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Dave Brubeck: Small Groups, Large Stature

Jack Bowers By

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What would the Christmas season be without music? Much less festive, that's for sure. And even without the snow and ice, that's as true on the West Coast as it is on the East. Out in sunny California, baritone saxophonist Geoff Roach's Octobop is spreading seasonal cheer with a new CD, West Coast Christmas, on which clever arrangements of holiday favorites help brighten the landscape. In keeping with its West Coast provenance, Roach's eight-member group has "borrowed" from such peerless role models as Gerry Mulligan ("Line for Santa," "Bernie's Bells") and Shorty Rogers ("Saturnian Sleigh Ride," based on the Leroy Anderson classic) to enhance the holiday mood.

Roach arranged those numbers to complement charts by guitarist Jack Conway (six), bassist Brian Brockhouse ("Angels We Have Heard on High") and trumpeter Randy Smith ("Carol of the Bells"). "Line for Santa" blends passages from Mulligan's "Line for Lyons" with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," while "Bernie's Bells" is an amalgam of "Bernie's Tune" and "Jingle Bells." There is at least one lesser-known tune, "Filho de Papai Noel," and at on the pre-release copy, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is listed as "Jerry Mendelbaum." Both were arranged by Conway, as were "Santa Baby," "Christmas Time Is Here," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "The Christmas Song."

This is the fifth album by Octobop, which is no doubt comfortable in a recording studio. The ensemble plays well together, and solos are by and large passable, even though it's clear there's no Mulligan or Rogers in the neighborhood. On the other hand, the playing time is less than thirty-eight minutes, rather unsuitable for a present-day compact disc, which prospective listeners should keep in mind. A smooth, easygoing session for those who are looking for some Christmas music that is slightly off the beaten path.

Jasper Wood / David Riley
Stradivarius Christmas
Max Frank Music
2013

For music that is even more out of the ordinary, there's Stradivarius Christmas, on which violinist Jasper Wood teams with pianist David Riley to offer elegant interpretations of seasonal staples with "musical settings" (arrangements?) by Terry Vosbein, who is well-known to followers of big-band jazz for a pair of impressive albums with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Progressive Jazz 2009 and Fleet Street (songs from the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd.) Although no biographical information is given on the CD jacket (and there are no liner notes), Wood is from Canada, Riley (a professor at the University of Oregon) may also be Canadian by birth, and the duo has recorded at least one earlier album, Stravinsky: Works for Violin and Piano.

Wood may indeed be playing a Stradivarius, but it makes little difference. What matters is that he is a virtuoso on the instrument, as is pianist Riley, and that they play marvelously (and flawlessly) together. As for the program, it encompasses sixteen holiday evergreens from "O Tannenbaum" to "Auld Lang Syne" with stops in between for such well-known hymns as "We Three Kings," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Less often heard (but no less charming) are "I Wonder as I Wander," "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," "Fum Fum Fum," "What Child Is This" and "O Come O Come, Emmanuel." On the "jazzier" side, Wood and Riley have some fun with Vosbein's light-hearted "Christmas Rag."

For holiday parties, this is familiar yet beguiling music fashioned to make everyone feel at home. Apart from that, it is superbly planned and performed, with crystal-clear sound adding to its allure. No jazz, simply beautiful music to enhance the Christmas season.

In Smaller Packages . . .


Roberto Magris Space Trek
Aliens in a Bebop Planet
Jmood Records
2013

Composer / pianist Roberto Magris roams far afield on this seductive two-disc set, leaving his native Italy to record in Kansas City, MO, and using as his premise the bewilderment of aliens who encounter bebop, apparently for the first time, after arriving on planet earth (or "planet jazz"). What the aliens chance upon, in fact, transcends bebop, as Magris makes them feel "at home" with a variety of exotic themes that range from swing to "free" jazz and whose moods and cadences hint from time to time at the possibility of some far distant origin. Always, however, there is an explicit bebop substructure, one on which even aliens can depend.

Magris' accomplices in this endeavor include tenor saxophonist Matt Otto, bassist Dominique Sanders and drummer Brian Steever, with percussionist Pablo Sanhueza added on ten tracks, vocalist Eddie Charles on "Aliens," "New Cos City" and "Nobody Knows." The leader's piano is heard alone on the opening "Blues Clues," and with Otto's tenor on "Cloud Nine." Otto, a new name here, is a laid-back bopper whose tone and temper are reminiscent of Brew Moore / Allen Eager / Warne Marsh with a touch of Stan Getz. Magris wrote thirteen tunes and most likely arranged everything. Rounding out the engaging program are Fats Navarro's "Nostalgia," Billy Reid's pop favorite from 1947, "The Gypsy," Kenny Clarke's "Nobody Knows," John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and "Robbin's Space Bolero," easily noted as Sir Sir Charles Thompson's classic "Robbin's Nest." The last nineteen minutes on Disc 2 comprise an "audio notebook," akin to spoken liner notes, which summarize everything you need to know about the album after you've already listened.

What should be of paramount interest to anyone who has positioned the recording on his or her radar screen is the fact that Magris covers a variety of styles and plays well in all of them, as do Otto and the others. As for Chambers, he's a wordsmith in the mold of King Pleasure or Eddie Jefferson, to name a couple (he sings on two numbers and "talks" on "New Cos City"). Magris strings together a number of well-known bop phrases on "New Cos City," and swings as earnestly as any bopper on that number, as well as on "The Gypsy," "Cosmic Storyville," "Nostalgia" and the Latin-centered "Chachanada." The rhythm section, also faced with the task of mastering a number of blueprints, has no problem adapting its outlook to suit each revision.

A picturesque and perceptive voyage across the jazz landscape for aliens and earthlings alike.

Ronny Johansson Trio
New Jubilee / Permanent Vacation
Mori Music
2013

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