COUNTING BEATS

Reviews and Recommended Jazz by Nick Bewsey

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George Coleman, A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions)

Saxophonist George Coleman may have started his career in Memphis playing with B.B. King, but by the time he arrived in New York in 1957 to play on a jazz record for the first time with Lee Morgan (City Lights, Blue Note), his star was ascendant. His brief tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet is how many jazz fans know Coleman, but the dynamic sax player soon established his own following and estimable discography. (That’s him playing tenor on Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage recording.) Now 80, Coleman betrays no sense of diminished faculty or stamina on A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions), his first album as a leader in twenty years. His tone remains deep, burnished, husky and soulful.

The album starts with a bang – an extended arrangement of “Invitation” kicks off with a spirited Horace Silver-like riff played by pianist Mike LeDonne. It’s a fine groove that’s joined by bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer George Coleman, Jr. that Coleman, Sr. just glides into. It’s a syncopated swinger that lets his dark, smooth sax go on the prowl. Authentic in feeling, Coleman gives standards such as “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Darn That Dream” a level of swing and class that they deserve along with a renewed melodic interest. Guitarist Peter Bernstein sits in on “Blues For B.B.” a stately Coleman original that fetes his former mentor in the most lyrical way, and the band wraps its up with a high-style, old-school jam, “Time To Get Down.” Coleman admits he doesn’t like to record much, but he loves to play. Lucky for us, A Master Speaks captures his voice in all its glory. (9 tracks; 66 minutes)

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Laurin Talese, Gorgeous Chaos

I have an unabashed enthusiasm for singer/songwriter Laurin Talese, a Philadelphia based vocalist who demonstrates uncommon originality and vision on her splendid debut, Gorgeous Chaos (self-released). She’s a co-writer on half of the album’s twelve tracks, which are boosted with tight, sophisticated arrangements and by ace accompaniment. As a singer, Talese is sure to make waves with the neo-soul ballad “Winter” features a high-grooving keyboard solo by Robert Glasper, which anchors the album, and also with the jazz-pop confection “Kissing A Fool,” a flawless duet she performs with Vivian Greene. I love the way Talese confidently navigates the zippy Broadway cadence of “This Love” and brings an upscale panache to “Made Up My Mind,” a swinging track with a buoyant Joe Sample-like piano solo by the remarkable Eric Wortham. The album is delivered like a Valentine and Talese’s voice carries the day, soaring with warmth, sincerity and an abundance of grace.  (12 tracks; 54 minutes) (Available for download on iTunes)

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Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchesta, All My Yesterdays (Resonance Records)

If jazz bands were like classic muscle cars measured by power and torque, the high performance Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra was an inexhaustible engine that roared. February 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this historic 18-member band and All My Yesterdays is the double-disc recording that documents their debut performances in February and March 1966. Defined by super-sized swing, a bold brass section with the likes of Pepper Adams, Bob Brookmeyer and Joe Farrell, and a dream rhythm section (bassist Richard Davis, pianist Hank Jones and guitarist Sam Herman), the band’s precision, sophistication and style was trendsetting and their modern sound remains influential.

The camaraderie is tangible on this live recording by producer George Klabin when he was 19 years old, and now restored to perfection—the superb sound puts you right at a front table at the Vanguard and the feeling is electrifying. Thad Jones is the former Basie trumpeter who leads the band like a revival meeting, shouting the jazz gospel with enthusiastic approval, calling out the solos on fun, crowd-pleasing tracks “Big Dipper,” “Mornin’ Reverend” and “Back Bone.” Jones is one of the best trumpet players ever; his solo on “The Little Pixie” is loose, swinging and brings a requisite soulfulness that’s unshakeable. An essential recording. (6 tracks; 47 minutes / 11 tracks; 74 minutes)

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Roxy Coss, Restless Idealism (Origin Records)

While saxophonist Roxy Coss may have model looks and unflappable poise — she’s also an utterly refreshing instrumentalist on her sophomore release, Restless Idealism. Having honed her talent as a member of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s band along with a three-year residency with her quintet at Smoke Jazz Club where many of these songs were born, this all-originals album favors listener-friendly tracks like the bubbly “Don’t Cross The Coss,” the mid-tempo swinger, “Waiting,” and a particularly sumptuous ballad, “Happiness Is A Choice.” Outstanding rhythmic support underscores the quality of Coss’s writing — pianist Chris Pattishall, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Dezron Douglas and Willie Jones III on drums create the kind of excitement and opportunities for interplay that make records like this so good.

