February 28, 2016
The Great American Music Ensemble It’s All In The Game (Jazzed Media JM 1073)
Back in the 1980s this 15-piece big band came into being through the inspiration and dedication of its musical director, composer and arranger Doug Richards. Originally, G.A.M.E. was centered on the Jazz Studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University and drew instrumentalists from both faculty members and the student body. During the following decades, the band performed to critical acclaim but although this album was recorded in 2001 it has been sitting on a shelf gathering dust until now because major companies were unwilling to take it in hand, thus revealing a (perhaps unsurprising) lack of imagination. Certainly there is no absence of quality as from the first notes of the opening track, In The Mood, it is clear that this a band of highly skilled instrumentalists. In the opener they are playing a chart by someone unafraid to dismantle and reconstruct for the modern era a piece of music that has had a place at the heart of big band jazz for going on eight decades. As the album progresses, Doug’s arranging skill is vividly apparent as he remakes mostly familiar music into sparkling new works.
Featured soloists from within the band include trumpeters John D’earth and Bob Ransom, trombonist Jim McFalls, and saxophonists Marty Nau, Skip Gailes, Rob Holmes and John Winn. There are still more outstanding solos thanks to the presence of guest trumpeter Jon Faddis, on Stardust and West End Blues, and violinist Joe Kennedy Jr., who is also on West End Blues as well as When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. Throughout, the soloists and the crisp brass and reed sections are supported by the rhythm section of pianist Weldon Hill, bassist Victor Dvoskin and drummer Howard Curtis, all of whom also have solo moments although their main role here is to punch the band along, a task they accomplish with distinction. And if all this were not enough, the remarkable René Marie sings on six tracks, bringing her special talent to Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine, Clap Yo’ Hands, I’ve Got The World On A String, I Am Loved, They All Laughed, and Ain’t Misbehavin’. This was not long after René re-entered the world of music and while she would not often be heard singing with a big band, her performance here show her to every bit as good as in any other setting. Summing up this album can be done with one word: Outstanding.
Ken Peplowski Enrapture (Capri 74141-2)
Virtuoso clarinetist Ken Peplowski has a worldwide reputation, playing mainstream jazz with imaginative flair and consummate skill. Joining Ken on this session are pianist Ehud Asherie, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson, each providing individual solo skills and collectively forming a sparkling ensemble. The music chosen for this album is attractively varied and is far from the usual for jazz dates. Opening with a Caribbean-tinged version of Duke Ellington’s Flaming Sword, the quartet’s repertoire then explores other jazz pieces, Herbie Nichols’ Enrapture, Fats Waller’s Willow Tree and Peter Erskine’s Twelve, and also film music, including Scene D’Amour from Vertigo and Cheer Up, Charlie from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. There are some less familiar pop songs, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Oh, My Love and Barry Manilow and Johnny Mercer’s When October Goes, as well as a sumptuous reading of Noël Coward’s I’ll Follow My Secret Heart. In the hands of these gifted musicians all of these pieces become jazz works yet such is their skill that echoes of the romanticism, charm and wit of the music’s origins remain. Wholly admirable and very warmly recommended to all who love music with heart and soul.
Bruce Torff Down The Line (Summit DCD 672)
This album by pianist and composer Bruce Torff touches upon the loss of friends and associates and while it has moments of appropriate solemnity it is far from being sad and gloomy. All the music heard here is composed by Bruce, the moving Memoriam being written following the death of a friend from childhood and seeks and finds joy in these memories. Yes, there are moments of reflection, such as Wave Of Silence, but there is also liveliness and wit, Down The Line, Tribal Function, and (despite its title) Well Of Tears. For this album, Bruce is joined by guitarist Pete McCann, drummer Ben Wittman, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm (playing soprano saxophone on one track). Also present on this session is trumpeter Lew Soloff who plays on two tracks, This I Promise You and Early Sunday, both fine examples of his work, exploring as they do depths of mature and sincere emotion. That emotional content is enhanced immeasurably by the knowledge that just two weeks after his appearance was recorded Lew Soloff died. Attractive music in the contemporary mainstream of jazz.
Socrates Garcia Back Home (Mama MAA1050)
Connections with Latin music go back to the earliest years of jazz (Jelly Roll Morton’s ‛Latin tinge’ comes readily to mind) and there have long been big band links. Among these have been Frank Grillo, Maria Bauza, Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie. A significant figure today is Socrates Garcia, who was born in the Dominican Republic, which is where he first played guitar but was diverted into an engineering career. Fortunately, that did not last and he decided that music was to be his life. While playing rock and pop, he also studied extensively in America, including spells at the Grove School, Luther College, and universities in Tennessee and Colorado. These studies ranged widely, incorporating classical music but also generating an interest in big band jazz. On this album, Socrates presents his Latin Jazz Orchestra playing his own compositions, which includes his Dominican Suite. The musicians here come from America (recorded at University of Northern Carolina where Socrates is Director of Music Technology) and from the Dominican Republic (recorded at MIDILAB studies, where he had worked as an engineer). All the music on this fine set is exhilarating and played with verve by the band ably demonstrating that big band Latin jazz is alive and well.
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August 15, 2012
Ran Blake & Dominique Eade
Throughout his long career, jazz pianist Ran Blake has always pushed the boundaries, especially as a soloist. Through his teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he has been since the late 1960s, Blake has gradually awakened many to his way of thinking about contemporary music. Alongside all of this, Blake has enjoyed highly successful working relationships with singers among whom is Dominique Eade, whose presence at NRC was partly prompted by her eagerness to work with Blake. Dominique has gained a comparable reputation to that of her mentor thanks to her similarly advanced approach to jazz. She has an engaging ability to prompt listeners to question established ways in which standards are sung and thus to discover, often to the listener’s surprise, thoroughly rewarding and hugely enjoyable variations on familiar themes. On this CD, Whirlpool (Jazz Project), Dominique and Ran demonstrate their love for good music as they explore previously hidden byways that are often barely hinted at in previous hearings of songs such as My Foolish Heart, Where Are You, The Thrill Is Gone and Dearly Beloved. Even a song from the end of the nineteenth century, After The Ball Is Over, is beautifully recreated; indeed, the duo succeed in turning it into a contemporary jazz classic.
