Harlem-Kingston Express LIVE!
Some may be surprised to know that reggae music actually has deep roots in jazz. Ska, reggae's stylistic precursor, came into being as a fusion of Jamaican mento, calypso, and American R&B, but some of its earliest and best players were Kingston jazz musicians, and early ska tunes were very often characterized by swinging rhythms and walking basslines. Ska eventually slowed down and its rhythms shifted, resulting first in the short-lived "rocksteady" style before it slowed further and became reggae, which dominated the island's music scene for a decade and a half before eventually being supplanted by the more raucous dancehall style. Pianist Monty Alexander has been bringing jazz back to reggae music (and vice versa) for decades; Harlem-Kingston Express finds him in a live setting, continuing to explore the connections between traditional reggae and straight-ahead jazz while also forging new ones. An example of the latter approach is his strange but intriguing take on the dub reggae classic "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown." The original tune was a dub remix of Jacob Miller's "Baby I Love You So," mixed by the legendary producer King Tubby and embellished by Augustus Pablo's melodica; it is considered by many to be the finest example of 1970s dub ever recorded. Alexander starts out playing the tune more or less straight, taking the melodica part himself -- then suddenly, the ensemble erupts into a frantic Afro-Cuban middle section before modulating and coming back to the original theme. Elsewhere, he delivers a brisk but unexceptional take on "Sweet Georgia Brown," a partly successful reggae adaptation of the jazz standard "Freddie Freeloader," and a surprisingly perfect arrangement of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry." Alexander continues to be a highly effective ambassador between two once-fraternal musical styles that have sadly lost touch with each other since childhood. Here's hoping he plans to do a Jackie Mittoo tribute album at some point.
This Side Of Strayhorn
Trumpeter Terell Stafford's 2011 effort This Side of Strayhorn features the hornman performing a series of classic and lesser-known compositions from Duke Ellington's longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Born out of his week-long participation the "Celebrating Billy Strayhorn" fest in Dayton, OH, the album is an urbane and well-crafted affair that finds Stafford wringing much joy improvisationally and otherwise out of these superb compositions. Joining Stafford here are such similarly adept players as saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Dana Hall. To these ends, tracks like "Smada" showcase Stafford's longstanding love of trumpeter Lee Morgan's bluesy and propulsive style, while "Little Brown Book" is a warm, cup-muted number. Elsewhere, the burnished slow-burn blues "Multicolored Blue" and the laid-back and sultry midtempo ballad "Lana Turner" are easily some of the best small group interpretations of Strayhorn you could ever find.
The New Gary Burton Quartet
by Ken Dryden
Once Gary Burton retired from his duties at Berklee, he began to scale back his touring with a full-time quartet. In 2010, he assembled a new band with the phenomenal young guitarist Julian Lage (who first sat in with the vibraphonist at the age of 12), veteran bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Antonio Sanchez, all of whom have recorded as bandleaders themselves. Six of the CD's ten tracks were contributed by the quartet's members, starting with Colley's intricate "Never the Same Way," which incorporates a Latin flavor in its tricky 7/4 meter. Sanchez contributed the infectious cooker "Common Ground" (featuring great solos all around and capturing the spirit of Burton's earlier quartets), and "Did You Get It?" a lively blues with a playful call-and-response between Lage and Burton in its introduction. The leader frequently dismisses his efforts as a composer, but his bittersweet, melancholy ballad "Was It So Long Ago?" is further proof that he needs to spend more time writing; his infectious tango is a lyrical work. Lage is just as promising a songwriter as he is a guitarist. His challenging "Etude" evolved from a study piece he uses with his students; the intricate, rapid-fire introduction segues into a Spanish-flavored midsection that showcases his formidable chops. Burton also revisits songs from his past. Lage introduces "My Funny Valentine" with a well-disguised improvisation that doesn't state its well-known theme until the full band joins him near the halfway mark, then both Burton and Colley take solos, backed by Sanchez's soft but effective percussion. Burton also revisits Keith Jarrett's "In a Quiet Place," blending reflective moments with a bluesy air at times. Common Ground stands alongside the many landmark albums in Gary Burton's vast discography.
Matt Nelson Trio
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, nostalgia is defined as "a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past," and a maniac is "an obsessive enthusiast." Chicago pianist Matt Nelson embodies both qualities on Nostalgiamaniac. The sentimentality of his ballad playing and the keen musical citation of past generations of jazz musicians clearly display the conversation he's having with his own past, and his dedication to music.
Without losing momentum in his constant foray into modernity, Nelson manages to remain firmly rooted in the rich tradition of jazz piano playing, at times sounding like a 1960s-era Herbie Hancock and at other times sounding like a current-day Brad Mehldau. He also accomplishes this by finding a stable blend of more contemporary sounding, ECM-like tunes ("Lady Luna," "Revisited") and straight-up, hard-swingin' tracks ("Compliments," "Dave's Blues"). Nelson maintains the balance by revealing his personal side through "Matthew My Boy," a song that his father wrote for him many years ago, and the maniac side with the opening track, "Infatuation."
At a superficial glance, Nostalgiamaniac can seem to get bogged down by Nelson playing nearly every moment of this lengthy album. Further review, however, reveals a continual reinvention of his playing, in order to remain compelling from start to its finish. While his accompaniment can, at times, be distracting, such as behind Graham Czach's bass solo on "Lady Luna," it's always extremely sympathetic to the soloist's cause.
With the trio's obvious command over its more delicate playing, it's easy, at times, to overlook the unbelievable technique on the more rhythmically agitated tunes like "Infatuation" or "The Epitome." Czach and drummer Matt Nischan seem to have no problem keeping the beat elastic and playful even at brisk tempos. Not only do they weave a supportive fabric for Nelson to rest on for his own improvisations, each of them also adds their own imaginative solo work, Nischan especially so on "Dave's Blues."
With this debut, Nelson and his trio have carved out a nice spot for themselves in the Chicago jazz scene. By remaining true to the tradition of jazz, they have managed to find fertile ground for their growth and expansion into what looks like a promising future.
Infatuation; Closing the Door; Quiet Love (and Sunshine); The Epitome; Lady Luna; Longing For...; Revisited; Compliments; Matthew My Boy; Dave's Blues; Alternate Antioch; The Art of Suppression.
Matt Nelson: piano; Graham Czach: bass; Matt Nischan: drums.