Friday, 31 August 2007

Armen Donelian with Thomas Chapin...

Something for the weekend - a double dose of Thomas Chapin reviews!!

I'm working on a review of the new Dave Binney album, Oceanos, at the moment, and whilst he's not TC, he's definitely blossoming into a very fine player. Let's hope he can keep the passion burning and build a legacy like Chapin's.

Sorry the image below is a little small, but this is even more of an obscurity than the Esmond Selwyn cover I posted a while back. Very unfair...

Quartet Language

Jabberwocky; The Germ; Mexico; Loose As A Goose; Brood Mood.

Thomas Chapin (as); Armen Donelian (p); Calvin Hill (b); Jeff Williams (d).
Recorded May 1992.

Is this the disc to make Donelian more than just a footnote in jazz history? Probably not, because although he is bandleader and composer of all five selections on ‘Quartet Language’, the focal point of the disc is undoubtedly alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin. For the record, Donelian emerged in the mid-1970s and gigged in New York with some pretty high-profile jazz stars - from Roy Ayers to Sonnies Stitt and Rollins. His playing is solid if unspectacular, a two handed player who manages to cover the entire width of the keyboard in each chorus. Only a few discs as leader on New York label Sunnyside seem to have survived, but this project, by virtue of the presence of Chapin, should at last bring him wider attention.

Recorded when Chapin was at his peak (just after Third Force and Anima, possibly the last great statements of the declining Downtown scene), Chapin’s Dolphy-esque alto bristles with the electricity missing on later more self-consciously mainstream outings. Whilst none of Donelian’s pieces are future standards, they all serve well as launchpads. ‘Jabberwocky’ is a Monk-ian theme in waltz time, ‘The Germ’ a more abstract piece incorporating Chapin in a series of duos and up-tempo quartet burnouts. ‘Mexico’ shouldn’t need any further elucidation and is the one low-spot of the disc, ‘Loose As A Goose’ is as playful and off-the-wall as its title suggests, whilst ‘Brood Mood’ is a suitably reflective piece and Chapin is simply breathtaking.

The trio are solid enough to cope with this passionate and often complex music, but when Chapin is not playing the temperature drops noticeably. Rather like Dolphy’s ‘Last Date’, all of the excitement comes from the saxophonist’s corner. That leukaemia strikes down a man aged 40 is always going to be tragic - when the man is as gifted as Thomas Chapin the tragedy assumes greater significance. Quartet Language leapfrogs its way up the list of essential recorded documents of this justly celebrated saxophonist and should never have gone almost twelve years unreleased - top marks to small independent label Playscape for giving it a home.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2004)

Thomas Chapin...

The only way to follow the sad news of Richard Cook's passing is with something positive, some music that inspires. I know that he enjoyed this CD because it made it into the Editor's 'Pick of the Month'.

Who could dislike Chapin's music? Even his more mainstream recordings, made right at the end of his career, knock spots off most other efforts within that often predictable genre. The fact that Chapin also died far too soon is another poignant parallel that makes the timing of this posting even more apt...

Playscape Recordings (PSR 071595)

Anima; Pet Scorpion; Night Bird Song; Aeolus; Bad Birdie; Changes Two Tires; Ticket To Ride.

Thomas Chapin (as/sno/f); Mario Pavone (b); Michael Sarin (d).
Recorded at North Sea Jazz Festival 1995.

One of my biggest regrets is still that I missed Thomas Chapin’s Trio at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in the early 1990s. I already knew the records Third Force and Anima and had played them to both death. For some reason I didn't go. That was the last chance I had to see the irrepressible force that was Thomas Chapin, leukaemia claiming the saxophonist’s life shortly afterwards at age 40.

This recording, as if to rub salt in my long-festering wounds, comes from the trio’s zenith and captures them live and at their brilliant best. The same trio also recorded for the Knitting Factory’s label augmented by strings and brass, and Chapin cut a couple of exemplary mainstream discs for Arabesque, but the freewheeling trio music that we have here remains my favourite Chapin. His post-McLean alto scythes through the music, the duo of Pavone and Sarin completing a most elastic unit, capable of going in any direction at the drop of a hat whilst always remaining on the same page.

The set opens with a 17-minute romp through ‘Anima’, Chapin’s plaintive alto cast alone before Pavone and Sarin enter with the kind of metal-meets-hip-hip riff based groove that spells ‘we mean business’. No room for excessive testosterone however, the theme quickly dissolves and Chapin builds a thrilling solo over an almost African-sounding Pavone bass ostinato, before Sarin explodes and raises the temperature. It was never this loose in the studio, and that’s exactly why we need this performance, even if the sound quality is a little bit ‘straight from the mixing desk’.

‘Pet Scorpion’ is as lithe and dangerous as its title suggests, stopping and starting abruptly, moving with purposeful agility, and essentially recognisable throughout as post-bop. The most beautiful moments, and above all Chapin was a player of great beauty, come when he switches to flute. ‘Night Bird Song’ and ‘Aeolus’ are sandwiched in the middle of the set and appear almost as an oasis of calm.

