Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: III – Walter Smith III

Ambrose Akinmusire is this year’s winner of the DownBeat Critic’s Poll’s established trumpet player award, and he played beautifully on David Binney’s Barefooted Town, reviewed previously here on All Jazz Sax.  Akinmusire’s recording, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, has been much acclaimed, and the saxophonist on that recording is Walter Smith III.  Though I haven’t heard this recording (yet), the acclaim for it made me curious about Smith, so I decided his CD III would be next in our spotlight.
III starts out with “Working Title.”  Smith, appropriately, begins the tune playing by himself, giving us a good taste of his capabilities.  His tone is full with a touch of breathiness, a bit on the soft side, and is slightly old fashioned, in the manner of Ben Webster.  After his intro, he moves into an up-tempo post-bop melody, in unison with Ambrose Akinmusire.  Smith’s phrasing in his solo is a mixture of straight post-bop and controlled conflagration, somewhat like Joe Henderson, very mature sounding.  His solo evolves into rapid, well-executed runs.  Pianist Jason Moran and Akinmusire solo similarly, improvising with a mixture of tradition and ear-popping modernism.
“Capital Wasteland” is a quiet, mid-tempo tune.  Moran’s solo is contemplative and spare.  Smith’s solo starts out gently, with a good deal of emotion, and builds in intensity.  The rhythm section builds its intensity right with him, especially drummer Eric Harland.  Smith’s solo is expansive, presenting a well-developed narrative.  On “Highschoolish,” Moran lays out.  Smith sounds very comfortable in the trio setting.  This tune is a little like an up-tempo “In Your Own Sweet Way,” with the rhythm section playing double time.  Smith reminds me here of J.D. Allen on the previously reviewed trio recording, Victory!, though his playing is a bit more energetic than Allen’s.  Harland solos here with Smith playing an ostinato behind him.  On the basis of this cut, Smith would do well to do a full-length trio recording.
“Himorme” is a return to up-tempo post-bop.  Smith plays the intricate melody in unison with alto saxophonist Logan Richardson.  Richardson solos first, employing a smallish but strong, slightly breathy tone.  His improvised lines are angular, with a touch of Steve Coleman’s dissonant phrasing.  Moran plays a brief but good solo.  Smith’s solo is fast and furious.  “Aubade” is a pretty duet between Smith and Moran.  Their playing exhibits a connection similar to the near-telepathic one between Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek from their European Quartet days.
“Byus” has Smith back in unison with Akinmusire on an upper mid-tempo tune. Moran decides to play a lean solo here, staying close to the tune’s melody.  Akinmusire plays a good solo.  Then Smith comes in more laid back than usual, employing slippery phrasing, and then builds his solo into a well-rounded performance.  “Henya” is a slower, ¾ time tune.  Smith and Akinmusire trade improvised choruses, though this is more of a cooperative effort than a competition.  Moran plays a formal, composed-sounding solo, and the trumpet and tenor play the melody to close out the cut.  “Moranish” starts out, appropriately, with Moran by himself.  The melody of this tune is almost soulful, except for its off-center, Monk-ish rhythms.  Smith plays a loose, leisurely solo.  “Goodnight Now” closes the recording on a peaceful note, with Smith and the rhythm section all playing impressionistically, and bassist Joe Sanders stepping out more than usual.  Moran gently brings the performance, and the recording, to a close.
This recording could function as a job application for Smith, with the saxophonist establishing his credentials in a post-bop quintet context, in a trio setting, and in a duet with piano, at times displaying passion, sensitivity, and virtuosity, all with apparent ease.  The variety of the music and the maturity and relaxed confidence of the players make this recording approach the quality of classic recordings on Blue Note by the likes of Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard.  I’ll be watching closely for Smith’s future work.      

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gotta Love that Blog Supreme

There were lots of goodies in the August 17th edition of “Around the Jazz Internet” on A Blog Supreme.  One was a couple of links to info about upcoming jazz releases (here and here).  It’s always nice to have things to look forward to.  Of the items mentioned, the most interesting from the All Jazz Sax perspective were:
  • Dave Douglas Quintet, Be Still, which includes saxist Jon Irabagon (as well as drummer Rudy Royston, noted in a couple of AJS reviews)
  • Donny McCaslin, Casting for Gravity
  • Jon Irabagon, I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues, Vol.2, Appalachian Haze
  • Jon Irabagon, Unhinged
That Jon Irabagon is one busy dude!  We’ll be reviewing one of his recordings in the near future.

