Ron Affif

Ron Affif, like George Benson, Jimmy Ponder and Joe Negri, is a guitarist from Pittsburgh. Like Benson and Ponder, Affif owes something of his sound and swing to Wes Montgomery. But he's also clearly influenced by the technical virtuosity and warmth produced by Joe Pass. Ringside, Affif's fourth record on Pablo, is dedicated to his father, middleweight champion Charlie Affif, and the eight tunes here suggest a sort of boxing theme. The guitarist, though, assisted in his trio by Essiet Essiet on bass and former Pass man Colin Bailey on drums, pulls no punches. His music comes out swinging, but its strength is in melodic and refreshingly involving lyricism.

Like Cannonball Adderley's record Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Ringside was recorded in front of a small studio audience at Fantasy Studios (over three days last February). Affif begins the program with a faster-than-usual "If I Were A Bell," and turns in one of the least corny versions of this song in memory. "Don't Make Me Pull That Tongue Out" (great title!) and "Uncle Joe," two of four Affif originals, are perhaps the disc's best tracks and clearly suggest Wes Montgomery's chord structures on those rollicking Riverside romps. When Affif slows the pace, though, as he does on "Farewell," the solo "Holly" or the lovely "I Should Care," he tends toward single-note phrases reminiscent of Joe Pass.

Affif distinguishes himself, however, in the resonant bell-like tone he manages to produce from his guitar. Another plus is a style that's all his own -- and very unusual for a guitarist. Whether playing at fast tempos (as in the excellent "Alone Together") or slower ones, Affif is never too hurried to spit out a phrase or an idea. He labors over his melodies with a precision that is patient and caring. Yet he never once betrays conception or construction by hanging on notes too long or stretching ideas over too many measures. Very classy -- and worth a close listen.

An earlier guitar tribute to Miles Davis should have brought Ron Affif more attention. Hopefully, Ringside will. It's quite a good disc that guitar-trio fans are sure to enjoy.

Bill Frisell

Those who savor the sweet and simple beauty of Bill Frisell's more country/western compositions like "When We Go," "Lonesome" and "Little Brother Bobby" ought to be extremely satisfied with this terrific new disc. Nashville, as it's title suggests, is filled with many variations of American heartland music --- pure folk ("Gimme A Holler" and "Brother") to rollicking bluegrass ("Go Jake") and deep country blues ("Pipe Down") to achingly memorable ballads ("Keep Your Eyes Open" and "Family").

Most of Nashville is made up of Frisell's sparkling originals. The covers, all three featuring the lovely vocal talents of Robin Holcomb, include Neil Young's "One Of These Days," the marvelous "Will Jesus Wash The Bloodstains From Your Hands" and "The End Of The World."

Frisell sticks to acoustic and electric guitar throughout Nashville. He avoids guitar synth altogether here -- and the result is much better and more honest for it (though he's probably guitar synth's most individualistic stylist). He does it all without aid of a drummer or percussionist too. Once you realize it, you have to stop and consider how rhythmic and exciting he can be. Quieter pieces like the near-dissonant "Brother" and the cool off-kilter Monk-ish blues of "We're Not From Around Here" offer considerable proof.

On hand to keep things moving is a talented bunch of individuals who really seem to care about what they are playing. Each is used in bits and pieces (there are a number of duo, trio and quartet performances) and includes the talented Jerry Douglas on dobro, Ron Block on banjo and acoustic guitar, Victor Krauss on bass, Adam Steffy on mandolin and on two tracks, Pat Bergenson playing harmonica. Frisell keeps it appropriately simple too. He never layers sounds or loads up the instrumentation. As a result, the insturmentational simplicity brings out the charm of his lovely tunes.

Even though Nashville is clearly one of his strongest collection of compositions, Frisell and company avoids excessive improvisation and tends toward utilizings basic frameworks throughout. "Shucks," for example seems based on "Three Blind Mice" -- and more than a couple tunes suggest the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as a starting point for a variety of directions.