Mario Pavone describes Chapin’s writing style as ‘big band music for trio’, and the range of sounds and colours, not to mention the complexity of his scores, are testament to this. ‘Night Bird Song’ is perhaps the highlight of the set, and in less than thirteen minutes I’m reminded how much I still miss Chapin. “Bad Birds’ and ‘Changes Two Tyres’ whizz by and transfix, before the set ends with some fun, a run through The Beatles’ ‘Ticket To Ride’. The trio find punk/thrash potential that not even the Fab Four could have imagined, but Chapin was always very much a man with his own ideas. Essential listening.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2006)

Monday, 27 August 2007

Richard Cook 1957-2007...

Today came the sad news a lot of people in the know had been expecting - Richard Cook's long battle against cancer finally came to an end at the weekend. Despite making a recovery, an unexpected relapse saw him returning to hospital and, sadly, he never got to leave.

I knew his writing long before I ever joined his reviews team at the magazine. He co-authored the jazz-bible The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, influencing many a purchase in the days before I gave up on expanding my library. Other notable books include a popular and acclaimed history of Blue Note records and more recently a volume about Miles Davis.

I never got to know Richard beyond the briefest exchanges of emails. I had the utmost respect though for his strong editorial line and his refusal to compromise in the production of a quality publication. That I've lasted for 5 years at his magazine tells me I must have been doing something right. Despite it being very much a team effort, it's hard to imagine the magazine without his passion and energy.

A small tribute to Richard, which reprints many of his articles from a long career that included work with the NME, Mojo and The Wire, can be found here.

There's really not much more I can say, but follow the link to find out what made him one of the best music writers bar none - as well as articles on Nina Simone and Charlie Parker you'll find him covering Scott Walker, The Police and even Frank Sinatra. His writing is ultimately the best tribute possible...

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Chris Cheek & Brad Mehldau...

This one was also supposed to be in the July 2006 edition of the magazine but didn't make it. The only time a review has been rejected, or was it perhaps 'lost', or left out to make way for stuff in a busy month?

It's not the worst review I've ever written, and I can only surmise that it was either the scathing remarks about Paul Motian's Electric Be-Bop band or the use of the word 'orchidaceous' that did it...

Blues Cruise

Flamingo; Low Key Lightly; Coo; Squirrelling; Song Of India; Falling; Blues Cruise; John Denver; The Sweetheart Tree.

Chris Cheek (ts/as/ss); Brad Mehldau (p/elp); Larry Grenadier (b); Jorge Rossy (d). (March 2005).

The New Talent imprint of Jordi Pujol’s Fresh Sounds label has brought some notable talent to our attention in recent years, not least pianists Robert Glasper and Brad Mehldau. Blues Cruise is saxophonist Chris Cheek’s fourth recording as leader, and the second to feature the backing of the original Brad Mehldau Trio. When does ‘new talent’ crossover to become established talent, I wonder?

In Cheek’s case, if not Mehldau’s, some profile raising is overdue, and listeners only previously aware of Cheek mired in Paul Motian’s Electric Be Bop Band should be in for a nice surprise here. Blues Cruise is a straight ahead disc resembling the most open recordings of mid to late period Stan Getz or Art Pepper. Blues Cruise is no ordinary record, and to my mind conjures an imaginary soundtrack to a glitzy night party packed with ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood screen stars on the terrace of an exclusive Californian terraced restaurant. Subtly working elements of modernity into fundamentally classic song forms, and all played at or only slightly above ballad pace, the disc shocks with uncommon simplicity.

Cheek’s careful note placement and thoughtful, confident phrasing make Mehldau a true simpatico, and the pianist’s superb trio are vital to this recording’s great success. His use of Fender Rhodes on several tracks brings appropriately orchidaceous textures to a sprinkling of pieces, but in the main it is his widely renowned mastery ot the acoustic instrument that he favours. Opening with a latin-lilted reading of “Flamingo”, Blues Cruise enters a richly exotic zone and stays there. Carefully selected chestnuts share space with originals by the leader, of which the hypnotic “Falling” is the nearest to a standout track.

Mehldau’s luscious Rhodes on the title track is every bit as satisfying, whilst the anthemic “John Denver” is the one most likely to get into your head to be hummed or whistled. An unexpected homage to the optimistic spirit of the Country Music songsmith, the piece in no way sounds out of place alongside material by Ellington, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mancini. In lesser hands the classic material could be a problem, but Cheek reminds us of a time in jazz when the singer was more important than the song and he has delivered an impressive statement relying on nothing more than good old fashioned artistry. Strongly recommended.

Fred Grand

Joey DeFrancesco & Bobby Hutcherson...

A more successful organ-led session than Kofi's, and Bobby Hutcherson really was in great form here. Not much more to say, really...

Organic Vibes
Concord Jazz (CCD-2306-2)

The Tackle; Little B’s Poem; I Thought About You; Somewhere In The Night; Down The Hatch; Speak Low; JeNeane’s Dream; My Foolish Heart; Colleen.

