Ronnie Cuber, “Live at Jazzfest Berlin” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

ronnie cuber

Ronnie Cuber, “Live at Jazzfest Berlin” (SteepleChase)

Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber’s third release for SteepleChase predates his association with the label, and might be thought of as a happy accident. At the titular fest, in 2008, Cuber’s quartet—with pianist Kenny Drew Jr., electric bassist Ruben Rodriguez and drummer Ben Perowsky—played a two-set show that the four remembered as a highlight of their European tour. Unbeknownst to them, the concert was recorded for a radio broadcast, and Cuber subsequently opted to give the music an official release. He had good instincts: The seven tunes culled from the evening have Cuber and co. in fine form, with the saxophonist, underappreciated pianist Drew and the in-sync rhythm section excelling on blues, swing and Latin-oriented tunes, including four originals.

The band romps from the get-go with Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues,” its call-and-response head opening up into an extended solo for Cuber, who incorporates artful repetition, syncopation, overblowing effects and a Gershwin reference before turning it over to Drew. He proceeds to build a dizzying, masterful solo, and Rodriguez and Perowsky also shine on the 12 1/2-minute tune. The samba rhythms of Clare Fischer’s bright, catchy “Coco B” fuel sterling improvisations by Drew and Cuber. So, too, do the fertile Afro-Caribbean grooves of Cuber’s “Passion Fruit,” the title track from the saxophonist’s 1985 album, which opens up for a high-energy montuno section, and his “Arroz con Pollo,” bolstered by Rodriguez’s fleet-fingered workout.

The quartet also takes on Herbie Hancock’s melancholy, slowly shifting “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” and two originals from Drew: the funk-edged “Things Never Were What They Used to Be,” a nod to the Mercer Ellington tune, and “Perpetuating the Myth,” a strolling, twisting, bluesy piece with a bari-and-piano unison melody that nods to Monk. Fat, gritty tone? Check. Agile, clever improvisations? Check. Cuber still has it.

Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

kermit cd

Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (Basin Street Records)

Kermit Ruffins has become Kermit, Inc., gathering crowds for regular gigs in New Orleans, running his own restaurant, touring and memorably playing himself—an eminently good-natured, way laidback jazz cat—on HBO’s Treme.

He’s still releasing appealing audio souvenirs. This time, he applies his distinctive barking, slurring and growling playing and singing to traditional tunes, with several of the city’s top-rank musicians, including drummer Shannon Powell, pianist Steve Pistorius, banjo man Don Vappie and trombonist Lucien Barbarin.

“Careless Love” benefits from a gospel-blues underpinning, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” is a suitably warm and mellow salute to St. Louis, the punchy “Treme Second Line” is reminiscent of Ruffins’ days with the Rebirth Brass Band and a playful “When the Saints Go Marching In” caps it all.

Winard Harper and Jeli Posse, “Coexist” (CD review)

(recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)

CD_Winard-Harper-and-Jeli-Posse_span3Winard Harper and Jeli Posse, “Coexist” (JLP)

The drummer gives the saxophonists some on Coexist, another round of sophisticated truth telling from Winard Harper that demonstrates high standards of musical excellence when it comes to expansive compositions, creative arrangements and choice of able bandmates.

Heading ensembles ranging from sextets to tentets, the leader taps guest saxophonists on five of the disc’s 12 tracks. He also shows off his considerable gifts as a trap-set wizard, percussionist and, on his African-tinged “Ummah” and “Jeli Posse,” a player of the balaphone, a vibraphone-type instrument from West Africa.

One of the most impressive collaborations comes toward the end of the disc, with Frank Wess’ elegant, luxuriant reading of the ballad “Dedicated to You,” his tenor soloing over the laidback rhythms of Harper, pianist Roy Assaf and bassist Stephen Porter, and often juxtaposed with the mellow horn clusters of trumpeter Bruce Harris, tenor saxophonist Jovan Alexandre and trombonist Michael Dease. Wess turns to flute for a similarly lush version of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” backed by a five-piece group with Tadataka Unno on piano.

Mark Gross leads on alto on the slinky, blues-tinted “Hard Times” and “Jeli Posse,” while alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity gets showcase moments on Billy Taylor’s Latin-to-swing “A Bientot.” Harper takes a detour to church with a soulful “Amazing Grace,” while Latin and African percussion drive the title track and hard-bop colors dominate “Something Special,” “Get Tough” and “Triumph.”

