September 30, 2013
Billy Bang Da Bang! (TUM Records CD 034)
Recorded in February 2011, this was very nearly Billy Bang’s final flourish. Hard to believe, and deeply sad, that in April, just a a few weeks later, he would be gone. Although he knew that he was fast-approaching death this is never apparent from the vibrant, exhilarating music created here. Alongside the master violinist are some like-minded contemporary jazz players, all of them, like him, setting down crisp, authoritative musical ideas that will surely be a lasting testimony to Billy Bang’s exceptional contribution to jazz in the last few decades. These other musicians are trombonist Dick Griffin, pianist Andrew Bemkey, bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker. Interestingly, the repertoire chosen comes from leading jazzmen: there is Barry Altschul’s Da Bang, Don Cherry’s Guinea, Ornette Coleman’s Law Years, Miles Davis’s All Blues, Sonny Rollins’s St. Thomas, and Billy’s own Daydreams. Exceptional music, often joyous despite the presence in the wings of the Grim Reaper, performed by an outstanding musician whose enormous talent is much missed.
Iro Haarla Kolibri (TUM Records CD 035)
Even a casual glance at current releases of contemporary jazz and improvised music albums readily demonstrates that something remarkable has been happening in Finland in recent years. In this instance, the leader is the gifted pianist Iro Haarla who is joined by trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, tenor saxophonist Kari Heinilä, trombonist Jari Hongisto, bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Markku Ounaskari. Although like-minded, these instrumentalists have all acted as leaders of their own groups, yet display no difficulty in lending their talents to the common cause. That cause here is a fluid sextet performance built upon themes composed by the pianist herself. Although leading independent musical lives, this sextet has been in existence for around four years and this is apparent from their togetherness as support is provided for the creative impulse of individual soloists. The often introspective solos reflect the background of the players, offering distant yet distinct echoes of past work; for example, Iro spent several years in harmonious collaboration with the late Edward Vesala and with Tomasz Stanko. Musically intense and at times demanding careful attention, this is contemporary improvised music for the discerning. In passing, on two compositions Iro plays chen, a Taiwanese folk instrument, a diversion that adds intriguing color.
Craig Hartley Books On Tape Vol. 1 (Skidoo Records)
This is the first appearance on Skidoo by pianist Craig Hartley and ably demonstrates why he is held in such high regards. He is joined by bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Henry Cole, with guests trumpeter Fabio Morgera on two tracks, Why Not and Just For Me, and Israeli vocalist Dida Pelled on one, I Should Love You More. With the exception of My Foolish Heart all the music here is composed by Craig and builds upon significant moments in his life and career, ranging through the effect upon his development by mentors Gary Dial and Jackie McLean to echoes of classical music, which here comes with two versions of Why Not, which reflects J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Craig’s playing throughout is fluid, lyrical and always melodic. A most satisfying album.
These albums are available at most stores, including Amazon. Additionally, look for Craig Hartley on Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services website; more on the Billy Bang and Iro Haarla albums can be found through Braithwaite & Katz Communications as well as on the TUM Records site.
June 25, 2012
FAB Trio History Of Jazz In Reverse (TUM Records CD 028)
This remarkable jazz trio is decidedly unusual in its instrumental make-up: violin, bass, drums. The group is astonishingly powerful, and while couched in contemporary terms is replete with elements familiar to fans of most jazz styles. The trio’s name is taken from the initial letters of its members’ names: the bassist is Joe Fonda, the drummer Barry Altschul, the violinist Billy Bang. All are virtuoso jazz musicians yet have the ability to blend with one another, subordinating their often startling technical skills to the needs of the other group members and to the sound of the trio as a whole. At times, these musicians create a thunderous ensemble sound that suggests far more than just three men and their fluid interplay is testimony to a long association and the depth of their mutual understanding. Brilliant solos, matchless ensembles, this 2005 recording is masterly. Released in late 2011, this CD is one of the last recordings by Billy Bang, who died on 11 April 2011. Thanks to music like this, his name continues to resonate in the world of jazz. Summing up, the FAB Trio is just that: Fab!
