In Breve: Catching Up

Periodically, we post brief alerts to recordings the Rifftides staff finds worthwhile. The mini- or micro-reviews are not intended as deep analysis, but as guideposts. Some of these albums are recent arrivals. We select others, not quite at random, from accumulations in the music room and office, stacks like those on the left. Beneath the piles of CDs is my desktop. I remember it fondly.

Bill Cunliffe, How My Heart Sings (Torri).

The album has pianist Cunliffe’s ingenious sextet arrangements of 10 songs by Earl Zindars, a friend and favorite composer of Bill Evans. Zindars’ work is notable for lyricism, charming melodies cloaked in harmonic sophistication and, often, metric daring. Some of the pieces here, including the title tune and “Elsa,” gained recognition through Evans’ recordings. Others, like “City Tune” and the complex “Heads or Tails,” are barely known. Cunliffe’s sextet includes Bob Sheppard on saxophones, flutes and clarinet; Bobby Shew on trumpet and flugelhorn; Bruce Paulson, trombone; Joe LaBarbera, drums; and Jeff D’Angelo, bass. Flugelhornist Justin Ray augments the band on two tracks. Solos by Cunliffe, Sheppard, Shew and the underrated Paulson are superb. Shew must be singled out for his flugelhorn work on “Elsa.” This collection was a sleeper when it came out in 2003. For Zindars’ compositions and the high quality of these performances, it deserves an audience.

Luciano Troja, At Home With Zindars (Troja).

Troja, an Italian pianist, recorded 14 of Earl Zindars’ songs and one of his own. Playing unaccompanied, he clearly has Evans in mind but does not imitate him. Among the pieces are the familiar—”Mother of Earl,” “How My Heart Sings,” “Silverado Trail”—and new ones like “Joy,” “Nice Place” and “Roses for Annig” that Troja discovered when he had access to the composer’s manuscripts during stays with Zindars’ family in California following Zindars’ death in 2005. Troja gives a splendid two-part treatment of one of Zindars’ best-known tunes, “Sareen Jurer” (“The Mountain’s Water”). His tribute piece “Earl and Bill” parallels the reflective character of Zindars’ own writing. The pianist’s touch, both firm and delicate, is an essential element of his success in negotiating the dimensions of dynamics in Zindars’ works.

Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic, Heart’s Reflections (Cuneiform).

The trumpeter’s playing, writing and ability to field-marshal combinations of acoustic and electric instruments come together in another epic two-CD set. In a large sense, it is a continuation of Smith’s electronic approach in 2009’s Spiritual Dimensions. His music owes something to Miles Davis’s electric period, but the power of his personality and vision guarantees the kind of distinctively individual music we get here. Employment of multiple amplified guitars would seem to threaten electronic goulash, but even when four of them improvise freely at the same time, they blend rather than clash. Piano, violin, drums, two alto saxophones and—I swear— two laptops enrich Smith’s palette. From it, he applies tonal colors, sometimes in flecks, more often in swaths saturated with blues. In addition to Smith’s virtuoso playing, full of risk-taking and humor, I must mention the supercharged drumming of Pheeroan akLaff and lovely piano lines by Angelica Sanchez.

Ruby Braff, For The Last Time (Arbors).

Another two-CD set, another trumpeter (well, cornetist). Another world, one might think. And yet, Leo Smith and Ruby Braff are connected in the jazz tradition and the joy of spontaneous creation. I can imagine Smith getting a kick out of listening to Braff here. In this concert at the 2002 Nairn Festival in Scotland, Braff was playing with his customary verve and inventiveness and announcing tunes with his usual wit— often acerbic—as he kidded with the musicians and the audience. The repertoire is ten standards, fully explored; the longest track is nearly 16 minutes, the shortest about five. Braff’s frequent companions tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, pianist John Bunch and guitarist Jon Wheatley are aboard. With Bunch and Wheatley in the rhythm section are bassist Dave Green and drummer Steve Brown, UK sidemen often sought out by visiting leaders. The proceedings are relaxed and happy, the level of inspiration high. Braff’s choruses on “Rockin’ Chair” and “I Want a Little Girl” are saturated with feeling. There is nothing in his playing to disclose that he was ailing, but he opened up the tunes to more frequent solos by his colleagues than he might have in healthier days. Braff died six months later; thus, the title of an album that is a good way to remember him.

Fay Claasen, Sing! (Challenge).

The Dutch singer with uncanny control, intonation, swing, and English with no trace of an accent sings 12 songs associated with singers from Bessie Smith to Björk. She is as convincing in “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (Dinah Washington”) and “A Felicidade” (Elis Regina) as in Joni Mitchell’s “Be Cool” and Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw it Away.” Her overdubbing of three ad-libbed improvisations on Miriam Makeba’s “Unhome” is astonishing, as are her flawless unison passages with the ensemble on “Tea for Two” (Anita O’Day). Michael Abene conducts. Claasen soars on Abene’s beautifully crafted arrangements and on support by the WDR Big Band. Bonuses abound in excellent solos by trumpeter John Marshall, alto saxophonists Johan Hörlen and Karolina Strassmeyer, pianist Frank Chastenier and other WDR members. The exclamation point in the title is warranted.

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