From My Eyes Only (Discovery)
The paradisiacal environs of Altadena, California have become home to a tight community of smooth jazz musicians, and they've found a new representative in East Austin's Ron Brown. Brown's first solo release for Discovery is jazz at its most streamlined and contemporary. There's no question that the man is a good saxophone player; he's smoother than mom's mashed potatoes ever were, and as soothing as a foot massage on a warm Sunday afternoon. The music lives as much (or more) in romantic ballads and tearful R&B as it does in jazz, as illustrated by true-to-form covers of smash hits by Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Brown's horn seems to sing these songs, riding the choruses without skipping (or adding) a note. The mellifluous sax is enveloped by a lush landscape of electric drum and keyboard effects, all echoed and chimey enough to conquer any New Adult Contemporary audience. The colors of smooth jazz are indeed pastels. The thing about pastels is they aren't very exciting to look at - and the thing about mashed potatoes is that the lumps tell us they're real potatoes and not instant spuds.
2 Stars - Christopher Hess
To the Ends of the Earth (Fantasy)
Believe it or not, Natalie Cole is not the closest link to the legacy of her father, Nat King Cole. That distinction belongs to the long-dead crooner's youngest brother, Freddy, who, like his brothers Nat, Eddie, and Ike, has been singing and playing since day one when jazz giants like Ellington, Basie, and Eckstine passed through the family's south side Chicago household. And why wouldn't he, since Freddy shares the same unmistakable vocal timbre that made his eldest brother a household name the world over? Nevertheless, it has taken the 65-year-old baby Cole brother a lifetime to get noticed, a process that finally began early this decade with a trio of albums on Berkeley's famed jazz label, Fantasy. Not quite as romantically sublime as last year's A Circle of Love, Cole's latest is still a modest treasure in that familiar, familial way. This Cole has a little more grit to his voice, which makes his bedroom jazz a little more real than the often too-perfect cool of brother Nat, and with the able assistance of Fantasy stable players like vibist Joe Locke, and drummer Steve Berrios - as well as the always stylish piano playing of Cyrus Chestnut throughout - this Cole puts his own stamp on unlikely winners like Henri Mancini's "Two for the Road" paired here with Johnny Mandel's "Close Enough for Love." Forget Unforgettable, Freddy is the real gem - Natalie is just coal.
3 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
THE CARLA BLEY BIG BAND
Goes to Church (Watt)
At Carla Bley's last appearance in Austin, she guest-conducted the Creative Opportunity Orchestra. The CO2 gave a fiery opening performance, but when Bley passed out her music and the band began to play, it was as if the orchestra had grown exponentially. These full, brass-heavy voicings that are prominent in Bley's compositions boast not only the beauty and richness of a Bach chorale, but the power to blow down walls. Goes to Church, recorded live at the Chiesa San Francesco Al Prato during the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, was originally intended as a reworking of some of her rushed recordings. Instead, Bley seized on the church theme and began composing furiously. All but one of the resulting CD's six selections are new, and most are stirring and exceptional. The 17 members of the big band blend seamlessly, while the arrangements sway the rafters of the Chiesa. Passionate solo work from saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig and trombonist Gary Valente (whose unrepentant growl has become a trademark of Bley's recent work) fires up the pulpit further. Bley, a prodigious composer with an endearing silly streak, has seen fans stray as she has tempered her work over the years. They should return to the fold. It's time to testify.
4 Stars - Jeff McCord
THE HERBIE NICHOLS PROJECT
Love Is Proximity (Soul Note)
Pianist/composer Herbie Nichols is one of the forgotten heroes of modern jazz. A contemporary of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, he recorded infrequently during his lifetime. Ironically, Nichols now gets more recognition as an outstanding composer than at any time during his career. And now comes the most fully realized conceptualization of Nichols' work to date - the Herbie Nichols Project. Led by pianist Frank Kimbrough and established under the aegis of the NYC-based Jazz Composer's Collective, this is the quintet's first recording although it has been studying and performing the Nichols cannon for over a decade. There's an obvious depth and vision to Nichols' work that belies its Fifties time frame and has made it so appealing to a growing number of musicians. Ironically, all of Nichols' own recordings (most notably for Blue Note and Bethlehem) are limited to piano trios, this despite his longtime desire to have his music fleshed out more completely and played with horns. This is where the Project creates its own particular spin on the material, employing an array of instrumental configurations that help expand the possibilities. Sometimes clarinet and flugelhorn are used rather than the standard sax and trumpet frontline. Not to be pigeon-holed, they open the set with a pianoless quartet à la Ornette Coleman on "Trio." "Wildflower" is represented twice here, first with the full quintet as a spacious, blues-inflected mood piece and later as a thoughtful piano solo. The real plum, however, is the title track, a newly discovered, previously unrecorded Nichols composition that gets its first airing here. Trumpeter Ron Horton and saxophonist Ted Nash are given some room to stretch out and make an indent in this lovely piece. It's always a shame when an artist's work isn't appreciated until long after their death. In the case of Herbie Nichols, we can at least rejoice in knowing that those who are currently attending to his art are rendering it in splendid fashion.
