Jazz CDs, Pt. 1 - October 2002

We'll kick off this month with a pair of jazz versions of classical music - a European genre that seems to be picking up on this side of the Atlantic...

The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Bach - Stefon Harris, vibes; Kenny Barron, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Lewis Nash, drums - Classical Jazz Records 5508-2:

This effort has even been released on a label that appears to specialize in recordings of a classical/jazz mix. The CEO and producer is composer/arranger Bob Belden - of Black Dahlia fame. He's also arranged the music of Puccini, and of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker for the first CD by this quartet on his label. Unlike some of the CDs in this particular genre, all four of these players are top jazz stars and you know at the least to expect some pleasant listening from them. This one's even better. Bach is probably the safest choice of classical composers for this sort of thing - he's always appealed to jazz players and it seems his music is also somehow safe from being ruined by an ill-conceived jazz interpretation. Glenn Gould is quoted as having said "I don't need jazz, I've got Bach and nobody swings like Bach." The six selections jazzed are the first and second movements of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, the second movement of the Oboe concerto in A Major, Invention No. 4, and the familiar Air for the G String. Highly recommended.

Lee Konitz & The Axis String Quartet Play French Impressionist Music from the 20th Century (Arrangements by Ohad Talmor) - Palmetto Records PM-2064:

What a title awready... The concept came from the CEO of the Japanese jazz label Venus Records and the unusual arrangements are from Talmor, who had worked with saxist Konitz in the past and knows his style and personality. Konitz did a previous alto sax & strings album back in l958: "An Image," and on the other hand the maverick saxist - now 70 years old - also recorded an entire album of unaccompanied alto sax. Talmor reported the biggest challenge was to make the music flow naturally between the written out and improvised sections. Konitz felt there should be more improvisation and worked to make his variations sound as though they were written. This project is somewhat similar to the all-Faure jazz disc by the Treya Quintet that I reviewed here last month, except that there is only a single work by Faure. The other eight tracks use selections from Koechlin, Chausson, Satie, Debussy, and Ravel that began life as works for solo piano, violin and piano or voice and piano. Aside from Debussy's Reverie, most of them will be unfamiliar to the average listener, and perhaps that is an advantage. It reduces the leap of faith that the ears/brain must make in melding the classical originals and the jazz treatments. The skillful playing and improvisation skills of the string quartet help greatly - quite a contrast to the stiff, out of tune quartet that recorded the pioneering Charlie Parker with Strings album. The closing Valse Romantique by Debussy is a glorious piece that transcends all musical borders.

- John Sunier

More Classical Jazz, this time for solo piano...

Chucho Valdes, solo piano - Fantasia Cubana (Variations on Classical Themes) - Blue Note 57189:

The Cuban jazz pianist was urged to try his hands at this solo recording following a Lincoln Center concert in which he had played improvisations on themes by various Cuban composers. Valdes decided to improvise on themes by Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Lecuona. He was recorded in the same concert hall with the same mic setup and on the same Steinway as Artur Rubinstein, Richard Goode and Peter Serkin had used before him. And his producer was Max Wilcox, who worked with all those classical pianists. Wilcox was amazed that 55 minutes of music were recorded in only two days and there was a need for only a single edit in the entire recording. These improvisations are unlike any of classical themes you have ever heard - virtuosic yes, but also touching, heartfelt, and seemingly spinning out of an inexhaustible imagination. Put Art Tatum's version of the Humoresque into the Buena Vista Social Club milieu and you'll have a rough idea what I'm talking about. There are also six originals by Valdes in the same strongly classical vein. [This just in: Valdes was forced to cancel a scheduled performance in Chapel Hill, N.C. this month because the State Department won't let the Cuban musician re enter the U.S. due to new federal laws resulting from 9/11...] Tracks: Chopin: Prelude in E Minor, Lecuona: La Comparsa (three versions), Valdes: Wakamba, Debussy: Reverie & Arabesque, Chopin: Waltz in A Minor, Valdes: Sunrise, Clinton: My Reverie, Valdes: Fantasia Cubana, Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess, Valdes: Tumbao, La Campesina, Impromptu.

