Review: Spirit of the Season from Hiroshima

Spirit of the Season from HiroshimaEven though Hiroshima had songs on a couple of Windham Hill holiday compilations, Spirit of the Season is the first full holiday release from the band. After listening to this 11-song collection, I’m ready for the sequel. This is an excellent holiday recording and makes me wonder why they haven’t done it before. June Kuramoto’s koto again is the highlight. The distinctiveness of the koto sound makes many of the traditional holiday songs sound like new. June’s expressiveness on “White Christmas” and playfulness on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” demonstrate her mastery of the instrument. The latter song is the best rendition I’ve heard of that song in a long time. Also notable, and appropriate given Hiroshima’s east-meets-west sound, is the use of taiko drums on “Little Drummer Boy.” Two new instrumentals also add to the fun: the atmospheric “Listen (To the Falling Snow)” and the uplifting “Peace On Earth.” The group’s classic “Thousand Cranes” is revisited and is enhanced with a gospel choir.

Overall, Spirit of the Season succeeds in evoking that special feeling of the holiday. It’s perfect for every holiday occasion – decorating your tree, dinner party, or just listening on your own. Even better, tell your friends!

Review: Peace Round from Yellowjackets

Peace Round from YellowjacketsThe Yellowjackets celebrate the holiday season with their first complete recording of Christmas music. This is the easiest review I’ve ever had to write. If you like the Yellowjackets, or if you like the sounds of the season, buying Peace Round is a no-brainer.

Russell Ferrante notes that there are some challenges in recording a holiday collection, including making “familiar Christmas songs personal but at the same time respect their original intent and the spirit of the season.” Even before reading the press release, that’s the impression I got from listening to this CD. Yellowjackets don’t stray too far from the familiarity of songs like “Little Drummer Boy, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Deck the Halls” yet still jazz them enough to make them unique and interesting. The ten song collection also includes favorites like “Winter Wonderland,” “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The group really packs the emotion into “In a Silent Night” and “Peace Round.” The latter is a simple eight measure round that “seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the season.” Ferrante elaborates on that in the CD’s liner notes. It is a somber tune that serves as a perfect soundtrack to the Holy Night.

Of particular note is the Yellowjackets’ playing. The band has never sounded better than on this effort. It may be due to the fact that most performances are just the first or second takes with little or no overdubbing. It may also be that the band has been so busy lately and have really bonded as musicians and friends. Whatever the case may be, they have released a warm and inviting recording.

Review: Jaco Pastorius Big Band – Word of Mouth Revisited

A scenario I’d like to see at the 2004 Grammy Awards ceremony: The Grammy returns to honoring jazz during its primetime special. Some of modern jazz’s best known bassists are playing a tribute to Jaco Pastorius. After thunderous applause, the award for Best Large Ensemble Album is announced. The winner: The Jaco Pastorius Big Band – Word of Mouth Revisited.

Word of Mouth Revisited covers Jaco’s compositions from his early days with conductor/arranger Peter Graves’ orchestra to his work with Weather Report and Word of Mouth. There’s an unreleased bass recording of Jaco himself on one of his favorite Herbie Hancock compositions “Wiggle Waggle.” It was recorded in the late 70s and the current Jaco Big Band plays the rest of the parts. This fourteen-piece big band is tight. I can’t say enough about the crispness of their sound. It’s easily the best big band I’ve heard in some time. The thirteen arrangements – by Graves (who hired Jaco in 1971 for his orchestra), Larry Warrilow (Jaco?s longtime friend and collaborator), and Jaco are excellent.

Then there is the who’s who of bass players: Marcus Miller, Christian McBride, Jimmy Haslip, Victor Wooten, Victor Bailey, Gerald Veasley, Richard Bona, and Jaco’s nephew, David Pastorius all contribute to this recording. It goes without saying that the rhythm on this CD is unbelievable. The bassists obviously seem inspired and actually seem to exceed their already formidable skills. Drummer Mark Griffith deserves special recognition for his excellent work on driving the tempo. Griffith is a standout on a CD where every single musician is worthy of note.

Whether you know everything Jaco or not, Word of Mouth Revisited is a release any modern jazz fan will want in his or her collection. It’s this year’s most welcome surprise.

