2006, Rasputin Manifesto
Chick Corea is one of those super-prolific musical geniuses who just keeps going and going, releasing record after record and touring constantly. It's easy to take someone like Chick for granted when he's out there all the time. But anyone who enjoyed Chick's 1970s recordings - especially the first Return to Forever LP and projects like The Mad Hatter, My Spanish Heart, even Musicmagic - will want to check in again. As was his muse back in those days, Chick still finds inspiration in fantasy and science fiction themes. This time, Chick's source is (are you ready for this?) L. Ron Hubbard. Yes, THAT L. Ron Hubbard, who Chick calls in the disc's liner notes "my favorite author." Fear not, this recording contains no lyrics (though it does contain an ad for the book, complete with a quote from the text and a URL - clearly this guy is a devoted Scientologist) so it's easy to enjoy the recording purely for its musical merits. And believe me, as you'd expect with a top-shelf Chick Corea recording, there are many. Multi-part suites, Spanish and African percussion from the trusty arsenal of Airto Moreira, and lots of classy flute work from Hubert Laws abound. Forget the liner notes, the corny album title, and the source of Chick's inspiration, and you'll find more than enough music to enjoy as your mind wanders off on its own individualized adventure.
The esteemed drummer Paul Motian leads a young new band (actually it's his "Electric Bebop Band" renamed and with an extra guitarist) on Garden of Eden, a disc featuring mostly Motian originals. The pair of Mingus tunes at the start ("Pithecanthropus Erectus" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") aren't terribly different from the original classics in mood, though they do prove that a 7-piece ensemble containing three guitarists can pull off a Mingus tune just as convincingly as anyone else. But that's not really anything exciting - it's the Motian originals which delight and dazzle the most. The gentle, lilting melodies as played by the three guitarists - Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Jakob Bro - often recall the ECM work of Pat Metheny, and occasionally, as on the title track, provide a soft pillow of background orchestration. Meanwhile, Motian's own enthusiastically skittish drumming is joyful and musical and free, with no piano to tie down the proceedings. Add the saxophone talents of Chris Creek and Tony Malaby, plus veteran bassist Jerome Harris, and the end result is sort of like what you might imagine Keith Jarrett's early '70s combo would sound like if he stuck to sax and added a guitarist. In other words, bebop is the foundation, but these guys are prone to contemplating the music's outer regions without getting totally lost.
Charles Gayle, a living disciple of Albert Ayler and a comparable giant of avant garde saxophone, releases his first ever disc of solo piano recordings. The seven originals here do not deviate from his chosen musical path, though they never get quite as far out as some of the more questionable moments of one of his heroes, the iconic Cecil Taylor. Rather, these recordings sprinkle the Cecil influence over a more solid grounding in the bebop stylings of pianists like Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. Yet for all that, one may still be hard-pressed to find traditional structures to follow, excepting perhaps the honky-tonk flavored "Blues in Mississippi," a tune which really seems to capture the feel of the Delta. But structures be damned - the spark, the fire, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it that fuels great improvisations burns brightly on this recording, which is ultimately all that really matters.
Another hometown player scores - Sherri's last album was released back in '98, but her hiatus is over and, according to a message on her website (www.sherri-roberts.com), selections from her new album "The Sky Could Send You" are receiving airplay on some 60 jazz stations across the country. And deservedly so - the 12 tracks on this new collection offer some soothing sounds from a voice with a tender, loving ability to interpret classic songs, aided by some stellar musicians. This is "good" light music, in that it's organic and sincere, done for love first, not money first. Brazilian and Afro-Cuban percussion spice up charming renditions of "You're Looking at Me" and "Jamaica Farewell," among others, while Henry Mancini's "Slow Hot Wind" provides the album with a stunning vehicle for a stop-what-you're-doing-and-listen-to-this performance. Just a few strategically placed notes plucked from a guitar, against a backdrop of acoustic bass, foreboding drums and buried-in-the-background piano, and the setup is perfect for Sherri's arresting vocal. Percussion and vibraphone gradually walk in to find their place, and a magic spell is cast.
