Helen Sung, who was born and raised in Houston, earned her degrees at the University of Texas at Austin and the Thelonious Monk Institute. She recorded her first of seven albums as a leader for Fresh Sound in 2003 (Push) and has since developed into one of jazz’s most original and versatile pianists and composers.
On Quartet, Sung is joined by John Ellis (tenor, soprano and flute), bassist David Wong, drummer Kendrick Scott, and quite frequently the Harlem String Quartet, so this is really a double quartet album. In addition to her five originals, the pianist performs pieces by Geri Allen (“Feed The Fire”), Mary Lou Williams, Toshiko Akiyoshi (“Long Yellow Road”), Carla Bley (“Wrong Key Donkey”), Marian McPartland, and Billy Taylor (two short versions of “A Grand Night For Swinging”). All of the music was composed by women except for the Taylor piece which Sung first heard on a Mary Lou Williams record.
Quartet includes third-stream arrangements that feature the string section, post bop explorations, and plenty of solid swinging. With plenty of mood, tempo, and stylistic variations throughout the program, the music is never predictable except in its excellence. Sung’s versions of the pieces from other composers are consistently creative and colorful. “Feed The Fire” is quite passionate,” “Mary’s Waltz” and “Coquette” (the latter is no relation to the swing standard) will keep one guessing, and her original “Elegy For The City” is moody, episodic, and picturesque. Each of the string players gets featured a bit on one song apiece with McPartland’s “Melancholy Mood” being a showcase for the strings as an ensemble John Ellis on his various reeds is a major asset whenever he appears while Wong and Scott handle the variety with both taste and telepathy.
As for Helen Sung, her piano solos are always inventive (“Sungbird” is particularly rewarding) but Quartet will probably be best remembered for her fresh and original arrangements and compositions. The music never loses one’s interest and is filled with joyful surprises. Quartet, which is available from www.sunnysiderecords.com, is highly recommended.
Madeleine Peyroux, who was born in Georgia, first sang as a teenager in France with street musicians, and then worked with a pair of trad bands the Riverboat Shufflers and the Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band. In 1996 she recorded the album Dreamland for Atlantic, singing songs from the swing era with an all-star group that included James Carter and Cyrus Chestnut. Unfortunately the album did not sell well and it would be eight years before she recorded again. In the meantime, because her singing voice was very similar to Billie Holiday’s, she was accused of copying Lady Day. Truth is, her natural speaking voice also sounds like Holiday’s and she has always had her own phrasing.
2004’s Careless Love was a different story. Other than the title cut, James P. Johnson’s obscure “Don’t Cry Baby,” ”J’ai Deux Amours” (associated with Josephine Baker), “Lonesome Road,” and the brooding ballad “No More,” all of the songs were of more recent vintage or, as with Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues,” were from outside of the jazz world. Peyroux is heard in a quintet that includes guitarist Dean Parks and pianist-organist Larry Goldings plus her own acoustic guitar. Her album (originally released by Rounder) sold a half-million copies and gave her fame. The highpoint of the set is her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Time” and in general the medium-tempo songs are the most memorable performances of the consistently charming release.
The two-CD set Careless Love reissues the original dozen songs from the Rounder album while also including a previously unreleased live set that fills up the second disc. For the latter, Madeleine Peyroux is the only guitarist and is assisted by keyboardist Kevin Hays, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Scott Amendola. 11 of the songs are remakes of her repertoire from Careless Love (only “Weary Blues” is skipped) and there are also versions of Patsy Cline’s hit “Walking After Midnight” (which had been recorded earlier on Dreamland), “Destination Moon” (which is taken a bit too fast) and a joyous and hard-swinging “I Hear Music.”
While I give the edge to the original album (although the live “This Is Heaven To Me” is a bit touching), it is good to hear the alternate versions which have several fine Hays solos plus the singer’s interpretations of the three additional standards. While she has recorded some other rewarding sets since this time, Careless Love (available from www.amazon.com) remains Madeleine Peyroux’s definitive recording.
