For your Friday: two videos of Ahmad Jamal from Jazz from Studio 61 in 1959. The trio includes Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums (and some notable onlookers).
"Excerpts from the Blues": There's plenty of breathing room even during the busier moments. He teases us with his restraint at the keyboard, not to mention his dynamic range, whose highs and lows are dramatic but tasteful. Musicians often talk about how difficult it is to play quietly, but Jamal seems most natural during the hushed moments. You can see how closely he keeps his fingers to the keys –- musical economy in all areas.
"Darn That Dream": This is a nice uptempo arrangement. I shouldn't have to mention that this rhythm section is especially swingin'. Jamal's voicings (especially during the hits with the bass and during the "heads") are lovely and lush without being too dense. He takes the most beautiful parts of Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson and still sounds just like himself: fresh, refined, bluesy, groovy.
In 1976, Charles Mingus performed with a quintet in Japan's capital. Almost thirty years later, the Mingus Big Band, one of the most energetic ensembles of a handful that further his legacy today, visited the Blue Note in Tokyo. Fourteen players, sixty-four minutes and no holds barred, the newly released disc Live in Tokyo documents some powerful blowing and smart arrangements.
"Wham Bam" sets the stage for their fiery feats. Pianist David Kikoski positively flies across the keys in the intro. Those who have witnessed Kikoski live know how literal this image is. We hear the high and low ends of the band in adjacent solos from baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, whose throaty sound recalls Pepper Adams, and the brilliantly virtuosic Alex Sipiagin. Though generally more spare in his statements, it's great to hear a more verbose Eddie Henderson on trumpet in "Opus Four." Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy joins him in a duet after giving a gutsy solo with his trademark air-raid siren glissando. "Bird Calls" is naturally a sax feature. Cuber makes his bari sound much more dexterous than typically imagined, and Seamus Blake's consistently full, centered sound (even in the upper register) produces some great lines. Contrasting altoists Craig Handy and Abraham Burton join the fray and the foursome brings the group to a boil.
John Stubblefield finished the arrangement of "Prayer for Passive Resistance" while in the hospital. It was the last piece he worked on before passing away mid-2005. Sue Mingus's liner notes here say: "'The tenor is the preacher,' he told the musicians who stood around his bed. 'He's confronting the cops and the barking dogs. He's telling everyone to resist and to pray.'" Wayne Escoffery fills the role here not with gospel cliches (which one might be tempted to use at the mention of being a "preacher") but with some equally appropriate, well-shaped ideas rich in melody. He sails over the band’s full chords and 12/8 backbeat during the cathartic closing of the piece.
The complete title of "Free Cell Block F" is "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi U.S.A." originally recorded by one of Mingus's small groups from the Seventies around the time they visited Tokyo. The title was assigned to the piece after Mingus read about Southern prisons' executions by electrocution. Contrary to the title (in typical Mingusian fashion), the piece sounds quite summery. Though the original song uses the trumpet-and-tenor format, the band broadens the sound with bari sax, trombone and flute features. The brightness of the tune makes the bari sax sound more earthy than simply heavy, and Craig Handy's flute performance is beautiful, shifting between realms of light and shadow. This is a gem of a performance.
Energy, abandon, wit and individuality channeled through a common vision are all key ingredients of this ensemble as was the case for Mingus's own groups. And while the big band's explosive performances take the bassist's music to exciting new heights, their relative renown continues to earn respect for his legacy.
Cristofer Gross (a.k.a. Theaterealtor), a realtor, theatre fanatic and fellow jazz enthusiast, has recently published an article in Squeeze O.C. on some notable jazz youth in the Southland. He focuses particularly on the Black Note Trio, a group from the Orange County High School of the Arts under the direction of Bijon Watson.
The members of the Black Note Trio began playing before they were 10 years old. [Dan] Reckard is a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, while [Cindy] Gould, a Corona resident, moves easily between symphony, musical theater and pop drumming. [Tyler] Hindsley, an Anaheim resident, has extensive studio work under his belt, including his all-bass re-orchestration of Pat Metheny's "Minuano," and has appeared with artists in various genres.
