Mabern Plays Mabern
The Smoke Sessions label first began releasing CDs in 2014, documenting some of the more exciting sets that took place at the New York City club. The company has since released at least 54 CDs of modern hard bop, and virtually all of the high-quality releases are recommended.
Pianist Harold Mabern recorded four albums as a leader on the label including Mabern Plays Mabern, his last one before he passed away in 2019 at the age of 83. Mabern’s yearly visits to the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood were always eagerly awaited, whether as a sideman with Pharoah Sanders or as a leader of his own trio. He was playing at his prime up until the end which is obvious throughout this CD which was recorded in Jan. 2018. Despite its title, the pianist did not contribute all of the music (although five of the eight songs are his) but this is very much his music. Joined by his former student and longtime associate tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander (who contributes the uptempo blues “The Iron Man” which was dedicated to the pianist), altoist Vincent Herring, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth, Mabern happily swings through these pieces, clearly enjoying leading this ensemble. Herring is outstanding on “Lover Man,” Alexander is raging on the hard-swinging “The Lyrical Cole-Man,” Davis is consistently swinging, the rhythm section is solid and supportive, and Mabern shows throughout (particularly on his lively “Edward Lee”) that he continued to improve with age throughout his life.
This gem is available from www.smokesessionsrecords.com.
You Must Believe In Spring
Throughout You Must Believe In Spring, Josie Falbo is such a powerful yet versatile jazz singer, that one wonders where she has been all of this time. Actually she has been quite busy as a prolific studio singer in Chicago for the past 35 years, being heard on a countless number of commercials and as a background singer with a wide variety of performers, from Michael Jackson to Vic Damone, Nancy Wilson to Celine Dion. But as a solo singer, all she had recorded previously was the eclectic Taylor Street and that was a decade ago.
You Must Believe In Spring has Josie Falbo joined by a large orchestra filled with Chicago’s best with colorful arrangements by Carey Deadman. Ms. Falbo’s singing (which sometimes hints at Barbra Streisand but is much more jazz-oriented) is quite outstanding. She has a wide range, a powerful voice (along with the good taste to use subtlety and dynamics), a joyful sound, and apparently the ability to sing anything.
Josie Falbo starts off the set with a lush version of “You Must Believe In Spring” and she also engages in superior ballad singing on “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” and “Heaven.” But she also swings hard and often scats creatively on such numbers as “A Night In Tunisia,” “Joy Spring” (which has a particularly colorful arrangement that takes the songs from being a ballad to a cooker), a delightful rendition of “Manhattan” (on which the big band sounds particularly inspired), “A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Devil May Care,” and an uptempo if all-too-brief “Just You, Just Me.” Falbo’s improvising on the second half of “Tis Autumn” and her jubilant version of “Tristeza” would be enough of a reason to acquire this CD even if the 11 other selections were not gems.
Although she works constantly in Chicago, Josie Falbo deserves to be much better known beyond the city limits. Her superb singing throughout You Must Believe In Spring makes this one of the top jazz vocal albums of the year. It is available from www.chicagosound.com.
Brooks Prumo Orchestra
This Year’s Kisses
If you love hot swing, This Year’s Kisses is certainly a CD to pick up. Rhythm guitarist Brooks Prumo leads a combo that features Oliver Steck and David Jellema on cornets, trombonist Mark Gonzales, Jonathan Doyle on tenor and clarinet, altoist Lauryn Gould, pianist Kris Tokarski, bassist Ryan Gould, and drummer Hal Smith with occasional vocals by Alice Spencer. Some of these names are better known than others (particularly Smith, Tokarski and Doyle) but, no matter their name recognition, they are all world-class players who really understand the classic swing style.
From the start, a rambunctious version of the Johnny Hodges/Al Sears hit “Castle Rock” (featuring Doyle’s honking tenor), this is an exciting set. “Somebody Loves Me” has some Teddy Wilson-style piano from Tokarski (who on other projects has emulated Jelly Roll Morton), a winning vocal from Alice Spencer that sounds plucked from the 1930s, and short spots for four of the horns. Such obscurities as “Taint Like That” (recorded by Rex Stewart), “Peek-A-Boo” (from Karl George’s Octet), “Jo Jo” (the Kansas City Six), Alex Hill’s “Armful O’ Sweetness,” Red Allen’s “The Theme,” and Fats Waller’s “What’s Your Name” receive rare and welcome revivals. “This Year’s Kisses” is a real charmer with Doyle sounding close to Lester Young and Spencer contributing a simple but effective vocal. Whether performing forgotten tunes or a few standards, this excellent nonet sounds as if it were still the early 1940s, a particularly fertile era for jazz.
