Reviews and Recommended Jazz by Nick Bewsey

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Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso

Cellist Erik Friedlander understands the value of swing throughout Oscalypso (Skipstone Records), his joyful, thoroughly engaging tribute to the late bassist, cellist and influential composer Oscar Pettiford. While his name won’t be familiar to many folks, Pettiford was an important bebop musician in the 50s who put his stamp on many dates with jazz legends including albums by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. He’s also credited with discovering saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Although he passed away in 1960 when he was just 38 years old, both his music and commanding style remain affecting and inspirational.

Friedlander takes a fresh look at 9 Pettiford originals (you’ll recognize the jazz standard “Bohemia After Dark”) with a band of experienced veterans featuring saxophonist Michael Blake, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Michael Sarin. He modernizes Pettiford’s tunes, always keeping swing at their core — the band’s got a way with finding a groove and opening up unexpected rhythmic possibilities that are surprising for a cello-led jazz quartet. That’s a testament to Friedlander’s ingenuity. Other tunes, mostly obscure to us non-musicians, serve up juicy, colorful melodies followed by terrific improvisations. The leader’s arrangements have a natural, dynamic flow, providing plenty of space for Blake’s sinewy sax lines and Dunn’s deep, plummy bass notes. The emotive ballad, “Two Little Pearls” is a standout with its mix of jazz and classical motifs as is Pettiford’s famed “Tricotism,” but each tune is a winner, played with panache and exquisite taste. (9 tracks; 44 minutes)

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Tom Harrell, First Impressions

The lyrical trumpeter Tom Harrell has often integrated jazz and strings on his projects to great effect. His beautiful, shimmering album, Paradise (2001, RCA) is a good example of his compositional style. Since then, especially on his six recordings for the HighNote label, his writing and playing consistently reveal both his sophistication and accessibility. Harrell establishes a quiet brilliance on First Impressions (HighNote) with frequent collaborators — pianist Danny Grissett, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake — that fold jazz improvisations into classical tunes by Modernist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It’s a magnificent record that resonates with superior interplay and fertile arrangements where Harrell uses elements as diverse as bossa rhythms (“Perspectives”), Latin music (“Sarabande”) and subtle hip hop grooves (“Sainte”).

Harrell, 69, has a long and accomplished discography and the warm tone that flows from his trumpet and flugelhorn reminds me of the liquid sound of Art Farmer. He states in the liner notes,” When I arrange another person’s composition, I try to show respect.” Listening to each of the diverse, absorbing tracks is proof of his limitless creativity. As a whole, this nine-piece chamber ensemble album oscillates between jazz and the European classical tradition while comfortably detouring through other musical styles — it’s a sonically gratifying masterpiece and surely a personal best for Mr. Harrell. (8 tracks; 64 minutes)

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Fourplay, Silver

On the heels of the terrific Bob James and Nathan East collaboration, The New Cool, comes Silver (Heads Up), a significant musical milestone. It marks Fourplay’s 25th anniversary, something that none of the band’s members expected or could have guessed would occur. This iconic group was founded when guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason discovered that playing together with James on his Grand Piano Canyon album (1990, Warner Bros) resulted in a particularly harmonious relationship. Apart from slight personnel changes over the years — Ritenour departed after three records and was replaced by Larry Carlton, and then by current guitarist, Chuck Loeb. Silver is the third album that features Loeb’s fluid, melodic style and helps keep this band the gold standard of contemporary jazz groups.

