The days of honest to God soul jazz are probably long gone. It’s hard to even remember all the good players who stretched out over some well-known R & B or dug deep into a meaningful blues. They packed all the clubs and their records, one a month it seemed, sold like crazy. Somewhere along the way people started taking jazz seriously. Maybe a bit too seriously.
Guitarist Paul Bollenback, though, comes from a crowd that seems most capable of reintroducing soul to jazz. Consider his fine work in the last decade with organist Joey DeFrancesco or even Gary Thomas or fellow Washington, DC area, natives Ron Holloway or Greg Hatza. Bollenback brings the flair of a fine technician to each of these groups. But he ain’t afraid to chew the fat and growl out his own down and dirty thoughts along the way. Sort of the way Kenny Burrell or Grant Green did in more fabled days.
For his third date as a leader, Bollenback continues his explorations of popular fare. Unlike the contemporary covers he chose for his previous disc, 1997’s Double Gemini, here he delves back to a mostly-familiar menu of Motown-era songs. Reuniting the trio that made the previous disc so interesting, Bollenback enlists former boss Defrancesco and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts to bring it all off and adds a small horn section for punctuation and on two songs, Broto Roy’s inviting tabla.
Throughout, Bollenback engages with witty, near-sparkling playing, suggesting a CTI session George Benson never made or the kind Wes Montgomery might make today if he were to record for Prestige (which he never did). DeFrancesco’s Lonnie-more-than-Jimmy Smith contribution may be the initial attraction and, in fact, the lingering appeal. But the guitarist and the organist certainly share a dynamic chemistry that most clearly recalls Wes and Jimmy (outlined beautifully on Bollenback’s "Blues For Joe D.").
What’s most notable about Soul Grooves, though, is Bollenback’s masterful reconsideration of the pop material he covers. The Temptations’ "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" gets turned into a slow, ultra-bluesy burner that somehow suggests Gershwin’s "Summertime" and elicits exceptional spots for DeFranscesco and alto sax man Steve Wilson.
"My Girl" becomes a waltz that transmogrifies into steamy funk and back while the Supremes’ "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" is zapped of sap by getting samba-fied (Bollenback’s playing, informed by past masters, is most notable on these two pieces and sounds like signature work).
Another highlight, Stevie Wonder’s "Too High," adds tabla and features great spots for both Bollenback and DeFrancesco, although the tasteful and unobtrusive horn punctuation here and throughout doesn’t have the verve or wit of similarly-inclined John Scofield arrangements. Bollenback’s three originals are, perhaps, of lesser interest but certainly not out of place either. And two tracks (one solo) feature some very attractive playing from Bollenback on a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar.
Soul Grooves perfectly describes what Bollenback is up to here. It’s also an apt description of where he’s coming from. His vocabulary is familiar and still very much his own and, if nothing else, may serve well to reacquaint listeners with that delicious stew known as soul jazz. If anyone can get the feeling back again, Paul Bollenback can.
Songs: Too High; Papa Was A Rolling Stone; ‘Til Tomorrow; Beautiful Garden; Blues For Joe D.; My Girl; Ain’t No Mountain High Enough; From A Dream; Dock Of The Bay; Visions.
Players: Paul Bollenback: guitar; Joey DeFrancesco: organ; Jeff "Tain" Watts: drums; Jim Rotundi: trumpet; Steve Wilson: alto sax; Eric Alexander: tenor sax; Steve Davis: trombone; Broto Roy: tabla.
Think of the stunning array of tenor greats buoyed at one time or another by pianist Cedar Walton: John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Clifford Jordan, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Lucky Thompson, Junior Cook, George Coleman and Stanley Turrentine to name only a few. And these associations take into account neither the considerable number of classics Walton has introduced to the jazz songbook nor the pianist’s simply magical prowess on his instrument – like a fine wine, aged to perfection over four decades. So consider the challenge to a young tenor player featuring Walton on his own date.
