult and inaccessible -- things that the real fans are able to overlook. I must not be one anymore, which saddens me. B+(**)
Trio M [Myra Melford/Mark Dresser/Matt Wilson]: Big Picture (2006 , Cryptogramophone): Taking a clue from first names, they call themselves Trio M, but are established enough to keep their names on the spine. I figure the complex cerebral stuff is pianist Melford's and credit the bouncy bits to drummer Wilson. There's no doubt that the weird arco bass is Dresser's. He has a huge reputation, but rarely makes albums you can kick back and enjoy. This is the exception. A-
Evan Christopher: Delta Bound (2006 , Arbors): A young student of the New Orleans clarinet tradition, starting with Lorenzo Tio Jr. and leading through Tony Parenti but with no explicit reference to George Lewis. Whereas most New Orleans jazz uses clarinet for contrast against the brass, this quartet, with Dick Hyman textbook perfect as usual, singles it out. For better or worse, without the competition Christopher never gets the chance to go wild. B+(**)
Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Toward Essence (1998 , Pi): An hour or so of solo piano, recorded live at Guelph in Canada, and a decade later acclaimed a masterpiece and finally released. I wax and wane on it: there are masterful bits, but an hour of nothing but piano can grow tedious, and there are also parts that seem designed to produce that effect. Abrams is an important figure, one I've long admired, but I have no way to gauge this. I guess I worry that it's over my head, or beyond my attention span, or (worse still) not quite as good as it ought to be. Could be any of those things. B+(**)