Thursday, September 30, 2010

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Amina Figarova, Sketches (BMCD / Munich Records)
Netherlands-based, Azerbaijan-born pianist and composer Amina Figerova had the early crowd in the palms of her hands last month at the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival for good reason. She’s a skilled player and musical conceptualist. This CD, her 12th since her 1994 debut, Attraction, is a gem. She uses her stable, globetrotting sextet, co-led with her husband, flute player Bart Platteau,
to showcase her musical vision.

Many of her multi-faceted pieces carry a compositional and lush arranging depth reminiscent of Maria Schneider. They are just delivered in a more intimate context than the sweep of a full jazz orchestra. (It would be interesting to hear the best of Figarova’s pieces expanded to that context one day. Determining which ones are best would be tough – because they all are very different and very fine.) My personal favorites among the 13 travels-inspired pieces on this outing: the uptempo “Sketches” (showcasing the front line of Platteau, trumpeter Ernie Hammes and tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas), the more pensive “Caribou Crossing,” the groove-centric “WHOTSOT” and “Back in New Orleans,” and ponderous/wistful “Your room.” By the way, WHOTSOT is an acronym for “what happens on tour stays on tour.

The Cookers, Warriors (Jazz Legacy Productions)
This is a must for the many lovers of pure hard bop. This all-star collective includes saxophonists Craig Handy (alto plus flute) and Billy Harper (tenor), trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart. What are the prime ingredients? Intensity, passion and great beauty. Cables, Harper and McBee provided most of the material, which also includes late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core.” (The band is named after named after Hubbard’s live album Night of the Cookers.) My favorites: this team’s version of the Harper classic “Priestess” and McBee’s “U-Phoria.” But it’s all good. Make that very, very fine. I hope they add many more volumes in the next few years.

Birdie Leigh, In A Silky Mood (self-produced)
Silky. Sultry. Husky. Versatile. These are some of the elements that shine through Los Angeles-based Birdie Leigh’s jazz recording debut. She’s very new to my ears, but a most welcome addition given the performances on In a Silky Mood. The session mostly tackle vintage vocal swing and Western swing, with a few Latin and blues tracks to change things up. Leigh sounds like a mystery, but insists she’s not. She performs occasional club dates in and around L.A., as well as a few private parties with her band, Birdie Leigh and her Blue Boys. Mystery? Perhaps. Intrigue, most definitely. Maybe she’ll share story or two when you run into her.

From Patsy Cline to Bobby Gentry (the latter is an interesting remake of “Ode to Billie Jo”), she’s got a terrific way of turning non-jazz standards into jazzy vehicles. My favorites: “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” her playful take on Benny Carter’s “Cow Cow Boogie” (with lyrics by Gene DePaul and Don Ray), “Walkin’ After Midnight,” the blues-drenched “Someday Baby” and the more mainstream “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Her ace band, anchored by producers Kevin Chown (bass) and Avi Sills (drums), also includes Bill Steinway (piano and keys), Jeff Marshall (guitar), Paulie Cerra (saxophones) and Quetzal Guerrero (violin). Check it out.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

2010 is a very Sonny year

The Chinese Lunar Calendar considers 2010 as the Year of the Tiger, but in the jazz calendar this is the Year of the Colossus.

Why? All of the deserved attention focused on tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who turned 80 on September 7 - still a vibrant musical force and restless explorer. (At right, Sonny Rollins at Newport, August 2008. Ken Franckling photo).

Here’s the rundown of significant moments that have taken place.

- On June 27, Rollins received the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s Miles Davis Award for his lifetime contributions to and achievements in jazz.

- On August 15, Rollins received the Edward MacDowell Medal from The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The prestigious award is given annually to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field. The Colony quite fittingly selected jazz writer, critic and Colony Fellow Gary Giddins to keynote the event.

- On September 10, three days after Rollins turned octogenarian, a sold-out 80th birthday concert at New York’s Beacon Theater was filled with much Rollins wonder and a few surprise guests. The biggest surprise - perhaps the only true surprise - was the appearance of Ornette Coleman, with whom Rollins likely never performed in public in their long parallel careers. In his New York Times review the following Monday, Nate Chinen captured the essence of the summit.

- Four nights later Rollins joined photographer John Abbott and writer/critic Bob Blumenthal at the Barnes & Noble store in Tribeca to talk with fans, including more than a few fellow musicians, and sign copies of Abbott and Blumenthal's Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins. The book was published September 1 by Abrams. See for images from the event, and see Jazz Times' October issue for book excerpts.

It's not over.

On October 9 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rollins will be among more than 200 scholars, scientists, writers and artists, as well as civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders, inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

The nation's oldest and most prestigious honorary society is celebrating the 230th anniversary of its founding. In the , other new members from humanities and arts include film director Francis Ford Coppola, actor Denzel Washington, dancer Suzanne Farrell and singer Thomas Hampson.

“It is a tremendous privilege and honor to be made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences," says Rollins. "Not only for me, but for what I represent - the great American music called jazz."

Rollins was nominated by Academy member Apostolos P. Georgopoulos, a Minneapolis-based neuroscientist, amateur saxophonist and longtime Rollins fan. "It's a terrific tribute to a legend," says Georgopoulos, "and a jewel in the Academy's crown."

Since its founding in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other scholar-patriots, the Academy has elected leading "thinkers and doers" from each generation. Prominent inductees in prior centuries included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th. The Academy’s current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

In about two weeks, we can officially add a Saxophone Colossus to the list.

