Bud Shank Quartet with Phil Woods

On Monday, November 8th, I witnessed history in the making: Bud Shank and Phil Woods, two of the greatest alto saxophonists alive, shared a bill at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. Although both men are in their 70s, their playing is still captivating and youthfully energetic. Yet the show was not merely that of an all-star band. Woods' fluid bebop lines and Shank's screaming, often avant-garde playing complimented each other, creating an exciting night of music.

Although both Shank and Woods are rooted in the music of Charlie Parker, each has created his own vocabulary. Woods is more virtuosic and blues-oriented. Shank at times resembles Eric Dolphy in his howling tone and loose solo structure. Yet, their disparate vocabularies made for a very interesting conversation. As soon as one finished his solo, the other would respond. The two saxophonists' solos flowed together and seemed like continuous thoughts.

A prime example of this came in their rendition of Woods' song, "And It was Nowhere." The song's familiar chord changes - reminiscent of standards and Charlie Parker tunes- allowed for both men to become more expressive. When it came time for the horn players to trade fours with drummer Bill Goodwin, the three musicians began what sounded like a friendly argument, every four bars becoming more furious and technically dazzling. When Woods quoted "Harlem Nocturne," Shank responded with "Donna Lee," and Goodwin with a break so rhythmically enticing he had the entire club shaking and hollering.

Another high point was when the band played pianist George Cables' beautiful "Helen's Song," deceptively simple, like a children's song. Starting with a funky ostinato played by bassist Bob Magnusson, the rest of the band soon joined in the soulful melody. Then came the real treat: Magnusson took a slap bass solo, pianist Mike Wofford played a solo that started quiet and slowly built into a storm of notes, and Shank took a solo that resembled Kenny Garrett's playing with its gospel-like enthusiasm.

I arrived at the Kuumbwa on Monday night expecting to see two men who were on the threshold of innovation fifty years ago, but was surprised to find two men who are still exploring that ground today.

Wynton Marsalis' New Book

Wynton Marsalis' new book, To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road, is weird. Since I am myself a young jazz musician, seeing the title for the first time made me think, "Wow! It's like it was written just for me." I expected it to reveal how to survive as a musician, what to listen to, and what to practice. As I began reading it, however, I realized that it is nothing like that. Instead, it resembles a motivational book more than a guide to becoming an artist. For the most part it offers boring lessons on how to become a man, and being yourself. Marsalis' book is full of clichés, and in trying to make it apply to everyone, not just musicians, he's made it not really applicable to anyone. To a Young Jazz Musician is a disappointment.


What I'm Listening To - November 25th

The Duke Ellington Orchestra - Digital Duke (GRP): On Digital Duke, the Ellington Orchestra minus Duke plays some of his classics. The disc features several modern masters, including Branford Marsalis and Eddie Daniels. This combination makes for extremely exciting music, as the guest stars' more contempory styles contrast greatly with the traditional sound of the orchestra. However, it is not only the featured soloists that shine; under the direction of Mercer Ellington the band is in top form, playing with crisp and swinging phrasing on this 1987 album.


I Read Downbeat But I Didn't Vote

My ballot.

Well, there's a new Downbeat Reader's Poll out and McCoy Tyner has finally been inducted into the Hall of Fame. If I hadn't been too lazy, here's how I would have cast my votes:

Hall of Fame: McCoy Tyner. The one, the only.

Jazz Artist of the Year: Joe Lovano. He has participated in so many good recordings this year. You can't help but love his quirky, but fiery playing.

Jazz Album of the Year: Joel Frahm's Don't Explain. (Look two posts down to see my review.)

Acoustic Group: Dave Holland Quintet. Everyone in this group is great and together they're even better. The group has really developed its own sound - partly because of the unorthodox instrumentation (vibes, tenor, trombone, bass, drums) and partly because the arrangements are so unique that the musicians are forced to find new ways of expressing themselves.

