Our last look at 2017, covers six more fine instrumental albums; from a living legend, who just keeps getting it done; a thrilling young Cuban percussionist/vocalist; a drummer who has been setting the world on fire; a venerable jazz label, restocking for the future, and an exciting young vibraphonist, who has come of age.
The master percussionist drops a fine album of modern jazz, in a totally acoustic setting. The first thing that caught my attention was the pacing; though it is far from languid, it never feels rushed. It is Guiliana’s album but he leads, while never overpowering his sidemen, as will sometimes happen on drummer albums. The revelation for me, is the fine tenor work of Jason Rigby, a powerful player, who to these ears, sounds like frequent Guiliana collaborator Donny McCaslin, filtered through Stan Getz. There are a couple of strong Morrisey penned tracks (“Mayor of Rotterdam” is my fave), another with a swinging, melodic hook, that I have been unable to get out of my head (“Big Rig Jones”) and a David Bowie tune (“Where are We Now”), in a beautiful and fitting tribute to the late legend, who employed Guiliana as the drummer on his last two albums. Call me a dinosaur, if you must but as much as I appreciate Mr. Guiliana’s electronic, beat based work, I love his group in this situation.
I’m going to stop mentioning Ahmad Jamal’s age, when I speak of his artistry because it is irrelevant. It is not necessary to make any allowances, as he plays circles around some of the so called top cats, who are less than half his age. He has been inspiring jazz musicians for the past seven decades; his ideas and his energy are still fresh and when he hits the pocket, with his regular sidemen; James Cammack (bass), Herlin Riley (drums) and Manolo Badrena (percussion), you know where a lot of these young pianists who claim to be hip-hop influenced, really got their groove from. On this disc, he pays tribute to the French port city, with three different and equally compelling, versions of the title track: an instrumental; a spoken word, featuring French rapper Abd al Malik and a haunting French/English vocal version, by Mina Agossi. “Autumn Leaves” is given a bright Jamal treatment, which rides high on Badrena’s percussion and a quick quote from “Stolen Moments”. There’s also the funkiest version of “…Motherless Child” that I’ve ever heard. All I can say is, Mr. Jamal, keep on doing what you do, for as long as you want to do it!
Ahmad Jamal - "Marseille" [2017 New Album Presentation] - YouTube
I must admit that I made a small error with this album. When I first heard it, I was so impressed with Brenda Navarrete’s skill as a percussionist, that I categorized it as an instrumental album, even though every track includes Ms. Navarrete’s vocals. Now that I taken the time to listen to her singing, I realize that in addition to being one of the best young Afro-Cuban percussionists, that I have heard in many years, she is also an impressive vocalist. Mi Mundo is Ms. Navarrete’s debut album as a leader. It was released digitally, in September, though the CD version will not be out until January 2018. Regardless, I was floored from the first notes of “Baba Eleggua”, as in this young woman’s playing and vocalizing, I felt the spirits of Carlos “Patato” Valdes and Armando Peraza. Yes, she is that good. The album, which includes four of Brenda’s compositions, is deeply rooted in Afro-Cuban traditions, with a touch of modern influences, such as American R&B. Her version of “Caravan”, is a killer, as is her original, “Rumbero Como Yo”, with its multi-tracked vocal line. She demonstrates her jazz chops on “A Ochun”, with its flute driven mid-section and a call and response finish, over insistent jazz chords. There’s not a bad track here. My only minor quibble, is the album’s length (a scant 37 minutes). A very impressive instrumental and vocal debut. I pray that stupid politics, will not keep Brenda Navarrete, from being heard by a wider audience.
Six of the best young musicians in jazz today, come together to form a supergroup, in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of arguably, the greatest record label in jazz history, Blue Note Records. Those expecting to hear these young cats rehash the old Blue Note catalog of “hits”, are going to be sorely disappointed. The two-disc set consists mostly of original compositions by these young lions. The music has energy, imperfections and thrills. And it also has a future. It is the sound of great musicians, who have respect for where they have come from but who are trying to create something new, relevant and deeply personal. They are, in the words of the group’s keyboardist/co-producer, Robert Glasper, “Making our own history now”. There are a couple of nods to the label’s storied past, in the appearance of two living legends, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, on a new (and different) version of Shorter’s “Masqualero”. There is also a thrilling, almost 18-minute-long, version of Shorter’s classic “Witch Hunt”, with the core sextet getting to find out where that great old vehicle, will take them. It takes them to a blazing tenor statement by Marcus Strickland and after a slow start, a terrific trumpet solo by Ambrose Akinmusire. As long as minds can remain open and younger cats like these, can keep finding vehicles for their creativity, the music and this label, will have a bright future.