All of the 15 selections are both danceable and very listenable. While Count Basie’s small groups and the Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday recordings are the biggest inspirations, the musicians are never content to just copy the past and they give the vintage music plenty of life.
Why hesitate? This Year’s Kisses is easily recommended and available from www.brooksprumoorchestra.com.
(Basin Street Records)
Although Jason Marsalis, the youngest of the four musical Marsalis Brothers, first gained recognition for his work as a drummer, it seems obvious that his most lasting work will be as a vibraphonist. A fluent and inventive player whose sound sometimes recalls Milt Jackson, Marsalis is also a fine songwriter and a New Orleans-based bandleader.
Live, which was recorded at the beginning of a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Basin Street label in 2017, finds Marsalis leading an impressive quartet also including pianist Oscar Rossignoli, bassist Jasen Weaver, and drummer Gerald Watkins. The leader contributed all six numbers for this well-rounded and consistently swinging performance.
“Ratio Man Strikes Again” is an involved piece that ends up mostly being an uptempo straight ahead blues. The group sometimes sounds here a bit like the Modern Jazz Quartet although Watkins’ closing drum solo is much more assertive than one normally heard from Connie Kay. “Passionate Dancer” is a slow tango with a mysterious air about it while “Bourbon Street Ain’t Mardi Gras” is a spirited number based on the chords of “Bourbon Street Parade” (which was originally based on the chords of “Bill Bailey”). Particularly impressive is the way that Marsalis’ vibes solo is launched by a stop-time chorus.
The second half of the set consists of “Ballet Class” (which displays a classical influence), the moody “Short Story #1,” and “At The House, In Da Pocket” which becomes a rollicking blues. Throughout the set, Marsalis takes hot and inventive solos, Rossignoli proves to be a particularly creative and original sounding pianist, and Weaver and Watkins are excellent in support of the lead voices.
The end results are quite fun and available from www.basinstreetrecords.com.
Monk – Fifteen Piano Reflections
(Troppe Note Cambria)
Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen
The Monk Project
When Thelonious Monk (1917-82) was alive, nearly all of the interpretations of his music were either played in a similar fashion as to how he had recorded the songs, or were jammed as straight ahead bebop. After his passing, his 70 compositions became open to a much wider range of interpretations. It started with the Hal Willner project That’s The Way I Feel Now in 1984 and has expanded from humorous reinterpretations to Bill Holman’s Monk album in which he made the songs very much his own.
Pianist Stefano Travaglini’s Monk – Fifteen Piano Reflections turns some of Thelonious’ songs into dreamlike meanderings. Such tunes as “Trinkle Tinkle,” the obscure “Children’s Song,” and “Evidence” sound as if they are improvised classical music while others (such as the unrelenting left-hand lines on “Straight No Chaser”) are purposely closer to nightmares or episodic adventures. Travaglini usually keeps the melody around although sometimes in abstract form, but divorces Monk’s themes from the original chord changes and from a steady rhythm in favor of thoughtful spontaneity. His solo recital, which is available from www.edizioninotam.it, is well worth several listens and certainly casts some new light on Thelonious Monk’s music.
While he had a background in jazz, Jed Distler was fully involved in the world of contemporary concert music for a time before deciding to return to improvised music. In 2012 he became the first pianist to present a solo concert that featured every Thelonious Monk composition. His recent Fearless Monk has his mostly concise versions of 29 Monk songs which he plays in less than 78 minutes; only four of the songs exceed four minutes and ten are under 120 seconds.
Distler’s virtuosity and obvious familiarity with the material gives one the impression that he could do anything with these songs. Sometimes the tempo is fast, almost vaudevillian, while other songs find him really caressing the melody. He plays “Bye-Ya” in the style of Erroll Garner, “Jackie-ing” has the forward momentum of a train, “Brilliant Corners” is reinvented as a dirge, “Reflections” is taken as gentle stride piano, and “Blue Monk” is given a rollicking treatment. Full of plenty of spirit and freedom, Fearless Monk, which is available from tncmusic.net, expresses both affection for Thelonious Monk’s music and the willingness to take it into uncharted areas.
