Ronald Muldrow: Mapenzi (2004)

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Ronald Muldrow: Mapenzi
Best known for his work in the '70s with soul-jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris, guitarist Ronald Muldrow has been a fixture on the L.A. scene for some time, honing the funky edges of his Wes Montgomery/Grant Green/George Benson-fueled chops.

His fifth disc as a leader, Mapenzi ("love" in Swahilli) finds Muldrow paired with an arsenal of considerable talent: not only are the go-to Peter Washington and ex-Wynton/Branford sideman Robert Hurst here on basses, but the mighty Mulgrew Miller sits in on piano for three of the set's fourteen tunes.

In tribute to his mentor, Muldrow always includes at least one of Harris' pieces on his albums; on a busy, breezy reading of "Steps Up," vibraphonist Miller Pertum takes the lead instead of merely shadowing Muldrow—a welcome change from the sometimes tedious tandem that plays out for much of the album.

But it's the opener, a genius medley of Charlie Christian's "Seven Come Eleven" and Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance," that is not only the record's standout but also an undeniably successful crystallization of Muldrow's groovy hard bop-meets-soul technique. Here, the intertwining strands of strings and vibes simmer and boil into a spine-popping stew as the band wrings Christian's proto-bop chestnut into a down-home funk workout. Muldrow also flirts with South American rhythms on the vaguely Brazilian "Soleshia" and "Samba de Africano," the latter tune recalling the intoxicating spell such music held over so many jazz guitarists in the early '60s. As its name attests, "Killer Miller" is a showpiece for the venerable pianist, who adds his chiming, McCoy Tyner-textured style to a wonderfully dizzying example of textbook bebop.

Though there are several other fine cuts here—the haunting "Intrepidation," the tasteful version of Sissle and Blake's "Memories of You"—Mapenzi remains a difficult record to recommend wholeheartedly. While the production gives it a cohesive, if somewhat uniform, finish, Muldrow's compositions (the majority of the disc) offer little variety. And the timid presence of classically trained drummer Yoron Israel doesn't do much to inspire the band—or the listener. (It bears noting that the closing track, "Yesterday's Tomorrow," instead features Lorca Hart on drums.) Still, Muldrow is, without doubt, a thoroughly excellent improviser with a pleasing tone. Which may be enough for some.

Track Listing: 1- Seven Come Eleven/Freedom Jazz Dance (Christian/Harris) / 2- Jake's Dance (Muldrow) / 3- A Judge For Me (Muldrow) / 4- Memories of You (Blake/Sissle) / 5-Mapenzi (Muldrow) / 6- Intrepidation (Muldrow) 7- Silver's Lament (Muldrow) / 8-Samba de Africano (Muldrow) / 9- Killer Miller (Muldrow) / 10- Soleshia (Muldrow) / 11- The Shorter End (Muldrow) 12- Close Enough For Love (Muldrow) / 13- Steps Up (Harris) / 14- Yesterday's Tomorrows (Muldrow).

Personnel: Ronald Muldrow - guitar,leader; Mulgrew Miller, Donald Vega - piano; Miller Pertum - vibraphone, percussion; Robert Hurst, Peter Washington - bass; Yoron Israel, Lorca Hart - drums.

Record Label: Joh-Bev

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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