The latest in a series of fine albums from this veteran guitarist, takes him out of the soul jazz bag that he has been in for a number of years and back into straight ahead territory. It’s his best album in at least a decade. Click HERE to read our full album review.
Among the first six of the eleven albums and one EP, on our second half of 2017 “Best Of” list: We have one of the great big bands in contemporary jazz, another one that may grab that title, one day; another striking work from an artist who for me, represents jazz’s bright future; and a another interesting concept album, from an artist who never seems to run out of fresh ideas.
Perhaps in emulation of one of his musical heroes, James Brown, bassist Christian McBride has become the hardest working man in jazz. In addition to his killer trio, his small group (Inside Straight), his popular show on Sirius/XM and his appearances as an unofficial ambassador of jazz, Mr. McBride has returned, with his big band, for the first time in six years. And he has returned with a funky vengeance, as Bringin’ It, smokes, from the first notes of the hot, Brown-influenced “Gettin’ to It”, to the last notes of the Steve Davis flag waver, “Optimism”. McBride demonstrates that he has developed into a first-rate large ensemble chart writer, as he arranged nine of the albums eleven tracks and I didn’t hear a false note or a cliché, in any of them. Bringin’ It is a breath of fresh air, in an often moribund genre. I just hope we don’t have to wait another six years for the next album.
Christian McBride Big Band- 'Bringin' It' EPK - YouTube
Take six cats, from different parts of the U.S., who are all first-rate composers, arrangers, educators and (of course) musicians; bring them together every few years, in the studio, to kick around some ideas; shake well and you’ve got musical fire. That is Unhinged Sextet; the best little straight-ahead group that you’ve probably never heard of. Their second album, Don’t Blink, picks up where their first, Clarity, left off, except it swings harder and the writing is stronger; those two things alone, put it on my best of list. There are no frills and no stars, just boss level musicians, at the top of their game and playing solid post-bop jazz. Strong solos that are never too long and a good mix of uptempo and ballads. More, please! Now if we could just get them out of the damn studio and on the live stage.
"The Swinger and the Saint" - Unhinged Sextet - YouTube
Wynton and the JALCO drop their second outstanding album of the year. Where the first featured one pianist in tribute to the music of another, this one features several great pianists, of all ages, in tribute to the magnificence of the instrument itself. Click HERE to read our full review.
There are very few jazz artists working today, who could successfully pull off the marriage of the Prairie Americana of the poetry of Carl Sandburg and the spare rhythms of modern jazz. Percussion master Matt Wilson proves that he is up to the task. He shares a common Illinois background with the great poet and a distant familial relationship, by marriage. He is also a longtime admirer and student of Sandburg, so Mr. Wilson has a personal attachment to the words and he and his group of regular cohorts, create musical bed that fit like a glove. What is ultra-hip is the appearance of some of the biggest jazz artists of today, such as Christian McBride, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Rufus Reid, Bill Frisell and Carla Bley; not on their instruments but as readers of the words of Sandburg. This is a set that is jazzy, edgy, folksy, spare, lush, humorous and introspective – just like the poetry of the man himself.
Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt (music inspired by the poetry of Carl Sandburg) - YouTube
One of the great, sleeper discs of 2017. Released on the small AAM label, this terrific date by the veteran Brazilian pianist was easy to miss and I almost did. What a shame that would have been. For I’ve heard Latin/Brazilian interpretations of the great Wayne Shorter’s music many times before but this is the most natural experience of them all. Mr. Adolfo and company have taken Shorter’s music to Rio; trusting their musicianship and the quality of the original material to carry the day. At the keyboard, Mr. Adolfo touch has always reminded me of a Brazilian version of Ahmad Jamal – soulful and swinging but with an overarching lightness of touch. And like Jamal, Adolfo has only gotten better with age. The tunes here come from IMO, Mr. Shorter’s most fertile compositional period, his years with Blue Note. And there are stimulating interpretations of Shorter classics, such as “Footprints”, “Black Nile”, “Speak No Evil” and “E.S.P.”. It is a very personal, very beautiful and very enjoyable, tribute.
