Friday, February 26, 2010

Polar Bear: everyone--WAKE UP!

Polar Bear (group)
Mark Lockheart (sax)
Peter Wareham (sax)
Sebastian Rochford (drums)
Tom Herbert (bass)
Leafcutter John (electronics)

If you are looking for the future of jazz, Sweden, Norway and England are places you should be right now. Polar Bear are among a long list of bands from the UK "collective" scene originating with two jazz communities, F-ire and Loop, that are truly reshaping the Jazz to come (that's me taking liberties on Ornette Coleman, sorry).

Polar Bear is the slightly calmer twin of Acoustic Ladyland (featuring two of its founding members), who released my favourtie album of 2009, Living With A Tiger. I originally discovered Polar Bear while waiting for a flight at Gatwick Airport. I was in an airport HMV store and found their first album for just 3 quid. I had read about them in a couple of magazines on my trip but couldn't find anything until I got to the airport. I decided for 3 quid, what the hell. It was the best 3 pounds I had spent on the entire trip and I have been a fan ever since.

Polar Bear may exist in a similar world as Acoustic Ladyland but they are carving out a jazz palate that is still adventurous but stays within the traditional idiom. Led by drummer Seb Rochford, the group is a formidable unit with staggering talent that grows with each record. They have recorded three critically acclaimed albums that are a must for all jazz fans. Polar Bear's first three albums Dim Lit (Babel), Held On The Tips Of Fingers (Babel) and Polar Bear (Tin Angel) all capture a young band that is inventive beyond its years but also one that wants to continue to push the envelope to see what else can be done.

Their 2008 self-titled album lays in some quiet grooves for emotional effect while still keeping their post bop adventurous edge as on as songs like "Sunshine" and "Leafcup". Then, there are great combinations of the avant garde and electronics as heard towards the end of Polar Bear with the song "Sounds Like A Train To Me". A truly original band displaying the creative tendencies you normally would see in an artist like Dave Douglas or Jason Moran, if this isn't Polar Bear's year to finally breakout in the U.S., I will be extremely pissed off.

The London based quintet, release their 4th album, Peepers (Leaf Label) on March 1 and it delivers a clear statement to the rest of the jazz community--wake up and start doing something new!

This is probably my album of the year. Yes I realize we are only two months into a new year but when you make an album like this, everyone needs to step back and take notice. Peepers moves open step ahead of their previous efforts. Peepers has a heavier sound and more descriptive elements as apparent on songs like "Drunken Pharaoh" and "A New Morning Will Come". The always reliable Polar Bear kinetic, experimental energy is still there as evident with "Scream," and "Want To Believe Everything".

With Peepers, Polar Bear have made an album that combines their distinctively British qualities, American influences and European experimentalisim into one cohesive vision that for me is absolutely phenomenal. Of the records you buy this year please, please, please make Peepers one them. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Polar Bear are also offering a FREE download of the titled track, Peepers. You won't be disappointed. And finally, check out their new video for "A New Morning Will Come."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Atomic: Challenging The Nature Of Things

Atomic (band; formed 1999)
Fredrik Ljungkvst (saxophones, clarinet)
Magnus Broo (trumpet)
Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass)
Håvard Wiik (piano)

Swedish-Norweigan band Atomic has established itself as one leading bands in Europe. While on first listen you might think this is a free-wheeling avant garde group; you quickly notice that there is a more than just Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane influences going on here. They use these influences as a platform for even more creative explorations. The band is truly a set of equals. All the band members have a say in the writing process which makes each of their albums a solid experience from beginning to end. With 5 albums under their belt, not to mention the individual albums and studio sessions each member contributes too, Atomic are becoming one of the preeminent bands in Europe. The bands improvisational style is similar to that of The Vandermark Five. But where V5 uses sheer force to make its point, Atomic reacts with subtle yet crafty stories making their case in more cerebral form. It's an intriguing mixture of low key personalities and wide arrangement of ideas that come together beautifully.

I really don't have a favourite album. It's been really hard to choose. The last two albums (Retrograde and The Bikini Tapes (both on Jazzland Records)) are three CD sets and not for the uninitiated. If I was pressed I would say go for their debut, Feet Music (Jazzland) which will build the foundation for you. This is free jazz but with a modal structure and direction that you will find ultimately enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sidsel Endresen: That Nordic Voice

Sidsel Endresen (voice)
Photo: C.F. Wesenberg

Sidsel Endresen has been a fixture on the European scene for over 20 years. She has released only a few albums under her own name (eight at last count). She is definitely an artist that might define her music as world (World the genre). While aesthetically the music may be grounded in European jazz--use of sparse arrangements and electronic atmospherics and abstruse lyrics, Sisdel Endresen has created a body of work which is truly original, impressive and influential.

In recent years she has been working with the well-known pianist Bugge Wesseltoft who has surrounded her lyrics mystic with modest yet highly emotional instrumentation. Endresen's albums are more an exploration of voice as instrument than the instruments supporting her. While don't expect everyone to get her I believe she is someone more people need to know about and hear for yourselves. She has also worked with fellow Norwegian, Nils Petter Molvaer and the pairing of her hypnotic voice and Molvaer's muted/electronically tempered trumpet is truly astounding. Those of you familiar with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sheila Chandra, Diamanda Gallas and combining that with the jazz experiments of Joni Mitchell might also find Sidsel Endresen quite rewarding.

For me the most accessible album might be Out Here. In There. (Jazzland). Out Here. In There. features a nice blend of both Sidsel's folkish/jazz tinged vocal treatments and Bugge Wesseltoft's excellent electronic work as shown of tracks like "Heartbeat", "Survival Techniques" and "Hav". A moody little record that is both engaging and sophisticated.

