Don Williamson - - Your Jazz Music Connection - - Your Jazz Music Connection Tue, 23 May 2017 11:46:20 -0500 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb Pianist by Alex Brown Pianist by Alex Brown
Having performed in Paquito D'Rivera's group since 2007, Alex Brown (The Pianist, as his album title declares) appropriately records his first album under the aegis of The Clarinetist/The Saxophonist. Indeed, Brown records on D'Rivera's label, Paquito Records, thereby receiving a no-doubt much appreciated boost from his mentor. Though top-notch jazz musicians from Jane Bunnett to Jon Faddis have worked with Brown, not to mention Brown's involvement with D'Rivera's Grammy-Award-winning album, he has escaped wide-spread public awareness. He shouldn't remain under-recognized much longer.

Having performed in Paquito D'Rivera's group since 2007, Alex Brown (The Pianist, as his album title declares) appropriately records his first album under the aegis of The Clarinetist/The Saxophonist. Indeed, Brown records on D'Rivera's label, Paquito Records, thereby receiving a no-doubt much appreciated boost from his mentor. Though top-notch jazz musicians from Jane Bunnett to Jon Faddis have worked with Brown, not to mention Brown's involvement with D'Rivera's Grammy-Award-winning album, he has escaped wide-spread public awareness. He shouldn't remain under-recognized much longer.


After receiving national honors even before graduation from the New England Conservatory of Music, Brown found his calling with Latin music, particularly when he studied with Danilo Perez and Charles Banacos there. Brown's background in classical music serves him well as he meets the shifting demands of various jazz groups, and his compositional work in college, some of which appears on The Pianist, was already at a highly professional level. Brown's album includes, with two exceptions, his compositions since then as well. While D'Rivera contributes to three of the tracks—and as exuberantly as ever—it turns out that Brown's own group of young musicians can bring to life his music not only capably, but also with much exhilaration and camaraderie.


Brown starts the album with his "Prologue," understating his talent as he and vibraphonist-attaining-much-recent-acclaim Warren Wolf exchange dialogue of four-note patterns, Wolf descending on marimba and Brown ascending on piano over an initial two-chord progression. Gradually, with thematic repetition, the piece reveals itself as drums, percussion and bass ground it with force and a more aggressive drive.


But still "Prologue" provides but hints of Brown's talent as it remains contained within its compositional boundaries. Even the second track, "Warm Blooded," stays subtle and implicit with straight-ahead rhythm while the warmth of Vivek Patel's flugelhorn enters. However, it's Brown's complex solo, full of unexpected twists and turns and build-ups and releases, that completes the performance, making a low-key melody into something much more. Brown's characteristic affinity for the spirit of Latin music begins actually with the third track, "The Wrong Jacket," as Pedro Martinez's percussion percolates and animates the flow of the melody, which leads to abrupts stops and starts. D'Rivera joins the celebration after Brown's rippling solo, elevating the joy with unrestrained excitement, as does Martinez's singing. Finally, the album hits its stride.


Pixinguinha's "Lamentos," of straightforward melody and restrained formality, showcases Brown's flowing technique, as well as his understanding of D'Rivera's musical personality, this time expressed on clarinet. However, after the separate statements of theme on piano and horn in moderate tempo, "Lamentos" picks up speed, becoming in the process a "prestissimentos," swirling and taunting, as mentor and protégé trade choruses of ever-accelerating celebratory buoyancy. "Buleria" brings back D'Rivera , this time on alto sax with his accustomed brightness of tone, for the medium-tempo composition of six-eight ebullience, enlivened in no small part by Martinez's rhythmic undercurrent. Wolf too contributes forcefully to the track with percolating marimba work that convinces listeners that the excitement about Wolf's performances as a leader is entirely justified.


Brown, determined to give acknowledgement to one of his influences, performs a scampering, dramatically introduced "Elektric," as he presents his own interpretation on elements of recognizable Chick Corea technique, like his florid Spanish-tinged references or his energetic winding themes of indeterminate changes that keep the listener on edge. Brown's "Leaving," slower and more contemplative over long melodic lines, shows that he can craft a fine composition without the ignition found in other tracks, allowing the changes to unfurl as they will in minor-key understatement. As a finale, Brown decided to culminate his first album with his variations on the changes of "Just One of Those Things," with the rhythmic elasticity that stretches familiar changes until they snap with abrupt release of tension, not to mention his reharmonization veering between major and minor roots in the repeats.


Though Brown is just starting on his recording career, he deserves much attention not just for his technical abilities in accompaniment and in crafting ebullient solos, but also for his compositional imagination that he invests in a wide range of music energized by feel of Latin percussiveness.

]]> (Don Williamson) Latin Jazz / Latin Funk - CD Reviews Sun, 15 Apr 2012 07:39:26 -0500
'Tis What It Is by Cilla Owens 'Tis What It Is by Cilla Owens
  Musicians: Watch what you say, for your words can have lasting consequences. Consider Cilla Owens, for instance.  

Musicians: Watch what you say, for your words can have lasting consequences.

Consider Cilla Owens, for instance.

A Brooklyn native, initially Owens pursued a degree at Boston College and thought that her lifelong career would involve teaching young students in New York City schools.

Then that magical moment occurred. The one when jazz icon Hank Jones told Owens after an open mic session: “You could really go far with your music. You should sing.”

Until receiving that life-changing encouragement, Owens wasn’t aware that the Hank Jones had been accompanying her during the session. She took the advice of the Hank Jones.

Cilla Owens sang.

Cilla Owens went far.

Far away to Lugano, Switzerland’s jazz festival. Far away to Caribbean jazz festivals. Far away to German venues. Far away to Newport.

And she came home again.

To earn bachelor and masters degrees in music at Hunter College. To New York jazz clubs like the Cornelia Street Café. To join the Great Day Chorale, whose mission consists of preserving the Negro Spiritual. To join Moments Notice, a band led by James Rohlehr and Elton Reid. To join the Monk for President group with Glafkos Kontemeniotis, Ed Kollar & Vince “Kozi” McCoy.

And Owens sang…

With the Chorale at Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space and other theaters. In the Ribs and Brisket Revue at the Café. In the Music under New York program with Moment’s Notice. In her new position as director of Hunter College’s Jazz Vocal Workshop.

However, Owens’ tenure with Monk for President set up the circumstances for her first CD, ‘Tis What It Is. The Monk for President band backs Owens as she produces an album of twelve tracks that summarize her influences (not the least of whom is, naturally, Thelonious Monk) and presents Cilla Owens as a unique jazz personality.