I watched Coss, a natural storyteller and leader, in front of a standing room only crowd at her CD release party at Smalls in New York in January and she mopped the floor with a killer combination of style, licks and technique – all of which is applied at full strength on this impressive record. Restless will please fans that adore early Shorter, Trane and Jazz Messenger’s-era Hank Mobley. Just hang on when she and guest star Pelt race through “Push,” a speedball of a tune where the pleasure is all about keeping up. (10 tracks; 57 minutes)

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Dr. Lonnie Smith, Evolution (Blue Note)

Funky licks and blistering squeals are to be expected of organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, godfather of the Hammond B-3, whose output in the 60s helped define soul-jazz for the era. He’s rarely deviated from his signature jazz and R&B sound and when he does – 2003’s Boogaloo To Beck: A Tribute was a welcome detour – it comes in the form of a record like Evolution, a significant return to the Blue Note label and a tribute to his super-sized talent. The rails are greased by a crackerjack horn section, a pair of power drummers and pumped up guest spots by pianist Robert Glasper and notably saxophonist Joe Lovano on the dreamy ballad, “For Heaven’s Sake.” Guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg is Smith’s foil, delivering wicked, grinding riffs, jangling rhythmic support and lush, melodic solos. Evolution sets itself apart by letting Smith loose on updated originals and fresh tracks like “Talk About This” and “African Suite,” that connect the dots from the pivotal early days to the present, where the Doctor takes the lead as a hip, dynamic authority of modern grooves and moves. (7 tracks; 63 minutes)

 

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Charles Lloyd and The Marvels, I Long To See You (Blue Note)

A striking, post-bop saxophonist with an ethereal sound grounded and defined by his unique spiritualism, NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd once charted a new direction for jazz in 1965 with bandmates Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. At 78, he’s still proving that originality and populism are a perfect combination on I Long To See You, a modern jazz masterpiece with crossover appeal. Outfitted with a new band, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and called the Marvels, Lloyd has made an unexpected dream of a record, a rebirth of sorts that celebrates Bob Dylan, the blues, and ”the quantum mechanics of love,” as Lloyd says.

Unlike the sonic tapestries produced during his long tenure at ECM, Long is a combination of classic and re-imagined Lloyd originals (the swinging “Of Course, Of Course”), earthy Americana (“Shenandoah”) and chanteuse Norah Jones on a luminous “You Are So Beautiful.” The album is indeed a stirring love letter to the joys of melody, collective storytelling and the collaborative spirit of making music that will leave you spellbound. (10 tracks; 67 minutes)

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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)

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Report From The Field: 2016 NYC Winter Jazz Fest

Now an annual tradition in its 12th year, the NYC Winter Jazz Fest rallies with progressive programming, overseen by producers Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz, who set the festival apart by keeping its focus and music modern and forward looking while giving its audience a quintessential New York jazz experience — it’s easily the coolest, hippest and most authentic music fest out there. You have to hoof it to a dozen venues surrounding Washington Square Park to catch as many gigs as you can starting at 6 pm and continuing until early morning.

Expertly curated to appeal to tastes across the jazz spectrum, I darted here and there and left most performances happy and satisfied. These were a few of my favorite experiences.