Deluge - YouTube
The next post will include looks at our final six top instrumental albums of 2017. You can hear tracks from these albums and more, on the new CurtJazz Radio, on Live365.com
I posted my “Best of; Pt. 2”, list a couple of weeks ago, fully expecting to follow quickly with comments on each of the albums. This vicious strain of the flu that is out this season, had other ideas. The last thing I will say about Flu 17/18, is I haven’t had any bug knock me out like that in at least 20 years. It’s real, it’s quick, and it’s strong; so please take care of yourselves.
Now back to the Music – The five best jazz vocal albums that I heard during the last half of 2017, in alpha order by album title:
Another brilliant work from this vocal master, Code Noir (which takes its title from the infamous French colonial slave laws) is a lush and dreamily soulful album. Don’t let the ethereal qualities lull you into a false sense of relaxation, lest you miss some of the most poignant lyrical messages of Ms. Lundy’s career. The marvelous Patrice Rushen is on the keys, reminding those who may have forgotten, that she is far more than just “Forget Me Nots”. The underrated Jeff Parker plays some dynamite guitar. Listen once (or twice) for the lyrics, then let yourself get lost inside of the marvelous instrument that is Ms. Lundy’s voice. There’s not another one like it today in jazz.
I must keep reminding myself that she is not yet 30 years old. But that’s a frightening statement because it’s also a reminder that, as good as she is, Cecile McLorin Salvant, has still not yet reached her pinnacle. This is her first live album (mostly recorded at the legendary Village Vanguard), a two-disc set and there’s not a dud in the bunch. She is wondrously accomplished, self-assured, captivating and funny and often, she is all of these things, at once. I also loved the fact that there are very few tired old warhorses; Ms. Salvant mines the songbooks of Bob Dorough, Langston Hughes, (a hilariously raunchy) Bessie Smith, and the quirky, tongue in cheek sides of Broadway scores. And she makes them all her own. I will also no longer compare her, even favorably, to some of her legendary forbearers, for Cecile McLorin Salvant, has arrived, on her own terms.
I would love this album, if only for the fact that it once and for all, reclaims Allen Toussaint’s wonderful “Southern Nights” from that crude and misguided megahit Glen Campbell version, after forty years. But there’s so much more here. On her own work, Ms. Wright consistently delivers a beautiful and deeply personal amalgam of jazz, gospel and bluesy folk music. I’ve been listening intently since her impressive 2003 debut, Salt and she has never been better than she is on Grace. It is a starkly beautiful and majestic work of art, with songs by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you love the sacred or the secular, you will be completely filled with Grace.
Lizz Wright - Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You (Live Video) - YouTube
There were higher profile vocal tributes to the great “King” Cole in 2017 but none were better than this surprising effort from the up and coming Canadian baritone. Ori Dagan keeps proceedings fresh by using his customary sense of humor and by adding 5 of his own compositions, most of which are quite good. In fact, a couple fit in so well, that I assumed that they were quirky, novelty rarities from the King Cole Trio’s heyday, until I read the liner notes. Mr. Dagan also wisely avoids anything that would even approach a perceived impersonation of one of the great voices and stylists of the 20th Century. So, what do we get? We have one of the unique talents of contemporary jazz singing, bringing us his interpretation of some tunes closely and not-so-closely associated with the legend. I like what he was going for, and overall, I loved how it turned out. Plus, he’s got the estimable Sheila Jordan, guesting on a delightful take of “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. Even a Cole fan like me, couldn’t ask for much more.