Mike Greensill Live At The Plush Room (Pismo CD 101)
A fine jazz pianist who has been around for many years, along the way Mike Greensill has built a striking reputation. He first opened ears while still a student at the Leeds College of Music in the north of England. After moving to the USA, Greensill became well known as an accompanist – in particular to jazz singer Wesla Whitfield, to whom he is married. Together, the couple have appeared on more than 15 CDs. Here, though, the pianist is leader of a trio, the other members of which are bassist John Wiitala and drummer Donald Bailey. Throughout, Greensill makes vividly clear that he is an accomplished jazz pianist; and he also proves to be an intriguing singer. In the latter role, he delivers wryly observed versions of songs such as Bob Dorough’s I’ve Got Just About Everything and Small Day Tomorrow. However, it is Mike Greensill’s work as jazz piano soloist that confirms what those earlier opened ears noticed. Among his many gifts is his always melodic taste, which, underpinned with hard-driving swing, allows him to romp through an excellent live set. This is a fine CD that will be enjoyed by anyone who loves mainstream jazz played by a first-class musician who clearly knows a thing or two about the history of jazz piano.
Nick Moran No Time Like Now (Manor Sound 10661-1)
Here, jazz guitarist Nick Moran teams up with organist Brad Whiteley and drummer Chris Benham for a set that mainly features the leader’s own compositions. The music is filled with emotional nuance and is played with understanding and subtle fire by three jazz musicians of considerable talent. They think individually and collectively and deliver fascinating and grooving performances. Some of the album’s striking emotional base stems from Moran’s thoughts developed after the loss of friends and mentors and people, sometimes strangers in foreign lands, who have inspired him: Say Hi To Paris (for Frankie Paris) and Natalya (for Natalya Estemirova). Among other compositions are Intention (for Ron Carter) and Wishful Thinking (for Jeff Beck). Whatever the emotional and/or intellectual starting point, Moran’s music is always filled with engaging subtlety and underlying fire.
Romain Collin The Calling (Palmetto PM 2156)
Here, French-born jazz pianist Romain Collin teams up with bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott to perform an intriguing set of his own compositions. Born and raised not far from the site of the Cannes jazz festival, Collin played in rock bands and studied business management, but retained an original love for jazz that eventually took him to the Berklee School of Music. On this CD, the music is richly varied, ranging through impressionistic pieces to some that vividly offer aural reflections on moments that have clearly inspired their creator. Collin presents here music that is highly personal and yet accessible to all who hear it. As a composer, he is clearly attuned to the needs of jazz musicians and his pieces require collective improvisation as well as individual solo skills. Collin’s collaborators here, Curtis and Scott, are fully capable of meeting the musical demands placed upon them.
May 6, 2012
No middle ground …
Love it or hate it, in jazz history there seldom seems to be any middle ground for the violin. Almost from the start, the violin has often been derided or at best ignored. If the average jazz fan – always assuming that such creatures exist – were to be asked to list favorite instrumentalists what might be the result? (This is not the time to get into jazz singing; that needs, and will later receive, separate and special treatment.)
So, staying with favorite jazz instrumentalists, our (perhaps mythical) average jazz fan will list quite a few names of trumpeters and pianists, some alto saxophonists, and there will be tenor saxophonists by the bus load. Maybe there will be an occasional trombonist and a handful of guitarists (if the fan questioned is young, a whole lot more than a handful); older fans might well list a clarinetist or two, perhaps a bassist. But regardless of age, how many of the jazz fans asked this question will nominate a violinist?
I can’t prove it, because that involves surveys and voting and ballot boxes and heaven knows what other boring stuff, but my guess is that not only will very few fans list a violinist but that the majority of fans will list none at all. Which is, to put it mildly, very unfair.
Involved from the start …
The violin has been involved in jazz music history from the start. Back in the very earliest days, as the new music was being tried out in dance halls and juke joints, most bands had at least one violin and in many the violinist was leader. Not surprising, really. Consider New Orleans; at the turn of the century there was music of all kinds everywhere, including three opera houses, and hundreds of musicians were needed. Given that almost all of the music being played was of European origin, or at least in that tradition, the instrumentation required to play it included many violins. Being able to play a violin well (and read music) was to be almost guaranteed work and violinists of the era did rather well.Unfortunately, as the new forms of dance music took on board the early strains of what would come to be known as jazz, the violin was nudged aside. This was not because of any failing on the part of the players; as suggested, they were highly skilled practitioners and could read and play anything put before them. But this was long before amplification was even thought of and the new music was loud. The violin was simply drowned out by the trumpet and trombone and quite soon the unwritten standard combo format took shape: trumpet, trombone, clarinet (which had to struggle against the brass), piano, banjo, tuba and drums. A few years on and the string bass had replaced the tuba and the guitar had elbowed out the banjo. Experiments with amplification then allowed guitarists to make themselves heard, eventually with startling results throughout pop music. Some violinists also experimented with amplification, but by this time the violin had been in the wilderness too long and for all practical purposes its numerous qualities as a front-line instrument were lost to jazz.
