JAZZ INSTRUMENTALISTS: OUTSTANDING PIANISTS, A GUTSY GUITARIST, BASS BANDLEADERS AND EPIC ENSEMBLES
CD Reviews by jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil
March 3, 2017
This month, I celebrate some gifted jazz musicians who have recorded an array of excellent music for our listening pleasure. BILLY CHILDS is an internationally respected pianist (based in Los Angeles) whose “REBIRTH” CD celebrates his composing, arranging and producing skills. BILL O’CONNELL offers a solo piano recording, ‘Live’ at the Carnegie Farian Room in Rockland County, New York. The MICHAEL LE VAN TRIO beautifully interprets Le Van’s original compositions. Double bass player, STEVE MESSICK, leads his Endemic Ensemble onto the scene featuring all original material. Vibraphonist, ARTHUR LIPNER, brings us the best of himself in “Two Hands, One Heart” and guitarist, STEVE KHAN, chooses several standard jazz and pop songs, then transforms them into Latin soaked, musical gems.
BILLY CHILDS – “REBIRTH”
Mack Avenue Records
Billy Childs, piano/producer; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophone; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Claudia Acuna & Alicia Loatuja, vocals; Ido Meshulam, trombone; Rogerio Boccato, percussion.
I remember many years ago, watching Billy Childs walk up to the grand piano where Detroit jazz icon, Tommy Flanagan, was playing. Childs took a seat on the floor at the foot of the master, folded his long, slender legs under himself, and watched with focused eyes every move, every nuance that the gifted pianist made. What a tribute to the master jazz icon and to Billy Child’s own unique journey towards perfection and honing his own extraordinary talent. Today, Billy Childs is a master himself.
From the first few bars of “Backwards Bop” Childs’ establishes his amazing style and precision with crisp, clean accuracy. No wonder he has been nominated for thirteen Grammys and won four Grammy awards. It is his arrangement capabilities and accompaniment that led vocalist Dianne Reeves to jazz popularity. He has also added his playing and arranging skills to the music of Sting and Yo-Yo Ma; Kenny Burrell, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and J.J. Johnson, to name just a sprinkling of the great talents he has worked with. Childs produced Claudia Acuna’s 2002 “Rhythm of Life” album as well as arranging and orchestrating it. Acuna co-wrote the title tune on this project, “Rebirth,” with Childs. It celebrates a re-emergence and warm reminder of Billy Childs’ genius. Who can play this swiftly with such accuracy on both note and rhythm? Who flushes out such gritty, tender, exciting emotions from the 88 keys like Billy Childs? No One! He builds his own hurdles of excellence and then works on leaping each one, raising the bar higher every time.
Surrounded by a group of other amazing artists, this ensemble holds his compositions up like a banner for the world to see and hear. Childs’ technique is impeccable. He thrills me and challenges listener-ears and human feelings to embrace his arrangements, both rhythmically unusual and aggressive. Childs’ offers melodies that haunt. For example, “Stay”, featuring vocalist Alicia Olatuja. The harmonics move in one direction beneath her powerfully beautiful voice, while the melody Childs composed challenges her pitch and perfection as it floats on top. The melody reminds me of a leaf, adrift in the swirling sea of music beneath it, while Olatuja’s voice pulls at our senses in an unforgettable way. “Tightrope” is another memorable and rich composition, offering Hans Glawischnig an opportunity to sing his expressive bass solo in the spotlight. He captivates. But it is always Childs who magnifies the production and arrangements with his inspired piano playing. He is the catalyst that creates the fire that Steve Wilson brings front and center on “The Starry Night”. Child’s opens this song, tinkling the keys like an antique music box. He is the shimmering star here, shooting across the galaxy, offering us a great crescendo of remarkable music.
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BILL O’CONNELL – “MONK’S CHA CHA LIVE AT THE CARNEGIE-FARIAN ROOM”
Bill O’Connell, pianist/arranger/composer/producer.
I was somewhat misled by the title of this CD, incorrectly assuming that O’Connell would be celebrating the music of Thelonius Monk, perhaps with Latin overtones. Instead I find that composer/pianist, Bill O’connell, has included the works of Kern and Hammerstein, Jobim, Burke/Van Heusen and Mongo Santamaria, along with his own compositions. Never the less, here is an engaging production, that celebrates solo piano. From the very first strains of “The Song Is You”, (played at a maddening pace and executed with technical perfection), I find myself captivated.
O’Connell’s lush work of musical art is captured ‘Live’ at a concert venue in Rockland County, New York. This gifted pianist sits at the grand piano, absolutely vulnerable and accessible to audience and critics alike. I am impressed with the way he builds each song, establishing the melody and then taking creative liberty to grow his self-expression with fluid improvisation. He plays proficiently, with no other accompaniment to enhance or color this production and O’Connell exhibits unwavering time. You immediately recognize him as imaginative and technically astute. He showcases his gift of improvisation on this recording, as well as reinventing standard songs like “Dindi, “Afro Blue” and “It Could Happen to You,” sharing his own talent and unique, solo arrangements. Here is a magnificent representation of singular piano excellence.
