by Scott Yanow
Imagine a band featuring a singer-host whose stage manner is reminiscent of a humorous and slightly inebriated Dean Martin in his Las Vegas days circa 1960. He leads a top-notch three-horn swinging septet that performs jazz standards that suddenly switch to rock classics whenever he sings, often combining together two songs that seemingly have little in common, sometimes alternating between the two and at other times playing the two tunes at the same time.
Sounds Nutty to me, and quite entertaining. Comprised of singer Sonny Moon, Edmund Velasco mostly on tenor, Mike Reznick on baritone and flute, trumpeter Ryan DeWeese, pianist Dan Spector, bassist Guy Wonder, drummer Dave Johnstone and percussionist Scott Breadman, the group performs the unusual and always colorful arrangements of Moon and Wonder which include plenty of space for the musicians to stretch out; Velasco often takes solo honors.
At their monthly gig at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, Nutty started off their memorable night with a combination of the “Mission Impossible Theme” with a Jethro Tull song. From there they performed such odd combinations as “My Little Red Book/Intermission Riff,” the Eberle Brothers/Cannonball Adderley, Monk meeting the Monkees, and Steppenwolf collaborating with Coltrane. “Satin Doll” combined with “Cinnamon Doll,” Van Halen met “Sway,” Freedom Jazz Dance” became “Life In The Fast Lane,” and Cole Porter (“What Is This Thing Called Love”) teamed up with Queen (“This Thing Called Love”). Other combinations included Police and Dizzy Gillespie (“Manteca”), Ozzy Osbourne somehow giving way to a Jobim medley, and Henry Mancini (“Pink Panther”) logically becoming Jimi Hendrix (“Are You Experienced”).
The music was as fun as it sounds. This is a very original band that deserves to be much better known. Catch them when you can (and pick up their recent release Live At The Purple Pit) and see what you think.
One of the finest jazz pianists of the past 50 years although he is generally grouped with Afro-Cuban music, Chucho Valdes, who is now 77, has superb technique, a vivid musical imagination, and a healthy wit. At the Soraya in Northridge, Valdes performed with his Jazz Bata, a group that also included bassist Ramon Vazquez, Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé on bata, percussion and occasional vocal, Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion, and a third percussionist whose name I unfortunately missed.
While Valdes was the main soloist, his sidemen were all quite impressive with bassist Vazquez setting patterns that made it easy for the leader to roam freely. Valdes sometimes recalled the late pianist Don Pullen when he played fast free-form chords that were also rhythmically accessible. The three percussionists (generally bata, timbales and congas but also utilizing other instruments) were a strong team by themselves. It was a tight but loose group filled with energy that gave one the impression that they could play for days.
In addition to the consistently stirring originals and traditional Cuban songs, Valdes played a blues on which he performed some stride piano, and created a medley of “Embraceable You,” “But Beautiful” (which had some runs worthy of Art Tatum), “Little Girl Blue,” “People,” and finally a cooking and boppish “But Not For Me.”
It made for a memorable night of high-quality music.
GORDON GOODWIN’S BIG PHAT BAND
One of the most exciting big bands around, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band celebrated the release of its new CD The Gordian Knot with a typically enthusiastic performance at Catalina’s Bar & Grill. Playing before a packed house, Goodwin led his 17-piece orchestra through such numbers as the funky “T.O.P. Adjacent” (a tribute to Tower Of Power that showcased altoist Eric Marienthal and the driving drums of Ray, Brinker), the moody “Lost In Thought” (featuring the leader on tenor and trumpeter Mike Rocha), the theme from “The Incredibles” (which had some remarkable playing from trumpeter Wayne Bergeron), and a tribute to Buddy Rich (“The Buddy Complex”) that quoted pieces from the Rich Orchestra’s repertoire, most notably “Channel One Suite.” In addition, Vangie Gunn sang the r&bish “Through The Fire” and “Summertime,” hitting some impressive long notes.
Somehow the musicians performed Goodwin’s complex and often high-powered arrangements flawlessly and with a smile; one can only marvel at the endurance of his tireless trumpet section. After hearing the Big Phat Band, most other big bands sound a bit somber in comparison.