Joey DeFrancesco (org); Bobby Hutcherson (vib); Ron Blake (ts/ss/f); Jake Langley (g); Byron Landham (d); George Coleman (ts - tracks 4,6), (Recorded August 2005).

A new recording by Joey DeFrancesco, the thinking man’s Hammond B3 choice and officially anointed heir to the late Jimmy Smith’s crown, is always worth a listen, even if he does resort to the much abused ‘organic’ title-pun. As the ‘vibes’ in the pun belong to Bobby Hutcherson, DeFrancesco can be forgiven this small lapse in taste, for it is the only one he makes on this instant classic.

Hutcherson will probably be better known to most listeners for his forward looking post-bop. He does however have a bit of a history of popping up in organ combos. Big John Patton’s Let ‘Em Roll (Blue Note) is perhaps the most famous example, though the music here is less disposed to boogaloo and closer to more mainstream sessions such as Grant Green’s Street Of Dreams (Blue Note).

Organic Vibes also boasts two cameos by the great George Coleman, and on the remainder of the cuts the ever dependable Ron Blake blows with conviction. His use of soprano saxophone and flute gives a more expansive feel over other DeFrancesco recordings I’ve heard, and with tasty guitar from newcomer Jake Langley and solid support from long-term drum fixture Byron Landham, this group wants for nothing.

Principally, however, the focus is on DeFrancesco and Hutcherson. The vibesman probably hasn’t sounded as good on record in the last decade, and DeFrancesco must take some credit for this. Both men are gifted with musical radar that can detect the slightest harmonic shift, both readily turn great phrases out of seemingly nothing, and both have can take your breath away at any tempo. Witness Hutcherson’s artful solo on “I Thought About You” and you’ll know what I mean. DeFrancesco follows up with a statement of equal weight, typical of the way in which the pair repeatedly bring out the best in one another.

There are quite simply no weak tracks on this album, but of course the Hutcherson classic “Little B’s Poem” is bound to stand a little prouder. This version is taken slightly faster than is normal, and the sound of Blake’s flute leading the gorgeous melodic line is the stuff of musical magic. Special mention also to the Monk-ish “Down The Hatch” which is great knockabout, Coleman’s gritty and graceful reading of “Speak Low” which is as moving as it is memorable, and the tricky opener, with Blake’s smouldering tenor solo serving as a fitting curtain raiser to an hour of passionate, sincere and totally committed music making. Strongly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2006)

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Tony Kofi...

This is another one that promised more than it delivered. Great to take in small bite-sized chunks of, perhaps, a couple of tracks at a time. Taken as a whole though it proved hard work.

CDs potentially offer 80 minutes of playing times, which to my mind has always been a bit of a curse. Too often artists often decide to fill 'em up until there's no more space - never mind the depth, feel the width. I've always believed in the simple truth that less is more, and the classic soul jazz LPs (download here!) rarely breached the 35 minute mark. That tends to work in their favour, because as soon as the music finishes you tend to want to play it again.

Whilst this isn't a bad contemporary take on a classic format, it lacks the appeal of the material that inspires it, and even worse it fails to engage in the same way as the US jam bands such as Stanton Moore's, Medeski Martin & Wood, or Soulive. That said, I stick by my conclusion - catching this group live would be a different proposition...

Future Passed
Specific Jazz (SPEC 004)

The Journey; Suibokuga; Zambia; A Song For Pappa Jack; As We Speak; Blue Pavel; The Eternal Thinker; Jubilation (For Bod); Brotherhood; April The 13th; This Dream Of Mine (For MJ); We Out.

Tony Kofi (as/ss/bs); Anders Olinder (org); Robert Fordjour (d); Byron Wallen (t) (1/3/4); Cameron Pierre (g) (5/8/9/10); Donald Gamble (perc) (3/8).
Recorded January 2005.

Young jazz musicians are increasingly turning to the enduring format of the organ combo as if it were an essential part of their musical development. Both Don Braden (The New Hang) and Joshua Redman (yaya3) have raised the bar in this fertile but somewhat overcrowded field, and talented young British multi reedsman Tony Kofi is the latest to throw his hat into the ring.

Future Passed, the follow up to Kofi’s award winning Monk project, has roots in a gig he played with jazz-hip-hoppers US3 at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in 1994. Appearing on the same bill was Lou Donaldson’s group with Dr. Lonnie Smith, and the impression they made was lasting. The core group is a trio, Swedish ex pat Anders Olinder handling the Hammond and bringing a very raw sound to the ensemble, and drummer Robert Fordjour stoking the fires from the backline.

Long-time collaborator Byron Wallen guests on three pieces, whilst guitarist Cameron Pierre and percussionist Donald Gamble beef up the ensemble on several more. From the opening bars of “The Journey”, a fast boppish piece, Wallen and Kofi impress as a neat tag team, and I wish that they’d appeared together on every track. The smooth simmer of “Suibokuga” lowers the temperature a fraction and showcases Kofi’s bottom-heavy soprano, whilst “Zambia” brings in both Wallen and Gamble and approximates the intensity of Larry Young’s later Blue Notes.

