Bobby Watson & New Horizon
Keepin’ It Real
For altoist Bobby Watson, 2020 was going to be a year of new beginnings. After 20 years, he quit his job as the head of jazz studies at the University of Missouri. After a final tour early in the year, he broke up his Horizon quintet (which had been around for 30 years) and decided to form New Horizon with younger players. And he recorded Keepin’ It Real with the unit shortly before the pandemic shut everything down.
What remains unchanged is Watson’s brilliant playing along with his desire to stretch himself. On Keepin’ It Real, he has a reunion with Horizon’s original bassist Curtis Lundy and interacts with younger players with either Josh Evans or Giveton Gellin on trumpet, pianist Victor Gould and drummer Victor Jones. A lot of ground is covered on the nine songs which include three Watson originals and two by Lundy, and the results are quite enjoyable.
Jackie McLean’s cooking blues “Condition Blue” begins the set with a blazing Watson solo. Josh Evans is also quite impressive during this boppish opener. “Keepin’ It Real” is both party music and gospellish with jubilant solos and some wild ensembles in its last section. Lundy’s “Elementary My Dear Watson 2020” has the group sounding a bit like the Cannonball Adderley Quintet (Nat Adderley is one of Evans’ originals), New Horizon plays quite soulfully on Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and they reinvent Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk” as a floating tune that one could imagine John Coltrane recording. Of the other numbers, Watson’s “My Song” is catchy and uses repetition effectively, his group romps on the uptempo One For John,” comes up with some fresh statements on “Flamenco Sketches” and concludes with a celebratory “The Mystery Of Ebop.”
Both of the trumpeters take consistently exciting solos, the rhythm section is tight and pianist Victor Gould also has many rewarding improvisations. But the main star is the 67-year old altoist who is very much in his creative prime. Keepin’ It Real (available from www.smokesessionsrecords.com) is easily recommended.
Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove (1969-2018) and pianist Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013) had tragically short lives that should have continued for a couple more decades. They both left behind a large recorded legacy that will be studied and enjoyed in future centuries. Although they had overlapping careers and must have crossed paths many times in their lives, the only times that they recorded together were as part of an all-star octet called Superblue in 1988, on one song for Antonio Hart’s 1991 album For The First Time, and two numbers with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band in 2005.
It is a major surprise that on producer Zev Feldman’s latest project, the two-CD set In Harmony, not only are the two greats teamed together but this is a set of live duets. Their duo concerts of Jan. 15, 2006 and Nov. 9, 200 are released in full on a two-CD set along with an equally remarkable 66-page booklet that includes reminiscences from 14 notable musicians.
They perform a dozen jazz standards and a blues. While Mulgrew Miller is in top form in this setting, adjusting his style a bit to be more boppish than usual and to function as the full rhythm section, Roy Hargrove emerges as the main star. In fact, one would not be exaggerating to say that the trumpeter never sounded better than on the second disc although his performances on the first are quite close. He hits some dazzling high notes along the way (most notably on “Fungii Mama”), displays a very warm tone, and reacts quickly to the pianist’s ideas. The two make for a perfect team on such numbers as “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “This Is Always” (which features Hargrove at his warmest), “Invitation,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Blues For Mr. Hill” and “Ow,” often challenging each other and obviously enjoying the experience. In Harmony, available from www.resonanerecords.org, will certainly make many lists as one of the top jazz releases of 2021. It can be considered a milestone in the careers of the much-missed Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller.
Merci Miles – Live At Vienne
Miles Davis passed away on Sept. 28, 1991. During his final year he recorded the unfortunate Doo Bop with a rapper, toured Europe with his regular band, surprised everyone by revisiting the famous Gil Evans arrangements with a large band led by Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 8, had a reunion with some of his older associates on July 10 (music that has yet to be released), and played his final concert at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 25.
Slightly earlier, on July 1, Davis and his last regular band performed before an enthusiastic audience at Vienne, France. A two-CD set that totals 77 ½ music (the second disc is under 25 minutes) has recently been released for the first time. Davis’ final group consisted of altoist Kenny Garrett, keyboardist Deron Johnson, Foley on high-note bass, electric bassist Richard Patterson, and drummer Ricky Wellman. They play Marcus Miller’s “Hannibal” and “Amandla,” two songs by Prince, the trumpeter’s “Wrinkle,” and his standbys during his last decade: the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” The closing “Finale” is just a vamp for the rhythm section and a drum solo. Davis is absent from the cut which could have easily been left out if Rhino had decided to release this concert as a single disc.