Jazz Reissue: You know, I don't really care. I guess I'd go with Monk In Paris: Live At The Olympia, but I don't spend a whole lot of time listening to reissues.

Record Label: Marsalis Music. This label is just getting started, yet it has already produced a big percentage of my favorite recent CDs. Oh my god, I'm still trying to get over how good Branford’s Footsteps of Our Fathers is.

Electric Group: Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor. This music is funky as hell. I haven't gotten the new CD yet (part re-mix, part new material), but am looking forward to it.

Soprano Saxophone: Dave Liebman. This guy is a monster. His playing is passionate and original. He's also one of the funniest people I've ever met.

Alto Saxophone: Kenny Garrett. Part Coltrane, part gospel singer, part... himself. He is unlike any other musician around today. Like I said before, Kenny Garrett is my god.

Tenor Saxophone: I'm going to give it to Branford Marsalis. His playing reflects the immense knowledge he has of jazz history. Seeing him live is inspiring. I don't know how he manages to keep up his playing when he also runs a record label and a steady band.

Baritone Saxophone: Hamiet Bluiett. He is one of the most creative musicians I've ever seen. Bluiett never repeats himself and his charismatic personality on the horn is captivating.

Clarinet: Don Byron. The only jazz clarinetist I listen to and look forward to hearing. Seeing him play at the Monterey Jazz Festival two summers ago was mind-blowing, like experiencing nirvana. Read his "Blindfold Test" at the back of the new (December 2004) Downbeat. Do it.

Flute: No idea.

Trumpet: Roy Hargrove. His warm, brassy sound and imaginitive... I really need to get Roy Haynes's Birds of a Feather CD.

Trombone: I will abstain from voting on this.

Acoustic Piano: Uri Cane.

Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: I don't know.

Organ: Sam Yahel. I don't like Bill Frisell but I sure do dig Sam Yahel.

Guitar: Anybody, Pat Martino, Jim Hall, Peter Bernstein. Just NOT Bill Frisell.

Acoustic Bass: Dave Holland.

Electric Bass: Christian McBride.

Drums: Elvin Jones. He lives.

Percussion: Kahil El Zabar.

Vibraphone: Stefon Harris. (Kindred Spirits, anybody? Anybody, Kindred Spirits?)

Miscellaneous Instrument: David Murray, bass clarinet. What exactly is a miscellaneous instrument? Aren't all instruments equal in the eyes of god (Kenny Garrett)?

Male Vocalist: No idea.

Female Vocalist: DENA DEROSE! She is so good, if you don't have any of her records go out an buy them. She's an equally talented pianist.

Vocal Group: I don't know.

Arranger: Dave Holland! YES! His next big band album is coming out early next year on his new label Dare2.

Composer: Once again, Dave Holland.

Well there you go, folks... my winners. Next year, I will vote, and hopefully they will be THE winners.


What I'm Listening To - November 21st

Nando Michelin Quintet featuring Jerry Bergonzi - Facing South (Brownstone): I've been trying to get my hands on a recording with Jerry Bergonzi for quite some time. So when I found Facing South for $2.95 in the bargain bin of the local record shop, I was excited.
Bergonzi plays long, focused lines, leaping across wide intervals like an acrobat. On the record, his angular playing contrasts with the flowing rhythms of percussionist Sergio Faluótico.
Michelin, the leader of the date, is a pianist with fluid technique, but Bergonzi ends up stealing all the attention because of his more distinctive style.
Yes, fear a man with a saxophone.