‘Tis What It Is, of course, includes “’Tis What It Is,” a Kontemeniotis composition with words by British singer Aimua Eghobamien. Jagged with local leaps and staggered rhythms, but nonetheless based on blues changes, “’Tis What It Is” reinforces the influence of Monk on the group as the blues’ conventionality becomes unconventional. Allowing the band members to stretch out on their own, Owens bookends the track with words—sung quirkily and infectiously in her own style.

Owens invites saxophonist Sylvester “Sly” Scott to enhance a few of the tracks as well, such as his soprano sax colloquy with her on Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.” The additional delicacy and fluidity of his sax work contribute to the effectiveness of the performance as Scott expands upon the interpretation with elegant improvisation. On Owens’ original composition, “Simple Samba,” Scott embellishes the song’s mood with his understated flute accompaniment and exhilarating two-chorus solo. And Scott adds a growling ferocity to an unexpectedly modal adaptation of “What Is This Thing Called Love,” prodding and loping as an extension of Kollar’s bass vamp in minor-key territory.

With such empathetic support from friends, who just so happen to be excellent musicians as well, Owens is free to explore the music associated with iconic singers she admires like Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter or Carmen McRae. In her version of “Twisted,” alternating between medium swing and teasing rhythmic slowdowns, Owens pays tribute to Lambert Hendricks and Ross. As an impish inside joke, “Twisted’s” introduction refers to Monk’s “Straight No Chaser.” Owens includes her fair share of standards like “The Nearness of You” and “Thou Swell,” which contain their own nuggets of surprise, like the locomotive-inspired introductory rhythm of “Take the ‘A’ Train.”  Or in tribute to Billie Holiday, who inspired an entire generation of singers, Owens sings “Fine and Mellow” as a swinging medium-tempo blues that reinforces the cohesiveness of the Monk for President group, as Kontemeniotis provides block-chorded support and Kollar’s walking bass lines firmly anchor the rhythm. 

Hank Jones’ kind words led to no doubt much personal fulfillment for Cilla Owens as she now combines her goal of teaching with her subject of jazz, and they led to the arrival of another individualistic jazz voice with its own way with lyrics.

]]> (Don Williamson) Jazz Vocals - CD Reviews Sun, 09 Oct 2011 16:44:19 -0500
Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge by Richard Palmer Richard Palmer first published Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge in 1998. However, Hull University Press, which only two years earlier made Palmer th...
Richard Palmer first published Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge in 1998. However, Hull University Press, which only two years earlier made Palmer the editor of its Eastnote Series in Jazz, shut down in 1999. In 2004, Bayou Press Ltd. reprinted Palmer's book, with the beneficial result that it received distribution in the United States as well. Palmer also perceived the opportunity to update some sections of the earlier edition. After speaking with some interested parties, particularly Peter Keepnews, Palmer was able to correct some errors in the first edition and expand upon some sections, particularly the Coda. This refinement of information results from Palmer's diligence and determination to seek the truth and to make The Cutting Edge as accurate as possible.

Having studied English at Cambridge University, Palmer is a thoughtful writer whose studies of Sonny Rollins' recorded career is highly organized. In addition, it's obvious that Palmer is enthralled by Rollins' music, not only because of his painstaking descriptions of Rollins' recorded music, but also because of his inspired response to hearing Rollins perform live. As Palmer recalls from a 1998 Rollins concert at London's Barbican: "Rollins' sound had the force of a tidal wave. I'm sure I was far from alone in feeling light-headed for hours afterward."

Conveniently, Rollins' recording activity allowed for compartmentalization. Palmer divides the saxophonist's career into several distinct periods, which provide organization for the structure of the bookù1949 to 1959 before Rollins's famous two-year sabbatical; 1961 to 1969, when Rollins entered another phase of recording activity before dropping out again; and "the 1970's and Beyond," which Palmer describes with accelerating speed and dismissal compared to Rollins' earlier recordings.

Even though Palmer comprehensively covers track-by-track analysis of Rollins' major recordings, one could never assume from the evidence of Palmer's book that Rollins had a life outside of the recording studio or off the concert stage. Indeed, Palmer admits that the book "is not a biography in any real sense." The result is that Rollins becomes an object of study, as one would admire a jewel or describe the pleasures of a novelist's artùan intellectual subject rather than a person whose life experiences come through in his music. Palmer marvels at Rollins' apparent diffidence and lack of confidence, particularly in the recording studio. Palmer believes that Rollins saves his best performances for venues where recording equipment is not present, thereby ironically never documenting his musicianship at the height of its power. By why?

Palmer doesn't know. But he speculates. And he quotesùextensively through exhaustive footnotingùother journalists who have written about Rollins or interviewed the musician. In fact, some of Palmer's footnotes, somewhat like Vladimir Nabokov's in that respect, are as entertaining or as informative as is his text in some cases. After a while, the technique is comparable to situations wherein doctors talk to each other about a patient's condition while the patient is present. Palmer relies on other journalists' articles to describe Rollins to the point that even Palmer is forced to choose a version of the truth. "There is less unanimity about the year when [Rollins] first saw the light of day. Anything from 1928 to 1931 has been put forward; if for now I have chosen to accept the one cited in Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazzù1929ùthe choice is arbitrary, for we all await definitive proof."

Choice of the truth? Well, there can be just one birth date, which would be a fact, not a choice.

Palmer spends much time and expends much energy in discerning a reason for Rollins's sabbaticals. "During 1959-61, rumors abounded as to what Rollins was up to. One of the few that was true concerned his celebrated visits to New York City's Williamsburg Bridgeà. Other gossip was less reliable. Rollins was back on drugs (untrue), was working out strenuously (overstated), recovering from a nervous breakdown (nonsense), and re-thinking and refashioning his entire approach to music and style of playing." Rollins' reasons rely on gossip for authentication? Footnotes don't explain Palmer's parenthetical reactions to the rumors. Throughout The Cutting Edge, the reader is left with one overriding question:

Why didn't Palmer even once talk to Rollins?

"I have never met Sonny Rollins, let alone interviewed him."

And why not? Shouldn't the author of an exhaustive study of Rollins' work go to the source to put to rest misinformation and speculation?

It's not that difficult to set up interviews of jazz musicians, believe me. And why does Palmer quote writers almost to the exclusion of other musicians who recorded with Rollins (except when their remarks appeared in books and magazine articles)? Literally 259 footnotes within The Cutting Edge quote the works of other writers. Even though the footnotes may help to form a sense of uniformity of opinion about Rollins' recordings, they do not definitively settle the nagging questions about Rollins' career.

Still, for the Rollins enthusiast, Palmer's study contains large amounts of information chronologically organized, as well as some overriding observations of Rollins' technique and behavior that have remained consistent throughout his career. In addition, Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge contains a "skeletal discography" and a bibliography of material describing Rollins' career, proving that Palmer is an exhaustive reader about the subject.

Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge thoroughly examines the saxophonist's recordings, with an emphasis upon his early albums, and it's written by an unabashed admirer of Rollins's genius. While the book adds relatively little new information about Rollins, it does compile much of existing information and opinions about his recordings in a well-written and well-organized style that elevates the book above many others.

]]> (Don Williamson) Book Reviews Mon, 02 Feb 2004 18:00:00 -0600
Jazz Expos?: The Jazz Museum And The Power Struggle That Destroyed It by Howard E. Fischer Decades before the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, in which Charlie Parker's saxophone is enshrined, or the Jazz Museum in Harlem led by Loren...
Decades before the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, in which Charlie Parker's saxophone is enshrined, or the Jazz Museum in Harlem led by Loren Schoenberg and Christian McBride, there was the New York Jazz Museum. Founded in 1972 by Howard E. Fischer and Jack Bradley, the New York Jazz Museum was reportedly a labor of love that brought together elements of the New York jazz community for the preservation and promotion of jazz, if not for mutual support and longevity. Fischer's apparently self-published book recalls in assiduously collected detail the formation of the New York Jazz Museum as an outgrowth of the New York Hot Jazz Society. His, and others', dreams for a venue to archive jazz memorabilia, present informal concerts and develop outreach programs, all at nominal cost or on a contribution basis only, eventually led to the leasing of a building at 125 West 55th Street. Owing in no small part to Fischer's background as an entertainment attorney, the New York Jazz Museum enjoyed an approximately four-year life and a good deal of success for numerous events. Indeed, according to Fischer, he gave up his practice of law in order to concentrate all of his time and energy on the Museum without any real compensation because of the Museum's continuing financial struggles. Still, he was able to secure grants, acquire artifacts, sponsor concerts, open a gift shop, handle the accounting, initiate publicity and plan fund-raising parties.

At first, Fischer's characterization of the book as an "expos?" appears to be at odds with its real content. The dramatic subtitle for the book, "The Power Struggle That Destroyed It," and the bulleted "Highlights" on the back cover (such as "òthe betrayal" or "òhow Benny Goodman and his estate got entangled in the Museum's legal machinations") hint at continuing conflict and previously unwritten revelations. Indeed, the book does contain continuing conflict and previously unwritten revelations. However, the first three-fourths of the book lay out the case for the Museum's success in attracting performers like Mary Lou Williams or Buck Clayton, contributions from the likes of Calvert Distillers and the Ford Foundation, and growing a collection of valuable jazz memorabilia such as photographs of John and Alice Coltrane and films of various jazz performances.

Fischer intersperses the information about the establishment and growth of the Museum with numerous "NEW ITEM"'s which document, for example, the passing of Louis Armstrong, Reverend John Gensel's Jazz Vespers programs, or laudatory letters to the New York Hot Jazz Society from notables like Harold Vick. Except for an occasional brief reference to incidents like co-founder Bradley's secretive and unauthorized increase in his compensation, the initial reporting about the Jazz Museum is almost uniformly positive and neutral. In fact, Fischer's writing is almost too straightforward with by-the-facts writing that seems to be a chronological compilation of events in the Museum's history.

And then, the chapter called "The Last Riff" astounds with its laying out of complaints. The startling change of tone transforms Fischer from the proud chronicler of the formation of an institution dedicated to the preservation of jazz to an angered lawyer. The reason? Fischer's creation is taken away from him in a series of administrative actions by a hostile Board of Advisors that appeared to support co-founder Bradley over Fischer. The final straw came when the Board proposed giving equal pay to both, even though Fischer claims that Bradley was exposed to far less risk and devoted far fewer resources to the establishment of the Museum. The situation degenerated into a series of accusations and hostile actions culminating in the termination of Fischer at a Board meeting, during which the Museum's locks were changed.

The Museum lasted little more than six months after that action. Nonetheless, Fischer obtained judgments in his favor by the American Arbitators Association and the Supreme Court of the State of New York. His search for restitution continued ten more years. By filing a Freedom of Information Act application, Fischer found that the Board had transferred the Museum's tangible assets to Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies. Ironically, the Institute's director, Dan Morgenstern, was one of Fischer's more loyal supporters throughout most of the years of the New York Jazz Museum's existence. Finally, even Morgenstern withdrew from the Board after the acrimony seemed to be irreconcilable. Fischer doesn't explain if Morgenstern consented to accepting the materials from the Board or if he was unaware of their source. Still, the white knight in the entire saga was the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which satisfied Fischer's judgment and acquired some of the Museum's assets from Rutgers.

And so, the reader realizes at last that the book's preliminary presentation of the facts about the New York Jazz Museum in reality contributes to the buildup climaxing in Fischer's complaints about his termination and the disposition of the Museum's assets. Hurt by losing the institution that he claims to have built, Fischer in the end lends credence to the Board's accusations of his being "paranoid" (p. 120) as he accuses the Board of racism, his lawyers of arbitrarily increasing their fees and his former friend Jack Bradley of betrayal. In addition, Fischer complains that the New York Jazz Museum received no mention in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz or in Ken Burns Jazz or even at the Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies. Indeed, considering the absence of information about the Museum within jazz reference materials, Fischer's book would be an opportunity to document the value of the Museum and the importance of the work done by those associated with it.

However, the structure of Jazz Expos? recalls in some respects the laying out of a case, rational and factually driven, until the summation of all of the details ends in one dramatic conclusion. Fischer doesn't state his feelings or thoughts until the end of the book, when they become contentious. Fischer's reflections on the pleasure that his initial work brought him, instead of ending the book with a rancorous "Reflections and Aftermath" chapter, would have provided balance to the book.

Obviously, Fischer still feels wronged thirty years after the Museum ceased to exist. However, the more important content of Jazz Expos? is the documentation of the facts surrounding one of the country's first jazz museums by the person who founded it. And who saw it dissolve.

Jazz Expos?: The Jazz Museum And The Power Struggle That Destroyed It may be ordered from Howard E. Fischer, 155 West 72nd Street, Suite 404, New York, NY 10023.

]]> (Don Williamson) Book Reviews Sun, 01 Feb 2004 18:00:00 -0600
Progress by Glafkos Kontemeniotis Progress by Glafkos Kontemeniotis
Quickly. Name the most prominent jazz pianist born in Cyprus, but now living in New York City. That person can only be Glafkos Kontemeniotis, who has been performing in …
Quickly. Name the most prominent jazz pianist born in Cyprus, but now living in New York City.