Nashville is one of Bill Frisell's very best. It's as likely to appeal to his divergent fans as it is to those who admire the stylistic virtuosity of Ry Cooder -- even Neil Young and Leo Kottke. Most highly recommended and one of the year's least likely best.

Two For The Road
Dave Grusin

Jazz has always loved the music of Henry Mancini and, lately, quite a few albums have been released in tribute to the late film composer. But this one makes sense: a film composer with a vivid imagination and a deep respect for jazz gets interpreted by a jazz player who himself has scored many films over the last 30 years. Grusin, in his third of recent tribute discs (Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were the others), is very well suited to this music. He sticks to piano throughout, and much of the disc has such a relaxed, quiet feel that it gives the impression of a late-night piano-trio session. The highlights here are all ballads and serve to illustrate how melodically gifted and accessible Henry Mancini's music is. What's more noticeable, though, is how sensitive Grusin is to this music. He clearly loves it, and the beauty and lightness of his touch -- which may have sounded a little too studied in the past -- is appropriate here.

The trio, ideally configured with John Patittucci on bass and Harvey Mason on drums, waxes eloquent on the disc's best track, "Mr. Lucky" and a terrific version of "Days of Wine and Roses." Strings are added to good effect for "Moment by Moment" (a nice surprise), "Hatari" (with good tom work from Mason) and "Two for the Road." A small horn section weighs in to funk up the unnecessary uptempo numbers, "Peter Gunn" and "Baby Elephant Walk." Interestingly, Grusin approaches these tunes on his own terms, as if he wrote them for one of his own films. Vocalist Diana Krall is added for "Dreamsville" and "Soldier in the Rain" and though she sounds fine (in a sweet, overproduced way), vocals seems very intrusive here -- especially on "Dreamsville," one of Mancini's most beautiful compositions -- and distract from the beauty of Grusin's performance. "Whistling in the Dark," from Darling Lili, is another after-hours mood piece ideally perfected by Grusin and featuring Tollack Ollestad on harmonica.

Discs like this are often made because there's a built-in audience for the music. That's true here too. Fans of both Henry Mancini and Dave Grusin will enjoy Two for the Road. Piano jazz listeners, however, will also hear some choice playing from an unusually introspective Grusin here too.

Bar Wars
Willis Jackson
(32 Jazz)

Juke-joint tenor honker Willis Jackson (1932-1987) recorded frequently after scoring the hit "Gator Tail" in 1948. The tune even earned him his nickname. But Bar Wars turned out to be one of his all-time best. Made toward the end of his career -- shortly after recording two disco albums for Atlantic -- Bar Wars catches Jackson with an unbeatable quintet -- machine-gun great Charles Earland on organ, clean swinger Pat Martino on guitar, rhythmic kingpin Idris Muhammad on drums and the reliable Buddy Caldwell on congas.

This December 1977 recording is one of Jackson's best programs too. Included are two excellent Jackson cookers, "Bar Wars" and "The Goose Is Loose." Both tunes, ignited by some of Earland and Martino's best work on record, were probably made up on the spot. But they have that fiery blues groove Gator fans love. "The Goose is Loose," like his 1971 groover "Gatorade," is perhaps one of Jackson's most memorable performances. Even more notably, Jackson takes the covers ("Later," Basie's "Blue & Sentimental," two takes of Lecuona's "The Breeze and I" and two takes of Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me") and juices them up to mid-tempo strolls. Ballads, standards and cover tunes usually weigh down Jackson's other records. It's not that he can't handle them. On record, they just distract you from hearing Gator the way he is meant to be heard -- fingers flying, horn a-honking, deep into the groove. Here, he recognizes his strengths and muscles up the backbeat with a vigor of someone a fraction of his age -- without ever betraying the intention of the original melodies.

Listen, for example, how he just glides over "The Breeze And I" while Earland walks the basses, Muhammad strolls out his figures and Martino cuts some lines that spur the Gator on. Other players would tap the sap out of this warhorse and milk it to death. Not here -- not these guys.