This trio took me completely by surprise earlier this year at KKJZ's L.A. High School Jazz Festival. I announced their act but, since I hadn't heard all the demo tapes sent to us prior to the festival, I wasn't sure what to expect. They absolutely blew me away. They sounded as sure-footed as any jazz trio on the L.A. A-list. The standout tune was Tamir Hendelman's arrangement of "I Concentrate on You," complete with the syncopated left-hand-piano-and-bass lines. There were also some remarkable moments in a Miles Davis medley that included "All Blues" and "Seven Steps to Heaven," a great feature for their fluid technique. Reckard has a big sound (think Gene Harris meets Ahmad Jamal) plus some serious chops. Hindsley and Gould were in lock-step and very supportive, but they also shined in their own solos. Hindsley's made expert use of harmonics (he got the award for Outstanding Bassist that night), and Gould's drumming has a hint of the "snap" and the momentum that players like Eric Harland and Terri Lyne Carrington have. They recently took no prisoners in our Ones to Watch performance series.
Keep an eye on them. For those interested in all things theatrical (and jazz-related), keep an eye on the Theaterealtor blog, Synchroniciting, too.
Since Charles Mingus's passing in 1979, his prolific musical legacy has remained vital not only because of his compositions themselves but also because of the efforts of his widow, Sue Mingus, who directs bands to present his wildly varied repertoire (the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Orchestra and the Epitaph Orchestra). The newest release bearing his name, however, is not from any of these bands but Mingus himself: a previously unreleased octet performance at UCLA's Royce Hall in 1965. Some of this music was heard before at the Monterey Jazz Festival earlier that year, but their set there was shortened. The music got a complete reading at the UCLA concert, which was presented in more of as a Mingus "workshop," and was recorded but pressed on only a handful of records for a lucky and passionate few.
This concert was not originally intended to be in a workshop format, but material this demanding is complemented by the rather informal setting. You can hear Mingus address the audience, egg the band on during the music as well as between songs including several reprimands for missed cues or, as he says here, "mental tardiness." The band is not entirely at fault, though. In the album, Fred Cohen (an owner of the original vinyl from which the performance was transferred) and Sue Mingus write about the bandleader's method of giving his players the music:
"We spent two weeks at Mingus's apartment working on those new songs," trumpet player Jimmy Owens remembers. "Although every day we would come to rehearsal, Mingus wouldn't let us write anything down. He'd sit down at the piano and say, 'Play this,' and we'd learn the parts and put it together. And then the next day he'd change it all around from the day before. He'd get new ideas. It made things very difficult." Saxophonist Charles McPherson, who was unable to make any of the rehearsals, actually learned his parts over the telephone, Mingus at one end singing the part and McPherson at the other end picking it out on his horn.
The band having been under-rehearsed is certainly part of the recording's charm and mystique, but Mingus's writing also has a rawness built into it. Both elements are evident in the performance.
The concert's opening is somewhat deceptive; none of the other pieces match the sparse, funereal pall that opens the eighteen-minute "Meditation on Inner Peace." The bass and horns thread some gracefully simple melodies through Howard Johnson's doleful single-note tuba ostinato. Jimmy Owens's full flugelhorn contrasts well with Mingus's eerie arco melodies. (I can't help but think of Sketches of Spain when hearing the first few minutes when the horn enters.) Charles McPherson gives a wrenching, lacrimose solo here. He also weaves some taut lines on "Ode to Bird and Dizzy" without being an imitator, and trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer gives some brash high-register statements. Drummer Dannie Richmond drives the group hard as Mingus keeps churning from underneath. The hornmen encapsulate the spirit of the tribute with some humorously oblique snippets of "Salt Peanuts" and "Ko-Ko" near the end of the tune. The first disc closes with Owens featured on "They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux," but the piece really hits its stride during McPherson's solo over Mingus's percussive, bluesy piano.