Sidsel Endresen is an artist reaching beyond rhythmic structure and forcing the listener to view things outside of their comfort zone. This minimalistic approach has made her one of the most soft-after performers and teachers in Europe and a cult figure here in states. I won't try to explain it anymore than that. Take a listen and let me know what you think.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thelonious Monk: Yin/Yang at the Five Spot

Thelonious Monk
Live In New York Vol. I
(Explore Records)
Charlie Rouse (sax)
Ahmed Abudl-Malik (bass)
Roy Haynes (drums)

As some jazz fans may know, the legendary Five Spot Club in New York was the center for many a historic performances from the Thelonious Monk Quartet in 1958. A ban of performing in New York City due to a previous drug charge had been completed and Monk had just finished up a date at the Newport Jazz festival the prior month. The first dates were in August with his standing trio of Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass), Roy Haynes (drums) adding fiery saxophonist Johnny Griffin. These dates have been preserved on two great albums In Action (OJC) and Misterioso (OJC).

In late September of '58 Monk was looking for a new saxophone player as Griffin had decided to continue on with his own band. Griffin and Sonny Rollins both told Monk to hire a young cat out of Washington D.C. named Charlie Rouse. And the rest would be history. Charlie Rouse was one of most underrated saxophonists of his generation. He melded incredibly well to Monk sometimes complex compositions.

The Five Spot would be Charlie Rouse's first performance with Thelonious Monk and it is astounding. The recording, is rough from the sound quality perspective (this would really only be for the collector) but the playing is unbelievably tight and on fire. There very few miscues that many would notice during this date. The band pushes each other to reach some incredible highs throughout the night including Monk staples "Rhythm-a-nig" and "Friday The Thirteenth". While this date is historic for being the first date of Charlie Rouse it is Roy Haynes playing that also steals the show.

Fast, slow, fast. Intense, beautiful and soaring. The album feels the way a live "bootleg" should (club noise, announcements, muffle, fizzle and a lot of talking by Monks companion at the time who recorded the date) and it's great to seat and listen to loud. I always loose myself in the sound and the atmosphere whenever I listen to it. Live In New York isn't the album I would recommend to anyone that isn't a die-hard Thelonious Monk fan; but if you are it worth seeking out and its not expensive at all. A really cool document that closes out an interesting period during '58 where Monk would meet his yin to his yang--marvelous stuff.

The footage below is much later but it highlights how well Monk and Rouse sounded together.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tomasz Stanko: In From The Shadows

Tomasz Stanko (trumpet; b. 1942)

Tomasz Stanko is one of the premier European trumpeters on the scene today. He acknowledges and relishes in his Miles Davis influence whenever he is asked. But when you listen to his albums or see him live you realize there is something much more going on here than just an appreciation of the late legend. He is truly starting break away from the comparisions.

Tomasz Stanko began his career in the apprenticeship of fellow Polish composer and musician Krzysztof Komeda, known to most of the world as the composer of many of Roman Polanski's best psychological thrillers like Rosmary's Baby and Knife in the Water. These were haunting soundtracks, but (in the case of Knife) they were also beautiful jazz albums typified by the elegance of Tomasz Stanko's trumpet.

Tomasz Staknko has released a number of albums since the late 60's. For the uninitiated I would recommend you go straight for the collection entitled Selected Recordings (ECM). Selected Recordings covers a good amount of the material he has done with his long standing relationship with ECM Records.

The new album Dark Eyes (ECM) is nothing short of brilliant. The album is highlighted by a new band that marvelously constructs Stanko's vision of sparse but evocative rhythms into an enjoyable investigation of sound and emotion. The addition of guitarists Jakob Bro has added a new element to Stanko's usually calm and consistent quartet. I had always felt that Tomasz Stanko's devotion to Miles was running into a brick wall on his last two records but Dark Eyes has a whole new voice and direction that I have been enjoying for a few months now. The title track "The Dark Eyes Of Martha Hirsch" is fantastic. It's origins stem from a painting exhibition he visited. Stanko has also included two compositions from the legendary musician/composer, Krysztof Komeda. While including Komeda material is nothing new for Stanko it is the cohesion of the band that has makes these two tracks ("Dirge For Europe" and "Etiuda Baletowa No.3") standout for me.

The fresh lineup change has really breathed new life into Tomasz Stanko's writing. The album's mixture of Stanko's excellent attention to the detail of every note as well as a fresh ideas his new band have incorporated makes Dark Eyes my favourite Tomasz Stanko album in years.

In addition, I hope you would take the time and investigate the following albums for the sublte dark beauty of Tomasz Stanko throughout the years.

Balladyna (ECM; 1975) A phenomenal album with solid production work. Quiet but still very inventive at a time when many other artists (Europe and America) were trying figure out how to combine fuse jazz and funk together into something rhythmic for the masses. This is not that type of record. Stanko's solos on this record highlight his influence as well the attention to beauty that Chet Baker always demonstrated in the studio.

Bluish (Powers Brothers; 1991) While there are a couple of albums from the 80s I could mention, the majority of that period is disappointing to me but Bluish--done with a European line up including Arlid Anderson (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) is fantastic and moves from dark introspection to lively inspiration with tremendous precision. Each of these musicians are known as highly revered masters in the jazz community. Bluish is just one example of their great work together.

Leosia (ECM; 1996) This is one of the best jazz albums of the 90s and probably Stanko's best album. Also featuring an all European quartet including drum legend Tony Oxley. All of the album shines due to the individual performances, and it sounds like there is no true leader as Stanko allows the band to have complete freedom but you see that he is always the link that holds the session together.

