Monday, April 26, 2010

CDs of Note...

Jacky Terrasson, Push (Concord Jazz)
“Push” is the perfect name for pianist Jacky Terrasson’s Concord debut. He’s a jazz adventurer who pushes his band, and pushes the music, twisting and turning it into new territory in the process. That’s the case with both originals and his treatment of standard material. Standard, that is, until he starts tweaking it. Take the unlikely combination of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” Listen close. Rather than build a front-and back medley as many musicians would, Terrasson borrows key melodic snippets from each tune, then mashes them as building blocks for his own odyssey. First a hint of one, a minute into the tune, then a bit later, the other. Then back and forth.

Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” and “’Round Midnight” get rather straight treatments from Terrason in comparison, though they are a bit wild in their own ways. As an American Songbook reference point, he also tackles “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” This session features his current trio-mates, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jamire Williams, with guest spots for tenor player Jacques Schwarz-Bart, percussionist Cyro Batista, harmonicat Gregoire Maret and guitarist Matthew Stevens. Terrasson, 1993’s Monk Piano Competition winner, is also strong on his own “Morning,” the ballads “My Church” and “Carry Me Away,” and the bubbling “Say Yeah” and “O Café, O Soleil.”

Vince Guaraldi, Peanuts Portraits (Concord Music)
Starting in the mid-1960s most of America has been treated to substantial doses of jazz, usually around various holidays, even if they didn’t know it. And most likely, most didn’t. Vince Guaraldi wrote and recorded the music for the beloved “Peanuts” TV specials. This compilation features music based on the personalities of the show’s range of cartoon characters. There is some wonderful stretching out here, including an alternate take of “Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair) – a tune that was written for a 1963 documentary that was never televised but appeared on a 1964 Fantasy soundtrack. They bring back memories, and dig several blues-based tunes written for the hapless Charlie Brown. The compilation includes two of Guaradi’s “Peanuts”-based compositions that George Winston recorded in the 1990s, two decades after Guaraldi’s death. “Peanuts” producer Lee Mendelson fell in love with Guaraldi’s work when he heard his classic “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” Most of America did the same through the Charles Schulz cartoon-based TV specials. How could you not?

Various artists, Sachal Jazz (Sachal Music)
This project, subtitled Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova, may be the most unusual/exotic recording of jazz classics that you’ll ever hear. Here are Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” Tom Jobim’s “Desafinado” and “The Girl from Ipanema” (plus a raga alternate take), Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” Dave Grusin’s “Mountain Dance” and two other tunes performed by the Pakistan-based Sachal Studios Orchestra - sitar, tabla, other Indo-Pakistan percussion, Spanish guitars, accordion and a full string section. There’s even a U.K.-added choir, which sounds superfluous and even distracting when it appears. A take on Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s In Love With You” is a bit more straightforward.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two splendid singers honor a legend

Singer, actress, dancer and civil rights activist Lena Horne turns 93 this June 30. She hasn’t performed since the early 1990s and has been out of the public eye for the past 10 years. But she isn’t out of the hearts of singers - or music fans who loved her work.

That was clear Saturday night (April 24) when “Stormy Weather,” a multi-media tribute show about Horne, premiered at Scullers jazz club in Boston. It featured singers Rebecca Parris and Paula West, and pertinent narrative from author James Gavin, whose book, “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” was published in hard cover last year and is just out in soft cover. The premiere was also scheduled in tandem with the launch of a new Verve CD, Lena Horne Sings: The MGM Singles Collection.

Boston-based Parris and San Francisco-based West had never performed together before but worked well in this setting, with the superb support of pianist George Mesterhazy and bassist Peter Kontrimas. The two-instrument accompaniment provided the intimacy that this sort of show required. Musical director Mesterhazy, an excellent accompanist and arranger who spent more than a decade with Parris before joining Shirley Horn in the last phase of her career, now works regularly with West.

The evening touched on the full scope of Horne’s musical career with appropriate – and often poignant - material from various phases, with the singers alternating tunes for the most part. “As Long As I Live” (Parris), “Ill Wind” (West), “Honeysuckle Rose” (Parris), “Why Do I Try?” (West), “It’s Alright With Me” (West), “Come Sunday” (Parris ), “A Lady Must Live” (West), “Yesterday When I Was Young” (Parris), and “Stormy Weather” (West). As an encore, Parris and West teamed up on “That Man of Mine.”