While Miles Davis directed the action and takes some spots (mostly muted) along the way, the best solos are by Garrett and Johnson (on “Amandla”). The performances are essentially groove music although Prince’s “Jailbait” is a blues strut. Fans of late-period Miles Davis and those who want to hear what the trumpeter sounded like near the end will most enjoy Merci Miles which is available from www.rhino.com. Just do not expect to hear classic trumpet solos or songs like “’Round Midnight” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
Martial Solal was 91 on Jan. 23, 2019 when he performed the music on this CD at a concert. He made the decision soon afterwards that this would be his final performance. Born in Algeria, Solal began playing professionally as a teenager, moved permanently to France in 1950, worked with Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet, and was often in demand by visiting American jazz artists. Originally a forward-looking swing pianist who also played bop, by the early 1960s Solal was forging his own path, learning from free jazz and stretching the boundaries of standards.
After an over 70-year career, Solal was still at the top of his game when he called it quits. Coming Yesterday features him coming up with very fresh and consistently abstract statements on his original title track, “Sir Jack” (which is really “Frere Jacques”), a Duke Ellington medley, six standards, and even “Happy Birthday.” While the melodies of these tunes can be heard somewhere along the way, the music is reharmonized, sometimes played out-of-tempo, and turned into very original improvisations.
Listeners with open ears will find much to discover during these intriguing solos from an ageless master. Coming Yesterday is recommended and available from www.challengerecords.com.
Jihye Lee Orchestra
Jihye Lee is an impressive arranger-composer who recorded her debut album as a leader, April, in 2017. Daring Mind features her leading her 15 piece orchestra and welcoming trumpeter Sean Jones to a few selections
Lee’s arrangements for her nine originals are unpredictable but logical, adventurous yet often melodic. The orchestra has a conventional sound but takes her music into unexpected areas with each of her pieces developing as they progress rather than just being a set of chord changes for solos.
“Relentless Mind” is a tribute to the excitement of New York, featuring fine spots for Jones and trombonist Alan Ferber. A repetitious bass (would could be a simulation of a heartbeat) launches “Unshakable Mind” which has solos for bassist Evan Gregor and a tenor-saxophonist; unfortunately the soloists are mostly unidentified. Pianist Adam Birnbaum is featured on the moody ensemble ballad “Suji,” a piece that takes its time.
“I Dare You” (named after Wayne Shorter’s definition of jazz) has a Monkish melody that is quite quirky and a solo from tenor-saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff. “Revived Mind” utilizes an eccentric rhythm and a trombone solo (probably by Alan Ferber) while Sean Jones returns for the ballad “Struggle Gives You Strength.” “Why Is That” has some unusual accents and tempo changes that recall Thad Jones. “Dissatisfied Mind” is a rather stormy affair that certainly holds one’s interest while “GB” is a musical depiction of the breakup of an affair.
Jihye Lee’s thought-provoking music, which occasionally makes one think of
Maria Schneider in its picturesque qualities and the wide range of emotions that are expressed, is certainly worth a listen. One can imagine her composing significant music for the next few decades. Daring Music is available from www.motema.com.
Although Pete Rodriguez has had extensive experience playing Afro-Cuban jazz including with Tito Puente (one of his early albums as a leader was called Mambo Birdland), Obstacles is a set of straight ahead modern post-bop jazz. Rodriguez is joined by John Ellis on tenor and soprano, pianist-keyboardist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez, and drummer Rudy Royston.
The leader wrote all 11 of the compositions, many of which have tongue-twisting melodies. While “50” has similarities to “Seven Steps To Heaven,” and the ballad “Abraham” seems to be in 11/4 time part of the time, some of the most exciting tunes are more reminiscent of the early Ornette Coleman Quartet’s brand of free bop including “Mt. Ritmo,” “Obstacles,” and “FU John.” The latter title, and some other pieces (including “Academic Backstabbing 101” and “Obstacles”) must have interesting stories behind them, but unfortunately this release has no real liner notes.
Rodriguez (who has a warm tone and a fluent style) and the versatile keyboardist Luis Perdomo emerge as the solo stars. John Ellis also has a few fine solos and blends well with the leader while bassist Rodriguez and drummer Royston are alert and navigate the often-difficult pieces with apparent ease.
The music is quite stirring and inventive. Obstacles is available from www.sunnysiderecords.com.
Ballad For A Rainy Afternoon
Pianist Mark Soskin has led at least 16 albums, appeared on 75, and displayed both versatility and individuality throughout his career including working with Billy Cobham, Steve Smith, Sonny Rollins (over 15 years), Herbie Mann, and Claudio Roditi. While he has often recorded standards, he is also an excellent composer.
Ballad For A Rainy Afternoon teams Soskin with tenor-saxophonist Rich Perry, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Matt Wilson, performing seven of his originals plus Ornette Coleman’s “Round Trip” and John Abercrombie’s “Labour Day.” The first five selections are consistently laidback and relaxed but with plenty of inner heat bubbling just beneath the surface. That is always a good description of Rich Perry’s style in general since he has a soft tone, advanced ideas, and displays quiet passion. With Anderson supplying concise solos and inspired accompaniment, and Wilson keeping the introspective music flowing even when his playing is more felt than heard, Soskin’s songs are treated with taste and subtle creativity. The tender title cut is a highlight.
