By Claudio Botelho
Among the many CD’s I’ve listened this year, one was especially superlative. By enhancing said CD to 24 bit/196 kHz, it sounded wonderful.
(I’ve been listening to CD’s for 99,999% of my time and, for me, turntables, cartridges, alignment protractors, extreme leveling of turntable, careful adjustment of cartridges and the like are things of the past, no matter how often the vinylists insist on saying there’s no intelligent life out of a preamplifier phone stage. If one decides (as I like to do) to investigate this matter in the light of its technicality, he will fail to find objective reasons to justify said vinyl sound superiority. For me, the innumerate mechanical variables one deal with when assembling a complete LP reproducing system is so gargantuan that it is almost impossible to get a faithful reproduction of real life.
But, on this endeavor, after all sorts of struggles, he’ll most certainly arrive at a point that will please well (or extremely well, for that matter) his taste: now the sound is tailored for him and nothing will beat it! Euphony rules...
I keep on thinking turntables is akin to car carburetors and see no reason to find it better than digital players and, so, be in a different league, for instance, than digital photography and television!)
Now, let’s go back to my first sentence. Last Sunday afternoon, while listening to a bunch of CD’s (with assurance of a generous intake of electric energy to my rig), I decided to listen to Ahmad Jamal’s latest “Saturday Morning: La Buissanne Studio Sessions”. Man, what an excellent recording! What a natural sound! What a Steinway! Wow! Can a recording get any better than this? If your perspective is three dimensionality, tonal purity and full frequency response, you’d have to work very hard to find a better recording. I, being an ordinary music lover and not golden eared at all, couldn’t find any of the shortcomings usually associated with CD playing; my experience bordered the epiphany! This was the CD above mentioned.
To sum it up, the musical presentation was nothing short of remarkable. Jamal’s pianism, infused with great confidence as always, was the most natural extension of a grand Steinway to be found anywhere this side of the classical world. No jazz pianist I know has his easy-casual style of playing. Jamal is an energy-saver player; one who, even during fortissimos, plays effortlessly, in the most natural way. He’s extremely in tune and the sound he extracts from the piano (always first-rate grand concert Steinways) is on par with the best anyone can extract from this fantastic instrument.
Some jazz aficionados, including some of my “jazz-friends”, have taken him for granted for long, saying he’s been repeating himself. Of course, these people expect something new each time an artist releases a new recording. I’m more humble in my expectations; I just wanna have some more stuff of the same piece of cloth. For me, each musician has his comfort zone and any time he tries to leave it behind he does a lesser job. So, 99% of the time, a bit more of the same thing is the best deal, especially if we’re leading with the unexpectedness nature of jazz. Here, the simple matter of handling this form of art puts monotony out of the equation. Sometimes, too much of a good thing can sink the ship, you know…
A compulsive jazz listener, I have my own comfort zone as anyone else and it stays firmly inside piano-jazz trios, although I frequently listen to different groups of musicians, large ensembles and even a plethora of some many false-jazz singers we have these days, some of them, by the way, earning valuable prizes as jazz accomplishers.
The Jamal we have today is the same we had in, say, 1958 and, irrespective of his somewhat advanced age, keeps on refining his craft: his sometimes sparse playing (his hallmark), incisive attacks, riffs and unexpected changes remain, but time has given them much more assertiveness and polish. His beliefs, likes and dislikes are unchanged and he’s still the same original stylist of yore.
He’s not a musician for frantic listeners; he must be savored slowly, like a good old wine. Always effortlessly playing, sometimes the entireness of his playing passes by unnoticed by those a little less attentive, but the real game is that, although exhilarating many times, he’s a musician of many subtleties which are mixed with his frequent riffs.
Those in search of novelty playing must look elsewhere, as his playing is well established; he’s found his way long ago and most certainly will keep on tracking it without detours, always masterfully conceiving sounds of great expressiveness and ease. I’ve listened his last outing for days in a row now and find it is much difficult this happen with works of other players. This, in my view, can only attest the timelessness of his music.
One thing that escapes to the awareness of many is that when we search for the work of an artist we want “more of the same thing”, just like when we look for a bottle of Coke: we know, beforehand, what we’ll be getting; anything different will make our effort a failure! So, please, don’t ask Jamal to be any different and be pleased to find he’s the same old chap that has been making music of the highest level all these years!