That person can only be Glafkos Kontemeniotis, who has been performing in plain sight and with gratifying musical results in New York since 1988. You may not have recognized Mr. Kontemeniotis as he provided luminous accompaniment for various singers like Mercedes Hall as they enthralled audiences. And you no doubt missed, I would say with 99% certainty, Mr. Kontemeniotis as he played for Greek concerts and celebrations at places like Alice Tully Hall or The Hellenic Cultural Center with the Mikrokosmos Ensemble.

However, the pianist’s progress is well noted on his latest CD, which indeed includes a beautifully expressed piece entitled, naturally, "Progress." The album itself expands upon that composition’s theme and also adopts its name. As Kontemeniotis progresses from the surging, propulsive "Anthrozyte" to the unexpectedly hard-swinging "All about Monk," which contains little of Monk’s dissonance or signature rivulets of upper-register notes, Kontemeniotis proves that he’s an under-recognized force of jazz to be reckoned with. And so are his back-up musicians.

For Kontemeniotis has accomplished one of those sought-after results of a jazz trio: instantaneous energy freely and synaptically exchanged in milliseconds of anticipation, recognition and elaboration. The result: empathy that leads to distinctive cohesion and a unified sound. Despite Kontemeniotis’ devotion to the Greek music he plays in appropriate settings or his adeptness at comping and lying low in the back-up for singers, his trio’s work on Progress is entirely rooted in jazz.

Even though Kontemeniotis obviously finds inspiration in Thelonious Monk’s innovations, he interprets songs like "Well You Needn’t" with his own style consistently throughout the album’s sure progress. "Well You Needn’t," jagged and quirky for sure, conforms to Kontemeniotis’ ever-present penchant for elegance and sometimes swing as well. Indeed, the trio develops its own vamp for "Well You Needn’t," in seven-four yet, at least until the quickened bridge. The irregular meter governs the tune’s interpretation according to Kontemeniotis’ penchants while referring to Monk’s melody. The trio tells us "All about Monk" in Kontemeniotis’ own offbeat composition, still a combination of dynamically charged swing and darting accents, as it reveals more about its own members. Listen to bassist Apostolos Sideris’ aggressive, solid lead-in to the track before it carries through the rest of the piece, adding immeasurably to its irresistible propulsion. Drummer Scott Neumann can be best appreciated on the album’s first track, "Anthrozyte," which coheres largely as a result of his energetic rumbling force, evolving into a tour de force of a solo, complete with a narrative containing a beginning, build-up, climax and ending.

Including an entire range of music in his repertoire, most of which Kontemeniotis composed, the trio slows for an eloquent, understated delivery of his song, "There Won’t Be You." It undergoes several improvisation choruses elevated by the pulse of Sideris’ bass and the varied, dignified colors of Neumann’s work, mostly on tom-toms and splashing cymbals. Kontemeniotis’ "Clouds of Doubt," though freer rhythmically, proceeds in similar fashion, with chiming upper-register chords as a soft, suggestive introduction and then a gradually unfurling, unpredictable reverie. Sideris takes an extended solo on the minor-keyed, impressionistically inspired piece of dissonances, long tones and rubato interpretation. As for standards, Kontemeniotis includes a clip-clopping re-harmonized "Seven Steps to Heaven" of staggered and then rippling phrases; a spare, understated version of "Beautiful Love" that provides opportunity for fluid improvisation and Neumann’s textured solo; and an iridescent, ever so gradually dynamically intensifying treatment of "A Child Is Born."

With the release of Progress, Glafkos Kontemeniotis has presented an album dedicated solely to his interests in jazz, furthered by his earlier studies with Harold Danko and Mike Longo. Even so, Kontemeniotis’ music is unmistakably personal, derived from a style that flows from his own personality, rather than borrowing from other jazz musicians or other genres, proficient though he may be in those as well. Kontementiotis’ sidemen were well chosen, and together they comprise a trio that deserves close listening.

]]> (Don Williamson) Straight-Ahead - CD Reviews Wed, 29 Apr 2009 19:00:00 -0500
Jazz Icons DVD’s: Fourth Series by Various Artists The Jazz Icons box sets of DVD’s documenting some of the jazz legends’ concerts and broadcasts in Europe continue to expand, to the extent that they could almost fill an en…
The Jazz Icons box sets of DVD’s documenting some of the jazz legends’ concerts and broadcasts in Europe continue to expand, to the extent that they could almost fill an entire book shelf now. We’re all the more fortunate for such availability. While we cherish some of the landmark audio recordings of these artists, visual images of them in concert before the ubiquity of video cameras offer insights into their public personalities and the reactions of audiences to their performances. The seven jazz artists showcased in Jazz Icons’ Series 4 compilation perform in their prime from 1962 to 1970 after their reputations had been solidly established. European jazz enthusiasts anticipated their appearances. Luckily, broadcasts of the American jazz performers were meticulously preserved for the full lengths of their concerts. One is struck by the fact that jazz’s international appeal delivers dividends decades later as the European broadcasters return to America exceptional performances discovered by Reelin’ in the Years the custodian of the world’s largest library of music videos. Only through Reelin’ in the Years’ persistence in searching for and negotiating the rights for videos of jazz performances recorded abroad are such invaluable DVD’s available for enjoyment by the following generation of jazz enthusiasts.

As usual, Jazz Icons Series 4 offers a broad selection of jazz artists, instead of staying within a preconceived style or instead of seeking videos of musicians who are currently in vogue through retrospectives. The box set includes three jazz performers who are now less frequently heard than the acknowledged giants like Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Erroll Garner, Anita O’Day and Woody Herman. In Garner’s case, writer John Murph recalls the controversy surrounding the pianist’s exclusion from Ken Burns’ TV documentary, Jazz (not to mention Jazz’s omission of the Latin influence on jazz almost entirely). In O’Day’s case, she remained individualistic, unpredictable and undersung, despite her unique talent, and the public often was fascinated more by her private life than by her art. And now, with all of the tributes to the great jazz bands and musicians of the swing and bebop eras, what do we hear about Woody Herman? Not much. The public may have forgotten that his Thundering Herds recorded unforgettable tracks and created breakthrough opportunities for superlative musicians like Stan Getz, Jimmy Rowles, Neal Hefti, Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Chubby Jackson. Even so, Series 4 offers European concerts indisputable jazz legends like Jimmy Smith and Coleman Hawkins as well. Art Blakey’s 1965 Paris concert with the thrilling Freddie Hubbard, Jaki Byard, Nathan Davis and Reggie Workman contrasts with Jazz Icons’ disk of the Jazz Messengers’ 1958 concert with Blakey, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt. As always, the Reelin’ the the Years producers David Peck, Phillip Galloway and Tom Gulatta have lavished detailed attention on the content, packaging and description of the DVD’s, paying due respect to the talents represented therein. Each DVD contains not only invaluable performances, but also 24-page booklets in which various jazz writers such as Steve Voce or Ashley Kahn cover the subjects’ biographies and the circumstances of the recordings. At a time when the previous generation’s works are played over and over again and are increasingly cherished, Reelin’ in the Years deserves special praise for uncovering new material that provides additional opportunites to enjoy the work of these jazz artists.

