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Index of SEMJA reviews



Recent Recordings by Area Musicians


Louis Smith has been offering a steady set of releases on SteepleChase for more than two decades. On his latest CD, aptly named The Bopsmith (SteepleChase SCCD 31489), he is once more featured with four young musicians who are well versed in the bop idiom. Pianist Michael Weiss, known to many from his work with Johnny Griffin, begins the proce.edings with a perfectly idiomatic chorus on the leader's "Val's Blues." Smith's trumpet and Jon Gordon's alto sax are also featured on this brisk interpretation of Bird's "Blues for Alice" changes. From then on the repertoire consists of classic standards, a Smith salute to Ed Love via "Confirmation" entitled "Ed's Love," and a closing workout on Clifford Brown's "Sweet Clifford." Smith has been playing most of these tunes for ages, and he has an easy way with them, born of long familiarity. He was in fine shape on this date, and the ballads are vintage Smith: warm and tender, with nice examinations of the harmonic niceties without useless cleverness. You can still hear echoes of Brownie in tone and his way with the changes, but this is now but a distant remembrance, fully absorbed into a confident personal style. If I were asked to choose a personal favorite it would be "A Ghost of a Chance," one of those items that Smith plays often in clubs. Here he offers the perfect modern jazz ballad; poignant and tender, but never maudlin; his inspiration clearly worked on Gordon and Weiss, who follow with lovely solos. The other musicians work in good rapport with the leader. Bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Joe Farnsworth provide solid support abetted by the highly idiomatic bop playing of pianist Weiss. Both Weiss and Gordon have learned their bop lessons well; it is rare these days to hear a pianist who is so steeped in Duke Jordan's way with the piano. If there is any fault to be found it is in the laid back manner in which they approach the material. Smith is a relaxed stylist, but his rhythms and his phrasing have a drive and momentum that is sometimes missing in the overly relaxed playing of his sidemen. This aside, this is a lovely date; Smith is playing better than ever and this year-2000 recording is a perfect example of his classy, stylish extension of the bop tradition.

Bass player Dan McNaughton, originally from California, but now resident in our area, has been playing locally with various musicians, most recently at Canterbury House with a reconstituted Spider Trio. He has just released a compact disk, Permission, recorded in New Orleans with a previous version of his trio: tenor saxophonist Earle Brown and drummer Joe Williams (Blue Millennium, bassdaniel@lycos.com). The music on this CD resists easy categorization. All the compositions were written by the leader, who directs the music with his big toned, surefooted bass. He explores different rhythms, including skewed versions of reggae and swing, and he explores the sparse trio format in a manner that stresses independent lines working with and against each other. Thus, this is not simply a saxophonist in front of a rhythm section, but rather a true trio, somewhat reminiscent in concept of the great Air unit of years past. I have never heard saxophonist Brown before, but he plays with an impressive tone and a sure command of his horn. He does not delve into extended techniques, preferring for the most part to exploit middle and lower ranges of his horn, but yet he manages to combine an abstract modern concept with basic blues and soul riffs, somewhat reminiscent of Ornette Coleman on tenor. The leader's concept works well and the three musicians manage to portray a broad range of moods, rhythms, and techniques, with a great deal of variety. Some of the tunes are playful melodies, others seem to be free form improvisations. We look forward to hearing more from McNaughton in the near future.

Singer Sheila Landis and guitarist Rick Matle have just released a new CD, entitled Colors of Brazil (SheLan 1018, rmatle@juno.com). Accompanied by a shifting cast of musicians, too numerous to mention here, Landis offers a combination of standards such as the Jobim songs "Girl from Ipanema," and "Agua de Beber," or a Latin version of "Summertime," (arranged by Scott Peterson, who is featured on a nice soprano sax solo), and "Nature Boy,"as well as her own originals. Landis is a versatile singer and her best work on this CD, to these ears, is on the Jobim songs and on a few others where she works closely with Matle, who often plays sensitive acoustic guitar. The final track, "Nature Boy," also features the understated electric guitar of Randy Johnston. Many of the other tracks are designed for those who like easy listening or soft funk, and do not really offer much for the jazz listener. All the musicians play well, but their contributions are part of the background, which also includes synthesizer washes and other pop effects. I must admit that I prefer when she sings jazz standards with less pop production, but that is simply a matter of taste.

Alma Smith's career has taken her to Los Angeles and Cleveland, but for many years she has been entertaining audiences around her old home of Detroit with her robust piano playing and fine vocalizing (her story is well told in the fine liner notes by Jim Gallert). Although she has often been performing with a small horn section, for her latest recording she has chosen the more intimate setting of a piano trio. On Ballads, Blues, etc. (Valma Music, 18461 Roselawn, Detroit, MI) she is accompanied by Bert Myrick on drums and Rodney Whitaker on bass. Smith treats us to fifteen pieces that showcase the broad array of her talents and demonstrate well her staying power as a performer. As the title specifies, the repertoire consists of ballads and blues type songs, but the accent is definitely on the blues, which infest all the proceedings. Smith accompanies herself with strong, funky piano chords and solos with panache and style, while Myrick and Whitaker cook behind her with power and feeling. The leader often leaves plenty of space for her fellow musicians and Whitaker takes full advantage, providing strong riffs and idiomatic fills on the slow tunes, as well as a lovely bowed solo on "Never Let Me Go." Smith writes clever, raunchy and pensive songs, and she puts her own stamp on everything she plays. The recital ends with a low down version of "One for My Baby," Johnny Mercer's song that Sinatra owned; Old Blue Eyes and his pianist never even dreamed that it could be done this!

Rodney Whitaker also makes an appearance on the new CD Hymn for Roscoe: The Steve Rush Quartet featuring Roscoe Mitchell (MMC2096J, MMC Recordings, PO Box 2127, Woburn, MI 01888), together with composer, pianist, and synthesizer and session leader Steve Rush, Spencer Barefield on guitar, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and Roscoe Mitchell on alto and soprano saxophones as well as on the flute. Rush is a versatile composer and performer who is equally at ease writing contemporary classical music, playing works by John Cage, or paying tribute to Sun Ra. His six works on this CD pay oblique tribute to a broad range of American musical forms, from rhythm and blues to the Art Ensemble, with a little Latin thrown into the mix. No matter how far out the music ranges, Whitaker and Cleaver make sure that it is all grounded with a strong pulse. Barefield, who has played with Mitchell for years, contributes sparse tasty elements to the ensemble and his solos fit perfectly within Rush's frameworks. Mitchell is in fine form; his flute work is particularly impressive on this date. In recent years his work has fluctuated between abstract composition and "free improvisation" and more mainstream playing based on standard harmonic progressions. This recording fits somewhere in the middle, drawing on both traditions and it showcases Mitchell at his best; his acerbic alto and strong soprano tone has been caught well, and he positively sings on the flute. Rush revels in his versatility: his compositions have strong melodies and often feature seductive rhythmic hooks that obviously fired up the bassist and drummer and he solos with power, emotion, and wit, and demonstrating that nothing musical is alien to him. Indeed, if there is any fault to be found here it is excessive eclecticism, and I, for one, could have done without the cheesy synthesizer on "Bad Guys."

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