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MICHAEL LE VAN TRIO – “A DIFFERENT SHADE OF BLUE”
Michael Le Van, Piano; David Enos, bass; John Ferraro, drums
I became acquainted with Michael Le Van last month when he sat-in with my trio in Huntington Beach, California. The first thing I noticed was his rich harmonic creativity. That evening, he inputted chords and inversions into the standard composition,m “Lover Man,” that I was not used to hearing. Consequently, I was curious to listen to his new CD, featuring all of his own creative compositions. His recording did not disappoint me. Beginning with “Do You Know What I mean,” once again I was captivated by his sense of harmony. This composition crossed genre’s, touching on Smooth Jazz one moment and Straight Ahead the next, with overtones of Latin jazz. David Enos is featured on a bass solo that is inspired. The title tune, “A Different Shade of Blue” is a lovely ballad with a poignant melody. Perhaps Michael explained this song best in his liner notes.
“The creative process is difficult to describe; inspiration comes to me in various ways. sometimes I associate colors with a particular harmony or musical idea. “A Different Shade of Blue” is an example of this, where the harmonic contour brought to mind a distinct shade of luminous blue. But for the most part, the act of composing is a fascinating struggle. I battle over which chord is most perfect and beautiful at the right place. … I can spend sleepless nights before I’m satisfied.”
Speaking of satisfied, I especially enjoyed hearing John Ferraro cut loose on drums during their presentation of “Fantasia In G Minor”, a spirited, Straight Ahead composition that captured my complete attention. Le Van answered my unspoken question, “but can you play the blues?” with his composition, “Remember That”. It Swings hard and gives all three players a chance to rubber-band-stretch their talents during improvisational escapades. I think that listeners will find this piece of CD art totally satisfying. Le Van and his competent trio present a flowing ribbon of original music that is both expressive and classically based jazz. Add to that, the expert musicianship of Ferraro, Enos and the artist himself. You will enjoy a colorful array of hand-painted, musical notes that reflect the canvas of Le Van’s innovative and artistic mind.
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ENDEMIC ENSEMBLE – “TANGLED”
Opus Funkus Music
Steve Messick, double bass/band leader; Travis Ranney, tenor & soprano saxophones; Matso Limtiaco, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; David Franklin, piano; Christian Krehbiel, drums.
Endemic Ensemble’s first tune dances into the room waltz-time, with the horn section harmonically delivering the melody. Travis Ranney leaps to the forefront with a smooth, yet aggressive sax solo, followed by Matso Limtiaco. Then the two horns play tag across the silver disc, trading fours and challenging each other creatively. Enter Steve Messick on his double bass, calming the moment with tonal security and his big bass sound. Messick is not only the bandleader and bassist, but he has composed this first tune titled, “Sugar Art” and sweet it is! The second cut was composed by pianist, David Franklin, and is the title tune, “Tangled.” We get an opportunity to hear the trio up close and personal. They are a tightly woven garment that supports the horns like Spanks.
“The Snort” makes good use of the baritone saxophone and staccato notes. Although it sounds nothing like “The Pink Panther” song, it reminds me of it because of the production. Once again, Messick is the songwriter.
Based in Washington State, this ensemble has a signature sound by prominently adding a baritone saxophone and with three of the six players contributing original compositions. They have a group cohesiveness and their original music is well-written and well-produced. The horn arrangements are excellent, although no credit for same is given in the liner notes. I do wish I had heard a few tunes that were more fiery and explosive. The moderate tempo throughout leaves this listener with a desire for something more. “The Tolovana Stomp” almost satisfies my yearning when Limtiaco steps it up, playing double time on his saxophone solo, along with Ranney on tenor sax. Perhaps, if the drums had been mixed to the surface a bit more, this would have fused the group’s music with more energy. Trap drummer, Christian Krehbiel, cuts loose and plays an ear catching solo on “The Tolovana Stomp” and I would have enjoyed hearing more of his drums in the mix throughout.
All in all, here is a wonderful recording full of creative compositions and musicians who work together like a well-oiled machine.
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ARTHUR LIPNER, BEST OF – “TWO HANDS, ONE HEART”
ACOUSTIC MUSICIANS: Arthur Lipner, vibraphone, marimba; Jack DeSalvo, classical guitar; Bob Rodriguez & Fred Hirsh, piano; Todd Urban & Harvis S., double bass; Jon Berger, percussion; Vic Juris, acoustic guitar; Nelson Faria & Manny Moreira, acoustic guitar; Nanny Assis, Ney Rosauro & Glen Velez, percussion; David Darling, cello; Joe Meo, flute; Mike LaValle, bass; Bruce Williamson, clarinet.
