Friday, January 27, 2012

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Harry Allen, Rhythm of the River (Challenge)
Perhaps more than any other musician, pianist Dave McKenna had a knack of weaving thematic medleys in his music. Songs with a woman’s name in the title, or subjects like shadows and dreams. Harry Allen has done something similar with his latest recording project. The tenor saxophonist took an idea from his executive producer and stretched it into a wonderful CD.
Rhythm on the River
contains a baker’s dozen tunes that have a strong river connection. They come from the popular music canon dating from the 1850s to the 1950s, with most coming out of the chestnut-rich 1920s and ‘30s. His quartet, featuring Rossano Sportiello on piano, Joel Forbes on bass and Chuck Riggs on drums, is joined on four tracks by cornetist Warren Vaché.

Allen is a ballad master. The material is well served by his rich tone and respect for the melody. The project also benefits from the cohesiveness of his band. Playing with the same musicians does make a difference – and this recording proves it. This cruise up and down the musical river doesn’t disappoint. They explore “Riverboat Shuffle,” “Cry Me a River,” “Lazy River,” “Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On,” Down by the River,” “Walking by the River,” “River, Stay ‘Way from My Door,” “Blue River,” “Weary River,” “Old Folks at Home,” (the original title of the 1851 ballad better known as “Swanee River”),”Ready for the River,” “Sleepy River” and the title track, which was the title tune for a 1940 Bing Crosby movie.” “River, Stay ‘Way from My Door” is a robust, swinging gem that features the full ensemble with Allen and Vaché going head to head.

Ehud Asherie with Harry Allen, Upper West Side (Posi-Tone)

Piano and tenor sax duo recordings are the exception rather than the rule, but this teaming of Israeli-born pianist Ehud Asherie and tenor player Harry Allen rules on a number of levels. They principally mine the world of romance ballads on this fine session, but the opener and closer are the true treats because of the multiple facets they reveal in each player’s chops and ideas. Those tracks are Dolores Silvers’ “Learnin’ The Blues” (a Frank Sinatra hit single) and the chestnut “My Blue Heaven.” Allen is best known for his way with a ballad, but he really knows how to tear it up on a frisky blues, or tune a popular song into one as happens on the former. They both stretch the closer, with Asherie working several distinct uptempo styles into his solos and comping. Duos are not everyone’s cup of tea, but these guys make their two instruments sound like a full combo with their creativity. This is Asherie’s fifth CD as a leader.

Frank Macchia, Frank Macchia's Swamp Thang (Cacophony)

L.A.-based saxophonist Frank Macchia has a dandy here. Swamp Thang is his newest band, and its focus is revved up at the intersection of funk, the blues and some irresistible New Orleans Second Line shuffle beat. The cacophony that opens the set on “Discombobulated” makes it clear this will be a wild ride – and the leader’s versatility serves him well throughout the session. The rhythm section aces are keyboard player John Rosenberg, bassist Tom Lockett and drummer Frank Briggs. Eric Jensen and Ken Rosser share electric guitar duties. Jensen is particularly fine on the funky blues title track. The sextet is joined by two guests: trombonist Alex Iles and trumpeter Wayne Bergeron. Chances are you’ll dig the variety of music here, the funky and unbridled fun sides of its makers - and the wild cover art. Yes, jazz can be fun - and should be crazy fun once in a while.

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