Record Reviews


Jews & the Abstract Truth (Knitting Factory)

The frenetic, skittish dance that is Klezmer music adopts a sharper edge on the Hasidic New Wave's adventurous Jews & the Abstract Truth. Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London and saxophonist Greg Wall drive an ensemble rounded out by sought-after players David Fiuczynski (guitar), Kenny Davis (bass), and Klezmatics drummer Aaron Alexander. A regular fixture on New York's Hasidic wedding scene, the band romps through a set of originals and traditionals, skewering the reverential approach in favor of the raucous, at times sounding as though an uninvited James Blood Ulmer joined the wedding party. Wall's and London's mournful wails on the slower, more evocative material recall the work of John Zorn's Masada, another ensemble stretching the boundaries of this fascinating stew of cultural music. What really makes Abstract Truth work, however, is the fun, infectious spirit of the musicians involved. One spin and you'll catch it.
3.5 Stars - Jeff McCord


South Delta Space Age (Antilles)

If somewhere between R&B and jazz lies funk, then somewhere between funk and blues lies the Third Rail, an experimental all-star collective led and produced by former Ornette Coleman guitarist James Blood Ulmer and bassist/knob guru Bill Laswell. As if that weren't enough star power, these loose, South Delta space-age sessions also include Meters drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, P-Funk pianist Bernie Worrell, and jazz organist Amina Claudine Myers. This is the rare supergroup excursion that's actually as good as the sum of its parts. Third Rail's mostly live in-studio jams float on team spirit - low on self-serving noodling, big on fusion groove. As such, the evidence of this low-key but dynamic rhythmic teamwork comes early and often, from Ulmer and Laswell's unlikely but effective slo-funk reduction of gangsta rap legend Schooly D's "Dusted" all the way through to "Lord Thank You," an eight-minute blues jam that allows Meyers and Worrell the room to underscore the "Delta Space" portion of the title. Yet, as progressive and diverse as the space funk excursions may be, some of the best news may be Ulmer's return to his vocal roots, where his simple but expressive phrasing, not dissimilar to his guitar style itself, manages to turn mere choruses into fully flushed songs. Bring on the fourth rail....
4.0 Stars - Andy Langer


Listen (Heart Music)

A Who's Who of jazz, Listen certainly poses the question who's this guy Jae Sinnett, who recorded an album for Austin's only jazz label, Heart Music? Answer: A producer/announcer for National Public Radio in Norfolk, Virginia, who's put in time behind the skins with the likes of Branford and Ellis Marsalis, Joe Henderson, Charlie Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Fred Hersch, and a number of other well-known jazz giants. The reason you've probably never heard of him: He's not really a drummer that demands your attention; the best thing you could say about him after hearing his fourth solo album, Listen, is that he's unobtrusive. He is, however, a good arranger and composer, and with folks like pianist Cyrus Chestnut and saxophonists Jesse Davis (alto) and Billy Pierce (tenor) lending their talents, the result is a solid, sprightly groove that's lodged the album high on the Gavin charts. Better still, it's a trio formation (on five of the album's nine cuts), featuring the ear-perking talents of pianist Allen Farnham, that really makes Listen an album worthy of its title - "She's Well Red in Black" being the particular standout. Sinnett may not be a recognizable name to many, but he's somebody, dammit - at least now in Austin, anyway.
3.0 Stars - Raoul Hernandez


With the Red Norvo Quintet Live in Australia, 1959 (Blue Note)

On the heels of his earliest (and some of his best) work with Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra took a recording hiatus from Capitol due to a fairly well-documented dispute with the label. It was during this time that Sinatra made good on previously missed opportunities to work with band leader and vibes player Red Norvo and take a mini-tour of Australia (the latter was presumably to atone for a trip canceled two years earlier). The material here, taken from two Melbourne shows with Norvo and his band in 1959, is already heavy with the standards that would be Sinatra staples for the rest of his career. The recording itself is of barely passable quality, however. The band's intro to "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" is a marred by muddy sound, a quality that mars most of the set, rendering the band's performance irrelevant. Yet, despite the recording's overall lack of clarity, the voice captured on tape is relatively rich. Sinatra not only swings freely, he connects often, though this energy occasionally costs him; he has trouble restraining himself enough to deliver the slower numbers, as evidenced by the hurried "One for My Baby" and the insertion of "Willow Weep for Me" placed between the brisker selections of "At Long Last Love" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." Overall, it's a comfortable Sinatra (he plays with the audience a couple of times), but the performance isn't quite as confident as that documented on 1994's Sinatra and Sextet Live in Paris, a recording made just a couple of years after this one. That is an essential live recording. This one is just a charming curiosity.
2.0 Stars - Michael Bertin