Straighten Up and Fly Right - Ori Dagan & Sheila Jordan - "Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole" - YouTube
This album by this husky-voiced vocalist has the most interesting backstory of any on this list: In 1989, Kellye recorded Standards in Gray, her debut album, for Justice Records, a small Houston area label (I loved many of their releases). It received good press and sold relatively well. However, when Justice fell on hard times, the album went out of print. In 2015, 25 years after Standards in Gray’s release, Ms. Gray gained ownership rights to her album. She decided to crowd-fund and produce a live concert/album, in tribute to the original album, including new recordings of some of the tracks on Standards… The result is the terrific Rendering, a 2 CD set, that includes the new live recordings and a copy of the first album.
KELLYE GRAY RENDERING EPK - YouTube
Ms. Gray had escaped my notice, until this package arrived at my door. Suffice to say, I am very impressed. While Standards in Gray, is a portrait of a young, big voiced singer, with loads of promise, Rendering, shows us that in the ensuing 25 years, Kellye Gray has made the transition from earnest singer to jazz vocalist. That wonderful instrument of hers has developed nuance and a certain bit of inimitability. She has learned her way around and through a song; which makes the live album, very compelling and worthy of multiple listens. The arrangements are first rate, as are her sidemen, including the late drummer Sebastian Whittaker, who played on the first date and poignantly, in one of his last recordings, on the live album as well. If your new to Ms. Gray (like me), my advice is to start with these two albums and work your way back. There’s a lot of fine music there.
And those are my five vocal favorites for the 2nd half of 2017.
A reminder, these were my selections for the 1st half of the year:
There are good and bad things about writing a mid-year “Best of” list, as I did last July: It cuts down your work at year’s end but it also makes it harder to pare that year end list down to a precious few, especially in a year like this, that was filled with great jazz albums, especially on the instrumental side.
Enough of my whining. Here now, is a list of my favorite albums, released in 2017, that I first heard between July and December. As with the previous list, I’ve split them into instrumental and vocals. They are listed in alphabetical order, by album title, not in order of preference. Because all of these living jazz artists would appreciate your support, clicking on the album title will take you to a place where you can purchase the album, with delivery in some cases, before Christmas.
Tracks from all of these albums will be featured, starting on Wednesday, December 27, as we celebrate the Year in Jazz, on CurtJazz Radio, as it returns to the new Live365.com. We are on the air now, with our JazzMas Party (Holiday Jazz), until then. Click HERE to listen. It’s free.
When Charlotte Community Radio went off the air last spring, I felt in my spirit, that this was going to be a temporary absence from the air. I had heard rumblings and rumors that Live365, which had been my on-air home from late 2004, until its demise, due to draconian governmental regulation, in January 2016; was going to make a comeback. The format would be essentially the same, the costs, slightly higher.
The rumors became true, late in the summer, when I got an email from Live365, inviting me to reopen Curt’s Cafe Noir. My heart wanted to jump in that day. My head told me to do a little number crunching first. I had set a goal of getting back on the air, sometime during the 2nd Quarter of 2018. It was going to be a long wait, but I was willing because it was worth it.
While talking to my queen (aka the world’s greatest wife) over the weekend, I mentioned my plans. She then told me, “Well…actually, I had planned to give you station as a Christmas present. I know how much you love to do your Christmas show, so why don’t you just start now. Merry Christmas!”
Click the link below, to stream the new CURTJAZZ RADIO. It’s 100% Free.
I was immediately speechless, and then grateful, to my family and to God for the chance to do what I love, again, and even more quickly than I had planned. I also knew that I had my work cut out for me, because all of a sudden, the 2017 JAZZMAS Party was on.
I also did something I had wanted to do for a while, which is change the station name. Curt’s Cafe Noir, was a name that I came up with back in 2004, when I envisioned the station as an amalgam of many musical styles. As jazz became our identity, I never found an opening to make the switch. Now is that time.
So, the station formerly known as Curt’s Cafe Noir, will now be known as CurtJazz Radio. I’ve become known by that moniker, so I figure it will be easier for new fans to remember and for old fans and friends to get used to.
