Thank god for guys like Criss Cross owner and producer Gerry Teekens. He's in it for the music, and as a result his label is really one of the rare few that is giving younger jazz musicians a chance to record and further their careers by sharing their music with a larger audience. Starting over a decade ago on a modest budget, Teekens now ships over 12 new releases a year from Holland and this reviewer waits with baited breath to see and hear what the latest will be from such up-and-comers as Walt Weiskopf, Tim Warfield, Peter Bernstein, John Swana, Eric Alexander, Chris Potter, and so many more.
Kicking off my look at some recent Criss Cross releases, we discover easily one of the most harmonically advanced pianists since Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. Bill Charlap, currently part of Phil Woods' stellar ensemble, presents his third date as a leader for Criss Cross, All Through the Night, and it's another piquant example of just how substantive and rewarding the piano trio format can be when it's in the right hands. When it comes to setting a mood, Charlap is a master. He can roar like a lion and then purr like a gentle and lovable pussycat. Even more impressive is his ability to do this while sounding like himself and avoiding the wearing of influences on his sleeve. Over the course of a mere 47 minutes you hear a whole lot of piano here, not to mention some sublime interaction with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. It also occurs to me how refreshing it is to avoid the one millionth recording of "My Funny Valentine" when there's such great mining yet to be done of such numbers as Alec Wilder's "It's So Peaceful in the Country". This is state-of-the-art piano trio jazz and shouldn't be missed!
Steve Davis has recently come into his own as the next contemporary master of the jazz trombone. Taking in such classic influences as J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller, Davis is a grad of Jackie McLean's jazz studies program at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. Currently a member of the faculty at Hartt himself, Davis' new release, Crossfire, puts him in the fast company of Eric Alexander, Mike DiRubbo, Nat Reeves, Joe Farnsworth, and piano legend Harold Mabern. One of Davis' greatest assets is his composing and he hits it big with the opening "Then and Now", a funky groove number that sets the rollicking mood maintained throughout the set. Unfortunately it's the only Davis original in the set. Two more originals are up next followed by a string of standards tastefully arranged and done up with thought and inspiration. All of the soloists have something valuable to say, especially Alexander and Mabern who are obviously having a great deal of fun. This is not Davis' best album, but it certainly has its moments and is well worth the investment if you dig any of the players on board or are a fan of jazz trombone.
It's hard for me to be to objective when it comes to guitarist Peter Bernstein. In my considered opinion, he's one of the finest jazz guitarists around today. With a melodic and linear style based largely on the legendary work of Grant Green, Bernstein has become a valuable sideman and has appeared on literally hundreds of recordings over the past five years, in addition to leading his own Criss Cross dates. His fourth release as a leader, Earth Tones, finds Bernstein returning to the trio format he excels in with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart. This trio has cut many dates over the years under both Bernstein and Goldings' leaderships and as good as they all are, this one is clearly their finest work to date. Based more on the advancements made by Larry Young than on the funk-based stylings of Jack McDuff or Jimmy Smith, this trio speaks with a forward-looking sound that owes much to the writing of Bernstein. His tunes cover new territory that generates solid and fascinating interplay between Goldings and Stewart. Simply put, this set is as close to perfection as it gets!
Trumpeters John Swana and Joe Magnarelli are of a new generation of players who aren't as well known as a Roy Hargrove or Nicholas Payton but who nonetheless have much to say in terms of advancing the role of the trumpet in jazz. Swana, hails from Philadelphia and has been a Criss Cross veteran for the past several years, while New Yorker Magnarelli works the pit bands, teaches, and is a regular at the after-hours sessions at Smalls. Both have joined forces for Philly-New York Junction, a bristling set of hard bop that never fails to please. Typical of most Criss Cross sessions, the assembled crew is a heavy-hitting one, with Eric Alexander, Joel Weiskopf, Peter Washington, and Kenny Washington along for the ride. The idea of two trumpeters in the lead is not one of your usual formats, but it makes for a fascinating listen. Swana is the more introverted of the pair, with a warm and burnished tone (clearly Art Farmer and Tom Harrell are influences), while Magnarelli's style crackles with the excitement of a Clifford Brown. An inspired mix of standards and originals make for one of the best records these two have done. Let's hope they meet at the junction sometime again soon!
Finally, we come to a record that came just in time to make it on my list of the best recordings of 1998. Tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield's Gentle Warrior is another solid step in the direction of inspiration and spiritual depth that began when his first Criss Cross date, A COOL BLUE, gathered much critical praise, including substantial plaudits from the New York Times' Peter Watrous. Warfield continues to lead his working band with the underrated trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Clarence Penn. The empathy they've developed is most apparent on a fifteen-minute plus venture entitled "The Grim Reaper's Rapture" where each soloist tells a story and the mood is successfully maintained over the entire performance. The opening "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" is a major highlight, with Warfield's breathy opening statement leading to a cool and relaxed stroll that sends chills down the spine.