Guitarist Pierre picks cleanly on “As We Speak”, but “Blue Pavel” is the first of several flat spots which dissipate the disc’s overall punch and make it rather too long to be compelling. Kofi generally sounds most convincing on baritone, used on both “The Eternal Thinker” and the very Monk-ish “April the 13th” which are amongst the handful of tracks demanding repeated listening.

I sense that the musicians are dabbling in an area of music that is not their primary focus of interest, and the music often sounds forced where Redman or Braden’s would be relaxed. On the strength of Future Passed I certainly won’t be throwing away my Lonnie Smiths, Charles Earlands or Larry Youngs. That said, I’d love to catch them live in a small club setting.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2006)

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Shake Keane...

This is a truly dreadful re-issue of music from the '60s made by a musician who, artistically at least, should have known better. Yet with jazz declining in popularity at the time, part of me doesn't blame Keane for trying to cash in.

The British free music scene of the era brought us lots of memorable music, particularly after South African exiles such as Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo arrived. Keane was part of that scene, playing a significant role in West Indian emigre Joe Harriott's pioneering music.

This recording, however, is so 'lite' it would make even collectors of kitsch scratch their collective heads in dismay. I post the review now only because it reminds me of my feelings for the Klaus König CD below - feelings of disappointment that I always have when I know that far more is possible...

That’s The Noise

As Tears Go By; You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’; It’s Not Unusual; New Sunday; Walk On By; Mr Tambourine Man; Colours: Girl; Downtown; Morning Blue; My Guy; Fidel.

Shake Keane (t/flhn); Bob Efford (ts/ob); Olaf Vas (f); Pat Smythe (p); Coleridge Goode (b); Bobby Orr (d); Stan Tracey (p) on 4,6,12.
Recorded 1967

Like it or not, the current resurgence of interest in British jazz of the 1960s owes a lot to Acid Jazz supremo and broadcaster Gilles Peterson. The two volumes of his Impressed series were packed with exciting cuts from the era. Tubby Hayes, Michael Garrick, Neil Ardley and Mike Westbrook suddenly seem to have acquired a hipness to rival George Best or Twiggy in some unlikely places. Like many, I was grateful for Redial’s Joe Harriott reissues in the late ‘90s, and Shake Keane impressed me then with his bell-like tone and willingness to tackle adventurous musical challenges.

That’s The Noise sadly fails to make such a favourable impression. Essentially an attempt to woo Carnaby Street with jazz interpretations of a dozen popular hits from the time, there is little of any great substance to light the flames. I don’t make such a comment lightly, as many will have gathered that I’m hugely sympathetic to quality “soul jazz”, a form which often grooves on musical vehicles drawn from precisely this type of repertoire.

What we get on That’s The Noise are some nifty arrangements and bold instrumental voicings, but they come at quite a cost. The deployment of Efford’s startling oboe on “New Sunday” and Vas’ flute on the great “Walk On By”, for example, indicate some thought behind the project, but with most tracks lasting less than three minutes and much of the material scarcely worth covering, the results all too frequently sound trite. A calypso setting for “Mr Tambourine Man”, a piece that I find irritating at the best of times, almost induced nausea, whilst “Downtown” and “My Guy” were simply execrable. Keane’s haunting flugelhorn feature on Lennon & McCartney’s “Girl” is more like it, though hardly enough to justify the cost of admission.

The good news is that Vocalion haven’t stopped here, and Keane and Harriott feature on other releases as members of Michael Garrick led ensembles. Unless you’re an avid collector or one of those disgruntled folks looking for something else to blame NuJazz architect Gilles Peterson for, That’s The Noise can safely be ignored.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2006)

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Klaus König...

Time to end the recent Lee Konitz theme, and this review of a CD by his alphabetical neighbour Klaus König seems as neat a way as any to change direction.

The review expresses my genuine disappointment at the direction König's music was taking. His first three recordings for Enja were as fresh as anything in Europe at the time, showing great originality and ambition in the difficult area of composing and arranging for medium sized contemporary jazz ensemble. His humour, busy but detailed charts and choice of soloists was, for a time, second to none.

What followed was a massive let down for me, and to my knowledge König has pretty much dropped off the radar. I got rid of most of my König CDs in hasty disgust, but still think that everybody should own a copy of 'Times of Devastation'...

Black Moments
ENJA (ENJ-9428-2)

Dream-Land; Interlude !; Alone; Interlude II; Romance; Interlude III; Not Long Ago; Interlude IV; The Sleeper; Interlude V; Hatred Of A Minute; Interlude VI; Hymn; Interlude VII; A Dream Within A Dream; Interlude VIII; For Annie.

Andy Haderer (t, flhn); Reiner Winterschladen (t); Jorg Hüke, Klaus König (tb); Florian Heinl (tba); Claudius Valk (ss, ts, bs); Roger Henschel (as, sno, fl); Wollie Kaiser (ts, bcl); Claudio Puntin (cl, bcl, as); Michael Heupel (af, f, bf); Fabiene Trani (hp); Dirk Mondelien, Markus Segschneider (g); Stefan Rademacher (b); Martell Beigang (d); Mathias Haus, Thomas Meixner (perc); Phil Minton (v).
Recorded December 2001 to February 2002.

