Here's a most pleasant surprise from the familiar tenor of Hank Crawford - a terrific collection of familiar soul/jazz tunes worthy of his deeply soulful skills and abundant talent. The former Ray Charles section leader has always known how to craft bluesy, soulful sessions - from many, many Atlantic dates in the 60s and terrific soul/disco dates on Kudu, Versatile and Groove Merchant in the 70s. The appeal of this April-May 1996 recording is similar to the appeal found in Crawford's Creed Taylor productions of the early 70s. After a long series of syrupy soul/jazz discs on Milestone in the 80s and 90s (under Crawford's name and in collaboration with Jimmy McGriff), Tight brings Crawford back strong. What's the difference? Hank Crawford arranges a nonet of outstanding talent performing worthwhile, mostly uptempo, blues/soul jazz tunes. The lounge stuff is minimal here - and the playing is certainly more memorable. The lineup includes reed man David Newman (a former Ray Charles associate and frequent Crawford collaborator), CTI house drummer Idris Muhammed and the outstanding talents of funk guitarist Melvin Sparks and pianist/organist Danny Mixon. When the tunes aren't familiar (Bobby Womack's "Breezin," Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" and Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa") - they're simply well performed and totally enjoyable (i.e.: Hubert Laws' "I Had A Dream," Melvin Sparks' "Don't Start Nuttin', Won't Be Nuttin'" and Crawford's "Manhattan Blues"). Crawford is playing to his potential here (even though he soars through the sap elsewhere) and all the musicians seem to be enjoying it too. This Bob Porter production is a welcome return of one of the most revered sounds in soulful jazz.
Drummer Lenny White never shortchanges his listeners on star talent - or tremendous musical combinations. Here, he nominally leads a dream band featuring guitarist Kenny Burrell (who, by virtue of the alphabet, gets first billing), pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Ron Carter, trumpeter Tim Hagans and reedman Craig Handy. This set of easy, relaxed blues seems, at first listen, predictable and as programmatic as White's other Hip Bop all-star aggregates (Essence of Funk with Tom Browne and Benny Maupin and Afro Cubano Chant with Gato Barbieri and Bob James). But in this age of fifteen-dollar disks, there is something very rewarding about a group of great musicians getting together and making music that is so rich with the joy of playing together and enjoyable to the listener. The genre is a natural for the guitarist (remember Midnight Blue?) and the bassist. But each player, including the very talented horn players, excels in this environment. This is Cedar Walton and Kenny Burrell's first teaming since the guitarist's 1991 disk, Sunup to Sundown, on Contemporary - and it's great to hear them together again. Ron Carter, as expected, has played with all these guys before. His talents are significant in blending the group in a warm, focused unity. White features Carter prominently throughout (as he does on other Hip Bop discs like Tom Browne's refreshing Another Shade of Browne) and most memorably here on John Coltrane's "Bass Blues" (originally from the 1957 album Traneing In). Every track works well, but standouts include White's "Uno Dos Adios," Burrell's "Primal Blue," Walton's ode to his mother, "Dear Ruth," and Carter's "For Toddlers Only." One has trouble imagining how Lenny White can afford to continue gathering such talented friends together to make such a wide variety of stimulating genre jazz (remember his excellent Acoustic Masters series on Atlantic Jazz a few years back featuring Charles Lloyd and Bobby Hutcherson?). But here's hoping, through his Hip Bop label, he is able to continue. Recommended.