First released on Muse Records in 1978, then on CD with two bonus tracks in the early 90s, this recently-released edition of Bar Wars appears on Joel Dorn's mid-priced 32 Jazz label (Dorn owns the Muse catalog now). Bar Wars is a great place for acid-jazzers and tenor lovers to start exploring the magic of Gator. Recommended.

Newklear Music
Keystone Trio

Newklear Music is the second disc by this trio of pianist John Hicks, bassist George Mraz and drummer Idris Muhammad. The title, a pun on Sonny Rollins' nickname (which he earned in the 50s due to a likeness to famed Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcomb), suggests a dry tribute to the tenor sax great. But, as the subtitle, "The Songs Of Sonny Rollins," hints, this is something altogether different -- and far more interesting.

First, although the inevitable "Airegin" is included, the trio refreshingly avoids the standard Rollins book. Lesser known material covered here includes "O.T.Y.O.G.," "Times Slimes," "Wynton" (a terrific feature for Mraz), "Here's To The People," "Tell Me You Love Me" (a good choice for the obligatory Calypso), "Silk 'n' Satin" and a Bill Evans take on "Kids Know."

Second, the trio digs deep inside these melodies and works from within to launch a synergy of reflective, reflexive exploration. Since they take on Rollins, "the composer," something unexpected happens. The listener concentrates on the astounding beauty and depth of complexity always present in Rollins' melodies. As Chip Stern's excellent liner notes aptly point out, "Rollins's emphasis as a soloist is primarily melodic and rhythmic. But for Hicks and the Keystone Trio, their focus seems to be in bringing the harmonies of the tune to the fore -- placing more emphasis on the tunes themselves, than the exposition."

The result is a tremendous piano-trio date that is surprisingly reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi. Driven by Hicks' romantic personality and a genuine affection for this material (listen here for his beautiful ballad, "Love Note For Sonny"), Newklear Music offers the interactions of a first-rate trio exploring excellent material. Mraz is a wonderful and supple voice here and never once gives the impression of a being merely a rhythm instrumentalist. Idris Muhammad is a revelation. After years of funk drumming, he surprised many in the bands of Pharaoh Sanders and Randy Weston. While Rollins' work must tempt him to overstatement, his technique offers percussion that is simple, supportive and, often times, quite melodic. Recommended.

Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd's musical journey has been a quiet evolution from be-bop to free to modal to pop to rock to a spiritual/meditative mix of all the above. Canto, Lloyd's fifth and best disc on ECM, squarely falls into the last of these 'categories'. Even the title, which is defined as one of the principal divisions of a long poem, suggests this journey -- and Canto's role in it. Lloyd's perfected a way to structure sound so that he and his group play at and around varying themes. His full-bodied tone on tenor, once heavily influenced by Coltrane, brings to life many moods, passions, even other cultures, while his rhythms set a narrative framework that seems constantly in flux. Like many great musicians, he is a restless seeker.

As always, he's inspired to this end by a significantly talented rhythmatist. In the past, it was Gabor Szabo, Keith Jarrett or Michel Petrucianni. Here, as it has been since 1989, Scandinavian pianist Bobo Stenson buoys and spars with Lloyd. It's his clean, percussive figures which ignite the tenor player and the aching warmth he injects into his playing that make so much of this music so compelling. Bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Billy Hart, both assets on last year's All My Relations, are also present here.

The 16-minute opener, "Tales from Rumi," builds such deliberate intensity that Lloyd isn't even heard until the sixth minute -- and the song's Arabic theme isn't stated until the eighth minute. The 13-minute "M," on the other hand, winds down from a classic Coltrane quartet groove into a solemn, exploratory middle Eastern mode. Lloyd never belabors his point (neither, for that matter, does Stenson). Both allow plenty of space for Jormin's walking bass and Hart's classic cymbal work to work their charms. And for those who would write off the icy charms of the ECM sound, or the wintry environs of this Oslo recording, take a listen to the warm, romantic sounds of "How Can I Tell You" and "Desolation Sound." Each of these tunes is strongly influenced by the sensual rapport Stenson and Lloyd share. It's a little like what you'd expect to hear Keith Jarrett doing on those famed recordings Lloyd made for Atlantic back in the 60s. These two songs, in particular, deserve to be heard by other performers -- and would probably attract attention if programmed into more radio formats. The 13-minute "Canto" (which hints at the theme to Lloyd's lovely "The Song My Lady Sings") is another highlight; mixing Stenson's minimalist soulfulness with Lloyd's deeply passionate playing. It's clear these musicians need time to tell their stories. Lloyd departs from the tenor only once on the disc and picks up his piercing Chinese oboe for "Nachiketa's Lament." Unfortunately, he steers clear of his wonderful, fiery flute here. But he's quickly back to tenor for the remainder of the disc.