Bud Powell (1924-66) had a tragically short and difficult life, being permanently damaged by a beating from policemen in 1944. But despite that, he was a brilliant and innovative pianist whose recordings (particularly as a leader during 1949-53) showed the next couple of generations how to play bebop on the piano. After struggling during the second half of the 1950s, Powell had a renaissance while living in Paris during 1959-64 before making the mistake of returning to New York where he declined quickly before passing away at the age of 41.
Quite a few of Powell’s live performances from 1962 have already been documented on at least eight Steeplechase albums: the three-CD set Budism and Bud Powell Trio at the Golden Circle Vols. 1-5. The two recent CDs 1962 Stockholm/Oslo and 1962 Copenhagen do not duplicate any of those recordings although two of the three sessions on 1962 Stockholm/Oslo had come out previously on a very obscure Japanese CD.
While Bud Powell was not quite as sharp and flawless in his playing in 1962 as he had been in the late 1940s, he was still a frequently brilliant player. There was certainly an element of excitement, danger and suspense to his playing because, when he launched into a complex idea, there was no guarantee that he would come out of it unscathed.
1962 Stockholm/Oslo has Powell joined on three separate sessions by the 16-year old bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Jorn Elniff. The pianist is heard in excellent form throughout, particularly on the uptempo pieces such as “Anthropology” (which is heard on each set), “Straight No Chaser,” and “Blues In The Closet.” The first of the two versions of “’Round Midnight” is particularly dramatic and memorable. The final session has tenor-saxophonists Brew Moore (featured on “Hackensack”) and Don Byas (often stunning on “I Remember Clifford”) making the group a quintet on the closing “Anthropology.”
1962 Stockholm/Oslo features Powell in two different trios with Thorbjorn Hultcranz or Erik Amundsen on bass and Sune Spangberg or Ole Jacob Hansen on drums. Powell is fine if not flawless on the faster pieces (including “I Hear Music” which he rarely performed, “Hot House,” and “Dance Of The Infidels”) but sometimes struggling a bit on the ballads (particularly during “Someone To Watch Over Me”), occasionally playing out of tempo as if he were a bit lost or at least preoccupied. However, there are enough strong moments on the other pieces to make this a CD that Bud Powell fans will want. Both discs are available from www.statesidemusic.com. Hopefully there will be more releases in the future from this period for Bud Powell at 80% is still superior to most other pianists.
Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim first gained some prominence in his native South Africa as a member of the Jazz Epistles, a group that also included trumpeter Hugh Masekela. They had the distinction of recording the first full-length jazz album in their country. But due to the horrible situation with apartheid, Ibrahim moved to Europe in 1962 and New York in 1965. Duke Ellington (who recorded him for the Reprise label in 1963) was one of his champions and a major early influence along with Thelonious Monk on his style. Ibrahim led important and very original jazz groups (often called Ekaya) for years. As a composer, his songs have often been picturesque, conjuring up the image of South African life when he was growing up.
Now 87, Ibrahim’s playing has become quite gentle during the past few years. His set of unaccompanied piano solos, Solotude, finds him performing 20 of his compositions. Nearly all are taken at slow tempos and sometimes they are out-of-tempo altogether, as if he was thinking aloud at the piano. One piece segues into another, making this a thoughtful and somewhat nostalgia excursion into Ibrahim’s life and thoughts. Only three songs are over four minutes in length including one of his most beautiful compositions, “The Wedding.”
While the fire and intensity of Abdullah Ibrahim’s earlier music is largely absent,
his playing is still full of understated passion, authority, and quiet power. Solotude (available from www.gearboxrecords.com and www.amazon.com) serves as a quiet retrospective of a great musician’s life.
Four Classic Albums Plus
The short-lived tenor-saxophonist Wardell Gray (1921-55) was loved by swing and bebop musicians alike. Influenced by Lester Young although having a slightly harder tone, Gray was part of the Earl Hines big band, engaged in famous jam sessions in Los Angeles with Dexter Gordon (their joint recording “The Chase” was a bit of a hit), and worked with Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman’s bebop big band and septet, and the Count Basie Septet (playing opposite Clark Terry and Buddy DeFranco).