Another goodie on ABS’s internet roundup was a blog I’d never seen before, Kevin Sun’s A Horizontal Search.  Kevin is currently studying English Literature (Harvard) and jazz saxophone (New England Conservatory); how he finds the energy for these two pursuits in addition to maintaining an active blog is a wonder in itself.  Kevin posts a lot of transcriptions, but he also has a lot of interesting thoughts and takes jazz (especially jazz saxophone) very seriously.  Anyway, check out his blog if you have a chance.  (It’s earned a place on the AJS blog list.)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Optimism – Jaleel Shaw

Jaleel Shaw has been in the back of my mind for a while.  I’ve heard him play before on a Roy Haynes recording.  Then I recently saw an approving reference to his playing in the New York Times.  That was enough (it doesn’t take much) to get me to give a listen to his most recent recording, Optimism.

“Flipside” is an up-tempo, hard bop style tune, with Shaw and guitarist Lage Lund in unison on the brisk melody.  Shaw has a clean, pretty sound on alto sax (he only plays alto on this recording) without much of an edge, and his phrasing is linear and straightforward.  During his solo, the rhythm section (Robert Glasper on piano, Joe Martin on bass, and Jonathan Blake on drums) is doing all kinds of stuff; Shaw’s phrasing is the most stable thing happening.  Glasper then solos with a series of disjointed lines.  This is the first I’ve heard of Glasper, and his solos are full of variety; he‘s got all kinds of aural tricks up his sleeve, and he uses them liberally.  Then Blake plays a good solo and Lund improvises as the tune fades out.

“Almost” is a slow tune that shines the spotlight on bassist Martin, who solos while Shaw and Lund walk through the melody.  No one else solos here but Martin.  “In 3” is a subtle jazz waltz.  Lund solos with a combination of off-center lines and chords, a good mix.  Shaw plays a thoughtful, well-paced solo at the climax of which he mixes in some emotional altissimo screaming (which seems to be a rare device for him).  “Optimism” is a pretty, upper mid-tempo tune, with Glasper on electric piano and Shaw and Lund again in unison on the melody.  Glasper plays an energetic, ear-catching solo, again with a lot of variety, and Blake responds accordingly with some crisp accompaniment.  Shaw plays a solid solo but without much development.  Blake then plays a shimmering solo with Glasper accompanying him with some rock steady chords.

“If I’m Lucky” is an old, pretty song (DeLang & Myrow), and Shaw gives a fine reading of the melody.  This cut is basically a showcase for Lund and Martin.  Martin’s solo isn’t flashy but it’s tasteful.  Lund’s solo is brief but effective.  Shaw doesn’t improvise on this one.  “Flight” has a funky beat and a spacy melody.  Not much happens here except for a brief Glasper solo.  Then comes another old song, “Love for Sale.”  Frequently when I hear this tune, I’m struck by how flexible it is and how good it is for improvising.  (I was reminded of one fairly recent version done by Walt Weiskopf on his excellent CD Anytown; he does some of his best playing on the CD on that tune.)  On this one, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt finally makes an appearance.  I’m not familiar with Pelt (I got a lot of bang for my buck with this CD as far as first time hearings).  His phrasing reminds me of Freddie Hubbard; he displays an inventiveness and clarity that’s similar to Hubbard’s, though his sound isn’t quite as bright.  Pelt and Shaw complement each other well; Pelt adds some spice to the mix and Shaw cools things down a bit.  

“Muna’s Sleeping” is a pretty lullaby, with a melody a bit like “Naima.”  Glasper show great musicality in his solo here.  As great as his chops are, at one point in his solo, he simply repeats a note a few times, and it sounds like just the right thing to do.  The rest of the cut includes impressionistic playing from all the musicians, including some slightly distorted guitar from Lund.  “Muna’s Dream” is an interesting departure from the rest of the CD.  Glasper and Lund play a spacy background and the whole cut stays almost at the level of ambient (but good) music. 

