Some of the most exciting music being recorded around the world is on independent labels, often only available through websites. These are a few that have caught my ear lately.
Johnny A: Sometime Tuesday Morning; Favored Nations (PO Box 550. Salem, MA 01970. 562-989-8707) ***
Johnny A is a Boston-based guitarist who defies easy categorizations. He reminds at times of Danny Gatton, simply for the fluidity of his playing and the seeming effortlessness of crossing stylistic boundaries. Given that he played with Peter Wolf of J. Geils Band fame for seven years, this comes as something of a wonderful surprise. He's as Les Paul-inspired ("Oh Yeah") as he is by Wes Montgomery ("You Don't Love Me"). He covers the Allman Brothers, Beatles, Ventures and Glenn Campbell (a sweet take on "Wichita Lineman"). All instrumental and altogether different than anyone out there. This one just refuses to come out of the CD player.
Harry Allen: Love Songs Live; Nagel Heyer Records (www.nagelheyer.com) ***
Harry Allen is a tenor saxophonist based in Germany who has a tone deep in the Lester Young and Ben Webster school. He is joined here by Randy Sandke (trumpet), Howard Alden (guitar), John Bunch, Brian Dee and Dave McKenna (piano), Dennis Irwin, Len Skeat and Frank Tate (bass), and Oliver Jackson, Duffy Jackson, and Butch Miles on drums. Is it amazing? How could it not be. From the opening bars of the appropriately titled "But Beautiful" to the fade on Hoagy Carmichael's chestnut "Stardust," this is a class project top to bottom. "Every Time We Say Goodbye," "Once I Loved" (with wonderful Alden work), "Sweet Lorraine," "The Touch of Your Lips," ""This Time The Dream's On Me," "Sophisticated Lady," "O Grande Amor" and the original "Skyscraper" comprise this stunning collection of late-night ballads.
Pierre Bensusan: Intuite; Favored Nations (PO Box 550. Salem, MA 01970. 562-989-8707) ****
Bensusan is a gifted acoustic guitarist who defies easy categorizations. He is mesmerizing in his melding of classical, jazz and folk guitar in this solo masterpiece on guitarist Steve Vai's label. This is gorgeous from beginning to end. He has far more than just mere total control of his instrument; he has an intimate relationship with the instrument. It breathes in his talented hands. This is one of my favorite discs of the year. It is a slow drift in a canoe on a summer's day. As musically satisfying as a collection can get.
Mac Gollehon's Smokin' Section: In The Spirit of Fats Navarro; Half Notes Records (www.halfnote.net) ** 1/2
Smokin' for certain. This comes out of the chute strong and doesn't let up. A six-piece with the power of a big band, trumpeter Gollehon and his mates fire it up on a program, as indicated, heavy on Fats Navarro. Occasionally heavy-handed, the tempo rarely varies from hard-blowing, though there are moments that shine, particularly the sextet's takes on "Nostalgia," "Boperation" and Bud Powell's "Dance Of The Infidels." Gollehon's original bluesy "Ten Til Twilight" is a treat, too.
Paul Kendall Quartet: Rhapsody; Sea Breeze Jazz (www.seabreezejazz.com) ***
This is a first-class set of music on which the tasteful tenor saxophonist is backed by three separate sets of players. The program is enhanced by well-chosen covers from the likes of Horace Silver, Cedar Walton, John Coltrane, and Arlen and Mercer. Kendall's tone is strong and contained. He's particularly impressive on Silver's "Barbara," and Henderson's "Recordame," and the backing musicians are as impressive as the leader. A solid work.
The Mitchell Ruff Duo: Breaking the Silence - Standards, Strayhorn & Lullabies; Kepler (www.willieruff.com) ***
Dwike Mitchell has a touch as delicate as John Lewis and as majestic as Oscar Peterson's. His partner Willie Ruff is as deft a bassist as he is a french hornist. The music the two create on this delicious musical treat is of a rare kind. That they've been playing together for nearly 50 years is apparent (they left Lionel Hampton's band together in 1955). The interplay is intuitive and well balanced. Whether it be the excitement of their take on "Autumn Leaves," recorded live at Yale, or the delicacy of Brahm's "Lullaby," performed by piano and french horn, this never fails to impress. Mitchell and Ruff are as adventurous as they are firmly rooted in the classics -- be that Billy Strayhorn or Igor Stravinsky. Superb.
Chase Sanborn: Sweet & Low; Brass Tactics (www.brasstactics.net) *** 1/2
Chase Sanborn is an impressive trumpeter and flugelhorn player from Toronto who deserves a much broader audience than that which he now enjoys. Though he's worked with a who-who from Ray Charles to Diana Krall to Aretha, his presence on the American jazz scene is virtually non-existent. Given the caliber of playing here, that's the audience's loss. A gifted player on muted and open trumpet, as well as on flugelhorn, he works out of a tradition that sounds familiar and fresh at the same time. His take on "Only Trust Your Heart" reminds of Art Farmer and "There's A Small Hotel" has a hint of Clifford Brown to it. The core backing group of pianist Mark Eisenman, bassist Pat Collins, guitarist Rob Pitch is exquisite. Drums (Barry Elmes) are on three cuts, vocals (Carol McCartney) on two, and a wonderful flugelhorn duet with Guido Basso opens the set.
Recorded live at the Dynamo Kiev Club in 2000, the latest project for Poland's premier jazz trio (violinist Maciej Strzelczyk, acoustic bassist Piotr Rodowiecz, and guitarist Krzysztof Wolinski) is nothing shy of spectacular. Two Gershwins ("Lady Be Good" and "Summertime") are intertwined in a tapestry of brilliant originals that show off the players chops and brilliant improvisatory technique. "Second Chance" is a gorgeous ballad, "Green Rumba" is a quick and spry Grappelli-style toe tapper, and everything between is equally brilliant. This is a jazz string trio with no equal.