BY BOBBY REED
Dee Alexander grew up hearing the recordings of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. But on her latest album, she doesn’t sound like any of them; she sounds distinctively like another great jazz singer: Dee Alexander. Though not as well known as her East Coast-based contemporaries, Alexander is one of the finest jazz singers on the scene today. As its title implies, her new album includes songs she heard during her formative years: “Mother gave me a great gift by weaving music into my life, and I now pay tribute to her with Songs My Mother Loves, giving thanks for her inspiration, influence [and] guidance.” Accompanying Alexander on the disc are such top-shelf musicians as Harrison Bankhead (bass), Ari Brown (tenor sax), Oliver Lake (alto sax) and Corey Wilkes (trumpet). Alexander’s version of the standard “Nature Boy” showcases not only Wilkes’ poignant muted trumpet but also the singer’s improvisational prowess. She heightens the song’s emotional impact with her elastic delivery of lyrics based on scripture from 1 Corinthians. Her interpretation of “Letter From Home,” with an arrangement bolstered by Brown’s potent tenor, is the perfect vehicle to highlight her mastery of phrasing. Alexander’s rendition of “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” is propelled by Miguel de la Cerna’s fluid pianism and spiced by a graceful dose of scatting. The singer scats judiciously, using the technique at choice moments on the album. Such restraint is the sign of a mature artist who is confident in her abilities but not overly in love with the sound of her own voice—no matter how sumptuous or authoritative it might be.
BY DAVIS INMAN
With three original compositions, plus terrific arrangements of songs penned by Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Leon Russell, Montreal-based vocalist and Juno Award winner Ranee Lee shows she is fully in command of “what’s going on” with her 13th album for Justin Time. The Birds on a Wire String Quartet adds a wonderful lilt to Gaye’s title track, while string arrangements also imbue Marley’s “One Love” with a gospel uplift—a tribute to Lee’s Jamaican-born mother—and provide a surprise twist to Russell’s “A Song For You.” New York-born Lee portrayed Billie Holiday in Canada’s first production of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 1988, and she released the album Deep Song: A Tribute To Billie Holiday in 1989. New Jersey-born pianist Taurey Butler (who released a self-titled Justin Time disc in 2011) wrote the music for “White Gardenia,” with lyrics by Roger Peace, foreshadowing Lee’s upcoming role as Holiday in a 2015 musical written by Peace. “Like a white gardenia/ You came into my life/ You brought a love so young and pure/ We had our time in the summer sun,” Lee sings on the track, which also features deeply attentive cello work by Kathleen de Caen. With a core group of Montreal-based musicians—guitarist Richard Ring (Lee’s husband), pianists Butler and Chad Linsley, bassists Morgan Moore and Dave Watts, drummer Dave Laing and saxophonist Chet Doxas—Lee receives plenty of excellent support here. Ring delivers a stinging solo on Lee’s “It Will Be What It Will Be!” while Linsley shines during a hypnotic solo on Johnny Mandel’s “Where Do You Start?” Lee, a fixture every year at the Montreal Jazz Festival, is yet another reminder of why her adopted city’s jazz scene is so impressive.
Amazon | CD Universe
BY BOBBY REED
Labeling Yelena Eckemoff a musician would be too limiting. The immensely gifted pianist not only composed all 10 tracks on her new album, she also painted the stunning landscape on its cover, and she wrote a poem to accompany each track—all of which are included in the CD booklet for A Touch Of Radiance. The Soviet-born, classically trained pianist has collaborated in the past with such brilliant musicians as drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Arild Andersen and percussionist Marilyn Mazur. Eckemoff’s new quintet album is a radiant illustration of what happens when you assemble great jazz players in the studio and give them room to roam. Her boldface colleagues here are vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist George Mraz, drummer Billy Hart and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Eckemoff shares the spotlight so generously that at times, this disc sounds like it could be a Turner-led project. (Indeed, when you’re working with one of the greatest tenor players around, you’d be a fool to clamp him down.) With a piano style that gracefully combines beautiful touch with aggressive bite, Eckemoff embraces the role of the searcher. While “Reconciliation” has a definite structure, and an earworm of a melodic riff from Turner, many of the tracks here convey the sense of a journey. On the closing track, “Radiance,” the interplay between Locke, Hart and Eckemoff is particularly effective, as each player explores the percussive quality of his or her instrument without sacrificing melodic sway. Throughout this album, the concept of a group aesthetic reigns supreme: Whether it’s Mraz’s fluid bass work, Hart’s skittering brushes, Locke’s muscular coloration, Turner’s honeyed tone or the leader’s shimmering accents, everyone here contributes to the whole composition in an unselfish way. This quintet is akin to five sensitive painters who create vibrant murals that are accessible yet visually challenging.
