Hard Bop and Beyond

It's been some 20 years and some 200 albums later and Criss Cross Jazz is still going strong as one of the major purveyors of mainstream jazz sensibilities. Run almost single handedly by producer and talent scout Gerry Teekens, Criss Cross started out by just releasing a few albums each year. Times have changed for the better and now it's hard just keeping up with a release schedule that includes four to six batches of new titles annually. In brief, we now take a look at some of the latest titles to cross this reviewer's doorstep, keeping in mind that recent developments have meant a widening of the artistic scope beyond the mainstream bop sensibilities that have distinguished the label in the past.

Last year Wynton Marsalis colleague and drummer extraordinaire Herlin Riley made his Criss Cross debut with WATCH WHAT YOU'RE DOING and it seemed that Criss Cross was ready to enter a new arena fostering a contemporary movement intent on going beyond the bebop implications of the jazz legacy. Now, we have to say that the floodgates have been open with the appearance of the latest from trombonist WYCLIFFE GORDON. A thoroughly enchanting set, THE GOSPEL TRUTH (Criss Cross 1192) harkens back to the days of Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, and those great gatherings of Dixieland luminaries often put together by Prestige records for their Swingville subsidiary. Embracing timeless classics such as "Jesus Loves Me" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Wycliffe and company pull out all the stops with an effusive set that is just damn good fun. Vocalist Carrie Smith distinguishes herself on several numbers, most notably "There's a Tree" where the whole band joins in vocal support and Smith conjures up both Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Unique and highly recommended, you'll want to sample Gordon's version of the "gospel truth."

One of the few purveyors of the gutsy baritone saxophone style associated at one time with Pepper Adams, GARY SMULYAN is currently an indispensable sideman active with a number of ensembles including the Mingus Big Band. He has recorded a small, but likable cache of albums for Criss Cross over the years, working in a variety of contexts, from quartet to lead voice in front of a string ensemble. BLUE SUITE (1189 Criss Cross) is his most recent and easily his most accomplished work. In addition to a core rhythm section of pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Kenny Washington, Smulyan fronts a nine-piece brass ensemble. Writer and arranger Bob Belden provides the charts and they have to be among his most virile, starting with Oliver Nelson's "Interlude" (I can't seem to find this tune on any Nelson record; please inform me if you know when and where Nelson previously recorded it himself) and working through the seven movements of his "Blue Suite." Smulyan is in top form throughout, recalling Harry Carney in some places and Adams in others. Everything about this set just seems to click and fans of both Belden and Smulyan won't want to be without it.

It appears that trombonist Conrad Herwig is making a major comeback these days and this reviewer couldn't be any happier. Back in the '80s, Herwig released a notable number of sides for the defunct Ken Music label that vanished quickly. Meanwhile, he was on the road with Eddie Palmieri and other leaders and his own projects seemed to take a back seat. Now Herwig has a contract with Criss Cross and to date he has cut three superb albums for the label, with UNSEEN UNIVERSE (Cross Cross 1194) being the most recent. Utilizing the same rhythm section (David Kikoski, James Genus, Jeff 'Tain' Watts) that made his duo trombone set with Steve Davis, OSTEOLOGY, such a success, this time Herwig adds newcomer Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Criss Cross stand-by Seamus Blake on saxophones. All nine tracks are Herwig originals and the kind of knotty and progressive fare that has distinguished him as the innovative artist that he is. The centerpiece of the set if a ¾ line aptly entitled "Triangle." With Sipiagin voicing the melody by means of mute in hand, a deft opening gambit leads to a series of complex solo statements. Elsewhere, the level of musicianship is without reproach and Herwig's skills as a leader come shining through. Highly recommended!

A mainstay on the Philadelphia jazz scene, pianist ORRIN EVANS has lately been operating just under the radar of the general jazz public. He spent some time with the exciting Stefon Harris, but that has really been his only high profile gig to date. However, astute Criss Cross followers will be very aware of Evans' three previous recordings for the label where the pianist audaciously attempts to break new ground while working within the tradition. He's had terrific success in this area and his latest, LISTEN TO THE BAND (Criss Cross 1195), is no exception. Self-assured and courageous, Evans can attack with the ferociousness of a cat (think: Cecil Taylor) one minute and then come on restrained and cloying the next (think: Corea or Hancock). That "sound of surprise" quickly comes to fore with the opening "I Want to Be Happy," a cheerful standard that's given anything but the customary treatment. Never really stating the melody, Orrin and his men dissect the form and engage in a collective fervor that makes for one hell of an opening maneuver. There's a spacey post '66 Miles vibe that permeates right through and the interaction between saxophonists Ralph Bowen and Sam Newsome and trumpeter Duane Eubanks and the Evans/Reid Anderson/Nasheet Waits rhythm section is nothing less than extrasensory at times.

Very active as a sideman and a current member of the Mingus Big Band, pianist DAVID KIKOSKI has been making the most out of his "second wind" when it comes to his solo career. On the scene for many years now, Kikoski had produced several albums as a leader for various labels in the '80s and '90s, most of which are currently unavailable. A few years back he returned to the fold with INNER TRUST, his debut set for Criss Cross. His third album for the label to date, ALMOST TWILIGHT (Criss Cross 1190) features the work of a very together trio, namely bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts. Over the course of nine Kikoski originals this ensemble elevates the standard piano trio format beyond the typical and routine. Each man is a master in his own right and the communal "give and take" is just one of the elements that makes this set such an engaging listen. Don't miss the twelve minutes plus performance of "Rose- Parts 1 & 2," complete with tempo changes and solo spots for Kikoski and Patitucci. It's a highpoint among many.

Tenor saxophonist MICHAEL KARN submits his sophomore release, IN FOCUS (Criss Cross 1191), having already appeared on Criss Cross once previously in a duo set with fellow saxophonist Jerry Weldon. This native of Rochester, New York studied with Joe Lovano for a time and is just now making a name for himself and hopefully this new release will bring some additional fans his way. Secure and confident, it's obvious from the first note of "Momentum" that Karn has nothing to prove nor an axe to grind. This medium tempo groover allows the saxophonist, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and pianist David Hazeltine the opportunity to dig in deep and stretch out at length. On "D and B" Karn and Hazeltine go it alone and we really get to hear the saxophonist's authority in ballad mode. There's even a bit of bebop on "One Bedroom Blues," where the blend between tenor and guitar is especially "in focus."

Wrapping things up, we come upon a rare occasion for Criss Cross to tap their vaults for an earlier session that has not been made available on compact disc previously. Tenor saxophonist WARNE MARSH was an iconoclastic figure who was part of the cerebral school of jazz thinkers that at one time included Lennie Tristano. Currently, youngsters such as Mark Turner have found new inspiration in Marsh's work and for a few years prior to his death in 1987, Marsh would lead a series of first-rate recordings for Criss Cross. BACK HOME (Criss Cross 1023) would be the last of these and it's a fundamental closing statement from the inimitable and breathy tenor stylist. Barry Harris, David Williams, and Tootie Heath provide sympathetic support and fellow tenor man Jimmy Halperin shares the lead with Marsh on four cuts. With the addition of three alternate takes and one unreleased new performance, BACK HOME takes its rightful place alongside Marsh's small number of available gems.

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