There were several mesmerizing moments, and the audience was spellbound by what it heard throughout the evening. Parris and West have that effect. West was particularly powerful on “Why Do I Try?” and “A Lady Must Live.” These tunes really spoke to Horne’s determination.

“Yesterday When I Was Young” was a tune that Horne featured in her two sold-out Carnegie Hall concerts in 1993, telling the crowd: “I think that song belongs to a lot of us.” This night, it belonged to Parris’s poignant interpretation and Mesterhazy, whose extended solo revealed the breadth, depth and passion of his playing.

Gavin shared a bit of insight here and there - particularly the racial challenges that Horne faced - in housing, in travel, and even in multi-racial marriage. The tunes often mirrored what she was going through as she struggled with and against her persona - an elegant black woman who sang songs people adored, but was treated less kindly out of the spotlight.

The night also had humor, particularly with “Bein’ Green,” the Kermit the Frog-associated tune that Horne chose to sing in an appearance as herself on “Sesame Street” in the 1970s. She identified with its hopeful and uplifting message about being different. Parris has been battling health issues over the past decade, which, thankfully have not diminished her voice or spirit. She drew much laughter when she improvised a bit, throwing in the line “or tall - like I used to be” - without missing a beat.

Horne made two brief appearances via recording - one in song, one in archived interview about her life and times.

From Boston, Parris, West, Gavin, Mesterhazy and Kontrimas headed to Maine’s Camden Opera House for a late Sunday afternoon performance and have two nights scheduled at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. There will be a video element in larger venues.

Many attendees at Scullers lingered long after the show Saturday to urge the singers to take it on the road on a more ambitious scale. We’ll watch with interest to see how that develops. Scullers entertainment director Fred Taylor, a longtime Boston jazz impresario, said this was the first show of this scope in the club’s 20-year history. He was thrilled by the full house - and the reactions to the performance. Consider it a Jazz Week highlight in greater Boston.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cape May review

My review of last weekend's 33rd edition of the Cape May Jazz Festival, with multiple photos, was posted today on JAZZTIMES.COM. There was much to enjoy on a fine spring weekend.

The musical treats included the mega-talented young blueswoman Shemekia Copeland (pictured), making her third Cape May appearance, and pianist Chuchito Valdés, son of Chucho and grandson of Bebo).

Also strong: saxophonist Tim Warfield's organ quintet tribute to the late Shirley Scott, and Spyro Gyra's first Cape May visit, which drew a full house.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

CDs of Note...

Joe Chambers, Horace to Max (Savant)
Drummer Joe Chambers has found a way to tip his hat to a range of classic and contemporary jazz composers, and showcase his under-acknowleged mallet playing on this project. And he brought a splendid team along for the ride: tenor player Eric Alexander, pianist Xavier Davis and bassist Steve Berrios, with pianist Helen Sung, bassist Dwayne Burno and bassist Richie Goode subbing on the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln tune “Lonesome Lover.” Nicole Guiland adds vocals to that track and Roach’s clever “Mendacity.” My favorites: their takes on “Mendacity,” Horace Silver’s “Ecaroh,” Chambers’ own “Afreeka” and Marcus Miller’s “Portia,” which was one of Miles Davis’s finest late-career recordings. I particularly like Alexander’s interplay with Chambers when the leader takes to the vibes and marimba.

Thomson Kneeland, Mazurka for a Modern Man (Weltschmerz Records)
Bassist Thomson Kneeland has delivered a modern jazz gem, containing purely original material (plus his arrangement of a traditional Polish folksong, “Moja Tesknota”) that is delivered by his 2007 quintet. The band at this session included guitarist Nate Ridley, trumpeter David Smith, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and late percussionist Take Toriyama. There is an eclectic vibe to this session with spirited playing. Radley, Smith and Stillman are wonderful foils for each other. My favorites: “Hyperion,” ”Libretto” and “Nebuchadnezzar.” Another fine piece, the poignant “Rhapsody” is dedicated to Toriyama, a close musical collaborator who took his own life two weeks after the session.