Thirty-year-old Illinois native Eric Alexander is hardly a babe in the woods or a novice at the game, though. Man With A Horn, first issued in Japan on the Alfa label in 1997, is his eighth as a leader (he’s since recorded for Delmark, Sharp Nine and, with last year’s aptly-titled Solid, Milestone). It’s a fine taste of contemporary bop, kept relevant by the simpatico synergy forged between the saxist and his pianist.
Alexander is an astute technician in the bop tradition who’s been honing a sound and style that becomes more distinctive and recognizable with each new recording. One thing about his playing that sticks with you is how sensitively considered his music is. He’s tough, without growling or roaring; muscular without flexing or flying off the handle; clever without vamping or showiness; and sweet without being sugary or sticky.
Here, Alexander and Walton work in a quartet rounded out by the tenor’s regular bassist, Dwayne Burno, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. The program is a nicely varied collection of bop tunes featuring a few by-the-book standards, two Alexander originals and Walton’s gorgeous "Midnight Waltz" and an unusually speedy "Fiesta Española." Stand outs include the funky bop of Alexander’s "Unsung Hero" (dedicated to another Walton tenor associate, Eddie Harris), "GCCJ" (dedicated to and apropos of both George Coleman and Clifford Jordan), Johnny Mandel’s "A Time For Love" and, of course, "Midnight Waltz" (which, like "GCCJ" and the pretty "My Shining Hour," add Jim Rotondi’s trumpet and Steve Davis’s trombone to great benefit).
Though not often as eventful or memorable as one could hope, Man With A Horn, is nevertheless an elegant and eloquent bop affair. Alexander’s appealing talents have yet to stamp the music with distinction. But he’s inspired in the company of Cedar Walton and it’s the pianist’s contribution that makes this one to hear.
Players: Eric Alexander–tenor saxophone; Cedar Walton–piano; Dwayne Burno–bass; Joe Farnsworth–drums; Jim Rotondi–trumpet; Steve Davis–trombone.
Songs: Man with a Horn; Unsung Hero; A Time for Love; GCCJ; Midnight Waltz; My Shining Hour; Stars Fell on Alabama; I Found You; Fiesta Española.
Close your eyes and play any one of the 28 songs on this two-disc set. Guess when the recordings were made, who’s playing and how old the player is. It sounds like the catchy, acoustic guitar swing pioneered by Django Reinhardt at the Hot Club de France in Paris during the 1930s.
Hard as it is to believe, though, these recordings were made during the early 1980s, when fusion and disco reigned in jazz. Even more surprising, the fingers finessing the fretboard belong to 13-year-old prodigy Bireli Lagrene. There’s a sense of shock seeing the beautiful young virtuoso pictured on the cover and listening to the depth of beauty he brings to this music.
His technique and creativity – largely self taught -- seem well
beyond his years. His perceptions of swing are deep and abiding. And,
in his true Gypsy heritage, he roams without trepidation through this
music and with a grace that is both inspired and intellectual. Surely,
his is the sound of surprise.
This beautifully packaged two-disc German set reissues the first of Lagrene’s solo albums, the live Routes To Django (1980, with one previously unreleased bonus track), and the similar studio recording, Bireli Swing ‘81 (1981). The two discs are well paired and catch the guitarist right before he came over to fusion (with Jaco Pastorius) and the more contemporary sounds (i.e. with Larry Coryell) he still records today. Lagrene is heard with an adult trio featuring Jan Jankeje on bass and Gaiti Lagrene and Tschirglo Loeffler strumming out the eighth-note time on rhythm guitar, with the occasional addition of a violin (ala Grappelli), piano, trumpet, soprano sax or drums.
Lagrene proves himself a player of unique prowess on the familiar Reinhardt numbers ("Djangology," "Nuages," "Swing Valse"), and offers startling impressions of Django-inflected standards ("All Of Me," "Lady Be Good," "September Song," "Night And Day"). Some of Lagrene’s song choices are uniquely surprising too: a theme from the Fassbinder film, Querelle (one of the bassist’s contributions) and Jobim’s "Wave," a Hot Club de France treatment certainly suggesting one "Route to Django."