Rollins is being honored for a lifetime of achievement as a musician. But don’t for a nanosecond think he’s finished. He has many more creative notes to play.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Short Takes - CDs of Note

Bands led by trumpeters are in the spotlight…

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (Columbia/Legacy)

Two weeks after releasing its three-disc Legacy Edition of Miles Davis’s genre-smashing Bitches Brew project that pulled jazz together with the commercial rock world, Columbia/Legacy is out with a Collector’s Edition. The boxed set includes CDs containing the original recording plus six bonus tracks, a previously unissued performance by Davis’s evolving septet at Tanglewood in August 1970 and a DVD of a previously unissued quintet performance in Copenhagen, plus much more. The other items are an audiophile vinyl replication of the original album, a 48-page color book with an extended Greg Tate essay, and reproduced memorabilia.

Why so much attention now to Bitches Brew? Remember its times and Davis’s ability to take his jazz into distinctly new styles throughout his career. This time, he went head-to-head with arena rock bands at major venues – and found a rock audience welcoming his new group sound. It spawned a new wave of jazz-cum-progressive rock that soon became known as fusion. It paved the way for Weather Report, the Brecker Brothers, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and many other adventurers. Jazz purists at the time were questioning where Davis was headed. Whether or not they embraced it, now we have a clear sense of its progeny and impact.

Alex Sipiagin, Generations – Dedicated to Woody Shaw (Criss Cross)

If you like modern jazz trumpet played with melodic clarity and fire, Russia-born, New York-based Alex Sipiagin is worth a listen. Several listens in fact. He was an instrumental part of the late Michael Brecker’s sextet and now brings his talents to bassist Dave Holland’s big and small bands, and the Mingus Big Band. This session is a tribute to Woody Shaw, who was a key influence on Sipiagin’s development. The leader puts his own stamp on five tunes written by or associated with Shaw and adds four spirited originals. His partners here, all Michael Brecker alumni, are guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Boris Koslov and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Favorite tracks: there takes on Shaw’s “Cassanadranite” (with terrific soloing by Rogers) and “Katrina Ballerina,” and Sipiagin’s “Greenwood I.”

Jim Rotondi, 1000 Rainbows (Posi-Tone)
Trumpeter Jim Rotondi is a stalwart member of the New York-based jazz collective One For All. He’s also a great leader and writer in his own right, as evidenced on this third release as a leader on Posi-Tone. Vibes player Joe Locke is a strong front-line foil for Rotondi in this swinging setting and contributes the burner “Crescent Street.” Pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Barak Mori and drummer Bill Stewart add strong support. Favorites: Rotondi’s “Bizzaro World,” the band’s teasing take on the Lennon/McCartney classic “We Can Work It Out,” and the Buddy Montgomery title track, “1000 Rainbows.” The latter is a ballad that has long deserved more recognition. This tip of the hat is most welcome - and beautifully done.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Giving credit where it is due - and then some...

When you've made an indelible imprint on an art form - people take notice. Particularly when that effort has helped fuel their own successes.

Such is the case with George Wein, the producer of the first jazz festival as we know it today back in 1954 in Newport RI.

In June 2009, as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival's 30th anniversary, founders Alain Simard and Andre Menard honored Wein (right) as the “father of all jazz festivals” at a news conference before his Newport All-Stars performance at Montreal's Théâtre Jean-Duceppe. They gave him a symbolic Tony Bennett silkscreen of Louis Armstrong that the singer and painter created especially for the festival.

This Thursday, September 16, the Monterey Jazz Festival will honor Wein at its 2010 Jazz Legends Gala at Mission Ranch in Carmel CA. The $225-per-ticket event will be hosted by another pianist, who is far better known as an actor-producer, Clint Eastwood, and his wife Dina. 2010 Festival Artist-in-Residence Dianne Reeves will perform at the gala, which is a benefit for the Monterey Jazz Festival's education programs.

“With George appearing at this year’s MJF, it is a perfect opportunity to honor him with our Jazz Legends Award,” said Tim Jackson, General Manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival. “He is truly ‘The godfather’ of jazz festivals.”

The Jazz Legends Award was first presented to pianist Dave Brubeck in 2007, and to the composer, trumpeter and bandleader, Gerald Wilson, in 2008. MJF’s Education Programs have a strong impact on students and schools from coast to coast.

Wein will at the 2010 Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday and Sunday, September 18 and 19 for a performance and a live interview.

The honors are most fitting at both venues not only for starting a jazz venue that is an art form unto itself.

Wein, who turns 85 on October 3, came back from semi-retirement last year to rescue the Newport Jazz Festival. Young entrepreneurs who bought the festival from him a few years earlier ran it into the ground financially under the Festival Network aegis. Wen and his own crew are still hard at it under the banner, New Festival Productions.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

A fine time at Tanglewood today posted my review and imagery from last weekend's Tanglewood Jazz Festival in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. It is a great late-summer hang and a wonderful spot to hear great music. This year - it blended jazz and classical to great effect.

The blustery remnants of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Earl which rumbled up the East Coast last week didn't keep the audience away. But it did provide for a quite chilly Sunday finale, with temperatures in the low 50s. The lawn chair and blanket crowd out on the lawn braved it for good reason. The music.

It was also a chance to hear Connecticut pianist Noah Baerman for the first time. Baerman (at right) was a clear highlight at the tented Jazz Cafe just up the hillside from Seiji Ozawa Hall. He is a composer, player and bandleader to keep an eye on. I'll follow up in a later blog with more on Noah.

Stay tuned.