4 Stars - Jay Trachtenberg
Louis Armstrong & King Oliver with Bessie Smith (Tradition)
The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (BMG Classics)
Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (Columbia Legacy)
The Great Chicago Concert 1956 (Columbia Legacy)
No one can claim to have left the world a greater gift than the recorded legacy of Louis Armstrong, which, a quarter-century after his death, continues to thrill the world in a way no music has before or since. It's a long way from "Gut Bucket Blues" to "Hello Dolly"; four new reissues fill in at least a few of the gaps in Armstrong's five decades of recordings. The Tradition set focuses on Armstrong's first sessions as a sideman, from 1923-26, primarily with the bands of King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson. Oddly chosen and sequenced (obvious choices are ignored, only one track features Bessie Smith), more thorough and thoughtful representations of this material are available. Still, as an inexpensive introduction to Armstrong's origins, it suffices; you can hear the unrealized talent bursting at the seams amidst the jaunty arrangements. By the Thirties, Armstrong was on his way to becoming a huge star, and jazz was beginning to be thought of as something other than whorehouse and junkie music by mainstream America. The RCA collection begins here, then skips to post-war 1946, when bop and R&B where taking the country by storm and economics were forcing the big band era to a close. There are highlights within this 4-CD set, but for the most part, the greatness that followed Armstrong seems to elude his Victor sessions. The set is not `complete,' with many worthwhile alternate takes missing, and while fairly well-annotated, the packaging is sub-par. The Town Hall Concert from 1947 (again, not complete), Armstrong's first live recording with a small band (the Hot Fives/Sevens were a studio-only outfit), remains the only career milestone present here. Elsewhere, it's great fun hearing Armstrong's genius elevate even the most mundane material, but it's hard to justify the cost of four CDs. By 1954, the All-Stars who debuted at the Town Hall Concert were gone, replaced by a new road-tested outfit who knocked out the amazing Plays W.C. Handy in three nights they had off. The Chicago concert was an ill-conceived pomposity two years later that featured Helen Hayes' historical narration, a format Armstrong booted a third of the way into the show. Both Columbia reissues are first-rate examples of the right way to do things. Painstakingly researched and annotated, both sets feature excellent sound and packaging. Chicago Concerts adds three tracks, and loses Helen Hayes, for a prime example of the routine but occasionally electrifying shows Armstrong still put on throughout the world while well into middle-age. W.C. Handy is more impressive, assembled after an exhaustive search of EP masters and jazz collectors. It features not only the restored album on CD for the first time, but also an interview with Handy (who composed "St. Louis Blues," among other greats) and fascinating rehearsal segments. Even well into his 50s, with Armstrong's battle-scarred lip about to give out for good, the screaming glissandos still raise the hair on your neck. These reissues, W.C. Handy in particular, are brief but shining mementos from the nearly 50 years of music created by a talent the world will never see the likes of again.
(Armstrong, Oliver & Smith) 3.5 Stars
(Complete RCA Victor) 3 Stars
(Plays W.C. Handy) 4.5 Stars
(Great Chicago Concert) 4 Stars - Jeff McCord
DOC CHEATHAM & NICHOLAS PAYTON
In the cradle of jazz, on a blistering hot afternoon, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival had taken its toll, and I collapsed on the grass floor of a tent whose sounds had drawn me in. They were the sounds of Louis Armstrong - the brashness, the blush, the life, humor, and spirit. Channeled through the horn of Adolphus "Doc" Cheatum, a contemporary of Satchmo's, the sound of New Orleans lulled me into a magical half-sleep. That same day, just across the way in the jazz tent, one of the Crescent City's young
lions, Nicholas Payton, had a packed tent rollicking to similar sounds. Perhaps that's why the 91-year-old Cheatum cut an album with Payton, because, according to the liner notes, the young horn player "favors" Joe Oliver, Armstrong's most famous employer. Put the two horn players together then, along with some their home city's most venerable sidemen, clarinetist Jack Maheu, trombonists Lucien Barbarin and Tom Ebbert, and drummer Ernie Elly among others, and throw in standards such as "How Deep is the Ocean," "Stardust," "I Cover the Waterfront," and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," and it's as if Armstrong never left this club to go join Gabriel's band. Sadly, as of this writing, Cheatum, too, ascends that bandstand, leaving this album and musicians like Payton to enchant us all until we pass through those same gates.
