June 30, 2013
Michelle Pollace New Beginning (MP 01)
Latin-tinged music, mostly composed by pianist Michelle Pollace who delivers her work in a relaxed, tuneful and wholly engaging manner. The pieces include many of the familiar dance rhythms of South and Central America and the Caribbean, among them the rumba, Hot House Dandelion, the cha-cha, New Beginning, son, Be Right Back, and bossa, Ondas Do Mar and First Flight. Michelle also plays an intriguing danzón arrangement of Ernesto Lecuona’s La Comparsa, and turns a well-known standard by Harold Arlen into a surprisingly successful cha-cha – this variation of Somewhere Over The Rainbow is exceptionally attractive.
Michelle is accompanied throughout by bassist David Belove and drummer Phil Hawkins with percussionists Carlos Caro and Michaelle Goerlitz sharing duties; soprano saxophonist Kristen Strom guests on two tracks and additional percussion is supplied on two tracks by Rebeca Mauleón.
There is a great deal of low key charm about this album, a musical journey that is filled with many subtleties and the more one listens the more delightful it becomes.
Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope – Mirage (BlueLand BLR 2013)
Noted for his skilful playing of those reed instruments that occupy the lower reaches of the range, Brian Landrus here presents a very pleasing selection of his own compositions. The sound of the instruments for which this music is composed suggests that a sombre air might be present but his composing skills are such that successfully avoids any hint of gloom and instead creates music that is warm and always engaging.
Brian’s choice of instruments has him performing on baritone and bass saxophone, bass and contra alto clarinet and bass flute. His collaborators are pianist/keyboardist Frank Carlsberg, guitarist Nic Felder, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Rudy Royston, along with a string quartet (Mark Feldman and Joyce Hammann, violin, Judith Insell, viola, Judy Redhage, cello) while Ryan Truesdell conducts.
Esa Helasvuo Stella Nova (TUM CD 033)
The result of a two-day studio session during which pianist-composer Esa Helasvuo improvised several pieces, this music is deeply introspective. By its nature, musical introspection can be exclusive, leaving the listener outside, a kind of audio-onlooker. Remarkably, this is not the case here as Esa’s music opens thoughtways into which the ‘outsider’ is drawn. Classically trained and a long-time lecturer, most notably at the Sibelius Academy, Esa plays with a delicate yet probing touch, finding his musical inspiration in memories, dreams, physical, psychological and emotional experiences. Esa has said: “My passion is to paint space and time on paths into the unknown, suggested by sounds.” It is a passion that he admirably shares in this always fascinating album.
Mike Wofford It’s Personal (Capri 74121-2)
Often heard in company with others, notably in duets with his wife, flutist Holly Hofmann, on this aptly titled release pianist Mike Wofford is alone. That said, in a very real sense he is far from being alone because he has chosen, in some cases composed, music that reflects those whom he admires, delights in hearing, and have inspired him throughout his long and distinguished career. There is, for example, I Waited For You, a Dizzy Gillespie-Gil Fuller ballad that pays tribute to Mike’s fellow pianists Jimmy Rowles and Ellis Larkins; The Eighth Veil, a Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn work, given an unusual solo piano reading; Jackie McLean’s Little Melonae. Then there are originals such as Cole Porter and Hines Catch-up, where the titles reflect the dedicatee; and there is the album’s title track, which appropriately was written for his wife.
The set closes with Tutti Camarata’s lovely yet all-too-rarely heard No More, once upon a time a vehicle for Billie Holiday and, as Mike reminds us, Irene Kral. Elegant playing of some lovely compositions make this a release to savor.
Chip Stephens Relevancy (Capri 74120-2)
Although he has recorded with a trio before now, this album reminds us how effective this setting is for this fine pianist. Chip Stephens has chosen his repertoire well, presenting standards, such as This Funny World, by Rodgers and Hart, Like Someone In Love, by Van Heusen and Burke, and Be My Love, by Cahn and Brodszky, as well as jazz pieces, Carla Bley’s Syndrome and 34 Skidoo, by Bill Evans.