1. Jazz Legends Concert for Disability Pride — Quaker Friends Meeting Hall

The Meetinghouse served as swing-central for a traditionally-minded but exuberant three hours of music led by top-tier talent. Concert organizer and pianist Mike LeDonne kicked off with “On Green Dolphin Street.” A rare and intimate set by Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Joe Farnsworth and pianist Dan Nimmer sparkled from the trumpeter’s easy charisma on a smooth, laid back version of “Embraceable You.” From Bill Charlap’s trio and sets from Monty Alexander and Harold Mabern to saxophonist Vincent Herring, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and tenor titan Joe Lovano, filling in for an ailing Benny Golson, this mini festival flowed straight-ahead post-bop and quick cast changes. There was a time constraint — the hall had to be emptied and convert to a homeless shelter at 9:30 pm — but LeDonne pushed for the finale. Legendary saxophonist George Coleman, his body feeble and eyesight weakened, was led to and sat on the edge of the stage while his band set up. The lighting guy flashed a spotlight on him as Coleman picked up his horn to play a solo rendition of “But Beautiful.” His sonorous tone was majestic and hushed the room, and in that unexpected, improvised moment, the darkened hall felt alive with a magic realism.

2. ECM @ Winter Jazz Fest —The New School’s Tishman Auditorium

For more than 40 years, the ECM label has fashioned a brand and identifiable sound as vivid and recognizable than any label other than Blue Note of the 50s and 60s. Under the direction of founder and producer Manfred Eicher, the European label’s more recent artist signings have a distinctively American flair — saxophonists Chris Potter, Mark Turner and trumpeter Ralph Alessi are among those representing the current vanguard.

In the state-of-the-art Tishman Auditorium, more than 800 WJF attendees filled seats for two evenings of hour-long sets by fourteen of ECM’s artists and musicians. Out of those, the Mark Turner Quartet, with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, dazzled with a fresh and contemporary set list, playing new tunes and tracks off his current album, Lathe Of Heaven. Spirited improvisers all, the group benefitted from a superlative sound mix so you could easily follow precise, individual lines, themes and solos. Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes, is preternatural in his agility and creativity, careening through imaginative time signatures, underscoring the band with dramatic yet subtle rhythms. The tunes remained at once, exploratory, cohesive and gleefully thrilling.

Pianist Craig Taborn delivered an improvised solo that began with a series of delicate measures and evolved into a sequence of sturdy percussive motifs. Taborn was a driver of ideas and his masterful set twisted and swerved before ending in chordal fireworks.

3. Jose James / GoGo Penguin — Le Poisson Rouge

Blue Note Records hosted singer/songwriter Jose James at LPR on Bleecker Street with James trying out new tunes and firing up the sold out crowd with soul-stirring faves. The set was all about the message — the band launched into a cover of Dead Prez’s “Police State,” a pitched protest song with a seething, provocative rap verse. James was at his best in this setting, which was confirmed from the adoring, vocal sold-out crowd. Coming off his smoky, after-hours Billie Holiday tribute record, this electrifying version of James was a welcome return to form. The gig wrapped with GoGo Penguin, a youthful British outfit about to release their first US record, an electrifying trio that fuses The Bad Plus, E.S.T. and Radiohead as the leaping off point for modern jazz tunes with big beats, buzzing bass lines and percussive, deeply rhythmic piano excursions.

Photo courtesy of Brad Gilley.

Photo courtesy of Brad Gilley.

4. Kris Bowers — Judson Church

Pianist Kris Bowers, who had a strong debut on Concord Records a couple of years ago, has worked with Kanye West and Jay Z, just scored the soundtrack to a new documentary on Norman Lear and has recorded with Jose James and various hip artists. The cacophonous set he brought to Judson Church was a rapid-fire, electrified presentation that mixed churning, sampled keyboards over live bass and drums with a music-triggered video screen display. It wasn’t perfect — the space is grand and acoustically appropriate, and the techs did their best to keep up with the electronics and video requirements. Dodgy or not, listening to Bowers you knew you were watching a trendsetter in action.

