Various Artists: Criss Cross Revisited
Anytime I hear the remark that jazz has died a tragic death and nothing like we had in the '50s and '60s with Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside exists today, I'm always quick to bring up the efforts of Holland's Criss Cross label. Now with a catalog pushing some 160 plus albums, the brainchild of school teacher and jazz enthusiast Gerry Teekens continues to be one of the most viable forums for young talent going today and any comparisons with the aforementioned labels are certainly justified and apropos.
Cutting to the chase, we continue our second installment of the latest Criss Cross offerings with a look at the most recent in a extraordinary series of recordings from tenor saxophonist and composer Walt Weiskopf. His fourth effort as a leader for Criss Cross, Sleepless Nights (Criss Cross 1147) contains the same important elements that made his previous dates such an accomplishment including distinguished sidemen, formidable charts, and Weiskopf's own original saxophone voice. Returning to the same front line that appeared on his debut set, Weiskopf works with alto man Andy Fusco and trombonist Conrad Herwig, with rhythm provided by brother Joel, bassist James Genus and drummer Billy Drummond. The opening "Inner Loop" is a fast and complex line that sounds difficult to execute, yet it all comes off without a hitch. My favorite cut, "Jazz Folk Song", contains some of Weskopf's best moments as he solos with fluidity and grace and a sound that echoes Coltrane but has now become Walt's own calling card. Although few people are aware of this fact, Weiskopf remains one of the jazz world's best kept secrets-he's simply a monster!
Currently a member of trumpeter Nicholas Payton's quintet, drummer Adonis Rose presents his debut set as a leader, Song for Donise (Criss Cross 1146), and in the process signals the arrival of a talented and rising drum star. With Payton and his band in place for this date, one immediately gets the message as to how important working ensembles are to presenting strong jazz performances. Rose is part of a smoking rhythm section featuring bassist Rueben Rogers and piano phenom Anthony Wonsey, with Payton and Warfield's one-two punch making for one of the most exciting front lines in recent memory. An agreeable mix of originals and superlative standards finds the quintet in peak form and there are far too many highlights to mention in this limited space. Rose handles being the boss especially well, never hogging the solo space or overplaying in splashy and hollow displays. If you haven't heard Wonsey of Warfield before you're certainly in for a surprise as each has developed a distinctive identity that is rare for young musicians.
Finally getting away from academia and other pursuits that have in the past kept him from gaining the attention that he deserves, pianist David Hazeltine has been stepping out more often on his own. As a follow-up to some recent dates for Sharp Nine, How It Is (Criss Cross 1142) finds Hazeltine in a typically inspired state of mind and working alongside three of the men that also make up the exciting hard bop collective One For All- trumpeter Jim Rotondi, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. A mix of standards and originals are presented in "souped up" fashion thanks to Hazeltine's great arranging skills. His way with vamps and altered harmonics is exceptional and fresh. Earth, Wind & Fire's top-ten hit "Reasons" is transformed into a simmering and seductive groove that suits everyone well. The pianist's own "Nuit Noire" is a gem that deserves to be picked up by other jazz men. A true classic, this one rewards repeated listening.
Another little known but up-and-coming piano talent, David Kikoski has recently obtained some long overdue exposure thanks to recent work with drum legend Roy Haynes. His new trio date, Inner Trust (Criss Cross 1148), is a mixed bag that contains ample hints as to Kikoski's creativity and talent but in some ways suffers from the earthy, but often disjointed, drumming of Leon Parker. Kikoski is a multifaceted pianist, able to play "in" or "out". Throughout this set you can tell that he was trying to present a well-rounded portrait of his manifold talents. Many of the moments caught here on tape suggest thought and communication were going on between the players and yet not much materializes. Parker's cymbal shadings and brush swipes put me in mind of much of the drumming that characterizes your typical ECM piano trio. Not a bad album, but one that can wear out its welcome towards the end.
Trumpeter Ryan Kisor hit the jazz scene at an early age and then seemed to drop out of sight as quickly as he appeared. Most recently he has made a comeback of sorts and has shown tremendous growth as a player. That maturity is clearly present throughout Battle Cry (Criss Cross 1145), his first set as a leader to appear in quite some time. Fronting a quartet with organist Sam Yahel, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Brian Blade, Kisor takes on the challenge of carrying the lead and then engaging in some lengthy and impressive solos (only the most well-trained possess the endurance for such a feat.) Each player makes the most of their own moments and Blade is an absolute delight in this type of setting. A standout among many, Kisor's take on "Sweet Pumpkin" is worth the price of admission.
A preferred trumpeter and New York session man, Joe Magnarelli has appeared on many Criss Cross dates as a sideman and has just recently released his second date as a leader for the label. Always There (Criss Cross 1141) is an ambitious recording that features some fine writing by Joe and an excellent choice of sidemen, including Gary Smulyan, Jim Snidero, Larry Goldings, and Kenny Washington. Hard bop is the order of the day here and Magnarelli presents a brassy and highly attractive sound that recalls such inspirations as Kenny Dorham and Tommy Turrentine. Two cuts benefit from the added percussion work of Daniel Sadownick. Overall this one may be a bit top heavy on the standards, but the creative sparks keep it from degenerating into just another blowing session.
The real sleeper of the lot, Tim Ries' Universal Spirit (Criss Cross 1144) comes up sounding unlike any other effort to appear on this label before. Much of this has to do with guitarist Ben Monder, who first caught my ears when he was part of Marc Johnson's Right Brain Patrol. In fact, the Johnson connection is worth exploring because there's a raw emotional energy here that reminds one of Johnson's two-guitar group, Bass Desires. Trumpeter Scott Wendholt shares the front line with saxophonist Ries and rhythm mates Scott Colley and Billy Drummond. Ries makes a mark with his strong writing that manages to take the soloists in new directions. His tenor and soprano work is also highly developed. Here's hoping we get more Monder and Ries in the future, but in the meantime, check this one out without delay.
Finally, producer Teekens has looked into the vaults to bring us the second jam session from the collective known as the Tenor Triangle. Aztec Blues (Criss Cross 1143) features the three tenors (no, not those Italian dudes) of Eric Alexander, Tad Shull, and Ralph LaLama along with organist Melvin Rhyne, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Kenny Washington. This spirited jam session is a real hoot from first to last note! Each tenor man has a distinctive sound and approach making for a good deal of variety, Rhyne's trio simply burn, and there's a well-selected serving of tunes. What more could you ask for?