- John Sunier

Branford Marsalis Quartet - Footsteps of Our Fathers (with Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Tain Watts, drums) - Rounder Records 11661-3301-2:

Something of a surprise to find saxist Marsalis on this label which is more associated with folk music. Also to find him on the album cover standing in the surf getting his good shoes soaked for the purposes of a poetic cover shot. The Footsteps idea is carried out as a tribute to four jazz forefathers, and their music is joined by some writings in the note booklet from each of them addressing the question of race. Ornette Coleman is represented by his composition Giggin', Sonny Rollins by The Freedom Suite, John Coltrane by A Love Supreme, and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet by his piece Concorde. The quartet doesn't try to imitate the four jazz masters, but there are bows to their uniqueness while preserving Marsalis' own distinct style. The quotes about racism from each of them are also worthwhile reading.

- John Henry

Here's a pair of jazz classic albums from the early days of the LP era, resuscitated with superbly enhanced sonic quality...

The Quintet - Jazz at Massey Hall (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach) - Debut/Fantasy DCD-124-2:

Critics seem to agree this recording preserves the greatest modern jazz concert ever. It occurred in Toronto in l953 and the lineup exceeded the greatest fantasy lineups of any jazz festival programmer. Due to recording contract problems, Parker was listed as "Charlie Chan" on the original LP. All of the five were in top form for this program and the audience was with them all the way. Dizzy's treatment of his own Salt Peanuts has to be the funniest of any other recorded versions of that classic - breaks me up every time. The shortest track is about seven minutes - the players all get to do extended solos not heard on most recordings at the time. The closing Night in Tunisia brings down the house.

The only problem with this super-classic super-historical live concert recording is that previous versions on LP, cassette and CD sounded like hell. It was painful to listen to, almost like the original recording medium had been cylinder record or wire recorder. Well, this release fixes that! The mastering engineer began with a different tape than used before - one from the estate of Charlie Mingus, in which Mingus had overdubbed his bass in some ensemble passages. Somehow these tapes sound a lot better than what was used before. Then some skillful restoration work was done on them and a 20-bit converter with JVC's digital K2 Interface (also used on their xrcds) was used in remastering. Now we have for the first time a concert that's a delight to listen to - clearly reproduced solos and good ensemble sound. It's even possible now 4to hear all of Dizzy's "salt peanuts" exhortations way in the background. Bravo and thank you, Fantasy! Tracks: Perdido, Salt Peanuts, All the Things You Are/52nd Street Theme, Wee Allen's Alley, Hot House, A Night in Tunisia.

Coleman Hawkins - The Hawk in Hi-Fi (Hawkins, tenor sax; Billy Byers and his Orchestra - with Zoot Sims, Charlie Shavers, Al Cohn, Hank Jones, Milt Hinton & Urbie Green) - RCA Bluebird 09026-63842-2:

In its original LP guise this album was my introduction to the wonders of Coleman Hawkins' tenor playing. The l956 session was one of the most successful of jazz performer & strings efforts; there was also in addition to the 15-piece string section a woodwind quartet and all of the A-list jazzmen listed above. The new liner notes have an interesting history on the use of the term Hi-Fi on recordings at this time. This was just a few years after both tape recording and the LP had come on the scene. Mercury Records issued LPs of its performers "In the Land of Hi-Fi" so putting Hawkins in Hi-Fi was a no-brainer. Besides the enhanced fidelity of the dozen tracks on the original LP, this reissue has a big space advantage over the original, and thus provides a total of nine additional tracks of alternate takes - making among other things a total of four different versions of Have You Met Miss Jones. At this time in New York City musicians were in and out of the studios night and day - sometimes rushing from one session to another in a cab and studying arrangements on the way. The Hawkins/Byers sessions were squeezed in, regarded as nothing that special, and released with hundreds of other records later that year. However, the result has been a favorite jazz album ever since and certainly warranted this most welcome sprucing-up from Bluebird.

- John Henry

Alright, these two are not jazz, but they're fascinating listening and don't fit anywhere else!...

Stephen Micus - Towards the Wind - ECM 1804 012 159453-2:

Micus is a versatile German musician who has lived in India for years and now resides in Mallorca, creating his own unique transcultural music using a cornucopia of native instruments. He usually plays them in a different manner from the way they are used in the particular folk culture, and his occasional vocals sound like a mystic chanting in a trance, using fantasy words that he improvises on the spot. He also sometimes multi-tracks his voice for choral effects. In this his 16th album for ECM, he employs in addition to his voice the duduk, shakuhachi, kalimba, steel string guitar, 14-string guitar, dondon, and sattar. The Armenian duduk is a primitive predecessor of the clarinet and oboe, with timbre much like the human voice. Micus studied it with a duduk master and felt an empathic relationship existed between it and the Japanese shakuhachi, which he already played. One of the eight sections of his Towards the Wind suite here overdubs two kalimbas, three dondons and six shakuhachis. However, the final result is always spare and Zen-like in its balance of sound and silence. You may find Micus' recordings in the New Age section of the CD shop, but his music is a great deal more than that. Plus with ECM's high sonic standards the special timbres of each particular ancient or folk instrument is cleanly reproduced. The movements are: Before Sunrise, Morning Breeze, Flying Horses, Padre, Birds of Dawn, Virgen de la Nieve, Eastern Princess, Crossing Dark Rivers.

Formatia Valea Mare Brass Band - Departe de Casa (Far Away from Home) - M.A Recordings M060A:

Mr. M.A, Todd Garfinkle, ran into this gypsy brass ensemble in the Paris Metro, where many Rromani musicians play. He had already released recordings of music from the Balkans and from a brass festival in Serbia, so he listened with great interest. They all come from the same village in Moldavia. He arranged for a Gothic cathedral in Orleans, France for the recording session, and eight players showed up, ready to record their own folk music instead of the mostly well-known tunes they played for handouts on the bus and subway. In addition to the expected brass instruments there are a pair of clarinets and a player who doubles on drum, cymbal and accordion. There are 22 tracks I won't bother to list. What does it sound like? Sort of like a very together Mariachi band (without the guitars and violins) playing Balkans music. This is not gypsy jazz but it's hot, believe you me.

- John Sunier

Two highly individual big band projects up next...

Mingus Big Band & Charles Mingus Orchestra - Tonight at Noon... - Dreyfus Jazz DRY-CD-36633:

The 14-piece Mingus Big Band has been a fixture in New York for over a decade now. They play mostly Mingus originals, including some arranged from sketches found in the Mingus archives. The personnel include Randy Brecker on trumpet, John Stubblefield on sax and David Kikoski on piano. Four of the ten selections here introduce the Charles Mingus Orchestra, a smaller 11-piece ensemble with french horn, bassoon, bass clarinet and guitar. Elvis Costello wrote lyrics to Mingus' Invisible Lady and performs them with the orchestra. There is also a blues vocal with Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the big band on Mingus' Devil Woman. The tunes are mostly unfamiliar Mingus, but they show his sometimes Ellingtonesque lushness tempered with unexpected voice leadings and emotional outbursts. The closing nearly 17-minute Black Saint & Sinner Lady hadn't been recorded for 40 years and is one of the late bassist-composer's classics. His widow Sue Mingus was the producer of the CD. Tracks: Love is a Dangerous Necessity, Noon Night, Tonight at Noon, Eclipse, Invisible Lady, Passions of a Woman Loved, Sweet Sucker Dance, Devil Woman, Love's Fury, Black Saint & Sinner Lady.

Bobby Shew, Gary Foster and friends Play the Music of Reed Kotler (Shew, trumpet & Flugelhorn; Foster, reeds; Bill Cunliffe, piano; Darek Oles Oleszkiewicz, bass; Paul Kreibich, drums & wind chimes) - Torii Records (2 CDs, no number):

Kotler is a young composer based in San Francisco who had been studying jazz piano 11 years ago and saw a flyer for the Bud Shank Jazz Camp in Port Townsend, Washington. His camp experience bolstered his desire to write for jazz ensembles and his enthusiasm in this direction brought about this collection of 21 tracks on two CDs. Trumpeter Bobby Shew was one of the instructors at the camp and took a special liking to Kotler's creations. Most were ballads for jazz piano and Shew had to arrange them to present the tunes in the best possible light. He also work with Kotler in re-doing some of them at different tempi to avoid the sameness of a series of ballads. He then picked the other musicians to perform the music, choosing players known for their good taste and melodic playing. The first added was Gary Foster on sax and flute. Superb pianist Bill Cunliffe was next. Kotler's music is fully worth this special attention - it's supremely melodic, with a nice relaxed swing about it and enough unexpected turns and flourishes that it doesn't sound all alike. The skilled quintet gives it their all, and the arrangements couldn't be improved to my ears. (I'd still advise listening to something else in between the two discs though.) Sonics are also beyond reproach. I'll bet many budding jazz composer-pianists would like to have such loving attention to their creations as Kotler has been fortunate enough to receive here.

- John Henry

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