organissimo, Alive & Kickin’! (Big O Records)
Michigan-based organissimo has been presenting its take on modern soul-jazz for 10 years. Alive & Kickin’! is the trio’s first live CD and was released simultaneously with a 75-minute DVD that has two additional tracks. All CD tracks, except Frank Zappa’s “Blessed Relief,” are collaborative compositions by organist Jim Alfredson, guitarist Joe Gloss and drummer Randy Marsh. My favorites: “Jimmy Smith Goes to Washington” (compete with a Smith-like greasy funk), “Groovadelphia,” “Blessed Relief” and the extended jam “Pumpkin Pie.”

Other worthy listens:

  • Wallace Roney, If Only For One Night (HighNote) – Whether or not you dig his technique on uptempo material, the trumpeter knows his way around a ballad. Check out “I Have A Dream” and Let’s Wait A While.”

  • Christian Scott, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord Jazz) – The young trumpeter is out with a blend of hard bop, hip hop and musical commentary on life in the 21st century as he sees it. His take on Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo debut title track “The Eraser” is a balm for the surrounding Scott edginess.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Helping here, helping there

It’s time to open your wallets, jazz fans, for two great, intertwined causes.

The Jazz Foundation of America is getting ready to present its 9th annual “A Great Night in Harlem” gala concert May 9 at The Apollo Theater to benefit the organization’s amazing Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund. The concert is a principal fundraiser for JEMF, run by jazz angel Wendy Oxenhorn, the JFA’s executive director, who year after year finds innovative ways to help with medical bills, eviction threats, stolen instruments and myriad other challenges faced by principally older jazz and blues musicians.

The gala entertainment includes Roberta Flack, Jimmy Scott and four-dozen others. The hosts include Chevy Chase, Danny Glover, Michael Imperioli and David Johansen. Part of the evening will also celebrate the 100th birthday of Max "The Saxman" Lucas, who played with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Muddy Waters, and, Oxenhorn says, still rides the subway to get to his gigs.

For several years, JEMF’s outreach support has also landed in New Orleans, where music is the heart and soul of the community, and there was much need among musicians post-Katrina. And there still is. Since Katrina, the Jazz Foundation has housed and created work for more than 1,000 musicians and keeps displaced musicians across the U.S. working to this day.

In recent weeks, there has come word that the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, effective this August, will see a stopgap federal grant run out, cutting its overall budget by 90 percent. Some 800 area musicians and their families rely on the clinic for the medical gamut – from checkups to major surgery.

The clinic’s work, and its need for a helping hand have not gone unnoticed. In late March, the cast and crew of the new HBO series “Treme” held an auction fundraiser (with music) at Generations Hall to benefit the clinic. As actor Wendell Pierce told the Times-Picayune: “Musicians are the heartbeat of New Orleans. We have to take care of them. We actually don’t do a good job of it sometimes. The Musicians’ Clinic is a lifeline to so many people. You couldn’t do a show like ‘Treme’ here in New Orleans without identifying a group to create a charity partnership with, and we couldn’t pick a better group than the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.”

It is nice to see people stepping up to help music’s makers, no matter where they are. And I get the feeling JEMF will be right there in the thick of saving the clinic and its essential work.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

CDs of Note...

Lisa Engelken, Caravan (Little Angel)
Lisa Engelken may not have a household name when it comes to jazz singers, but this CD proves that she is most deserving of that stature. The Kansas-born, California-based singer’s sophomore CD is a gem. Key ingredients: an intriguing voice, a great mix of material avoiding the “tired tune” syndrome that dogs so many aspiring singers, and the ability to find material that she can imbue with her own strong jazz touch and feel. My favorites: her takes on “Caravan,” “Afro Blue,” and “Detour Ahead,” as well as a bluesy remake of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.” Then there’s “From The Earth,” a rendition of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” that features her own intriguing lyrics. This is a winner, pure and simple. Savor it all.