Each year brings more and more Christmas-related CDs. The trend started in the early-to-mid 1960s with best-selling albums by Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas), Kenny Burrell (Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas), Jimmy Smith (Christmas Cookin’) and Ramsey Lewis (Sound Of Christmas) and it has really accelerated since then. The best Christmas jazz albums are the ones that even sound fun when it is 90 degrees out.
Carrie Marshall’s Songs For Christmas – Volume 1 & 2 features the North Carolina-based singer on a pair of Eps that consist of seven Christmas-related standards plus two of her originals. She is joined by a top-notch rhythm section and occasional cello, organ and harmonica (with tenor-saxophonist Dave Finucane featured on “Back In Boston”). Guitarist Scott Sawyer and keyboardist Dave Fox take several rewarding solos along the way. Among the most memorable performances are Ms. Marshall’s lightly funky and danceable version of “The Christmas Song,” a soulful “We Three Kings,” her heartwarming version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” which is taken as a duet with guitarist Sawyer, and “O Holy Night,” which is most notable for the singer’s very attractive long notes. Carrie Marshall’s haunting original ballad “Winter Song,” a picturesque piece that creates a dreamy atmosphere, is a highpoint of this enjoyable outing which is available from www.carriemarshall.net.
Peter Curtis plays unaccompanied guitar throughout Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend which is available from www.petercurtismusic.com. In his career thus far, he has worked with such notables as James Moody, James Carter, Freddy Cole, and Barbara Morrison. A tasteful guitarist who always keeps the melody nearby, Curtis recalls Joe Pass at times during this solo recital, simultaneously filling in the theme, bass lines, chords and improvised sections. He does not stick strictly to ballad tempos and often cooks at an impressive pace. Among the highlights are “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” and his original “Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend” on which he takes an effective vocal. The results are quite pleasing.
Accent is a male vocal sextet with members from France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the U.S., and two from Canada. On Christmas All The Way (available from www.accentvocal.com) the singers perform in several settings, from a capella, being backed by a rhythm section, and joined by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra to being accompanied on two numbers by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band including a version of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” that has Arturo Sandoval taking a trumpet solo. Other soloists for one song apiece are saxophonist George Shelby and clarinetist Don Shelton (sounding fine on “The Christmas Song”) but the main focus is on the singers who are mostly heard as a full ensemble. They have an attractive sound, swing when it is called for, and do justice to the Christmas program.
EHSS (Ernie Haase & Signature Sound) is a male vocal quartet that has traveled the world and sold quite a few records as a Southern gospel group. However their A Jazzy Little Christmas (available from www.erniehaase.com) is different than one might expect from that description since it is more jazz-oriented and secular. The harmonies sung by the spirited vocalists (Haase, Devin McGlamery, Dustin Doyle and Paul Harkey) are sophisticated. They are joined by a rhythm section with pianist Billy Stritch and occasionally two trumpets and a tenor-sax. Along with some familiar songs are a new Haas original “Christmas In Manhattan,” and such lesser-known tunes are the r&bish “Love You Remember,” “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” and Haase’s “Sometimes I Wonder.” Although I wish they would stretch out a bit more from the melodies, EHSS is definitely a crowd pleaser.
The most adventurous of the five Xmas albums is This Time Of Year. Bassist-singer Kristin Korb was a fixture in Los Angeles jazz club scene until moving to Denmark in 2011.Years before Esperanza Spalding appeared on the scene, Ms. Korb was singing while also playing her bass. This Time Of Year (available from www.storyvillerecords.com) features her performing jazz versions of 13 Christmas and seasonal songs in a quartet with pianist Magnus Hjorth, drummer Snorre Kirk, and the impressive Mathias Heise on harmonica. Starting with a slightly funky “Christmas Will Really Be Christmas” which has Korb singing and scatting soulfully, and continuing with an uptempo “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and a modern rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” Korb and her musicians use the songs as vehicles for creative improvisations while still retaining the essence of the tunes.
Other highlights of this excellent date included the leader’s fine ballad singing on “That’s What I Want For Christmas,” an uptempo “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the boppish transformation of “Angels We Have Heard On High” (one of the date’s few instrumentals), a relaxed “Silent Night” and the concluding “Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep” (from White Christmas).