Music Diary Semi-Quavers: Quick Looks at Recent Releases in Jazz

Welcome back to another edition of Music Diary Semi-Quavers, the quick-take reviews of recent releases. Last time I explored some recent pop & rock album releases, now I jump over to the world of jazz! And similar to before, when I say ‘jazz’, it can include just about anything in a very broad spectrum from traditional ragtime through swing, bebop, modal, free, fusion, post-bop mainstream, modern, smooth jazz and who knows what else. I believe there is good and bad music in every genre, and try not to bother too much with genre labels – though I obviously separate jazz from popular in my review focus, but that is as much due to maintaining focus as anything else. When I have ten or more reviews in an article, maintaining a connection of some sort makes sense.

Since I have recently written feature reviews about recordings from Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Julian Lage and Nat Janoff, an obvious conclusion about where these recordings fall might be drawn – but it isn’t so simple. For sure some of these recordings fall below the featured ones – but not all! In fact, there is some really awesome stuff from Mary Halvorson, Vijay Iyer, Hiromi and others … stuff I just haven’t been able to properly feature but deserving attention. Other stuff … well, let’s just say that sometimes I feel like the personification of that ‘demotivator’ poster that says that sometimes your life exists as a warning to others!

So let’s get right to it!

  • Mary Halvorson – Electric Fruit(2011, Avant Garde Jazz): Don’t tell my wife … but I think I’m in love with Mary Halvorson! Not really, especially never having met her – but I absolutely adored Saturn Sings which led me back to her wonderful earlier work, and now for 2011 I am very much enjoying her contribution to Electric Fruit. This is definitely NOT recommended for general audiences, and some in the avant garde crowd will find it a bit pretentious at times, but what shines through for me is the consistently excellent Mary Halvorson. If you are a fan of her work or looking for something to stretch your ears, this is worth a listen.
  • Hiromi – Voice (2011, Jazz): When I reviewed Hiromi’s ‘Place To Be’, one criticism I had was that with all of her massive technique there is a subtlety that is lost, and a certain lack of an identity beyond being massively gifted. As if hearing that critique, Hiromi not only calls her new recording ‘Voice’, but truly lives up to the name as the music is distinct and personal and has wonderful interplay between the various musicians who appear. My favorite work by Hiromi to date! In terms of picking a favorite song there are a few I really love but would have to go with ‘Now or Never’, as the syncopated synth & funk bass interplay between Hiromi and Anthony Jackson is infectious!
  • Coung Vu 4-tet – Leaps of Faith (2011, Jazz fusion): I knew of Coung Vu only as the guy who played trumpet with Pat Metheny … so I was thrilled to hear him as a leader in this context. When I got this I simply started playing it and it took me a minute or so to realize I was hearing the standard ‘Body & Soul’. The music is full of atmospheric textures and the songs are reworked to the point that it is often hard to immediately recognize the tunes until they take their time to fully unfold. Yet it is well worth the wait – this music is gorgeous and engaging. My track of choice is the standard ‘All the things you are’, as Vu just fills the space with endless beauty.
  • James Farm – James Farm(2011, Jazz): I have had mixed feelings about Joshua Redman’s efforts as a leader, and I think many would agree that he has spent way too long basking in his own hype instead of focusing on developing the stuff that made recordings like Wish so promising in the early 90’s. Fortunately in this case he is just part of a band – and I think that makes all the difference. Joined by pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland, James Farm offers up a solid collection of modern jazz songs composed by each of the four members. Accessible yet satisfying, and a very solid first effort with hopefully more to come!
  • John Scofield – A Moment’s Peace (2011, Jazz): John Scofield was already restless and working in multiple styles before joining with notoriously restless Miles Davis in 1982 for few years. Last fall I reviewed his ’54’ album with a large band led by Victor Mendoza. Now he is back playing some gorgeous ballads with a small group featuring Larry Goldings on keyboards, Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade on drums. The songs range from the Beatles ‘I Will’ to ‘I Loves You Porgy’ from Porgy & Bess on the ballad end to more mid-tempo songs like ‘Simply Put’ and ‘I Want to Talk About You’, Scofield and the band show restraint when appropriate and stretch out when they should, and it all really just works. The subtle nature of the proceedings makes this a recording that shows its’ joys in multiple listenings. There are a bunch of great songs, but the one that really tickled me was the Carla Bley song ‘Lawns‘ – because I had just pulled out her ‘Sextet’ CD to put it back on my iPod again!
  • Marcin Wasilewski Trio – Faithful (2011, Jazzp): Yes, another piano trio recording! In this case we have a great set of songs by one of the finest groups in Europe, with pianist Marcin Wasilewski joined by bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz for a great impressionistic set that ranges from burning jams to gorgeous ballads. My favorite song is the Wasilewski original “Night Train To You”, featuring a complex time signature and harmonic structure but a simple compelling melody and plenty of room for intriguing improvisation. This is one I bought virtually unheard based on a recommendation and really enjoy it!
  • Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo – Songs of Mirth and Melancholy(2011, Jazz): Branford Marsalis is arguably a more gifted musician than his older brother, yet he also seems like the type who would be sitting on the couch playing XBOX while Wynton was working the phones pushing his music. As a result his solo career seems to veer between mediocrity (I Heard You Twice the First Time) and brilliance (Contemporary Jazz). On that 2000 release we got the first look at the collaboration between Marsalis and Calderazzo. It was great then, and works every bit as well here. Very satisfying and memorable duet effort, with loads of invention, depth and intimate communication between two long-time collaborators and excellent musicians.!