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BY FRANK ALKYER
The life and times of saxophonist Charles Lloyd have been a heady, complex and almost mythical journey—both around the globe and spiritually—as evidenced by the new documentary Arrows Into Infinity, out now on Blu-ray and DVD. Created by Lloyd’s wife, the painter/filmmaker Dorothy Darr, and filmmaker Jeffery Morse, the film does not pull punches, digging deep into the career of one of the most respected artists in improvised music. It’s a joy to see and hear Charles talk about his upbringing in Memphis, his love for Charlie Parker, his work with everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Chico Hamilton to Cannonball Adderley, his invitation to perform in the Soviet Union, his retreat to Big Sur to escape the business of music, and his explanation for why he returned. Lloyd is a masterful storyteller—intelligent, shaman-like and insightful. He discusses his first night in New York City back in the late 1950s, and going to Birdland to see his high-school friend trumpeter Booker Little: “The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Where you staying?’ Booker was workin’ at Birdland that night, and I said, ‘I’m stayin’ across the street at the Alvin [Hotel].’ Booker said, ‘No, you’re not. Go pack your bags up. You’re coming with me.’ He talked to me long hours into the night, kind of tuning me up, because I was ready to jump into the fast lane. I’m in New York, man. And he said, ‘No, it’s not about that. It’s about character.’ And he was 22 years old. He left a year later. And he was a realized soul.” Other voices in the film add depth and help examine the broad appeal of Lloyd and his musical vision. Herbie Hancock lovingly reminisces about a weeklong stint with Lloyd filling in for a young pianist named Keith Jarrett. Jack DeJohnette paints a beautiful picture of hitting it big with the tune “Sombrero Sam” as well as the chaotic nature of life and art during the late ’60s. Rock artists Robbie Robertson from The Band and John Densmore from The Doors give a sense of how Lloyd’s art intersected with the wider world of popular music. There’s a touching scene in which old friends Lloyd and Ornette Coleman play pool. There is so much to take in and enjoy in this film. For longtime fans who love Lloyd’s music, Arrows Into Infinity will add another level to that love. He’s not just a musician. He’s an artist—and a role model. At the end of the film, the saxophonist makes a statement that gives a sense of what he’s learned so far: “To live in your lifetime with your creativity is not so easy. And yet, when you’ve got a community of people who are willing to go down with the ship … man. The winds of grace are always blowing. We must set our sails high.” That statement, like this film, is powerful.
BY FRANK ALKYER
On All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller, the ever-inventive pianist Jason Moran and his partner in crime here, Meshell Ndegeocello, deliver a smile-on-your-face, head-bobbing new take on the music of Fats Waller (1904–’43). Waller—one of the great performers of early jazz and a popular fixture in Harlem—placed his stamp on stride piano during the ’20s and ’30s. Moran and his crew have been working out this material for the past three years, first as a commission for the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, then taking it on tour around the festival circuit. Live, the show is an absolute blast, with Moran dancing around the stage while wearing a giant papier-mâché mask of Waller created by Haitian artist Didier Civil. The band swings Waller’s music with hip-hop flair and r&b bravado. And Moran even offers a more straight-up reading of “Handful Of Keys” and “Lulu’s Back In Town,” just to demonstrate his take on how the master might do it today. All Rise is a very cool, very well-thought-out project: The music recorded here has been traveled, road-tested and developed. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” has a fine, neo-soul vibe with Ndegeocello’s plaintive call (“For you, for you, for you”) and Moran’s smooth Fender Rhodes. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” has a slow groove and sultriness that belies the tune’s original campiness. “Two Sleepy People” gives trumpeter Leron Thomas a chance to show off his excellent vocals. Moran strips “Jitterbug Waltz” down to a quartet and delivers an absolutely beautiful waterfall of sound featuring saxophonist Steve Lehman, some beautifully placed bass by Tarus Mateen and a laid-back, intricate groove by drummer Nasheet Waits. Moran is one of the most creative jazz artists working today, and on All Rise, he joyously reinterprets classic songs by a beloved icon—papier-mâché mask and all.
iTunes | Amazon
BY DAVIS INMAN
The Milanese pianist Stefano Bollani garnered critical acclaim for Stone In The Water (ECM), a 2008 album featuring his Danish trio (with bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund). On his new disc, Bollani has added two instrumentalists who help push the group in exciting directions. Saxophonist Mark Turner (who recently released his own ECM leader project, Lathe Of Heaven) is enchanting throughout, casting shadows over Bollani’s bright music with his angular tenor lines. The pianist had often dreamed of collaborating with Bill Frisell, and here the guitarist’s free-flowing style is an excellent foil for Bollani. Frisell’s clean tone and playful arpeggios glisten on “No Pope No Party.” In the past, Bollani has worked with pianist Chick Corea and Brazilian bandolim player Hamilton de Holanda, and the pianist’s fruitful partnership with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava in the 2000s yielded four fine ECM discs. The last of those, New York Days (2009), also featured Turner in a quintet setting, a predecessor to Bollani’s band here. The opening track on Joy, “Easy Healing,” finds the pianist, guitarist and saxophonist chasing each other through a gently shifting soundscape. Bodilsen and Lund keep the song’s layered sound afloat with a bare rhythmic structure. “Vale” brings the tempo down to a lugubrious slow-drag, a setting in which Frisell excels, daring his bandmates to venture into even more hushed tones. The title track closes out the disc with just the trio, as Bollani shows off the fleet, Corea-inspired technique that has earned him international renown.