The Art Blakey DVD may be the most frequently played DVD in this series, not only due to Blakey’s relentless drive throughout a performance, but primarily due to the exceptional caliber of the musicians in the band he called the "New Jazzmen" for this concert: Freddie Hubbard, Nathan Davis, Jaki Byard and Reggie Workman. Hubbard confidently takes charge on the first number, "The Hub," and delivers chorus after chorus of invigorating improvisation. Not to be underestimated, though, is the underrated Nathan Davis, who makes known his own unique presence in the midst of these future jazz legends. Byard, a consummate accompanist, develops his own solos of unpredictable and technically inimitable force, and one has to appreciate the fact that the piano was properly miked so that Byard can be heard amid the power of the drums and horns. During the show’s 51 minutes, the quintet performs four pieces, counting the brief "NY Theme," as they stretch out to improvise at their leisure in an ultimately exciting and memorable concert by one of the best of the Messengers’ groups.

As for Art Farmer, the Jazz icons series captures his performance before a clapping and attentive audience in England, where the BBC with foresight filmed it for posterity. Placed on risers of varying heights, Farmer’s quartet performed eight standards ever popular with jazz musicians at a time when he was in top form, confident and eloquent. Farmer and Jim Hall earlier had played at the Newport Jazz Festival, and Farmer recognized not only the subtlety of the flugelhorn/guitar sound, but also Hall’s keen attentiveness and originality. Bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca complete Farmer’s quartet, a testament to Farmer’s career-long interest in working with outstanding musicians. The British concert covers the range of Farmer’s style, from the fast-paced "So in Love" to the balladic mellowness of "Darn That Dream" consisting of Swallow’s racing bass lines and then Farmer’s cleanly articulated sixteenth notes, ever melodic still. Farmer’s quartet, started in 1963, performed its last concert in England in 1964, and now the Jazz Icons series has released it. The video recording assumes even more importance in light of the loss of numerous unreleased Farmer quartet tapes from Atlantic recordings when its storage facility burned to the ground in 1978.

The audience appeal of Erroll Garner’s trio becomes unmistakably clear during a 1963 concert in Belgium and another in Sweden in 1964. Ever the showman and the consummate jazz piano professional, Garner appeared never to tire of acknowledging his audiences not to mention the cameraman as well. Always staggering the beat, sprinkling songs with notes or making clear the presence of the beat with his forceful right hand, Garner perhaps to a fault as did Art Tatum made it all look effortless. Still, Garner’s style remains instantly identifiable, individualistic, orchestral, technically complex, often dramatic with tremolos and surging emphases.... and, strangely enough, infrequently imitated, unlikes the styles of other pianists like Thelonious Monk. Yes, Garner does play "Misty" with elan and spontaneous expressivenss. He also plays much more on the Series 4 DVD, which may spark a re-appreciation of Garner’s talent.

There are 139-plus minutes of Coleman Hawkins in concert in Belgium and England, when he was just under and then just over sixty years of age and several years before his gradual physical decline. Hawkins’ appearance in Brussels was an invaluable contribution to the celebration of the saxophone itself, the Festival de Belgique "Aldolphe Sax," and the Jazz Icons recording is the first to be released of his performance. The 1962 event recognized Hawkins’ role in transforming the tenor saxophone from a novelty instrument to one that has become capable of countless memorable solos in voices that reflect the personalities of the people who play it. For the concert, Hawkins worked with bassist Jimmy Woode, drummer Kansas Fields and French pianist Georges Arvanitas, who performed with touring American jazz musicians like Dexter Gordon. While the back-up musicians have their moments of crowd-pleasing applause, like those creating the excitement of the prestissimo "Lover Come Back to Me," clearly Hawkins is in charge, and his presence is felt even when he doesn’t play. And when he does, the audience soaks in his signature style, instantly recognizable during his rubato first chorus of "Moonlight in Vermont" or ever-varied in his response to the fours he trades with Fields on "Ow!" The second half of the DVD, recorded in 1964 for a BBC television program, is just as remarkable as ex-Basie bandsmen Harry "Sweets" Edison and Jo Jones join Hawkins, as do pianist "Sir" Charles Thompson and again bassist Jimmy Woode after his move to Europe. The Wembley concert had more of a jam session flavor than that of a concert as all of the first-rate musicians contribute equally, with Edison in his prime providing as many high points as did the bearded Hawkins. At times, the group gels in a solid groove reminiscent of the Basie band’s, particularly on Hawkins’ "Disorder at the Border," with Thompson sprinkling Basie-isms, Jones subtly brushing the group along, Hawkins inventing ever-kaleidoscopic variations on the blues and Edison instilling his solos with trademark swing.

Woody Herman’s British concert in 1964 basically documents his last hurrah his last memorable band, his last thunder before Herman’s decline due to the band’s unfortunate mismanagement and financial problems, including calamitous tax debts. During this edition of the Woody Herman Swinging Herd, the energy it projects results from the musicians’ collective dedication and spirit to make it happen, even as Herman remained the out-front presence as he took the occasional solos. Although the musicians hadn’t earned their own widely known individual reputations as jazzmen, collectively the band possesses power and verve, thanks to the mentorship of Herb Pomeroy of Berklee who had taught most of the musicians in the sixties Swinging Herd. Indeed, the musicians had more confidence in the band’s potential than Herman did, and pianist Nat Pierce in particular convinced Herman to proceed. The Jazz Icons DVD fortunately documents the snap of the solos and the enthusiasm of the bandsmen as they played during this band’s five-year life, when Herman released a series of new albums. One of the re-discoveries of the disk is Sal Nistico’s restless energy, as if always raising the bar, particularly on "Caldonia," propelled at a blistering pace by drummer Jake Hanna. When Nistico and trumpeter Paul Fontaine aren’t causing audience excitement, trombonist Phil Wilson claims attention in more mellow fashion with his feature on "It’s a Lonesome Old Town." Herman basically let the band loose and occasionally contributes his clarinet solos although he does provide a suave alto sax solo on "Days of Wine and Roses." A band leader most of his life, Woody Herman in his fifties was fortunate to have enjoyed the work of this last band of updated repertoire and younger musicians so that he wouldn’t be remembered only for his first two Herds.

