MUSIC SCENE: Jazz is alive and well, with hot talent

We like to do an annual roundup of the year’s best jazz albums, which, as we note in the best albums column, is purely a reflection of our personal taste and the music we get to hear–we do not get everything.

But there is plenty of fresh new jazz out there, even if typical music fans might find it hard to track down. Your typical big box store, if it still has a CD section at all, probably features a handful of jazz selections, most of them from catalog items from long gone artists. We like John Coltrane and Miles Davis as much as the next jazz fan, but most of their work is five decades old by now. Meanwhile there are dozens of inventive contemporary musicians composing and performing inventive new sounds.

Whaling City Sound has quietly been building a sterling reputation in jazz circles, with more and more listeners discovering the label based in Dartmouth, Mass. Whaling City has also been expanding its roster, and this year at least three of the year’s most compelling works came from that hometown label.

The following are some of our favorites from 2014, in no particular order.

“NOMADIC NATURE” by GIANNI GAGLIARDI (BJU Records) Another fine outing from the Brooklyn Jazz Underground label, where tenor saxophonist Gagliardi leads his quintet through eight lively original tunes. From the thunderclaps opening “Paris” to the moody, surging energy of Gagliardi’s sax contrasted with Gilad Hekselman’s guitar and Luke Marantz’ piano, this is a richly melodic and intriguing work. A tender piano melody frames “Macanudo Man,” as the sax weaves an intriguing musical storyline. The brisk but detailed momentum of “Senor Trane” makes for a delightfully modern nod to the master.

“44:33” by ARK OVRUTSKI (Zoho Music) Ukrainian bassist Ovrutski, who declares his hero was Charles Mingus, has forged quite a career in the last decade while playing with dozens of artists. He’s also earned his Ph.D in music from University of Illinois, but this propulsive work is anything but academic and dry. There is terrific ensemble playing here, as on the brightly swinging “Up,” and the buoyant jazz-rock of “Path Train.” The only cover here is John Lewis’ 1947 “Milestones,” written for Miles Davis, which becomes another example of fine ensemble work, with Michael Dease shining on trombone.

“KROM” by KROM ( This self-released album from New York City’s Adam Kromelow and his trio is as driving a piece of jazz-rock as you’ll ever find, which is more amazing when you realize his primary instrument is acoustic piano. Few rock bands can deliver music with more bite than the invigorating “Monster Bite,” yet this threesome can change gears and perform a poignant ballad like “Hard Hearts” with equal aplomb. Bassist Raviv Markovitz and drummer Jason Burger are clearly a formidable rhythm section, and this album could be a real treat for rock and pop fans who may want to sample some jazz.

“THE PASSION OF COLOR” by THE ROB GARCIA 4 (BJU Records) Drummer Garcia has a stellar cast, including Noah Preminger on tenor sax, bassist Joe Martin, and Dan Tepfer on piano. Wonderfully rhythmic throughout, these compositions flirt with abstract ideas, yet never lose their foundation of melodic drive. The title cut has the sax going in some unexpected directions, yet skillfully plumbing the basic melody. The nine songs here include a cover from jazz great Max Roach, and a wholly revamped rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing,” where the tune is slowed down for a delectable sax lead line.

“SAMSARA” by EXPANSIONS–The DAVE LIEBMAN GROUP (Whaling City Sound) After twenty years with his previous band, Liebman has stepped into this group with four young lions, although ‘collective improvisation” is still the basis for their work. Members composed most of the songs, with Liebman contributing five, and there are a couple notable covers. Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” is an ephemeral, mysterious trip, for example. The frenetic rhythms of “Liberian Hummingbird,” by pianist Bobby Avey, is full of funky vamps and unexpected twists. Liebman’s own “Embers” starts simply and builds to a soaring group arrangement that is thrilling.