The mood changes altogether on “Man Behind The Curtain” and “Round Trip” with the quartet displaying more overt fire and playing inventive ideas. After the quiet “One Hopeful Day,” Soskin and his quartet cut loose on “Throwing Caution To The Wind.”
No matter the mood, Mark Soskin displays an original voice within the modern mainstream. His music is consistently satisfying and deserves a close listen. Ballad For A Rainy Afternoon is easily recommended and available from www.statesidemusic.com
This Song Is New
Not much has been heard from guitarist Lorne Lofsky in the United States for quite some time. He originally gained recognition as a cool-toned and boppish guitarist who worked in his native Canada. He impressed and worked with visiting Americans (including Chet Baker and Pepper Adams), was a member of the Oscar Peterson Quartet (1994-96), and gigged with Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Ruby Braff, and in a quartet with fellow guitarist Ed Bickert, making two albums with the latter.
It had been 20 years since Lofsky’s last recording as a leader so This Song Is New is way overdue. Lofsky teams up with three fellow Canadians: tenor-saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, bassist Kieran Overs, and drummer Barry Romberg. They perform offbeat versions of “Seven Steps To Heaven” (which is recast in 5/4 time) and Benny Golson’s “Stable Mates” (reinvented in 7/4) plus five of Lofsky’s originals. The guitarist’s fluent solos are matched by the very warm tenor playing of MacDonald who fits in perfectly, particularly on the ballad “The Time Being” and a Coltranish “Stable Mates.” The other songs include “Live From The Apollo” (based on “Giant Steps” and alluding to Neil Armstrong’s Apollo mission on the moon), “Evans From Lennie” (inspired by the “Pennies From Heaven” originals of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz), a lyrical ballad (“The Time Being”), “The Song Is New,” and “Al Alterior Motif.”
The solos of Lofsky and MacDonald along with the solid support offered by Overs and Romberg make This Song Is New highly recommended to anyone who loves straight ahead jazz. Without reinventing the wheel, the quartet carves out its own place in the classic idiom and clearly has a good time playing together. The Song Is New is recommended and available from www.modicamusic.com.
Terry Gibbs Quartet
Plays Terry Gibbs
Terry Gibbs, who at 96 is with drummer Roy Haynes (who is four months younger) the last of the beboppers, has led a long series of rewarding albums during this career. In 1963 his pianist was an unknown from Detroit, Alice McLeod, who left a year later to join her soon-to-be husband, John Coltrane. The future Alice Coltrane, who appeared live on a French jazz television show as early as 1960 (the clip is on You Tube),
was originally very much a bop-oriented pianist inspired by Bud Powell and she was a perfect fit for Gibbs’ hard-swinging quartet.
During 1963, Alice McLeod recorded five albums with the vibraphonist. Plays Terry Gibbs reissues the most elusive of the records (The Family Album) plus the slightly more common El Nutto. On both projects Gibbs wrote all of the songs. The Family Album received its name because each of the originals is dedicated to specific family members and friends. Many of the tunes have catchy melodies (one could imagine “Sunny Girl” becoming a standard), the quartet (with bassist Ernie Farrow and drummer Steve Little) swings hard, and the pianist easily keeps up with Gibbs, playing some ferocious bebop lines on “Up At Logue’s Place” and “El Cheapo.” El Nutto, which has bassist Herman Wright and drummer John Dentz joining Gibbs and McLeod, is just as rewarding. Listen to how the pianist sounds a bit like an aggressive Thelonious Monk on “El Nutto.” Any of these performances would be perfect for a blindfold test for McLeod never hints at her future style
Terry Gibbs, who contributed a large amount of the liner notes, is heard throughout playing in his exciting and always enthusiastic style. The recordings might be 58 years old but Gibbs (who was already 20 years into his career) sounds as timeless as ever and shows that he was also a talented (if unheralded) songwriter. This enjoyable set is available from www.freshsoundrecords.com.
(Consolidated Artists Productions)
A fine modern mainstream pianist, Falkner Evans was born in Tulsa, toured for four years with Asleep At The Wheel in the 1980s, and is a longtime part of the New York jazz scene.
In 2020 he suffered the death of his wife, the artist and teacher Linda Evans. As a way of releasing some of his grief, he recorded this solo piano CD. Comprised of eight originals, the music is thoughtful, taken mostly at slow tempos, melodic, and explorative in its own way, as if Evans was thinking aloud at the piano. This heartfelt album (available from www.falknerevans.com) is effective as superior background music or for closer listening. Despite the lack of tempo variations, the music works on its own terms. And it does make one hope that Falkner Evans’ next recording will be a much happier affair.