Canto may demand a little more patience and attention for some to enjoy. But since these are clearly messages from within -- it's worth the time. This is one of the few recent examples of creative improvised music that really reaches out to grab a hold of its listener. Captivating and recommended.

Lone Star Legend
David Newman
(32 Jazz)

Since his heyday in Ray Charles' horn section in the 50s, David Newman has released two dozen albums of some of the swingin'-est soul jazz ever heard. Even when he flirted with funk in the late 60s and disco in the late 70s, Newman never veered far from the soul that powered his distinctive tenor growl. He has one of the most recognizable and down-n-dirty sounds on flute too. And his soprano playing is one of the most enjoyable sounds out there. Call it that Texas swing.

What is it about the Lone Star state that produces such dynamic jazz and dynamite players?

Lone Star Legend pairs two straight-ahead sessions Michael Cuscuna produced for Muse in the early 80s. The first, Resurgence (recorded 9/23/80), has never appeared on CD before and features Marcus Belgrave on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ted Dunbar on guitar, Cedar Walton on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. It's the better of the two sessions, but the other session is hardly a dud. It comes from the album, Still Hard Times (a 4/14/82 session first issued on CD in 1989 with three extra alternate takes not included here) featuring former Charles bandmate Hank Crawford on alto (and charts), Howard Johnson on baritone sax, Charlie Miller on trumpet, Larry Willis on piano, Walter Booker on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

Resurgence benefits greatly from the contributions of Cedar Walton, another Texas jazzman, and the great Marcus Belgrave. Both are capable of playing anything and making it sound good -- and they both make Newman sound even better than usual. Ted Dunbar swings nicely here too. Hank Crawford's "Carnegie Blues" (with Walton on electric piano), Belgrave's "Akua Ewie" and Walton's slower-than-usual "To The Holy Land" let Newman lay into an easy bop groove that brims with Texas soul. Newman contributes two slow, swinging blues, including the wonderful "Mama Lou, " which finds the reed player preaching on flute (a personal favorite). Each tune allows the principals to make the most of the proceedings and swing with relaxed flair.

The title of the 1982 record refers to the hit song from Newman's first record (Ray Charles Presents David "Fathead" Newman -- 1958), "Hard Times;" which also featured Hank Crawford and Marcus Belgrave. But it is probably most aptly significant to Newman's lack of critical respect and popular success by 1982. Unfortunately, a decade and half later, very little has changed. But it's nice to hear this tenor master paired with Hank Crawford again. The pair, which subsequently teamed up on Newman's 1986 disc, Fire! , and Crawford's recent Tight, tackle two Newman originals, two Crawford numbers (including the cooker, "Blisters") and two less-than-familiar standards. The playing is flawless and, naturally, highlights the interplay and rapport of Newman and Crawford. Howard Johnson and Larry Willis support rather nicely -- although it would be hard to identify either in their roles here. One of the nicest surprises, though, is the infrequent appearance of Steve Nelson, who blends perfectly with Newman on the excellent blues of "One For My Baby" and "Please Send Me Someone To Love."

They weren't making much music like this in jazz during the early 1980s. And It's good that Joel Dorn, who recently bought the Muse catalog and produced David Newman's best Atlantic records (1967-1974) and two Warner Brothers albums (1976-1977), has rescued these classic sessions for today's ears. This is solid, soulful jazz worth hearing.