After such a promising start on his Enja debut ‘Times of Devastation/Poco A Poco’ (1988), the career of German trombonist/composer/arranger Klaus König seems to have taken a bit of a nose-dive. A former student of composer Mauricio Kagel, König’s early jazz work contained a delightfully askew mix of big band and small group writing.

What then followed was a series of conceptually over-blown projects, including music for Douglas Adams, Frank Zappa, and an ambitious oratorio for two soloists, choir, and orchestra. Vocalist Phil Minton, who sang (yes, Minton actually sang!) one of the parts in the oratorio, has the stage to himself here. Inspired by the dark verse of Edgar Allen Poe, selected poems are enunciated in a highly theatrical style. Interleaving each poem are a series of instrumental interludes, which I suspect will be of most interest to those approaching the work from a non-literary perspective.

König’s embrace of guitar-driven rock continues, the twin axe attack coupled with Minton’s arch delivery at times pulling the music perilously close to ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ territory, though I’m sure that König would insist that Zappa is his main man. It’s always a pleasure to hear Reiner Winterschladen’s playful trumpet, and Claudio Puntin’s showcase on ‘Interlude III’ is a breathtaking display of clarinet virtuosity. ‘Interlude IV’ is vintage König, full of unexpected twists and turns, and a suitable vehicle for Hüke’s full-throttle trombone. Overall, however, it is impossible to separate these strands from the fabric as a whole.

König’s talents as an arranger and composer are not in doubt. Everything, right down to the book-bound packaging, speaks of a project undertaken with loving devotion. Personally, however, I find his concept driven approach to music frustrating, and can’t make a wholehearted recommendation. For this reason ‘Black Moments’ may be of limited interest, though if the concept grabs you, you may just love it.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, February 2003)

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Lester Young...

As I've been on a bit of a Lee Konitz theme for the last 2 weeks, I'll string it out a bit longer with this collection of classic tracks from the 1940s by the father of 'cool', Lester Young.

A massive influence on the 'West Coast' sound of the '50s, his wistful style of melodic improvisation can be heard not just in Konitz's playing but in that of the likes of Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. It was also a subconscious part of my introduction to jazz as kid, exposed to my dad's LP collection which had dozens of Young's recordings.

Probably the end of this particular thread, but if I can find another review to stretch it out a bit further, I will...

Lester Leaps Again - Original 1942-44 Recordings
NAXOS Jazz Legends (8.12074)

Tea For Two; I Can’t Get Started; Body & Soul; Indiana; Just You, Just Me; I Never Knew; Afternoon Of A Basie-ite; Sometimes I’m Happy; After Theatre Jump; Six Cats and A Prince; Lester Leaps Again; Destination K.C.; Indiana; Blue Lester.

Collective personnel: Lester Young (ts); Buck Clayton (t); Dickie Wells (tb); Nat King Cole (p); Johnny Guarnieri (p); Count Basie (p); Freddie Green (g); Red Callender (b); Slam Stewart (b); Rodney Richardson (b); Sid Catlett (d); Jo Jones (d); Shadow Wilson (d).
Recorded July 1942 to May 1994.

If Lester Young needs anything by way of an introduction here then I’m clearly writing for the wrong magazine. I’ll skip the usual preamble and simply launch straight into the music, for although this compilation is all prime ‘Pres’, the selections may not be familiar to everyone.

The first four tracks were recorded in July 1942 and feature a young Nat ‘King’ Cole, along with bassist Red Callender. Interestingly they were released in 12” format so offer longer playing time than was customary in the era. The confidence and the sheer flow of ideas from Young stands is in marked contrast to his troubled post-war years. He is in total command of both his horn and the music he is interpreting. Cole reminds us what a loss he was to jazz , though fans of classic pop may not agree with that sentiment, and Callender’s bass solidly anchors what is unusually a drummer-less session.

The next four pieces are different again. Slam Stewart’s bowed bass is as characteristic of the era as pianist Guarnieri’s Basie licks, and drummer Catlett boots things along in his own inimitable way. “Just You, Just Me” is particularly fine, taken at mid-tempo and with 'Pres' at his most wistful. The remainder of the disc sees The Count himself in the piano chair, along with many of his illustrious employees. For contractual reasons Basie appeared as “Prince Charming”, but listeners can have had no doubt as to the mystery pianist’s identity. “Lester Leaps Again” resembles “One O’Clock Jump” in may respects, and here the other horns lay out to allow Young space to interact at length with Basie.

Closing the disc are four pieces recorded for Savoy in May 1944, drummer Shadow Wilson coming in for Jo Jones with Young the lone horn. Magisterial on “Ghost of a Chance”, and ebullient on “Blue Lester”, picking out highlights on such a well chosen and lovingly restored compilation as this quickly becomes a pointless task.

Young was drafted into military service in the October of 1944. Well documented as a crushing experience, the cut-off date of this collection in all probability marks the start of his downward spiral. These recordings are utterly essential, and, given the Naxos ethos, have rarely been available so cheaply.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2005)

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Even Lance Armstrong is bailing out of cycling...

