Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #669:
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy
APRIL FOOL! Today’s album is Chester and Lester by Chet Atkins and Les Paul. This was an off-the-cuff jam session done in Nashville with a rhythm section in 1976, jazzy country legend and (occasionally) countryish jazz legend having a great time. Both of these guys were oldschool – there’s no explosive distorted passages or Hendrix-style noise here, but both of them are fast – lickety-split runs and staccato, sometimes Django-ish rhythm all over the place. For what it’s worth, it won a Grammy, not bad for a bunch of standards, even as fairly radically reworked as these are. It’s Been a Long, Long Time goes by in a short, short time. The Moonglow/Picnic medley does not. Caravan is a cross between Ellington and the Ventures; It Had to Be You gives them a rare breather here. There’s also an expansive version of Avalon (the jazz-pop hit, not the Roxy Music classic) as well as brisk, purist, somewhat bluesy versions of Deed I Do and Lover Come Back to Me, among the ten tracks here. It was reissued with some outtakes in 1998 as a twofer along with the follow-up disc, the duo album Guitar Monsters from the following year. Here’s a random torrent.
Popularity is never a reliable barometer for quality: would you stand in line with the tourists and the permanent tourists for eight hours just for a hastily grilled burger at that overpriced joint in that midtown park? Not likely. Longevity, on the other hand, is a sign that something good is going on. The Ear-Regulars began their Sunday evening residency at the Ear Inn over three years ago and are still going strong. What they do is sort of the teens equivalent of what Thad Jones and Mel Lewis started at the Vanguard fifty years ago. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, guitarist Matt Munisteri and the rest of the guys who rotate through the band here get a lot of work, a lot of gigs: this is their fun night out. But it isn’t a gig for messing around. Listeners can get lost in this – but the band doesn’t. The focus they bring to their usual mix of obscurities and mostly obscure classics from the 30s, and sometimes the 20s, is pretty intense, but less so when you realize what a fun time they’re having over there in the corner. This time they had Joel Forbes on bass and Chris Byars on tenor sax, joined by Nathan Botts on trumpet on a couple of numbers. Botts was celebrating his anniversary, so the band ran through a couple of verses of a slow, summery, lyrical ballad of his titled Anna (his wife’s name – she seemed to have no idea that he’d be pulled away from his table to join the band this time out). A little later he joined Kellso, running a couple of warmly bluesy solos on a swinging, warmly familiar midtempo pre-Benny Goodman-style number.
And that’s the vibe they mine. A couple of numbers worked familiar, bluesy changes into chromatic descending progressions on the choruses, a chance for Munisteri to add extra edge and bite to his percussive, incisive playing. He cut his teeth in bluegrass and old hillbilly music, and that influence still rings true, most noticeably during his sinuous bent-note work in one swaying, fluid solo. Solos around the horn is how these guys do it, yet there’s always an element of surprise. Forbes trolled the rich subterranean depths of his bass all night, stickin with a low, rolling groove even when he’d get a verse of his own, Munisteri holding it together with staccato precision as the four-string weaved over the center line and back again. Kellso is a blues guy at heart and brought his usual bluesman’s wry humor and joie de vivre to the songs, whether subtly working the corners with a mute, or casually blazing away over Munisteri’s spiky chordal pulse. Likewise, Byars sailed buoyantly and melodically through the changes. What these guys are playing, after all, are songs – and they keep them that way. The instruments do the singing. By the time they’d wrapped their first set, the crowd had grown to the point that they were backed up all the way to the door: pretty much everyone who didn’t get here by 6:30 didn’t get a seat.
Maybe because today is a grade A grey day (to steal a line out of the Wade Schuman songbook), albums like jazz guitarist Tomas Janzon’s new one, Experiences, sound expecially good. Case in point: Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here’s That Rainy Day, which opens it. His raindrop approach is just understated enough to avoid being obvious. Janzon is well-known in Sweden; this seems to be an attempt to broaden his horizons outside his native land, and it ought to work. He takes a smart, laid-back, purist approach: Wes Montgomery is the obvious influence, but only one of many. His band is choice. Legendary Coltrane drummer Tootie Heath, in uncannily subtle mode, absolutely owns this album, coloring the songs with a quiet deviousness that sometimes spills over into unrestrained glee, alongside fellow veteran Art Hillery on piano and organ and Herbie Hancock sideman Jeff Littleton on bass.