Silver is a continuation of the group’s smooth, precise sound—pairing interlocking rhythms and sophisticated grooves. The compositions are contributed or shared by each member: Loeb crafts catchy harmonic riffs (“Quicksilver” and “Silverado,” featuring a guest turn by Larry Carlton), James favors sensitive melodies that highlight his lush keyboard technique (“Mine”); East’s tunes are infused with pleasing R&B and soul turns (“Aniversario”); and Mason surprises with the complex, aggressive “Silver Streak” that recalls the edgier compositions of his 2014 Chameleon. As a tribute to their longevity and companionship, saxophonist Kirk Whalum makes a welcome appearance. But it’s Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason’s collaboration on the final track, “Windmill,” that is as classic sounding Fourplay tune as there is. (10 tracks; 59 minutes)

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Gilad Hekselman, Homes

Homes (Jazz Village) is an extraordinary jazz trio record of undisputed beauty and talent. Guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore have played as a unit for nearly ten years, honing a brotherly collaboration that conjures up Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans’ trios, two of his most significant influences. Homes is his fifth record and it’s superb, thematically coalescing around a sense of place as much as places of the heart. Hekselman’s melodic compositions are infused with gentle phrasing that skim undulating waves set in motion by Martin and Gilmore. The use of electric and acoustic guitars give the album layers of sonic luster that are most apparent on the lush “Samba em Preludio” and “Cosmic Patience.” His version of Bud Powell’s classic “Parisian Thoroughfare” is all aces—while Martin swings fiercely and Gilmore lets loose on his kit, Hekselman carves out an adventurous solo, careening through the changes. Brad Mehldau’s drummer, Jeff Ballard, subs for Gilmore on two tunes — dazzling on the ricocheting rhythms on “KeeDee” and in a duo format, underscoring Hekselman’s stalwart originality on a percolating, brilliant version of Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home.” (12 tracks; 57 minutes)

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Noah Preminger, Pivot: Live At The 55 Bar

Pivot (independently released) is an album of just two tunes that stretch 30-plus minutes each. It’s an audacious set by the serious saxophonist, Noah Preminger, who plays with an intensity that gives this date its unique edge. Recorded live by Jimmy Katz at New York’s 55 Bar, a small, murky basement space in Greenwich Village where jazz thrives and music is always the best thing on the menu, you can sense the tension as the quartet fires up. On the side, Preminger is an amateur boxer (his excellent 2013 recording was titled Haymaker)— he comes out swinging on Pivot with brash, muscular resolve. Playing alongside trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman, his deep tenor growls and sings as if possessed by ghosts of a jazz past—maybe Ornette Coleman, yet more like Coltrane whose Ascension was an album of 30- and 40-minute compositions. Preminger’s gig has an alternate spirituality, specifically the Delta Blues singer, Bukka White (1909-1977), whose discography the saxophonist has devoured. Only 29, Preminger has a sensitive, old-soul quality that infuses his playing with deep feeling. On Pivot, his fourth album, he punches above his weight, with sustained and breathless free-spirited solos. Listening to this album is thrilling—part throwback to the 60s when jazz took free-form improvisation to new frontiers, it’s also remarkably current. Neither Preminger nor his piano-free quartet run out of steam or ideas—they just go. (2 tracks; 64 minutes)

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Lizz Wright, Freedom & Surrender

The singer and songwriter Lizz Wright really isn’t considered a jazz singer anymore, though she retains a loose, improvised vocal style that melds beautifully to the music on Freedom & Surrender (Concord Records) superb collection of love songs that seamlessly weave together country, blues, soul and pop stylings. It’s a grand accomplishment and certainly among her best albums. Full-throated and gifted with a powerful, earthy voice — her background and experience raised as a church singer is projected on every song — Wright softly coos Nick Drake’s “River Man,” a track that floats along with a shuffle beat and Til Bronner’s evocative trumpet solo. So invested in the lyric, Wright is utterly compelling on this tune that so many have sung, but not like this. She’s even stronger on originals like “Freedom,” a straight up soul tune with a strong backbeat, shimmering rhythm guitar and Hammond B-3 swirls. The sultry groove on “Lean In” is intoxicating, but everybody will want to hear her bluesy, gospel cover of the Bee Gees “To Love Somebody,” an album highlight. Wright co-wrote ten of the album’s tracks and they’re very strong. Supported by LA’s top session players and lovingly produced by Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman), Freedom & Surrender is her fifth disc and it deserves to be played and appreciated for the ages. (13 songs; 62 minutes)