“The Struggle” is a return to more straight-ahead music, with Lund and Shaw in unison again playing a Coltrane-ish melody.  Shaw solos in a Coltrane-ish mode as well, with more of an edge in his sound and phrasing, sounding a bit like Kenny Garrett.  Glasper seems to respond to this change in Shaw’s approach with enthusiastic accompaniment.  Lund plays a solo with skittish phrasing and some interesting echo effects.  Glasper again lets loose with a multifaceted solo, first spacy and modernish, then down home and bluesy.  The musicians really stretch out on this one, the longest cut of the recording (at 12 minutes).  “Optitude” is a brief coda of a tune (at just 2 minutes), which includes Pelt again—a nice, low-key way to close the recording.

On Optimism, Jaleel Shaw shows himself to be a very solid alto saxophonist and composer (all of the tunes are his except for the two standards).  To my ear, his sound lacks a sufficient edge and is a bit smallish, sounding almost like a soprano sax at times, though this sound works well for his straightforward phrasing.  I think Optimism displays some missed opportunities.  “The Struggle” works beautifully, indicating that the recording would have benefited from more tunes that included Pelt (he only plays on three cuts and solos on two) and that allowed the excellent musicians to stretch out more.  Because Shaw’s sound isn’t striking and his phrasing is a bit conventional, his music benefits from taking some chances, like on “Flight” and “Muna’s Dream,” but these cuts suffer from a lack of development.  I hope Shaw’s future recordings include more stretching out and risk-taking, which will take them from the level of very good to great.      

Thursday, August 16, 2012

European Saxophonists on Video

Carrying on from our (accidental) European saxophonist extravaganza, here is a fairly recent video of Jan Garbarek.  It’s a good tune and a good performance.  As noted in the comments in YouTube, the bass player, Eberhard Weber, lays down an awesomely funky bass line at around 2 minutes in.  It’s probably a bad thought, but, man do these old guys play some funky good music.  The whole group sounds great.

There’s another, slicker version of this tune by the same group (except for the percussionist), which I think is from a DVD.  I prefer the performance in the rougher video, but I would still love to own the DVD the slicker version comes from.  If anyone knows how I can purchase this DVD, drop me a line. 

Finally, I decided to start posting the URLs of the web pages of the saxophonists I review here.  (A little something for being put under my microscope, so to speak.)  While I was peeking at Tineke Postma’s web site, I saw this video of a performance she gave with Esperanza Spalding.  It’s a distinctive, and good, take on “Body and Soul.”  It will give you some idea of Postma’s playing on the Dawn of Light recording.       

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Sleeper – Keith Jarrett (with Jan Garbarek)

It’s European saxophonist week!  Well, not really.  It’s just a coincidence that I’m reviewing a CD with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek right after reviewing a CD by Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma.  But Sleeper, a recording of a 1979 concert in Japan by Keith Jarrett’s European quartet, got released this week, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.  (More accurately, it’s two CDs, around 107 minutes of music.)  Now, Jan Garbarek is a little out of our usual sphere of up-and-coming saxophonists; at 65, he counts more as a grizzled veteran.  But Garbarek is one of my favorite saxophonists, and Jarrett’s European quartet, with Palle Danielsson on acoustic bass, and Jon Christensen on drums, is one of my favorite groups.  I can recall sitting in the Eastman School of Music’s library listening room in the mid-1970’s checking out a vinyl copy of Jarrett’s Belonging.  I thought “Spiral Dance” was the coolest thing ever, and I listened to it over and over.  I fell for Garbarek’s sound immediately.

The CD begins with “Personal Mountains,” having a beautiful, anthem-like melody, a little like “Spiral Dance.”  Yes, you can almost see those mountains.  Jarrett plays over the rock-solid groove laid down by Danielsson and Christensen.  Jarrett’s playing is clear as a bell, and he takes the boundaries of the groove and the chord changes and has his way with them.  At one point, Jarrett lays out completely, leaving Garbarek to explore the tune with just bass and drums.  Garbarek sounds great, with his unique tone that is powerful and cutting with the hint of a growl, but never harsh; here he stays mostly in the low and mid register of the tenor (even though his control over the altissimo range is superb).  The bass and drums then have a small duet, with Christensen taking the lead.  At this point, you realize Jarrett’s been silent for a long time.  Finally Jarrett comes back in with Garbarek, and they begin to slow things down.  They end the tune trilling together, leading seamlessly leading into the next tune, “Innocence.”  After letting Jarrett play by himself for a while, the bass and drums join in, and then Garbarek comes in on soprano.  The tune is a beauty, having almost a gospel feeling; I was reminded of the prettiness of Vince Guaraldi’s tunes.  Jarrett’s solo stays close to the tune’s melody, and Garbarek plays a pretty but brief solo.  It’s only after this tune that we’re reminded that this recording was live; we finally hear some applause.  I think the audience must have been silent any time the band was playing, so as not to interrupt the remarkable music. 

