Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review: 'Round Midnight - Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton

Allen and Hamilton are tenor saxophonists firmly rooted in the swing tradition of Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Zoot Sims, and they are content to remain in this style without altering or expanding it.  To my knowledge, there aren’t many players these days espousing this style, or at least not as well and as deeply as these two guys.  The recording starts out with the old chestnut, “My Melancholy Baby.”  Allen and Hamilton show themselves to have similar sounds on their instruments and similar playing styles.  But closer listening indicates that Allen is a bit more playful and adventurous in his phrasing, while Hamilton is more restrained and romantic, and his tone is smoother, almost velvety.  After solos from Allen and Hamilton, pianist Rossano Sportiello solos well in a (to my ear) Tommy Flanagan style—pleasant, but without fireworks or significant variety.  Allen and Hamilton trade fours for a chorus before playing the melody to a close.  This tune introduces the recording pretty well but is a bit on the schmaltzy side; these guys deserve better.

“Great Scott,” written by Allen, I think, is a fun, upper mid-tempo, blowing tune.  (“Donna Lee” changes, perhaps.)  The script is pretty shopworn: the saxophonists each take a solo, then there’s a piano solo, then the saxophonists trade fours and state the melody to close out the cut.  “How Am I to Know,” an old tune by Jack King, taken at a strolling mid-tempo, starts with a harmonized statement of the melody, then a Sportiello solo, then Hamilton takes over.  Hamilton’s laid-back style really shines here, and he produces a solo that’s like a polished gem.  Allen then comes in, first trying to match Hamilton’s elegance, then building up to some fast lines and growling phrases.  Bassist Joel Forbes plays a pretty solo.  This cut has the best work from the saxophonists so far.

Bill Potts’s “The Opener” is an upper mid-tempo tune with the players following the usual script, Hamilton very fluid and Allen strongly swinging, though this time Hamilton and Allen trade fours near the end of the tune with drummer Chuck Riggs.  Next up is “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.”  This tune is played as a lower mid-tempo bossa nova.  Allen and Hamilton start off the tune by trading eight-bar phrases of the melody, as opposed to their usual approach of playing of a tune’s melody in unison or in harmony, and this is a really nice effect, like a conversation.  Then something unusual happens: Allen, throughout his solo, does an uncanny imitation of Stan Getz, using slippery, swooping, Getz-like phrases and even affecting a more hollow, Getz-ian tone.  Hamilton is having none of this hocus-pocus; his solo is pure Scott Hamilton.  Not to be outdone, though, he produces one of his finest solos of the recording, at his romantic best on a romantic tune.    

Next up is “Hey Lock,” a mid-tempo, rock solid, straight-up swinger (written by Eddie Lockjaw Davis, I think), with the group in their usual “Allen, Hamilton, Sportiello, saxes trade fours” routine.  The group then plays the standard “Lover,” up-tempo, with the saxes nicely harmonizing the melody.  Hamilton begins the improvising with a couple of slick, fluid choruses, and Allen follows with a fairly dazzling solo of his own.  Sportiello then plays a good solo, more harmonically adventurous than usual.  More trading fours by the saxes before Riggs gets in a few fills.  “Flight of the Foo Birds” is next, an upper mid-tempo swinger with a pretty melody written by Neal Hefti. 
The recording ends with Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” and Allen and Hamilton do a beautiful job of reading the melody, again trading eight bars as they did with “Baubles,”  taking the AABA tune and trading sections, Allen-A, Hamilton-A, Allen-B, Hamilton-A.  Then they repeat this approach in their improvising.  Allen improvises well, gliding through the changes.  Hamilton’s playing here is on a slightly higher level.  It’s very exposed, stripped down to the barest essentials.  Though Allen’s playing is fine, I wish this cut were all Hamilton.  His playing here is so simple and pure, so attuned to the song, it’s iridescent. 
Overall, ’Round Midnight is a fine recording (solid soloing in swing style, solid and sympathetic rhythm section) with occasional stretches of brilliant playing.  Allen and Hamilton always play well—it’s impossible for them to play a bad note--but sometimes they go beyond being “swing” players and take the music to a different level.  I think this is at least partly a result of how they respond to their material.  On this recording, they are especially good on “How Am I to Know,” “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” “Lover,” and “’Round Midnight”; I think these tunes are stronger than the others and that Allen and Hamilton respond accordingly.  If they could put together a full recording of material of this caliber, it would be dynamite.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Ghosts of the Sun - Bill McHenry

I’ve been curious about tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry’s playing for a while.  He recently released a recording of new music, La Peur Du Vide, but his previous recording, Ghosts of the Sun, received a lot of acclaim (see the end of this review), so I thought I would use this as my introduction to McHenry’s work.

