Recent Listening: Smith, Vu, Lynch, Akinmusire

Hundreds of CDs have piled up around Rifftides world headquarters. At a meeting, the staff voted whether to write, long, exhaustive analytical reviews of three of them or highlight many more in an effort to keep up with a jazz scene that—take our word for it—is not dying, at least not in terms of sheer recording output. Short and pithy won the vote over learned, diagnostic and likely to put you to sleep. This survey will go on intermittently, with other matters popping up, as usual.

Sean Smith, Trust (Smithereen).
In Smith’s career of more than 20 years as a bassist, he has been so busy with Bill Charlap, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Tom Harrell, Art Farmer, Peggy Lee, Jacky Terrasson and others that he has taken time to be the leader on only two previous albums. His first CD in ten years features his new quartet with saxophonist John Ellis, guitarist John Hart and Smith’s longtime colleague Russell Meissner on drums. The group stirred anticipation with web videos that popped up a few months ago. Their album more than meets expectations raised.

Admired as a composer by Charlap, Phil Woods, Bill Mays and others who have recorded his music, Smith wrote all 12 of the tunes. Unlike many albums laden with originals, Trust has variety, from the harmonically demanding Wayne Shorter tribute called “Wayne’s World” to the sunny waltz “Bush League,” to “Voices,” an affecting ballad. On “Voices,” Smith’s solo highlights the darkness and heft of his tone and his ability to play successions of high notes as music, not the strain of acrobatic exercise. Ellis’s tenor sax tone and his phrasing are key to the success of the piece.

“Graham Ewan,” a duet with Hart, is a brief demonstration of Smith’s skill with the bow, a lull in the proceedings. If Catherine of the Italian Renaissance Medicis inspired “Ditty for Ms. de’ Medici”, she must have danced a mean soft shoe between intrigues and poisonings. It’s a happy piece. Ellis’s tenor playing on “’de Medici,” “What’d You Say?” and a few other tunes is so distinctive that it leads one to wonder why he didn’t leave the soprano in its case. There is no law that, in the wake of Coltrane, every saxophonist must double on soprano. In Ellis’s case, he’s eroding his comparative advantage.

Often in albums led and produced by bassists, the sound designs make it clear who’s in charge, sometimes to the point of ear pain. This one will not have you lunging for your tone controls. Sound reproduction and balance match the quality of the music.


Cuong Vu, Leaps Of Faith (Origin).
Like Smith’s, Vu’s is a pianoless quartet, but the instrumentation is rather different: his trumpet, two electric basses and drums. He begins with three standards, “Body and Soul,” “All The Things You Are” and “My Funny Valentine,” assuring listeners that he is about more than 21st century space music. It’s a clever strategy. Vu, bassists Stomu Takeishi and Luke Bergman and drummer Ted Poor bring plenty of adventurism to the classic ballads, but Vu’s long lines and lyricism carry over into the collective improvisation of his title tune. Then he edges “Leap of Faith” further and further out until it vaporizes in the exosphere of electronic distortions. Vu’s musicianship is so solid that when he mixes jazz, pop, street grunge and amplified random noise, it somehow works, is even reassuring. That is as true of his calming treatments of the Beatles’ “Something” and Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell” as it is of his kaleidoscopic “I Shall Never Come Back.”

Brian Lynch, Unsung Heroes (Hollistic MusicWorks).
“Unsung” is right. Lynch pays tribute to his trumpet predecessors or contemporaries Tommy Turrentine, Joe Gordon, Charles Sullivan, Idrees Sulieman, Charles Tolliver, Claudio Roditi and Louis Smith. Known to few but the most committed and attentive listeners, all have earned respect of their peers and critics. In some cases, Lynch plays compositions by his heroes. In others he composes pieces in their honor. In all, his arrangements are as impressive as is his playing in a tight sextet that includes alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, tenor saxophonist Alex Hoffman, pianist Rob Schneiderman, bassist David Wong and drummer Pete Van Nostrand. Among highlights of the album, which is itself a highlight, are Lynch’s treatment of Sulieman’s “Saturday Afternoon at Four” and his own “RoditiSamba.”with memorable solos by him and Herring. Hoffman’s gliding, muscular work comes as a pleasant revelation. The CD is a followup and companion to Lynch’s 2000 album Tribute to the Trumpet Masters.

Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note).
Always approach the latest universally heralded trumpet prodigy with caution; that’s my motto. Caution, however, dissipates rapidly in the face of Akinmusire’s musicianship, the evenness and warmth of his sound, his passion and the unity of his quintet. Though his mastery of the horn is stunningly complete, music comes before virtuosity. Displays of trumpet fireworks are incidental, as in “The Walls of Lechuguilla.” “Regret,” as affecting slow playing as I’ve heard recently, has little to do with virtuosity, nearly everything to do with expressiveness. Akinmusire’s duet on “What’s New” with pianist Jason Moran, who produced the album, is pure invention, a la Tony Fruscella, until near the end when he lands on the last few bars of the melody. Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III; pianist Gerald Clayton; bassist Harish Raghavan; and drummer Justin Brown are finely in tune with Akinmusire and one another. His band of young men are significantly beyond hard bop or post bop emulation. This is——to reach back for a phrase used by swing era musicians who wished to bestow high praise——original stuff.

More to come.

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  1. Ned Corman says

    Thank you for reviewing Cuong Vu’s Leaps of Faith. I’ve enjoyed Vu’s music since coming to it because of his drummer, Ted Poor. Ted is a native of Rochester, NY, suburb, Honeoye Falls, and an Eastman School of Music grad who continues the tradition of other wonderful drummers who’ve graced, and graduated from, the school, including Steve Gadd, Dave Ratajczak and Bernie Dresel. All learned how to hold their sticks under legendary percussion professor emeritus John Beck, during his 40 or so year tenure.