The band sounds more refreshed for the second half of the performance. The second disc opens with "The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster," a strong feature for trumpeter Hobart Dotson, whose tone is brilliant like a fanfare but with a strong vocal quality. French horn player Julius Watkins shines in the foreground for the first few minutes of "Once Upon a Time, There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America" (which appeared later under the more familiar title, "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers"). The ensemble drags a bit in parts, but the chords themselves lend the tune a sunny kind of levity. Mingus's piano touch ranges from lush to wild; he is especially playful in dialogue with a bright and joyous Hillyer. These two pieces are the high points of the concert. "Don't Let It Happen Here" is a staple of the Mingus Big Band these days, so some may already be familiar with this one. Owens's pure-toned cry invoking an air-raid siren is fitting and his solo builds from a simple few notes in constantly morphing rhythms.
Very few copies of this album existed for some unfortunate reasons: Mingus's financial hardships (he released the records on his own label) and Capitol Records's housecleaning (they destroyed the masters). Perhaps the latter happened because the performance was not "studio quality." No matter for Mingus fanatics, though -- accepting the music's flaws is an essential part of understanding it.
Yesterday was drummer Bill Stewart's birthday, so I spun several tracks that featured him (not that I ever need an excuse to play his music). He's stylish, funky, adaptable and he continually extracts new colors from the drum kit. Even his swing feel is distinctive, wide and unflagging. Maceo Parker can attest to his sense of groove in soul/funk settings, and his work with John Scofield is evidence of his idiomatic fluidity, readily fusing creative rock with modern jazz. He can also be heard running the gamut with contemporary talents, including Seamus Blake, Kevin Hays, Joe Lovano (one of his teachers from William Paterson University), Chris Potter and Pat Metheny. His longest musical partnership, however, is with one of my favorite units, the Larry Goldings Trio (with keyboardist Goldings and guitarist Peter Bernstein), which has remained together since its inception at Augie's in 1989.
In a recent interview with me, Goldings recounted how Maceo Parker recruited Stewart and him:
It was at Augie's that this very eccentric gentleman walked in and it turned out to be Maceo Parker. Maceo was looking for a drummer for a record he was making the next day! [...] And I just remember Maceo kind of jumping around the room, looking at us at different angles and studying us and smiling and making noises and he loved it, and hired Bill.
Before embarking on the tour for that record, Roots Revisited, Parker called Goldings to join the band.
Speaking of funk, Stewart is often thought to have had a brief stint with James Brown but performed with the Godfather of Soul only for one set on an HBO special in the early '90s (though it is certainly a notable performance). In an interview with Mike Brannon for AAJ, the Des Moines native recounts a humorous exchange between him and Brown: "Rehearsing and playing with James had me on the edge of my drum stool. He asked me, 'Drummer, where you from?' I said 'Iowa.' He replied 'Iowa!... Aint no funk there!'"
Beyond Stewart's authoritative grooves, his sophisticated trap-work in jazz settings comes from a truly creative place. When I caught the Larry Goldings Trio last year in L.A., the clutch to Stewart's hi-hat cymbal broke halfway through the first set. Undeterred, he and the band pressed on through the next set and a half, and the playing was as thrilling as ever (he even found some new uses for one of the hi-hat cymbals). Necessity might be the mother of invention, but Stewart's witty approach is always apparent.
Larry Goldings: "Going to Meet the Man" from As One: Stewart's dry, textured cymbal work maintains the song's forward motion, complementing Goldings's swirling organ colors. It's a waltz, but the vamp figures are in the B3, so Stewart's contribution is more than "playing time"; his patterns move across bar lines, joust with the organ and guitar and often take on a life of their own.
John Scofield: "Wee" from EnRoute: You get a pretty concise feel for Stewart's groove and palette within the first couple minutes of this tune. Around the 0:45 mark, the repeated buzz he gets from pushing the stick lightly on the snare drum struck me as a classic Stewartism, and he milks the idea just enough to keep you interested without exhausting it. His fills throughout the tune have their own dynamic range, swelling and subsiding, accenting the tension and release. Trading fours with Steve Swallow, his ideas often straddle bar lines, once again, and suggest a greater pulse than the "time" we already perceive. His ideas are spontaneous but there's a larger sense of architecture to them, as well.