Dan Willis (mostly on tenor but also soprano, baritone, EWI, duduk and zurna) is another musician who feels free to fully express himself in Monk’s music. His playing is quite extroverted and sometimes almost over-the-top (although actually under control) on The Monk Project, with plenty of honks and wide interval jumps that are worthy of Eric Dolphy and Bennie Wallace. Willis’ versions of eight of Thelonious’ songs feature his horns showcased in electric settings with guitarist Pete McCann, keyboardist Ron Oswanski, one of three bassists (usually Evan Gregor), and drummer John Mettam. Sometimes taken out of tempo (with plenty of unaccompanied stretches) and occasionally funky, Williams and his Velvet Gentleman dig into such numbers as “Hackensack,” “Epistrophy,” a lengthy “Criss Cross” (which almost sounds like a lowdown blues), and a mostly cooking “Rhythm-A-Ning” in eccentric and generally joyful versions that are quite fun if unpredictable. Just do not expect this music to sound like the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Charlie Rouse! The Monk Project is available from www.danwillismusic.com.
I Got Rhythm
Rita Reys (1924-2013) was one of the top European jazz singers of the 1950s and ‘60s. Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, she performed regularly as a teenager although she did not seriously hear jazz until she was 18. Reys toured Europe, made her earliest commercial recordings in 1953, worked with Lars Gullin that year, and in 1956 visited the U.S. for the first time. She was so highly respected as a jazz singer that she recorded with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and worked with such notables as the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Mann, and Oscar Pettiford. She married pianist Pim Jacobs and worked with his trio much of the time from the early 1960s on although there were also occasional projects with orchestras. Reys remained active into her eighties.
While influenced a little by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (her version of “Mean To Me” is similar) and Mel Torme, she had her own swinging style, a very attractive tone in all registers, and was a fine improviser within the Great American songbook.
I Got Rhythm is filled with rarities but also acts as an excellent introduction to Rita Reys. She is featured in 1961 with Boy’s Big Band, with a small swing ensemble in 1959, and on her first recordings from 1953. Of the latter, there are four numbers with Lars Gullin (two on which the baritonist switches to alto) and two songs with clarinetist Ove Lind’s sextet. Reys is also heard on four numbers with accordionist Mat Mathews and several Americans in 1957, and five songs (from broadcasts in 1960 and 1964) with the Pim Jacobs Trio. This set concludes with private recordings from 1949-50 (the earliest known documentation of Reys including one song in which she keeps time on drums) plus an alternate take from 1956. Those numbers show that she had it from the start, expertly singing bebop.
Most of the songs on this valuable set are standards, Rita Reys sounds quite comfortable singing in English, her phrasing is quite attractive, and there are many fine short solos from her sidemen. I Got Rhythm, which is available from www.jazzarchief.nl, is well worth searching for.
Swallow Tales is a set of nine Steve Swallow compositions performed by guitarist John Scofield, drummer Bill Stewart, and the composer on bass. Scofield has been familiar with most of the Swallow songs for over four decades, ever since vibraphonist-educator Gary Burton brought them in to Berklee when the guitarist was a student. Swallow was in Burton’s band during that era.
While none of the originals became standards (“Eiderdown” came the closest), the pieces have fertile chord changes that inspire the trio. The relaxed and intimate date, which is mostly played at a fairly quiet level, has some hot playing and an occasional cooker along with the more thoughtful material. Among the highlights are the boppish “Awful Coffee,” a faster than usual “Eiderdown,” the jazz waltz “Hullo Bolinas,” and “In F.” The latter is based on the chord changes of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” which Scofield and Swallow quote along the way.
Stewart takes a few drum breaks and Swallow has an occasional solo, but the focus is generally on Scofield and the appealing sound of the ensemble. The music is mostly straight ahead and full of melodic creativity, making it a rewarding and subtle session. Swallow Tales is easily recommended and available from www.ecmrecords.com.