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Bob James & Nathan East, The New Cool (Yamaha Entertainment Group)

Pianist, composer, producer and the godfather of smooth jazz, Bob James has achieved spectacular success as a solo artist and de facto leader of the supergroup, Fourplay. He’s also an accomplished collaborator — his discography includes many successful, award winning albums with Earl Klugh, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum and Korean guitarist Jack Lee. It’s not surprising that his latest effort pairs James with his Fourplay bandmate, bassist Nathan East. Their unique collaboration, The New Cool (Yamaha Entertainment Group), takes the virtuoso elements that distinguish their own albums, mixes it up with Fourplay-style original tunes and serves up a recording that’s naturally, consistently entertaining.

Co-produced by Chris Gero — he founded Yamaha Entertainment and produced East’s last album — who sets up James and East in a Nashville recording studio and offers the duo The Nashville Recording Orchestra, which grace several of the album’s compositions. James, whose early credits include being Sarah Vaughan’s musical director and working alongside Quincy Jones, was hired by Creed Taylor as an arranger for his CTI label. While there, James arranged strings and orchestral accompaniment for all the label’s artists including Grover Washington, Jr. and Hubert Laws. James has a definitive arranging style and the chance to add live strings and woodwinds to a track like the “All Will Be Revealed” elevates The New Cool into classic terrain.

Whether inspired by time and place, James writing and playing shines on his melodic, original tone poems. Graceful and heartfelt (“Oliver’s Bag” and East’s “Waltz For Judy”), the tunes take on a painterly quality. Where his previous solo records have a jazz/pop sheen, James confounds expectations with his occasional straight-ahead jazz trio records (1996’s Straight Up, and 2003’s Take It From The Top) and interestingly, The New Cool more closely resembles those albums in terms of quality and purity. The two trade exquisite phrases on “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “Ghost Of A Chance,” two standards that inspire and push these two artists into fresh, creative territory.

There’s immense pleasure in hearing James play acoustic piano and East drilling down on upright bass, but these musicians appreciate and understand that songs come in a spectrum of colors, so there’s East’s soft vocalizations and twangy electric bass with James’ electric piano threaded throughout. Singer Vince Gill takes the lead on a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” a surefire radio hit, but the leaders are in their strongest element on the rhythmic swing of “Canto Y La Danza” and especially the last track, “Turbulence,” a welcome closer that sublimates the best, higher energy compositions of a Fourplay album and ends this great collaboration of a high note despite its premature fadeout. (11 tracks; 54 minutes)

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Various Artists, Supreme Sonancy Volume 1

A visionary promoter 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. As a producer, she’s been creating genuine buzz around her artists, consistently advocating for their talents. In partnership with Blue Note Records, Stabile’s initiative combines cutting edge artists connected to the hip hop scene (Raydar Ellis, Ingmar Thomas) with progressive jazz musicians (Marcus Strickland, Marc Cary) to fill clubs, create a vibe and put that experience on record. That dedication and fervor is apparent on Supreme Sonancy Vol. 1 (Revive Music/Blue Note), a compilation of tracks that showcase a cross-generational group of musicians and singers determined to brand Revive Music as the hippest game in town.

Treading similar ground as Robert Glasper’s hit making Black Radio series, Supreme Sonancy smartly zeroes in on the fluidity of jazz with hip hop and rap — a relationship that often benefits the latter more than jazz — with the intent to flip that relationship. Cleverly reworking Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio” by folding in deep bass and staccato beats, trumpeter Ingmar Thomas and MC Raydar Ellis remix the past and set the album in motion as if to say this isn’t your pop’s Blue Note music.