Historic First Post

There is no better way to kick off a blog than by posting a Best CDs of the Year list. In no particular order:

Joel Frahm with Brad Meldau - Don't Explain (Palmetto): I don't usually like Brad Mehldau; he strikes me as overly intellectual and detached, even bland. But lately I've heard two CDs that feature him in a duo, and I've loved both. This is one; the other is by bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz (Like a Dream - Crypto Gramophone). Somehow, Mehldau becomes much freer and melodic in a duo setting.
Don’t Explain teams him with tenorist Joel Frahm, who possesses an incredibly warm tone and a unique style of improvisation. Friends since childhood, Frahm and Mehldau perfectly compliment each other so that written melody and improvisation are almost indistinguishable. I can't emphasize enough how good this CD is. Every time I listen to it, I feel tingly all over. If only they would tour together; Frahm is a member of Jane Monheit’s band. She doesn't deserve him!

Joe Lovano - I'm All For You (Blue Note): Lovano is officially on fire, what with his CDs On This Day and now I'm All For You. It is a collection of ballads, save Countdown - a welcome selection from the Coltrane songbook. As any jazz musician will tell you, ballads are harder to play than fast tunes. Yet, with the help of veteran pianist Hank Jones, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Paul Motian (what a band!), Lovano shapes every song into a thing of beauty.

and now a short departure from saxophonists' CDs (don't worry. there'll be more.)...
Jeff "Tain" Watts -Detained (Half Note): Jeff Watts is my favorite drummer today. I've seen him with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker (Watts’s playing was the only redeeming part of that concert), and with his own group. In the past, his CDs have been uneven, especially 2002’s Bar Talk (Sony). Although they've had some magnificent music, they've also had some...less magnificent music. Well, Detained sets the record straight. With guest saxophonist Kenny Garrett (who is my god) on hand, this is hard-driving bliss. And Watts has a sense of humor: His composition JC Is The Man, according to the liner notes, was written for a bartender, not Coltrane or the Christian savior.
The CD’s best moment comes on Sigmund Groid when Garrett propels the band forward until it is so funky I can hardly stand it. Watts also tries his hand at singing on ...Like The Rose. Although his vocal skills can’t be compared to his technique on drums, the performance is strangely beautiful.

i promised there would be more saxophonists...
Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman - Saxophone Summit: Gathering of Spirits (Telarc Jazz): What's better than one great saxophonist? Two great saxophonists. What's better than two great saxophonists? Three great saxophonists. What's better than three great saxophonists? Three great saxophonists playing music written and inspired by John Coltrane.
I knew that Lovano and Liebman were good before I heard this CD. What surprised me was how well Brecker plays. He can hang with these guys, handling way more than the corny shit that’s on his own CDs.
This isn't a sax battle. There is a good deal of group improvisation and each saxophonist drives the others on to play more and more beautiful thoughts. The band reworks some Coltrane songs in new ways and offers a few very nice original compositions, too, especially Lovano's Alexander the Great. Damn! Lovano really is on fire.

Chris Potter - Lift (Sunnyside): Lift is a breakaway from the more polished, studio CDs that Potter has made. It starts off strong with a mind-blowing saxophone solo improvisation and stays strong. My one problem is with the telephone-like-sound produced by keyboardist Kevin Hays on 7.5. It's really weird; I have no idea what he is thinking.
By the end, Potter has played two solo improvisations, both awesome, as well as originals and standards. Oh, I forgot to mention that the CD was recorded live at New York’s Village Vanguard, always a plus.

I'm going to stop here at a nice even number of CDs - five. Some other great CDs that I am too lazy to review, but which deserve mention, are…

Don Byron - Ivey-Divey (Blue Note): A genius. And a member of MENSA; 'nough said.

Von Freeman - The Great Divide (Koch): Chicago’s great, under-appreciated tenor veteran has put together an instant classic.

Branford Marsalis Quartet – Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in Amsterdam Live (Marsalis Music): This package includes the band’s performance on DVD, along with an audio CD. Both are beautiful. The DVD also features interviews with Alice Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Ned Goold, David Sánchez, Miguel Zenón, and follows Marsalis around for a day.

Maybe it's just me, but I think you should buy every CD on this list. Yah, you know what? I command you to go and buy every CD I mentioned.