Garbarek and Jarrett start “So Tender” by playing together.  At this point, it seemed to me that with all the changes in who’s improvising and who’s accompanying and who’s laying out, along with making all this seem so effortless, the performers have attained a level of near-telepathic communication between each other.  The group then gets into the heart of the tune at an upper mid-tempo pace.  The tune is another pretty one, sounding almost like a classic show song from Cole Porter or George Gershwin.  Jarrett plays an inventive but well controlled solo, really excellent.  I think this one could be transcribed and studied as a prime example of how to improvise.  Then Garbarek comes in on tenor and plays a solo that is equally good; he just glides through the changes, starting simply and then playing some virtuoso runs. His solo is so engrossing that I lost track of Christensen’s activity behind Garbarek; he is going quietly wild on his cymbals.  After Garbarek’s solo, things slow down, and the tune ends softly and sweetly.

“Oasis” starts with percussion and Garbarek on (what I think is) wood flute.  Then Garbarek plays a cool solo on wood flute against a subtle backdrop of percussion and bass.  This moves into a duet between   the wood flute and arco bass, with Danielsson showing off some fancy moves with his bow.  Jarrett then comes in on piano, and Garbarek joins him on soprano.  With very light accompaniment, Garbarek and Jarrett improvise together.  Jarrett adds a lot of his telltale moans on this one, which precedes an emotional solo from him.  Danielsson takes center stage for a while, then Garbarek comes back in on soprano.  The subtle melody of the tune is played by the quartet, then Jarrett lays out again while Garbarek solos with bass and drums.  Jarrett comes back, and Garbarek picks up his tenor to finish the tune, showing off his triple-tonguing ability.

This leads right into “Chant of the Soil.”  The melody of this tune is earthy, slightly funky, and ingenious.  Jarrett’s solo is earthy, too, simple and gospel-ish.  Garbarek then comes in and plays a soulful solo, using lots of false fingering to make his point.  The group plays the melody again, and Danielsson takes the spotlight with a good solo as Jarrett lays out.  While the interplay of these musicians is nearly telepathic, the listener is really kept guessing as to what will happen next.  Jarrett comes back in and the tune abruptly ends. 

“Prism” has a subtle and laid-back melody, and the solos from Garbarek (on tenor), then Jarrett, and then Danielsson are also subtle and laid-back.  Garbarek comes back in to play the melody, and the concert proper is over.  But the audience applauds wildly, and the group comes out for one more tune.  “New Dance” is a pretty tune with a Latin feel that sounds a bit like a movie theme, and Jarrett plays it like he’s conversing with an old friend.  Garbarek plays a fun, bouncy solo, then the group plays the melody and, without any fanfare, the song ends.  This is a good way to leave the audience wanting for more, though they got treated to a lot of wonderful music.

This recording is just terrific—beautiful tunes, beautiful playing.  The major observation about this recording in a review from All About Jazz notes Jarrett’s brilliance as a composer.  I’ve always loved Jarrett’s compositions, particularly on Belonging and My Song, and it’s great to have a new recording solely with his tunes.  One complaint that I do have is with the booklet that comes with the CD: it provides no information other than the names of the musicians, the tunes, and their playing times, along with some photos of the group.  With an old recording of such a famous and influential group, you would think that ECM could provide some historical and other information in liner notes, but, no: nada, zip, zilch.  Oh well, a great opportunity lost.  (Actually, I ponied up the extra cash for the physical CD package rather than the download partly because I thought there would be extra info in liner notes.  Thanks a bunch, ECM!)  But that aside, I’m very glad to have this recording, and I expect to be enjoying it for a long time.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: The Dawn of Light – Tineke Postma

I caught a performance by Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma with her quartet in my current home town of Baton Rouge, LA, a few months ago.  I was so impressed that I picked up a copy of her CD, The Dawn of Light, after the concert.  Postma played well that night and had some great musicians accompanying her, particularly Helen Sung on piano.  As good as Postma was, Sung knocked out the audience with her pyrotechnics on piano.  I had hoped that Sung was going to be on Dawn of Light, but, alas, it was a totally different group from the one I heard.  Anyway, I somehow neglected this CD, and I’ve finally gotten around to giving Dawn of Light a listen.