Seems Jerry Gonzalez can do no wrong. His Fort Apache Band has recorded sporadically since 1979, yet has maintained a remarkable unity that continues to strengthen with each recording. Fire Dance is a gem of a performance, caught live at DC's famed (and overpriced) Blues Alley (February 2-6, 1996) and most beautifully recorded by ace producer Todd Barkan. A former percussionist with Dizzy Gillespie and McCoy Tyner back in the 70s, Gonzalez is also an excellent trumpet/flugelhorn player who's dynamic rhythmic approach mixes a little of the energy and wit of Diz with the modal intuition of Miles. What makes the Fort Apache Band such a success is the enormous talents of its principals: Larry Willis (p), John Stubblefield (ts); Joe Ford (alto and soprano sax); brother Andy Gonzalez (drums) and the multifaceted Steve Barrios (percussion). They have discovered something together that is a joy to hear. It is not so much a matter of imposing Latin clichés on modal models as it is a telepathic and sensitive collective exploration of the challenging possibilities such a fusion invites. Willis's "Isabel, The Liberator" sets the fiery mood , eliciting thoughtful solos from Gonzalez and Stubblefield. The haunting "Elegua" and elegiac "Verdad Amarga" reminds one of the sort of swamp jazz Willis made back in the mid 60s with Hugh Masekela (who's not nearly the horn player Gonzalez is). The centerpiece, though, is the nearly 20-minute Latin-modal reworking of Monk's "Let's Call This." Gonzalez dedicated a whole album to rethinking the brilliant corners of Monk's music a few years back (Rhumba Para Monk). He and his team know how to make these intricate little tunes swing like hell. One other Monk tune ("Ugly Beauty" ) and another Latin swinger, "Today's Nights" round out the set. Even at slightly over 70 minutes, there's just not enough of the Fort Apache Band here. This is excellent music - and one of the very best jazz albums released in the last year. If Fire Dance appeals to you, you might also want to check out the Afro Blues Band's superb recent release Impressions and Chico O'Farrill's Pure Emotion, two very good and similar Todd Barkan productions also featuring Jerry Gonzalez and Steve Barrios.
One must suppose the folks at Blue Note strive to uphold a certain tradition. Kaleidoscope seems to fit the bill; yet, like Benny Green's other Blue Note releases, it's all rather too derivative. The pianist clearly fares better as an accompanist (Ray Brown, Freddie Hubbard and many singers) where his sensitivity to style is an asset. Here, as always, the musicianship is professional and features a first-rate cast including Antonio Hart (alto sax), Russell Malone (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Lewis Nash (drums) and (briefly) Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax. But in the long run, it all seems locked into too many memories of Blue Note glories from the past to be worthwhile on its own merits.
The intricate (and, after a while, annoying) "Kaleidoscope" is sort of reminiscent of much of Andrew Hill's Blue Note work from the mid 60s. For some reason, this exercise-like tune gets two extended playings - one to get it all started and one to wrap it all up. The pretty "Soft Center" starts off mixing McCoy Tyner with The Prisoner-era Herbie Hancock, but as Green gets more interesting, he injects a few touches that will remind many of Gene Harris. "The Sexy Mexy," surprisingly the third track on the disc, has the funk feel of many Blue Note hits like Kenny Dorham's "Una Mas" and some of Lee Morgan's post "Sidewinder" album headers. Things start making sense on the piano/bass duet, "Patience," and the piano/bass/guitar of "My Girl Bill." Here one is reminded of the empathy shared between Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez. But one senses Ron Carter is the driving energy of creativity and unity in this group - and the poetically fluid guitarist Russell Malone adds much to the group's overall `kaleidoscope.' Together, Carter and Malone give Green's conceptions an interesting twist to the legacies of Nat King Cole and Oscar Peterson. Stanley Turrentine has a pretty sax/piano feature on "You're My Melody," but it would have been nice to hear the tenor player as part of the full sextet. In the end, this encapsulates the problem with this disc. It feels as if it's filled more with a few good ideas than one memorable performance.
This 1969 Sonny Lester production was one nearly hopelessly lost slab of solid funk. It often popped up in cut-out bins when records were still waxed. When used-record stores started disappearing, beauties like this started vanishing too. But Blue Note's blessed Rare Groove series has exhumed all 32 minutes of this hard-hitting fon-kee gem (and, to its credit, retained the original but dated cover art too). Acid jazzers are probably already familiar with "The Bird Wave," which appeared on the Blue Note Rare Grooves compilation issued in 1996. The great news is that the rest of Electric Funk goes like this too. No sap, no frills. Just good true groove. In 1997, nay-sayers accuse this street soul (which prevailed in the early 70s) of being nothing more than TV cop-show music and Blaxploitation soundtrack stuff. Lovers will say that's the point. But in 1969, this was the next step for soul jazz; a genre Jimmy McGriff has always ruled. From his early Sue classics (all of which were recently released on CD by the Collectibles label) to his Solid State records in the 60s and on to his Sonny Lester productions on Groove Merchant and LRC in the 70s, this man has always known how to rock a groove.