Nashville (Nonesuch)

Throughout history, only a handful of musicians have managed to literally redefine their instrument. The soft-spoken, wildly inventive Bill Frisell has changed all the rules for jazz guitar. His liquid playing and odd bending of notes is instantly recognizable, while easily adapting to remarkable stylistic swings. Frisell's individuality remains completely unchallenged; precious few imitate his style if only for the reason that they can't figure out how. Nashville, the logical successor to the Stephen Foster-ish Americana of 1994's This Land, employs members of Alison Krauss's Union Station as backing musicians, evoking a relaxed, folkish vibe. Frisell sounds right at home in the company of so many other stringed instruments, and giving them all plenty of room to roam. Not really country, definitely not jazz, more like twisted bluegrass on barbiturates, Nashville is nonetheless Frisell's most palatable recording to date. A darker edge at times would not have been unwelcome, but it's hard to fault the album's spacious and gorgeous production. When the stark beauty of Robin Holcomb's distinctly un-country voice (she sings on the album's three covers) first appears on Neil Young's "One of These Days," Frisell's guitar snakes and moans over a bluesy shuffle, while some Billy Sherrill-style backing vocals slyly join in. "Achy Brakey Heart," it ain't. Even while paying homage to the legacy of Music City, Frisell just can't help it - he's put something brand new on the map.
4.0 Stars - Jeff McCord


Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker

Surely, at this stage of the game, anyone who professes even an inkling of serious interest in jazz should be familiar with alto saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. Virtually everything being played in jazz today stems from the monumental rhythmic, harmonic, and technical innovations of Parker and a coterie of jazz giants that included Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke. Their music was called "Bebop" and when it arrived fully formed in the mid-Forties, it caused a revolution that utterly transformed the evolution and direction of jazz forever. It was "Bird," however, whose musical genius spearheaded this frontal assault on the jazz establishment, and in so doing he became an idol to young musicians and an icon to cultural hipsters (i.e. the beat generation). Parker's music has long been readily available to anyone seeking it out; the Guild/Musicraft sides under Dizzy Gillespie's name, Bird's long-renowned studio sessions for Savoy, Dial, and Verve, as well as the various live radio air-checks have all been issued in their entirety on CD in recent years. So what makes Yardbird Suite different from all other reissues? This two-CD "Ultimate Collection" stands as an excellent "greatest hits;" a port of entry, if you will, for the novice into the extensive Parker oeuvre. All the really essential Parker is here: "Groovin' High" and "Salt Peanuts" with Diz; Savoy evergreens "Ko-Ko," "Now's the Time," "Donna Lee," and the beautiful "Parker's Mood;" the stupendous Dial triumvirate of "Moose the Mooche," "Yardbird Suite," and "Ornitology" with a teenaged Miles Davis in tow; the infinitely hip "Cool Blues;" Verve standouts "Confirmation" and "Bloomido" with Diz and Monk; and a sizzling "Blue `N' Boogie" from a live All-Stars date. I was surprised but thoroughly delighted to see the inclusion of "Klaunstance," a seldom mentioned yet breathtaking performance - Bird at his most technically dazzling. The most obvious flaw to this collection is the blatant omission of even one selection from Parker's collaboration with Machito's Afro-Cuban Orchestra, a seminal fusion of jazz and Caribbean crosscurrents. This is particularly onerous in light of the four tracks of live Parker with strings and oboes that closes this set. Something from the famed Massey Hall Concert might have been nice as well. All grumblings aside, Rhino has done a fine job in presenting this essential work from one of the most important jazz artists ever, a man whose music is among the most vital in the eight decade-long legacy of recorded jazz. Bird Lives!
4.0 Stars - Jay Trachtenberg