The recording starts out with the slow, melancholy “Ms. Polley,” kind of a jazzy, low-key version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Music of the Night.”  McHenry’s tone on the tenor saxophone is solid and workmanlike—clear, rounded, and slightly dry.  Ben Monder’s guitar provides a spacy orchestra in the background behind McHenry’s playing, along with thoughtful playing from the late drummer Paul Motian and bassist Reid Anderson.  Anderson then takes the spotlight with a gentle, lyrical solo, Motian and Monder continuing their more-than-just background playing.  McHenry’s following solo is mainly a smattering of quiet runs without much direction.  McHenry and Monder play the melancholy melody in unison to the end.  This cut is pretty and contemplative, but ultimately comes off as a bit listless.

“La Fuerza” starts off a bit like a paso doble, the soundtrack to a bullfight.  The rhythm players lay down a nice groove, and McHenry produces some interesting tongueing effects in his solo, but he doesn’t generate much with the opportunity he’s given.  Anderson plays a brief solo with Motian’s accompaniment.  “Anti Heroes” has a fine, strong melody, almost a march.  Monder provides an imaginative, excellent narrative in his solo, a little lesson in how to improvise. McHenry finally stretches out a bit with a flowing, cohesive solo, continuing the self-assured flavor of the song.  The title tune is a lower mid-tempo, impressionistic piece.  In his solo, McHenry uses his saxophone like a paintbrush, dabbing little bits of melody here and there.  Monder noodles around with a reverb-y solo, somewhat in duet with Anderson.  There is a lot of subtle interplay between Monder, Anderson, and Motian here.  This is music evocative of desert landscapes. 

“William (Drums)” is a short piece that is basically a mid-tempo Motian drum solo, but the other quartet members come in near the end to fade out the cut.  “Little One” is a mid-tempo song, sounding like a sort of jazzy version of a Burt Bacharach tune, with McHenry singing the melody on his sax.  McHenry and Monder improvise a low-key duet, staying close to the melody of the tune, before closing out the brief cut.  “William (III)” has a halting, fragmented melody without any clear meter.  McHenry plays a meticulous, composed-sounding solo.  Monder then takes over with a wild and highly distorted solo. 

“Lost Song” begins as a slow duet between McHenry and Monder, and it develops into a slowly strolling ballad with the other quartet members joining in.  McHenry plays a slow, ruminating solo.  Then Anderson takes over with a more engaging solo, Monder playing arpeggios behind him.  Monder then provides a nice interlude, strumming some sustained, distorted chords.  The players close with the tune’s pretty melody.  The recording ends with “Roses (II).”  McHenry begins the tune with some of his more intense and engaged playing, employing some interesting runs, altissimo swoops, and his unusual tongueing technique.  The tune itself is a disjointed, out-of-time collection of phrases, closing out the recording on a somewhat unsettling note.

Ghosts of the Sun is a very low-key, minimalist affair.  To really appreciate it requires a fair amount of concentration by the listener; you have to come to this music as much as it comes to you.  (I’ll confess I had a much more positive attitude toward this recording after I listened to it for a second time.)  Also, the musicians are much more interested in subtly blending and fitting into each piece than in making personal statements--this is reflected in the brevity of the solos and the pieces themselves—though the improvisational excellence of these players can’t help but shine through.  McHenry is particularly self-effacing in his playing.  He doesn’t seem to approach the saxophone as a saxophone, choosing not to take advantage of the instrument’s natural tonal and intervallic strengths.  (In this regard, I agree with a comment in a review by Raul D’Gama Rose in All About Jazz: “it seems to be a matter of coincidence that he [McHenry] is a tenor saxophonist.  He might just as well have been a trumpeter, a pianist or even a violinist.")  So, from a jazz saxophonist’s point of view, this recording is fairly unnourishing.  Overall, Ghosts of the Sun provides fine music, but will probably be more appealing to those who gravitate toward minimalism and desert landscapes.  As a more meat-and-potatoes jazz listener, this recording left me somewhat cold. 

Part of the “acclaim” of Ghosts of the Sun includes the fact that it landed on A Blog Supreme’s list of ten best jazz recordings of2011.  In the entry for this recording, there’s also a link to listen to the cut, “La Fuerza.”  This will help you decide if Ghosts of the Sun is likely to suit your tastes. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Jazz and Colors

If you haven't done so already, check out the nice report in A Blog Supreme on the Jazz and Colors event in NYC last Saturday.  It looks like it was a wonderful event, the kind of thing big cities were meant for.  Two of the sax players we've reviewed here, J.D. Allen and Yosvany Terry, performed at the event.  There's also a nice slide show of the event, from which I took this picture.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: The Composers – Dmitry Baevsky