Then there’s Anita O’Day. What can be written about her that she hasn’t already written in her candid autobiography, High Times Hard Times, which jazz writers incessantly quote? And why not? O’Day continuously defined herself on her own terms, even in her music. Series 4 features O’Day in concert in Stockholm in 1963 and in Oslo in 1970, as she sought audiences for her music when rock music overtook the popularity of big band singers. Even though the ever-present and opportunistic John Poole played drums during the Swedish performance, O’Day recruited pianist Göran Engdahl and bassist Roman Dylag there. A French trio led by pianist Georges Arvanitas accompanied her in Norway. Such accommodations weren’t as glamorous they they would seem. As O’Day’s former manager, Alan Eichler, said, "Anita has always been overlooked, even financially. Why did Anita have to fly coach everywhere while all of the other singers flew in business class? The others stayed in suites while Anita stayed in dump hotels. We drove in vans from city to city in Europe while the other singers got limousines." Nonetheless, O’Day took obvious pride in her work and remained quirky and original throughout her life. Combining "Yesterday" and "Yesterdays," though not an original concept, neatly fits O’day’s ironic view of what transpired in her life up to that point, as usual without sentimentality. While one can appreciate O’Day’s phrasing and vocalistic daredevilry in audio recordings, the Jazz Icons DVD reminds us of her effective stage presence too when she brings meaning to the lyrics of ballads like "I Can’t Get Started" or as she again and again tears to shreds "Tea for Two."

In his written introduction to the DVD of Jimmy Smith’s concert in Paris in 1969, WBGO announcer Bob Porter boldly states that Jimmy Smith is "one of the four or five greatest jazz musicians of the last fifty years." Expect much discussion, if not disagreement. I agree. After all, Smith elevated the organ beyond the techniques developed by Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, Count Basie and others to a level of importance equal to other instruments’ through his influential musicianship and abundance of new ideas. So Smith unquestionably fits the Jazz Icons producers’ objective of documenting video performances by legendary talent in their prime years. In Series 4, Smith’s trio performs in 1969 to an appreciative Parisian audience. Moreover, the videography rises to a level equal to the sound, an uncommon occurrence at a time when cameras rarely moved, and we get to observe not only Smith’s joy in performing, but also his technique at the keyboard something that organists often kept private to preserve their "secrets," as Hank Marr had noted. Excellently produced by a French team that obviously appreciated the value of a Jimmy Smith concert, the video shows Smith as his exuberant best.

As if these seven hours, give or take a few minutes, of previously unavailable video jazz performances weren’t enough, the box set includes a bonus disk of three additional performances: Coleman Hawkins in London in 1966, Erroll Garner in Amsterdam in 1962 and Jimmy Smith in Copenhagen in 1968. While each has its unforgettable moments, special mention must be made of Hawkins’ collaboration, once again, with some influential jazz icons: in this case, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Bob Cranshaw and Louis Bellson. While it’s gratifying to see and hear this quintet perform, the generosity of four of them allows the electrifying Bellson to steal the show on the final number, "Disorder at the Border," which consists almost entirely of his thrilling drum solo.

Reelin’ in the Years once again has uncovered even more extraordinary, previously unavailable performances that bring to life the artistry of some of the innovators of the jazz art form.

Series 4 is available as an entire package, or the DVD’s may be acquired separately.

Don Williamson

]]> (Don Williamson) Straight-Ahead - CD Reviews Sun, 29 Mar 2009 07:00:00 -0500
Mostly Coltrane by Steve Kuhn Mostly Coltrane by Steve Kuhn
In the realm of speculation of might-have-beens there is Steve Kuhn’s eight-week collaboration in 1960 with John Coltrane, along with bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete L…
In the realm of speculation of might-have-beens there is Steve Kuhn’s eight-week collaboration in 1960 with John Coltrane, along with bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete La Roca as Coltrane was starting to form his own quartet. What if Kuhn had remained with Coltrane instead of another young pianist, McCoy Tyner? From the evidence presented on Mostly Coltrane, it appears that, even though Kuhn is as immersed in Coltrane’s sound as Tyner, Kuhn would have shaped the feel of the quartet as surely as did Bill Evans with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. For Kuhn too offers a lighter, classically derived touch, sometimes making his points through implication instead of through demonstrative force. Even so, spiritual intensity is suggested deceptively within the sketches that Kuhn limns, making unnecessary slashing and broad brushstrokes when a single line will do. Joe Lovano, this generation’s leading tenor saxophonist due to his long string of creatively conceived and executed Blue Note albums, joins Kuhn in re-creating the passionate entreaties of Coltrane as he sought for deeper meaning in the music he explored. However, unlike saxophonists in other such tributes, Lovano is no Coltrane imitator, simulating the inspired musical stream of consciousness that occurred during his spiritual quests. Instead, Lovano, consistent in his own saxophonic identity, sounds like.... Lovano.... playing music associated with Coltrane. In any case, Mostly Coltrane is a Steve Kuhn album with the pianist front and center as he leads his own quartet of consummate musicians.

Indeed, Kuhn plays "I Want to Talk about You" as a number for a piano trio, and Lovano lays out as Kuhn performs once again one of the songs on which he accompanied Coltrane. However, as one listens to Kuhn develop the improvisational choruses to that song, it becomes clear that Kuhn has his own recognizable style, evident on his other albums as a leader or on those where he’s a sideman with talent like Sheila Jordan or Stan Getz. The grace notes, the graceful modulations, the depth of the resonating bass notes he chooses to anchor his playing, the apt voicings, the gossamer cresdendoes, the assured melodic basis throughout, the whole-tone accents he tucks into the rests they all signify Steve Kuhn elements that naturally flow throughout his performances, sometimes more impressionistic than ardently spiritual.

The album’s first track, the appropriately chosen "Welcome," notes attainment of serenity, glimmering with Kuhn’s treble-clef coruscations. Kuhn and Lovano calmly transmit the self-fulfillment inherent in the piece in almost rubato fashion as drummer Joey Baron lightly establishes a rumbling presence. Kuhn combines the impressionistic and the spiritual impulses with a subdued, peaceful flow and an occasional intensity of build-up (and whose chords remind me of his introduction to Jordan’s "Ballad for Miles"). But Kuhn does immerse himself wholly into the Coltrane-associated passion for playing on tunes like the ominously trilling "Song of Praise," minor-keyed and portentous until Lovano states the theme, still drenched in dark chords and bleating overtones and throaty tenor sax force without meter for the first two minutes (when Kuhn’s trills again set up the mood for controlled lack of restraint). Excitement ensues through the course of Kuhn’s solo, unmistakably of his own sound and not borrowing from anyone else, before Lovano even comes in.