Who Used to Dance (Verve/Gitanes)

Abbey Lincoln is a thief, walking away with love as if it were only a song. At first she denies it, saying love withdrew on its own: "Love has gone away / heaving a sigh / with no regrets for yesterday / breathing a sigh / love said goodbye." By the end of "Love Has Gone Away," however, she comes clean. By then, of course, it's too late, your heart having been spirited away by the 66-year-old singer's thick, husky voice. With "Love's Lament" she tries to pin the theft on you, saying you took love, leaving illusions and betrayal. She even blames Bob Dylan, somehow making it seem like "Mr. Tambourine Man" pied-pipered love away like so many jingle jangle mornings. Later, she asks point blank, "Love What You Doin'," but we already know it's Lincoln who's gone and left us only tears; it's on her long rap sheet - five of her last six albums for Verve ended with convictions (A Turtle's Dream, her last one, being the only one that led to probation.) There are accomplices here, to be sure: Steve Coleman, Frank Morgan, Julien Lourau, Rodney Kendrick - even tap-dancer Savion Glover on the title track. Make no mistake, though, Lincoln is going up "The River;" three felony counts of stealing love, two counts of heart-ache, one count of lifting that portrait of Dorian Gray, and a misdemeanor for the stove-pipe hat.
3.5 Stars - Raoul Hernandez


Where's Your Cup? (Columbia)

For the first time in years, Henry Threadgill has downsized. Threadgill's former expanding band, Very Very Circus, sported, among other oddities, two tubas. For those that lacked the patience to absorb the dense polyrhythmic soup, Where's Your Cup? features Threadgill in the company of a scant quartet of regulars, who still manage to kick up quite a ruckus. A supremely gifted composer and instrumentalist - graduate of both Chicago's avant garde AACM and the staid American Conservatory of Music, as well as a follower of Sun Ra and Scott Joplin - Threadgill paints from a wide pallet, creating unique music of startling beauty and intensity. There's a worldy influence to Where's Your Cup?, richly flavored by the dark, swirling accordion of Tony Cedras and the ubiquitous and stunning guitar work of Brandon Ross. Defying tradition, Threadgill persistently takes the unexpected path, constantly challenging his accompanists and listeners. From slinky reggae/tango dances, through contrapuntal dirges and sonic attack and release frenzies, this is a set of singular and essential music unlike any other. There's an undeniable passion to this album so palpable that once you hear it, no other music will ever quite seem the same.
4.5 Stars - Jeff McCord


The Dream Team (Milestone)

Call it soul jazz, lounge blues, or as my friend from Kansas City referred to it, BBQ jazz. Call it what you will, B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff has long been one of its grand purveyors, laying down the soulful grooves since the Sixties when this music was in its full flowering. Over the years, however, too many of these sessions have become rote, dime-a-dozen affairs, including some of the albums McGriff's recorded for Milestone, with whom he signed over 15 years ago. Nonetheless, this one, his ninth for the label, hits the jackpot in a big way by really capturing the feeling and intimacy of the after-hours blues. Recalling McGriff's The Starting Five from a decade ago, which sported almost an identical lineup, The Dream Team certainly lives up to its title. So much so, in fact, that McGriff practically takes a back seat to his compadres. You won't find a better fatback drummer than Bernard Purdie, veteran of a zillion record dates. On the frontline, legendary Texas tenorman David Fathead Newman is paired with the underappreciated Red Holloway, a soul/jazz saxman of renown from his Prestige Records days and for many years the leader of the house band at L.A.'s famed and long-defunct Parisian Room. But the reason this session ultimately clicks so well is due to first-rate guitarist Mel Brown. You might recall that following a long stint with Bobby Blue Bland, he was in residence at Antone's for several years, playing virtually every night and backing all the blues greats who came through the club. Brown's playing here is extraordinary, as he never wastes a single note in peeling off one exquisitely soulful and concise solo after another. The date boasts a potent mix of bluesy originals from McGriff and Newman with time-tested evergreens from the likes of Ellington and Willie Nelson. From the opening tipoff to the final bell, it's a championship effort from this Dream Team.
4.0 Stars - Jay Tractenberg

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