Soul Of Things (ECM; 2001) After a brief three year hiatus from 98-01, Tomasz Stanko returned with a new younger quartet of Polish performers for the album that I think might be the best introduction for anyone unfamiliar with his work. This is a slow melodic session for which all the members are in complete harmony. Its an album that you have to sit down and listen to all the subtleties that wind there way through this magnificent recording. Soul Of Things is by far the album I have most recommended to my friends time and a time again. If you do get into any of these album please let me know your thoughts.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Leon Parker: The World Is A Drum

Leon Parker (drums, percussion; b. 1965)

With an idea of explore how far one can take rhythm within and outside jazz, Leon Parker has shown that imagination, creativity and aesthetic can erupt in the smallest and sparsest of places. Leon Parker use of percussion's and drums was different from the onset. To me he must have been influenced by the late, great legend, Billy Higgins. He did a great bit of gigging in the New York scene before getting a gig with Columbia records which saw him becoming one the most talked about musicians during the '90s heyday for jazz scene. At the time artists like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Jeff "Tain" Waits, Charlie Hunter and others were stepping into the gap left by Miles, Monk, Dizzy and others.

While there were certainly a wealth of jazz drummers at the time ("Tain" being one of the most high profile) none seemed to be doing something different, original and rewarding like Parker. Leon Parker worked as a sideman with fellow artists such as Dewey Redman, Charlie Hunter, Dave Kikoski, Sam Newsome to name just a few. His albums seemed to combined the natural elements of modern jazz but his use or lack there of of most of his drum kit (using just the cymbals at times) gave the music a "world" or African atmosphere.

His debut album, Above & Below (Epicure) featured a jarring but funky versions of Monk's "Beshima Swing," "Epistrophy" and some very cool percussive work on Dizzy's "Caravan". Parker is also helped on his debut by some even more impressive work from Mark Turner, Joshua Redman and David Sanchez (sax), and the always enjoyable Jacky Terrasson (piano). This is an impressive and inventive debut that is unavailable at the moment but you may be lucky enough to find it at some better used record stores.

His next two albums, Belief (Columbia, 1996) and Awakening (Columbia, 1998) grow on the concepts from the debut but incorporate more percussion and world music themes. Belief starts is with a really cool Caribbean themed "Ray Of Light" that set a nice groove for the album. It has a nice balance of bop and world influences that take the album one step ahead from Above & Below. You can really start to hear Parker coming into his own as a leader and composer on Belief. Awakening while starting off funky levels out with another Caribbean drum tinged "It Is What It Is" and slide you into the lovely, spiritual journey of "Mother Earth". Awakening might take a few listens as it seems Parker might have been given a great deal of freedom in this recording. The emotion and ideas come alive and well worth the experience.

It would take until 2001 for Leon Parker to record another album, The Simple Life (M) which was emulates Parker's diverse talents by being recorded in various settings (live, studio, and even on the street). It includes some wonderful by Monk again as well as a few reimagined originals from the Belief album. Leon Parker's music has a rhythm and tone that is spiritual, haunting and beauty all within the short period of listening to just one album. He is a real talent that I hope starts to record more frequently. Check out the great live work with Jacky Terrasson's band.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dexter Gordon: The Long Tall Legend

Dexter Gordon (sax; b. 1923 - d. 1990)
The Classic Blue Note Recordings

Dexter Gordon was raised in California and learned clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone by age 15. He got two big breaks in 1944 when he performed with the legendary Flectcher Henderson and then Louis Armstrong's band. He would also learn a great deal lyrically from saxophonist Lester Young. Gordon became a sought after musician and the technical grasp and creativity gained from Young made him one of the leading artists in the '40s and early '50s. Standing at over 6ft, Dexter Gordon loomed large on the scene (hence the nickname "Long Tall Dexter"). He would also become a major influence on Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. His recording career was long and spanned a number of famous labels (Savoy, Dial, Prestige, Blue Note and Columbia to name a few).

The first Gordon album I heard was Our Man In Paris (Blue Note, 1963). It featured mostly standards -- as was typical of the era -- but it was the sheer confidence and forceful execution of Gordon's horn playing that captured my attention. The album is also driven by the incomparable Bud Powell on piano along with Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums) filling out an exciting rhythm section. This was a sort of comeback album for Gordon as he was slowly rebuilding his career in Paris at the time, though he never truly lost his chops.

Gordon's career with Blue Note was stellar. There is a wealth of albums that are worth owning but I think most people should really gravitate to a great collection, entitled The Classic Blue Note Recordings. This is covers a good chunk of albums recorded between '61- '65 and includes a lot of the best known recordings. Gordon was incredibly prolific during this period. His playing was fully bodied and emotionally in tune with every note. For me its felt no clearer than on the lovely and powerful "I'm A Fool To Want You" and the one of the best versions of "Don't Explain" you'll hear (next to the original from Billie Holiday). I don't think many people could go wrong with this one.

Dexter Gordon would continue recording some very consistant and always amazing records for the next 3 decades. He made stellar comback in the late '70s with true document of jazz Homecoming: Live At The Village Vanguard (Columbia) which would send his career to yet another level of success. He would later go on to star as a jazz musician in the movie 'Round Midnight which also garnered an Academy Award nomination. A musician who has performed and influenced generations of future legends, Dexter Gordon's career is one of beauty and distinction that is almost unpararlleled. The Classic Blue Note Recordings is the perfect place for you to start to hear a legend in his prime.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gerald Clayton: Two-Shade

Gerald Clayton (piano; b. 1984)
Two-Shade (EmArcy)

Gerald Clayton is a well experienced pianist with an excellent grasp of tradition. He has worked under and with some of the best musicians of recent years including Kenny Barron, Benny Green, Mulgrew Miller and his father and uncle John and Jeff Clayton (bass and sax respectfully). For me Clayton's style is more reminiscent of Benny Green in that he can be exciting and playful but with the agility to create a passionate and highly emotional atmosphere with his ballad work.