3.5 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
THE COMPLETE PACIFIC JAZZ RECORDINGS OF THE GERRY MULLIGAN QUARTET WITH CHET BAKER
Maybe it's just me, I dunno. Try as I might, I just can't seem to generate any sustained enthusiasm for this handsomely packaged, 4-CD set of renowned, quintessential West Coast jazz from two of the idiom's most accomplished and revered figures. Hey, I grew up in L.A. so I don't harbor a geographic grudge per se, and I've played plenty of Mulligan and Baker on the radio for years, both individually and collectively. To boot, I'll be the first to admit an affinity for the unconventional lineup of this pianoless quartet and for the remarkably compatible counterbalancing of Mulligan's burly baritone and Baker's graceful trumpet. Coming on the heels of Miles Davis' groundbreaking "Birth of the Cool" sessions (which incidentally featured Mulligan as musician/composer/arranger) and piggy-backing an influential piece on the quartet in Time magazine, these sides turned Mulligan and Baker into genuine jazz stars. So what's my problem? Maybe it just comes down to the very nature of "cool jazz" as the West Coast Sound and the fact that these sides stand as paramount recordings of the genre. Perhaps the term "chamber jazz" would a more apt description here as the
music all too often sounds tightly arranged, constricted, and dispassionate - it rarely breaks loose from the moorings. There's no denying that much of it swings, but it swings so politely and, dare I say, so un-soulfully. The group's original drummer, Chico Hamilton, was, fittingly, a master of taste and understatement while later replacements, Larry Bunker and Dave Bailey, were also refined, but not particularly exciting. Compare them to East Coast bombardiers of the same era - Max Roach, Art Blakey, and "Philly" Joe Jones - and you'll see what I mean. Cool Jazz may have been the refreshingly measured response to the freneticism of Diz, Bird, and bebop but, likewise, hard bop became the East Coast's soulful, back-to-roots answer to the likes of Mulligan and Baker's all-too-tame and often cerebral dalliance. If, on the other hand, `cool' is your thing, then you've come to the right place. The first two discs contain the original 1952-53 quartet recordings, while disc three features the 1957 Reunion sides which find Mulligan and Baker seemingly more relaxed and stretched out a bit. The fourth disc is particularly interesting as the first half finds the lads teamed on a live quintet date with Lee Konitz, the alto saxman I've always called " a thinking man's player." The remainder of the side contains a rather obscure session with vocalist Annie Ross out front, just a few years prior to the formation of jazz's greatest vocal group ever, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. It's a nice way to end out a box set that, although historically significant, I found to be, overall, emotionally bereft and unsatisfying.
3 Stars - Jay Trachtenberg
On Public Enemy's classic "Bring the Noise," Chuck D. declares, "Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band." Liquid Soul seconds the notion. In fact, despite the truly fluid arrangements of seven other live musicians, DJ Jesse de la Peña gets first billing on this acid-jazz collective's debut, because he is the band - and as such, a "musician" even jazz purists couldn't deny. And while Peña is also smart enough to honor his undeniable hip-hop roots and seize a freestyle opportunity to drop Run DMC's "Here We Go" into the mix, he's also the rare conservative deejay that not only knows when not to play, but also how to spot an opening and drive through unobtrusively. So, on the album's two traditional pieces, John Coltrane's "Equinox" and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," as well as the more funk-influenced live cuts like "Schizophrenia" or "Java Junkies," it's Peña's quick turntable spurts that single-handedly steer Liquid Soul away from revisionism and into the challenging discipline of funk innovation. And, ultimately, if Liquid Soul's air-tight acid-jazz selections aren't themselves anything terribly new, Peña's eloquence clearly is, making this set valuable first and foremost as a sneak peak at one of jazz's off-beat future stars.
3 Stars - Andy Langer