If jazz bands were like classic muscle cars measured by power and torque, the high performance Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra was an inexhaustible engine that roared. February 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of this historic 18-member band and All My Yesterdays (Resonance Records) is the double-disc recording that documents their debut performances in February and March 1966.
Pianist, composer, producer, and godfather of smooth jazz, Bob James has achieved spectacular success as a solo artist and de facto leader of the supergroup, Fourplay. He’s also an accomplished collaborator—his discography includes many award-winning albums with Earl Klugh, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, and Korean guitarist Jack Lee.
John Pizzarelli is a seasoned guitarist, pop singer, and debonair entertainer whose greatest talent is communicating the jazz idiom to music listeners who otherwise are indifferent to the form. On stage in August at Birdland in New York to celebrate the release of Midnight McCartney, his relentless enthusiasm as a bandleader smoothed the way for a sweetly nostalgic appreciation for lesser-known tunes by Paul McCartney. Along the way, his relaxed stage banter left the audience laughing and feeling great.
Jamison is the debut of a significant talent. Winner of the 2012 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, the singularly entertaining Jamison Ross is a drummer of enormous presence and an irrepressible bandleader, judging from his album release show I attended at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in June.
The most harmonious and beautiful jazz orchestral music of the year comes from Maria Schneider, an emotionally affecting composer, arranger, and bandleader, whose work is astonishing in its capacity to emotionally connect with this listener.
Listening to Joanna Pascale sing is like getting a big hug. Her voice is warm, wise and easy to love. The Philly native has put out fine solo albums previously, but nothing like Wildflower, a deeply felt record that freely mixes pop tunes, blues, and outlier standards.
A fast-rising modernist, trumpeter John Raymond assembles a solid team of musicians for his sophomore release Foreign Territory. Anchored by the resolute Billy Hart on the drums, bassist Joe Martin, and the gifted pianist Dan Tepfer, Raymond delivers a masterful set of multi-textured songs; they swing obliquely and pull you in with disarming ease.
Pianist Harold Mabern is a two-fisted swinger, a legendary presence on the many great Blue Note dates of the ’60s, who continues to add a distinctive groove to his many solo projects. He’s partial to playing blocks of chords hard and quick, as if he needs to get somewhere fast. His melodic ideas seem to dance from his fingertips. It’s his signature technique combined with a sound that’s shot through with honey-dripping soul, as sweet and graceful as can be.
It was easy to see why bassist Ben Williams’s debut CD State of Art made such a splash. It had a deserved buzz around a rising talent, and remains a primer for how to make a modern jazz record.
Since then, besides heavy side-gigging and touring with his band as Ben Williams and Sound Effect (Christian Sands, Marcus Strickland, Matthew Stevens, and John Davis), the 30-year-old had a key role in the Pat Metheny Unity Group. The band played over 150 shows internationally in 2013, which is a lot of experience in a compressed time frame.
So it’s not surprising that his follow-up CD, Coming of Age, is a rush of pleasure from beginning to end.
A taste of the new Ben Williams CD, Coming of Age:
The highly-disciplined Williams, a Juilliard graduate and winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition, weds fresh jazz to pop and R&B on seriously engaging tunes that hum and heave from his nimble bass whether he’s on acoustic or electric. The record is backboned by tracks that electrify (“Strength and Beauty”) and groove (“Half Steppin’”), yet his vocal collaborations with soul singer Goapele (“Voice of Freedom”) and a reprise of a track called “Toy Soldiers” with rap/spoken-word artist W. Ellington Felton satisfy the de rigueur groove revivalism and album’s crossover appeal.
Instrumentals like “Black Villain Music” and the sweet gloss of strings and muted trumpet by guest Christian Scott on “Lost And Found” will satisfy on multiple spins, but it’s the keyed-up guitar solos, funky electric piano, sonorous sax, and wicked beats that give Coming of Age its more-than-just-jazz appeal.
It’s a contagious hang, fueled by virtuosity and vision along with Williams’s canny sense of music-making.
Is Billie Holiday the ultimate jazz singer? You might think so, listening to this commemorative anthology that draws from Lady Day’s early period. She performs tunes recorded between 1935 and 1945, either fronting pianist Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra or leading her own. These are timeless, defining songs that continue to feed into the myth, magic, and tragedy that is Ms. Holiday.