Gerald Clayton served in Roy Hargrove's band for the trumpeters most recent recordings (Earford and Emergence). This is were I first heard him and was struck at how mature his playing sounded. On Two-Shade (EmArcy), his debut as leader, he shows no signs of fear. One of the earliest tracks on disc, "Trapped In A Dream," demonstrates his musicianship and writing with rich reward. He can play it big as well; with his trio stretching out on the slightly funky groove of "Two Heads One Pillow." My favourite track, "Peace Of The Moment," is a ballad that exhibits a melodic beauty and inventiveness that many of his contemporaries cannot even construct.

The majority of the album are Clayton originals excluding two tracks (Cole Porter and Dizzy Gillespie standards) and they are truly noteworthy. His trio consisting of Joe Sanders (bass) and Justin Brown (drums) also show great command and fellowship within Clayton writings. Clayton develops a voice quickly with Two-Shade and its a wonderful journey to travel on with him and his band.

Two-Shade is a marvelous debut that is not only enjoyable and memorable, it has made a statement that Gerald Clayton is a dynamic performer and composer and may reach the next level faster than we might think. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscar Peterson: The Gentle Giant Of Jazz

Oscar Peterson (piano; b. 1925 - d. 2007)

Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz pianists ever, the Canadian born Oscar Peterson deployed an highly enjoyable, inventive and improvisational style that captured the hearts of audiences for a half century. You can put Peterson in the same category as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Art Tatum as the true legends and innovators of jazz piano. Just as Gillespie's and Armstrong's gregarious style entertained audiences on record and in concert, Peterson demonstrated his style's similar panache and great dexterity. Peterson's legacy might touch more younger pianists than we will ever know (artists such as Benny Green, Diana Krall, Gerald Clayton and Cyrus Chestnut).

The legacy is solidified through the treasure trove of material that is available. And while that is fun for some of us jazz fanatics to global trot in search of as much as we can, some of you may just want the basics. Let me first say you probably wouldn't go wrong with any Oscar Peterson record. His ability was greatly influenced by Art Tatum and Nat Cole but he really gained significant recognition after a performance at the legendary Carnegie Hall in 1949. This led to a long career with Verve Records and hundreds of recordings including classic trio sessions with Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpin (drums) as well some outstanding solo dates.

And while Peterson did record for a number of other labels, the bulk of the best known dates were for Verve and MPS (out of Germany). Peterson was not only an incredible performer but he was also an astounding composer, the latter of which seems to not be discussed that often. Many in the jazz circles have decried that Oscar Peterson was just an interpreter of recordings and not an innovator. I highly disagree with this assumption. While I missed my one and what would turn out to be the last opportunity to see Oscar Peterson in 2007, I'm sure I would have seen the magnificent beauty of a Peterson live show, but I would have also witnessed the immaculate dedication to his writing and the precision of his technique.

In addition to the aforementioned trio sessions, Peterson also recorded lovely dates with trumpeter Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and a few years prior to his passing, Benny Green - an artist I think holds the mantle high for Peterson. If you have been interested in Oscar Peterson and didn't know where to start I would highly suggest an import compilation entitled Piano Moods: The Definite Oscar Peterson (Universal). Piano Moods covers great material on Verve and MPS from '59 - '71 and includes a nice selection of trio, quartet and solo performances. Another good compilation is The Song Is For You (Verve) which covers a large portion of the American Songbook (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and more)--very enjoyable.

And lastly, the one compilation that might be the easiest to find is Perfect Peterson: The Best Of The Pablo and Telarc Years. Perfect Peterson condenses things to the sum of the most important tracks but also covers the label material after Verve. This could be a complete overview but I think by picking up all three (there's very little overlap) you do get the full picture of an artist who was also in command. Oscar Peterson is definitely one the pillars of jazz and you really should check him out if you ever get the chance.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

Diverting from the script today. In honour of the manufactured holiday called Valentine's Day, I wanted to celebrate the best the way I could.

Everyone...I give you...PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED and "The Flowers Of Romance."

Friday, February 12, 2010

San Francisco Jazz Collective: History & Beyond

SF Jazz Collective (group; 2004)

Founded in 2004, SF Jazz Collective is a non-profit collective (usually an octet) of rotating musicians (young and old guard). It's main members have been founder Joshua Redman, vibe legend, Bobby Hutcherson along with pianist, Rene Rosnes, Matt Penman (bass), Miguel Zenon (sax), Eric Harland (drums) and new members each season.

Some (including myself) have called it the West Coast version of Jazz At Lincoln Center, but that all-too simplifies it, and does not do this incredible ensemble justice. Unlike JALC's over-reliance on Wynton Marsalis and the New Orleans heritage, SF Jazz Collective has dedicated each year's performances to different legendary composers (Coltrane, Coleman, Hancock, Shorter among others).

In addition, SFJC members also perform their own original material commissioned specifically for the ensemble. The collectives first two releases are widely available (SF Jazz Collective and SF Jazz Collective 2) and include music of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, respectfully. The ensemble has since recorded seven albums (double and triple CD length) of material that is available exclusively through the SF Jazz Collective website. SFJC perform an annual residency that each of the aforementioned CDs is culled from. They also tour (mostly California and selected European dates) annually. The current lineup includes Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Renee Rosnes (piano), Miguel Zenon (alto saxophone and flute), Matt Penman (bass), Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Eric Harland (drums).

Each album is truly fantastic and a real joy to hear how they reinterpret some classic material. I have yet to get the chance to see the group live (although I do own a DVD featuring Thelonious Monk material) but that is not the same as being there. If you are in the San Francisco area you should definitely take the opportunity to check them out - and drop us a line when you do. The group's CDs are a little on pricey side but some of them are either two or three CDs and the material you get makes it well worth the purchase.