Joe Pass

Nuages is the second volume of material the late Joe Pass and his quartet performed at Yoshi's club in Oakland, California, in 1992. With the exception of bassist Monty Budwig (who died shortly after this recording), this is pretty much the same group that performed on Pass' renowned 1963 record, For Django. Listening to the two guitars interacting and supporting one another here, it's obvious that Pass enjoyed making music like this. The audience seems to appreciate it too.

Nuages is an enjoyable collection of standards, one Pass original ("Blues For The Weasel") and the little-known Neal Hefti song, "Repetition." Much of this collection focuses on the slower tempos, with "Nuages" a clear highlight. Pass, as always, is a thoughtful, communicative player who, no matter how dazzling his playing, never fails to draw in listeners. The moody, bossa-nova take of "Repetition," originally intended for the first of the two live albums (Joe Pass & Co.), is one of this disc's best tracks. It glides along on a gentle swing and evokes warm, romantic places. Another highlight is the Pass blues. It's always a genuine treat hearing him knock out the blues. He could do it in his sleep, but he always makes it sound perfectly inspired too.

When tempos pick up a bit, as in "I Remember You," "Cherokee" and "What Is This Thing Called Love," the interaction between Pass and Pisano kicks into gear too. Each of these performances reminds you how fun jazz can be -- for the players and the listeners. This listener was reminded of the rapport and chemistry guitarists Gabor Szabo and Jimmy Stewart shared in the late 60s. Compare their live performance of "What Is This Thing Called Love" (from Szabo's disc, The Sorcerer) with the Pass/Pisano version heard here. For four such dissimilar and unique guitarists, striking similarities abound.

Everything Joe Pass recorded is worth hearing. And whether solo, or with a group as he is here, he was always best in performance. Nuages is an easily recommended collection fans won't want to 'pass' on -- and a great place to hear terrific guitar jazz.

Island Episode (Prestige)
Lost & Found (32 Jazz)

Houston Person

There must be very few musicians as frequently recorded as Houston Person who are as misunderstood, maligned or just plain ignored. The jazz crowd thinks he's just a funkster. And the funk lovers write him off as a balladeer or standards-bearer. Of course, he's all this and more. He's also an accomplished be-bopster, a kick-ass bluesmith, a passionate gospel player, a sensitive accompanist and in addition to becoming quite the talent scout and seasoned producer, he's really turned into a first-rate ballads player. He's always maintained his own sound (right out of the Book of Jug) -- but he's never really had the audience he's deserved. These two releases, and his brand new disc, Person-ified (Highnote), may help to change all that though. Both Lost & Found and Island Episode contain material that, up until now, has been unavailable -- and, what's better, contain some truly excellent Person.

Island Episode contains one track from 1971 and a complete, unreleased session from 1973. "Nemo," from 1971, is an octet performance featuring Babe Clark on baritone sax, Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet, Billy Butler on guitar and Bernard Purdie on drums. It's an okay R&B number; typical for the period. But things really kick into gear on the outstanding 1973 session that features Victor Paz on trumpet, Hank Jones on electric piano, an outstanding Jimmy Ponder on guitar, Nicky Marrero on timbales, and Andy and Jerry Gonzalez from the Fort Apache band. This formerly unknown session, recorded between Person's last LP for Prestige in 1972 (Sweet Buns And Barbecue) and his first for Eastbound in 1973, is a great Caribbean-type outing that beautifully spotlights its leader's musical and passionate abilities. While Jones is surprisingly faceless on electric piano, Ponder sounds great throughout on acoustic guitar and Person eschews the drummer almost totally in favor of some of the spicy percussion as the rhythmic percolator. Both versions of "St. Thomas" cook here. So does "Theme from Baxter" and "Montuno Merengue" (on which Person doesn't even enter until nearly 7 minutes into the song). This unusual session is most highly recommended -- and one of Person's very best.