As stated in the CD liner notes, this album is "dedicated to the beautiful people of san francisco, california." As a San Franciscan, I'm most flattered, for Gipsy Freedom is a beautiful expression of the fringes and oddities that make up so-called "avant garde" music, just as San Francisco is a beautiful conglomeration of all that is great about America's own societal fringes, the oppressed and misunderstood and maligned people who keep this country from completely slipping into a hell of mediocrity. Gipsy Freedom isn't purely "jazz" as you'd expect from the preceding analogy. Rather, it's a meeting place for the influences of jazz, folk, poetry, and noise rock. You'll hear droning phrases, acoustic bass lines, minimalist drumming and percussion, distorted guitar run through various pedals, lonely trumpet melodies, occasional hippie vocals, and other strange sounds that may be hard to identify. Think nycghosts&flowers era Sonic Youth jamming with the Chicago Underground Duo, and you'll have an idea of how tripped out this beautiful mess sounds. Dig it.
I might be going a little batty, but I think perhaps I've just heard the first Narada Jazz title that - gasp! - kinda sounds pretty OK to these ears. Generally, I spit upon the fact that this type of super-slick, tightly controlled music is passed off as "jazz" to the consumer. And generally, I don't hear much from admittedly super-super talented musicians in the way of playing that makes me able to stand the drum machines, loops, keyboards and the like which give these recordings that radio-friendly smooth jazz sound. But this Nick Colionne dude plays a damn fine guitar. I could be biased, as I too play guitar (quite horribly compared to this guy, mind you), and my ears naturally hear the guitar above all other instruments because of it. But seriously, think of Wes Mongomery and what he did late in his career, playing with session musicians in a similarly controlled setting allowing for pretty much zero group interplay, making those Creed Taylor-helmed recordings effectively the beginning of smooth jazz. Now those weren't all that terrible, were they not? After all, Wes' guitar playing made them worth it. Same here. Nick is styled after Wes - lots of flying octaves, and occasionally his single line leads are reminiscent of George Benson, arguably the heir of Wes' legacy. If Wes were still around, he'd probably be making records just like this one - slick, breezy, funky affairs with a touch of jazz and chops to die for, exercised with good taste. If you can tolerate smooth jazz, this one's a winner. Seriously.
Given Art Blakey's frequent use of African and Cuban rhythms and percussion in his music, hearing the music of his various Jazz Messenger ensembles played by a venerable Latin Jazz ensemble like the Fort Apache Band comes off as natural rather than novel. Trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez leads the Fort Apache Band through excellent renditions of classics like Freddie Hubbard's "Crisis," Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty," and four different Wayne Shorter compositions. Alto saxophonist Joe Ford even gets one of his own pieces played in the program, as a nod to Blakey's policy of encouraging his band members to contribute new compositions. At best, Gonzalez and company have captured the essence of the Jazz Messengers while also placing their own identifiable stamp on the material. There are more than enough 'tribute' albums out there, but the quality of this one is such that we can afford to have one more out on the shelf.
This classy compilation of rare, remastered and unreleased recordings makes a case for the quality of legendary singer-actress Lena Horne's last decade of work. Having turned 80 this year, one would never guess the singer on these recordings was that far along in life. Horne's smooth, gently swinging vocals are showcased mostly with small group combos, with an exception in "Willow Weep For Me," which she sings accompanied only by Herbie Hancock's piano. This song and other old chestnuts, like "Stormy Weather" and "Singing in the Rain," sound fresh and new again in Horne's care - never over-the-top, though hardly sleep-inducing either, and always moving. This is truly the mark of a world-class vocalist, one who has had a great run in her last decade. Now, should that bio-pic ever come out (you know, the one that Janet Jackson was supposed to star in before her "wardrobe malfunction" made her persona non-grata), Ms. Horne will likely be remembered and revered all over again, as she so richly deserves.
Savoy Jazz continues to pump out reasonably-priced reissue compilations of their legendary recordings. Out of Nowhere and Now's The Time are of a piece, both prominently featuring Charlie Parker as the leader of most of the sessions represented. The bebop king is in his prime on these recordings, and for the budget-minded and time-constrained bebop nut, either of these discs are as good a buy as you're likely to find. And though Out of Nowhere is a great disc for an introduction to the early years of Miles Davis, Miles is featured just as much alongside Charlie Parker on Now's The Time, appearing on 16 of the disc's 17 tracks. Before Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool, Miles blew fiery bebop with Bird, often serving as a refined foil to the manic Parker (in contrast to Parker's other trumpet partner, the appropriately nicknamed Dizzy Gillespie). Miles was further along in blowing with a definite "voice" than one would expect at such an early stage, yet the recordings speak for themselves. This was the beginning of the greatest musical journey in history, one which would beat roads to rock, funk, electronica and hip hop. Still waiting for Savoy to trot out a be-all, end-all complete recordings boxed set of Miles' recordings from this era, though. Any day now!