It's an undeniably skilled and unique ensemble forging a new direction while maintaining the history of the elders. SF Jazz Collective is a group you should all experience.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

King Crimson and Improvisational Jazz

King Crimson (Current Lineup)
Robert Fripp (guitar, soundscapes)
Adrian Blew (guitar, vocals)
Tony Levin (bass)
Pat Mastelotto (drums)
Gavin Harrison (drums)

To many music fans King Crimson is the quintessential prog-rock band, and rightfully so. Since they exploded onto the scene in 1969, the on-again/off-again band -- led by guitar wizard and mastermind Robert Fripp -- has made beautifully sinister music together by melding rock distortion with jazz-inspired improvisation. Yes, some of their early work can sound dated (anyone up for 11 minutes of mellotron misery in "The Devil's Triangle"?). But even some of their most gargantuan numbers (the sublime "Starless" for example) deliver jazz-rock bliss to your ears. If you've ever had the punishing pleasure of hearing Crimson perform live then you can attest to the near telepathic power of the band's ensemble playing and the impressive improvisational gifts of many of its members.

King Crimson's lineup has changed numerous times during the past 40 years. In its early years, the changes happened with virtually every album, with Fripp as its mainstay. It all began with Crim's groundbreaking psych-prog debut In the Court Of The Crimson King (DGM) and its most jazz-like track "21st Century Schizoid Man," which takes some stylistic cues from the free jazz and fusion styles that were fashionable at the time.

Crimson's studio and live recordings from 1969-74 (their most prolific, tumultuous and interesting period) frequently demonstrate the band's improvising jazz model with quasi-spiritual overtones that would normally be associated with the work of Pharaoh Saunders (e.g. The Creator Has A Master Plan) and Miles Davis (e.g. Bitches Brew). A live Crimson album recorded in '72 and available on through the band's website even features a beautiful version of a Saunder's piece that you should definitely seek it out.

The band's improvisational direction strengthened during the '73-'74 period when Fripp was joined by drummer Bill Bruford, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, violinist David Cross and (temporarily) percussionist Jamie Muir. The albums Larks Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black (all now available on Crimson's own label DGM) clearly demonstrate how Crimson evolved from psych-prog experimentalists to a peerless performing group. This is best heard on the 1974 album Red (DGM). It features some stellar ensemble performances from the core unit of Fripp/Bruford/Wetton with outstanding guest spots from Mel Collins and Ian McDonald on sax, Marc Charig on cornet, and Robin Miller on oboe. The album begins with the title track, which served as a template for later Crim lineups, and is followed by one of my personal favorites "Fallen Angel," and the completely improvised "Providence." Throughout the album, Bruford in particular displays his spectacular drumming chops with true jazz feeling, particularly on "One More Red Nightmare."

Turmoil and disagreements between band members led to Crimson disbanding after Red. However, they reformed at the early '80s, armed with a new lineup featuring Fripp, Bruford, the versatile, inventive Adrian Belew on guitar/vocals and Tony Levin on bass/stick. This lineup focused more on Belew's songcraft and a twin-guitar sound than progressive jazz-rock chops. Although improvisation wasn't the focus during the '80s, the band's music still demonstrated each member's musical gifts. Readers who attended college during the '80s may remember the modest hits the band had with "Elephant Talk," "Heartbeat" and "Sleepless."

After breaking up in the mid '80s, Crimson returned in the mid '90s with a six-piece, but its lineup continued to morph over the next two decades. I remember asking Adrian Belew at a concert during the '90s if the reunion rumors were true and he remarked that "Robert hasn't called me yet. But I'm in if he calls." Shortly thereafter they had recorded THRAK (DGM), an album that married the hard-hitting sound of the mid '70s with the songcraft of the '80s, and in concert the band didn't shy away from improvisation.

With dozens of studio and live recordings available, the King Crimson novice has a wealth from which to choose. It would be a silly and monumental task to acquire each and every one. (I'm still trying to do that from the live perspective.) If you are new to Crimson, I suggest starting with The Condensed 21st Century Guide To King Crimson 1969-2003 (DGM). This rewarding collection was compiled by Fripp himself and is a great way to become acquainted with the band. For those who want a taste of the band's live improvisational chops, try the mid '90s live collection Thrakattak, which is 100% improv.

(This instalment presented by both editors and King Crimson fanatics Vern and Kristopher)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Giants Of Jazz

The Giants Of Jazz
Live In Europe 1971
(Gambit Records)

Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet)
Thelonious Monk (piano)
Sonny Stitt (alto & tenor sax)
Kai Winding (trombone)
Art Blakey (drums)
Al McKibbon (bass)

This is one of those "I wish I was there" type moments. The Giants Of Jazz as it was billed, toured Europe and Asia. This wasn't the first time some of these musicians had worked together (Gillespie and Stitt worked together regularly as did Monk and Blakey). At this point in their lives, each musician hadn't fully entered into the twilight of their careers but their milestone albums had all been recorded.

They may have been considered "elder statesmen" but they were still smokin' hot during this time. The tour was the brain-child of the powerful Jazz producer, George Wein; Each member of the band put aside their current projects for the tour. You would think that a band of this magnitude would have all sorts of personality conflicts--there were none.

The tour was sort of a comeback for Thelonious Monk who had been in a semi-retirement but felt compelled to join the supergroup. Monk actually sounds like he never left the scene. The dates spanned two years and have been bootlegged in various forms but never truly complete. The most recent release of material includes performances from three shows (Warsaw, Milan and Boblingen); These dates are smokin as well as surprising.