Larry Goldings: "Why Don't I?" (Live video): This is a Sonny Rollins number the trio frequently plays at their shows. Stewart is as much fun to watch as to hear -- more tricks with superimposed rhythms in his solos, tasty cymbal work and his dynamic range makes him all the more expressive.
Check out more mp3s and another video at the Drummerworld website. YouTube has some choice clips, too, particularly Pat Metheny's "Lone Jack" and Kevin Hays's "Stellar," though the latter doesn't have a good view of him and the former doesn't have any drum solo.
On the sidebar under "Friends," you'll find a new link for FreshRed, an up-and-coming site with information on Los Angeles music performances. Founder Mayur Khandelwal posts listings for local shows, sortable by venue, performer, date and price. You can also check out weekly recommendations by local music bloggers including yours truly. Do swing by there each week as the site grows, and encourage venues not already on there to submit their listings.
A year ago yesterday, I began this blog as a rather whimsical hobby. A blog can't change the world, but it has at least become more meaningful to me as a simple creative outlet. Thanks for reading my ramblings, listening to the tunes, buying the albums and sticking with me in general.
Though an explanation isn't essential, I realize I never disclosed why I chose the name for this blog. "Song With Orange" is actually a gorgeous but lesser known Charles Mingus composition. It was originally penned for a 1958 CBS dramatic production called A Song With Orange In It, written by S. Lee Pogostin (it was part of a TV series and does not show up on Pogostin's IMDb profile). The original performance can be found on Mingus Dynasty from 1959 (the reissue includes solos edited out of the first release). There is an expansion of the same theme, on the album Mingus Plays Piano, by the title "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue," and the album Changes Two features a very different extended performance of that expansion. In liner notes to Mingus Plays Piano, Nat Hentoff explains the theme's context:
The emotions in the music come from Mingus' brooding about the two main characters in the play -- a musician and a hollow society girl who almost destroys him. At one point in the play, she asked the musician to write her a song with orange in it (trying to find a rhyme for orange). "That's how deeply she felt about the music," says Mingus scornfully. "It's like asking someone to write a song for your new gloves or a new hairdo."
At this point, I should acknowledge the irony of naming this blog after a composition by Mingus: he is famous for disliking all but a few jazz writers. He saw much of jazz criticism as a cheap way for wannabes to play at intellectualism while misinterpreting musicians' styles, devices and intentions. In spite of this irony, however, I use the name of the tune because its origins reveal something important to me: it accompanies a story that expressed, as Mingus himself points out, the confusion between art and posturing and the need to tell the difference between them. What makes jazz deep, beautiful and significant is complicated and this intimidating concept can prevent timid listeners from becoming more passionate or knowledgeable, as "jazzers" tend to be. The role of the jazz critic is often described as acting as a liaison between the two, an interpreter that lets someone else in on the "secrets" of this music while lending his discriminating ears.
Over the past year, in my own small way, I've been trying to share my own thoughts about music I love, hoping that others enjoy it and learn something, too. Thanks for your open ears.
It might seem natural to put Joe Henderson in a class with John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophonists with sounds that can have warmth, melody or edge and can push the limits of a tune), but avid Henderson-admirers rightly put him in a class by himself. Even while his tone has a roughness to it, the center of that sound is actually quite full and warm. The Milestone Profiles: Joe Henderson compilation not only collects some notable performances from the late '60s through the mid-'70s but also shares (in its liner notes) praise from other saxophone giants today that helps articulate Henderson's musical personality. Dave Liebman, in his essay, "The Compositional Style of Joe Henderson," outlines the saxophonist's singularity from a technical perspective:
Joe took the tenor sax elsewhere technically in areas such as his use of a unique set of expressive devices, unending variations of articulations, fast arpeggios, trills and the like, a looseness of rhythm that defied the bar line, his own personal way of using the altissimo (high) register of the horn and a tone that could go from liquid to coarse in a beat.
