Pearls from the Sea
One of the advantages of a jazz cruiseaside from the glorious musical saturation, the food, the balmy weather, the food, the comraderie, relaxation, and foodis being able to get CDs directly from the performers. You might be enjoying their music for the first time, and now you don't have to hunt for it: there are designated times when you simply hand over your fifteen bucks, and it's yourseven autographed, if you like. It's also a good way to acquire indie gems that your publicity radar has missed. Moreover, when people offer different CDs on their table, you may learn which is their favorite, thus getting a truer sense of their own artistic goals. And best of all, you know that, for once, the musician gets every penny of the sale.
Here are four lustrous pearls from the recent voyage of the M/S Zuiderdam:
The Marvin Stamm and Bill Mays Duo
This is the sound of two old friends, who also happen to be undisputed masters of their instruments, having an amiable musical conversation. Stamm was booked on the cruise as a "special guest" of the sterling Bill Mays Trio; since I particularly enjoyed their moments of dual interplay, it was a delight to find this 2000 CD and be able to continue the joy at home. Their music is like the clear currents of a mountain stream, playfully skipping over rocks and curves, in and out of the shadows, yet always flowing freely. Kenton veteran Stamm has a tone that's purely gorgeous, with long, expressive lines; Mays is his usual fluid and lyrical self; and with their impeccable sense of time, you won't miss a rhythm section. Never getting in each other's way, responding, inspiring, and supporting, they swing like mad on "By Myself," "Airegin" and "The Lamp is Low" with its unexpected, tongue-in-cheek ending, and bring new poignancy to ballads, including Kenny Wheeler's beautiful, seldom-heard "The Widow in the Window." Their version of "You Must Believe in Spring" may be the loveliest I've ever heard. By Ourselves offers a pleasing variety of standards and personal statements, like Mays's happy salute to his wife "Judy" and his quiet, Brazilian take on dawn, "Madrugada." Even at its dizziest heights, the music has a relaxing effect, like a warm smile full of affection and mutual respect.
I don't know how people keep mourning the "death" of jazz when there are too many new powerhouse players to keep up with. I first heard Virginia Mayhew on the ship, although she's hardly new on the New York scene since 1987, part of Al Grey's band and playing with other luminaries for years, she's appeared at every top NYC venue, including Lincoln Center and Town Hall, and made her CD debut in 1997 with the much-praised Nini Green. A fine composer with a strong but nuanced sound on tenor, and the rare, blessed ability to tame the soprano, Mayhew is also one of those light-radiating people: extremely bright, direct, and funny. No Walls has been reviewed here before, so I won't go into detail except to agree that it's terrific and mention my extra-favorite tracks: the joyous "Hi-ya Mama!" opener, Harvie S's wistful "No Walls," and the duo between Mayhew and Barron on "Don't You Know I Care," with its luscious melding of Mayhew's rich tone and Barron's elegance. (And speaking of new powerhouse players, keep your eye on drummer Allison Miller.) Mayhew's newest CD, The Phantom (2002), is a piano-less quartet that breaks new musical ground. I enjoyed that one too, but alas, only one review to a shipmate.
Home with You
Carmen Bradford is one of the "real" singers: she has the voice, the phrasing, time, passion and sensitivity, and goes beyond the lyrics to give personal resonance to every song, whether it's a ballad or a burner. Chosen by the Count himself, she fronted the Basie band for nine years before starting her solo career. Unfortunately, Bradford was not on the ship, but her accompanist was. I've been greedy for more Shelly Berg since I first heard him on a cruise two years ago, but he's a busy and devoted educator (and past president of the IAJE) who hasn't waxed nearly enough as a leader. He does have a trio CD coming out soon on Azica, but since it's unreleased I can't discuss it, except to say that it's completely delicious. Berg is an exceptional pianist with a full bag of technique, but rather than flashing his chops in order to dazzle, he pulls out whatever feels necessary to communicate the honest essence of a song. And he reaches down so deep that his playing invariably touches the listener, heart to heart see, for example, the infinitely tender title track, written by Berg and beautifully performed by Bradford. These two make a splendid duo, and offer up a varied, consistently enjoyable, intimate set.
Jazz Heritage, Inc.
Rebecca Parris was on the ship, so after years of hearing her name I finally got to hear her music live. She knocked me out with her strong, rangey, flexible voice, her absolute assurance, and her bare-soul approach to a lyric. (In fact, her heartfelt version of "Never Let Me Go" actually brought me to tears, a rare public event.) Unmatched in intensity and directness tempered by a wicked sense of humor Parris's fine jazz chops and inherent taste keep her safely away from cabaret schmaltz. Spring , the CD she suggested from the selection on her table, came out in 1994; the occasional synthesizers are so subtly done that it holds up well. There's a rich Brazilian flavor in its two Michael Franks tunes and especially in the haunting "You'll Finally Understand," where composer Dori Caymmi provides guitar and vocal backup; he plays again on his beautiful "Spring," which both titles and closes the CD. There are also moments of R&B and soul: a smokey "Save Your Love for Me" and a killer version of "Not Like This," first popularized by Al Jarreau. The common thread here is catchy songs about love lost and found, with intelligent and powerful lyrics that are fortunately supplied in the notes. But like the best interpreters, Parris puts her unmistakable stamp on whatever material she's singing.
Personnel and track listings
Personnel: Marvin Stamm (trumpet and flugelhorn), Bill Mays (piano)
Tracks: By Myself, You and the Night and the Music, The Lamp is Low, The Widow in the Window, Judy, Beautiful Love, Waltz for Mia, You Must Believe in Spring, Airegin, Madrugada, Con Alma
Personnel: Virginia Mayhew (tenor and soprano sax), Kenny Barron (piano), Harvie Swartz (aka Harvey S) (bass), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet and flugelhorn), Allison Miller (drums), Adam Cruz (percussion)
Tracks: Hi-ya, Mama!, Apple Flambé, The Visit We Missed, Never Enough, The Oracle, Grand Central, No Walls, Don't You Know I Care, Mythology
Home With You
Personnel: Carmen Bradford (vocals), Shelly Berg (piano)
Tracks: You Can Depend on Me, My Shining Hour, Home with You, Take the A Train, I Know What I've Got, This Can't Be Love, Be the One, Singing in the Rain, Street of Dreams, Sweet Georgia Brown, My Ideal, How Sweet It Is, Wonder Why
Personnel: Rebecca Parris (vocal, background vocal), Dori Caymmi (acoustic guitar, background vocal), Carlos Vega (drums), Abraham Laborielle, Jimmy Johnson, Jim Hughart, (bass), George Mesterhazy (acoustic piano, synthesizers), John Chiodini (electric and acoustic guitar), Luis Conte (percussion)
Tracks: Alone at Night, It's You, Tell Me All About It, First Time on a Ferris Wheel, You Look So Good, Save Your Love for Me, He Comes to Me for Comfort, You'll Finally Understand, Not Like This, Spring