We kicked off the new CurtJazz Radio, on Sunday, December 10. Almost thirteen years to the day, that we started Curt’s Cafe Noir. Since it’s the Holiday Season, we will start programming with one of our most popular features on the old station, the 24/7 JAZZMAS Party. Wall to wall, Christmas and Holiday-themed jazz vocals and instrumentals – some familiar and some rare. This will go on, 24 hours a day, until December 27. On that date, we will switch to playing tracks from the best jazz albums of 2017, which we will do through mid January. After that, it will be what you know us for – straight-ahead jazz, mostly by living, working artists.
If you’re a fan of Curt’s Cafe Noir, we welcome you to CurtJazz Radio, with open arms. If you never heard Curt’s Cafe Noir, we’d love for you to give CurtJazz Radio a try. I think you’ll like it.
We ask for your support and we appreciate every minute that you spend with us.
This delightful Oklahoma native has had quite a year – She released a fine, all instrumental album (Speechless). This was followed by a terrific, live date, as a co-leader, with the great tenor saxophonist, Scott Hamilton (The Things We Did Last Summer). Champian Fulton now caps 2017 with Christmas with Champian, her first Holiday disc. It is another winner.
To be successful, Christmas albums, need to exude a certain joy of the season and this one does, from the finger-snapping backbeat of “White Christmas” (nice work by drummer, Fukushi Tainaka, throughout) to the closer, “Merry, Merry Christmas”, a lovely original number by Ms. Fulton. The rest of the album is filled with familiar songs of the season but thanks to Ms. Fulton’s first-rate piano work and the rock-solid backing of her sidemen; Mr. Tainaka, bassist David Williams and Champian’s dad, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, these tunes have new life.
White Christmas - Christmas with Champian - YouTube
Then there are Ms. Fulton’s vocals – to these ears, her sound is an amalgam of Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson, to which she has added a touch of Blossom Dearie’s playfulness and charm. Yet, it manages to be all her own. She has grown by leaps and bounds as a singer, in the decade that she has been a part of the jazz scene. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, opens with a cool, bluesy piano figure, which pulled me in, prior to Ms. Fulton’s sassy vocal, which was then followed by a rollicking piano solo…Nice. Papa Stephen is on board, with his flugelhorn, for a swinging “Sleigh Ride”, with dad being pushed a little by his baby girl during his solo. That brought a smile to my face. “A Child is Born” is the stronger of the album’s two instrumental tracks, thanks to Ms. Fulton’s sensitive piano and outstanding work on the bass by Mr. Williams.
Jason Paul Curtis is a Washington D.C. based vocalist and songwriter, who mostly works with a big band, called Swing Shift and a small combo, Swinglab. He is a pleasant, modern swinger, in the Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé vein. For this, his second Holiday themed album, he has concentrated on his own music, having written eight of the album’s ten tracks.
These Christmas Days, has a warm, family feeling, with most of the tracks referencing family celebrations and Christmas memories with his children. Curtis is in fact, joined by his daughter, Isabella, on vocals, on two of the album’s more memorable tracks; the lightly swinging, “December Again”, which will touch a soft spot in the hearts of any of us who have watched our kids grow up too quickly; and the bouncy, “I Want Snow”, with a warm alto sax interlude by Dave Schiff. “Came Winter”, a finger snapping piece, with a punchy big band arrangement, and good solos. It’s a winning tune but its lyrical content is more along the lines of Wham’s “Last Christmas”, with its topic of Holiday season bitterness against the treachery of a former lover. Not exactly one for decking the halls. “I’ll Feel Christmas”, with its Motown derived backbeat and the happy freneticism of “Christmas Breakfast” are more like it, as they celebrate, respectively, the start of the Holiday Season, in the city and the joy of Christmas morning with those you love.
I Want Snow - Jason Paul Curtis - YouTube
The arrangements are sharp and tight and Mr. Curtis is in excellent voice, throughout. If you’re looking for a well-played, Holiday jazz album, with tunes that are not in the traditional vein, give These Christmas Days a try.
Congratulations to all of the nominees for the 60th Grammy Awards, in the Jazz categories. The awards will be handed out on Sunday, January 28, 2018; at Madison Square Garden, in New York. As usual, the Jazz categories will be presented during the segment of the program that takes place, prior to the live network broadcast. You will be able to stream the pre-show, online.