Live At The Mira Room
A fine pianist, keyboardist and composer from Long Beach, Sam Ross is an up-and-coming talent. He graduated from the University of Michigan and has worked regularly with trios at clubs and restaurants since returning to Southern California. Live At The Mira Room, recorded just before the pandemic hit, is his second EP, following Road To The Top.
The trio set, which also features bassist Simba Distis and drummer Dr, Mimmi Mured, consists of six Ross originals. Starting with the catchy “Bryan’s Room,” it includes the joyous swinger “Beauty Has No Coming,” a strut (“City Stroll”), the boppish “Hopeful Feature,” a jazz waltz (“Bear”), and the quirky “Music Is King.” The three musicians often sound like one with Distis and Mured playing as if they are an extension of Ross who is mostly heard on Fender Rhodes.
While tied to the modern mainstream of jazz, Ross’ music sounds quite original, offering likable melodies, mood variations, and fresh chord changes. While I wish that his EP was longer than 29 minutes, Live At The Mira Room (available from www.samdylanross.com) is an excellent introduction to Sam Ross’ talents and makes one want to hear more.
Ron Cyger and Brent Butterworth
(Outrageous 8 Records)
Alto and soprano-saxophonist Ron Cyger and bassist-guitarist Brent Butterworth comprise Take 2, a jazz duo based in Southern California. Cyger has a degree in music from CSULA, toured the Western US, Canada and Japan, and has worked with Angela O’Neill’s Outrageous 8 and the Green Street Jazz Quartet. Brent Butterworth, a recording engineer and reviewer of many audio products, plays bass, guitar and ukulele. While both Cyger and Butterworth contribute a bit of percussion on their Take 2 album, they also welcome guest percussionist Larry Salzman on three numbers.
The nine selections on this release (eight originals plus one famous pop song) feature Roy Cyger and Brent Butterworth in top form. They often utilize a bit of overdubbing so that they form a slightly larger group than a duo but their likable music is intimate and primarily features close interplay by the two musicians.
Cyger and Butterworth start off the program with the soul jazz groove of “Buddy’s Bounce” which has swinging guitar and alto solos along with Salzman’s prominent congas. “Waltz For Louie” utilizes a bassline that recalls “Take Five” a little and has a fine tradeoff between alto and bass. The 1950’s hit “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” is given a light-hearted version with some cooking soprano playing by Cyger.
“Noir” has a mildly mysterious theme that could have worked well in a film noir. “Missy’s Mambo” includes a heated soprano solo and some assertive guitar playing. One of the set’s catchier originals is the concise and swinging medium-tempo blues “Findango.” The program concludes with the sly “Chit Chat,” “Aprender” (based on “All The Things You Are”), and a slow strut called “The Sadie Shuffle.”
Take 2, which is available from www.angelamaeoneill.com, is a fine introduction to the playing of Ron Cyger and Brent Butterworth.
As Luck Would Have It
A top jazz guitarist based in upstate New York, Joe Finn has a mellow tone (a little reminiscent of Jimmy Raney), creates harmonically adventurous improvisations, and swings at every tempo.
The COVID pandemic made it very hard for jazz musicians, but for As Luck Would Have It, the guitarist’s seventh release as a leader. Joe Finn took advantage of the fact that the top players living in his geographical area were available. His sidemen, vibraphonist Mike Benedict, pianist-keyboardist Wayne Hawkins, bassist Mike Lawrence, and drummer Pete Sweeney, have not only had extensive experience playing with major musicians but have also led bands of their own. On ten of the guitarist’s originals, they form an attractive group sound and their performances are full of subtle and inventive interplay.
The opener, “The Good Word,” is a relaxed minor-toned medium-tempo piece that introduces the quintet and (as is true on all of the other selections) features inventive and concise guitar, vibes, and piano solos. “As Though I Had Wings” is an attractive jazz waltz which hints at “Inchworm” in spots. The uptempo “As Luck Would Have It” (with Lawrence particularly prominent in the ensembles and Sweeney taking a fine solo) is followed by “Elan,” a slow ballad that one could imagine pianist John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet playing.
“Come What May” a happy piece utilizing the chord changes of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” is followed by the harmonically complex but still cooking “Purity Of Essence,” the atmospheric and moody “Dedalus,” and the swinging “Asymetrical Reflections.” The CD concludes with one of the strongest original melodies of the program (“Born Yesterday”) and the joyful “Blue Ullon.” Each of the ten performances on As Luck Would Have It (www.joefinn.net) is enjoyable with Joe Finn displaying an original style that, while connected to the jazz tradition, does not sound like any of his predecessors. The musicians all were clearly inspired by each other’s presence and quite happy to be playing together. The result is a high-quality set of music that is easily recommended to anyone who enjoys modern straight ahead jazz.