The two-CD set Four Classic Albums Plus releases a large sampling of Gray’s recording including lengthy versions of “The Chase” and “The Steeplechase” with Dexter Gordon in 1952, the complete records Memorial Album Vol. 1 and 2, three quartet numbers with pianist Al Haig, and five selections from an all-star jam session concert in 1947. Among the best-known selections are his versions of “Twisted,” “Jackie” and “Farmer’s Market.” Annie Ross soon wrote words to Gray’s solos on those numbers, turning the instrumentals into vocalese classics.
The one problem with this otherwise very rewarding twofer is that, while including the original liner notes, the personnel listings are either absent or collective, making it difficult to know who solos on what song. One has to consult discographies. The five jam sessions selections (highlighted by exciting and lengthy versions of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Just You, Just Me” and “One O’Clock Jump”) has Gray engaging in a long tenor tradeoff with Vido Musso (sounding like Coleman Hawkins) on “Just You, Just Me,” spots for altoist Benny Carter and trombonist Vic Dickenson, and both the bop trumpet playing of Howard McGhee and high-note solos from Ernie Royal. Erroll Garner is on half of the selections on piano (including a quartet version of “Blue Lou” with Gray) while Arnold Ross is the other pianist. The three brief numbers that conclude the first CD feature Gray playing with pianist Al Haig, bassist Clyde Lombardi, and drummer Tiny Kahn in April 1948. Despite how it looks, most of Memoria Album Volume 1 has Gray playing in one of two quartets although four numbers are from a session actually led by vibraphonist Teddy Charles that also includes altoist Frank Morgan. Volume 2 mostly has the tenor in a quintet with trumpeter Art Farmer but there are also two numbers with a much larger group that includes Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss and Clark Terry.
Although the packaging could certainly have been improved, the music is wonderful and gives listeners Wardell Gray at his best. This set is available at www.avidgroup.co.uk.
The Nu-Band Live At The Bopshop
A colorful improviser who had his own sound on the alto-sax, Mark Whitecage (1937-2021) was associated throughout his career with the avant-garde and the more adventurous improvisers yet his playing was sometimes more accessible than expected.
One of the best outlets for Whitecage’s playing was with the Nu Band from the time of their first recording in 2001 through his later years. The unit was a pianoless quartet that also featured bassist Joe Fonda, drummer Lou Grassi, and (since 2014) Thomas Heberer on the quarter-tone trumpet. In memory of Whitecage’s passing, this CD of their performance from Jan. 18, 2018 has been released for the first time.
The music is filled with variety. The opening “Prayer For the Water Protectors” is an atmospheric duet by Whitecage (on flute) and Grassi. “Five O’Clock Follies” is a real delight, an exhilarating free bop performance that swings hard, is filled with horn riffs, has interplay by Whitecage (on alto) and Heberer, and climaxes with a drum solo. It is followed by the sound explorations of “One For Roy” which is a tribute to the late trumpeter Roy Campbell who was Heberer’s predecessor in the group. Other selections are often episodic such as “The Closer You Are, the Further It Gets” which begins as a bass feature before ensembles take over. “Christophe And Ornette” builds and builds as it evolves while “Minor Madness” and “Dark Dawn In Aurora are somewhat laidback but contain their explosive moments.
All four musicians have their individual spots but it is when they play off each other in ensembles that their music is at its most memorable. The Nu-Band Live At The Bopshop (available from www.nottwo.com) is a fine tribute to always-creative Mark Whitecage.
Roswell Rudd & Duck Baker
Trombonist Roswell Rudd (1935-2017) had an unusual career. He started off by playing Dixieland with the college band Eli’s Chosen Six which recorded two albums. Rudd next switched to the other extreme, playing avant-garde jazz with Cecil Taylor. In the 1960s he also co-led a quartet with soprano-saxophonist Steve Lacy that exclusively played Thelonious Monk tunes, recorded with Albert Ayler, co-led the New York Art Quartet with altoist John Tchicai, and became a member of the Archie Shepp Quartet. By the end of the decade he was leading his own recordings yet was always open to playing with other creative musicians. He had an on and off career that included some scuffling and a period in which he played with show bands in the Catskills yet he never lost his sense of humor or his desire to stretch himself.
