JAZZ 2K: CD Picks of the Week

Reviews by J Hunter

Five bright new arrivals and proof that everything old can become new again:

Jack DeJohnette: Sound Travels

“Sound Travels”
(Entertainment One)
It’s no surprise that Jack DeJohnette still kicks ass at age 70: As Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes have proven, the jazzers who age the best are the drummers. But on “Sound Travels,” it’s how DeJohnette kicks ass – and, believe it or not, it ain’t on drums! Yes, he does get behind the kit on this collection of nine originals, all written or co-written by DeJohnette. Most of the backbeat heroics, though, go to percussionist Luisito Quintero, who completes the Latin feel infused in tracks like the sensual “Indigo Dreamscapes,” the East-meets-West-and-goes-South bop of “New Muse” and the African/Cuban crossover title track. But for the most part, DeJohnette eschews his famed rolling-thunder attack in favor of making space for an all-star band featuring bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, guitarist Lionel Loueke, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, reed wizard Tim Ries and a heretofore-unknown keyboardist named… Jack DeJohnette! Yup, the heir to Tony Williams’ legacy plays beautiful, evocative piano – most notably backing Bobby McFerrin’s glistening vocalese on the meditative three-hander “Oneness” and all by himself on the whisper-soft coda “Home.” DeJohnette even plays piano on the twisting NOLA-survives anthem “Dirty Ground,” leaving co-author Bruce Hornsby nothing to do but sing! Take heart, fellow members of the Silver Headed Society! You’re never too old to re-invent yourself!

Christian McBride: Conversations With Christian
“Conversations with Christian”
(Mack Avenue)
Christian McBride hasn’t re-invented himself as much as he’s using the new technology to spread his impeccable bass playing and inimitable humor even further: His free iTunes podcasts and his Sirius/XM radio show “Conversations with Christian” have him sitting down with a vast array of musical icons, and this set of sterling duets is an outgrowth of those sessions. If anything, the disc shows how phenomenally versatile McBride is: He plays straight-as-an-arrow jazz with Hank Jones (“Alone Together”), Roy Hargrove (“Baubles, Bangles and Beads”) and the late Dr. Billy Taylor (“Spiritual”), but he also cranks out dancing Latin magic with Eddie Palmieri (“Guajeo y Tumbao”), mashes up classical & blues with Regina Carter (“Fat Bach & Greens”), gives Sting the chance to make “Consider Me Gone” a jazz standard, and helps Dee Dee Bridgewater put a sexy spin on the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” And can you imagine a duet of bass and Jew’s harp? McBride and actress/rocker Gina Gershon did, and the resulting disc closer “Chitlins and Gefiltefish” – in McBride’s own words – “sho’ is funky!” No, “Conversations with Christian” isn’t your traditional duet disc… but then again, that’s the point!

Gary Smulyan: Smul's Paradise
“Smul’s Paradise”
Going back to Jimmy Smith, jazz recordings featuring the Hammond B-3 organ make the best party music: The B-3’s marvelous harmonics send this delicious buzz through your coccyx (“Heh heh! He said ‘coccyx!'”) and drives you either onto the dance floor or straight for the bar. By substituting baritone sax for tenor sax (the B-3’s more traditional ally), Gary Smulyan applies a tumbling Tim Wakefield knuckleball to the organ-jazz concept, and the results are truly outstanding. When properly applied, the bari sax has a great little buzz of its own, so when you combine Mike LeDonne’s vibrant skills on the B-3 with Smulyan’s peerless ability to play effortless, cascading solos that never fail to thrill, an overcooked chestnut like Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” jumps up and waltzes smartly around the room. Smulyan and LeDonne give grateful nods to the late B-3 master Don Patterson with a finger-snapping version on Patterson’s “Up in Betty’s Room” and a luscious take on his ballad “Aires.” It’s not all standards in “Smul’s Paradise,” even though the overall vibe would make “Brother” Jack McDuff proud: Smulyan originals like “Blues for “D.P.” and the flying title track are eminently solid citizens, and “Heavenly Hours” (Smulyan’s epic re-work of “Seven Steps to Heaven”) really kicks out the jams. Peter Bernstein’s tasty guitar harkens back to Grant Green’s 1961 release “Grantstand,” a Blue Note classic which featured McDuff and tenorman Yusef Lateef. When the going gets tough, it’s a brave soul that can kick back and party, and “Smul’s Paradise” is how you do it the jazz way.