When Lagrene picks up the electric guitar, however, one hears a personable identity forming. On these occasions ("Limehouse Blues," "Nuages," "How High The Moon"), the effect is awesome. Lagrene’s fleet fingers seem to race against the clock. But there’s a restraint, patience, even a relaxed sensibility – the kind a good storyteller knows how to employ – that make these occasions the disc’s most memorable.
Now in his thirties, Lagrene has certainly grown up a bit since these recordings were made. One wonders what he thinks of them now. But, somehow, as time marches on, one suspects these recordings will remain vital and endure. Regardless, this set is a necessary document in the legacy of a startling talent.
Songs: Fiso Place; Bireli Swing 1979; All of Me; Tschirglo Waltz; Latches; I’ve Found A New Baby; My Melancholy Baby; Bluma; Bireli Blues 1979; Wave; Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me; Boxer Boogie; Mirage; B.L.; Swing Valse; Djangology; Bireli Hi Gogoro; Lady Be Good; Thundering Noise; Erster Tango (Soundtrack Querelle); September Song; Black Eyes; I Can’t Give You Anything; Carlos; Limehouse Blues; Nuages; How High The Moon; Night And Day.
Players: Bireli Lagrene: guitar; Jan Jankeje: bass; Gaiti Lagrene, Tschirglo Loeffler: rhythm guitar; Bernd Marquart: trumpet on "I’ve Found A New Baby"; Wolfgang Lackerschmidt: trumpet on "Latches"; Bernd Rabe: soprano Sax; Jorg Reiter: piano on "Bireli Swing 1979" and "Boxer Boogie"; Allen Blairman: drums; Schmilo Kling: violin on "My Melancholy Baby".
For 1972’s Intensity, Charles Earland’s fifth of ten Prestige discs, the Mighty Burner seemed to be aiming toward something a little different than his usual collection of soulful tenor-organ jams. The presence of two songs from the rock group Chicago and a small trumpet-dominated horn section indicate that jazz-rock was the goal. The result, the LP’s four original tracks plus two tracks from the same date originally released as part of Charles III, is one of his very best.
Unfortunately, though, Intensity has the notorious reputation as the last recording trumpeter Lee Morgan participated in (done two days before his girlfriend shot him to death). But Morgan is perhaps the least notable aspect of what makes the record work well. His playing here - and elsewhere at the time - sounds rather indifferent, sometimes sloppy and far less stellar than the glowing commentary he offered up on a string of excellent Blue Note records throughout the 1960s (evident on his own lackluster "Speedball," also included here).
What does stand out is Earland’s strong performances, especially on two lesser known Chicago tunes ("Happy Cause I Love You" and a "Lowdown" that is not Boz Scaggs’s more famous hit, as the disc’s liners imply). Both are punctuated for effect with a needless fuzz guitar. But it doesn’t detract from the attractive energy the Earland-Laws-Morgan triumvirate achieves.
Earland also contributes two of his own above average originals: the wonderfully melodic medium tempo swinger, "Cause I Love Her," and the cooking "Morgan" (named after the fact of death, but neither a Morgan feature nor specifically dedicated to him).
One notices, too, the interesting sound spectrum engineer Rudy Van Gelder achieves here. The occasional trumpet punctuation (arranged by Earland and the underrated trumpeter Virgil Jones) shimmers, even though its glory-hallelujah harshness seems a bit overheated. But the combo tracks are superbly captured. Compare the sound here to any one of Laws’s Van Gelder engineered CTI dates. Then listen to any one of Morgan’s Van Gelder engineered Blue Note dates. The difference is remarkable. Unfortunately, though, Billy Cobham’s exceptionally vibrant drumming sounds as muffled and in-the-next-room as too many Van Gelder sessions did during that time.
The Prestige records Earland made between 1969 and 1974 remain his finest work. Intensity certainly ranks among the best, capturing a fine player at the very top of his game and easily recommended to those who seek meaningful organ jazz and of equal appeal to fans of the ever-diverse Hubert Laws.