Guitarist Duck Baker, who was born 14 years after Rudd, has spent his career playing in a wide variety of settings and genres from rock to Irish and Scottish music, all types of folk music, blues, and several areas of jazz. He has always had an open-minded approach and, like Rudd, is open to playing practically anything but in his own way.
Live is a set of trombone-guitar duets performed in 2002 and 2004 by Rudd and Baker. While some of the tunes are standards (“Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Bemsha Swing among them), their playing is never conventional and is
mostly quite spontaneous. The other pieces include Herbie Nichols’ ”The Happenings,” “A Bouquet For J.J.” (paying tribute to trombonist J.J. Johnson), “Melancholy People” (which hints at “Melancholy Baby”), “Going West,” “Light Blue” (one of three Thelonious Monk songs on the set), “Show” and “Church”; the latter two hint at several other tunes along the way. Sometimes the improvisations wander a bit and quite often Rudd livens up the proceedings by tossing in a few unexpected song quotes.
This is a stimulating set that reminds listeners how unique and eclectic a soloist Roswell Rudd was during his long career, and how skilled Duck Baker is as both an accompanist and a stimulating soloist. It is available from www.dottimerecords.com.
Still Rising – The Collection
Gregory Porter, who has a warm and deep baritone voice and has proven to be a skilled songwriter, has been quite popular ever since his first recording, 2010’s Water. He has the ability to make protest songs sound accessible, love ballads seem fresh, and philosophical lyrics that make one think.
Porter’s most significant albums were his first two (both recorded for Motema): Water and Be Good. During that period, he had a cutting edge band with the explorative altoist Yoske Sato that really pushed him. After signing with Blue Note, his music became more r&b-oriented and safer but his voice and his best lyrics still put him near the top of his field.
Still Rising is a two-CD set. The first disc has 11 previously released selections (including six from the Motema days) and seven new performances; four of the latter are his originals. Highpoints include “Liquid Spirit,” “Illusion,” the classic “1960 What,” “If Love Is Overrated, “I Will,” “Dry Bones,” and joyful covers of “L-O-V-E” (easily the best performance on his otherwise forgettable Nat King Cole tribute album) and “My Babe.” Much of the newer music is closer to r&b and soul than jazz but Porter’s rich voice mostly makes it worthwhile.
The second CD is a collection of vocal duets. I have very mixed feelings about the ones with the long deceased Ella Fitzgerald (“People Will Say We’re In Love”), Buddy Holly (“Raining In My Heart”), Julie London (“Fly Me To The Moon”), and Nat King Cole (“The Girl From Ipanema”). When Natalie Cole years ago recorded “Unforgettable” with her late father, it was touching and worked very well. But in general, the idea of someone adding their voice to a previous recording by someone they never met seems like an intrusion into history and is a bit tasteless to say the least.
The other Porter duets are with Moby & Amythyst Kiah, Jamie Cullum (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”), Ben L’Oncle Soul, Paloma Faith, Lalah Hathaway, Jeff Goldblum (“Make Someone Happy”), Dianne Reeves (the disappointing “Satiated”), Renée Fleming, Laura Mvula, Lizz Wright, Lisa Fischer & Yo-Yo Ma, and Trijntje Oosterhuis. Ranging from rock and pop to r&b, this CD makes one wonder why no one thought of teaming Gregory Porter with a jazz singer or five. The only jazz numbers are some of the stowaway ones with the deceased. So overall, Still Rising (available from www.amazon.com) has its moments
(mostly on the first disc) and can serve as an introduction to Gregory Porter, but I would opt for acquiring a few of his best full-length projects instead.
Farin Farhadi Trio & String Quartet
Based in Southern California since the late 1990s, altoist and soprano-saxophonist Farin Farhadi makes a strong impression on The Cure. Farhadi is joined by pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry, and the Allegria String Quartet. The latter is directed by Benedikt Brydern but unfortunately the individual musicians are not listed. Brydern and Jacob provided the string arrangements.
All eight selections are Farin Farhadi originals. The tempos are consistently laidback with the rhythm section playing at a relaxed and unhurried pace. While Jacob has a few short solos and the strings uplift the music (along with Henry’s complementary bass playing), the focus is primarily on the leader. He plays alto on five of the selections including the likable opener “Love Unexpectedly,” the passionate “Ascent,” and the thoughtful and melodic “She Moves Through Me,” switching to soprano for “After All” which has the feel of a tango, a melancholy “Moments,” and the moody but mostly optimistic “The Cure.”
