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CDs We Almost Missed in 2004

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The life of a music journalist is one of a continuous juggling act. At first, I had no problem keeping up with the large number of discs that made their way to me on a weekly basis. But once other writing projects started coming my way, such as liner notes, feature articles, and the like, there seemed to be less and less time for sitting down and listening to discs and turning my thoughts and analysis into reviews. So at the close of each year I attempt to make things right while clearing room for anticipated product of the New Year. The fruits of that labor are to be found in the brief reviews found below of several albums of new music that somehow escaped my attention upon release but nonetheless are worthy of the best the year had to offer.

A highly developed improviser, Chris Potter has made leaps and bounds in his artistic development in recent years, heard to premium advantage on Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside 3022). It's a most sympathetic trio that Potter surrounds himself with for a recital of standards and originals, namely pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Bill Stewart. In the Coltrane tradition, Potter stretches out at length and even a familiar number like "Stella By Starlight" seems to be bursting at its seams, pushed to the limits by Potter's mind-blowing abstractions. The overall impact of this music would be considerably lessened without the contributions of the flexible and highly musical drumming of Stewart, an innovator in his own right. For a real treat, check out how "Boogie Stop Shuffle" is transformed into an avant jam with Hays adding some funky Rhodes work to boot.

Yet another remote recording, Still Smoking (Sharp Nine 1031) is cut from an all-together different cloth than the Potter disc. Alto saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith is more firmly rooted in the mainstream tradition, but also speaks with an authority that makes this set from NYC's Smoke worth more than just a few listens. Appearing regularly at this intimate lower Broadway hot spot, Hendrickson-Smith locks in tight with David Hazeltine, Peter Washington, and Joe Strasser, with guests Ryan Kisor and Peter Bernstein raising the ante on this sophomore effort for Sharp Nine. With superb sound and a loose blowing atmosphere, this hard bop delight confirms that Hendrickson-Smith's star is on the rise.

Recorded in the summer of 2001, Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (Warner Bros. 48449) inexplicably remained in the can for three years before finally making its debut on disc. As much a tribute to Detroit's jazz heritage as it is to the talents of its leader, James Carter, it was well worth the wait. Among the familiar lines, especially tasty are versions of lesser-known trinkets such as Jimmy Forrest's "Soul Street" with Gerard Gibbs getting funky on B3 organ. Gary McFarland's "Sack Full of Dreams" is an equally beguiling ballad spot with Carter's baritone taking center stage.

Favored and admired by a large Japanese following, vocal legend Marlena Shaw has recorded several albums for producer Yasohachi "88" Itoh, the most recent being picked up in the States by 441 Records. Lookin' For Love (411 Records 0023) was cut in Tokyo in the summer of 2003 and features longtime collaborator David Hazeltine on piano and Fender Rhodes. The overall mood is of the relaxed, late night variety and Shaw is at the top of her game. With standards as her fodder, the real surprises here are the relaxed swing feel given to Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" and a funky take on the Grover Washington hit "Just the Two of Us."

Still going strong at the age of 81, Chicago legend Von Freeman remains one of the few surviving links to the kind of full bodied tenor work of luminaries such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. His affinity for an earlier style and his own singular voice come through resoundingly clear on The Great Divide (Premonition 5743), easily one of the best records of his career. Just listen to the assured swagger of the opening "Be My Love" for proof that Freeman has lost known of his expressive talent. Backed by Richard Wyands, John Webber, and Jimmy Cobb and faithfully recorded by engineer Jim Anderson, Freeman speaks with a joie de vivre, be it the up-tempo cooking of "Never Fear Jazz Is Here" or the lush ballad message of "Violets For Your Furs."

Somewhat reclusive since her last album, 1980's Transfiguration to be specific, a great buzz was generated last year when word got out that Alice Coltrane had a new album in the works produced by her son Ravi. Translinear Light (Impulse 000-2191) is the product of several sessions taking place in 2000, 2002, and 2004. The spiritual inclinations integral to her previous releases is at a premium here as well, most notably on "Sita Ram" and "Satya Sai Isha." A wonderful homage to her husband John can be found within the cuts "Crescent" and "Leo." In addition to Ravi's valuable guidance, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette make solid contributions to this spirited and deeply profound recital.

As immensely talented as he is, guitarist Russell Malone's recordings have often failed to convey the kind of energy that Malone generates in live performance. While still not his breakthrough album, Playground (MaxJazz 601) is nonetheless an entertaining release that puts into focus many of the guitarist's many talents. For one thing, his writing is evident in a half dozen originals that explore varied moods. In addition, he has assembled a strong cast of supporting players. Anyone who can transform the usually insipid Carpenters' hit "We've Only Just Begun" into a jazz swinger gets my vote. A step in the right direction, Playground bodes well for Malone's future recording efforts.

An artist of far ranging pursuits and musical interests, Don Byron's recordings over the years have been marked by his divergent thinking and forward-looking approach. Clearly within the jazz tradition, Ivey-Divey (Blue Note 78215) is one of Byron's best efforts of recent vintage, with Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette sharing in the credit for the disc's success. In fact, on more than half the album Byron is working with just the two of them and no bassist, the trio sounding sufficiently larger than one might think would be possible. As a contrast to the swing numbers like "I've Found a New Baby," Byron attempts Miles Davis' "In a Silent Way" and manages to make the entire program speak with an individual voice that is one of today's jazz treasures.

Equally adept at playing with world music artists or in the piano trios of Dena DeRose or Denny Zeitlin, not to mention his own group, Matt Wilson is a drummer to keep your eye on. His blurring of barriers and categories has meant that jazz music has taken on a healthier and more humorous outlook with Wilson at the head of the class. Like trumpeter Dave Douglas, Wilson leads more than one group and his Arts and Crafts ensemble is a vehicle for his more mainstream endeavors. Wake Up! (To What's Happening) (Palmetto 2104)is arguably one of Matt's best discs and it achieves a unique balance by mixing fusion elements, avant licks, and funky B3 overtures. Even while it sits a bit uncomfortably among the other tracks, "There Comes a Time" stirs up quite a bit of excitement and finds Wilson in the thick of some incendiary brilliance.

Another drummer of some prowess, Ari Hoenig has been quietly making a name for himself among the crowd of New York talents who don't necessarily have the big label contracts but nonetheless have something important to say. Hoenig's The Painter (Smalls Records 0004) made quite a splash last year, garnering many positive reviews. It's really easy to see why, as Hoenig's art is about making the music sound good and not tied up in pyrotechnic displays of flashy drumming. His original material is strong, his brushwork is quite masterful, and his trio with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and Matt Penman locks in for an adventurous ride well worth all the recent accolades.

Finally, we come to the animated follow-up to Trio Mundo's first acclaimed release. Rides Again (Zoho 200-410) puts guitar man Dave Stryker, bassist Andy McKee, and percussionist Manolo Badrena in the front seat of a multi-cultural vehicle that freely mixes element of jazz and world music. Adding to the mix this time out is saxophonist Steve Slagle on a program of eleven standards that will prove enticing to fans with far-reaching tastes.


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