The nominees are:
Best Improvised Jazz Solo: “Can’t Remember Why” — Sara Caswell, soloist
“Dance Of Shiva” — Billy Childs, soloist “Whisper Not” — Fred Hersch, soloist
“Miles Beyond” — John McLaughlin, soloist
“Ilimba” — Chris Potter, soloist
Whisper Not - YouTube
Best Jazz Vocal Album: The Journey — The Baylor Project A Social Call — Jazzmeia Horn
Bad Ass And Blind — Raul Midón
Porter Plays Porter — Randy Porter Trio With Nancy King
Dreams And Daggers — Cécile McLorin Salvant
Jazzmeia Horn - A Social Call (Album Trailer) - YouTube
Best Jazz Instrumental Album: Uptown, Downtown — Bill Charlap Trio
Rebirth — Billy Childs Project Freedom –Joey DeFrancesco & The People
Open Book — Fred Hersch
The Dreamer Is The Dream — Chris Potter
Joey DeFrancesco + The People - "Project Freedom" Behind-the-Scenes - YouTube
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album: MONK’estra Vol. 2 — John Beasley
Jigsaw — Alan Ferber Big Band Bringin’ It — Christian McBride Big Band
Homecoming — Vince Mendoza & WDR Big Band Cologne
Whispers On The Wind — Chuck Owen And The Jazz Surge
Christian McBride Big Band- 'Bringin' It' EPK - YouTube
Best Latin Jazz Album: Hybrido – From Rio To Wayne Shorter — Antonio Adolfo
Oddara — Jane Bunnett & Maqueque
Outra Coisa – The Music Of Moacir Santos — Anat Cohen & Marcello Gonçalves Típico — Miguel Zenón
Jazz Tango — Pablo Ziegler Trio
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: Handful of Keys (Blue Engine Records)
Handful of Keys, the sixth album released by the JALC label on their own Blue Engine imprint, was recorded over three nights as the prolific orchestra opened their 2016-2017 season, by celebrating a century’s worth of jazz piano. On the recording, there are six pianists, ranging in age from 13-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander to 89-year-old stride master, Dick Hyman, playing compositions by some of the 20th Century’s most outstanding pianist/composers, including Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and James P. Johnson. In all except one instance, the arrangements were by the pianists or JALC Orchestra members.
Wynton Marsalis on HANDFUL OF KEYS - YouTube
This album virtually had “can’t miss” stamped on it, from the beginning. JALC Orchestra is at the top of their game, as are the piano players. And the arrangements often breathed new life into pieces that we have heard many times. Helen Sung’s arrangement of “Four by Five” adds richness to Tyner’s original and the solos by Ms. Sung on piano, Victor Goines on piano and drummer Ali Jackson, are on fire. Walter Blanding’s lush arrangement, ripe with flutes and muted trumpets set a perfect scene for young Mr. Alexander on Evans’ “Very Early”. Joey’s precocious brilliance has been done to death, so I will just say that he was in his customary fine form and the arranger also contributes some nice tenor work. 19-year-old Isaiah J. Thompson, whose name is new to me, floored my twice – first on an epic version of “Lulu’s Back in Town”, that was a virtual history of jazz piano all by itself, with a stellar chart by Vincent Gardner; then on a hard swinging and deeply soulful take on Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom”. I have GOT to hear more from Mr. Thompson. Then there is Myra Melford, an avant-garde pianist, with whom I am, again, unfamiliar. She leads a Ted Nash arrangement of her own composition, “The Strawberry”, which Mr. Nash has turned into a Latin infused tour-de-force. Ms. Melford names Andrew Hill, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor as some of her influences and I hear a bit of all three of those giants in her attack. She is stretching her use of the keyboard to the limits of the boundaries of tradition, laid down by Nash’s arrangement and it is a thrill to listen to. No wonder Wynton takes his only solo of the album on this piece. He fills his horn with expressive growls, trills and cries, equal in unbridled joy, to the arrangement itself.
THE STRAWBERRY (from HANDUL OF KEYS) - JLCO with Wynton Marsalis ft. Myra Melford - YouTube
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars. Great composers + great arrangements + great pianists = a great album.