Les Chauds 7 Du Pere Morel (Papa Morel’s Hot Seven)
Cornetist Jean-Pierre Morel has been an important force in France’s classic jazz scene ever since he first recorded with the Famous Melody Boys in 1966. He had longtime associations with Charquet and Co. (1967-78), Le Petit Jazzband (1997-2004) and Les Rois du Fox-Trot (2004-13) and appeared on several notable and very enjoyable sets with all three groups that were released by the Stomp Off label.
In recent times he has been leading Les Chauds 7 Du Pere Morel (Papa Morel’s Hot Seven). Horse Feathers consists of two sets recorded in 2017 and 2019. Morel, who also contributed the arrangements, is joined by trombonist Pierre Reboud, Stéphane Gillot on alto and clarinet, pianist Bernard Thevin, banjoist Francois Fournet, bass saxophonist Marc Bresdin, and either Laurence Bridard or Olivier Clerc on drums.
The repertoire ranges from the Bix-associated “I’m More Than Satisfied,” “Livery Stable Blues” and Clarence Williams’ “Bimbo,” to a pair of relative obscurities from Jelly Roll Morton (“Buffalo Blues” and “New Orleans Bump”) and three Tiny Parham songs. None of the pieces on the set ever came close to becoming standards yet that was certainly not due to the high-quality of the compositions. Quite notable is how each of the musicians perfectly fits into the idiom (the band could pass for one from Chicago circa 1928) without copying earlier solos. Morel’s arrangements perfectly set up the individual statements and the ensembles are hot without being crowded.
Papa Morel’s Hot Seven’s creativity within the vintage style plus the consistent joy heard in the performances makes Horse Feathers a must for fans of 1920s jazz. It is highly recommended and available from nancyspectacles.wixsite.com/chauds7 or www.amazon.com.
An actress (mostly on stage but sometimes in films and television), dancer, and songwriter who is the wife of Rubén Blades, Luba Mason is also a talented singer who has a light haunting voice that sometimes recalls Peggy Lee. On her live set Triangle, she is joined by vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist James Genus, and drummer Samuel Torres.
Ms. Mason calls her music “Mixtura,” a blend of different musical currents including jazz, pop, classical, and World Music. Despite an eclectic repertoire on Triangle that includes the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride,” Jobim’s “Waters Of March,” and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” the music is essentially jazz that is often inspired by Brazilian music. Mason’s voice is attractive and always in-tune. She excels in this intimate setting which includes the warm ballad “Inolvidable” and a duet with vibist Locke on “Ceresne.” Locke is a major asset throughout both as a soloist and accompanying the singer while Genus and Torres are subtle and swinging in support.
Luba Mason sounds quite comfortable on the one jazz standard of the set, Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” making one hope that she will someday record a program of jazz standards. It is obvious that she could pull it off successfully. But in the meantime, Triangle is a delightful set filled with intimate singing. It is available from www.lubamason.com.
Women & Children
Pianist-drummer-composer Rick Cutler has certainly had an eclectic musical career. He took up the drums when he was five, piano and keyboards as a teenager, and studied at Juilliard and privately with Chick Corea. His longest musical associations were with the great tap dancer Gregory Hines (18 years as keyboardist and musical director) and Liza Minnelli for eight. Along the way he composed music for television, film and radio, worked in many Broadway shows, performed and recorded with such notables as Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Michael Franks, Billy Eckstine, Pete Seeger, Johnny Hartman and Larry Coryell, and led several albums of his own.
It is therefore not surprising that his fifth recording as a leader, Women & Children, changes instrumentation from song-to-song. Cutler wrote every piece except for Tom Waits’ “Time,” alternates between piano and drums, and has created a program that evades simple musical classification.
The set begins with “The Blues Matters,” a blues groove with a catchy riff that is explored by a quintet. Guitarist Richard Boukas takes the lead and Cutler on electric piano solos over the infectious rhythm. The mood changes on his thoughtful solo piano piece “Etude” and a moody and atmospheric “A Day’s Work,” the latter featuring the leader on keyboards. “One For Ed” has Cutler switching to drums and performing a folkish melody that one could imagine Pat Metheny playing. The quartet on this selection co-stars Boukas and pianist Mark Soskin with bassist David Katzenberg providing solid support. The peaceful and soothing “Green” (with Cutler on solo piano) precedes a moving vocal by Charlotte Durkee on “Time” during which the leader provides sympathetic piano and keyboards.