5. Dave King with Adam Schatz — The New School Fifth Floor Theater

Perhaps my favorite moment was the smallest event — an interview by NY musician Adam Schatz with The Bad Plus and Happy Apple drummer Dave King. A natural raconteur and storyteller, King was utterly uninhibited and candid about his musical career. In a small music room with a dozen of us gathered, King combined intimate accounts about his highly successful YouTube channel (Rational Funk, where he lectures abut music and proselytizes about life, playing an alternate version of himself), with whimsical stories of his family, growing up in Minneapolis, Prince and Husker Du. Better than being a fly on the wall, King conversed without a filter and despite being enthralling, hilarious and entertaining, it was as fitting and musically-minded as the rest of 2016 Winter Jazz Fest.

Photo of Wynton Marsalis courtesy of Bart Babinski.

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Best of Jazz 2015

1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

My choice for best jazz record of the year is also the most significant release of 2015. Kamasi Washington’s madly entertaining The Epic (Brainfeeder) is a 3-disc multilayered triumph that features a 10-piece band with two drummers two bass players, a choir and orchestra. It’s audacious, over the top and sizzling with in-the-pocket grooves, anchored by the leader’s intoxicating saxophone solos. It’s mostly accessible, but it also doesn’t hesitate to roar like late-era spiritualized Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. The 45 songs are packaged and presented with Sun Ra-style fervor, yet it’s pulse and rhythms are rooted in the present. The 45 songs are packaged and presented as a Sun Ra style narrative, yet it’s pulse and rhythms are rooted in the present. Better still was the accompanying national tour that landed at the Blue Note for a few nights last fall. It was loudest, most thrilling jazz concert I’ve experienced in a long while and the sold-out room was full of younger music fans who saw Washington and his band as superstars. Proof of Washington’s greatness is resoundingly evident on The Epic.


2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (artistShare)

The most beautiful jazz compositions for orchestra come from the pen and passion of Maria Schneider. Her recordings are astonishing in their capacity to connect emotionally with the listener. The vivid music on The Thompson Fields (artistShare) was written during Schneider’s extended sojourn to a family farm in Minnesota where she grew up and she navigates her 18-piece ensemble with authority and sensitivity. Replete with deft improvised solos, the natural beauty of the midwest landscape is captured and plays out — the hallmarks of nature are by turns lyrical, melodic and turbulent — and the effect is grandly cinematic and on the cutting edge where jazz meets classical. A spectacular and deservedly Grammy-nominated achievement.

3. Ben Williams, Coming of Age

The originals on Coming of Age (Concord Jazz) wed fresh jazz to pop and R&B, and its a rush of pleasure from beginning to end. Bassist Ben Williams, Julliard trained and winner of the 2009 Monk Institute competition, makes sure that the record will satisfy on multiple spins — it’s the keyed up guitar solos, funky electric piano, sonorous sax and wicked beats that give Coming of Age its more-than-jazz appeal. On either acoustic or electric bass, Williams keeps the flow modern and grounded, fueled by virtuosity and vision along with his canny sense of crossover appeal.

4. Jose James, Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday

My choice for vocal album of the year is the best of this year’s tribute albums to Blllie Holiday on the 100th anniversary of her birth. On nine tracks, mostly ballads, James simplifies classic standards, closely collaborating with pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland. His fluid baritone has a honeyed quality and he lets songs like “Good Morning Heartache” breathe and take gentle flight. His voice patient and shimmering, James digs into the blues (“Fine and Mellow”) and croons “Lover Man” as a sensual soul singer. He smolders and seduces, capturing the essence of Ms. Holiday’s charm and vulnerability. (Blue Note)

5. Nick Finzer, The Chase

The Chase (Origin) is a sturdy and beautifully arranged program of melodic originals by Finzer who hits all the right notes on his sophomore recording. It’s as warmly compelling as it is masterfully swinging, without a false step or throwaway tune in the bunch. His first-rate band of up-and-comers, anchored by pianist Glenn Zeleski, bassist Dave Baron and drummer Jimmy MacBride, are particularly adept at underscoring the small band harmonics on upbeat songs. Together they give this sonically impressive date of a loose, open-collar feel — the blended grooves and interlocking rhythms give The Chase a jolt of traditional hipness and modern cool.

