Mano a Mano
by Ken Dryden
Michel Camilo has excelled in every project he has conceived, ranging from solo piano, small groups, big band, and working with a symphony orchestra. For this session, he returns to a trio setting with the infectious Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo and bassist Charles Flores. Opening the disc is "Yes," the pianist's reworking of the familiar "Indiana" chord changes, recast as a lively Latin jazz original. The brilliant improvised introduction is a sensational duo performance by the leader and the conga player, setting up their terrific flights as the theme is revealed, with Flores providing an inventive undercurrent. Camilo's recasting of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" keeps its funky edge with Hidalgo's capable percussion providing a hip flavor. John Coltrane's "Naima" is often played so seriously that no one seems to think of taking this lovely ballad in another direction. Camilo initially stays the course, though bursts free as he works into his inventive improvisation, while Hidalgo and Flores are anything but sedate with their formidable accompaniment. Camilo's interpretation of "Alfonsina y el Mar" is a moving performance of the Argentine ballad, with his shimmering piano conveying its emotion as Hidalgo and Flores provide a subtle background. There are several additional Camilo pieces of note, especially the lush ballads "You and Me" and "About You," the latter an elegant solo piano performance that wraps this delightful CD.
by Adam Greenberg
One of the more prolific exponents of the Northwest jazz sound, pianist Bill Anschell has figured in any number of excellent recordings, both as a bandleader and as an accompanist. In Figments, he takes a turn at solo piano, running through songs from pop, jazz, and the American songbook and reworking them into wandering (he describes it as stream of consciousness) arrangements that sometimes provide jazz underpinnings for classic pop, and sometimes explode the pieces into their atomic elements, looking for interesting tidbits in the debris. "Alice's Restaurant" weaves between ragtime, nightclub jazz, and deeper introspective chunks. Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" is actually performed on prepared piano (a piano with objects placed in/on the strings to change their sounds), and heads toward a sort of acoustic electronica. The thing that sets Figments apart from the now-standard jazz performances of pop classics is the ease with which Anschell wanders away from tunes, finding interesting motives in them and expanding on them freely, eventually to return to the main melodies. As he wanders around the songs, Anschell shows off a striking facility with different styles of play -- he can touch on stride piano (fittingly) in "Honeysuckle Rose," he can twinkle through arpeggios in "Desperado," and he can move to the ethereal in "Ask My Why." The music is rarely bouncing on Figments, but it remains catchy despite itself. The real key here is Anschell's ability to avoid adapting the songs into a simple piano jazz format and to come up with something both remarkably new and still recognizable. An excellent set.
Iro Haarla Quintet
With nearly 1,800 posts under our belt, we at SER have covered a whole lot of different styles, players and instruments, but based on a cursory search, I haven't found a single piece where a harpist is the featured musician. We now have that covered: meet Iro Haarla.
Actually, one of Finland's finest is a pianist too, as well as a composer and arranger. Her most recent album, Vespers, is a showcase to all of these aptitudes, which doesn't make it so much a harp album as it does a “Iro Haarla" album. Haarla first gained the big props as a key member in percussionist Edward Vesala's bands, working as arranger and orchestrator. Her close relationship eith Vesala culiminated in their marriage, and she dedicated her career working with him until his death in 1999.
Vespers, her second for the ECM label, carries over the same quintet used for the first ECM,Northbound (2006). Mathias Eick, whose own fresh new ECM record was given a look over just yesterday is on trumpet, as well as Trygve Seim, his saxophone partner in crime onManu Katché's phenomenal Playground (2007). Former Vesala Sound & Fury band mate Ulf Krokfors mans the acoustic bass and ECM hall of famer Jon Christensen is on drums. Indeed, this is a group of Scandinavian all-stars.
These nine songs of hers are all rubatos, in the “free ballad" form that Vesala and Christensen helped to instigate with Jan Garbarek decades ago. Avant paced but lyrically flowing, Haarla has become a master of this style, and her harp is a great accessory to this style; she could have easily played it on more than the three of four tracks that she did. Krokfors' pivotal role at bass taking charge of the flow of the song with Christensen, makes Haarla's piano, which is mostly in the background, nearly superfluous. Eick and Seim carry over that great rapport from the Katché project, pouring out aching notes that assures the Norwegian jazz legacy is in good shape for the next generation.
The capacious Nordic jazz sound is in good shape for years to come, too, thanks to torch bearers like Iro Haarla. Vespers was released last April 12.
by Matt Collar
Continuing in his tradition of stellar Highnote label albums, pianist Cedar Walton's 2011 release, The Bouncer, features the journeyman hard bopper leading a fine quintet of like-minded individuals. Once again featuring the talents of saxophonist Vincent Herring, who appeared on Walton's 2009 effort, Voices Deep Within, The Bouncer also showcases trombonist Steve Turre, as well as longtime associate bassist David Williams, drummer Willie Jones III, and percussionist Ray Mantilla. This is urbane, no-nonsense, straight-ahead acoustic jazz, the kind that Walton has based his career on since the '60s. To these ends, listeners get the jaunty, midtempo opener, as well as the lilting pretty waltz "Halo" and the Jones-inspired "Willie's Groove," which finds both Jones and Williams showing their improvisational stuff. Elsewhere, Walton and company tackle J.J. Johnson's "Lament"; rework Walton's "Underground Memoirs" from 1996's The Composer into a stylish, roiling Latin-tinged number; and keep the Latin vibe going on Trinidad native Williams' grooving "Got to Get to the Island."