Frank Zappa (1940-1993), a gifted musician who dipped his toe into jazz, never demonstrated more than a smidgeon of what he knew about the genre. But he left us with the memorable observation, “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny.” A web search shows that lesser wits have adapted Zappa’s line to all kinds of topics from politics to marketing management and, of all things, science journalism. None of those endeavors seems to be dying, either. For years, people have been predicting the end of jazz. Perhaps to them the sustained explosion of recordings seems an enormous death rattle.
All right, jazz is not dying. So, once again we leap into the breach in a heroic doomed attempt to keep up with the never-ending stream of new albums and reissues. We will bypass those that smell funny.
Kerri Politzer, Below The Surface (PJCE)
Kerry Politzer is a pianist married to a pianist, George Colligan. In 2011, they moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon, where both have day gigs on the music faculty at Portland State University. In New York, Ms. Politzer recorded a few albums, but her professional life as a pianist there was mainly below the surface. In Portland, it is not. She is emerging. Her resourcefulness and vigor at the keyboard and her depth as a composer reach fullness in this recording. The 10 compositions are hers.
Ms. Politzer’s quintet includes some of the brightest musicians in Portland’s bustling jazz community. One of them is her husband, but this is not a two-piano album. Colligan has high visibility as a pianist and occasional trumpeter with his own groups as well as with Buster Williams, Lee Konitz and other major figures. Here, though, he is the drummer, playing his original instrument as if he hasn’t missed a day of practice. His solos joyously behind a repeated rhythm section figure on the Latinate “Empty House.”
Trumpeter Thomas Barber, is known for his own band Spiral Road and work with Dick Titterington and Darrell Grant. Barber capitalizes on the intervals in the astringent harmonies of Ms. Politzer’s title tune to fashion a solo whose opening downward chromatic figures have a yearning quality evident in much of his work here. Alto saxophonist David Valdez melds with Barber in the front line and solos throughout with a cool tone and a warm flow of ideas. Bassist Andrea Niemiec, a native Oregonian who has been on the Portland scene for more than a decade, has a big sound that could have benefited from being higher in the audio mix. She is important to the trio track “Echo Says,” in which Ms. Politzer manages the neat trick of being contemplative while generating hard ¾ swing. The final piece, “In Spring,” is unaccompanied piano, lasts slightly less than two minutes and left this listener wanting more.
Miguel Zenón, Identities are Changeable (Miel Music)
This audacious venture by the lavishly talented alto saxophonist is two projects in one. It is a dramatization using the recorded voices of several people talking about their Puerto Rican origins, their lives in New York and their senses of national identity. It is also Zenón’s debut as a composer and arranger for a large ensemble made up of his quartet and 12 horns. Zenón, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole solidify their reputation as one of the most important small groups of this century.
The music follows seven previous Zenón albums based in his close identification with the culture and traditions of his native island. His alto solos are brilliant. Expanding on concepts he developed in earlier albums, Zenón’s writing incorporates the complex rhythms of which he is a master and does it with skill that melds jazz, Latin and Caribbean folk strains into music so individual that it defies classification. Repeated hearings disclose new harmonic depths, rhythmic wizardry and surprises like the unison bebop saxophone section passages in the track called “Through Culture and Tradition” and the forthright counterpoint in “My Home.”
However, repeated hearings can require listener commitment and a fair amount of patience. The voices often do not augment the music but collide with it. In some instances they are simply distracting, in some poorly recorded. Behind the voices, sounds of the city no doubt intended to add local color can sometimes override concentration on the music. Those flaws do not negate Zenón’s accomplishment, but they detract from it.
Delfeayo Marsalis, The Last Southern Gentlemen (Troubadour Jass)
The Marsalis brother who plays trombone teams up with his pianist father Ellis, bassist John Clayton and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith for 11 standards and two originals. The music reflects Delfeayo’s (and Ellis’s) penchant for class in repertoire and performance. Their ballads, particularly “Nancy,” are exquisite. In a brisk version of “Speak Low,” the CD’s longest track, father’s and son’s solos and their exchanges with Smith demonstrate that that a fast tempo need not limit elegance. It is an indicator of the equanimity suffusing the production that in his literate liner note essay Delfeayo quotes Miss Manners (Judith Martin) about the influence of African slaves on development of the storied Southern graciousness of the pre-Civil War era. Delfeayo’s use of a wa-wa mute and a New Orleans street-beat treatment of the Sesame Street theme make it one of the album’s many delights.
George Van Eps, Once In A While (Jump/Delmark)
Van Eps (1913-1998) is a hero to guitarists for his development of a seven-string instrument that, combined with his chording technique, made it possible for him and succeeding generations of guitarists to accompany their own solos. He does that in this reissue of recordings he made in 1946 and 1949 for the Jump label. He also interacts with pianist Stan Wrightsman and saxophonist Eddie Miller, whom Cannonball Adderley once called, “the first of the cool tenors.” Supremely relaxed and irresistibly rhythmic, Van Eps shines on 25 tracks. None is much longer than three minutes. None needs to be.
More reviews of recent releases to come on Rifftides