Chris Potter, who always gives Henderson his due when asked about his influences, often points out how intelligent his solos were... and how he never needed to "deal in volume." In a DownBeat Blindfold Test, he said: "He seems like such a wise gnome, a short guy sort of hunched over, and he plays quietly and makes everyone listen. That's part of his mystique, and it's the vibe all the great musicians give out."
The compilation's opener, "Mamacita" (from 1967's The Kicker), is the quintessential Henderson tune: bluesy but modern chord changes, a singing yet virile melody and it can't help but groove. It has the aura of a '60s Blue Note boogaloo (not an unfamiliar setting for Henderson, having appeared on some important Lee Morgan dates of this nature), but Henderson purposefully steers clear of cliches in his solo and plays around the backing horn arrangements. It's unfortunate that the tune is so brief. "The Bead Game" is an intriguing listen for how the players interact: interplay is certainly not forgotten, but there is more of a sense of a "chase," four players shifting alongside one another in a kind of angular, high-octane fugue. Don Friedman provides some rather oblique harmony in erratic jabs. Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette are a bit closer in their execution with some jittery, textured lines.
The album also features Henderson in settings with electric piano, accenting the deep, warm shades of his tenor sound. "Black Narcissus" is lovely -- a quartet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. The saxophonist's tone sheds its rough shell for some moments on this tune as Hancock's keyboard floats eerily. Henderson's theme-and-variations MO is more pronounced on "Gazelle" over its funky '70s electric keyboard/bass/drums band, backed in parts by a horn section. The Kenny Dorham classic, "Blue Bossa," is instantly recognizable but Henderson's approach to this tune has clearly gone through worlds of change since it debuted on Page One (his maiden voyage on Blue Note). He's quick on his feet here, leaping feet-first into some incredibly clean, fast runs, and George Cables's electric piano comping complements Henderson well. Woody Shaw is not at his strongest here but is still makes use of his beautifully dark, melodic sound. And on the nine-minute version of "Canyon Lady," you become aware of just how much space Henderson used to let his statements breathe. In a recent article by Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press, Bennie Maupin mentions an early association with Henderson when both of them were students of Larry Teal at the Teal School of Music. His remarks touch on that "mystique" mentioned earlier:
In the late '50s, [Maupin] often practiced with Henderson [...] Henderson's skittering rhythmic phrasing and centered tone (a Teal trademark) left a clear mark on Maupin.
"You'd go to his apartment, and he had nothing but a mattress, ironing board and a few chairs," says Maupin. "It was like he had a secret and never shared it."
In his career of over three decades, Henderson shared plenty of his secrets, though it takes some listening to define them precisely. This new compilation is a good place to start for those interested in discovering his creative post-Blue Note work.
Check out the poster in the background of the picture. If there were any "Law & Order" character who would be a Thelonious Monk fan, it would be Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer). This shot is from this week's episode of "Law & Order: SVU." Oddly enough, it was aired on what would've been Monk's 89th birthday.
My apologies for the low-quality picture. I don't have any fancy TV screencap devices.
Over the past month, I've been enjoying Madeleine Peyroux's Half the Perfect World. While the album revels in its sparseness and coolness, it still sounds earnest to these ears. With a repertoire that touches on seminal songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits) and an aesthetic drawn from jazz, folk, cabaret and contemporary "singer-songwriter," her third release is her most tasteful yet. Gary Foster takes a beautiful alto sax solo on "The Summer Wind," which is both breezily warm and heartbreaking. Peyroux, Walter Becker and Larry Klein co-wrote "I'm All Right," a bittersweet tune with a touch of optimism for a mending heart. "Blue Alert" is a high point for the album, imbued with a sense of coyness and anticipation as Peyroux gives new depth to Cohen's imagery. Subtle keyboardist Sam Yahel is the accompanist though Larry Goldings also has some notable cameos, having filled the same role on Peyroux's last effort, Careless Love. As with that album, Perfect World uses the combination of guitar and a warm, warbly organ as its foundation, and though the piano fills the spaces only occasionally, it is milked for its clean and airy sustain when it surfaces. Guitar fans might also note Dean Parks's presence; he stands out periodically with some quirkily countrified statements. Peyroux's own Freddie Green-ish strumming, while somewhat simple, is done with confidence, enhancing many of the walking-tempo tunes.