Professional cyclists must be quaking in their carbon-soled shoes at the moment. Although it has been known for some time that Discovery Channel will not be renewing sponsorship of the successful American outfit that was home to Lance Armstrong, the failure of the team he now jointly owns to secure the backing of a replacement speaks volumes. News broke over the weekend that Armstrong’s Tailwind Sports Group has abandoned its efforts, and spokesman Bob Stapleton cited doping as the biggest single obstacle to bringing in a new sponsor. More than anything we’ve seen so far, this underlines the arrival of the grim reality that so many predicted would be the sport’s undoing.

This is the same outfit that has won 8 of the last 9 editions of the Tour De France, including the most recent edition with Alberto Contador in July. The interconnectedness of the team and the Armstrong brand made it look like the safest bet in the world that sponsors would be clamouring to take over the reins when Discovery ended their deal. Instead the team has looked increasingly beleaguered and isolated, fighting renewed allegations of foul play from within the sport.

Hardly a day has passed since the race finished in Paris where Alberto Contador hasn’t had to defend himself against suspicions of doping. Contador was of course on the initial list of riders said to be clients of haematologist Fuentes at the heart of Operacion Puerto, and his association with Manolo Saiz’s Liberty Seguros team, before joining Discovery, almost invites accusations of guilt by association.

There has been a particularly strong movement in Germany to ‘out’ Contador as a doper. He has been prevented from starting next week’s Pro Tour one-day race in Hamburg on the basis of the link to Puerto. He is also under investigation by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) after German biologist Werner Franke presented them with a dossier on his activities. It all seems to be heading the way of Floyd Landis’ ‘victory’ in 2006, and I doubt whether anybody would be surprised if sooner or later Contador is stripped of his Tour de France title.

The post-Tour news of Iban Mayo’s positive for EPO almost went unnoticed, and the public are so jaded that Andrej Kashechkin’s out of competition positive for blood doping barely registered either. He now joins former boss Alexander Vinokourov in the sin bin, and the writing seems to be very much on the wall for Astana. Manager Marc Biver expressed his regret at his own naivety, not knowing what the riders under his watch were getting up to behind his back. Given that Biver also defended notorious Italian blood specialist Michel Ferrari in the same interview, there would seem to be no end to his naivety.

So, it is against this chaotic post-Tour background that Discovery now bail out and leave cycling with its as yet unresolved problems. Astana may well be the next to fold, which must leave feeling very sick indeed. They paid their money over to the UCI only to find that a dispute with race organiser ASO prevented them from starting many Pro Tour races. If teams start folding at the current rate, they may be asked along to future races just to make up the numbers.

It could be argued that the tide was turning against Discovery in any event, the team already being excluded from the International Pro Tour team’s association following their signing of Ivan Basso. I’m sure they never had any intention of joining the French and German teams in the Movement for Credible Cycling, a striking contrast to the more enlightened approach of that other Pro-Tour giant T Mobile. Recognising that the team are leading efforts in the fight to clean up the sport, the German telecommunications giant rewarded them by honouring sponsorship commitments through to 2010.

A new realisation that money will only come into the sport in return for guarantees that sponsor’s brands will not be damaged looks set to become the biggest factor in driving change – Discovery paid the price for not being able to offer that. Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of the sport.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Loren Stillman...

This seems like a good time to post the review of Loren Stillman's most recent CD. He's definitely a bit of a Konitz-man, so I get to keep my theme going for a bit longer.

Time also to plug a new blog from Canada, Lift The Bandstand, launched this week. It aims to look at music from the musician's perspective and get into areas of musical philosophy, as well as posting reviews and the occasional rant. Still in its infancy, but a promising start so far...

Trio Alto Volume One
Steeplechase (SCCD 31604)

Long Ago And Far Away; Turn Out The Stars; Red Cross; The State Of The World; All The Things You Are; Time Remembered; What Is This Thing Called Love; Body & Soul; The Touch Of Your Lips.

Loren Stillman (as); Steve LaSpina (b); Jeff Hirshfield (d).
Recorded April 2005.

London born saxophonist Loren Stillman, still in only his 27th year, has been bubbling under for almost a decade now. Raised across the Atlantic, Stillman has already won prizes galore, made a string of acclaimed recordings for Soul Note, Fresh Sounds and Nagel Heyer, and studied with notables including Lee Konitz, Dave Liebman and Ted Nash. Something of all of these players comes through on this album, though it is the wispy, pure tone and wily intellect that betray Konitz as the obvious mentor.

In taking such a direct line back to the melodic tradition of jazz improvisation on the one hand, Stillman intriguingly breaches form and structure on the other, making Anthony Ortega another point of reference. For Volume One of what I hope will be a series as large as Brad Mehldau’s, the flexible team of Steve LaSpina and Jeff Hirshfield are the saxophonist’s band-mates, never once missing the presence of a harmony instrument. As for the material, the inclusion of two Bill Evans compositions leaves no doubt that Stillman is a man in love with melody.