The CD begins with “Cancao de Amor,” by Heitor Villa Lobos.  Postma is accompanied by Marc van Roon on acoustic and electric piano, Frans van der Hoeven on acoustic bass, and Martijn Vink on drums.  One thing I can say for sure, Postma knows how to pick musicians.  Though I’ve never heard of these musicians, they were all excellent (just like the ones I heard at her live concert).  On the opening cut, van der Hoeven and Vink play some burning accompaniment behind van Roon and Postma.  Postma’s sound on the alto sax is distinctive; dry and breathy, like her reed is too hard, but still sweet and having a slightly classical feel.  It’s a sound that works well for her.  Postma favors an impressionistic style of phrasing, using her horn like a paintbrush, playing swirling, spiraling phrases in a way that strikes me as restless or skittish, with less emphasis on swing.  It’s a very different style from the saxophonists we’ve reviewed on All Jazz Sax so far. 

On her composition, “Falling Scales,” Postma is again on alto, playing the slightly ominous, Monk-like melody in unison with van Roon.  Postma solos with more of her swirling phrases, and van Roon plays a partly Monk-ish, partly Chick Corea-ish solo.  “Before the Snow” is a slow ballad, with a melody somewhat like the jazz standard, “Laura,” by David Raskin.  “Leave Me a Place Underground” has a nice groove and includes a vocal by Esperanza Spalding, singing a poem by Pablo Neruda.  I’ll confess that I’m not much of a fan of vocal jazz, but Spalding sounds great on this cut, doing some wordless vocal improvising after singing the melody.  (Postma does a great job putting the words to her music.)  Postma plays a nice solo against the groove, picking up the soprano sax for the first time on the recording.  This cut is one of the most cohesive and effective on the album; I wish they had done more cuts like this with Spalding.
Postma plays soprano again on “The Observer.”  Like most of the tunes on this recording, the rhythm section leaves a lot of space for Postma to play in; Postma seems to favor an open, loose rhythm backdrop in her tunes.  This cut features some especially nice interplay between the musicians during the piano solo (within which van Roon sprinkles a little synthesizer and electric piano).  On Monk’s “Off Minor,” Postma and van Roon play a duet, with Postma back on alto.  Postma’s quasi-classical style of playing comes out strongly here, the music sounding almost like a performance in a recital hall.  Van Roon does a nice job in his solo with no accompaniment.
Van Roon’s “Newland” is a slowly flowing tune, with Postma back on soprano.  Postma’s “Man Who Stared at Coats” has a more straightforward groove and solo from the leader on alto.  Vink plays a nice, though too brief, solo on drums.  Van Roon’s “Beyond Category” has an abstract, disjointed melody with the groove all over the place, even including a slightly rock-ish section.  Van Roon solos on electric piano here.  The recording ends with Postma’s “Tell It Like It Is” (not the Aaron Neville song).  Postma solos both on alto and soprano on this cut, and bassist van der Hoeven plays a nice solo. 
As noted, Postma likes a loose feel on her tunes, and she changes tempo and groove regularly within a tune.  This gives her music a lot of variation; she almost never just locks into a groove and stays with it for the duration.  For my ear, though, I prefer when she plays on a more straightforward groove when she solos, like on “Leave Me a Place Underground” and “Man Who Stared at Coats.”  Her music has a hard-to-pin-down feel, which leaves me a bit sonically off balance.  I also wish she had given her fine bass player and drummer more solo time.  This recording comes off a bit like the Sabbagh-and-Demoulin show noted in the previous review of Jerome Sabbagh’s “Plugged In,” though Postma’s bassist and drummer certainly have a more active background role than the rhythm players on “Plugged In.”  But “Dawn of Light” is definitely a nice change of pace compared to the more straightforward jazz recordings we’ve reviewed so far, and Postma is a very skilled player on both alto and soprano.  I’ll be keeping an ear open for Postma’s future recordings.