I was also impressed with Peyroux's performance at UCLA's Royce Hall last weekend. With Ron Miles, Michael Kanan, Johannes Weidenmuller and Scott Amendola accompanying her, the group gave a cohesive sampling of Peyroux's tunes and influences. A large part of what makes her singing so provocative (moreso live than on record) is her languorous delivery: usually far behind the beat, flexibly bending into and out of notes. She's not Sarah Vaughan, but simply being comfortable counts for quite a bit; the ease of her performance certainly carried over with her audience, myself included. Furthermore, she seemed to be truly interpreting her songs each time rather than trying to recreate the best moments of the album.
Jazz fans tend to malign Peyroux's sound as a either a Billie Holiday impression, a fashionably marketable "crossover" or a nostalgic cabaret act. As Don Heckman points out in his LA Times review of Peyroux's recent Royce Hall show, none of these is quite correct. Though I dislike belaboring "the Holiday connection," it is an important element of her style. And it is equally important to note she draws from more than this influence alone, and this has become more pronounced since her last two releases. Peyroux's own strength lies in her ability to tell her own story even while reading the words of her heroes.
Her opening act that night, singer and guitarist Julian Coryell, used to busk in Central Park with her. In characterizing her engaging style, he offered quite an understatement: "She would be singing these beautiful songs and people would just keep walking by, which was... weird."
Trumpeter Sean Jones has been making waves as a new talent since his debut on Mack Avenue, Eternal Journey back in 2003. Listeners have heard him improve over time with last year's Gemini and now Roots hits the streets. A casual listener may be tempted to place him alongside Roy Hargrove or Terence Blanchard, but Jones uses the neo-bop sound of the '90s as a more of a springboard than a model to emulate. In subtle ways, his trajectory has differentiated him from the artists under the too oft-used "young lions" label. He has a background in classical trumpet from Youngstown State University (near his hometown of Warren, OH) and a masters from Rutgers. To paraphrase Mark Twain, though, Jones's education is not limited to his schooling. His earliest musical memories include performing both gospel and classical music while in high school, and during his ascent, he was mentored by veterans Ralph Peterson, Charles Fambrough and Gerald Wilson. Jones's powerful playing on Wilson's New York, New Sound is what landed him his record deal with Mack Avenue.
The album's title cut has the crisply percussive flavor of R&B and shades of gospel (a strong theme throughout the disc). Orrin Evans's piano work is joyously earthy, and drummer Obed Calvaire shows a knack for tasteful yet funky "pocket" playing. Luques Curtis is a mature and supportive bassist (one would expect nothing less from a discovery of Gary Burton's). Jones's clarion tone is golden, glowing and confident. Tia Fuller's soprano sax sound meshes well with Jones in their harmony lines. "Divine Inspiration" finds Jones on flugelhorn and Evans on Rhodes. Some musicians might choose to accent the peculiarities of these instruments (the mellow roundness of the flugel or the quirky, slightly percussive warble in the upper register of the Rhodes), but the performance is actually quite restrained: Evans's solo contains some clever figures that tastefully use the Rhodes's color; Jones's flugel feature gives off incredible warmth. There is a hushed quality to "Come Sunday" with some subdued, hymn-like accompaniment from Evans. Jones leaps and swoops in his solo, always with grace and soul. Drummer Jerome Jennings appears here with some inspicuous but helpful brushwork. Evans's solo truly teases the listener with elegant understatement (think Red Garland's bluesy block chords with a hint of Bill Evans or Brubeck). "Puddin' Time" finds the quintet in more hardbop territory with a vampy, strut-like feel into a shuffle. Jones is in his element here, invoking a bit of down-home style with forthrightness that would make Wynton proud.