Unfortunately, credits are limited here to the organ grinder and his arranger (Horace Ott - a staple of the orchestrated groove in the 70s). Some sources indicate Stanley Turrentine and Blue Mitchell sit in the orchestra pit (very brief tenor and trumpet features indicate it's certainly possible). It'd be nice, however, to know the identities of the fuzz guitarist heard here and the funky drummer (who has the rhythmic familiarity of Bernard Purdie).
Ott's arrangements are riff-oriented and stay out of McGriff's way. They often launch McGriff into one clever line after another and, fortunately, never tempt him to out-modulate the horn section as was so often the case on McGriff's earlier big-band tribute to Count Basie. Here's hoping Blue Note has room left in the budget to bring back the long-lost grooves of McGriff's The Worm (1968) and Black Pearl (1971) too.
Big Band Trane
Talented Bob Mintzer, no slouch as a leader, arranger, writer or sax player, delivers one disappointing tribute to one of his heroes. The idea is certainly noble -- though it's too easy to compare Mintzer's less favorable work here to Eric Dolphy's `arrangements' during the Africa/Brass sessions. And certainly many lesser Trane tributes exist. But this one seems less from the heart than from the Las Vegas lounge fakebook. Only "My Favorite Things," "A Love Supreme-Acknowledgment" and "Impressions" come from the Coltrane songbook. These strive to say something; but end up sounding like showy duds. The rest of this December 1995 recording is 'inspired' by Coltrane and his significant influence on Mintzer. There's no doubt about the quality of talent involved either. Randy Brecker, Marvin Stamm and Michael Mossman all sit in the trumpet section! But the connection to Trane is tenuous at its best and the lasting impression is studio tomfoolery at its slickest. Big Band Trane ain't bad music. It's just not worth the investment.
Like James Carter, David Sanchez is an awesomely talented, highly hyped tenor/soprano sax player who's lucky enough to be recording for a major label. That means lots of people will hear him and his music. It doesn't hurt that, like Carter too, he's very attractively photogenic. In the MTV age, that goes a long way toward establishing a career. But, unlike the aging "young lions" of the Marsalis generation, this young New Yorker doesn't restrict himself to ridiculous self definitions of what jazz is and what jazz should be. Street Scenes is the third album by Sanchez and adds bonuses like alto player Kenny Garrett (on the great fours-trading of "Los Cronopios" and "The Elements") and Cassandra Wilson (unnecessarily humming along to Sanchez's marvelous soprano work on "Dee Like The Breeze"). Here's a guy who can find his way around the corners of Monk standards, feed the fires of Latin funk and still have something left to say. His sound isn't as developed as Carter's, but his style sings throughout with the playful inventiveness of Mike Brecker. Sanchez's partner in crime here is the equally welcome pianist Danilo Perez, who's Impulse album, Pannamonk, was one of the joys of 1996. The two work together with a simpatico synergy that makes sense -- from the modal "Urban Frequency" to the groove of "Street Scenes Downtown." The drummer, Clarence Penn, is often reminiscent of Leon Parker (who manned the traps on the other two Sanchez discs); yet his propulsive energy suits the Latin, Modal, Funk and Bop ranges Sanchez traverses on Street Scenes. This is great music - invigorating, entertaining and worth repeated listens -- from a talented player who has a lot to say in his varied musical vocabulary.
