Sax Men: John Ellis, Sherman Irby, Frank Macchia (CD reviews)

Quick reviews of new releases from three saxophonists – three varied approaches to the art of jazz.

John Ellis & Double-Wide, Puppet Mischief (Obliqsound)

The New York tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist, a former Charlie Hunter sideman, honed his chops in New Orleans with the likes of pianist Ellis Marsalis and bassist Walter Payton and still spends time there; his Double-Wide band has turned in infectious performances at Jazz Fest, the Louisiana Music Factory (see below clip from the store, in 2008) and elsewhere around the Crescent City.

That NOLA vibe — street-born brass bands, Mardi Gras culture, a convivial intermingling of multi-ethnic cultures — reigns supreme on Puppet Mischief, on which Ellis is joined by sousaphonist Matt Perrine, drummer Jason Marsalis, new addition Brian Coogan on organ, and guests Gregoire Maret and Alan Ferber on harmonica and trombone, respectively. The funk is deep, the pleasure is steep, and the whole thing comes off as an irresistible rolling carnival, with musical cues variously taken from early and modern jazz, circus bands, soundtrack music, vaudeville, and even European folk music.

“Fauxfessor,” a nod to New Orleans’ piano professors (like Professor Longhair), hints at Crescent City rhythms, and the slowly flickering, almost mournful “Carousel,” with its wandering tuba, wah-muted bone and start-stop passages, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Fellini film. “Okra & Tomatoes” is swaggering and punchy, and highlighted by Ellis’s bluesy tenor turn, while instruments rise and fall on the moody “Dewey Dah”  and Maret’s soulful playing is showcased on the title track. The aptly titled “Dubinland Carnival” is a raucous-to-peaceful gem and “This Too Shall Pass” sounds like a vintage New Orleans funeral march, threatening to turn into a slo-mo gospel celebration. Feel it.

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Sherman Irby Quartet, Live at the Otto Club (Black Warrior Records)

Alabama-born Irby, a soul-jazz alto player in the mold of Cannonball Adderley, made inroads on the New York scene — playing with his own band and the likes of pianist Marcus Roberts, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and trumpeter Roy Hargrove — in the late ’90s, and released a pair of CDs on Blue Note. But he’s been a bit under the radar since, aside from playing in Elvin Jones’ last band.

Irby’s fourth disc for his own label documents a February 2008 show in Napoli, Italy, where he led a quartet on standards plus his own “Laura’s Love Song,” a shimmering, Latin-tinged ballad, and  Hargrove’s “Depth.” His sound is as big and warm and blues-drenched as ever, and his dexterity and the free-flow of his ideas are often astonishing; a case in point is the sprawling tete-a-tete with drummer Darrell Green that opens John Coltrane‘s “Countdown.” But the programming, aside from a surprisingly slow and sultry version of the Miles Davis burner “Four,” is on the staid side, and the half-American, half-Italian band is not his best.

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Frank Macchia, Folk Songs for Jazzers (Cacophony, Inc.)

Saxophonist-woodwind player and arranger Macchia, leading a heavy-hitting large jazz ensemble driven by drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Trey Henry, guitarist Grant Geissman and pianist Tom Ranier, takes on American folk songs in a manner that feels simultaneously reverential and tongue-in-cheek. Here it swings hard, there it’s cutesy, everywhere the compositions boast an appealing array of instrumental colors and cross-cutting figures.

Singer Tierney Sutton, not unexpectedly, handily finds her way into a haunting version of “Red River Valley,” while Ellis Hall gives a lift to a shifting-gears redesign of “Amazing Grace.” The leader gets some well-utilized solo time on a hard-charging, Latin-edged “Skip to My Lou,” a mellow “Tom Dooley” and a swirling, almost eerie “Kumbaya.” Not your dad’s big-band album.

Marcus Roberts: NPR interview

robertsMarcus Roberts, whose New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1, is officially released today (the physical disc; download was available last week), will be heard this afternoon on National Public Radio stations.

The interview is slated to air at about 5:50 p.m. EST on NPR’s “All Things Considered” program. UPDATE: Click here to listen and read.

Roberts, a Jacksonville, Florida-based pianist who made his name playing with Wynton Marsalis’s bands, is joined by longtime trio mates Jason Marsalis (drums) and Roland Guerin (bass) on the new CD. It’s a creative and compelling exploration of the music of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. I’ll review it online later.

“We made this recording to show how New Orleans music impacted the music of the later Harlem style and how both impacted all of modern jazz, including our own trio’s group sound,” Roberts writes in the liner notes to the CD.

USA Today music writer Brian Mansfield applauded Roberts’ version of Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” in the paper’s “playlist” feature: “Pianist uses Scott Joplin’s ragtime standard as the launching pad for a non-linear master class on jazz styles.”

Listening Post #4: Miles, Joshua Redman, Marcus Roberts, Relix sampler, Cassandra Wilson

Five releases in rotation at home and in the car – a list without comment (in alphabetical order):

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: Legacy Edition (Legacy)

Joshua Redman, Compass (Nonesuch)

Marcus Roberts, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 (J-Master; forthcoming)

Various artists, Relix Magazine CD sampler, Feb/March (Relix)

Cassandra Wilson, Loverly (Blue Note)