Rather than restrict the material only to the music of Kuhn’s early sixties tenure to Coltrane, he includes less frequently heard pieces from the posthumously released Stellar Regions. This includes the roiling, rippling atonal certainly un-calm puissance of "Configuration," a non-stop sonic exclamation which continues without a second of respite until Baron’s abrupt stop, mirroring the way he began the performance. "Jimmy’s Mode" is the other piece from Stellar Regions, which settles into a quieter place, as if Lovano issues a call of awakening, still without meter but built upon a more defined harmonic structure from which the prayerfulness issues. In addition, the piece allows bassist David Finck to contribute equally to the quartet’s obeisance to Coltrane’s influence and power.

In addition to "I Want to Talk about You," Kuhn also plays two other songs on which he accompanied Coltrane, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" and "Central Park West." "Thousand Eyes" is conventional in its pace and changes, but still enjoyable when Lovano takes over the soloing opportunity, trading Kuhn’s galloping with Lovano’s own octaved start-up. And Lovano takes the lead on "Central Park," allowing Kuhn the luxury of sitting back and providing the gorgeous chords that fill in the harmonic implications of the melody.

Mostly Coltrane succeeds not so much as a tribute album, but rather because of the recognizable talent of its musicians, who take Coltrane’s material and play it not as Coltrane and Tyner did, but as Kuhn and Lovano do.

]]> (Don Williamson) Progressive - CD Reviews Sat, 28 Feb 2009 18:00:00 -0600
Art-Work by Hal Galper Previously on Origin Records, Hal Galper had recorded Furious Rubato. Well, Galper’s playing still comes across as furious and often as rubato. That seems to be its …
Previously on Origin Records, Hal Galper had recorded Furious Rubato. Well, Galper’s playing still comes across as furious and often as rubato. That seems to be its natural state now that he was developed his own individualistic aesthetic after 40 years of accompanying some of the most respected leaders in jazz, staying in the background for and complementing the styles of the horn players like Phil Woods and Chet Baker. The fury of Galper’s playing now, a whirlwind unto itself, would sweep away the urgent swing of Woods or the soft melodies of Baker. Even as ruminative a piece as the Miles Davis/Bill Evans "Blue in Green" submits to Galper’s forceful attack, as he sprinkles clusters of notes without meter, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Rashied Ali following Galper’s lead. With a hard percussive attack, Galper, even in subdued circumstances, played with imagination and force. "Stella by Starlight" too bristles with unexpected embellishments, and often swing, but it never recedes into wistfulness. The energy of this trio apparently knows little restraint in its dynamism, even on the ballads.

Galper’s most recent CD out of more than four score throughout the expanse of his career derives from a live performance in February 2007 at William Paterson University in New Jersey. While it can’t be determined how much interactivity with the audience fed the trio’s fire that night, Galper’s group played with fierce determination throughout. Perhaps the hyphenated title of the album suggests Galper’s aesthetic belief that art is a result not just of talent, but also of work. Certainly, Galper dedicated himself to incessant practicing, particularly during his sabbatical during this decade to refine his style and to make it even more furious and less tethered to time constraints. Certainly, Workman and Ali share Galper’s in-the-moment outpouring of feeling and thought, their having separately performed with John Coltrane as well as other successive explorative groups. Indeed, the opening number of the album is the tribute piece, "Take the Coltrane." With such a line-up of personnel, anything can happen. And does.

In addition to the usually quieter standards, Galper lets loose the furious rubato on "Constellation," which fractures into free improvisation, fast paced and thunderous, as it departs from the song’s well-defined melody, and indeed evidently its recognizable harmonic structure, though both remain as guideposts for the explosive tumult. Even "Take the Coltrane," which starts conventionally enough, evolves into aggressively accented broad chords and oblique harmonic lines as Workman and Ali, long accustomed to such freedom, pursue complementary but separate pathways. A twice-employed device in this concert is improvisation governed by the changes of well-known standards, though with slight twists of their names, when the trio proceeds along its own parallel avenues on "Soul Bod" and "When Autumn Leaves Us." Actually, Galper’s interpretations of "Body and Soul" and "Autumn Leaves" are more like bifurcations than side-by-side similaries, for his improvisations grow organically like limbs from the original songs, ever more complex through geometrical expansion from their trunks. And then Galper plays a "Soliloquy," his own tribute to Michael Brecker, who, along with Randy Brecker, performed in Galper’s group on the Reach Out and Children of the Night albums. With a lighter touch but still with an emotional charge, Galper musically recalls the youthful excitement of their music from the seventies and the changes that have occurred since then.

Due to Galper’s passion for music and his total immersion in the rewards of performing, perhaps a live recording provides the optimal circumstances for appreciating the recent work involved in his art. That circumstance certainly provides its reward for his trio’s extraordinary performance recorded for his most recent Origin CD.

]]> (Don Williamson) Free Jazz / Avante Garde - CD Reviews Fri, 06 Feb 2009 06:00:00 -0600
Rise Up! by Dr. Lonnie Smith It was disappointing, to say the least, when the great Dr. Lonnie Smith performed during the 1990s for the inebriated, the tone deaf and the clueless singles out on a da…

It was disappointing, to say the least, when the great Dr. Lonnie Smith performed during the 1990s for the inebriated, the tone deaf and the clueless singles out on a date at O’Hara’s on Los Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The people at the bar or at the dining tables would see Smith emerge in his elaborate Sikh regalia, ever The Turbanator with an orange, purple or white turban, large rings clicking on his fingers and a carved cane supporting his walk for risible effect. Then the customers would go return to flirting. Once Smith sat down at his slab keyboard, he was all business, though, as he performed with local talents like Turk Mauro, Eric Allison, Danny Burger or Juanita Dixon.

Even with a substandard instrument and a less-than-ideal venue for a musician of his considerable talent, The Turbanator delivered an over-the-top, uncompromising and energizing performance every night. His New Year’s Eve gig for a friend in Fort Lauderdale evolved into a seven-night-a-week gig at O’Hara’s and virtual invisibility from the rest of the jazz recording community. Credit Todd Barkan for recording Smith again with Afro Blue in 1997. And now we can thank Matt Balitsaris of Palmetto Records for releasing Dr. Lonnie Smith albums again on a regular basis as he resumes his prominence as the premier and one of the few remaining B-3 jazz organists from the heyday of the instrument. The generosity of a music store owner on Genesee Street in Buffalo, Art Kuber, led from the in-store practice of a novice in love with the B-3 organ to an up-and-down music career of more than 40 years after Smith and George Benson drove to New York in Benson’s Cadillac in search of Grant Green and their soon-thereafter Columbia recording contract.