Some fine examples …
Of course, there were a few jazz violin artists who hung on through the years of the swing era, some in remote corners. For example there were Emilio Caceres (who brought a torrid touch of norteño to jazz); Eddie South (classically trained with an especially melodic approach to jazz); Joe Venuti (notably in his collaborations with guitarist Eddie Lang); Stuff Smith (especially as co-leader with trumpeter Jonah Jones of the Onyx Club band); John Frigo (who with Herb Ellis and Lou Carter formed Soft Winds). Meanwhile, at the other side of the ocean were Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen, both leading long and fruitful jazz lives. But many musicians used the violin only when they doubled with another more ‘acceptable’ instrument; among them Claude Williams, Ray Perry, Ray Nance.
In later, post-bop years, some of these names enjoyed a resurgence of interest (Venuti, Smith, Grappelli and Asmussen in particular). There was also a handful of newcomers for whom the violin was not only the first if not the only choice but who also defied convention and brought the violin into vivid contact with contemporary aspects of jazz: Jean-Luc Ponty, Leroy Jenkins, John Blake, Michel Urbaniak, Billy Bang. These violinists played on into the 21st century, a time that saw the emergence of the remarkable Regina Carter. And if not quite jazz, think about another remarkable young woman, Lucia Micarelli, who acts in and plays up a post-Katrina storm in the TV series, Treme.
Love it or hate it …
What is (or should be) immediately apparent from all the violinists named here is that the recorded evidence clearly demonstrates that they were gifted musicians, in many instances displaying great improvisational skills that were at least on par with their better-known contemporaries who played trumpet or piano or tenor saxophone. Indeed, if they were to be analyzed fairly, violinists such as Venuti, Smith, Bang and Carter would tick more boxes than many poll-toppers whose playing of brass and woodwind instruments blinded some fans and writers to the fact that, if judged impartially as musicians, they were distinctly less gifted.
If you want to hear some examples of jazz violin playing at its best, then listen to some or all of the following recordings. Doing this with an open mind (and open ears, of course) will surely not disappoint you.
Joe Venuti & George Barnes Live At The Concord Summer Jazz Festival (Concord Jazz)
Joe Venuti & George Barnes Gems (Concord Jazz)
Joe Venuti & Earl Hines Hot Sonatas (Chiaroscuro)
Joe Venuti & Dave McKenna Alone At The Palace (Chiaroscuro)
Joe Venuti & Scott Hamilton Live At Concord ’77 (Concord Jazz)
Whether playing solo or in duets with his co-leaders, Joe Venuti is in sparkling form, always inventive and swinging ferociously. If you think you have time for only one track, try “Sweet Georgia Brown”, which opens Live At The Concord Summer Jazz Festival. Chances are, you will be instantly hooked.
Stuff Smith & Dizzy Gillespie & Oscar Peterson (PolyGram)
Herb Ellis & Stuff Smith Together (Epic)
Stuff Smith Swinging’ Stuff (Metronome)
Stuff Smith & Stéphane Grappelli Stuff & Steff (Barclay)
Stuff Smith & Svend Asmussen Hot Violins (Storyville)
Always driving, Stuff Smith vividly displays his take-charge persona throughout these sets. On two occasions, his style is strikingly contrasted with two other veteran violinists, thus presenting an opportunity not only to hear them too, but also to experience why Smith was one of the most commanding instrumentalists in jazz, regardless of instrument.
Billy Bang Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time)
William Parker Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear)
Billy Bang Above & Beyond: An Evening In Grand Rapids (Justin Time)
FAB Trio Transforming The Space (CIMP)
FAB Trio History Of Jazz In Reverse (TUM)
Thoroughly contemporary, blending post-bop echoes with improv, Billy Bang always shines. His instrumental virtuosity is underpinned by his extensive imagination and a striking ability to find musical images from earlier eras that fit perfectly into latterday musical concepts.
Regina Carter I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)
Regina Carter Motor City Moments (PolyGram)
Regina Carter & Kenny Barron Freefall (Verve)
Regina Carter Reverse Thread (E1 Music)
Regina Carter is at ease playing popular songs and show tunes, as on the first of these sets, and taking a new look at jazz standards, as she does in the duo with Kenny Barron. On the fourth of these, she explores the rich tapestry of African folk music, creating eloquent contemporary jazz statements. Throughout, Regina Carter is never less than awesome.
This began with the words ‘love it or hate it’. If you already love jazz violin, then nothing more need be said. However, if you are currently in the other camp, then perhaps your curiosity has been aroused. I certainly hope so …
… been here and gone!