The end results, while they can work well as background music, actually rewards a close listen. Farhadi’s attractive tones on his instruments and his often-wistful melodies are well worth hearing. The Cure is available from www.interagerecords.com.
British Standard Time
British songwriters have written hundreds of tunes through the years that have often been grouped into the Great American Songbook. For this special project, pianist-organist Alex Webb provided arrangements for 15 British-born songs from different eras, consistently turning the music into jazz or at least jazz-inspired performances.
What is unusual is that the material is not just comprised of jazz standards such as “Lullaby Of Birdland,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” and “The Very Thought Of You” (which has a nice spot for altoist Tony Kofi) but includes show tunes and rock tunes including Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” (recorded years ago by Chet Baker), U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (which is outfitted with the riff from “All Blues”), “Human” (this version has a bassline taken from Charles Mingus), Rod Temperton’s “Give Me The Night” (a hit for George Benson), Amy Whitehouse’s “Love Is A Losing Game,” and two songs from Webb himself.
While a jazz octet is utilized and there are occasional short horn solos, the emphasis is on the four singers. The excellent Jo Harrop has six vocals, Carroll Thompson gets four, Luca Manning takes three, and Tony Momrelle is featured on two. Although they come from different backgrounds, the vocalists all fare well, adding soul
and light swing to the music.
I do wish that the instrumentalists had more to do, that there was more stretching out, and that this was not such a vocal-oriented project. But the end results are enjoyable and point out some of the major contributions that British composers have made to American music.
British Standard Time, which is hopefully the first in a series, is worth checking out. It is available from www.republicmedia.net.
Andrew Cyrille, William Parker & Enrico Rava
2 Blues For Cecil
2 Blues For Cecil is a collaboration between two veterans of pianist Cecil Taylor’s groups (they actually played with the avant-garde innovator’s bands at different times) plus flugelhornist Enrico Rava who was with Taylor’s European orchestra for short periods in 1984 and 1988. Drummer Andrew Cyrille was part of Taylor’s groups during 1964-76 while bassist William Parker worked with the explosive pianist during 1984-96.
Despite the fact that there are two versions of “Blues For Cecil” on this 2020 recording along with two free improvisations, the music does not sound like something that Cecil Taylor would have performed; it is closer to that of Paul Bley and early Ornette Coleman. Due to Rava’s mellow tone, the music is more laidback than one might expect with a greater use of space. Some of the pieces swing in a free bop manner, one of the free improvisations is a ballad and, the set concludes with a version of “My Funny Valentine.”
The playing is generally pretty free but fairly mellow, thoughtful, and surprisingly melodic. Parker and Cyrille have their solo spots and are important parts of the dialogue, but Enrico Rava is usually the main voice and his gentle style (which is punctuated by occasional outbursts) sets the mood and the atmosphere for this subtle yet stimulating music. Blues For Cecil is available from www.tumrecords.com.
Here Now Then
Giorgos Tabakis, who is from Athens, Greece, began playing the guitar when he was ten. After extensive studying of the classical guitar (in addition to classical piano, the sitar, sarod, didgeridoo, and the Tibetan horn), Tabakis was attracted to the improvising of jazz. He mastered the seven-string guitar and now, on Here Now Then, he displays his virtuosity on a custom eight-string guitar.
For this set of unaccompanied solos, Tabakis performs ten of his atmospheric originals. He takes advantage of the extra strings to often include basslines, a droning effect, some unusual chords, and speedy yet relaxed lead lines. His playing is occasionally rather dramatic (as on “Insideout Upsidedown”), has a strong forward momentum, and travels to some unexpected areas. While “Touch” and “Dust” are brief
but effective ballads, “Cloudshapes” utilizes repetition creatively and “Transition” finds Tabakis seeming to have a conversation with himself while creating some unusual sounds.
Here Now Then is an intriguing album filled with sound explorations that are worth exploring. It is available from www.giorgostabakis.com.