Smith’s work with Palmetto has been remarkably consistent and eagerly awaited as he performs the music his own way, no matter who wrote the original tune. Rise Up! is no exception. Smith’s most recent CD reaffirms that he is not only one of the organ masters who helped shape the sound of the instrument, but also he has harnessed the B-3’s power to set up his always recognizable groove. Smith certainly has the support of exceptional musicians on Rise Up!, but no one can deny that his personality is the one that establishes the feel of the recording. Indeed, the inspiring effect of his playing brings out the best of Peter Bernstein, Donald Harrison and Herlin Riley for combined, irresistible soulfulness.

Smith takes over the covers as if they were written for groove. Such as The Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams." He introduced the song with music-box softness before leading into freely fluttering lift-off before the stomping, quarter-note beat comes in to anchor the song. Without checking the track listing first, someone could assume that the performance sounds like "Sweet Dreams," as if Smith had chosen to create a vamp based on its changes. But no, he converts the song into a bluesy platform for extended soloing, Harrison sounding especially groove-striken throughout his improvisation. And then Smith takes the interpretation up another notch with his expected wildness of attack, though ever controlled.

"Come Together" includes a hilarious guttural singing of the words, barely discernible as Smith’s organ surges, accented by Harrison’s brief descending line every four bars and the gravelly texture of his voice belies the fact that he started as a singer. Smith is entertaining, setting up the feel and not trying to be taken seriously as a singer any longer. "People Make the World Go Round," though initially straightforward, builds into an almost eleven-minute groove, punctuated as always by Smith’s pedal work, response to Harrison’s call and his startling, rise-up!, screaming accents.

Some of the pieces appear to be chosen for featuring the sideman. Like Larry Young’s "Tyrone," which allows Riley to employ his second-nature second-line beat after Smith converted Young’s original three-four meter to four. "And the World Weeps" starts with a New Orleans funeral march beat, which provides the mood for Smith’s fairly uncomplicated melody. But as always, the groove is the most important part of Smith’s playing, more than the melody, and he builds an understated solo from long lugubrious tones to dynamically swelling tremolos and sustained notes.

Harrison’s background in New Orleans voodoo tradition seems to be the reason for, or at least coincident to, Smith’s low-register pedal vamp and subliminal drone on "Voodoo Doll," which Harrison expresses with blue notes and wails and complete understanding of the nature of the song. As for Bernstein, who has accompanied numerous other B-3 organists, "Dapper Dan" supplies the opportunity not only to set up a "Winelight"-like popping pattern, but also for an extended finely structured solo, underlain by Smith’s unmistakable B-3 chords. He improvises yet another soulful solo on "People Make the World Go Round" over the single chord after the stated melody is taken care of at the beginning, and before Smith’s explosive crescendo at the end of the chorus.

Touring and playing in appropriate clubs now like The Jazz Standard and Sculler’s, Dr. Lonnie Smith is back finally and recognized once again as a leading force on the Hammond B-3 organ, as he always should have been continuously since the 60s.

]]> (Don Williamson) Soul / Funk Jazz - CD Reviews Fri, 09 Jan 2009 12:00:00 -0600
At Last by Ann Hampton Callaway How fortunate. Ann Hampton Callaway had no idea how famous the title song of her new CD would become between the time that its recording was completed and it was released. …
How fortunate. Ann Hampton Callaway had no idea how famous the title song of her new CD would become between the time that its recording was completed and it was released. During that lag between production and distribution, Beyonce famously sang "At Last" for the Obamas’ first dance of the Inaugural Ball, and it was played in the remaining nine balls as well. Now, everyone knows "At Last" if they didn’t before. Callaway chose the song for its emotional power, as did the Obamas, although the song does contain some appropriate political double meanings like "at last skies above are blue" as well as romantic ones such as "I found a dream that I can speak to." Originally, Callaway had planned a standard heart-felt version of the song until her producer suggested that she allow its implicit passion to emerge. Which Callaway does as it becomes soulful with Rodney Jones’ counter-statements on guitar and as tenor saxman Theodross Avery drenches it in blues. That solo seems to unhinge Callaway as pianist Ted Rosenthal adds suggestion of six-eight doo-wap, and she pours out her feelings, exclamatory and unrestrained, as her extraordinary abilities allow. A reinforcement of its emotional bearing that the world saw as Beyonce struggled tearfully through the emotions of the song. Presciently, Callaway wrote in the liner notes in 2008, "Good songs remind us that there is more to life than headlines." How true.

As a set-up to the rest of At Last, the title track effectively implies Callaway’s intentions of making each song a story in itself as she moves from the wonder of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to her own final composition about perseverence, "Finding Beauty," which offers its own sense of beauty akin to an Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman song, concise with apt interlocking of emotions, lyrics and melody. No wonder Barbra Streisand asked Callaway to write the lyrics to her own wedding song. Coincidentally nor not, Callaway ends At Last with a Legrand/Bergman/Bergman song, "On My Way to You," which is entirely consistent with the feel of her own writing. In between those beginning and ending tracks of At Last Callaway presents her own finely developed repertoire of love songs that reinforce each other in content and move sequentially to logical conclusion.

The breadth of Callaway’s talent and the length of her resume defy the categorization that some jazz listeners prefer. "Over the Rainbow" doesn’t receive re-modulation or scat singing,but Callaway sings it, complete with verse, for all the emotional power that it evokes, employing her surety of pitch and width of her range for great effect, not as a complement to Judy Garland’s version but as a continuation of her albums narrative journey. Though Callaway has sung with symphony orchestra, jazz bands, in cabaret settings, on Broadway, on TV entertainment shows and even in the film The Good Shepherd, there’s no denying not only her interest in, but her personalized adaptation of jazz singing. Who does her version of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" remind one of but Sarah Vaughan, with her way of trilling notes or employing characteristic swoops or chromatic descents or scatting or implying swing even during rests or ending the song on a ninth? Callaways encouragement from George Shearing comes through during her chorus of unison singing with Rosenthal’s block-chord playing. In addition, Callaway enjoys the interaction with some of the current generation’s top jazz musicians, such as her comical colloquy with Wycliffe Gordon on "Comes Love," during which he sings too, but through the trombone with the growl from his muting and the blue notes expressed in several octaves before the key change.

Though Ann Hampton Callaway has recorded often, At Last provides a continuity of thought and feeling throughout the CD that makes it a total package, rather than a random selection of songs. And the emotion that that song evoked during the inaugural balls give a clue of what one would hear on the album.

]]> (Don Williamson) Jazz Vocals - CD Reviews Sun, 04 Jan 2009 12:00:00 -0600