WJ3 Records is another of the cadre of the small, but mighty, jazz record labels that have cropped up in our post-CD society. Founded and helmed by drummer Willie Jones III, WJ3 releases around 3 – 4 new projects each year, featuring top flight mainstream jazz masters such as pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Eric Reed, L.A. based guitarist Jacques Lesure and Mr. Jones, himself. I first became hip to WJ3 about a decade ago, when I was assigned by a publication, to review a couple of their new releases. I can honestly say, that I’ve never heard a bad album from any of their artists.
Jacques Lesure…educator, actor, social media raconteur, and above all, master guitarist. Though his name is still unfamiliar to many, Mr. Lesure has been part of the music scene for over 30 years. With an inviting, single-note guitar line that is reminiscent of Grant Green, but infused with the warmth of a Kenny Burrell, Jacques Lesure, is always worth listening to, be it live or on one of his recordings, the last three of which have been on WJ3, including his latest, For the Love of You.
The title of the album should give you a hint about the vibe. Whereas his two prior efforts When She Smiles and Camaraderie, were fine, straight-ahead blowing sessions, For the Love of You, is more accessible, but just as good; featuring several, mid-tempo romantic tracks, with titles straight out of pop radio. It’s a perfect antidote to a long day. Mr. Lesure is as always, in top form, as are his band mates, pianist Eric Reed, bassist Tony Dumas and WJ3’s chief, Willie Jones III, on drums.
Holy Land - YouTube
Strong performances abound, including a bright, infectious version of “The Lamp is Low”, with a tasty solo by Mr. Reed; “Put On a Happy Face”, on which Lesure builds a simple starting line, layer by layer, into a very nice solo. His tribute to one of his musical idols, “That’s Mr. Burrell, Thank You”, is a head nodding, finger snapping blues, that is pure fun. It will be a definite crowd favorite during his live performances. The centerpiece is Cedar Walton’s anthemic classic, “Holy Land”. I’ve heard many versions of this tune over the years; this is one of the best. Following the familiar opening theme, Mr. Lesure digs down deep and delivers a blistering solo, which clearly inspires Reed, who then matches Lesure’s virtuosity in his turn. Dumas and Jones take strong turns before all four musicians trade eights until the close.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars – Another first-rate album from Jacques Lesure. It will appeal to fans of all categories of jazz.
Willie Jones III is one busy cat, in addition to leading his own group and running WJ3 records, he also is a first call sideman and producer on numerous projects outside of his label. If he is spreading himself too thin, it certainly is not in evidence on My Point Is…, his seventh album as a leader. This protégé of Albert “Tootie” Heath, recorded this album with some of his own label’s top talent, who also happen to be some of the best in the current jazz world; trumpet master Eddie Henderson, the criminally underrated Ralph Moore on tenor, the legendary Buster Williams on bass and the soon to be legendary Eric Reed, on piano.
I first became a fan of Mr. Jones, when I reviewed his fourth album, The Next Phase. The first thing I noticed was Jones’ rock solid timing and that even on ballads, he swings like mad. Nothing in that respect has changed since 2010. Like two of my other favorite working drummers – Kobie Watkins and Ocie Davis, Jones has an innate gift for pushing the musicians playing with him, while still doing things that are unfailingly rhythmically interesting.
My Point Is... - YouTube
The selections are a nice mix of Jones’ originals, along with a few from the band and one each by Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. “Manhattan Melodies” a Reed composition from about 20 years ago, open the disc on a high note. I’ve heard three versions of this tune over the years and this one is my favorite. The theme takes on new life in the hands of the two horn players, who punch it up with strong solos. Buster Williams’ ballad, “Christina”, offers a nice opportunity for a muted Henderson to remind us of the good ways that Miles influenced him. “The Maze”, a tune that Herbie wrote for his debut album, is given a fresh reading here. The sinuous backbeat set by Jones, followed by Reed’s funky solo, pulled me right in. Yes, I was sitting at the keyboard with eyes closed and head nodding. I see an interesting hip-hop sample in this track’s future. The title cut is the best thing on the album, with Williams and Jones feathering an intricate nest for some sweet mute work by Eddie and a rolling piano solo from Reed. This was, and still is, on heavy rotation in my playlist.
