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.
Billie Holiday singing “Sugar” with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra, 1939:
Released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Holiday’s birth (April 7, 1915), these essential tracks showcase the singer at her peak. As a cultural icon, she has no modern-day equivalent (Amy Winehouse deserves her own story).
Hearing Holiday sing these pop tunes, jazz songs, and jukebox tracks on this artfully prepared collection is not only a gift to music fans of all stripes, but a paean to a singer who ultimately transcends genres. (Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection. Sony Legacy)
The notion that “everything old is new again” blossoms like spring on the charming self-titled debut record by the DUCHESS trio, and it’s altogether refreshing. With a sound inspired by songs sung by the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters—albeit with classy, updated arrangements—to charts that date back to the 1930s and '40s, Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou are three strong jazz and pop vocalists with their own solid careers. Here, they serve up sophisticated humor (Cy Coleman’s “A Doodlin’ Song”) and café society swing (Peggy Lee’s “Love Being Here With You”) with the cleverest wit.
Up close and personal, I heard them during their March CD release gig at the Jazz Standard in NYC, where the sold-out crowd was seduced by ballads like “Que Sera, Sera” and Johnny Mercer’s “P.S. I Love You.” Their warm, earthy harmonies hit you like Cupid’s arrow. That original blend of sauce and swing deservedly make DUCHESS stand out.
With a fine band in tow anchored by pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Paul Sikvie and ace drummer Matt Wilson, this completely delightful trio hearkens back to the era when performers like Bobby Short sang songs and entertainment was the priority.
There are jazz pianists who lead their own bands, and then there is the innovative Marcus Roberts, an Ellington acolyte and original Young Lion (along with his peer, bandleader and collaborator Wynton Marsalis). Though some critics shrugged when Roberts released his early opus, Deep in The Shed (1998), many—including me—found that work exhilarating and an essential jazz recording.
Trumpeter Duane Eubanks isn’t yet as well known as his brothers (trombonist Robin and guitarist Kevin), but his highly listenable album, Things Of A Particular Nature, should mitigate his under-the-radar status. This Philadelphia native is a top-notch musician, having fronted the horn section in the late pianist Mulgrew Miller’s group, Wingspan, and as a member of two-time Grammy-winning Dave Holland Big Band, while playing with many others.
The up-and-coming Michael Blum makes an impressive and vital debut with Initiation, and a persuasive case for straight-ahead guitar jazz. While this precocious 20-year-old New Hampshire native has forged an accessible modern sound with a rooted connection to jazz masters like Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, and early George Benson, Blum embraces an intimacy with his material and dispatches a thoughtful set list with the surprising sureness of a more experienced musician.