So, this is my CD of this year. The remaining nine are:
2- ROSARIO GIULIANI & FRANCO D’ANDREA – “DUETS FOR TRANE”. As I’ve already written about, this is a tour-de-force recording done by two outstanding musicians. Strongly stated throughout, this is a recording as organic as one can get.
3- VINCE MENDOZA – “BLAUKLANG”. This is a work of an arranger which always transcends the pop music world and borders the highest echelon of this art. Subtly and multilayered, his arrangements are a statement of elegance.
4- BOBO STENSON – “INDICUM”. The capsule rendering of a Bill Evans song (Your Story) which opens the album sets the mood of the whole work: simplicity, sensitivity, elegant understatement and symbiosis. This is the recipe of a work that can be listened times and times again; relentlessly…
5- CLAUDIO FILIPPINI TRIO – “FACING NORTH”. The young pianist Filippini has been of my acquaintance since the end of 2011. As of now, this is the fifth or sixth of his albums that I have the pleasure to listen. Some fresh air in his playing! In this endeavor, he is mated by Nordic players of Palle Danielson renown and finish drummer Olavi Louhivouri, a departure from his all-Italian musicians of his former works. Due to the great admiration he has to these northern musicians, he conceded them a little more space to stretch and, as such, his pianism shrank a bit. This is the reason I find some of his earlier works more to my liking, but not to the point of leaving this CD out of my list of this year.
6- NICO CATACCHIO T(TH)REE – “THE SECOND APPLE”. Certainly, not one more Ray Brown trio! Here, you have meticulous and complex arrangements of original songs in which everybody has a distinct role and no one overshadows any other. Comprised of piano, bass and drums, the group follows a program of somewhat darkish songs of great inspiration, with little space for spontaneous playing, which makes the renderings not all that jazzy, but, otherwise, richly enchanting. Catacchio is a bass player and has chosen to make an album of great expressiveness.
7- ALESSIO MENCONI – “SKETCHES OF MILES”. As you may have gathered, the repertory is Miles Davis’. The combination of guitar, organ and drums is a winner one and, here, you have a very tight trio where the organ admirably fills the spaces left by the guitar and the drums work a little behind, rounding off everything. All you have to do is relax and listen to the songs.
8- TIM LAPTHORN – “SEVENTH SENSE”. Richly focused, recorded out of first takes, this work of the young Lapthorn shows he’s one of the best pianists of his generation. As much as it was easy for them to record it, it is to savor it. You go from the first song to the last one without noting the passing of time. Who can ask for more?
9- JOE DE FRANCESCO – “WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL!” Captured by the great engineer Rudy Van Gelder, the sound of this CD is pristine, as pristine is the performance of its musicians. The mood is always optimistic, the interplay faultless and the pleasure of listening to the octogenarian Jimmy Cobb playing like hell is enough to make this work a great diversion.
10- FRED HERSCH & JULIAN LAGE – “FREE FLYING”. Unfortunately marred by a lousy recording, this is one of the most meaningful works of Hersch. The young guitarist Lange (already an experienced musician) is up to the task of playing with such a talented pianist as Hersch. Except songs of Sam rivers (Beatrice) and Thelonius Monk (Monk’s Dream), the program is comprised of Hersch originals, which makes things tougher for Lage, but the young player was not challenged by this and plays in the same level of that master. The presentation (a live recording) is eclectic and ranges from Bach’s to rag time modal playing, passing to almost any other kind of music extant. A natural show-off of interplay this is!
Some other albums deserve mention; they are:
11- DOMINIC J. MARSHALL TRIO – “ICAROS”;
12- PHRONESIS – “WALKING DARK”;
13- ORRIN EVANS – “…IT WAS BEAUTY”; and
14- STEVE KUHN – “THE VANGUARD DATE”.
One last thing I couldn’t let unnoticed: this was a poor year for jazz recorded music. It was certainly more difficult for me to make this list and the result is wanting indeed. Let’s wait that the coming year will be better, that the Italians give us more of their fabulous musicianship and that, at the end of it, we don’t have to search so hard to make a list of albums to be reckoned.
I wish for all of you a better year than this one.
This article was published in 31.12.2013. I have committed a gross mistake in my list of the best of the year: I’ve forgotten mentioning Alan Broadbent’s “Heart to Heart” solo outing. I could never have missed it for the simple reason it is one of the very best albums of the last year. So consider it in my premium list and displace Joe DeFrancesco’s “Wonderful! Wonderful” to the “deserve to mention” group. Broadbent’s album was covered to some extent in my former article, making it unnecessary to do it again here.