The focus of this recording is on lesser-known tunes from some of the greatest jazz composers.  The recording starts with Cedar Walton’s “Ojos de Rojo,” a slick, Latin-tinged tune played at upper mid-tempo, whose theme Baevsky plays briskly and simply.  Pianist David Hazeltine begins the solos, and he skillfully employs straightforward, hornlike lines in his improvisation.  Baevsky then takes over, playing mostly straightforward bebop lines with a tone that is full but also possessing a soft and rounded quality, kind of like a softer and more laid back Phil Woods.  Drummer Jason Brown keeps the tune efficiently moving along with subtlety.  Baevsky plays the pretty theme of the next tune, Duke Pearson’s “Gaslight,” in unison and in harmony with guitarist Peter Bernstein, who plays on three of the recording’s nine cuts.  On his solo, Baevsky softly swaggers through the changes, swinging intensely, making the solo seem too brief.  Bernstein plays clean, straightforward lines in his thoughtful solo.  Hazeltine plays another solid solo with hornlike lines. 

Next up is Wayne Shorter’s “Mister Chairman,” an up-tempo, unremarkable blowing vehicle.  Baevsky plays another smooth, musical solo that ends too soon.  Hazeltine’s solo sounds like Baevsky’s solo transposed to the piano.  The other rhythm players, Brown on drums and John Webber on bass, provide a steady cushion of rhythm that is barely noticeable.  Brown plays some tasteful drum fills against Baevsky’s improvised bars before the saxophonist plays the theme to end the cut.  Baevsky and Bernstein play in unison the theme of “To Whom It May Concern,” a nice tune by Horace Silver including one of his trademark pretty bridges.  Bernstein solos first, employing clean, swinging lines.  Baevsky continues to channel Phil Woods in his solo, which builds but ends before it can come to a climax.  Hazeltine gets in another solid solo before the tune ends. 

The group slows things down with Duke Ellington’s “Self-Portrait (of the Bean),” Baevsky employing a breathier tone at a softer volume.  Baevsky stretches out on his solo, virtually massaging the keys of his alto on the gentle ballad.  Baevsky has a lot of restraint in his playing, maybe too much.  Hazeltine then takes over for a brief solo.  On the upper mid-tempo “Swift as the Wind,” by Tadd Dameron, Baevsky again stretches out in a swinging, intelligent solo.  Hazeltine gets off another solid solo.  Bassist Webber then takes a solo, with only Brown’s understated drumming as accompaniment, displaying the same musicality and intelligence as Baevsky and Hazeltine. 

Gigi Gryce’s “Smoke Signal” is a straight, up-tempo bebopper.  Baevsky plays another Phil Woods-ish solo, beginning unaccompanied except for a chord from the rest of the group punctuating the start of each measure.  He lowers the volume on his playing when his lines speed up, giving them a frantic, bumble-bee quality.  Baevsky then trades some fours with Brown.  “Three Wishes,” by Herbie Hancock, is a pretty, upper mid-tempo waltz, with Baevsky and Bernstein playing the theme in unison.  Baevsky gets off a nice solo, and Bernstein, Hazeltine, and Brown follow with solid performances.  After the theme is played, the cut trails off nicely on Hazeltine’s improvising.  The recording ends with Ornette Coleman’s “Tears Inside,” a slightly twisted blues taken at an upper mid-tempo.  The quirky quality of the tune gives Baevsky something a bit more challenging to work with, and he handles it well, playing one of his best solos of the recording.  Hazeltine and Webber follow with good solos of their own. 

The playing on The Composers exemplifies skill, maturity, musicality, and tastefulness.  All the players on the recording are incredibly good at this style of music, taking us through the music as I imagine a great dancer leads his partners, effortlessly and in complete control.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit too restrained; the improvisations never reach above a middling level of intensity.  And though the idea of featuring lesser-known tunes of great jazz composers is a good one, some of the tunes are not very interesting.  (I suppose sometimes tunes are lesser-known for a reason.)  Regarding the leader, Baevsky is a very good alto saxophone soloist, clearly a student of the Phil Woods school, though his tendency to lower his volume when he plays fast lines is a bit bothersome.  Also, his solos tend to linger in the mid-range of the horn; he doesn’t employ the altissimo register at all.  Because his phrasing is fairly conventional and he limits his range, his playing is improved by more challenging and interesting material, like “Tears Inside.”  I hope Baevsky takes on more tunes like this on future recordings, so his obvious improvisational skill can be shown to its fullest advantage.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: Casting for Gravity – Donny McCaslin

Donny McCaslin is a bit more established than our usual All Jazz Sax review subjects, but, sad to say, I’m pretty unfamiliar with his work.  So I thought I’d use McCaslin’s recently-released recording, Casting for Gravity, as an occasion for getting to know his playing a bit better.