Hot on the heels of the recently re-issued Stanley Turrentine Blue Note classic, The Spoiler (Sept. 22, 1966), comes the welcome re-release of Easy Walker. Although released as part of the label's "Rare Groove" series, very little of this rare, soulful jazz will be thought of as funk or acid jazz. With the exception of the first track, "Meat Wave," a standard "Sidewinder"-type acoustic groove that opened almost every Blue Note album from the period, this is an easy-going, swinging session that highlights the chemistry between the instantly identifiable tenor saxophonist and the strong presence of pianist McCoy Tyner - who also played on Turrentine's The Spoiler, Mr. Natural (1964) and Rough and Tumble (1966). Blue Note has thrown in some real bonuses too. In addition to all six tracks from the originally-issued July 8, 1966, quartet session, there's "A Foggy Day" (an unremarkable quartet performance featuring Tyner that is one of seven tracks recorded from an unreleased big-band session on July 28, 1967, most notable as Alfred Lion's last supervised session for Blue Note) and four excellent quartet tracks from June 23, 1969, prominently featuring Tyner. The 1969 tracks were first issued in 1981 on an album called Ain't No Way (the title track, which is not included here, is from a 1968 Turrentine quintet session featuring Shirley Scott) and make this CD worth the price of admission at 70 minutes. The 1966 material is good and will surprise few who are familiar with the tenor's Blue Note work. Even the corny "What The World Needs Now Is Love" is given that meaningful charm Turrentine invests in other schmaltz he covers. But "Alone Together" is most representative of the intuition Turrentine and Tyner share for one another's abilities. Makes one wish for a reunion in the 90s (they're both, coincidentally, recording for the Impulse! label now). The two really nail it down during the 1969 session with top-rate tunes ("Stan's Shuffle," "Watch What Happens," "Intermission Walk" and an outstanding performance of Jobim's "Wave") and a cooking, thoughtful passion that is great to hear. Turrentine slows the familiar tempo of "Watch What Happens" and juices up "Wave" so ingeniously that they feel like his own songs. Better yet, both Tyner and Turrnetine attack the songs with their respective signatures and illustrate some of their finest playing of the period. Good stuff.
Blue Note's been digging deep in the vaults and turned up one long-forgotten gem in Common Touch, a joint production between the former husband-and-wife team of Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott. Ms. Scott has always been a vastly underrated organ player who crafted her own light and airy sound out of some dead-serious blues. She was also a much better-suited partner to her ex-husband's deep, rich and individual tenor than even Jimmy Smith. There's clearly an unmistakable emotional telepathy here. The Turrentines recorded on more than a dozen occasions throughout the 60s for a variety of labels (Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse and Atlantic); the best of which resulted in Turrentine's Let It Go (Impulse) and Never Let Me Go (Blue Note) and Scott's Blue Flames, The Soul Is Willing, Soul Shoutin' and this late entry from 1968, Common Touch.
What makes this different is the addition of the agile guitarist Jimmy Ponder (like Turrentine, a Pittsburgh native) and a markedly funkier edge -- nothing Turrentine, Scott, Ponder, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Idris Muhammed couldn't do in their sleep. Common Touch rocks with a funky groove that is catchy and thoughtful all at once. "Buster Brown" simmers at a boil without condescending or collapsing. Ms. Scott's hot "Boogaloo," featured on last year's The Lost Grooves compilation from Blue Note, works some sparkling interplay into a hip-grinding groove. And just when you think no jazz could loosen up Dylan's "Blowin in the Wind," listen to how funky it gets here. An added bonus is the long, sizzling blues recorded by more or less the same group earlier in the year, "Ain't No Way" (from a from May 1968 session that was eventually featured as the title cut to an album released under Turrentine's name in 1981).
The joy of this zesty release is the chemistry of the rhythm section and the ideal combination of the tenor player, his former wife and the guitarist from his hometown. Good tunes, great playing and talented players make this a real winner. Kudos to Blue Note for its active interest in bringing back this music. Even though popular opinion in jazz circles seems to deny it, the Blue Note legacy includes some first-class music after Alfred Lion sold the label to Liberty in 1967. Common Touch is a great example.