Songs: Happy Cause I’m Goin Home; Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow; Cause I Love Her; Morgan; Lowdown; Speedball.
Players: Charles Earland: organ; Lee Morgan, Virgil Jones, Victor Paz, Jon Faddis: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dick Griffin, Clifford Adams: tenor trombone; Jack Jeffers: bass trombone; Billy Harper: tenor sax; William Thorpe: baritone sax; Hubert Laws: flute, piccolo; John Fourie, Greg Miller, Maynard Parker: guitar; Billy Coham: drums; Sonny Morgan: congas.
Organist and pianist Sonny Phillips kept a rather low profile during his two decades in jazz. Born and raised in Alabama in 1936, Phillips headed to Chicago’s DePaul University as a teen to pursue a career in education. At 20, he began studying privately with pianist Ahmad Jamal and started playing his own gigs in Chicago. Phillips joined Eddie Harris’s band in 1963 and stayed with the tenor sax legend throughout most of the rest of the decade. By the late 1960s, Phillips was devoted to the Hammond B3 and headed to New York City, working with sax greats Rusty Bryant, Gene Ammons and Houston Person, who employed Phillips throughout most of the next decade.
Between 1969 and 1970, Phillips also recorded three discs of his own for Prestige Records, riffing over Prestige’s usual stew of blues, ballads and boogaloos and offering unusual, but danceable originals like "Sure Nuff, Sure Nuff" and "Make It Plain." Phillips toured and recorded with Houston Person regularly over the next few years, penning two of Person’s best songs: "Kittatian Carnaval" (from 1973’s The Real Thing) and "Preachin’ and Teachin’" (from 1977, available on Person’s 32 Jazz set Lost & Found).
Sonny Phillips, who also began using his Muslim name, Jalal Rushdan, at this time, made only two more records under his own name, both for the Muse label: this 1976 session and 1977’s I Concentrate On You, which could have easily been added in full to this CD. After a bout with cancer, Phillips fled to California and began teaching. He remains there today, proudly presenting piano recitals featuring his students.
My Black Flower is a nice reminder of what Phillips contributed to jazz. It’s a pleasing blend of simple but varied medium-tempo soul riffs. The organist sets himself within a complimentary quintet (with second drummer Frankie Jones added for whatever reason to three tracks) featuring perfectly attuned and equally underrated guitarist Jimmy Ponder, flautist Galen Robinson, drummer Ben Dixon and percussionist Ralph Dorsey.
Phillips starts by revisiting Eddie Harris’s soulful blues "Goin Home," (he also played on the 1966 original, included on 32 Jazz’s Harris anthology, Greater Than The Sum Of His Parts). "My Black Flower" switches gears completely and lets Phillips sit down at the grand piano for a solo feature that clearly displays Ahmad Jamal’s influence. "Salaam 7" and "Jalal" are typical Phillips originals, offering familiar but forgettable riffs, but plenty of engaging solos from the organist and the guitarist (notable again on the wedding combo groove of "You Make Me Feel So Young"). The disc’s strongest, and surely most played track will be "Me And Me Brudder," another one of Phillips’s infectious "Kittatian Carnival"-like Jamaican grooves.
Phillips was never destined to shake the rafters, dethrone fellow organists Jimmy Smith or Larry Young or even eclipse the individual talents of other low-key players like John Patton, Leon Spencer or Clarence Palmer. He simply set out to share the benefit of music’s joy and shared experience with listeners. That’s what gives My Black Flower the interest it maintains today.
Songs: Goin Home; Salaam 7; My Black Flower; Me And Me Brudder; You Make Me Feel So Young; Jalal.
Players: Sonny Phillips: organ, piano; Jimmy Ponder: guitar; Galen Robinson: flute; Qaadir Almubeen Muhammad (Ben Dixon), Frankie Jones: drums; Ralph Dorsey: percussion.
It takes a special kind of drummer to be a leader. Maybe a nervy one. There’s the temptation to grandstand with showy over-domination or remain buried in a rhythm section and let someone else take the honors. The most successful drummer-leaders are either innovative melodists like Art Blakey, Shelly Manne and Tony Williams. Or they’re artful percussionists like Louis Bellson, Chico Hamilton or Leon Parker.
