I N - T H I S - I S S U E :

Index of SEMJA reviews


Recent Recordings by Area Musicians


Heart PlazaWhile most jazz singers stick to standards, Sheila Landis has developed a unique repertoire of compositions based on contemporary poetry, some of it from her own pen. Much like a rapper, she also revels in improvising lyrics in performance. Her latest recording, Heart Plaza (ShelAn Records, SL023), features thirteen texts by Michigan poets, including our vocalist, set to music by Landis and her cohorts. Five of these were improvised by Landis with her regular accompanists, guitarist Rick Matle and percussionist Dennis Sheridan, during a radio broadcast by Detroit’s WDET in the great days before it was submerged in babble. On the remaining tracks, which were set down in the studio, they are joined by the wonderful bassist John Lindberg, who at the time was spending a year living and playing in the Motor City. To top things off, Wendell Harrison joins the quartet on one track.

Landis likes to play with a variety of rhythms, and eschews simple swinging standard-like patterns; ranging from various Latin to march-like configurations. When she does break out into easy swing on “My Heart Goes Out,” the tenth tune in the recital, it seems welcome and fresh. She then pivots to a waltz, “Lemonade,” which features the apposite bowed bass of Lindberg. Indeed, the bassist is a great addition to her regular trio. We normally hear him in more far-out contexts, but on this recording he proves that he can play in just about any style, contributing mightily to the proceedings. Having said that, one cannot avoid noting that Landis and her musicians take chances here, perhaps inspired by Lindberg’s presence. Things come back to more traditional sounds on the final track, which is a lovely tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, imagining her famous discovery at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

This is an ambitious recording that covers a broad range of styles and sounds focused on unusual lyrics that are sung with sensitivity and conviction. Landis has obviously been inspired by the great Detroit vocalists who imagined themselves instrumentalists using the voice rather than as traditional jazz or pop singers — Sheila Jordan and Betty Carter — but she does not imitate either of them. She has developed her own approach to music and this recording shows her at her best.

The Jukebox CrowdAnn Arbor’s Randy Napoleon no longer lives here, but he visits regularly between travels to gigs all over the world. Now that he is the guitarist that all singers want behind them, he is in great demand by people such as Michael Bublé and Freddy Cole. It is a tribute to his artistry that Eric Comstock, one of New York’s finest singer/pianists in the cabaret style, recorded a whole CD of duets with Napoleon on which he never sings a note! During the rare free moments when he is not on the road with singers, Napoleon puts together groups of his own, often using friends and former mentors from Southeastern Michigan. On his latest CD, The Jukebox Crowd (Gut String Records, GSR008), he surrounds himself with just such a crowd, using Justin Walter (trumpet), Ben Jansson (tenor saxophone), Josh Brown (trombone), Duncan W. McMillan (B3 Hammond), and Quincy Davis (drums).

This is definitely Napoleon’s recital, with the warm sound of his finger-picked electric guitar up front. In addition to his solo and ensemble prowess, the accent here is also on his pen, as half the tracks are his own compositions, as are all but one of the arrangements. Working with singers requires much subtle background work, so here he obviously takes the opportunity to get down a bit, with the sound of the Hammond organ helping in that regard. There is a gentle but forceful blues feeling to many of the tracks, especially in the guitar solos. All the other musicians play well, sensitively following the leader, their solos short and to the point. This CD is quite different in sound and feeling from any of Napoleon’s previous ones, and uses the organ and the horn section to set down a swinging, bluesy groove as a carpet for his solos.

Ellery Eskelin Trio New YorkSince the subject is expatriates and Hammond B3s, I cannot resist mentioning Ellery Eskelin’s organ trio that features Detroit’s Gerald Cleaver on drums. Hearing this group on a recent trip to New York was one of the highlights of my stay. Their only recording, Ellery Eskelin Trio New York (prime source CD 6010), is a good introduction to a band that has since then developed its rapport and broadened its original conception (Gary Versace, Hammond B3, Gerald Cleaver, drums).

Eskelin is usually thought of as an “avant” player, but his roots are firmly in the jazz tradition, and his mother was a professional Hammond organist. This is his tribute to her, and the repertoire, unlike any of his other bands, consists of standards such as “Memories of You” and “How Deep is the Ocean.” But these are not head/solos/head performances; the three musicians bend rhythm, melody, and form to recreate the compositions in novel ways, often alluding and dancing around things rather than stating them. Eskelin is an amazing saxophonist, with a warm tone that still has an edge to it, who can create abstractions within and without the harmonies and his sense of melody is all his own. Versace rethinks the role of the organ, constantly changing his approach to match Eskelin, sometimes directly with him, sometimes against. Cleaver dances around the traditional role of the drum set, sometimes marking times, sometimes only suggesting it, and at other moments using his instrument melodically. The result is a complete meshing of three voices that breathes new life into five standards.

I N - T H I S - I S S U E :