Reviews and Recommended Jazz by Nick Bewsey

Category: Posi-tone

Ken Fowser, Standing Tall (Posi-Tone)

After co-leading four records on the Posi-Tone label with vibraphonist Behn Gillece, tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser revs his own engine on his fast and furiously entertaining debut release, Standing Tall. A former University of the Arts student in Philadelphia, Fowser has crafted a free-wheeling gem, boldly exploring harmonic grooves and smooth, textured rhythms with a fine band that seduces on ear-friendly tracks like “Head Start,” thrills with fleet changes on “Mode For Red” and chills you out with the cool blues, “Filling In The Blanks.”

Well-conceived and spirited in execution, his quintet of up and coming players and the in-demand pianist Rick Germanson punch up his assertive compositions. Fowser not only succeeds in making a terrific modern jazz record, he brings an original, contemporary voice and a resounding agenda to swing, along with fond echoes of early jam records made by Philly greats like Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner and Prestige-era Coltrane. (12 tracks; 59 minutes)


A TOP JAZZ RECORD OF 2014: Orrin Evans is a true jazz advocate. One of the busiest leaders on the scene, with more than 20 solo albums in his discography along with countless sideman appearances, Evans has a second-to-none work ethic in and around New York as well as his hometown of Philadelphia. An industrious musician with an impetuous streak (despite recognizing the economies of scale, he stated that he “can’t stand the trio format” in a July 2012 Village Voice interview), Evans thinks bigger, refusing to see limitations in presenting jazz or performing it. Pairing once again with Posi-Tone Records, Evans’ sophomore studio recording of his Captain Black Big Band is a particularly satisfying album that challenges the status quo. Leading a big band within today’s economic realities seems to defy reason, but Mother’s Touch marks a magnificent return of the CBBB and it scores in every way imaginable.

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Ace organist Brain Charette delivers equal amounts of funk and frolic on Square One, a zip line ride through mostly post bebop originals in the Jimmy Smith tradition. Charette is a frequent collaborator with saxophonist Mike DiRubbo (I reviewed his solo CD last month) and though he’s a smooth groove pianist in that group, he sure can kick up some dust on the organ. Apart from Charette’s absorbing set list, the measure of the album’s success rests directly on the shoulders of his amazing trio mates, guitarist Yotam Silberstein and drummer Mark Ferber, each of them fixtures on the NY scene. Charette’s pop-inflected strokes at the outset of “Aaight” and spacey sonic effects on “People On Trains” and “Things You Don’t Mean” give these strong tracks an unexpected buzz and root them in present day. Obsessively soulful, whether swinging through the changes on the Meters tune, “Ease Back” or exploring his own love affair on “Three For Matina,” Charette zig-zags through plenty o’ grooves with superb contrasting harmonics from Silberstein and on target beats by Ferber. Though Square One is his seventh solo record, it’s a highly recommended starting point to discover the diverse and accomplished Brian Charette. (Posi-tone Records, 11 tracks; 46 minutes)


The kinetic energy on alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo’s 8th solo project, Threshold, pops like a Roman candle. This is thrilling modern bop, enriched by DiRubbo’s appreciation of the art and teachings of legendary Blue Note alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean. He sheds notes as fast as Jackie Mac, soloing with gratifying intensity and a hint of swagger that’s in lockstep with his quintet.

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Lucid pianism and bright grooves are two reasons that Philly based Orrin Evans is so in-demand as a player.  But if you visit Evans’ website or dig a little deeper to learn about him online, you get a sense he’s a restless guy eager to reach new listeners and ready to mix things up to do so. His 14th recording as a leader, “Flip The Script” (Posi-tone), is positioned to do just that. It is a tremendous set of fully realized originals like “TC’s Blues” and The Answer,” tunes that dodge your expectations along with a couple of surprising covers (Luther Vandross’ “Brand New Day”).

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BW playing here with Max Weinberg Band,
photo by George Burrows

Sounding particularly polished at the age of 30, saxophonist Brandon Wright brings along his colleagues in the Mingus Big Band – pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards – for “Journeyman,” (Posi-Tone Records) his second solo album that demonstrates his keen affinity for post-bebop swing, loosey-goosey funk jazz (“Walk Of Shame”) plus unexpected covers of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” two soaring tracks flush with glistening tenor solos and the straight up soulfulness of pianist Kikoski. Wright’s sound is velvety, lush and smooth on the ballads like “Illusions of Light,” and “The Nearness Of You,” while pleasingly lively through the changes on “Big Bully,” a speedy tune that puts the quartet on fast-forward. For the retro-sounding “Choices,” Edwards supplies the backbeat and Kikoski switches to Fender Rhodes as Wright deftly funnels his ideas into a sonic language of welcome riffs and happy improvisation. Wright is a state of the art horn player who squares a traditional sound (think saxophonist Scott Hamilton) with a modern spirit of discovery and “Journeyman” is full of exceptional moments. (10 tracks; 61:09 minutes)


A Barcelona native, guitarist Dave Juarez wins major points on his debut for Positone Records, an LA based independent label with a dazzling roster of young jazz lions, mostly due to his deep commitment to the band concept and a playbook of super strong compositions. He pulls together a like-minded team – tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet, bassist Lauren Falls and drummer Bastian Weinhold – on a collection of fresh tracks that highlight the strengths of each. Blake is the veteran here, having a host of solo recordings and dozens of sideman gigs to his credit, and he gives the album a boost with his scintillating solos. Escreet is an especially communicative player, full of surprise and brilliance, and he doesn’t disappoint whether applying his staccato intensity on “Lonely Brooklyn” or applying a glossy lyricism to “Belleza Anonima.” As the leader, Juarez runs his lines with grace and poetic humility (“The Echo Of Your Smile”) and takes a clever stab at the harmonics on Monk’s “Round Midnight (see title tune). If there’s any criticism, it’s that Juarez is a touch shy, giving too much space to Blake. But all is forgiven listening to Juarez on the moon-kissed “Luna De Barcelona,” a tune that inspires peak performances from his copacetic quintet and features a blissed out solo by the guitarist. (9 tracks; 61:45 minutes)


For his trio CD, “Noble Path” (Posi-Tone) the Bay area pianist Art Hirahara goes pleasurably old school, with an abundance of catchy, melodic originals. It’s a successful foray into the kind of music that one associates with leaders like Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton or John Hicks, and it’s clear that Hirahara holds a deep respect for musicians that ply the jazz trio tradition. Bassist Yoshi Waki and drummer Dan Aran, both rhythm masters in their own right, provide exemplary support on inspired originals (“Stood Down”) and dazzling covers (“All Or Nothing At All,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.”) Hirahara has a deft technique that memorably crowns his originals and his fleet finger play positively shines on the title track. But you can sense this working group’s own satisfaction when bopping through the changes on Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” or feeling the love from the music on Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”  (12 tracks; 63:16 minutes)


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