Lost & Found contains two full Muse albums issued on one disc, courtesy of Joel Dorn's new low-priced 32 Jazz label. One session comprises the long lost 1977 album Wildflower, featuring Jimmy Ponder on guitar, Sonny Phillips on organ and electric piano, Idris Muhammed on drums and Lawrence Killian on percussion. This is the record that features Sonny Phillips' classic late 70s funk tune, "Preachin' and Teachin" (also available on the pHo acid-jazz collection, Funky Good Time) as well as some mid-tempo and slow jams that favored Person's distinctive growl. Much of this album, however, catches Person (who produced the disc) using a sort of studio-enhanced echo effect that gives his playing a false, resilient (and unnecessary) ring. It's similar to some of the tactics Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Gene Ammons would employ at Rudy Van Gelder's studios in their day. Fortunately, such is not the case on Person's Sweet Slumber, the other half of this terrific CD; a self-produced and formerly unreleased session from 1991 featuring bluesman, pianist and vocalist Charles Brown. Person is in good form here on an inspired and exceptionally strong blues-based recording. Brown keeps the blues integrity strong and abundant throughout these seven tracks (with occasional vocals). The strongest tracks allow Person to show how accomplished a blues player he can be ("Late Night Lullaby," "No Denial Blues," Trust In Me" and "Sweet Slumber"). A nice surprise that is easily recommended.

American Jungle
Sonny Simmons
(Quest/Warner Bros.)

Legendary firebrand Sonny Simmons was one of the great players in the avant-garde, freebop movement of the early 1960s. Although recorded infrequently, he always made passionate statements on alto that were fierce and relentless. Every note he blew demanded to be heard. He's spent the last 30 years in San Francisco largely unrecorded. But now in his sixth decade, he's survived and, better yet, lost none of the passion or anger that made all his music so compelling. Today, he's got more energy and ideas than young re-boppers half his age. Simmons surprised many last year with his critically acclaimed "comeback" trio disc, Ancient Ritual, on Quincy Jones well-distributed Quest label. Since then, he's had a 1990 session surface on CD (Global Jungle) and even recorded for the first time on tenor (!) for CIMP (Transcendence and Judgment Day).

This outstanding Simmons release offers another rather jolting surprise -- piano! For a man who's almost never relied on piano's rhythmic cushion, this is something of a shock -- and a chance to hear the alto giant's dynamics in a new way. He's accompanied by 28-year old Travis Shook on the 88s, former Coltrane stalwart Reggie Workman on bass and incisive drummer Cindy Blackman (who’s putting those Tony Williams influences to great use here). Shook, afforded quite nice solo spots here in "Black, Blue & Purple" and "My Favorite Things," sticks to block chords (a la McCoy Tyner) throughout in an effort to avoid crowding Simmons. As a matter of fact, the rhythm section as a whole wisely helps glide Simmons along to his destination -- without ever getting in the way.

Things start off with the straight-forward bop-rock of "Land Of The Freaks;" a reference of sorts to the fire music of Roland Kirk. Rather surprisingly, Simmons winds through the collages of Kirk’s polyphony, multi-instrumentation and angry swing on one horn while the trio forcefully recapitulates resourcefully from behind. "Black Blue & Purple" evokes memories of Eric Dolphy -- yet force the listener to account for Simmons on his own terms. Quite frankly, nothing this man plays can be ignored -- or compared disfavorably to another horn player. Coltrane finds homage in both "Coltrane Story" and one of the more welcome, unique renditions of "My Favorite Things" heard since Coltrane popularized the song in 1960.

The disc's greatest moment comes at the end, in "American Jungle Theme;" an odd, yet just-right mix of urban funk and near-dissonant freemode. It's a glorious statement of principals that finds Simmons wailing almost constantly for all of the song's 13 minutes. Each note he plays is inspired. The rhythm section keeps the blood flowing in the potentially monotonous ostinato cadence. This is like a great war cry that has a musical power unlike anything that's been heard in jazz over the last 25 years or so.

American Jungle offers nearly an hour of powerful music -- unequaled in it's grace, fire and passion by anything produced thus far in 1997. Recommended.