Jazz-2K: CD Picks of the Week

Since it’s finally starting to feel like fall, here are five discs to keep you warm against the chill:

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: Forever Lasting
“Forever Lasting: Live in Tokyo”
(Planet Arts Recordings)
Initially, I felt this follow-up to the Grammy-winning “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard” was a great two-disc set that could have been an incredible single-disc release. Recorded in Tokyo three months before the tsunami changed everything, every track has the cracking musicianship and old-school-meets-new-century energy that epitomizes the VJO. However, some animals are “more equal” than others: Tenorman (and last-minute stand-in) Walt Weiskopf scorches the sun on the Bob Brookmeyer juggernaut “Nasty Dance”; Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap” is jet-propelled by Scott Wendholt’s muscle-car trumpet and Luis Bonilla’s take-no-prisoners trombone; and Jim McNeely’s whirling “Extra Credit” is one of three ripping originals by the VJO’s composer-in-residence. But as “sound” as my one-disc theory was, second and third go-rounds through “Forever” made a simple question (“Okay, smart ass, what do you cut?”) impossible to answer: Do you lose Dick Oatts finding every bit of romance in Cole Porter’s “I Love You”? Thad Jones’ bop-cum-blues “Central Park North,” with Wendholt, sop-sax player Billy Drews and horn wizard Terrell Stafford taking turns blowing the front row away? Even a fairly straight-forward rendition of “All of Me” is filled with Big Apple sass. Given that the set’s 13 tracks came from an original selection of 38, I finally had to admit Douglas Purviance and Tom Bellino got it as “down to the bone” as possible. I never denied I wasn’t brilliant, but I’ll happily admit “Forever Lasting” is thoroughly amazing just the way it is.

Sensemaya: Havana Before Dawn
“Havana Before Dawn”
(Dos Alas Records)
Up until now, Capital Region jazzers had only two choices if they wanted legitimate, locally-grown party music: Keith Pray’s bubbling soul-jazz revival “One Last Stop” and Todd Nelson’s rocking trio date “Here.” Thanks to Sensemaya’s virtual after-hours tour of Cuba’s capital city, this tasty-but-spare menu just got bigger, richer and a whole lot spicier. “E.G.T.S.” pulls you smoothly out of the chair as it informs you, “Hey, baby, it’s time to MAMBO!” The dancing never stops after that, whether it’s inspired by the street-beat percussion-fest “Samba de Aviacao” or Ryan Lukas’ funk/salsa fusion “Ya Se Fue.” And even though “La United Fruit Co.” was inspired by Pablo Neruda’s searing attack on imperialism and corporate greed, it’s filled with the joy and impudence of unbridled youth. Keyboardist Dave Gleason holds a clinic in how Latin-jazz piano should rock the house; trumpeter Pete Giroux and multi-instrumentalist Tim Williams give the group a chameleon-like front line; and lead vocalist Walter Ramos bemoans passion’s loss in “A Donde Se Fue El Fuego” one moment, and then teaches a dancing history lesson with “Un Jibarito Cantando Son.” “Havana Before Dawn” thoroughly smokes the sophomore jinx, and – unlike last year’s full-disc debut “Shake It” – we didn’t have to wait five years for it. If the Whisperdome doesn’t turn into a dance hall during Friday’s drop party, I’ll be shocked!

Ernesto Cervini Quartet: There
Much as I’d love to say it, this disc is not a response to Todd Nelson’s aforementioned effort; rather, it’s drummer Ernesto Cervini’s live “follow-up” to his own debut CD “Here.” (Copycat!) A composer as well as an accomplished leader & sideman, the Toronto, CA resident does the same thing as every other drummer who’s written a tune: Hire a bunch of cold-blooded killers to make his music jump around. Reed wizard Joel Frahm (last seen around these parts backing up Linda Oh at Skidmore) brings his “A” game to Vancouver, wrapping the opener “Granada Bus” in tight bright soprano sax and referencing the one-hit wonder “Popcorn” on “The Monks of Oka,” Cervini’s bright tribute to both Thelonious Monk and some Quebecois monks who “make fantastic cheese.” Frahm contributes his own soulful composition “Alert”, making one wonder when we’ll see his next project as a leader. Adrean Farrugia’s blinding piano is a heady mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s heart and Chick Corea’s soul, and Cervini’s fellow Canadian makes a dynamite foil for Frahm when he’s not knocking us out on the tortured ballad “Gramps” or his own composition “Woebegone.” Dan Loomis – a leader in his own right, as we saw at Riverfront in 2009 – plays some of the phattest bass on the planet, which he uses to keep every tune on “There” rock steady so Cervini can stick and move at will. Loomis also opens the waltzing “Tullamore” with a marvelous in-the-clear solo that shows his talent for lyricism. I’ve said many times that today’s best jazz is being made far from the cities where the music made its name. In this case, “There” was made in Vancouver, BC, and its vibrance and elegance stands up against anything the “big” cities can throw at it.