A smattering of ‘warhorse’ standards is not as dry a proposition as you might expect, and the way in which the saxophonist toys with each tune shows a very mature player indeed. Stillman’s approach to ‘Body & Soul’ is a useful litmus test by which to measure his credentials - more abstract yet essentially just as melodic as Hawkins’ 1939 monument, he follows the piece’s contours, and despite taking generous liberties he never leaves any doubt as to the material at hand.

Such an approach is of course second nature to Stillman’s generation, and this is very much jazz of today. Yet unlike Dave Binney or Rudresh Mahanthappa, to name two near contemporaries, Stillman very much upholds the traditional sounds of the mainstream. This music is as exciting as it is cerebral - try comparing ‘Red Cross’ to one of the Evans ballads - and the ‘live’ in the studio vocal encouragements preserved in this warmly detailed mix speak of the trio’s pleasure in their work. If you think that nobody needs another version of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, prepare to eat your words when you hear the emphatic version delivered here.

Overall it is probably the elliptical ballads that predominate, and in closing with ‘The Touch Of Your Lips’, Stillman opts for a far from conventional way of signing off. Volume Two is now anticipated with some relish…

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2007)

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Michael Kanan & Nat Su...

Well, Wayne Shorter was in great form on Sunday evening, proving that he's lost none of his edge over the years.

The gig opened with a long 50 minute-plus piece full of false starts and implied directions, very free and often atonal. The group were feeling their way into the music very publicly, and it was fascinating to watch/hear. A sizable portion of the audience lost patience and walked out - always a good sign.

That was their mistake, as the group then went on to play more focussed (but still very free) material, and even obliged with an encore. 'Mr Weird' may not have engaged in any banter with the audience, but this was one of the best gigs I've seen since the last time I saw the same group in Edinburgh around 5 years ago.

Before hearing them in person, I'd never have said that these four people would ever create anything special together, but somehow they just 'click'. A London gig by the quartet, recorded last November, is broadcast on BBC Radio Three (for those with access) this Friday evening. Worth stopping in for, staying up late, or even visiting the UK just to hear it!

Continuing the Konitz theme, here's a review of a CD very much influenced by the man. Not a great review - if the amount of gratuitous biog I pad it out with is anything to go by it could well be one of my worst...

Dreams & Reflections

Dreams; Introspection; I’ll Be Seeing You; Nobody Else But Me; Reflections; This Is New; Time On My Hands; Moonbow.

Nat Su (as); Michael Kanan (p)
No recording date provided.

Not so long ago I reviewed an interesting disc by the duo of Lee Konitz and Alan Broadbent. I speculated then about why Konitz suffers from a lack of wider acclaim or influence amongst his peers. Warne Marsh often gets name checked by younger musicians, but on this new Fresh Sounds release it is very definitely one of those occasions where Konitz and Lennie Tristano receive homage.

Michael Kanan, originally from Boston, moved to New York City in 1991, where he studied with Tristano student Sal Mosca. Between 1995 and 2001 he toured with vocalist Jimmy Scott, and other career high spots have included steady work with Jane Monheit, an appearance on Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Intuit (Criss Cross) and two other Fresh Sounds releases (Convergence and The Gentleman Is A Dope) with bassist Ben Street and drummer Tim Pleasant.

This duet with Swiss saxophonist Nat Su, a long-term collaborator, is the second recording by the pairing. Originally brought together by a mutual friend aware of their respective fondnesses for Tristano and Konitz, there’s no escaping those vital musical touchstones here.

‘Dreams’, a Tristano composition, has all of the mathematical precision and emotional ambiguity you’d expect from the style. Freedom lies within tight parameters and improvisations often resemble through-compositions, the two instruments logically enmeshed in concert.

‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ is given an unhurried and wistful reading that reminds me how much of an influence Lester Young was to many of Konitz’s generation. Elsewhere there are a couple of Monk pieces, a smattering of standards and a sprightly Kanan-composed coda.

Certainly a departure from the predominantly post-bop sound associated with this label, but anybody partial to coolness with a capital ‘C’ will be pleased to make the acquaintance of this pair. Those finding the style a touch too dry will find little in Dreams & Reflections to stir the passions. Quality is assured, so make your choice on this basis.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2005)

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Lee Konitz...

Following on from the Wayne Shorter post below, I thought I'd set off on a little Lee Konitz theme and see how far it goes.

I'm a great admirer of Konitz, but not exactly a fan of his music. I rarely listen to it despite, I think, fully realising its importance. This review goes some way to summing up my equivocation about Konitz.

Perhaps that's something I can debate with Andy in the car on the way to the Shorter gig tonight, although I won't push it too hard in case I have to walk home. An extract from his book is printed at my fellow Jazz Review contributor Bill Shoemaker's worthy Point of Departure website. As ever, Konitz has lots of interesting things to say...

More Live-Lee

Invitation; Body & Soul; Thingin’; You Stepped Out Of A Dream; Nothin’; I Can’t Get Started; Lennie’s; How Deep Is The Ocean?; You Go To My Head; Bending Broadly; Just Friends.