Sam Yahel: From Sun To Sun
“From Sun to Sun”
Speaking of the B-3, that’s the instrument keyboardist Sam Yahel made his bones with, recording with artists ranging from Joshua Redman and Bill Frisell to Maceo Parker and Norah Jones. But it was on his 2009 Posi-Tone release “Hometown” that Yahel showed that he was (literally) a pretty mean hand with piano, as well. “From Sun to Sun” builds beautifully on that foundation, as Yahel applies both keyboards to a freer, more muscular sound that showcases his skills as soloist and interpreter. Backed by bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jochen Rueckert (the crackerjack rhythm section from “Hometown”), Yahel injects new life into Cole Porter’s “So In Love” even as he goes the traditional, lyrical piano-trio way on Donald Kahn’s “A Beautiful Friendship.” But it’s on originals like the rising opener “2 Pilgrims,” the multi-movement epic “Saba” and the dancing freestyle “Git It” where Yahel shatters the mold and shows he’s got plenty to contribute to any dialogue about the current state of this genre. Even short pieces like the swirling keyboard tapestries “After the Storm” and “Blink and Move On” make an indelible mark as they give big love to Tony Williams Lifetime organist Larry Young. A piano-trio recording can be as “exciting” as a cheese pizza (“Hey, man, you forgot the toppings!”), but with the right ingredients and some pungent spices, a cheese pizza can taste pretty damn good! “From Sun to Sun” is a satisfying next step for a great young player who’s only just beginning to reach full blossom.

Curtis Brothers: Completion of Proof
“Completion of Proof”
(Truth Revolution)
Pianist Zaccai Curtis was one of the few bright spots of the truncated “A Night in Treme” band that was supposed to thrill last year’s Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, only to send more than a few people away from the amphitheater and off to the concession area in search of one more calamari salad. (So I like to eat small rubber tires with balsamic dressing! Sue me!) On “Completion of Proof,” Curtis gets together with trumpeter Brian Lynch, drummer Ralph Peterson and Zaccai’s bass-playing brother Lucques Curtis to put the pedal to the metal on new tunes cast in the hard-bop mode. A series of slashing reed players join Lynch on the front line and proceed to blow their faces out: Donald Harrison’s work on the attention-getting “Protestor” and the frenzied “Jazz Conspiracy” was exactly what I didn’t get at Freihofer’s, and altoist Joe Ford and tenorman Jimmy Greene flex power-lifting muscle on the three pieces that makes up Zaccai’s “Manifest Destiny Suite.” By definition, hard bop allows for little or no softness, which is why the Latin groover “Sol Within” is the softest thing on the menu. “Completion of Proof” could have used a few more tunes like “Sol” – not only because it’s a good piece, but because listening to one relentless tune after another can wear one out, particularly if there’s no calamari salad to be had anywhere in the vicinity.

And now, your Jazz2K “Blast from The Past”:

Wes Montgomery: Echoes Of Indiana Avenue
“Echoes of Indiana Avenue”
(Resonance Records)
You like Pat Metheny and George Benson? How about Kurt Rosenwinkel and Russell Malone, or even Jimi Hendrix and Joe Satriani? Each and every one of them credits John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery’s seminal guitar stylings as an early influence. Montgomery would have been 88 this year (He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1968), and Resonance is celebrating Wes’ birthday by releasing music from some unreleased tapes that went through a journey worthy of The Da Vinci Code. That journey is described in a sensational 24-page booklet – also available in digital form – that features terrific essays by Bill Milkowski and Pat Martino and goes deep into the history of Indianapolis’ unheralded jazz scene; it should be heralded, though, because along with Wes and his brothers Monk and Buddy, Naptown gave the genre such Hall of Famers as Freddie Hubbard, Slide Hampton and J.J. Johnson. Recorded at some point between 1957 and 1958, Wes weaves the simple, unadorned hollow-body magic that widened the trail cut earlier by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. The sound quality of the mostly-standards set varies between “analog radio broadcast” and “upper-level bootleg,” but given that the recordings that make up “Echoes of Indiana Avenue” were gone and forgotten until a few years ago, we’re lucky to have them at all – very, very lucky!

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