The recording starts out with “Stadium Jazz,” McCaslin gently introducing the tune with a slow line, backed by synthesizer.  But this quickly gives way to an up-tempo groove.  This tune sounds like some of Michael Brecker’s later work, such as some of the things from Tales from the Hudson and Pilgrimage.   McCaslin displays the kind of control over the tenor sax that Brecker had, hyperfast articulation, strong sound in the lowest part of the horn, fluid in the altissimo.  There’s some nice drum work here from Mark Guilliana and some distorted synthesizer from Jason Linder.  I would also characterize this tune as the electric Return to Forever tempered by the warmth of McCaslin’s tenor sax.  The tune closes with synthesizers tuned to sound like voices, backing McCaslin while he plays the melody.  A strong start to the recording.
“Says Who” is an upper mid-tempo burner built on a series of brief, repeated phrases.  This tune reminds me of other electronic jazz projects that include a saxophonist, like Weather Report and saxophonist Bill Evans’s Petite Blonde.  McCaslin’s solo is full of ear-catching virtuoso patterns, and after his solo, Guilliana’s drumming is the focus.  Guilliana sounds like he internalized the drumming of Dennis Chambers on Petite Blonde.  But the cut overall is not very interesting.
“Losing Track of Daytime” slows things down.  This tune, with Linder on electric piano, is similar to the work of pop group Zero 7, like the pretty song “Home” from their When It Falls, except that it has a jarring bridge section that doesn’t really fit.  Linder plays a solo that doesn’t have much substance.  McCaslin aggressively solos over a rougher background, sounding great, firing off some impressive false fingering phrases and doing some altissimo screaming.  Electric bassist Tim Lefevbre plays well in the background.  This cut is pretty effective--Zero 7 with a world-class tenor saxophone soloist.  “Alpha and Omega,” starts out with some spacy playing from Linder on synthesizer and some electronically-echoed phrases from McCaslin; the synthesizer and saxophone phrases are repeated without break throughout the cut.  The variety in the tune is provided by interludes of high energy playing from Guilliana and Lefebvre and some synthesizer effects from Linder, but the tune doesn’t include any real improvised soloing.
“Tension” almost counts as up-tempo electronica, with a repetitious theme featuring McCaslin in unison with Linder on synthesizer, and as a tune it’s just not very interesting.  But McCaslin plays a good solo, full of variety.  Linder adds layers of synthesizer, and Guilliana continues his Dennis Chambers act.  “Praia Grande” is more compositionally interesting, approaching the quality of the work of David Binney, (such as the first cut on Barefooted Town, reviewed here).  McCaslin plays a very high-energy solo, and some voice-like synthesizer joins in near the end of the solo and the cut.
“Love Song for an Echo” is a mid-tempo tune that starts out with some quiet, spacy synthesizer, McCaslin then coming in with a gentle melody.  The tempo picks up a bit, and Linder comes in on acoustic piano.  Linder’s solo is pretty but underdeveloped; it kind of just meanders.  Then McCaslin solos, showing again what terrific control he has over the saxophone.  Then he returns to the tune’s gentle theme to close things out.  “Casting for Gravity” is an interesting, upper mid-tempo tune, Linder playing a nice synthesizer line in the background.  McCaslin plays a strong melody, but the cut ends up disappointing because it doesn’t include any real improvisation.
“Bend” has synthesizer and saxophone playing an elusive melody in conflict with an insistent bass line.  McCaslin plays another sleek solo, with the whole group in a very solid groove; everybody’s together on this one.  Linder plays a very good solo on synthesizer here and makes me wish he had more synthesizer solos on this recording.  The recording ends with “Henry,” a quieter tune with a pretty melody.  This tune has a nice, confident groove.  Linder plays a solid electric piano solo, Lefebvre laying down a cool background behind him, and McCaslin plays a laid-back, too-brief solo.  At this point, the last cut on the recording, the group seems truly relaxed and comfortable, like they finally found their groove.
Ultimately, Casting for Gravity is a bit disappointing.  For one thing, too many of the tunes are on the bland side.  For me, if you’re going to play this type of electronic, pop-oriented music (but without a vocalist and lyrics), you have to have strong tunes and do some pretty interesting compositional things within the tunes.  The thing is, the group achieves this high level a few times, like on “Praia Grande,” “Bend,” and “Henry.”  Also, as is evident on “Bend” and “Henry,” Linder is a good soloist, and he gets too few opportunities to shine on this recording.  If all the tunes on Casting for Gravity had the quality of “Bend” and “Henry,” and if the supporting players got more of a chance to stretch out (especially Linder), this would have been a superlative recording.  Having said this, Casting for Gravity is almost pulled into the superlative category just by virtue of McCaslin’s tenor saxophone playing.  His playing is so strong that, while listening to it, though late at night, I was tempted to grab my own tenor sax to do some practicing.  McCaslin may be the rightful heir to Michael Brecker’s legacy.  Those interested in jazz saxophone cannot afford to miss out on his playing.