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BY FRANK ALKYER
The music of Laura Nyro is near and dear to the hearts of her fans around the world. The singer-songwriter—who died from ovarian cancer in 1997—has been cited as an inspiration for artists as diverse as Elton John, Kate Bush and Todd Rundgren. So when pianist Billy Childs decided to rework this music, one could imagine that those fans would be skeptical. Don’t mess with perfection, right? But Childs has done something rare and wonderful on Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. He has demonstrated the absolute depth, beauty and range of Nyro’s music, and hopefully he’ll introduce this underrated songwriter to another generation. This is a grand production featuring an array of major stars from multiple genres: Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter, Chris Botti, Dianne Reeves, Chris Potter, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, Ledisi, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Susan Tedeschi. Childs’ arrangements are phenomenal. He paints Nyro’s music on a big, bold canvas. And he enlists producer Larry Klein—who also produced Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters—to help program the music into a perfectly flowing suite. Classical superstars Fleming and Ma play against each other beautifully on “New York Tendaberry.” Jones and Potter deliver a heartbreaking “Been On A Train.” Spalding and Shorter are breathtaking on “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp.” Ledisi’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” bounces like a ’70s soul firecracker. And Reeves is divine on “To A Child.” For die-hard Nyro fans, it might take a minute to set aside the famous versions of these songs from the past. But Childs has put Nyro’s music out there where it should be: as the next chapter in the Great American Songbook.
BY BOBBY REED
The Afro Bop Alliance’s new member, steel pan percussionist Victor Provost, has bolstered the sound of this Latin Grammy-winning band. “He’s like the Michael Brecker of the pans,” says drummer and Afro Bop Alliance founder Joe McCarthy. Provost adds intriguing textures to the band’s fifth album, Angel Eyes, and contributes three original compositions. On Provost’s tune “Fete Antilles,” he and trumpeter Tim Stanley double the jocular melody, and the steel pan wizard delivers a dazzling, two-and-a-half-minute solo that illustrates just how well he fits in with this group. Provost also shines on the slinky cha-cha-cha number “Ziggy The Crooner,” penned by bassist Tom Baldwin and featuring killer solos from Stanley and alto saxophonist Vince Norman. On Provost’s “Homenaje,” the combination of steel pans, Roberto Quintero’s rapid-fire conga work and a gem of a clarinet solo from guest Paquito D’Rivera results in a festive tropical vibe. Elsewhere, the group delivers addictive versions of songs penned by Wayne Shorter (“This Is For Albert”), Horace Silver (“Barbara”) and Joe Henderson (“Inner Urge”). Throughout the album, McCarthy and his Washington, D.C.-based group offer up danceable Latin grooves augmented by terrific flights of improvisation.
BY DAVIS INMAN
Twenty years before pianist-keyboardist Monty Alexander made his most well-known recordings with Jamaican reggae musicians in the ’90s, he convinced a German record label to let him return to his native Kingston to record an album at Bob Marley’s studio, Tuff Gong. In an ambitious new campaign, MPS (Musik Produktion Schwarzwald)—the label for whom the pianist recorded throughout the ’70s and early ’80s—has been reactivated to reissue some of its seminal recordings, including Alexander’s 1974 album Rass!, featuring lead guitarist Ernest Ranglin. “I didn’t have a script or anything; it was just the feeling, and the musicians were Jamaicans,” Alexander recently told DownBeat. The album includes a nine-minute soul-funk workout on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” featuring Alexander’s floating Fender Rhodes and Ranglin’s fearless guitar solos. Among the other musicians featured here are rhythm guitarist Clarence Wears, bassist Jackie Jackson, drummer Sparrow Martin and percussionists Noel Seale and Denzil Laing. Everyone digs deep into the groove on Green’s “Love And Happiness” and three traditional Caribbean tunes: “Sly Mongoose,” “Yellow Bird” and “Limbo.” The leader’s brother, songwriter Larry Alexander, contributes the song “Knowing That We Were Meant For Each Other,” a slice of soul that Roberta Flack would interpret in 1978. Nowadays, Monty Alexander is busy touring with his Harlem-Kingston Express ensemble, which explores the crosscurrents of jazz and reggae. On Rass!, he was less preoccupied with a concept: The band just lets loose and has fun.