Recent Listening, In Brief

I’ll never catch up, but here are a few 2011 CDs I wanted to report on before the year gets away.

John Basile, Amplitudes (StringTime Jazz)

Basile has a series of agreeable conversations with two other guitarists, both of whom—through the wonders of digital overdubbing—are also Basile. Multiple tracking by a solitary musician goes back to Bill Evans (tape, 1963) and well beyond, to Sidney Bechet’s “Sheik of Araby” and “Blues of Bechet” (lacquer discs, 1941). What’s different here is that Basile and an engineer accomplished the feat somewhat more conveniently, with the use of an iPhone app. So much for the gee-whiz aspect of the recording. Forget the process and listen to the music, which is typical of Basile’s swing, melodicism and harmonic resourcefulness. In approaches as varied as the rhythm guitar and walking bass in Jane Herbert’s “It’s Nice to be With You,” the pointillism of Basile’s own 12-tone “First Row,” the samba inflections of Jobim’s “Fotografia” and the pleasingly abrasive spectrum distortions in “My Funny Valentine,” Basile manages a variety of moods and textures while maintaining the sensibility of the album. Among other highlights, he reminds us that in the right hands, or sets of hands, “Moon River” isn’t worn out; it’s still a great tune to blow on. In a single chorus of Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” he captures the tune’s air of hopeful resignation.

Sir Roland Hanna, Colors From a Giant’s Kit (IPO)

Even casual YouTube surfers who find videos by the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra are likely to be captivated by the piano introductions, interludes and endings played by Roland Hanna. Serious followers of that band know Hanna, drummer Lewis and bassist Richard Davis, as one of the great rhythm sections. His advanced technique melded with his harmonic imagination and knowledge of the jazz tradition to make him also one of the music’s most complete solo performers. Long before he founded IPO records, Bill Sorin made unaccompanied recordings of Hanna. The pianist died in 2003, and this year Sorin compiled 14 of those performances in this collection. The album is a vibrant addition to the label’s previous three Hanna albums and to his extensive discography, which dates from the late 1950s. The pieces include standards by Ellington, Strayhorn, Coltrane, Victor Young and Ray Noble, and four Hanna compositions. His “20th Century Rag” reflects love for a central pre-jazz tradition, tinted with ironic chord voicings that might have made Shostakovich smile. He treats Coltrane’s “Naima” and Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” as rhapsodies. His introduction to Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” is a riff that works perfectly for the piece but almost makes the listener wish that Hanna had developed it as a composition of its own. He invests “Cherokee” with a bluesy introduction, then proceeds at a pace slower than the customary hurricane bebop tempo, allowing himself thorough examination of the song’s interior qualities. It’s a lovely album.

Dubravka Tomsic, Mozart Works for piano (IPO)
Dubravka Tomsic, Chopin Works for piano (IPO)

Roland Hanna was a keen student of classical piano literature and of the principal classical pianists of his day. It is unlikely that he was not aware of the great Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic. For all of her prowess, high regard among her peers, fame in Europe and reputation as one of Artur Rubenstein’s favorite protégés, Tomsic was surprisingly little known in the United States until the 1990s. Much of her recording has been for relatively obscure European labels that are hard to find. Sorin, the IPO Records chief who championed Hanna, has followed her work for years. He issued an album of her interpretations of Franz Liszt in 2001. He brought her back to New York to record two CDs released in 2011, one of Chopin, one of Mozart. Chopin fascinated many jazz pianists, among them Hanna and Bill Evans, and continues to influence young jazz musicians. If you wonder why, Tomsic’s readings of the massive Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor, four scherzos and the famous Berceuse may give you answers. In three sonatas and the Fantasia in D Minor, she discloses the energy, command and variety in Mozart’s piano writing. Whether or not you customarily follow classical piano, these are highly recommended.

The Angel City Big Band featuring Bonnie Bowden, An Angel City Christmas

If you’re looking for a collection of Christmas songs well sung and played in nicely crafted arrangements, this one meets your criterion. The arrangers include Tom Kubis, John LaBarbera and Ralph Carmichael, the singer is the unfailingly cheerful and gratifyingly in-tune Bowden, and the songs are all proven classics. If for nothing more than Bowden’s astonishing high-register unison vocalese with the trumpets on “Let it Snow,” this would be one of my new seasonal favorites. Over the years, I have grown tired of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song,” Nat Cole and Mel Tormé notwithstanding. Bowden and the Angel City crew of skilled studio craftsmen restored them for me. She does a great job with the verse to “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.”

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