Jazz 2K: CD Picks of the Week
Reviews by J Hunter
Welcome to the Greater Nippertown jazz scene’s version of the Bermuda Triangle: That amazon nine-day stretch that gives us the Port of Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival, Lake George Jazz Weekend and the start of another season for A Place For Jazz… which means, of course, that we need some music to talk about between sets:
Not all 80-plus guys mumble incoherently to empty chairs. Some, like 81-year old piano icon Ahmad Jamal, take that chair and smash it over the heads of any stereotypes that stand in their way. Jamal still paints beautiful, pastoral pictures on his original “I Remember Italy” and Johnny Mercer’s “Laura”, but he also hits his lines on the reboot of “Autumn Rain” with a haymaker punch that’ll rock you back, and his reboot of the title track to his latest release Blue Moon takes one of the Great American Songbook’s more treacly woe-is-me tunes and flips it soundly on its head. Jamal’s muscular, veteran back-up band gives no quarter, either: Reginald Veal prefaces Jamal’s pulsing attack on “Morning Mist” with an in-the-clear bass solo that will give your sub-woofers some extra work; drummer Herlin Riley’s backbeat on “This Is the Life” lets Jamal dance the way he wants to – floating lightly on some sections, stomping hard on others – while Manolo Badrena’s percussion adds driving, industrial urgency to Bronislau Kaper’s “Invitation” and the Dizzy classic “Woody’n You.” Some things may get meaner as they get older, but when it comes to Ahmad Jamal, they also get better – way better!
Some discs you wait for turn out to be a resounding disappointment, and I’ve been waiting for Initial Here since Linda Oh rocked us all with most of this music at Skidmore last year. I only had to listen to the frenetic original “Ultimate Persona” for thirty seconds before I thought, “Everything’s gonna be all right, man,” and Oh’s swirling mash-up of Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Les Cinq Doigts” confirms that Oh isn’t just a seriously talented bassist – she’s also a serious musician with range and vision. Her original “Deeper Than Happy” nails the unbridled joy that runs through every moment of a three-year old’s life, and her in-the-clear meditation prior to Ellington’s “Come Sunday” strikes at the loneliness that is at the heart of the blues. Joel Frahm handled the sax lines at Skidmore, but Dayna Stephens acquits herself extremely well throughout Initial (particularly on “Mr. M,” Oh’s ode to Charles Mingus), as does Oh contemporary Rudy Royston, who’s becoming one of the most interesting young drummers on the scene. The big news is how far keyboardist Fabian Almazan steps out of Terence Blanchard’s shadow, as he plays both acoustic and electric to provide the razor-sharp foil Oh lacked on her debut disc Entry. Sophomore slump? Not for Linda Oh!
Thankfully, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba returns to to the KISS Principle (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”) by eschewing the large ensemble on the too-complex Avatar in favor of a raucous quartet, occasionally augmenting the proceedings with stellar guests like guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer/fellow Havana native Ignacio Berroa. “Nueva Cubana” is a resounding announcement that Carnaval is now in session, and Pedrito Martinez’s blistering percussion is just a sample of what he’s going to give Nippertown at his upcoming performances at the Albany Riverfront and A Place for Jazz. (Martinez also adds galvanizing vocals to the brightly mystical “Oshun.”) Rubalcaba’s original “Fifty” is funky like a monkey; Loueke’s Afro-centric “Alafia” is sneaky cool; and Rubalcaba gets his bebop on with Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies.” Rubalcaba’s not done with complex music, though, even though Paul Bley’s rubato-heavy “Moore” and bassist Matt Brewer’s swirling “Anthem” comes in relatively bite-sized pieces we didn’t get on Avatar. Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered” also gets an extended reboot that plumbs the depths of Rubalcaba’s massive creativity. Less is definitely more, and since XXI Century is a 2-disc set, we get more of that less, and that’s a good thing!
There are moments where this genre is both exciting and frustrating, and I’m at that junction with Twelve, pianist Amina Figarova’s twelth release and her first since she moved back to New York with flutist/husband Bart Platteau. Figarova (a native of Baku, Azerbaijan) is phenomenally talented and deeply expressive, both as a composer and a player, and you get a bright flash of that on the Latin-tinged opener “NYCST”. Figarova’s percussive solos fly like a Ferrari with no brakes on this ode to the world’s most famous subway system, and Platteau’s dancing solo gives her a foil that is both bright in substance and unique in relationship… and then saxman Marc Mommas chimes in with a solo that just lies flat while Chris Strik’s drums do nothing to elevate the tone. From that point on, a disturbing pattern envelops Twelve: Compositions like the warmly contemplative “Morning Pace,” the bopfest “New Birth,” the frenetic “Sneaky Seagulls” and its Herbie Hancock-like follow-up, “Shut Eyes, Sea Waves…” roll by as music that is not nearly as great as they could be, despite Figarova and Platteau working like Trojans to bring the pieces off, and the fault lies consistently with support players who fall well below their leader’s quality. Only bassist Jeroen Vierdag matches Figarova and Platteau’s standard, and their trio on the hushed closer “Maria’s Request” hurts your heart, it’s so beautiful. While I understand she is fiercely loyal to the band that’s backed her in past efforts, I believe Figarova will only attain the success she so richly deserves if she steps out of her comfort zone and starts taking advantage of the vast reserve of talent that is only a subway ride away from her home in Queens.
All-stars teams never stay together, right? I mean, they’re terrific for one-off stuff like the Olympics, but you can’t keep that kind of talent from chafing at each other, right? So much for THOSE truisms! The Hall of Fame sextet that is the Cookers is back with their third disc in three years, and – like Jamal – this AARP-ready group would rather overturn chairs then talk to them. Most of the originals on Believe come from recordings in the members’ respective pasts, but trumpeter/producer David Weiss’ arrangements crack like lightning and boom like thunder. Tenorman Billy Harper’s “Believe, For It Is True” is half-church, half-stumbling blues, and all meat with no filler; Harper nails it to the wall with ample help from Weiss, who’s the youngster of the band (at 47). Bassist Cecil McBee’s “Temptation(s)” reads like a film-noir classic written by Quentin Tarantino, and his free-form “Tight Squeeze” comes at you from every angle possible. Billy Hart’s carpet-bombing solos on “Tight” and Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All” would make most younger drummers take up accounting, while trumpeter Eddie Henderson and altoist Craig Handy take turns grabbing you by the throat on pianist George Cables’ Latin-bopper “Ebony Moonbeams.” That this incredible group is working with its third label in three years says everything about the impermanence of jazz today. Let’s hope Motema gives the Cookers the permanent home they so deeply deserve.