Faced with stacks of albums begging to be noticed, the reviewer must make choices. Inevitably, the result is that a few albums spin in the CD player or on the turntable while others—possibly of equal value—languish. The incoming albums that pack my big mailbox several times a week belie frequent claims in the press and on the air that jazz is dying.
A few big corporations no longer dominate the record market, that’s true. But as someone (it might have been me), once pointed out, these days every 18-year-old tenor player is a record company. It is relatively inexpensive to create CDs and digital download streams. Crowdfunding can make it even cheaper. As a result, there is a steady flow of self-produced albums. Most of them don’t make a dent in the market, but they serve as audio business cards for young musicians hoping to be noticed and find employment. I could improve the ratio of music received to music heard if I gave up sleep, meals, exercise, shaving, household chores, shopping and other activities that interfere with constant auditioning. That is unlikely.
Let’s see, where was I? Oh, yes, here are a few evaluations of CDs and a DVD that have arrived in the past few weeks, many of them while I was away covering the Portland PDX Jazz Festival.
Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts, ECM
Taborn augments his piano with electronics and composes tightly conceived pieces that make his third ECM album a gripping experience. The music has subtle interaction among Taborn, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Dave King of The Bad Plus. It also has intensity and rhythmic complexity that reflect influences going back to Taborn’s initiation into jazz in Minneapolis as a pre-teenager. Those influences include free jazz saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, whose “Jamaican Farewell” is a highlight of the album. The other eight compositions are by Taborn. From the vigorous opening track “The Shining One” to the mysterious closer, “Phantom Ratio,” the music glistens with surprise, vitality and a self-renewing sense of discovery. There is no way of knowing what the rest of 2017 will bring, but with its freshness and deep thought, Daylight Ghosts seems bound to be considered one of the best albums of the year.
Scott Whitfield, New Jazz Standards (Volume 2), Summit Records
In this second volume of trumpeter Carl Saunders’ compositions he again produces, does not play and gives another horn player top billing. Volume 1 featured the late flutist Sam Most. This time, trombonist Scott Whitfield is the putative leader and primary soloist. He applies his virtuosity to a dozen of Saunders’ tunes, most of them original from the ground up, a few based on the chord structures of familiar jazz compositions or the blues. Experienced listeners will have no difficultly recognizing, for instance, the inspirations for “Another Tune For Bernie” or “Big Darlin’,” though most of Saunders’ compositions demonstrate originality and harmonic ingenuity.
Whitfield is master of a cranky and demanding instrument. He recalls the virtuosity of Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana, with their capacity for dazzling speed and flurries of notes in the stratosphere. Yet, as in “I Remember Thad”— inspired by the late trumpeter Thad Jones—Whitfield demonstrates lyrical tenderness that recalls another side of his persona, as a singer of duets with his vocalist wife Ginger Berglund. The trombonist has support from a blue ribbon Los Angeles rhythm section. Bassist Kevin Axt and pianist Christian Jacob have honed their togetherness through years in the Tierney Sutton Band and work seamlessly with drummer Peter Erskine in support of Whitfield. Through overdubbing, on some tracks Whitfield is a trombone duo or choir, particularly affecting on “Big Darlin,’” and the joyful ”Gamma Count.” “Juarez” has three Whitfields intersecting in a free-for-all. It’s a happy album.
After more than six years together as one of the most popular and tightest-knit bands in jazz, in 1964 the Dave Brubeck Quartet played a series of concerts in Europe that included the Kongresshaus in Zurich. This version of the group came to be known as the Classic Brubeck Quartet with Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, alto saxophone; Eugene Wright, bass; and Joe Morello, drums. Beautifully recorded by Swiss Radio’s Edith Nüesch, the album includes a version of Desmond’s “Take Five” that has brilliant solos by the composer, Brubeck and—in one of his most breathtaking recorded excursions on the piece—Morello concentrating on exquisite brush work augmented by his lightning fast use of the bass drum pedal. Morello is again at the top of his game in his display piece “Shimwa,” again concentrating on brushwork. There are lengthy takes on two of Brubeck’s and Desmond’s longtime favorites dating back to quartet performances of the 1950s, “You Go To My Head” and “Pennies From Heaven.” Brubeck and Desmond execute a return to their celebrated practice of counterpoint as “Pennies From Heaven” winds down, but it is all too brief. Brubeck’s frequent claim that Desmond was one of the most lyrical of all jazz soloists is borne out in two blues, “Audrey,” which opens the album, and “Koto Song.” The concert closes with “Thank You,” Brubeck’s homage to Chopin. With sustained applause, the audience returns his thanks. This album is a welcome addition to the quartet’s extensive discography.
Bill Evans, Time Remembered, A Film By Bruce Spiegel, ReelHouse
More than a year ago, I reported on Bruce Spiegel’s film about the life and music of Evans (1929-1980), the pianist who played a seminal role in changing jazz in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, the film was showing only in screenings at selected theaters in the United States. Now, it is being made available on a website evidently developed for that purpose. To go there, see a trailer and learn how to acquire the DVD, click on the film title above.
In the 90-minute documentary, musicians, family members and friends remember Evans’s precocious musical development, his emergence as a major jazz figure and the tragedy of the addictions that shortened his life. Sequences of Evans playing connect the interview segments and provide continuity. Among those who tell parts of his story are drummers Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette and Joe LaBarbera; guitarist Jim Hall; bassist Marc Johnson, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer; singer Tony Bennett and pianists Warren Bernhardt and Billy Taylor. Bill’s niece Debby, the inspiration for “Waltz For Debby,” provides insights into the profound influence of her father, Harry, on his younger brother. LaBarbera and Laurie Verchomin, who was Evans’s companion in his final year, give an account of a wild cab ride to a New York hospital in an attempt to save his life.