A few major record labels survive, but most jazz albums come from independent companies, many of them one-man or one-woman operations. Digital technology makes recording relatively simple and inexpensive for small independent labels. It also makes it easy for musicians to be their own record companies. Some record at home in living rooms or basements. Those with good gear and a modicum of engineering skill can achieve high quality sound. The business of making records has come a long way since the painstaking, labor-intensive process the film in this recent Rifftides piece illustrates. One of the results is that at a time when the audience for jazz is holding at about two percent of the record market, more jazz CDs than ever are being recorded.
Until fairly recently, the non-technological roadblocks to do-it-yourself record businesses were distribution, promotion, advertising and publicity. Internet uploading, the rise of social media and the expanding population of independent publicists have changed that. Indeed, some musicians are their own publicists and distributors by way of their websites, Facebook pages, email lists, the postal department, FedEx and UPS. Getting a record out and calling attention to it is relatively easy. That presents the listener with an embarrassment of riches (to be optimistic about musical quality). The reviewer must face the impossibility of giving thorough hearings to even a small percentage of the CDs that show up on his doorstep, sometimes as many as a half-dozen a day.
All the reviewer—this one, at least—can do is try to listen to as much as possible, write the occasional full-length review and otherwise share impressions of some of what he hears. Here are recommendations, some in brief, of recent and a few not-so-recent arrivals.
Mike Wofford, It’s Personal (Capri)
In this album with the apt title, Wofford’s harmonic and rhythmic approaches to Johnny Carisi’s “Springsville,” make the piece his own. A few seconds into the track, the listener abandons the idea of comparing Wofford’s version with the indelible 1957 Miles Davis-Gil Evans recording. At some points the pianist seems to be floating, as if the piece were a leisurely nocturne rich with underlying chords. And yet, the pulse that powers his performance continues throughout, however subliminally. The unfailing jazz feeling of his playing and his ingenuity with chord voicings are evident everywhere in the dozen tracks of this solo album, a highlight in Wofford’s extensive discography. He imparts his personal stamp to pieces by Jackie McLean, Dizzy Gillespie, Gigi Gryce, the guitarist Larry Koonse, among others.
Wofford gives Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s “The Eighth Veil” a reflective reading quite apart from the rhythmic insistence of Ellington’s 1962 big band recording. He includes a medley of two pieces with the same name, “Once in a Lifetime.” The first is the 1960s standard by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. The other is by the new wave band Talking Heads. He makes the Talking Heads song a solid jazz vehicle while retaining the rock group’s whimsy. Among Wofford’s original compositions, “Cole Porter” captures something of the drama and elegance of its namesake and his songs. “It’s Personal” opens with melodic foreshadowing and harmonies that may have to do with John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” then it blossoms into a distinctive ballad. “Hines Catch-up” is a medium-tempo F blues dedicated to Earl Hines. It is a knowing appreciation of the father of modern jazz piano, with side trips through a couple of Art Tatum runs. It is also a self-portrait by a pianist capable of paying homage without lapsing into imitation or parody or being anyone but himself. In this track, the album’s good feeling, relaxation and solid values are at their zenith.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Gamak (ACT)
An alto saxophonist, Mahanthappa melds his American jazz values and Indian cultural heritage—along with a number of other ingredients—into original music that cannot be categorized. The album is dedicated to the proposition that melody rules, and that melody and wild excitement can go hand in hand. To an extent, the music is built around Dave Fiuczynski, a guitarist who can reach instant intensity. But Mahanthappa is the guiding spirit, a powerful soloist and a leader with a vision that Fiuczynski, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss help him achieve with unity, superb musicianship and riveting energy.
Jeremy Pelt, Water And Earth (High Note)
Pelt applies the warmth and brilliance of his trumpet playing to his original compositions and a piece by bassist Stanley Clarke. The rhythm section features Fender Rhodes piano and electric bass throughout and, occasionally, muffled singing. The album has a jazz fusion aspect that reaches back to the 1970s, with occasional use of heavy drum echo and other electronic sounds. Interesting soloing by Pelt and saxophonist Roxy Cross, who is notable on tenor, usually overcomes the lounge atmosphere. The credits list “Jeremy Pelt: trumpet, effects.” Sometimes, in “Boom Bishop” for instance, the effects win. When his trumpet is unadorned, he wins.
Next time: more brief reviews.