Jazz Quick Hits: Cliff Hines, Nick Finzer, Michigan State Professors of Jazz (CD reviews)

cliff hinesCliff Hines, “Wanderlust” – The New Orleans guitarist works with his own band and a cavalcade of notable Crescent City talent to create a suite of atmospheric acoustic-electric music drawing from multiple genres.  Loose- limbed Brazilian jazz bumps up against electronica and Sasha Masakowski’s wordless vocals on the opening “Brothers” and then it’s off to improvised new music on “Dresden Intro,” with pianist Andrew McGowan and guest cellist Helen Gillet backed by static-filled shortwave radio transmissions, leading into “Dresden,” a fusion piece with Hines’ six-string surrounded by ricocheting feedback.”Tehran” is flavored with Middle Eastern percussion, oud-like guitar sounds and electric piano, and the title track, with Bill Summers (Headhunters, Los Hombres Calientes) on percussion and Kent Jordan on flute, shifts from Brazilian guitar figures to rhythms moving from the Caribbean to Africa. Astral Project bassist James Singleton takes a beefy, growling extended solo on the New Orleans-tinted “Aetherea,” which also features trombonist Michael Watson, and Rex Gregory on bass clarinet. The switch-the-dial texture shifting continues with the lush strings, aching vocals and bossa nova rhythms of “Lonely Moon”; the dark, intense “Clouds,” with Gregory’s urgent soprano sax work; and “Arjuna Intro,” a raga built around Dave Easley‘s sitar-like slide guitar and Dave McLean‘s tabla playing, with Hines on ebow guitar and loops. It’s an intriguing pan-global affair, quite ambitious and often engaging. 

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Nick Finzer, “Exposition” (Outside In Music) — The dynamic young trombonist, joined on the front line by tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino, leads a sextet of fellow fast-rising NYC players on a set of 10 bracing original compositions. Finzer, in his playing as well as his writing, referencesnick finzer the likes of bone masters J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, and Steve Turre. The trombone/tenor blend makes for a pleasing, slightly retro tonality and Finzer, on his recording debut as a leader, proves to be a marvelously agile and intuitive improviser. “The Ramp” allows Pino to show off his considerable chops, and opens wide for drummer Jimmy MacBride‘s build-up and eruptions over the 5/4 groove, while the laidback “Eventide” feels like a lazy summer stroll (as Finzer suggests in the liner notes) and the ballad “With Gratitude” has the leader making artful use of a bucket mute. “Introspection,” another gem, is a quiet, meditative piece inspired by a progression borrowed from Ellington’s “New Orleans Suite.”

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 Michigan State University Professors of Jazz, “Better Than Alright” (Michigan State University College of Music) — MSU jazz studies director and well-traveled bassist Rodney Whitaker is joined by fellow jazz faculty members — top-flight players, all — for tunes largely taken from three original suites, with the individual compositions
MSUdistributed across two CDs (rather than being presented sequentially). Whitaker’s “Jazz Up-South” was inspired by the South-to-North migration of African Americans in the U.S., and titles tell the story of the other two suites — saxophonist Diego Riveras “The Spanish Tinge,” and trumpeter Etienne Charles‘ “Jazz in the Caribbean.” Highlights of the set include lively Rivera-penned  opener “Nueva York,” Charles’ ballad “Turquoise” and the airy “3 Note Blues,” Whitaker’s sprawling, hard-swinging “Big Four” and “Robert’s Lament,” the latter fronted with a thoughtful unaccompanied bass solo, and a zippy take on the standard “Broadway,” arranged by Whitaker. Academic setting, yes; however, the sharply arranged compositions, played by a hard-bop sextet in the mold of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, are anything but dry.

Marcus Miller, “Renaissance” (CD review)

(recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)

Marcus Miller, “Renaissance” (Concord Jazz)

Fastest, most melodic thumb in jazz-funk or not—and on many days, he deserves that title—bassist-producer-composer Marcus Miller wields that digit in a manner that’s impossible to ignore. He does that instantly identifiable thing he does with great panache and high musicality from the get-go on Renaissance, his first studio recording since 2008’s Marcus.