There is the expected overshadowing of the band by the buoyant Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet. Monk does an amazing job on the rendition of Gillespie's material in particular "A Night In Tunsia" and "Woody 'N You." Blakey's precision is spot on; especially on the solo during "A Night In Tunsia" on the Milan date. In turn, the band does a beautiful and delicate balancing act with the Monk penned pieces of "'Round Midnight" and "I Mean You." Don't be surprised if you find yourself moving along to the stellar thread Al McKibbon performs on bass throughout (specifically Blue n' Boogie).

The real stars of these dates are actually Sonny Stitt (sax) and Kai Winding (trombone), as their work carries enormous weight throughout each date. As some of the playing from Monk and Gillespie sometimes seems subdued at points, that might have been only to let the two legendary horn men work their magic...and they do with excellent results.

The Giants Of Jazz Live In Europe 1971 is one of those true gems of a find--if you can find it. It's not a very expensive two disc set, so if you're looking for a real document and an unbelievable lineup that I don't think could ever be matched by today's artists, be on the lookout for The Giants Of Jazz. The title sometimes varies but most recently it has been attributed to Dizzy Gillespie & Thelonious Monk.

Below is a video from that tour. I do believe this exists on DVD which would be awesome to own.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Keith Jarrett: Koln and the ECM Legacy

Keith Jarrett (piano, b. 1945)
The Koln Concert (ECM; 1975)

2009 marked the 40th anniversary of ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) Records, the eclectic and ethereal label from Munchen, Germany. The label exemplifies the beauty of performance and production. For days I have been trying to figure out my top ten ECM albums but it was getting too difficult and I thought it might end up looking more pompous than insightful. So I thought I would stick with one of the ECM albums I come back to time and time again. The one that always conjures up a deep emotional response. Keith Jarrett The Koln Concert (ECM) is a haunting and emotionally stark recording. Keith Jarrett is probably the most important pianist of the last 50 years.

The Koln Concert is a significant moment for ECM as the album would go on to sell millions. While a lot of the history behind this release talks about how the piano is horrible and not in tune, I have always felt this album shows the delicacy and reflectiveness of Keith Jarrett's compositions. Jarrett sounds like the great classical composers of Shostakovitch, Bach and even Schoenberg.

From the first and second movements, I have always been moved - they move beautifully up and down the scale like speed racing your friends on bikes all the way home before dinner. While the entire concert is a study in improvisation, the third and fourth movements show how that improvisation can be alluring and angelic and paint a lasting memory on the psyche for years to come. To me this is the statement record for Keith Jarrett. This is the album that say Keith Jarrett has now stepped into the same pantheon as Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Powell, Gillespie, et al.

I said a few weeks ago that I had been listening to The Vienna Concert quite regularly but I have always loved The Koln Concert for how it leaves an indelible mark for the love of jazz in your ears, heart and mind. Here's to ECM's 40 anniversary and the lush genius of Keith Jarrett's The Koln Concert.

Small bit of trivia: Do you know the very first ECM album released?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mike LeDonne: Live Review From Smoke, NYC

Mike LeDonne (piano; b. 1956)
Live At Smoke, New York City (2.6.2010)

Mike LeDonne is a highly accomplished and well regarded pianist - His performances both on record and live are pure and entertaining. With a gentle and sophisticated post bop style, Mike LeDonne is definitely a disciple of such greats as Harold Mabern, Jaki Byard and Oscar Peterson.

With over 12 albums as leader, LeDonne has worked with a wide array of musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Joshua Redman, Ryan Kisor, Christian McBride, Jimmy Cobb, Eric Alexander and the list goes on. LeDonne also spent time in the Milt Jackson Quartet in the late '80s and soon became the group;s primary songwriter in the latter years of Jackson's career. Mike has been a mainstay on the New York jazz scene since the late '90s.

He has had a small but revolving quartet, quintet and sextets for years. His most recent quintet includes; Eric Alexander (sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), John Weber (bass) and Joe Farnsworth (drums). It's no surprise 3/5 of this quintet consists of members from the fiery sextet, One For All(Alexander, Weber and Farnsworth), which makes the current CD, FiveLive (Savant Records), recorded at the legendary Smoke Jazz Club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan even more exciting.

I was one of the lucky 60 plus people jammed comfortably into this iconic little room to hear a wonderful and sometimes smokin first set from LeDonne's quintet. The evening shifted mainly between LeDonne's own material, including his feisty tribute to fellow Smoke visitor and performer, Harold Mabern entitled "Hands," as well as a wonderful rendition of the classic "I Should Care". With the addition of Eric Alexander and Jeremy Pelt driving home the intensity of the night's proceedings, everyone was in for a stellar hour of jazz.

The balance between the members wasn't just between the leader and his horn section but the rhythm section of Weber and Farnsworth were just as vital. They created a pulsating atmosphere which allowed each member there an opportunity to express some crafty solo work, especially Farnsworth who is a fantastic drummer and in my opinion, highly underrated.

Definitely an enjoyable evening for Jazz lovers, but for those who couldn't be there or may not have a chance to see Mike LeDonne, I would suggest picking up his latest which is the perfect prescription for "not being there"--FiveLive (Live At Smoke Jazz Club) (Savant Records). Looking to discover something new and definitely entertaining--get yer ears into Mike LeDonne.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Jazz on Screen: ZigZag & The Super Cops

Zigzag / Oliver Nelson
The Super Cops
/ Jerry Fielding
Film Score Monthly can't be accused of playing it safe. After all, Zigzag and The Super Cops aren't exactly "classic films," and I'd bet that the only people who'll buy it will be a) fans of obscure crime jazz scores and/or b) fans of Oliver Nelson and/or Jerry Fielding. In other words, freaks like me. ;-)

Zigzag, starring George Kennedy, actually had a LP release at the time of the film's release in '70. Nelson's cachet with jazz audiences (who know him best for the landmark Impulse recording Blues and the Abstract Truth, '61) must have encouraged the release. But Zigzag isn't a straight jazz score. Nelson, who held degrees in theory and composition, brought a sophisticated ear to the film, providing both propulsive Latin jazz and meditative modernist string passages, often blending the two. The action-oriented passages will remind some listeners of '70s shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, which should come as no surprise since Nelson composed for that show shortly before he died at the age of 43. FSM includes not only the original score but also the album program, which features an unrelated song called "Zigzag" sung by Roy Orbison. There are songs sung by Bobby Hatfield as well.

