For several decades now producer Nils Winther has nurtured a bastion for jazz recording in what would seem an unlikely place. From his home base in Denmark, Winther has built-up a stylized catalog of recordings true to the artists' vision and packaged in a no frills manner. It's been a bit dicey here in the United States since SteepleChase ended it's relationship with its longtime distributor, Allegro, a few years back. Now under the guidance of Stateside Distribution, based in Chicago, the catalog is again starting to make its way back into the stores. The most recent set of releases includes some new items, as well as titles that came out only previously in Europe during the hunt for a new U.S. distributor. They are all uniformly excellent.
In a very short period of time, 27-year-old tenor saxophonist ARI AMBROSE has emerged as an exceptionally vital new voice. Based in New York, Ambrose's third SteepleChase side recorded within the span of a year is easily his most settled. CHAINSAW (SteepleChase 31481) features a bristling young trio that includes pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Carlo De Rosa, and drummer Ari Hoenig (and just what are the chances of a jazz record bearing the name of two guys named Ari?). The program hits a lot of stops along the way, from the Brazilian tinge of Jobim's "Zingaro" to the avant cacophony of "Blues For Madlong" and the baptism by fire of Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Ambrose's tenor speaks with the brusque swagger of a young Rollins and his upper register forays more than hint at the Lovano influence, still Ambrose is well on his way to developing a very mature and appealing voice. Perdomo and Hoenig also speak volumes both in solo and support, making this integrated unit and this extremely tight recital worthy of a close listen.
It's hard to believe that trumpeter DAVE BALLOU'S clarion calls have been heard on the New York scene for more than 15 years now and yet he has received so little recognition. It could be that like forward thinking peer, Dave Douglas, Ballou's uncompromising musical palette is just a bit too left of center for the average jazz fan. Then too, it has just been recently that Ballou has begun to express himself on a series of recordings as a leader, with THE FLOATING WORLD (SteepleChase 31486) being his third date for SteepleChase overall. Unlike his first two affairs, this new release finds Dave sporting a more conventional line-up with a pianist on board, namely the very endowed George Colligan. The opening "All the Things You Are" sets the tone for what is to follow, with Dave's trumpet voice outstanding in the use of range, textures, and dynamics. He rarely hints at the melody, preferring to use fragments as a catalyst for further development. This is not to say that Ballou throws conventions to the wind. He's intensely lyrical in a low-key ballad take on Monk's "Pannonica" and bebop overtones sparkle throughout "Don and Dewey," but note that the title of the latter pays homage to Miles Davis and Don Cherry. Get the idea? Innovation within the tradition, that's sums it up!
Another trumpeter of great stature, albeit a low profile, BRAD GOODE was running with the big boys in Chicago at an early age. For 12 years he held forth with a regular gig at the famous Green Mill where he worked with scores of jazz luminaries including Von Freeman and Barrett Deems. So the story goes, while working at another Chicago club in 1983, Brad made the acquaintances of Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan, with the latter becoming a vital mentor. This leads us to the impromptu 1994 session at hand, TOY TRUMPET (SteepleChase 31491), which is just now seeing a formal release. Throughout the '80s, Goode worked with Sullivan, who is heard here on soprano saxophone, and the date's pianist, Jodie Christian. Rounding things out with a fine Chicago rhythm section, Goode sticks with standard material (i.e. "I Should Care," "Invitation," and "Alone Together") but the results are anything but standard. The mood is effusive and Goode's horn speaks with the kind of melancholy tartness that distinguished the work of the late Booker Little. Sound quality is uniformly excellent, helping to make this one a real sleeper whose time has finally arrived!
It behooves me to concur with writer Mark Gardner when he speaks of SteepleChase's stable of guitarists including four of "today's brightest talents." These would include Tony Purrone, Doug Raney, Dave Stryker, and VIC JURIS. The latter's SONGBOOK (SteepleChase 31483) is a no nonsense romp through a great legacy of vintage chestnuts including "I Won't Dance," "Milestones," "Nuages," "Soul Eyes," and "All The Things You Are." It's merely a trio affair with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, giving Juris the weighty responsibility of being soloist and accompanist both. He handles the assignment with aplomb, utilizing a tasty processed sound on electric that is not unlike that of John Abercrombie's. His fine acoustic work is also put in the spotlight on Jobim's "Luiza," Django Reinhardt's "Nuages," and a solo reading of Bill Evans' "Time Remembered" (sounding very much like Ralph Towner here).