6. Joe Locke, Love Is A Pendulum

Jazz vibraphone has come a long way since the glory days of Lionel Hampton. Locke is an individualist who bridges the divide between past and perfect. His best recording to date, Love (Motema Records) has strong romantic melodies that give the album an unsinkable musicality. He’s got a swoon-worthy band with juggernaut precision by drummer (and co-producer) Terreon Gully. This is Locke’s masterwork — it heaves and flows with a modern beat that’s consistently appealing.

7. Revive Records Presents: Supreme Sonancy, Vol 1.

A visionary producer and taste maker, Revive Music CEO Meghan Stabile is the most important person currently on the New York jazz scene who’s not actually a musician. For her first record, Supreme Sonancy Vol. 1, she pairs cutting edge artists connected to the hip hop scene (Raydar Ellis) with progressive jazz musicians. The record smartly zeroes in on the fluidity of jazz to hip hop and rap, such as cleverly reworking Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio” by folding in deep bass and staccato beats as if to say this isn’t your pop’s Blue Note music.

8. Jamison Ross, Jamison (Concord Jazz)

This exuberant debut release opens with Technicolor fireworks on a vivid Muddy Waters cover, “Deep Down in Florida” that pops and shimmies on evocative soul and blues rhythms. Like singer Gregory Porter, Ross has a big, deep voice that’s operatic in its storytelling style, yet peaks and dips fluidly with an emotionally tangible vibe. He’s a savvy instrumentalist. The album is propelled on Ross’ talent and he saves the best for last — the closer “Bye, Bye Blues” is a rousing, church revival-like number that soars on Ross’ star-making charisma and natural enthusiasm. (Concord Jazz)

9. Tom Harrell, First Impressions (HighNote)

The lyrical trumpeter Tom Harrell has often integrated jazz and strings on his projects to great effect. He establishes a quiet brilliance on First Impressions (HighNote) an album that folds jazz improvisation into classical tunes by Modernist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It’s a magnificent record that resonates with superior interplay and diverse arrangements where Harrell’s warm liquid tone reminds one of Art Farmer. There’s some fire, too, on the electrifying title track, which has soaring Miles Davis-like moments. As a whole, this nine-piece chamber ensemble album oscillates between jazz and the European classical tradition while superbly detouring through other musical styles.

10. Orrin Evans, The Evolution of Oneself (Smoke Sessions)

Evans is a Philadelphia original. With 25 solo records and essential sideman duties in trumpeter Sean Jones Quartet and bassist Ben Wolfe’s band, Evans recorded Evolution (Smoke Sessions) during the year he turned 40 and the album is a reflection on everything that jazz and family means to the pianist. It’s flavored with gorgeous standards, angular originals, a brilliant Grover Washington, Jr. cover and buzzy, hip-hop interludes made in collaboration with his son. Overall, it’s profoundly expressive and the best introduction to this respected player, producer, bandleader and educator.

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Kenneth Salters Haven, Enter To Exit

Drummer and bandleader Kenneth Salters is a smooth operator of rhythm, textures and flow. The tunes on his debut album, Enter To Exit (Destinty Records), are executed with precision by his band Haven, a NYC-based group (featuring ace pianist Brad Whiteley) and they definitively move the needle on 9 alt-flavored modern jazz tunes. To his credit, Salters doesn’t amplify the beats over the sound of his righteous front-line of honor players (virtuoso saxophonist Myron Walden and rising-star Tivon Pennicott; trumpeter Matt Holman), but he’s not shy either. The well-rounded compositions give everyone an opportunity to shine while Salters conveys a fluid range of inventive time signatures, working his kit with impressive resolve. His originals hit the mark (“when You Find Out”), but two covers —Dolly Parton’s gospel-kissed “Halo and Horns” and pop-flavored “Stop The Sun” by Elysian Fields, a group that Salters also plays with — convey an overt emotional vibe that grounds this album and defines Haven as a significant band. (9 tracks; 61 minutes)

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