Then there’s Stanton Moore. As a New Orleans native, he’s grown up on the Mardi Gras gumbo of the Meters and Professor Longhair. But as a drummer, he digs deep into the boogaloo bayou of James Brown and Lou Donaldson. He clearly does not believe drumming merely keeps time. When Moore motivates, you’ll start moving. Actually, he makes it seem inhuman to sit still.
In other interesting spheres, Moore ignites the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars and scales the charts as a founding member of the popular funk band, Galactic. With All Kooked Out, the young drummer steps out on his own. This excellent debut offers Moore entrance to the funk pantheon (your hosts, Melvin Parker, Bernard Purdie, Idris Muhammad and Harvey Mason) and places him firmly in the same contemporary league of royalty heretofore occupied only by MMW’s highly esteemed Billy Martin.
Unlike Galactic’s keyboard-driven groove and occasional vocals, Moore opts for an all-instrumental guitar-sax groove on All Kooked Out. As he does elsewhere, he keeps it pretty simple– riding the snare, bass and occasional cymbal – but always with engaging funk at the source. Drum solos are kept to a minimum. But, thankfully, they’re always in the context rather at the expense of the music.
Moore’s real coup is recruiting guitarist Charlie Hunter for this party. Hunter adds the rhythmic kick and the melodic groove that gives Moore’s beat real substance. Somehow, Hunter manages an eight-string guitar, giving him the ability to play bass and guitar parts at the same time. With a special attachment, he can even make his guitar sound like a Hammond B-3 organ. Hunter, who’s paired less interestingly with Leon Parker on his latest Blue Note release, Duo, proffers a formidable partnership with Moore. The two like-minded hipsters display much interchange, well worth hearing: at least for those who think funk offers something of value.
A basic trio (supplemented at times by a small cast of New Orleans all stars including Galactic Matt Pierce on tuba and former Sun Ra trumpeter Michael Ray) is rounded out by the wacky, yet appealing John Zorn saxophonics of Skerik (doin’ the Harold Alexander thing).
It’s an exceedingly winning combination too. Plenty of shining is heard throughout, notably on the brass band boogie of "Blues for Ben" (a great millennial party tune and a choice slice of Hunter in Wes-meets-Grant mode), John Patton’s "Boogaloo Boogie" (an ideal showcase for Hunter’s amazing, tuneful facility), the date’s lone ballad , the beautiful "Honey Island," and the nice surprise of Dudu Pakwana’s "Angel Nemali" (Skerik’s best moment).
All the while, the drummer puts out, completely in charge. No need to worry about giving this drummer some, he’s earning every bit. Name check his influences as you grind through the Lou Donaldson rock of "Common Ground," Monk’s clunky and chunky "Green Chimneys," and the James Brown jambalaya of "Nalgas," one of several memorable group originals/jams. Throughout, Moore keeps it funky. And since he keeps the environment limited to mostly just guitar-sax-drums - allowing truly excellent musicanship throughout - he winds up with something that ranks among the year’s finer jazz releases.
So does funk make for good jazz? Hard to say. Some people just don’t want to have fun. They’re the ones who think something catchy has nothing to say. Stanton Moore knows better. Those who hear him will surely agree. And those who groove to All Kooked Out will be all the richer for it.
Songs: Tchfunkta, Common Ground, Green Chimneys (by Thelonious Monk), Nalgas, Kooks on Parade, Blues For Ben, Witch Doctor, Boogaloo Boogie, Stanton Hits The Bottle, Nobodys Blues, Farmstead Antiques, Angel Nemali, Honey Island.
Players: Stanton Moore: drums & percussion; Charlie Hunter: eight-string guitar; Skerik: tenor and baritone saxophones: Matt Perrine: tuba: Brent Rose: tenor sax, soprano sax; Brian Seeger: guitar; Ben Ellman: tenor sax; Michael Ray: trumpet; Craig Klein: trombone.