Gerry Gibbs and The Electric Thrasher Orchestra Play the Music of Miles Davis 1967-1975 (Whaling City Sound)
Yes, the title is a mouthful, but drummer Gerry Gibbs, son of vibes great Terry Gibbs, didn’t bite off more than he could chew. He created what may be one of the year’s most ambitious recording projects to revisit and celebrate Miles Davis’s prolific first electric and rock-influenced phase (with 22 selections from more than a dozen Davis albums, principally from “Sorcerer” through “Bitches Brew” to “On the Corner.” Gibbs assembled a strong and talented group of top West Coast players including trumpeter Brian Swartz and saxophonist Doug Webb (plus acoustic bassist Essiet Okon Essiet). They tip their hats to Davis and carry his music forward in their own way. It is spirited and very well done.

Adriano Santos Quintet, In Session (Kingjazzad Music)
Drummer-percussionist Adriano Santos’s recording is a strong and energetic blend of works by top Brazilian composers that intertwine his homeland’s exotic rhythms with a modern jazz twist. Saxophonist David Binney adds a lot of the edgy flair, while the rhythm section teams Santos with pianist Helio Alves, bassist David Ambrosio and percussionist Dende. My favorites: their takes on “From the Lonely Afternoons” by Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant, Toninho Horta’s “De Ton Pra Tom,” Airto Moreira’s “Xibaba” and Moacir Santos’s “Amphibious.”

Other worthy listens:

  • The Britton Brothers, Uncertain Living (Record Craft)

  • Nnenna Freelon, Homefree (Concord Jazz)

  • Fabian Zone Trio, Keys in Ascension (Consolidated Artists Productions)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April showers us with jazz appreciation

Just as we emerge from the winter doldrums, there’s a lot of jazz appreciation going on throughout April.

In 2001, The Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month, which has grown to include celebrations in all 50 states and 40 countries that the music as a living treasure. It is designed to spotlight the music and, one would hope, extend the depth of that appreciation to casual listeners, and introduce it to fresh ears that have been tuned elsewhere. It is a movement that has a lot of variations and offshoots.

Last June while meeting here in Rhode Island, the U.S Conference of Mayors proclaimed April 9 as Jazz Day. Jazz at Lincoln Center is using that day for its inaugural A Taste of Jazz event in Manhattan, which will feature music and food at the Time Warner Center to celebrate the cuisine of some of the country's greatest jazz cities, including New Orleans. The musical set and discussion that night will feature a septet led by saxophonist Walter Blanding.

Oh, but there is much more here and there. As they say in the TV genre, check local listings.

From April 23 to May 2, the nonprofit JazzBoston is celebrating Jazz Week with 230 events at more than 80 venues to celebrate the special role the Boston jazz scene plays as incubator and stage for a lot of creative musicians. Only in greater Boston, it seems, can a “week” have 10 days. But that 10-day period, Made in Boston, Played in Boston, will include a lot of great programming, including rare films, jazz dance, and children’s events. Here is the schedule.
But wait, there’s more
SIRIUS XM Radio is paying tribute to the rich history of jazz with a lot of Jazz Appreciation Month programming. Its Real Jazz channel, SIRIUS channel 72 and XM channel 70, kicked off the month on April 1 with bassist Christian McBride hosting a three-hour JAM preview, and to introduce the debut of his SIRIUS XM show, The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian, which premiered yesterday and will air every Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on Real Jazz.

Also on April 9 - Jazz Appreciation Day - on Sirius, Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis will unveil the 2010-2011 season of Jazz at Lincoln Center at 3 p.m. ET on RealJazz, and Nancy Sinatra will present a special edition of Nancy For Frank, showcasing the jazz side of American Songbook legend and her father, Frank Sinatra, on April 9 at 3 p.m. ET on Siriusly Sinatra, SIRIUS channel 75 and XM channel 73. There is much more to discover on the Sirius channels. (For more information, visit or

Jazz Day, Jazz Week, Jazz Appreciation Month. (The latter may have the only acronym I can tolerate.) All of this is admirable. It also begs the question - How much of this is just preaching to the choir? Some of us would argue that in our in our hearts, in our psyches, in our ears, and in the venues to which we go... every day is jazz day. And that’s just the listeners. It certainly is true for the musicians, at least as a goal.

If the April spotlight in some way brings more serious listeners to the music - and more opportunities for musicians to play jazz - these initiatives are doing what their creators and supporters are seeking.