Disc of the Day: Wynton Kelly Trio/Wes Montgomery, “Smokin’ in Seattle”

Wynton Kelly Trio/Wes Montgomery, “Smokin’ in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse” (Resonance Records)

Before Wes Montgomery became the commercially successful star guitarist known simply as Wes by fans, he was, of course, a burning bebop guitarist of the highest order. “Smokin’ in Seattle” handily captures the calm before his career explosion, with Wes and longtime collaborator Wynton Kelly’s trio joining forces for a set at popular Seattle jazz club the Penthouse recorded live — via four-channel tube mixer — for a radio show hosted by Jim Wilke. Shortly later, the 43-year-old guitarist’s Verve album “Goin Out of My Head” started climbing the R&B charts on the road to selling a million copies and scoring a Grammy.

Wes couldn’t have found more suitable musical partners than pianist Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb (both ex-Miles) and young bassist Ron McClure, recently with Maynard Ferguson. The guitarist and Kelly’s original trio, with another former Miles sideman, Paul Chambers, had notably worked together on the live “Full House” and the widely acclaimed “Smokin’ at the Half Note”; the latter disc was called “the gold standard” by guitarist Pat Metheny, a Wes devotee,

It’d be hard to beat Montgomery’s soulful “West Coast Blues,” with its inventive twists and the guitarist’s unpredictable, typically brilliant and rambunctious solo work, or Sonny Rollins’ uptempo “Oleo,” which closes the set but, unfortunately, fades out midway through the tune, as does “Blues in F” (blame radio-broadcast conventions). There’s lots more to savor here, including the start-stop head and steady swing of Montgomery’s “Jingles,” the rich balladry of Bob Haggart’s “What’s New?”, and a Jobim tune, “O Morro Nao Vez.” And four tracks featuring Kelly’s trio minus Wes.

As if that weren’t enough, the set is contained in the kind of vessel that makes one happy CDs are still being produced: the beautifully designed package includes a 40-page booklet featuring contributions by Cobb, McClure, Wilke, disc producer Zev Feldman, pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Pat Metheny, and jazz journalist Paul de Barros. It’s a keeper.

Jimmy Cobb

Ron McClure

Resonance Records

 

 

 

Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period!” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period! The Criteria Sessions (Omnivore)

Modern American Music … Period!, released on CD, multicolored vinyl and via download, offers the unfettered 1974 Miami demo sessions for bassist Jaco Pastorius’ 1976 solo debut. These recordings, previously unissued in full, unedited form, have been in the possession of Jaco’s brother Gregory, as Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, a co-producer of the project, explains in the liner notes.

Jaco, at the time, was 22 and playing R&B with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, jazz with saxophonist/trumpeter Ira Sullivan and big-band music with Peter Graves. Within two years, he would make his first appearance on a Weather Report album and play on recordings by Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell. Modern American Musicsuggests that nothing would stand in the way of his becoming, as he put it, “the world’s greatest bass player.”

For the demo, Jaco was joined by drummer Bob Economou, pianist Alex Darqui, steel drums players Othello Molineaux and Sir Cederik Lucious and percussionist Don Alias. “Donna Lee,” the jaw-dropping first track from the Epic debut album, is here in not dissimilar form, although it’s completely absent of Don Alias’ congas, which added urgency and interaction to the final version, and it closes with a long harmonics fade-out rather than that familiar segue to “Come On, Come Over.” Several other songs—or concepts for songs—would also reappear on the debut: The beautiful ballad “Continuum” is here twice, once as a stand-alone and once connected to “Havona,” which later landed, in a version with more sharp edges, on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather. There’s also “Kuru,” punchy and hyperactive and without the strings heard on the debut, and “Opus Pocus (Pans #2)” (called simply “Opus Pocus” on the debut), a blast of Caribbean-tinted groove music largely given to the whirling sounds of Molineaux’s pans. The stately, somber “Forgotten Love” here, unlike on the debut, is all Jaco.

The new-to-us tunes don’t quite trump any of the material that made it onto the final 1976 album. “Balloon Song (12-Tone),” with its tricky, speeding piano-bass unison melody, hard-driving groove and loads of open space for the leader’s soloing, comes in two versions, and has Jaco touching on the kind of harmonics derring-do that later came into play on “Portrait of Tracy.” “Time Lapse” is essentially an extended fusion jam, with Jaco madly slamming a riff in tandem with Alias’ churning congas, driven by Economou’s urgent drumming and topped with Darqui’s inside-and-outside Rhodes playing.

Is Modern American Music the holy grail of Jaco recordings? Maybe. The collection does provide revealing, once obscured views of a not-so-secret talent in bloom. It also makes another case—if we needed one—for the degree of influence Jaco exerted on Weather Report, as composer, colorist and rhythm-section driver. And, of course, as a barrier-breaking musical virtuoso.

3 Cohens, “Tightrope” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

3 Cohens, “Tightrope” (Anzic)

With earlier 3 Cohens albums titled Family, Braid and One, the Israeli-born siblings have always conveyed an appealing unity vibe: They’re tightly bound together by artistic creativity, spirit, blood and, at this stage of their careers, a desire to collaborate on ambitious recordings.

Their appealing musical interconnectivity shines brightly on Tightrope, an album that indeed finds Anat Cohen (tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet), Yuval Cohen (soprano saxophone) and Avishai Cohen (trumpet) participating in a balancing act. They’re torn between vintage sounds and bracingly modern pieces, between unaccompanied tracks and those also featuring notable guests, and between conceptual grandeur and a penchant for all-out improvisation.

That togetherness is most clearly demonstrated on several of those aforementioned siblings-only tracks, including the opener, a bouncy take on Art Farmer’s “Blueport,” and Gerry Mulligan’s “Festive Minor,” with its call-and-response sections and various unison and harmony passages coming off as a lively discussion among equals. (Both pieces are from the repertoire of Mulligan’s pianoless quartet.) The Cohens are also heard sans others on five improvised “Conversation” pieces; a moody-to-sunny take on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House”; a tricked-out “Indiana”; Yuval’s somber “It Might as Well”; the haunting traditional Yiddish tune “Ai Li Lu Li Lu”; and Avishai’s closing “Mantra.”

Still, it’s nice to have guests to spin things in a slightly different direction. Christian McBride does that chunky and woody thing he does so well on Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.” 3 Cohens Sextet drummer Johnathan Blake creates a form-fitting rhythm pocket on Avishai’s bluesy swinger “Black.” And pianist Fred Hersch provides lush underpinnings on his “Song Without Words #4: Duet,” a sublime version of the ballad “Estate” and a playful take on Monk’s “I Mean You.”

Amos Lee, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

Amos Lee, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (Blue Note)

Soulful Americana, with smart folk and jazz shadings, is Amos Lee’s thing, and he keeps to that path with the first album recorded by producer Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris) at his new East Nashville studio housed in a former church.

The home-brewed sound of these tales of nostalgia, longing and love benefit from the guests, with Griffin providing harmonies on the reflective, mellow title track, inspired by the singer/songwriter’s trip to play Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble, and Alison Krauss’ appearance on “Chill in the Air,” further blessed with Jerry Douglas’ handy dobro work.

There’s also the swamp funk of “The Man Who Wants You,” with its clavinets, chicken-picking guitars and honky keys, and the banjo and thumping upright bass of “Scamps,” a story of tricksters, hucksters and crooked politicians.

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.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “That’s It!” (CD review)

(recently published in Relix)

pres hall pres hall

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “That’s It!” (Legacy)

In order to broaden their once-traditional New Orleans music reach, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have recently collaborated with everyone from My Morning Jacket to Del McCoury. 

That’s It!, co-produced by band leader Ben Jaffe and MMJ singer Jim James, finds the band making their first album of all original compositions. It’s still retro from the get-go, starting with the tumbling toms, thundering tuba and jungle-movie brass of the title track and the gospel-informed swing of “Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength).”

“I Think I Love You” spotlights octogenarian reedsman Charlie Gabriel on lead vocals and James on backup with driving Caribbean rhythms, while the laidback “August Nights” is bolstered by steamy tenor and muted trumpet lines. That’s It! —that old feeling, once again.

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.”