Tim Hagans: The Moon Is Waiting
“The Moon is Waiting”
Tim Hagans’ last disc, “The Avatar Sessions,” was a star-studded big-band affair that was as unwieldy as it was brilliant. Hagans went the other other way for “The Moon is Waiting,” choosing a stripped-out, piano-less quartet for a set that generates twice the power of “Avatar” with maybe a quarter of the personnel. Vic Juris turns his guitar up to 11, and then paints a “12” on his amp and takes his fuzz-toned attack even further. He has to, because Hagans goes for the jugular right from the jump, blowing with abandon on “Ornette’s Waking Dream of a Woman.” That tune, the roaring tone-poem title track and the angular “Get Outside” were commissioned by the Michele Bragwen Dance Ensemble, and if the choreography was as intense as Hagans’ solo on “Outside,” I have to think the dancers are still in traction. Jukkis Uotilla’s drum work is old school fusion drumming, big as all outdoors with the energy of rock and the technical specs of jazz. The result is a turbo-charged engine that demands that every track go out on the edge. This includes bassist Rufus Reid, who’s not known for working with electric nastiness like this, but his solo on the jammed-out “Boo” is right up there with some of his best. There’s a real feeling of catharsis throughout “Moon,” as if Hagans decided the best way to get all the bad juju out of his system was to scream as loud as he could. This is most evident on “Wailing Trees,” a damning treatise on Hurricane Katrina and the (lack of) response after the storm. Passive listening is not an option with “The Moon is Waiting.” Both Hagans’ music and his performance demands you pay attention, because nobody got anywhere by not getting involved. This is tough stuff, but it’s a tough world, and Hagans obviously believes you can handle it.

Tim Mayer: Resilience
(Jazz Legacy Productions)
Although the primary reason for the creation of Jazz Legacy was to create a place for jazz veterans who had been left behind by the major labels, JLP honcho (and ex-Dizzy Gillespie sideman) John Lee has also built a launchpad for next-generation players like multi-instrumentalist Sharel Cassity, trombonist Michael Dease and the Israeli guitar wizard Yotam. Tenorman Tim Mayer is the latest wunderkind to get the JLP treatment, and the Boston native does not disappoint. Mayer has a big, broad sound reminiscent of his hero Dexter Gordon, and his self-assurance comes flying out of the speakers on the supercharged bopper “For Miles.” The tune was written by Dease, who co-produced “Resilience” with Lee when he wasn’t part of the torrid group of players that joined in with Mayer and his crackerjack base quartet to give the date a vibe that’s straight out of Rudy van Gelder’s best recordings. Mayer makes Kenny Dorham’s cruiser “Escapade” purr like a kitten, waltzes with trumpeter Claudio Roditi on Lee Morgan’s “Blue Lace” and blows some serious smoke on Jule Styne’s classic ballad “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” Pianist George Cables (another JLP veteran) provides Mayer with a consistently sharper foil, and his bubbling composition “Klimo” puts a great cap on the session. A lot of young musicians who play “trad jazz” are so concerned about “getting it right” that, at the end of the day, there’s almost no juice left, and the performance is dry as dust. None of that for Mayer: The joy and excitement he puts into his sound always stays on par with the technical side, and the result makes classics like Fats Navarro’s “Dance of the Infidels” and Charles Tolliver’s “Emperor’s March” seem like the first time they’ve ever been played. Lee understands that jazz can’t be relegated to “museum piece” status; it needs to live and breathe if it’s going to keep on going, and Tim Mayer is another breath of life from Jazz Legacy.

Reviews by J Hunter

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