by: Hobart Taylor
Hilario Duran - Contumbao - (Alma Records)
This extraordinary and exciting music performed and composed by Cuban/Canadian pianist Duran is nuanced, intellectual, passionate and overwhelmingly entertaining. All the boxes are checked. Even if you don't hear every note that's played (there are so many and the come so quickly on the up tempo numbers), you feel their totality. The melodies are consistently gorgeous, the loping and looping rhythms intimately intermingle with your pulse. Some of the pieces are deep folk tunes like "El Tahonero", dances that evoke the the liquid and floral. Some of the tunes skip and whistle with delightful humor like "Los Munecos". And then there are the high art pieces, pieces beyond the amazing pianism (Art Tatum level) and skillful renditions displayed on the other tunes.
"Papiosco's Match", a piano-conga duet starts out like an Afro-Cuban folk song and evolves into a thrilling dialog in warp drive.
The title tune, "Contumbao" and the brilliant duet with the grand master of Cuban music, the pianist Chucho Valdes,"Duo Influenciado",are timeless wonders that should last as long as people have ears.
There are known superlatives in this world, French champagne, Louisiana cuisine, and on that list belongs Cuban jazz. This recording is a prime example.
Various Artists*/Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra - Handful of Keys - (Blue Engine Records)
*Pianists-Joey Alexander-Dick Hyman-Myra Melford-Dan Nimmer-Helen Sung-Isiah J. Thompson
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis seeks to institutionalize and canonize American traditional jazz compositions and performance styles. Marsalis has been about the business of re-enforcing cultural legitimacy to this African-American based art form by using the bully pulpit of the European originated based media of the concert hall and orchestral style arrangement. Although there is a long line of artists who have done this stretching from Ravel and Stravinsky through Don Redman, Paul Whiteman, Stan Kenton, Gunther Schuller, Duke Ellington, Yusef Lateef, Leonard Bernstein, etc, the most successful and consistent advocate for this admixture of traditions has been Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (really a big band). This institutionalization of Jazz bestows on specific composers, performers, and students a mantle of authority, for better or worse. I begin with this long-winded introduction because one of the joys of this particular recording is the manner in which it celebrates artists of the highest caliber and little popular renown.
Here The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra spotlights six extraordinary pianists. None of them are household names with the possible exception of Dick Hyman whose career goes back to days of Benny Goodman and who scores films for Woody Allen.
Myra Melford, Myra Melford, Myra Melford. I can not stress enough how revelatory and enchanting is her performance of her composition "The Strawberry". Passing through a panoply of playing styles, skipping ahead and behind the beat, shifting tempos with ease and alacrity, and surprising and satisfying listeners at every turn,this work superbly played by both the orchestra and the soloists, (Marsalis really stretches out here and Melford drives the band with her sure authority and sarcastic assertions), is the star of the recording. Which is in no way to demean the other contributions.
Helen Sung takes on McCoy Tyner's propulsive and neo-classical "Four By Five" and with Victor Goines on tenor sax, she and the band swing out to the max, especially the powerful rhythm section, Carlos Henriquez, bass and drummer Ali Jackson.
Isiah J. Thompson, and Joey Alexander are two young artists of great vision and skill. Thompson takes on Oscar Peterson's civil rights era classic gospel/blues inspired "Hymn to Freedom" with strong references to the stride piano greats and arpeggios to die for, while Alexander, the 15 year-old wunderkind from Indonesia, performs one of Bill Evans melodic miracles, a waltz entitled "Very Early". The lush arrangements on that tune are a rich counterpoint to Alexander's internal musings that somehow escape through his highly idiosyncratic and personal fingers.
Reaching back to jazz's poppier origins and traditions, Thompson is also featured on "Lulu's Back In Town", played here as an impressionistic blues piece, and Dick Hyman revives the chestnut "All of Me" and the tune "Jingles" with definitive performances, flashes of Lennie Tristano and Errol Garner thrown in.
Finally, The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra's pianist Dan Nimmer does justice to Wynton Kelly' "Temperance", an up tempo bluesy swing tune that really shows off the big band arrangements folks really seem to dig.
Debbie Poryes Trio - Loving Hank - (OA2 Records)
In the opening section of the title tune, ( a tribute to the pianist Hank Jones), after the theme is established, the trio take a collective breath, and then moves on. That's the sort of in the moment of Zen ease with which these artists perform. Poryes, bassist Peter Barshay, and drummer David Rokeach need to prove nothing. I can't single out specific tunes to discuss, because the tunes melt into moment by moment epiphanies. A sheer delight.
Errol Rackipov Group - Distant Dreams - (OA2)
On Vibraphone and marimba Rackipov can jam out prog rock/jazz fusion in the Weather Report vein, take on Latin syncopations, get all Gypsy in your face, or lay back and melodically meditate. With precision and verve, this music and the band, are very "mathy" while not losing their souls. My favorites include "The Old Watermill", The Dream of the Little Gypsy", "Attitude Problem", and the broken time confection "Bosphorus".
Charles Overton Group - Convergence - (Jazz Urbane)
Harp jazz. Not a lot of it. There is of course Alice Coltrane, and the sadly neglected genius Dorothy Ashby.
Well now there is Overton. Because the instrument's timbre and volume are so ethereal and subdued, the arrangements are often jazz ensemble stating a theme with harp commentary in the solos, or vice-versa. So on classics and familiar tunes, "It Could Happen to You", "Blackbird", and "Danny Boy", the novelty of the instrument is assuaged by the "my turn/your turn" nature of the performances. Where all of this wonderfully breaks down is on Maeve Gilchrist's composition "Ostinato # 7". Dialoging with tenor saxophonist Gregory Groover Jr., and supported eloquently by drummer Peter Barnick, and bassist Max Ridley, the tune goes into Coltrane country and then wanders into folk tunes and guitar figures played on harp reminiscent of the work of Bill Frisell and then evolving into a pianistic serial section setting up a return to the modal jazz exploration that is the main theme of the piece. It's a masterwork and demonstrates the potential of such collaborations and the transcendence of music over genres.
McGill/McHale Trio - Portraits - (Cedille)
Demarre MGill, flute
Anthony McGill, clarinet
Michael McHale, piano
The heart of this recording are six short poems and accompanying musical interludes. The poems are by the profound African American poet Langston Hughes and are read by the actor Mahershala Ali, the compositions are by flautist and composer Valerie Coleman. These fragments of black consciousness sparkle like sunlight on a placid lake. The trio also performs daring and challenging works such as Guillaume Connesson's "Techno-Parade", Rachmaninov's "Vocalise" and a Sonatina by Paul Schoenfield, a glorious homage to Ragtime, here recorded for the first time. Five Stars, kudos, and all that and a bag of chips.