It is always an unadulterated pleasure to discover new voices and so it was with this reviewer's discovery of pianist LEEANN LEDGERWOOD. Both of her previous SteepleChase sides, NOW AND ZEN and TRANSITION, are chock full of the kind of gripping and technically dazzling performances that make her one of the most stirring new talents to come along in recent memory. Now- talk about diving off into the deep end of a pool- Ledgerwood attempts an entire program of Coltrane material for solo piano on the collection COMPASSION (SteepleChase 31477). Keep in mind that these are not your typical Coltrane tunes either. This is stuff from the end of his life; material that even his most ardent fans where struggling with at the time. Still, "Naima" and "Wise One" do manage to sneak in and the overall mood is reflective and calm as apposed to chaotic. It seems that Ledgerwood has tapped the creative beauty and spiritual depth of each piece, transforming the whole in a manner that is deeply satisfying. What more could you ask for than that?
It is unusual these days for any jazz group to maintain regular personnel for any extended period of time. More than anything else, it's the economic constraints that force today's jazz musician to work in a variety of formats and configurations just to make ends meet. Despite the foregoing, pianist HAROLD DANKO has managed to front an exceedingly remarkable quartet for over eight years now featuring tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield. These men maintain very active schedules but gather every once in a while for a SteepleChase date such as the one documented on NIGHTSCAPES (SteepleChase 31490). All of the writing here is Danko's and there is a dark and mysterious quality at heart that certainly fits with the album's apt title. "Night Space" is frenetic and brooding, with Perry at his best. A bit moody and with ample room for Colley to shine, "First Dream" exposes Danko in superlative lyrical form. With a touch of Shorter on the side, Perry gets the rest of the crew in Miles mode circa '66 for "Fourth Hour," yet another highlight among the program's eight pieces. Simply put, the Danko quartet still holds forth as one of the best units of its kind and NIGHTSCAPES is another vital addition to an already stimulating catalog.
Living in Denmark for more than half of his life, guitarist DOUG RANEY followed in his father's footsteps by taking up jazz guitar and he undoubtedly would be better known in his native country were it not for his self-imposed exile abroad. Fortunately, SteepleChase is able to get him to New York every so often to cut a record date or two. Recorded in November of 1998, YOU GO TO MY HEAD (SteepleChase 31474) finds Raney working in a modest trio format with just bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Hart. It is Hart's splashing cymbals that harken us to nod an ear to the opening "What Is This Thing Called Love" and over the course of some nine minutes we get a whole lesson in the history of mainstream jazz guitar, with Anderson and Hart supplying firm support. Standards provide the fodder throughout, giving the entire date a comfortable and charismatic appeal. It's kind of like the fun you have when great friends who haven't seen each other in awhile get together for a beer or two (i.e. nothing pretentious, but a hell of a good time was had by all).
Finally, we come to the third SteepleChase set to be released by pianist MICHAEL COCHRANE, a gentleman who has developed into an experienced artist while working with such notable leaders as Sonny Fortune, Jack Walrath, and Michael Brecker. FOOTPRINTS (SteepleChase 31476) pays homage to the compositional genius of Wayne Shorter and it features the regular Cochrane trio of bassist Ron McClure and drummer Yoron Israel. Aside from possibly "Footprints," the selection of tunes has strayed from the perfectly obvious. So too have Cochrane's interpretations, opting for a more individualistic stance while still retaining the original intent. A case in point, the pianist decides to supplant the usual shuffle beat on "One By One" by using a funk groove that cooks on a lower heat. But really, there's no need to go into detailed descriptions. If you dig Shorter's music then you'll want to add this disc to your collection and hopefully add Cochrane to your list of piano faves in the long run.