ELECTRIC MUSICIANS: Arthur Lipner, vibes/marimba/steel drums; Bruce Williamson, soprano sax/keys; Adriano Souza, piano; Glenn Alexander, Vic Juris, Bill Bickford & Jerome Harris, elec. Guitar; Paul Adamy, Tom Barney, David Fink, Mike LaValle, David Dunaway & Randy Landau, elec. Bass; Nick Bariluk, keys; Ze Luis Oliverira & Vanderlei Pereira, percussion; Tommy Igoe, Mauricio Zotarelli, Jim Mola, Warren Odze & Joel Rosenblatt, drums; Bob Mintzer, tenor sax; Gary Schreiner, harmonica; Nanny Assis, lead vocal/percussion; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone/vocals; Chip Gawle, trumpet; Vanessa Falabella & Kathy Caprino, background vocals; Joyce Stovall, vocals.
Adjectives this CD brings to mind are beautiful, stunning, easy-listening, innovatively excellent, and ear-candy. From the first tinkling notes of his vibraphone on “Crystal Mallet,” the listener is whisked into a space of imagination and jazzy comfort. “Rio”, the second cut, takes us on a Latin ride with guitarist Jack DeSalvo setting the mood. Lipner’s music makes me happy. This is a two CD set. The first CD is all acoustic jazz and the second focuses on his electronic side. Wycliff Gordon is featured on trombone & scat vocals, setting fire to a Jimmy Guiffre composition called, “Four Brothers.” The tracks Lipner show-cases are pulled from recordings that date back to 1990 through 2015. For the most part, they are original compositions. He explained in his liner notes:
“Every moment is of the present, uniquely singular. For me it’s always the same, whether my album, or a United Airlines commercial; put on the headphones, shutout all else. Hear magic. Paint with sound.”
And paint with sound he does, surrounded by a diverse group of contributing musicians, Lipner brings us a surprise package wrapped in artistic expression and tied with bow-ribbons of classical-rooted technique and anatomical musicianship. This generous and well-produced CD offers twenty-four songs and a few precious hours of non-stop, easy-listening entertainment.
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STEVE KHAN – “BACKLOG”
Steve Khan, guitar; Ruben Rodriguez, baby bass & elec. Bass; Mark Walker, drums; Marc Quinones, timbal/bongo/percussion; Bobby Allende, conga/bongo; SPECIAL GUEST ARTISTS: Randy Brecker, trumpet; Bob Mintzer, tenor saxophone; Mike Mainieri, vibes; Rob Mounsey, keyboards; Tatiana Parra, voice.
The Khan arrangement of Thelonius Monk’s tune, “Criss Cross,” is surprisingly infused with Latin rhythms and quite creative. You’ll want to slip on your Bossa Nova shoes for this one and prepare to swivel those hips. Productions like cut #4, “Our Town” (a Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen composition) lilts along at a moderate pace, pushed by sensitive percussions and enhanced by Rob Mounsey’s keyboard strings. It’s easy to visualize horseback riding along a peaceful lake, with this song as the back drop. I love a bolero!
Khan’s guitar is always in command and at the forefront of his ensemble. On the Bobby Hutcherson tune, “Head Start”, Khan adds vibraphone to the mix, featuring Mike Mainieri in their spirited production. Once again, it’s Walker on drums and Quinones and Allende on percussion who drive this music hard, like cattle ranchers.
According to the liner notes, this is Khan’s fifth studio album since returning to solo recordings after nearly a decade. “Backlog” is perhaps his most innovative reimagining of musical material, generously splashing this repertoire with Latin and Afro/Cuban overtones. Compositions by Ornette Coleman, Greg Osby and even an infectious song written by Stevie Wonder called “Go Home” are all steeped in Latino rhythms. On Stevie’s composition, right from the first couple of bars, Ruben Rodriguez drops the bass groove down like a whip; crisp and commanding. Then Khan’s guitar brings the blues front and center on this Motown icon’s work.
This body of work celebrates Khan’s extraordinary creativity and technical abilities on his axe. The artist introduces special guests on this creative project, like Bob Mintzer, who lavishly sprays tenor saxophone colors on Ornette Coleman’s tune, “Invisible”. Randy Brecker also makes a guest appearance on Ornette’s “Latin Genetics” composition. As I listen to the final piece, Andrew Hill’s “Catta,” this innovative guitarist adds harmonic voices, singing like horns to enhance his production. For a brief moment, Khan’s guitar style reminds me poignantly of Wes Montgomery on this particular production. All in all, here is a recording that brings pleasure, energy, Latin rhythms and the innovative spirit that jazz inspires. Perhaps Khan explains it best.
“Because my general sound is intended to be big and warm, an impression of a jazz guitar sound, people don’t realize how loud and tough we’re all playing. The music …is very physical and intense. We were hittin’ hard!”
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