In fact, Jones's playing throughout the album is controlled and patient but no less passionate, and this is also a good metaphor for his career as a whole. He doesn't brandish new concepts, "foreign" influences or drastically different approaches with each of his albums; he just becomes more comfortable and lets his influences naturally color his playing. In an AAJ article by R.J. DeLuke in 2004, Jones reveals an ethos to which he's remained true:
I really admire the history of the instrument. I try to always give respect to that whatever I play and whatever I write. I try to incorporate some kind of history. Then there are those people that are more daring. They go into hip-hop aspects and R&B and they draw influences from that. So that's kind of cool too. I like it all, unless it's just out there and it's not really saying anything. But if there's some kind of message in the music, I'm for it.
Read the whole article. As the album's title suggests, Roots is grounded and solid, but Jones clearly has wings, too.
Guitarist Lee Ritenour's newest effort, Smoke 'n' Mirrors, was released a couple months ago, so I'm quite behind in acknowledging it. A consummate studio musician, Ritenour's polished execution might set off the listener's "smooth jazz" detector, but I think actually listening to the album will reveal that improvisation can remain fresh even in a more produced setting. I always find it interesting to hear what happens when a studio pro leads their own session; some may think session musicians' styles are not distinctive enough because it's in their nature to blend in, but I think Ritenour's own music can be stimulating. (For evidence of this, check out Wes Bound or Stolen Moments.) Fans may remember his fusion collaborations with Bob James, Nathan East and Harvey Mason in Fourplay, but Ritenour's credentials run the gamut from blues to pop to world (Brazilian music, in particular) to mainstream jazz. He has graced recordings by B.B. King, Roberta Flack, Flora Purim, Herbie Hancock, the Four Tops, Dave Grusin (several, in fact), Steely Dan and Stanley Turrentine.
Smoke 'n' Mirrors finds Ritenour fusing his many influences with a strong emphasis on world genres. Fans of polyrhythms and percussion will enjoy the work of Alex Acuna and Paulinho da Costa throughout. Bassist Richard Bona is a good fit with Ritenour here, too, offering some flavors of Jaco Pastorius and some solid funk. The album's title cut is a vampy romp with a bright 7/4 B-section. Bona fills up the space with some brief but potent statements, and Ritenour's flashy outro is worth hearing. "Blue Days" features its composer Daniel Jobim on vocals and keyboards paired with vocalists Joyce (the song is sung in Portuguese). For Gabor Szabo's "Spellbinder," the leader employs provided by Satnam Ramgotra on tablas for some South Asian color to complement the groove. Brian Bromberg works his usual fleet-fingered magic on double bass while Ritenour gives some nods to Wes but injects plenty of his own flavor with a singing, bluesy, well-paced solo and plenty of bent notes. "Povo" is slightly slicker and more compact than on Freddie Hubbard's original CTI recording, but Ritenour's solo here is one of my favorite moments on the disc; he does George Benson proud. Patrice Rushen's Rhodes work is also admirable and retains much of the dark, languid vibe of the original. The standout track for this reviewer is "Waters Edge," which is brief but catchy. Bona has a short solo with some clever, stuttering figures and Ritenour relies on chord melodies on acoustic guitar with infectious results.
While listeners may find some of the tracks less acceptable than others (e.g. the saccharine soprano sax sound on "Township" or R&B vocals and four-on-the-floor pulse of "Forget Me Nots"), Smoke 'n' Mirrors does give Ritenour a chance to show his admirable improvisational skills along with those of the respectable cast of sidemen. Though the solos throughout are kept concise and the players never get a chance to really cut loose, I still think the listener will find this album to be earnest. It serves as a cross-section of Ritenour's influences and how he incorporates them. True, the "blowing" here may not be quite as heavy as some of his previous dates, and if this music is in the background, it might still be heard simply as background music, but there are plenty of moments of high-level musicianship to reward the more attentive listener, too.
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