Some of these pieces, along with three originals by Chip, emphasize the pianist’s love for lyricism as well as an underlying appreciation of the place of the blues in jazz. Throughout, Chip also plays with flowing swing, a quality that is augmented by his ideal collaborators, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Joel Spencer. Together, they display their instrumental virtuosity, something that is never used for its own sake, and their mutual understanding.
Rob Mosher Polebridge (own label)
Music fans who like pigeonholing what they hear should look away now. The suite Rob Mosher composed for this album was commissioned by music educator and arts administrator Micah Killion. Although the emotional motive lay in the recent death of Micah’s mother, the creative spark came when Rob first came to the town of Polebridge, Montana. There, he saw the sign noting the town’s population, 88, and an abandoned saloon piano dumped outside the town store. The combination (88/piano – geddit?) set Rob’s creative juices flowing and the result is music that combines old-time folk, contemporary chamber, hints of classical, and whispers of jazz. If these elements appear to be incompatible, it should be stated emphatically that Rob pulls off the task he set himself with aplomb. But this is not merely a technical exercise; Rob manages also to imbue passages in the suite with the sadness implied in Micha’s loss while other sections are filled with wit and humor.
Rob plays soprano saxophone, clarinet and English horn and he is joined by Micha, on trumpet, John Marcus, violin, Stephanie Nilles, piano (both grand and old-88) and Hammond B3, Andrew Small, bass, while Petr Cancura plays mandolin on two tracks and Peter Lutek plays bassoon and contra alto clarinet on one track. Skilful and accomplished and thoroughly entertaining – whatever pigeonhole you put it in.
All of these albums are filled with many hidden charms and listeners will warm to their subtle musicality.
They are available at most stores, including Amazon. More information can be found on the sites of each of these artists where linked; additionally look for Michelle Pollace on Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services website; more on Brian Landrus, Mike Wofford, Chip Stephens and Rob Mosher can be found through Braithwaite & Katz Communications; while Esa Helasvuo is also on the TUM Records site.
June 16, 2013
The Bechet Legacy: Birch Hall Concerts Live
What a delight it is to hear again this fine band. Thanks to the efforts of a fan, Stan Bowman, concert excerpts were recorded live back in 1981-2, and only now have been made available to the many who reveled in the band’s always superb musicianship and effortlessly swinging style. (And, I should add, with permission of the musicians.)
Bob Wilber’s long association with Sidney Bechet is well-known. In brief, as a teenager he was tutored by Bechet; this was back in 1946 and they recorded together in that same decade. During later years, Wilber took his remarkable playing skills into many areas of jazz but never forsook his love for the musical style of his remarkable mentor. This influence was evident in Soprano Summit, an exceptional band co-led by Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern through the 1970s, and it reappeared with The Bechet Legacy, a band in which Bob was joined by trumpeter Glenn Zottola. In this band, Bob and Glenn sometimes reflected the famous Sidney Bechet-Muggsy Spanier Big Four, but more often presented a sextet. For the session captured here, the other four musicians are pianist Mark Shane, who was in the original Legacy band, guitarist Mike Peters, bassist Len Skeat and drummer Butch Miles. The sessions were performed at Birch Hall, a hotel in Oldham, part of Greater Manchester (which is where, in 1988, Bob was musical director of the headline orchestra for the Duke Ellington Conference).
The music heard on this admirable double-CD set echoes the committed intensity that Bechet brought to all of his playing. Also vividly apparent is the love the maestro had for melody as well as the forceful swing. Among the music heard here are fine interpretations of melodic pieces such as Summertime, a song among many that brought a definitive performance from Bechet and for which Bob clearly has similar affection, I Keep Calling Your Name, one of several Bechet compositions featured here, Georgia Cabin, another fine Bechet composition although rarely heard, and Memories Of You, gorgeously played by Glenn. Among the powerful swingers included are the opener, Oh, Lady, Be Good, Dans Le Reu D’Antibes, Swing That Music and a breakneck-tempo version of Just One Of Those Things. The solo playing of Bob, on soprano saxophone and clarinet, and Glenn, on trumpet, are filled with invention and the kind of joie de vivre with which Sidney Bechet imbued his performances.