  • Al Di Meola – Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody (2011, Jazz): Al Di Meola is one of those fusion ‘rock stars’ of the 70’s who found themselves somewhat lost by the mid-80s. His pioneering work with guitar synthesizers was much more ‘hi I’m Al and this is my new toy’ than the solid music made by Metheny, McLaughlin and Holdsworth; and I found his straight-ahead jazz efforts bland. It was only on albums like Cielo e Terra where his multi-cultural roots shone through that he succeeded. So it isn’t a surprise that he has found success with his World Sinfonia, and this album is a direct reflection of that. Di Meola does best in a Latin-tinged fusion style with elements of North African music, and this record does that – and more. The guitar work is sublime throughout – subtle, burning, passionate and over-the-top all at once. My song picks are Siberiana and Brave New World, each of which show exactly WHY Al Di Meola is a legendary guitarist who STILL has something to say.
  • Parting shot – Steve Khan(2011, Jazz Fusion): Anthony Jackson makes yet another appearance on this Latin flavored, groove-oriented mix of fun songs by under-rated guitarist Khan. Khan has never been one for flashy solos, instead favoring slow-burning and subtle endeavors, which allows you to focus on the wonderful harmonizations and simple structures he and his project-mates develop. Khan has always brought brilliance to all of his projects, whether as a leader or sideman. The same is true for everyone else who plays on this recording. The difference is that here Khan takes the reins as leader and his artistry and skills make this shine more than expected.
  • Vijay Iyer, Prasanna, Nitin Mitta – Tirtha (2011, World Music): I am an unabashed fan of Vijay Iyer and therefore bought this the moment it was released. The Indian-American pianist returns musically to his parent’s home along with native Indian musicians Prasanna on guitar and Nitin Mitta on tabla. Rather than being a bunch of Indian-tinged jazz songs, this is Indian music played with jazz sensibilities woven throughout. It is an intriguing experiment – and that is my only issue: too often it feels more like ‘a project’ than music that Iyer and his cohorts simply HAD to make. And that lack of a focused urgency reflects on the overall quality by making things less compelling than they could have been. Loads of competence, but a lack of fire.
  • Corea Clarke White – Forever (2011, Jazz): Back in 2008 Return to Forever had a great tour and monster CD and DVD release which resulted in yet another tour! At that point Chick Corea wanted to do something he hadn’t done before – an acoustic trio set with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. Half of this 2-CD set is a beautiful and swinging live trio set. That is the good part – the other half reunites the trio with another original RTF member, guitarist Bill Connors, along with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and vocalist Chaka Khan. This half is more meandering and uneven, and all the between-song chatter ruins things for me. Some of the vocals really put me off, and overall the second disk brought the entire effort down to a merely average recording.
  • Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays, Patrick Zimmerli – Modern Music (2011, Jazz): Brad Mehldau is another artist whose music I frequently don’t like … and this is one of those times. Even with that history, the presence of works by Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich and Philip Glass convinced me to buy this. The problem isn’t that the presentations are essentially modern classical treatments of these pieces; the problem is that those treatments are still and bland – there is plenty of technique but little passion. Ornette’s Lonely Woman has been done many times very successfully from solo instruments to big bands – and when I heard the theme I was excited … then let down. If you want to hear a better treatment of Reich or Glass, look on either of their collections – Reich’s ‘Works’ contains the essential ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, and this one adds nothing. Likewise, in spite of having two very talented pianists and a gifted orchestrator, the treatment of Glass’ String Quartet #5 had me reaching for my old Kronos Quartet version!
  • Robert Hurst – Bob Ya Head (2011, Jazz): What does it tell you when the lead-off song from an album released in 2011 refers to a 2008 political event in spite of the recent results of a 2010 election making those earlier results seem less … eventful? It really isn’t a good sign – and sadly that ‘missing a beat’ feeling carries through the entire recording. I loved Hurst with Wynton Marsalis so I assumed I’d love him here – but this is just a average and forgettable recording.
  • Walter Beasley – Backatcha! (2011, Smooth Jazz): Some people make an assumption that I hate ‘smooth jazz’ … but that isn’t true. I love Grover Washington Jr, David Sanborn, and the recent efforts by Jeff Lorber and Mark Egan. Beasley was a main collaborator on John Pattitucci’s wonderful On the Corner … so I bought this. Unfortunately it is the worst sort of watered down mush that is smooth jazz in the very worst context of the expression. Competently played, but without any feel of joy or passion or swing, Backatcha simply ‘is’, just a bunch of by the numbers tracks that will fit nicely into the supermarket muzak loop never to be thought of again.

That is all for this time – next time I will be looking at a great series of ‘two-fer’ jazz releases from Impulse, and also looking back at some CD’s from the so-called early days of the format 25 years ago … and once again there are some solid releases and some underachievers. Until then, let me know what you think about these and other recordings!

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews