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.

Ira Sullivan Headed to Ybor City

Ira Sullivan, the legendary jazzer who’s equally adept on trumpet and saxophone, comes to Ybor City on Sunday afternoon, for a show sponsored by the Tampa Jazz Club. I recently spoke with Sullivan, for the St. Petersburg Times. The feature will be in print tomorrow, but it’s already available online here.

Or read the full text of the piece, below:

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Ira Sullivan

Given the depth and breadth of Ira Sullivan’s work in jazz, and the sheer longevity of his career, the list of greats with whom the multi-instrumentalist has played could easily fill up a newspaper feature or two.

Suffice it to say that Sullivan, 78, was 12 when he led his first band, a trio with a drummer and an accordion player, and he’s worked with everyone from drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to saxophonist and bebop forefather Charlie Parker to electric bass giant Jaco Pastorius.

Sullivan, a five-time Grammy nominee, has shared stages or recording studios with “every major jazz musician in the world,” he said recently from Miami, his home since the early ’60s.

The saxophonist and trumpeter, who comes to Ybor City this Sunday for his 14th or so concert in partnership with the Tampa Jazz Club, in recent years has played with celebrated young saxophonist Eric Alexander. And last year he was heard on pianist Bob Albanese’s “One Way/Detour,” a widely distributed CD on the Zoho label.

Sullivan appeared on several tracks, including the standard “Midnight Sun.” “All I did was play the melody, and that’s the one that disc jockeys freak out about. It proves that with all the convoluted solos you can come up with, there’s nothing like a simple melody.”

His melodies and solos — some straightforward, some marvellously complex — haven’t taken top billing on a recording since 2001. That’s when he last led a CD session, “After Hours,” a set of originals and standards on which he primarily played soprano sax.

So it’s been nearly a decade since Sullivan has released a CD under his own name.

Why the wait?

“I never was interested in recording,” he said. “I’m only interested in playing. The only time I record is when somebody nails me down. First off, I don’t like wear earphones — they take the feeling away from your palette and your jaw, the feeling of your instrument. To me the playing is where it’s at.”

Sullivan’s aptitude for playing in front of audiences practically came naturally. At age four, the Washington, D.C. native learned trumpet from his father, and as a teenager, growing up in Chicago, he took on tenor saxophone at the behest of his mother. And the budding musician could always count on receptive crowds for his early performances, including the families of his father’s 14 siblings.

While in his early ’20s in Chicago, Sullivan fronted a group backing the likes of saxophonists Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt, trumpeter Nat Adderley, and singer Johnny Hartman. And in 1955, he spent a week playing trumpet with Parker, a bebop idol to the younger man.

“He was drunk the first night and it took six of us to lift him into the cab,” Sullivan recounted. “After the second day, he said, ‘Ira, I can’t get drunk.’ That was because the doctors had shot him with B-12. I had a beautiful, alert wonderful Charlie Parker the rest of the week. He was healthy and bright eyed a d bushytailed. We had a wonderful week together. He treated me like the greatest trumpet player he had ever played with. A month later, he died.”

Sullivan regularly switches between tenor sax and trumpet on most gigs, and even did so during his celebrated ’80s touring and recording partnership with trumpeter Red Rodney. For this Sunday’s performance with pianist Michael Royal, bassist Richard Drexler and former Bill Evans Trio drummer Marty Morell, he’s likely to also pick up alto sax, soprano sax, flute, flugelhorn and various percussion instruments.

“I think differently for each one,” he says. “One has nothing to do with the other. I don’t approach any of them as if it were the same instrument. It’s like having five alter egos.”

Newport 1959: Listen Now!

The Newport Jazz Festival in 1959: The “New Testament” Count Basie Band. Thelonious Monk (in photo). Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley. Dizzy Gillespie. The Ahmad Jamal Trio. The Horace Silver Quintet. Dizzy Gillespie. The Jimmy Smith Trio. The Oscar Peterson Trio.

Now THAT was a real, artistically significant jazz festival, unlike too many of the overtly commercial events masquerading as jazz fests around my home state in recent years.

Thanks to NPR music,  I just came across fantastic audio from the fest – just listening to Atomic Basie playing “The Deacon,” spiked with a gritty, rambunctious solo by plunger-mute trombone wizard Al Grey. mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=122007665&m=122004714

A sampler of recordings from the fest is available here via NPR music, which offers five tracks — Basie, Blakey, Jamal,  Silver, Dakota Staton — discussed by New York Times critic Ben Ratliff and jazz announcer Josh Jackson on the latter’s Dec. 30 edition of “The Checkout” show on WBGO.

Amazingly enough, 27 sets from the festival can be heard online at Wolfgang’s Vault. The best part: There’s absolutely no admission charge.

The vault isn’t just about jazz. It also offers free-admission access to tons of great concerts by everyone from The Allman Brothers (Hollywood Bowl, Aug. 6, 1972) to Bob Marley (London, 1975) to Neil Young (Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 1975).

How’d I not know about this great resource?

Jazz Festivals Facing Tough Times

Given the nation’s economic woes, this news comes as no surprise: Jazz festivals, in Florida and elsewhere, are facing tough times.

The long-running Jacksonville Jazz Festival (which I played, in the early ’80s, with the UF Jazz Band), allegedly was already suffering from money troubles when the City of Jacksonville, the fest’s sponsor since 2003, agreed to bump the event from its scheduled date — first weekend in April — to a later time.

That decision, reportedly, was made solely so as not to conflict with the Springing the Blues festival, held in nearby Jacksonville Beach.

Why wasn’t the younger blues festival asked to make way for the long-established jazz festival, which over the years has been home to first-rate performances by everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to (last year) Cassandra Wilson?

In defense of the blues fest, though, THAT event has been held on the same weekend for 18 years.

So why not just switch the jazz festival, traditionally held in Metropolitan Park on the waterfront in downtown Jax, to another weekend in spring?

“Metropolitan Park, which has long been the central venue for the jazz festival, is heavily booked through the spring, and the city is reluctant to boot out another event to make way for jazz, she said,” Matt Soergel wrote in a story posted Jan. 3 on Jacksonville.com (affiliated with the Florida Times-Union newspaper).

The “she” is Theresa O’Donnell, the city’s director of special events.

Not sure if O’Donnell is the one to blame for this mess, but why would anyone originally have scheduled the jazz fest on the same weekend as a blues music fest likely to draw some of the same audience, sponsors and vendors?

And, secondly, now that city officials’ poor decision making has led to this situation, why WOULDN’T they feel okay forcing another event, one that’s younger and offering less cultural significance, to get out of the way of the jazz festival?

Why is the city treating the jazz festival like a second-class citizen, in terms of regularly bumping it around on the calendar? After all these years, and so many great performances, ought not the festival be treated like a local cultural gem?

A date, other than “spring 2009,” has yet to be posted on the official festival site. Stay tuned.

(Thanks to jazz critic James Hale’s blog for the alert about this situation).

The JVC Jazz Festival Miami is likely NOT returning this year, according to a story published online at Ticketnews.com. That’s due to “huge losses” suffered by promoter Festival Network, which bought George Wein’s Festival Productions in 2007. The Miami festival’s site hasn’t been updated since the 2008 fest (the event’s 9th edition).

According to the story, Festival Network could be shutting down several of its festivals in 09, including Martha’s Vineyard Festival (MA); Jackson Hole Music Festival (WY); Festival Au Desert – Essakane (Mali); JVC Jazz Festival Chicago (IL); San Francisco Music Festival (CA); Whistler Music Festival (BC); JVC Jazz Festival Los Angeles (CA); Slow Food Rocks (CA); and JVC Jazz Festival Paris (FRA).

Closer to (my) home, the first edition of the modestly scaled St. Petersburg College Jazz Festival opens this Thursday, with performances by Brooklyn-based saxophonist Sue Terry and others. Here’s John Fleming’s piece on the fest, published in the St. Petersburg Times.

The swing-oriented Sarasota Jazz Festival takes places March 1-7 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Holley Hall and other locations around Sarasota.

The bill includes pianist Dick Hyman; saxophonist/flutist James Moody; the Bill Allred Band with guest John Allred (father-son trombonists); and trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall’s Ellington Alumni band, featuring bassist John Lamb and trombonist Buster Cooper.

And all’s well, or so it seems with the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, slated for Oct. 15-18 in Coachman Park. Here’s hoping that the Clearwater fest puts together an especially impressive lineup — Sonny Rollins, anyone? — for its 30th anniversary edition.

I don’t have updates on the other jazz festivals around Florida, but here’s a list of links to those events.