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Index of SEMJA reviews



Recent Recordings by Area Musicians


Gerald Wilson was born in Mississippi, but he spent his high school years in Detroit, studying music at Cass Tech, although not long after graduation he joined the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and left the Motor City for other adventures. For his own ninety-first birthday, and to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Detroit Jazz festival he put together a big band suite entitled very simply, Detroit (MGerald Wilson: DetroitAC 1049, Mack Avenue), which was performed at the festival and is now out on compact disk. The CD was recorded both in New York and Los Angeles, with many well-known musicians, among them Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, Sean Jones, Steve Wilson, Hubert Laws, Antonio Hart, Jackie Kelso, Ronnie Cuber, Renee Rosnes, Lewis Nash, and his own son, guitarist Anthony Wilson (the promo CD came without any text, so I cannot supply the whole personnel).

As is to be expected, this is a swinging, hard driving set that celebrates Wilson's memories of Detroit, but also looks back at his own big band history, invoking sounds of many years and styles. The opening up-tempo "Blues on Belle Isle" and "Cass Tech," are powerful romps, but then the atmosphere changes, as Wilson offers an emotional, slower tempo "Detroit," which manages to be wistful and slightly rough at the same time. A portrait of Mack Avenue owner Gretchen Valade is characterized by shifting tempos and some apposite musical quotes, one of them featuring the romantic violin of Yvette Devereaux. The suite passes though some Latin and rockish rhythms before concluding with, of all things, a waltz dedicated to the classical composer Aram Khachaturian. In many ways this is an exemplary big band recording—the writing is inspired and contains enough variety to maintain attention, and the first call soloists are plentiful; just the thing for a double birthday bash!

From a large ensemble we move on to something completely different, a solo bass clarinet recording by ex-Ann Arborite Jason Stein, In Exchange for a Process (Leo Records CD LR 545). Stein graduated a few years agoExchange for a Process from the University of Michigan School of Music, and has been working in many different musical environments in Chicago, as well as touring the world with his own group (which opens this year's Edgefest in October), or with others such as Ken Vandermark. He is one of the few jazz and improvising players who sticks only to the bass clarinet, rather than doubling on it for a few tunes a night, and his solo recording is one of only few such albums known to me. It is also undoubtedly the most successful. The challenge of solo recitals is to provide enough musical variety without making it seem like a series of technical exercises featuring different techniques and effects. Stein has all the technique one would want, but he never uses it to impress or to fill up space; everything here is balanced and directed towards artistic goals, and as a result the individual tracks add up to a musical whole. The prospect of listening to a whole CD of bass clarinet solos may seem daunting to many, but this is a versatile instrument that has unlimited tonal potential, and Stein uses it effortlessly to create musical magic.

Closer to home and more in the mainstream, we move on to Joan Belgrave's new release Excitable (no album number, www.joanbowbelgrave.com). The singer performs in tandem with some of the best musicians in this Joan Belgrave: Excitablepart of the country, Marcus Belgrave (pt, fl), Charlie Gabriel (ts, fl), Chris Smith (tb), Jeff Halsey and Marion Hayden (bs), Gayelynn McKinney and Sean Dobbins (dr), Duncan McMillan, Tadd Weed (pno), as well as New Orleans born young pianist and arranger Sullivan Fortner. Belgrave's albums just keep getting better and on this recital she demonstrates once Joan and Marcus Belgraveagain that she is a real jazz singer, whose choruses are on a par with those of the instrumentalists, rather than a pop vocalist accompanied by jazz musicians, as is so often the case. Her sense of rhythm and phrasing places her solidly in the jazz tradition, and her sound, as well as her attention to lyrics is a delight. She has surrounded herself with masters, as the list of names well demonstrates, and the results are just predictably first rate. The main soloists, Belgrave and Gabriel, are simply superlative. The former shows once again that there are few mainstream trumpeters who can come close to him on a good day; he has an immediately recognizable sound and style, with an economy of expression that is all his own. Gabriel sticks mostly to the tenor saxophone, displaying his bluesy early modern jazz roots, with a big warm sound that I, for one, never get tired of. Like Belgrave, he can construct a complex longer solo, but also knows how to make a concise, brief statement become memorable. On "He Called My Name" he follows Belgrave's expressive flugelhorn solo with a well developed and idiomatic flute outing. This is a nice surprise for those of us who have never heard him play the instrument before!

Joan Belgrave has produced a delightful album full of musical variety, backed by great solos and apposite ensemble playing, with well-matched arrangements by Chris Smith, Duncan McMillan, and Sullivan Fortner. Those who had the good fortune to hear her CD release concert at the Kerrytown Concert House in September will know what to expect.

photo: Joan and Marcus Belgrave at the Excitable CD release concert

photograph by Lars Bjorn

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