Closing out the first disc are Anita O'Day jazz vocal tracks from Zigzag and the hard-boiled crime movie The Outfit ('73). The latter film previously served an FSM release featuring Fielding's score. What is at first a seemingly random inclusion becomes an odd transition into Fielding's score for The Super Cops on Disc Two.

The Super Cops isn't among Fielding's better known scores (such as The Wild Bunch), in part because the film is fairly obscure. It's based on a true story of two New York cops who are more super-dedicated to fighting crime than "super" in the comic book sense. Fielding busts out the funky crime jazz with hard blowing brass, wah-wah guitar and an almost blaxploitation vibe. Still, one wouldn't mistake Fielding for J.J. Johnson, Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield. He works a groove well enough, but like Lalo Schifrin he tends to infuse his compositions with a broader spectrum of tonal color. Still, it's very much an action score with interesting references to militarism and the Old West (the latter of which was a strong suit for him).

Disc Two closes out with selections from Fielding's scores for the short-lived folksy attorney show Hawkins, starring James Stewart (think of it as a prototype for Matlock). These cues are by turns abstract and dramatic ("Life for a Life") and pure pastiche ("Harmonica Source"). The CD also contains Fielding's country western and jazzy pop source cues for the cafe scene in The Outfit.

All in all, it's a worthwhile diversion and very well packaged with thorough liner notes.
Originally published at

Friday, February 5, 2010


Conrad Yeatis "Sonny" Clark (piano; b. 1931 - d. 1963)
Sonny's Crib (Blue Note; 1957)

Donald Byrd (trumpet)
John Coltrane (sax)
Curtis Fuller (trombone)
Paul Chambers (bass)
Art Taylor (drums)

If the names above don't impress you enough to buy this---What's wrong with you!?! Well, once you've picked up those essential albums everyone must have when starting a jazz collection, what do you do next? I hope that everyone decides to dig deep and look for some really amazing records from artists they may not have heard of or may notice a couple of musicians playing on the album that are familiar.

Jazz, unlike some other forms of music, is where you can take an educated chance and 90% of time end up pleasantly surprised. One such venture should be Sonny Clark's Sonny's Crib (Blue Note; 1957). Sonny's Crib was the second session Clark would do for Blue Note (the first being Dial "S" for Sonny). Sonny was a huge admirer of John Coltrane and was very excited to be working with him on this, his second date as leader (Coltrane had just finished recording Blue Train (Blue Note; 1957) a month earlier). This date, while slightly subdued because of the material (3 covers and 2 originals), is still a fantastic piece of work from all the musicians involved.

Sonny's Crib features a group that is equal in command while also giveing the ability to solo their direction without dominating the proceedings. Each of the musicians for this session were on their way to becoming legends, but you don't get that sense from this date. From the opening upbeat "Without A Song" that features some killer interchanges between Coltrane and Byrd, to astounding precision of Coltrane, Byrd and Fuller on the Clark penned title track you get the feeling this was not only an amazing session to sit in on but a wonderfully powerful group of artists with whom to record.

The two original compositions "Sonny Crib" and "News For Lulu" would eventually become semi-standards by today's current generation of artists (John Zorn recently covered News For Lulu on two ultra-rare discs with George Lewis (trombone) and Bill Frisell (guitar)).

Sonny's Crib is definitely indicative of the Blue Note sound but it also demonstrates the beauty of each of the performers at an early stage in their careers. Sonny Clark would go on to record two more outstanding Blue Note albums, Sonny Clark Trio and Cool Struttin' in the following months.

John Coltrane would record Soultrane (OJC) a few months into 1958 with Art Taylor and Paul Chambers. Sonny Clark had an unfortunately short career (heart attack in '63) but he left behind a body of work that is solid through and through. If you find any of his albums I would definitely pick them up. Sonny's Crib is an album anyone can enjoy. There are a couple of "Best Of" compilations which actually do the job quite well if you don't want to hunt down the individual albums, but I hope you do.

If you're interested, take a listen on Amazon to Sonny's Crib. It's available both as download and a physical CD.

Below is the titled track from Cool Struttin'.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mark Turner: Purssuance

Mark Turner (sax, b. 1965)

Mark Tuner has garned praise from contemporaries as well as his elders. He has laid down the guantlet to his generation to push beyond what you see around you. Mark Turner's style is unlike many of his contemporaries. He is a wealth of ideas and his writing can be highly cerebral. A song can start off in a traditional fashion but then go in a completely different direction before you realize it. Mark Turner creates a magical atmosphere with each of his recordings. Raised in California and then moving to New York where really gained his chops, Mark Turner has always been compared to the great Wayne Marsh due the same originality and lush tone of their recordings. There is also the obvious comparisons to John Coltrane but I think that's only upon first listen. But like Coltrane, Mark Turner has developed a voice all his own.

Mark Turner's albums are a study in technique and structure. I have been a fan since I first heard his debut, Yam Yam (Criss Cross Jazz; 1995). Yam Yam is a serious record, rich in detail and captures a talented artist far beyond his years. Mark has recorded six albums as leader since but is also session member with fellow collaborators Larry Grenadier (bass), Brad Mehldau (piano), Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar) and Jeff Ballard (drums) on their albums.