When the album soars — saxophonist Strickland and vocalist Christie Dashiell lay fresh claim to Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile; bassist Ben Williams rearranges Lee Morgan’s “The Procrastinator” with compelling work by dueling trumpeters Keyon Harold and Marcus Brown — you nearly want the songs to go twice as long. And an original, “Dorothy Jeanne” by harpist and soloist Brandee Younger is the type of introduction to a young artist that makes you want to hear an entire record by her. Appearances by heavy jazz hitters like sax players Chris Potter, Jaleel Shaw, pianists Eldar and Kris Bowers and drummers Justin Brown and Jeff “Tain” Watts fill out the record with superb results.

Many producers and remixers have taken to jazz recordings (Guru’s Jazzamatazz, Madlib’s Shades Of Blue), but Stabile tags that history out of respect while lighting a new torch to carry the tradition forward. Sonancy has buoyant, positive energy along with some deep hooks, an abundance of creative expression and a solid sense of the new. It’s a worthy opening salvo from Revive Music that signals Ms. Stabile is just getting started. (15 tracks; 58 minutes)

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George Freeman & Chico Freeman, All In The Family

Sometimes small records deliver big dividends in style, quality and pleasure. All In The Family (Southport Records) is that kind of record and it’s obviously a labor of love produced by Joanna Pallatto and Bradley Parker-Sparrow, proprietors of indie label Southport Records Amazingly, it’s a first-time recording between two venerated Chicago jazz musicians – 88-year old guitarist George Freeman and his nephew, saxophonist Chico Freeman. This understated, melodic album plays like a house party hang for the Freeman’s and their friends.

There’s no doubt that the spirit of Von Freeman hangs over this warm and engaging venture. Von, George’s brother and Chico’s dad, was a much beloved and influential saxophonist from Chicago and gets his own tribute tune on the loose, grooving “Vonski.”

Chico’s soulful tenor sounds perfect on “Dark Blue,” a finger-popping blues with a funky bass line. “Latina Bonita” has a smooth Spanish tinge that’s sweet on the ears, while the sturdy, contemporary swing tune, “Five Days In May” highlights George’s pop-flavored guitar. Pianist Kirk Brown is also a standout, with percolating solos on “Inner Orchestrations” and the hip, modern flow of “What’s In Between.” (22 tracks; 79 minutes)

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John Pizzarelli, Midnight McCartney

John Pizzarelli is a seasoned guitarist, pop singer and debonair entertainer whose greatest talent is communicating the jazz idiom to music listeners who otherwise are indifferent to the form. On stage in August at Birdland in New York to celebrate the release of Midnight McCartney (Concord Records), his relentless enthusiasm as a bandleader smoothed the way for a sweetly nostalgic appreciation for lesser-known tunes by Sir Paul McCartney along with relaxed stage banter that left the audience laughing and feeling great.

It’s not often that a musician is personally invited to record songs from Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles catalog, but if Sir Paul writes you as he did Pizzarelli, it’s not an opportunity to pass up. The connection was made after Pizzarelli played on McCartney’s Grammy-winning© Kisses On The Bottom album, and the former Beatle suggested that the focus be on rare, gentler songs that have a late-night vibe. The result couldn’t be better. “Silly Love Songs,” “No More Lonely Nights,” and the endearing “My Valentine” are beautifully built on a bed of silky, bossa nova rhythms. Tasteful strings kiss a glorious rendition of “My Love” and lush woodwinds abound courtesy of the orchestration by Don Sebesky.

Pizzarelli’s durability – he’s recorded two dozen solo albums and accompanied artists like Rosemary Clooney and James Taylor on forty others – is rooted in his passion for swing, Nat King Cole, Jobim and Frank Sinatra, and for the Great American Songbook. His success is grounded by a dedication to family. His father, Bucky Pizzarelli, wife/singer (and co-producer) Jessica Molasky, brother/bassist Martin Pizzarelli and daughter, Madeline, all contribute to the triumph of Midnight McCartney. Pianist and arranger Larry Goldings and guest spots by singer Michael McDonald and swing saxophonist Harry Allen can only ensure that this album will cross over in appeal – it’s graceful, urbane and superior jazz/pop that lingers with a burnished glow. (13 tracks; 50 minutes)

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