I’ve never gone wrong with a Willie Jones III album and My Point Is… is no exception. Solid writing, first rate playing and a final product, that is a fine example of modern jazz.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars. Another straight-ahead jazz winner from Willie Jones III and WJ3 Records.
West Coast based producer Marc Free, heads up one of the best little labels in jazz today, Posi-Tone Records. They consistently release high quality jazz, featuring respected vets, such as guitarist Ed Cherry and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and also some of the finest up and coming names on the scene today. Here’s our review of the latest from a couple of those new(er) faces.
New York native Bruce Harris makes an impressive debut as a leader, with this album. The trumpeter is a graduate of SUNY Purchase and a protégé of the great Jon Faddis. He has paid his dues over the last few years, playing with Barry Harris, T.S. Monk and Jimmy Cobb, among many others. On this joyous album, he has gone with a nice mix of jazz standards and a few originals that demonstrate his solid compositional skills.
Bruce Harris - Ask Questions - YouTube
Harris utilizes an accomplished rhythm section of Michael Weiss on piano, Clovis Nicolas on bass and drummer Pete Van Nostrand; along with a talented group of rotating saxophonists, including three of my personal favorites, Dmitry Baevsky, Jerry Weldon and Grant Stewart. Mr. Harris’ tone is what immediately draws you in; it is positively ebullient and clear as a bell, reminiscent of a young Clark Terry. “Ask Questions” a jubilant Harris original kicks off the proceedings, with strong solos from the leader, Baevsky and baritone saxophonist Frank Basile. Prince’s “Do U Lie” is reborn as a fabulous, up-tempo, 4/4 feature for Harris, who drops one his best solos on the record. I’d never heard such a lively take on “Ill Wind” before now. I liked it, a lot, with Harris and Weldon playing musical tag over the rhythm section’s insistent beat. Harris’ “The Step” is a finger-snapping joyride, which lets Weiss and Nicholas in on the solo fun, in addition to the horns.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars – Beginnings is a fine start for Bruce Harris. I enjoyed every minute and I look forward to what’s next.
Vibraphonist Behn Gillece has been a Posi-Tone mainstay for the past couple of years, co-leading a group with saxophonist Ken Fowser, guesting on the albums of label mates, such as Walt Weiskopf and Michael Dease and leading his own group, which released impressive projects in 2015 (Mindset) and 2016 (Dare to Be). Keeping up that album per year pace, Mr. Gillece has released Walk of Fire, which is his most mature and fully realized project to date.
For this album, Mr. Gillece was inspired by the instrumentation on Joe Henderson’s Blue Note classic, Mode for Joe, on which Henderson used a septet of three horns, plus vibes and a traditional piano, bass, drums rhythm section. Walk of Fire replicates that sound on most of its tracks, with Dease on trombone, Weiskopf on tenor and another label mate, the brilliant Bruce Harris on trumpet. The rhythm section is Adam Birnbaum on piano, bassist Clovis Nicolas and drummer Jason Tiemann.
Behn Gillece - Bag's Mood - YouTube
The ten compositions are all by Gillece and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. Things get started with the title cut, which sounds like a Mode for Joe, lost track with Gillece contributing a driving solo over the hard-swinging theme. This cat has grown exponentially over the last few years, to the point where I would now place him in the upper echelon of vibraphonists working today. Gillece then gives way to strong, brief statements by Weiskopf and Dease. “Fantasia Brasileira” is a beautiful bossa, with an infectious head and tasty ‘bone from Dease. “Bag’s Mood”, is, as you would suspect, a tribute to that soulful master of the vibes, Milt Jackson. Gillece swings hard in the pocket and this time Harris joins in on the fun with some high-flying trumpet work. It’s a feel good track that I had on repeat for about 30 minutes. On “Celestial Tidings”, the horns lay out and you get to hear Gillece very much in a Bobby Hutcherson bag, with shifting rhythms and terrific solos that will keep you engaged.
When I first heard Behn Gillece a few years back, I was immediately impressed by his potential. Now, on Walk of Fire, he has arrived.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars: Highly recommended straight ahead jazz. One of the best albums that I’ve heard this year.
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