Jazz CDs You Might Have Missed

Lalo Schifrin. Esperanto. Aleph Records, 2000.
Lalo Schifrin. Gillespiana. Aleph Records, 1998.

Esperanto is representative of Schifrin’s commercial yet eclectic big band sound, with a number of featured guests who lift the performance to greater heights of musical exploration. If you’re a fan of big band jazz you will dig the subtleties and textures of Schifrin’s orchestration and arranging. If not, you may find the sounds reminiscent of commercial TV and movie jazz, but there is enough variety and small combo work within the arrangements to ameliorate the more bombastic big band moments.

Don Byron on clarinet, Nestor Marconi on accordian, and Jean-luc Ponty on violin all lend brilliant solos to complement the intricate rhythms and complex harmonic textures which are Schifrin’s orchestral trademark.

“Gillespiana” is a suite of five pieces written by Schifrin as a tribute to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. It was written while Schifrin worked with Gillespie, and they often performed the work together. This recording by members of the WDR Big Band, conducted by Schifrin, was conceived as a tribute to Dizzy’s life and legacy.

Each movement reflects a different aspects of Gillespie’s long and varied musical career, including blues, bebop, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Jon Faddis on trumpet tips his hat to Dizzy’s signature tone and pyrotechnic range. Other soloists include Paquito D’Rivera on alto sax, Heiner Wiberny on flute, and Schifrin himself on piano. Some beautiful musical moments occur, and the lasting impression is a worthy commemoration of Gillespie’s spirit and influence on modern music.

Keiko Matsui. Deep Blue.
Narada Jazz, 2001.

Okay, so “jazz” is an overworked term, covering everything from Dixieland to dreck. Especially today, what is marketed as contemporary “smooth” jazz has little to do with improvisatory music. Many record labels, radio stations, megamusic stores, and record clubs have entire catalogues that foist instrumental pop and muzak off as the latest sounds in jazz. And not only do a lot of people buy it, but they seem to like it. So it’s not just a top-down corporate conspiracy to musically lobotomize the masses: there is a demand for this stuff. Having said all that, I want to carve a gentler critical niche for smooth jazz artists like Keiko Matsui, not because of her long silky black hair or full, pouting lips, but because her playing is actually quite musical.

Deep Blue is representative of the schlocky side of soft jazz, what with repetitive 2-chord vamps, synthesized strings, programmed drums, and the usual studio “magic” that spreads sonic cream cheese over every track. But if you go beyond these off-putting qualities, there is some musical depth here. Matsui’s touch on the piano is delicate and emotive.

Her phrasing is concise and while the melodies themselves tend to be simple and clichÃ?©, she imbues them with a dreamlike seriousness. The synthesized pads complement her acoustic piano rather than smother it. This is background music, perfect for a film score or a massage, but Matsui’s playing transcends the genre. She hints at compositional and improvisatory complexity with jazz-voiced chords and short melodic tendrils, but then falls back into diatonic patterns and pop pathos. In some ways it’s a shame since she could obviously express so much more. But in other ways this is beautiful, sensuous music. Massage anyone?

Jason Moran. Facing Left.
Blue Note, 2000.

Pianist Jason Moran is still relatively young but he has a sophisticated and thorough musical background. A native of Houston, Texas, he was drawn to the work of Thelonius Monk at an early age, and later studied in New York with Jaki Byard and Muhal Richard Abrams. You can hear these influences in Moran’s playing, as well as other innovators of the post-bop/avant garde period (1950s-60s), like Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. But Moran’s greatest strength is his fluid ability to take these musical approaches and blend them into his own voice.

Facing Left is a trio outing captured live in the studio. Moran sticks mostly to impressionistic explorations on piano, but occasionally throws in some tasty excursions on electric piano and organ. There are many references and tributes to jazz piano styles, in particular to Duke Ellington, but like Cecil Taylor’s work, Moran’s music flows over the boundary lines demarking jazz and classical, to the point best described simply as improvisatory music.

This is accessible but not simple music. Moran’s phrasing is fluid and lyrical. You can sit back and let the melodic lines weave in and out of your brain. But there are also intricate dissonances and complex syncopations flowing throughout, creating a subtle turbulence in the music. Moran’s accompanists, Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, follow his every move with tenacious sympathy, and both contribute impressive solos as well. Perhaps the most simply beautiful number is “Gangsterism On Wood,” a solo number in which Moran sounds startlingly like pianist Bill Evans.

Art Blakey. At the CafÃ?© Bohemia, Volume One, A Night At Birdland, Volumes One & Two.” Blue Note Records, 2001.

Anyone familiar with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers knows that all their recordings are important, as great music, as showcases for some of the best soloists in jazz, and as historical documents of modern jazz. Blue Note Records periodically reissues some of its relatively more obscure jazz vinyl, as well as newly discovered gems hidden in the musty vaults of its archives. If you happened to miss the reissue of recordings of two live shows, one at the Caf�© Bohemia, the other at Birdland, you should check them out.

Both were landmark venues of New York’s jazz scene and these recordings were made at the height of the period known alternately as hard bop, post-bop, and straight ahead jazz. The Birdland session was in early 1954, the CafÃ?© Bohemia show was in late 1955. Joining Blakey at Birdland was Clifford Brown on trumpet, Lou Donaldson on alto sax, Horace Silver on piano, and Curley Russell on bass. The lineup at CafÃ?© Bohemia has Silver on piano, but Kenny Dorham is on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor sax, and Doug Watkins on bass. Both groupings offer stellar performances. Get them, get them now.

The musicians featured herein are at their prime. Blakey, in his mid-thirties, is an accomplished bandleader and inspires his players, most of whom went on to lead their own groups and establish lasting spots in the jazz legacy. It’s hard to single out any of these musicians: they all shine individually, but more importantly as a tight collective. Silver’s piano comping is both propulsive and rock solid.

There are wonderful solos throughout, and pyrotechnic call and response exchanges between Brown and Donaldson on Birdland, and Dorham and Mobley on Bohemia. The material is a nice mix of standards and modern compositions, alternating between ballads, blues, bebop and Latin jazz.

The only noticeable difference between these sessions in sound quality, to my ears, is that the drums are slightly more present and cleaner in the Bohemia mix, and the horns may be a little warmer as well. Possibly the microphone placement was a little closer, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t have both recordings to compare side by side.

Crowd noise is kept to a minimum and aside from a few spoken introductions, the discs are pure musical magic. As usual, the Blue Note technical level is of the highest standard, so the music is uniformly clean and well-balanced. Given that these are live recordings, this an even greater achievement. If you hear one of these CDs you will want to have them all, so you might as well get your checkbook out right now.

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