For several years, Sandi Russell has successfully toured her one-woman show, Render Me My Song, a history of African American women writers in words and music. Her approach to jazz singing is inventive and engaging, finding songs little heard over the years, and delivering new and vibrant interpretations of familiar songs. These qualities are especially apparent on Sweet Thunder (33 Jazz) where she delivers the lyrical themes in the manner of a mature, worldly woman with ample experience of music and of life. She knows what to sing, how to sing the songs she chooses, and who to have by her side as she does it. This maturity and confidence is reflected in Sandi’s vocal sound and she brings to her material musical and textual undercurrents that make her interpretations even more than the entertainment that they clearly are. Sandi is accompanied here by some fine jazz musicians; the core trio is pianist Dave Newton, bassist Andy Clyndert, and drummer Steve Brown, while the stellar guest list includes Jim Mullen, Phil Todd, Guy Barker, David Murray and Alan Skidmore. These performances, rich in musical knowledge and lyrical subtexts, are a joy to hear. Sandi is in similarly excellent form on Incandescent (Freedom Song), where her commanding presence is once again underscored by superb backing from Dave Newton, Andy Clyndert, and Steve Brown. The result is an impressive experience, solid repertoire that mixes of popular and jazz songs, with one or two lesser known but attractive items, instrumental playing of a very high order, and exceptional jazz singing.
Long based in London, Australian-born jazz singer Trudy Kerr is an exceptionally talented artist. On My Old Flame (Jazzizit) she has conceived and beautifully executes a tribute to Chet Baker, which draws upon the arrangements of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Trudy and bass player Geoff Gascoyne have crafted intelligent, melodic and subtly swinging charts that recapture the grace of the originals while simultaneously making their own statements. Trudy’s singing voice, ringing and eloquent, is ideally suited to the atmosphere and she further displays her skills with the vocalese lyrics she has written for Bernie’s Tune and Look For The Silver Lining. Exemplary accompaniment comes from baritone saxophonist Derek Nash, pianists Phil Pesket and Steve Melling, and drummer Sebastiaan De Krom. Also on hand for two duets with Trudy is veteran singer Georgie Fame. Recently, Trudy has teamed up with an old friend from her Australian homeland, singer Ingrid James, and their work together can be heard on Reunion (Jazzizit). This is a fine selection of standards from the pop and jazz scenes and the two singers blend with subtle ease and considerable charm. Here again, Geoff Gascoyne is a key factor in supplying the framework for the graceful performances of the two singers.
Only a very tiny percentage of today’s jazz singers measure up to the giants of the past; René Marie is one of this distinguished minority. She always displays her credentials with seemingly effortless flair and poise; it is an inescapable fact that she is an artist to savor and admire. Central to the recent release of Voice Of My Beautiful Country (Motéma) is the similarly entitled suite, in which familiar songs central to American culture (and history and politics) are arranged by René Marie, sometimes moving far from the original melodies, into a telling whole. Pointed though the lyrics of some of her songs might be, they are always melodic and overflow with invention. Earlier CDs by René Marie include How Can I Keep From Singing?, Vertigo, and Live At Jazz Standard, (all MaxJazz), whereon she delivers a pleasing mix of standards with some of her own compositions. Her daring combining of Dixie and Strange Fruit on Vertigo borders on the miraculous. On the aptly titled Serene Renegade (MaxJazz), René gives full rein to her songwriting talent. All but two of the tracks are her original songs and very good they are too.
Most recently. this outstanding singer again presents an album mainly of her own compositions. This is Black Lace Freudian Slip (Motéma) on which she ranges from the blues through Latin tinge, hints of folk, and deep-seated jazz, all underpinned with echoes of today’s African music. In her lyrics, René Marie demonstrates her social commitment, her sense of humor and her unending joy in singing. Throughout all of her CDs, René Marie delivers striking lessons in the art of contemporary jazz singing that are thoroughly grounded in the best of the past. If you happen to have missed René Marie before now, these CDs offer many opportunities to join her ever-widening international audience, an opportunity that should be seized without hesitation. If you should be fortunate enough to be able to see and hear her perform live, then don’t walk, but run . . .
Drawing together some of the best of Now and the finest of Then, the latest album from Mark Masters sets out a selection of music that originated with members of the Duke Ellington organization. Although that last word implies a measure of rigidity, a quality never invoked by either the Maestro himself or the remarkable sidemen who graced his band. Here, on Ellington Saxophone Encounters (Capri), Mark has taken themes created by Ellington saxophonists Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, and Ben Webster, and arranged them as a tribute to these exceptional instrumentalists. Mark’s band features contemporary saxophone masters Pete Christlieb, Gene Cipriano, Gary Foster, Don Shelton, and Gary Smulyan, the latter being Mark’s key collaborator in this (and indeed other) fascinating jazz ventures. The saxophonists play with inventive flair, breathing into music fresh life – although it has never really died and neither has it aged in the slightest despite the fact that among the pieces are some originally created before some of today’s musicians were born. The saxophonists are backed by the subtly supportive trio of pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Thanks to Capri Records and the American Jazz Institute, this album presents exceptional music that is played superbly. This melodic and always swinging set is a joy to hear.