“Paris After Midnight” is a relatively straightforward jazz waltz with Lawrence Feldman’s flute in the lead, Soskin contributing another fine solo, and Cutler’s drums swinging behind the lead voices. He is back on piano for the solo “Hymn #4” (which could pass for a traditional hymn) and a haunting duet on “Japanese Mist” with Dave Wechsler on wooden flute. The energetic “Dee Too” gives guitarist Boukas and pianist Soskin opportunities to stretch out while Cutler contributes colorful accents. After a brief piano solo on “Trance,” he concludes the enjoyable set with the title cut which has him on electric piano leading a completely different group of musicians (with violinist Sarah Caswell, guitarist Vinnie Zummo, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and drummer Tony Cintron) effectively playing off of a rhythmic riff.
Rick Cutler’s Women & Children, which is available from www.humanrick.com, grows in interest with each listen for it contains plenty of inner heat and creativity.
A Love Letter To Lena
This is a most unusual tribute to the great Lena Horne. Horne, a pioneering African-American movie actress who was unable to break through Hollywood’s low glass ceiling, was a successful nightclub singer for decades. While touched by jazz, she straddled the boundary between jazz and middle-of-the-road pop music. Due to her great looks, she was often underrated but throughout her life was an important fighter for civil rights
Rather than do her version of Lena Horne’s greatest hits, go chronologically through her life, or try to imitate Horne’s singing, Clairdee has a completely different approach. She mostly sings little-known songs (along with a few standards) that Horne had recorded, her style on this project is more soulful and r&b oriented, and the arrangements are contemporary. At no time does Clairdee sound like Horne and, listening to a song or two from the program out of context, one would be hard-pressed to recognize this as a tribute album.
Instead, Clairdee puts the focus on Lena Horne the civil rights crusader, including six spoken interludes between songs narrated by actress Margo Hall. On songs such as “I Got A Name,” “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” “Believe In Yourself,” the recent “Stand By,” and even a modernized “I Want To Be Happy,” one can sense the struggles of Horne’s life along with her determination not to give up her fight. Clairdee is joined by a rhythm section (with keyboardist Jon Herbst a major contributor), occasional horns and strings, guest violinist Regina Carter (on “Something To Live For”), and background singers including Kenny Washington.
Personally I wish that the music was more jazz or swing-oriented (Clairdee can sing jazz quite well) but A Love Letter To Lena is a well-intentioned and expertly sung tribute to one aspect of Lena Horne’s important life. It is available from www.clairdee.com.
While the flute has been an important part of Cuban music and Afro-Cuban jazz since its beginnings, it is heard less often in Brazilian jazz settings. That is surprising since its soothing sound is a natural fit for gentle bossa novas.
Andrea Brachfeld, one of the top jazz flutists of the past few decades, had lessons early on from Jimmy Heath and Yusef Lateef, attended the Manhattan School of Music, played with many Afro-Cuban bands in New York back in the 1970s, and also mastered straight ahead jazz. Since that time she has recorded a wide variety of albums.
Brazilian Whispers features the flutist performing six Jobim songs, a “Samba Medley,” three songs co-written with pianist Bill O’Connell, and “Never Let Me Go.” While the music is Brazilian-oriented, it is not just a recreation of early bossa-novas. The chord structures are often modernized, the musicians are energetic and not tied down to the bossa-nova rhythms, and Andrea Brachfeld has many opportunities to stretch herself. She is often joined by her regular rhythm section (keyboardist O’Connell, bassist Harvie S and drummer Jason Tienman) but at other times interacts with guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, bassist Lincoln Goines, drummer T. Portinho, and percussionist Chembo Corniel. Among the selections are a mellow “Double Rainbow,” “Waters Of March,” the lyrical “Triste E Solitaria,” and a surprisingly hyper version of “The Girl From Ipanema.” The leader and Bill O’Connell are the main soloists and, while they play melodically, their improvisations are inventive and sometimes take the music into surprising directions.
Throughout the fine outing, Andrea Brachfeld is heard in top form, making this CD an excellent introduction to her artistry. Brazilian Whispers is available from www.originarts.com.