Although the four rhythm section players do not have similar solo space, there are enough examples to show that they are also gifted with invention. As for their ability to swing, each these six musicians are serious swingers; put together, they continuously and consistently prompt one another exhilarating heights. Also heard is Bob’s wife, Pug Horton, who sings two songs, I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good and Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe.
Not long after these concerts, Glenn Zottola bowed out of the band and went on to develop his career in other directions. Bob Wilber continued to diversify, playing music of the present while also ensuring the music of the past was remembered (with, for example, his recreation of the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert). All the other musicians presented here also played on in many settings, always bringing to their work the highest standards. The opportunity to hear The Bechet Legacy once more is a very great pleasure and all concerned deserve thanks and congratulations.
June 9, 2013
When musicians reach a certain age, there is a tendency for some listeners – well, for me anyway – to approach their new work with caution. Maybe not a legitimate facet of music criticism, but quite often age matters. This is because the natural process of aging can have different effects, dependent on many things not least of which is the instrument played. Breathing and dexterity are obvious areas where the greater the age an artist reaches the greater the effect – often detrimental – upon their work. In the case of singers, breathing is obviously an issue and there is additionally a natural darkening of the vocal sound, something that is not always pleasing to the ear.
These thoughts were very much in mind when I learned of the impending release of a new album by Carline Ray. After all, when she recorded the songs on this album (all but one between 2008 and 2011) Carline Ray was in her eighties. Okay, okay, I know that talking about a lady’s age is not the thing to do. I excuse myself only because the singer and others associated with this album have made no secret of her advanced years. And I am very happy to declare that there is absolutely no reason for any secrecy. Far from it, news of Carline Ray – Vocal Sides should be trumpeted loud and long. Hearing it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Before looking at the music on this CD (released 10 June 2013) a few words about the singer.
(Sad to say, since this piece was written, Carline Ray has died. This was on 19 July 2013 – she was 88 years old.)
It is unnecessary to go into great detail; for one thing, Carline Ray’s musical history is well known, for another, it is touched upon in my 17 February 2013 page, Jazz Family – Take 2. There, I also have something to say about Ray’s late husband, Luis Russell, and their daughter, Catherine Russell, both of them similarly astonishingly gifted musicians. Briefly, then, Carline Ray was born in New York City in 1925 and in her mid-teens attended the Juilliard School of Music, studying composition and becoming skilled on guitar and double bass. On graduating from Juilliard in 1946, she joined the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, playing guitar and singing. An after-effect of this experience was that Carline formed a trio with two fellow Sweethearts, also playing in various other bands, meanwhile continuing her musical studies, notably in voice. In 1956, she married popular bandleader Luis Russell with whom she had a daughter, Catherine. Playing and singing jazz, popular music, and classical music, Carline worked on through the years, making records and appearing live in New York and London and many other places.
Which brings us almost up to date. A little while ago, Carline guested on her daughter’s album, Strictly Romancin’, not long after which Catherine, eager to help bring her mother’s remarkably enduring talent to wider notice, decided to produce this album, Vocal Sides, on which Carline Ray sings a selection of songs that should surely please many. The opener is a lovely interpretation of When I Grow Too Old To Dream, first taken slowly and expressively before slipping easily into a loping tempo; next comes a bebop anthem, Donna Lee, duly acknowledging the debt owed to Back Home Again In Indiana. Among many high points in her career, Carline Ray worked with Mary Lou Williams, playing on the recording session that resulted in the seminal Mary Lou’s Mass. Here, the singer presents two pieces from the Mass, Lazarus and Our Father. On two tracks, mother and daughter are heard in intimate duets, both artists responding to their love of music and for one another: The Land Beyond The River and Hold On. Added to the ten recent tracks is a 1961 recording Carline made with husband Luis of a song he had composed hoping that his then-associate, Louis Armstrong, would record it as a dedication to Louis’s wife (he never did). This is entitled, appropriately enough, Lucille.
Throughout, Carline sings with a rich, mature vocal sound, blending soulful dignity with deep understanding of the musical and lyrical value of the songs. Many aspects of her multi-faceted musical interests are evident: touches of gospel, blues, swing era styling, early bop notions and everywhere a profound and often moving reflection of the importance of jazz in her life. And the reverse is also true, Carline Ray has long been and remains important to jazz.