“WE’RE BACK” by THE THRASHER DREAM TRIO (Whaling City Music) The all star trio, which was first a kind of Walter Mitty project for drummer Gerry Gibbs, with jazz icons Ron Carter on acoustic bass, and Kenny Barron on piano, is back with a marvelous idea. They perform ‘jazz interpretations of R&B classics” here, and it works surpassingly well. There are obvious choices like “What’s Going On” and “My Cherie Amour,” but also some inspired cuts that might not seem so likely, such as the “Living for the City/Overjoyed” mashup, or the delicious “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Guest stars include Warren Wolf on vibes, Steve Wilson on sax, and Larry Goldings on B-3 organ, but the core of every song is still this incredible trio, and Gibbs’ pipe dream continues to be a vibrant force.

“WHEN WORDS FAIL” by DAVID WEISS (Motema) Trumpeter Weiss and his sextet deliver a deeply affecting study on loss and rebirth, inspired in part by the death, mere weeks after this session, of bassist Dwayne Burno. The title cut, dedicated to him, is thoughtful and reflective but not at all downbeat, and full of melodic hooks like the rest of the album. “The Intrepid Hub,” a nod to Weiss’ stint in Freddie Hubbard’s band, is as full of roiling energy and challenging trumpet lines as you’d expect. “Passage Into Eternity” concludes the album with grace and hope, and another compelling melody of intangible beauty.

“ESTRELLA DE MAR” by MARIO CASTRO QUINTET/STRING (Interrobang Records) Where the heck has tenor sax wizard Castro been hiding, and why isn’t he a major star already? This massive and enveloping work offers his jazz compositions, often enhanced by a string section for an orchestral feel that gives it all a magnificent sweep. You might call it neo-classical, but don’t think it is at all tame or stodgy, as it swings with a torrid Latin flavor. Check out the sultry ode “Coffee” and try to sit still, or perhaps the pulsating “Michelangelo,” where Emily Elbert adds her tasty vocals. This album is like the soundtrack to a really cool adventure movie, and if Castro’s sax work doesn’t floor you, pianist Kyumin Shim probably will.

“TIME AND TIME AGAIN” by THE COOKERS (Motema) Talk about an all star jazz team, this septet has Billy Harper on tenor sax, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto sax, George Cables on piano, David Weiss on trumpet, Cecil McBee on bass, and the estimable Billy Hart on drums, and they all contribute to the songwriting. Harper’s title cut is a driving postbop delight, where you can either savor the interplay between the horns, or revel in the rhythm section’s flawless energy. “Farewell Mulgrew,” which Cables penned to remember fellow pianist Mulgrew Miller, is as poignant and beautiful a piece of music as you will ever hear. McBee’s “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” has some of the most jaw-dropping ensemble playing on the planet, along with some edgy solos.

“GET ME JOE BECK” by JOE BECK (Whaling City Sound) A bit of an anomaly, this is a live recording of Beck in a trio format at a California club, shortly before he died in 2006. It’s a simple and direct collection, where Beck’s clean and clear articulation and mastery of his instrument are obvious, but there are also some of his witty spoken intros: he greets the crowd by telling them “My name is Eric Clapton.” Amazingly, this trio included a pick-up rhythm section, but they sound like kindred souls, psuhing Beck forward on such staples as “Stella By Starlight” and “georgia On My Mind,” but also holding their own on Jobim’s “Corcovado” and the exciting “Manha De Carnival.” But throughout this recording, the overwhelming reaction is remidnding yourself this is just ONE guitarist. “The guitar is a six-piece band” Beck said at one point here, and he proves it.

OTHER MENTIONS: Have to admit I loved the MACK AVENUE CHRISTMAS album, where Tia Fuller revives “Little Drummer Boy” and Cyrille Aimee’s “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! is a hoot. Fans of piano trios should track down “UNDERCOVER” by John Chin, and “PATHLESS LAND” by Brad Whiteley Trio. For jazz vocals, “MY OLD FRIEND: CELEBRATING GEORGE DUKE” by Al Jarreau is a vital and engaging tribute, while HOORAY FOR LOVE” by Curtis Stigers is a charming collection; “A LOVELY WAY TO SPEND AN EVENING” by Marcus Goldhaber is a worthy offering; and “INTIMATE CONVERSATIONS” by Dee Daniels boasts a glittery band of soul jazz stars behind the scintillating singer.


By Jay Miller

For The Patriot Ledger

December 26. 2014 6:30AM

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