Mark recently suffered what appeared to be a serious and career-ending injury to two of his fingers that kept him from playing for almost a year. Through persistent rehab and a strong will, Mark overcame the injury and has been back on the touring circuit with Grenadier and Ballard as the trio Fly. Fly has released two highly acclaimed albums, Fly (Savoy; 2004) and Sky & Country (ECM; 2009). Both albums are phenomenal and worth the purchase. The same creativity that encompasses Mark's solo recordings can be found within the Fly trio. He is also a member of the revolving collective SF Jazz Collective working out of San Francisco (think of it as the East coast version of Jazz At Lincoln Center).

Mark Turner's own material is becoming increasingly harder to find (even at the coolest of record stores). But luckily one of my favourite Mark Turner albums, Dharma Days (Warner Brothers; 2001) is the easiest to find. Dharma Days is the perfect example of Turner's intricate melodies and rhythmic beauty that sets him apart from other saxophonists. The simpatico he shares with his longtime bandmates, Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Reid Anderson (bass), and Nasheet Waits (drums) appears in full on this album. Dharma Days is a record that will leave you in awe that someone this young can turn out an album of such maturity and creativity that you will have to seek out the rest of his catalog.

I have seen most of Mark Turner's albums available for download if you choose to go that route. Mark Turner is undeniably the most important saxophonist of his generation. He continues to explore new themes and ideas on record and in concert that others have yet or can even try. The trio Fly are touring and its probably the best way to experience Mark's music if you have the chance.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Curtis Fuller: The Second Agent of Trombone

Curtis Fuller (trombone; b. 1934)

While many trombonists owe their skill to J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, only a few have carved out their own distinct identity on this massive but beautiful instrument. Curtis Fuller in my opinion would be the other benchmark to which all other trombone players have to live up to. Born in Detroit, Curtis Fuller has performed with such legends as Benny Golson, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer and more recently with Mulgrew Miller, Eric Alexander and Doug Carn.

If you own John Coltrane's Blue Train then you've heard Curtis Fuller. The opening bars of "Blue Train" are as iconic as the openings to Miles Davis' "So What" on Kind Of Blue and Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" on Time Out. It grabs your attention and doesn't let go.

Curtis' own material may not be as iconic but it is certainly of the highest order. He is always adventurous and pours every ounce of his lungs into every note. As with J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller could almost make the trombone feel like a saxophone. Allot of Curtis' recordings are hard to find at the moment but if you come across his Blue Note Records debut entitled The Opener (He recorded for Prestige before this) I would suggest this picking this up. If you can't find The Opener, his most recent releases Up Jumped Spring (Delmark) and Keep It Simple (Savant) are both excellent albums. He had just come out of a pretty silent period where he hadn't recorded in awhile but he sounds like he had never left the scene.

If you really have the money I highly, highly, highly recommend the excellent Complete Savoy Recordings (Lone Hill Jazz). The Complete Savoy Recordings is a three disc set covering all five albums Curtis Fuller recorded for the label including the classic Blues-ette which features the legendary Benny Golson (sax), Tommy Flanagan (piano) and Jimmy Garrison (bass). These quintessential recordings that rate right up there with best material from J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. It's an expensive import but well worth the money.

At 75, Curtis still tours and continues to be in fine form. Always worth the price of admission; if you see his name in the listings, make a reservation immediately. There are so few legends left on the scene that if you want to see jazz performed at its highest level you must invest in a Curtis Fuller album or a concert when you get the chance.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Christian McBride: The Chameleon

Christian McBride (bass; b. 1972)
Kind Of Brown (Mack Avenue Records)

Most artists try to have their hands in a lot of creative projects. Most of them end up doing only a few of them well (if even slightly good). Then there are those artists that do a lot and leave an indelible mark for futures to come. Christian McBride is obviously the latter. He has worked as sideman, leader, composer, educator and actor (Robert Altman's jazz history film, Kansas City). He has performed with a list of diverse artists including Sting, ?uestlove (The Roots), George Duke, Uri Caine, Chaka Khan, Chick Corea, Bobby Watson, Joshua Redman and Wynton Marsalis just to name a few. Christian McBride's bass influences and mentors are among the most revered and acknowledge in jazz--Paul Chambers who worked with Coltrane and Miles as well as Ray Brown.

The Philadelphia native performed and toured with numerous jazz contemporaries including a long stint with one of my favourite pianist, Benny Green. With eight albums as leader, Christian McBride has shown the versatility to move from straight ahead bop to funky pop rhythms at the turn of the switch.He trained on both electric and acoustic bass (most recently sticking to the latter) which he has used on most of his early to middle albums. This has in turn made him an in-demand musician at the moment. But I believe his compositional skills may sometimes get overlooked. The majority of each of his releases consist of self-penned material with sparse but completely reimagined covers/standards included.

As leader, Christian McBride allows his band members to spread out and fly within the boundaries of the composition. This usually means things will almost always be a swingin' affair. But he can also bring the proceedings to a gentle calm. This is nowhere more evident than on the recent release Kind Of Brown (Mack Avenue Records). Christian McBride again shows the diversity and ingenuity of his musicianship, writing and leadership as he leads his most consistent band in years through a solid set of originals and two covers to maximum effect. Kind Of Brown moves from the funky opener, "Brother Mister" through to the gospel-tinged "Used 'Ta Could" and the post bop of "Stick & Move" and closing with the lovely "Where Are You?".

Kind Of Brown is the kind of record you need from one the leading and hardest working bassists on the jazz scene today. A real treat for new jazz ears and a possible return to form for longtime Christian McBride fans. Enjoy...