Title aside, Miller’s latest is more about the new old-school than the new new-school. That is, he nods to the ’70s, starting with the deep funk of “Detroit,” a bass-out-front piece that often has the leader playing in unison with guitarist Adam Agati and two horn players, alto saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Maurice Brown. The music of the aforementioned decade is also alive on “CEE-TEE-EYE,” a partial homage to the jazz-rock crossover of Creed Taylor’s CTI label; a lively take on War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” bolstered by the percussion of Ramon Yslas, Kris Bowers’ creatively rambling piano and snatches of reggae anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”; and the album closer, an unaccompanied version of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

While hardly a variety show, the disc handily shows off Miller’s agility, as he skates from the bottom-thrusting “Redemption,” with keys/horn lines reminiscent of Joe Zawinul, to “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song),” featuring rubbery fretless bass à la Jaco, breathy vocals courtesy of Gretchen Parlato and Rubén Blades, and a rhythmic riff hinting at “Manteca.” “February,” featuring an extended solo by Han, is one of Miller’s most affecting ballads, while he amps up the hard rock, led by guitarist Adam Rogers, on “Jekyll & Hyde,” and uses his bass clarinet to lead “Gorée (Go-ray),” a tender-to-raucous piece inspired by a visit to the titular island, once a departure point for Africans forced into slavery. Dr. John even stops by for the bumping and thumping “Tightrope.” Nice catch.

Tommy Bolin and Friends, “Great Gypsy Soul” (CD review)

(recently published in Relix; direct link)

Tommy Bolin and Friends, Great Gypsy Soul (429/Samson)

It’s easy to imagine that ace blues, hard rock and fusion guitarist Tommy Bolin might have eventually collaborated with likeminded six-string monsters. Great Gypsy Soul has a roomful of great players jumping aboard outtakes from Bolin’s debut solo album, Teaser.

The title track from the album is one of this disc’s highlights, with Warren Haynes’ tangy slide spinning off of the original’s metallic riff and his Allmans bandmate, Derek Trucks, working similar magic on “Smooth Fandango.”

Jazz master John Scofield applies his burr-edged axe to “Savannah Woman,” Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford plugs into the hard rocking “Wild Dogs,” Steve Morse adds fusion gusto to “Crazed Fandango” and Joe Bonamassa and Nels Cline bring fascinating new textures to “Lotus.”

While not organic, the project serves as a potent reminder of Bolin’s prowess.

Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind (CD review)

(recently reviewed for JazzTimes; direct link)

Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind (Indirecto)

MSMW, in the studio and onstage, everywhere from Bear Creek Music Festival in the north Florida woods to the Montreal Jazz Festival, always sounds like a natural-born partnership—the deep jazz-funk and experimental genius of Medeski, Martin and Wood running smack into the similarly tinted explorations of guitar master John Scofield. The particular pleasures of the quartet’s live work have finally been captured on an official release, with the two-disc In Case the World Changes Its Mind, a dozen tracks recorded during the tour supporting the group’s 2006 CD Out Louder.

The set begins, logically enough, with “A Go Go,” the title tune from the 1997 John Scofield album on which he was joined by MMW—the quartet’s initial collaboration. Billy Martin sets up the piece’s low-slung, laidback pocket groove, John Medeski flashes candy-colored keys, Chris Wood slides in on woolly upright and Scofield, his slightly overdriven, burred-edge tone intact, finally brings in the lean, catchy melody, which Medeski doubles before the solos arrive. Sco slithers and snakes through the heavily percolating rhythms while Medeski turns in a similarly zig-zagging improvisation. The traditional “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” opens with a long intro full of percussion sounds and scrapes before Wood plays the bluesy melody, Martin kicks in with a beat straight outta New Orleans and the band sets sail. The title track, credited to all four musicians, thrives on a simple but effective melody, repeated multiple times before the group heads out to space.

The second disc offers its share of gems, too, starting with Sco’s “Little Walter Rides Again,” with the guitarist and organist engaging in a bit of call-and-response on the hooky theme and Wood turning in a particularly inspired bass guitar solo. “Amazing Grace” thrives on a loosey-goosey guitar lead and soulful B3 declarations, and the disc closes out with the chunky-to-soaring “Hottentot,” powered by wah-wah and some of the set’s most impressive soloing. All-star bands seldom sound so organic, or play as well together, as this one. Letdowns? Only that “Chicken Dog,” “Chank” and MSMW’s gorgeous version of Lennon’s “Julia” weren’t included. Maybe next time.