Review: Shades of Blue from Madlib

MadlibHe’s known by different names in different genres – Quasimoto, Otis Jackson, Jr., and the entire band in Yesterdays New Quintet. The man is Madlib, a DJ, producer, rapper, and musician who has making a name for himself in clubs, hip-hop, and jazz over the last five years. Blue Note recently gave Madlib access to their mighty vaults and the result is Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, the best fusion of classic material and contemporary funk, hip-hop, soul, jazz, and club vibes that has been released to date.

Madlib’s interest in jazz became apparent when he created Yesterdays New Quintet, a modern jazz “band” that was comprised of vibraphonist/psychiatrist Ahmad Miller, guitarist Malik Flavors, bassist/physicist Monk Hughes, pianist Joe McDuphrey, and drummer Otis Jackson Jr. All of those were actually Madlib, who learned to play live instruments instead of sampling others. YNQ’s Angles Without Edges CD featured Madlib’s originals in addition to covers of classics by Roy Ayers and Ramsey Lewis. Digging into the Blue Note catalog was obviously a joy for Madlib, and it shows on Shades of Blue. Madlib adopts new identities (organist Morgan Adams III and DJ Lord Such) and performs almost of the new, live instrumentation himself. It’s not just a remix CD – Madlib breaks apart some of the classics by Donald Byrd, Horace Silver, and Wayne Shorter and reconstitutes them into a different piece of work. I’ve never heard Shorter’s “Footprints” like this. Sometimes the new configuration deserves a different title, as happens with Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” which gets added a little something to become “Mystic Bounce.” I love what he did to Reuben Wilson’s “Stormy.” If I could still run my Internet radio station, JAZZ+, I’d be playing that in heavy rotation. Madlib pays tribute to the era of Blue Note he loves the most – the 1960s and 70s – with “Funky Blue Note,” a nice flute piece backed by some active drum work.

Shades of Blue is a fun album to listen to (or albums if you get the limited edition double LP). It’s rich in funk and based in jazz. It flows well with the interludes, which are remarks from some of the artists who are represented on the CD or comments about Blue Note’s history. It’s a project that can be enjoyed by everyone, though it’s not meant as a CD to expose today’s youth to jazz or today’s jazz fan to hip-hop. “Just trying to connect with the old heads and the young heads at once,” Madlib says. “But it’s not thought out like that. I do the music I want to hear.” Madlib and I are on the same page.

Review: timeagain from David Sanborn

timeagain from David SanbornIt’s been over four years since David Sanborn released a solo recording. That was Inside, a CD that stretched across different styles and sounds. It felt like Sanborn was restless. He’s easily distanced himself from the pop-jazz style that he was known for with his 1990s releases Another Hand and the superfunk of upfront and hearsay. Which direction was Sanborn going to go in now?

Almost half a decade later, the answer is timeagain, a jazz record that establishes a different sound for the saxophonist. Instead of Marcus Miller, the CD is produced by Stewart Levine. The CD sounds like it was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs. As usual, Sanborn has the best musicians surrounding him. His band for timeagain consists of Christian McBride, Russell Malone, Steve Gadd, Gil Goldstein, Don Alias, and Mike Mainieri. Ricky Peterson adds keyboards for three of the album’s cuts as well as one of the CD’s only tracks that seems to have any programming – the cover of “Tequila”. Sanborn himself contributes the piano work for four tracks. This band sets a mood for the record that frequently reminds of you of a smoky jazz club late at night.

Sanborn covers seven songs including Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”. The recording starts on an energetic note with Ben Tucker’s “Comin’ Home Baby” then goes into a more somber mode with tracks like the haunting and complex “Cristo Redentor” and Joni Mitchell’s “Man From Mars. The last three tracks were written by Sanborn (except “Spider B.” which was co-written with Ricky Peterson). His “Little Flower” is so damn beautiful that I would have had it played at my wedding. With the strings and perfect vibe touches by Mainieri, the song is an instant Sanborn classic.

As for Sanborn himself, he’s never sounded stronger or better in his playing. His desire to continue to try different things is rewarding for the listener. Sanborn’s sound is evident no matter what the atmosphere around him is. Summarizing his feelings on this release, he says, “I grew up listening to music with an open mind and drawing on different elements, which is what I’m continuing to do on this record. Whether I’m playing Joni Mitchell or Stanley Turrentine, timeagain reflects the attitude I’ve always had: if it’s good, it’s good.”