Dave Brubeck’s Mr. Broadway gets a devious, somewhat furtive organ-and-guitar treatment, playing up its tongue-in-cheek humor even more than the original. Heath carries The Float, an original, alternating between an artful jazz waltz shuffle and cymbal-driven atmospherics, later enjoying a sly conversation with Littleton when the bass solos. A pretty Swedish folk song gets a treatment that’s part Wes and part McCartney, with a brief, solo live reprise at the end of the album. Moanin’ gives a quick nod to Jerry Garcia, Janzon’s warmly soul-tinged lines over Hillery’s staccato chords and Heath’s winking, on-and-off shuffle.
Yet another jazz waltz, Montgomery’s Full House, as Janzon wryly alludes in the liner notes, “adds nothing” to the original, but it’s inspired and true to form nonetheless. There’s also the pensively shuffling original Blue Bee; spiky, impressively spacious versions of Billie’s Bounce and Polka Dots and Moonbeams, and a terse, purist, bluesy cover of Jimmy Smith’s Messin’ Around. American guitar jazz fans should check out this guy stateside when he’s not in his dear old Stockholm.
Fabrizio Sotti may be best known as a producer, someone who’s worked with hip-hop luminaries like Dead Prez, Ghostface Killah and reggae toaster Half Pint (and also some who are less than luminary). He’s also a thoughtful, stylistically diverse jazz guitarist. What he seems to be going for on his latest album Inner Dance is an update on the expansively playful vibe of those Wes Montgomery/Jimmy Smith albums from the 60s. This is a feel-good story in more ways than one: halfway through recording, Sotti’s hard drive died and he lost everything (yet another argument for the benefits of two-inch tape). And he also lost the services of bassist James Genus, who’d played on the original tracks but whose schedule had become too busy to accommodate further recording. So Sotti brought in B3 organist Sam Barsh, and suddenly they had a new vibe to work with. What they ended up with is actually a very 80s sounding album – but 80s in a good way. Sotti frequently utilizes a watery chorus-box tone, Barsh alternating between tasteful atmospherics and good-natured exuberance. Victor Jones handles the drum work with a crafty understatement, with Mino Cinelu taking over the throne on the title track.
They open with a gently purposeful swing blues, and then the acoustic guitar ballad Kindness in Your Eyes, Sotti negotiating his way through it nimbly, with some nifty tremolo-picking over atmospheric waves of organ. They segue into the title track: finally Sotti kicks into gear with a very Wes solo after an interminable one by guest harmonica player Gregoire Maret, then segue out and pick up the pace with I Thought So, a showcase for fluidly dancing, staccato fretwork and bubbly, classically-tinged arpeggiation by Barsh. Amanecer, a cowrite with brilliant Chilean soul/jazz chanteuse Claudia Acuña (who also sings on the track) has an aptly hushed beauty, Sotti’s flights up and down the scale midway through the song wisely and poignantly restrained. A Michael Brecker homage, Brief Talk actually more closely resembles the blue-sky ambience that Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays were mining circa As Falls Wichita. Then they pick up the pace with the best of the upbeat numbers here, Last Chance, offer a tribute to Monk with the swinging, artfully voiced Mr. T.M. and close with a brief, ruminative nylon-string solo vignette. When he’s not behind the board, Sotti is sought after as a sideman: one listen to this album and the reason for his popularity becomes clear.
The first thing that hits you when you hear this cd is that it sounds an awful lot like Joe Pass. Which is no surprise, considering that guitarist Frank Potenza is a protege of the late, great jazz player. This new album has an evocatively retro, early 60s feel, enhanced by the arrangements and the ensemble behind Potenza: Joe Bagg on Hammond organ, Steve Barnes on drums and Holly Hoffmann guesting on flute on several cuts. Most of the tracks here blend warm introspection with a carefree, smoky late-night vibe. They kick it off with Jimmy Smith’s Ready and Able, Bagg’s solo followed by one by Potenza showing off an effortlessly purist, subtly Pass-like approach to fast eight-note runs. I’m Walkin could have been a trainwreck (a vocal cover of a Brother Ray tune? Get real!) but it works because Potenza reinvents it, taking what was originally one step removed from Louis Jordan and transforming it into a smoothly swinging shuffle with a round, bluesy tone while maintaining Charles’ knowing certainty. Lee Morgan’s Party Time keeps the swing vibe intact, Potenza as sparing and incisive as before. Wes Montgomery’s Road Song/OGD adds a welcome edge of uncautiousness under the blue-sky fluidity of the melody.
The ballad A Weaver of Dreams has Hoffmann adding dark shades that may come as some surprise until you realize that’s her typical approach, with more of a reed player’s sense of texture and forcefulness. Star Eyes, popularized by Sarah Vaughan and countless others is understatedly catchy and winsome. Interestingly, the best track here is the lone Potenza original, Jacaranda, a straight-up groove number moving from almost hypnotic organ to expansive, purposeful guitar bluesiness.
Not everything here works; I Wanna Be Loved only really makes sense if a chanteuse or a soul belter sings it and Potenza is neither. Of the two covers of schlocky pop songs here, they take Ode to Billie Joe up a notch but not enough to make it worth the effort; ironically, James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend, as odious as the original is, is redeemed by a very smart major-to-minor change that Potenza introduces on the chorus, giving it some striking gravitas (and he had the sense not to sing this one). If there’s any criticism of Potenza’s playing, it’s that it’s so close to Pass, so purist and so tasteful, no wasted notes anywhere – it would be interesting to see what indelibly personal touch he might add. Or maybe this is just how he likes to play – if so, that’s a good thing. Potenza is head of the jazz guitar school at USC: southern California readers are encouraged to go see him live.
The Jentsch Group are shapeshifters in both senses of the word: sometimes jazz guitarist/composer Chris Jentsch’s project is a big band, sometimes much a smaller crew. This was a rare performance of a lean, stripped-down unit featuring Matt Renzi on saxophones, Jim Whitney of Andy Statman’s band on double bass and John Mettam on drums. Playing a captivating mix of both older and new, unreleased material from Jentsch’s forthcoming cd Fractured Pop, Jentsch revealed an uncanny ear for timbre, melodies taking on different shades and significance as they took on different permutations, passed between the band members. Jentsch likes variations on a theme and this show was full of them.
As someone influenced by Toru Takemitsu and Indian music as well as American styles, Jentsch also doesn’t let preconceived stylistic constraints get in the way. Was this rock, or was this jazz? It was both – if you can write in both idioms, why not? The first number started out pretty and jangly over some tricky changes but then straightened itself into a fairly straight-up indie rock instrumental over variants on the most basic blues riff, Renzi adding brightness before Jentsch took it into offhandedly biting David Gilmour territory with a solo of his own, then handing the reins back to the sax. Throughout the set, Jentsch used his volume pedal like an ebow, adding shades of sustain on the next number, a warm yet pensive melody in 6/8 that with its alternately stark and expressive permutations, one of them a latin guitar vamp, evoked Astor Piazzolla. A brief reggae interlude, Jentsch playing four on three, made for a playful diversion.
Then they launched into the main theme from Jentsch’s 2007 album Brooklyn Suite, a genuine modern jazz classic. The central hook is a savagely descending four-bar theme that ranks with any other iconic melody you can imagine. It’s neither difficult to play nor to sing to yourself and hearing Renzi pick it up before Jentsch finally got its hands on it and tore it to shreds was something akin to watching B.B. King do The Thrill Is Gone…or seeing Coltrane work himself into a particularly inspired Giant Steps. It was that good. The album version is lush and sweeping: this four-piece edition gave the melody the opportunity to bare its fangs even further, unconstrained by the swells of the horns and reeds. Maybe to see if anybody was paying attention, Jentsch tossed in a familiar Eddie Van Halen quote (ok, it was Beat It) toward the end. They wrapped up the set with one of the more ambient, atmospheric parts of the Brooklyn Suite, a cut from the new Cycles Suite cd propelled with masterful subtlety by Whitney and closed with a world premiere, the apprehensive nocturne Are You Bye?, an opportunity for Mettam to add some expansive menace, which Jentsch explained afterward took not only its title but also its central chord progression from Bye Bye Blackbird. Considering that Jentsch doesn’t frequently play out, this was worth the trek to the Williamsburg waterfront and then some.
Composer/guitarist Chris Jentsch specializes in modern big band jazz suites. This is his third, beginning with the 1999 Miami Suite, continuing with the riveting, haunting 2007 Brooklyn Suite – a bonafide 21st century classic – and now with the even more ambitious Cycles Suite. If the Brooklyn Suite was Jentsch’s Dark Side of the Moon, this is his Wish You Were Here. Built around a ferocious four-bar phrase that begins as a horn motif and gets more and more intense as it takes on new shapes and voicings, the Brooklyn Suite careens like a stolen taxicab barreling along a potholed Atlantic Avenue of the mind at 4 AM. It’s all tension and suspense, and the central hook is a melody that ranks with the best of them: Jumping Jack Flash, the Bach Toccata in D, Black and Tan Fantasy and any other iconic musical phrase you can imagine. Following up such an accomplishment is always difficult. This one is even longer, but it’s considerably different – where the Brooklyn Suite was savage and reckless, the Cycles Suite is thoughtful and expansive, cleverly referencing its predecessor in its darkest, most pensive moments.
Jentsch owes a debt to both Steve Ulrich (of Big Lazy and innumerable film and tv soundtracks) and Bill Frisell. The opening cut here, Arrival is dark, skronky, distorted funk, sounding like Big Lazy with a horn section. The fifteen-minute second track, Cycle of Life is a suite in itself, shifting from languid and atmospheric into a tango, separated by a pointed tritone played by the horns. Home and Away, clocking in at almost twenty minutes has a similar architecture, opening with a jangly, pastoral Frisell-style guitar motif that melds with the band as they rise to a big, romantic crescendo, individual instruments lending their voices, fading in and out of the mix as the procession continues. Then a portentous echo of the Brooklyn Suite, Jentsch eventually taking over with an austere, round, slightly distorted guitar tone, the band working a comfortable Basie-esque riff evocative of neon, exhaust and maybe another round of drinks.
Darkness begins to fall with track four, Old Folks Song, the piano beginning it with a three-note chromatic hook straight out of Jentsch’s previous album, shifting to gritty reggae and then to wistfulness as the horns swell and fade. The delightfully titled Route 666, another mini-suite, kicks off with as much of a romping feel as an ensemble this size can muster, trumpeter Mike Kaupa pushing the revelry, such that there is. The rest alternates between quiet and skeletal and lushly ebullient, without any of the diabolical vibe alluded to by the title. The final cut, Departure brings back the suite’s two most resonant, poignant motifs and then lets them fall away somewhat abruptly yet aptly – after all, nobody gets to decide how they want to go out. In the big, lavish arrangements, the compositions’s often vividly melodic sensibility and some very inspired playing by an A-list of the New York jazz scene, there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. Headphones very highly recommended.
Veteran jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini has been getting a lot of airplay on Jonathan Schwartz’ radio show (Sundays at noon on WNYC), which might explain how rapidly this show sold out. He’s a good fit, and he raises Schwartz’ sometimes ineffably predictable, romantic retro 40s ambience by several notches. Bertoncini is both a throwback and a pioneer, playing his beautifully amped acoustic guitar with a sometimes spiky, sometimes gently flutterly fingerstyle as opposed to using a pick. Although when he picked up his big hollowbody electric for a composition by Dave Brubeck bassist Michael Moore (who was in the audience, along with a lot of other A-list jazz types), he ran effortlessly through a seemingly endless thicket of Wes Montgomery-style octaves. In a particularly noteworthy stroke of originality, Bertoncini’s latest cd Concerti features a string quartet along with a bassist, and the young crew onstage with him clearly appreciated the mentoring of one of the most sought-after players from fifty years ago. While strings and jazz aren’t mutually exclusive – Gil Evans would have had something to say about that – orchestrated jazz is just about as common these days as orchestrated rock and that’s too bad because Bertoncini and the strings gave a clinic in lush yet energetic beauty.
Their lengthy excursions into both the Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn (and Beatles) songbooks brought rewarding results. The highlight was You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, Bertoncini playfully starting it with a little Bach, then the strings introducing the main theme. Conductor Mike Patterson’s arrangements were counterintuitive and often fiery, in this instance showcasing both a biting blues solo by the first violinist as well as stark, ambient cello paired off against scraping, practically violent staccato violin and viola. An original, East of the Sun swung through both a warm, casual Bertoncini solo followed immediately by a stark, austere string arrangement that contrasted almost to the point of clashing – but not quite – with the homey procession of major sixth chords underneath.
Bertoncini had spent considerable time with both Buddy Rich and Chet Baker, resulting in the Baker homage For Chet, again setting lyrical, expansive guitar against uneasy washes of strings. The effect recurred again and again throughout the show, yet the ongoing tension and release felt completely natural – reason to tune in on Sunday, or, better yet, get the cd.