Lee Konitz (as); Alan Broadbent (p).
Recorded October 2000

The suitable-lee punning title of this disc contains a hint that it’s a follow up to the earlier ‘Live-Lee’, also released by Milestone. Recorded in October 2000 at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles by top engineer Phil Edwards, there’s no suggestion that the performances here are leftovers that failed to make the cut first time around.

Konitz’s partner in this small and intimate venue is pianist Alan Broadbent, in many ways the ideal accompanist for the saxophonist, and he safeguards each piece’s internal architecture by anchoring the leader’s oblique melodic twists and tendency to float. ‘Body & Soul’, for example, would be scarcely recognisable were it not for the harmonic traces Broadbent leaves behind. That he also studied with Lennie Tristano in the late 1960s makes this musical marriage even more felicitous.

Bill Kirchner’s perceptive sleeve notes compare the saxophonist’s approach to that of a jazz singer, rolling from note-to-note and taking liberties with melody, whilst always keeping the core material just within view. Despite the familiarity of much of the material, the sensation of hearing something freshly created in the moment is present throughout the disc’s near 70 minute duration.

‘Thingin’’ is of course based on ‘All The Things You Are’, whilst ‘Lennie’s’ is a minor key variation of ‘Lennie’s Pennies’. ‘Nothin’’ is a freely improvised saxophone solo, but as with most of Konitz’s forays into this terrain, the end product is logical and carefully calculated. Broadbent gets his own solo spot with ‘You Go To My Head’, reminding us that as well as Tristano, Bud Powell and Bill Evans are also important influences.

Ultimately it’s Konitz’s gig however. Just why one of jazz’s last remaining elder statesman, present on key recordings by Miles Davis, Stan Kenton and Lennie Tristano, should consistently fall short of superstardom is not easy to explain. This disc, which undoubtedly shows him close to his best, perhaps contains the answer. Konitz has a singular approach that makes no crowd-pleasing concessions and generates few obvious fireworks.

His approach may be just too languorous and detail-rich for listeners not prepared to surrender total concentration. Not party jazz, or in any way a feelgood disc, it nevertheless has the kind of timeless artistry that is a rare commodity, and as such deserves to be heard by a wide audience.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2004)

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Wayne Shorter...

What better way to start August, for me at least, than with the prospect of going to see this group play live this coming Sunday?

The first time I saw them play was about 5 years ago, and the dense complexity of their music left me in no doubt that this is one of the great working groups in jazz today, and Shorter one of the music's greatest survivors.

Andy Hamilton, whose new book on Lee Konitz is due out in the middle of the month, will be doing the driving, so this is an ideal opportunity to give his latest work a bit of a plug too. All I have to do is sit back and enjoy...

Beyond The Sound Barrier
VERVE (0602498812815)

Smilin’ Through; As Far As The Eye Can See; On Wings of Song; Tinker Bell; Joy Rider; Over Shadow Hill Way; Adventures Aboard The Golden Mean; Beyond The Sound Barrier.

Wayne Shorter (ts/ss); Danilo Perez (p); John Patitucci (b); Brian Blade (d)
Recorded 11/2002 to 04/2004

The stunning Footprints Live!, released by Verve in 2002, marked for me the end of a fallow period for one the music’s great original voices. Creator of some of the most forward looking semi-abstract jazz of the mid to late ‘60s, that he could have spent so much time in the wilderness was always a bit of a puzzle.

In many ways this quartet is an extension of Shorter’s great Blue Note period, though one which benefits from the wisdom of hindsight. Recorded at several concerts post-Footprints, the impression is given that one long piece of music is being explored. Suspicious minds may attribute this to clever post-editing rather than musical alchemy, but I saw this quartet play during one of those tours and know that their effortless shape shifting and intense concentration was strikingly present that evening.

Shorter delivers new material as well as revisiting many pieces that were disappointingly ‘lite’ first time around. Both ‘Joy Rider’ and ‘Over Shadow Hill Way’ (from the same lukewarm 1988 outing) become spellbinding explorations of structured collective improvisation, the real deal at last. This quartet know the ground rules and they stick to them, their vistas amounting to 360° vision.

Nothing is predictable - take the opening ballad “Smilin’ Through”. Starting as a ruminative dirge, the piece suddenly opens out, gathering pace as Shorter switches to soprano. Blade and Patitucci lock into a tight groove and Shorter snakes his way through the bars with some lithe circular breathing. Perez’ contributions range from the subtly supportive to full-on pianism that injects considerable nervous tension. One of the most distinctive characteristics of this often volatile group is the way in which rhythm is an equally important improvisational schema as both harmony and melody. By the time we get to the title track, a melody writhen out of a rhapsodic free-jazz exchange, we fully expect Shorter’s tenor to be knotty not liquid, his soprano shrill not smooth, compositional structures hazy and melodies more implied than overt.

It would be wrong to say that Shorter has never been away, as he’s certainly been guilty of pulling his punches in the past. The egos and melody-solo-melody structures of occasional supergroups such as VSOP have been welcome but less than fully convincing. Happily this group restores the midas touch that brought us those classic Blue Notes. Essential.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2005)