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Notable and Nearly Missed 2017


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I am winding down the twentieth year contributing to All About Jazz. I have never had a year where there wasn't too much good music to review (or it got to me too late). This is my attempt to make good before '17 becomes '18.

Skip Heller
That was Then: Collected Recordings 2008- 2017
Self Produced

In addition to his being a restless music provocateur surveying the landscape of Americana, Skip Heller is a master tactician and punctilious documenter of his impressive corpus of recordings. Periodically, Heller likes to sum up the previous years' work in a retrospective that provides an accurate snapshot of his thinking and performing. First, there was The Essential Skip Heller: Career Suicide 1994 -2001 (Dionysus Records, 2002), followed by It's Like That: The Organ Trio Anthology 1998 -2004 (Jewbilee, 2004). The 2004 to 2008 period where Heller's organ combo inclinations began to transmogrify into the stake he pounds into the heart of Americana remains uncollected while his most recent and fruitful period is collected on the present That was Then: Collected Recordings 2008-2017. This present anthology covers Heller at his most evolved, including his tribute to Floyd Tillman , Foolish Me (Weatherbird, 2012) and his fine Hollywood Blues Destroyers recordings. The collection also contains previously uncollected and unreleased music.

Birdie Jones
In My Single
Self Produced

In direct connection with Skip Heller is Birdie Jones. A fellow LA inhabitant, Jones and Heller are presently fronting a revue call "Carnival of Soul" where Heller landed after the recent disbanding of his outstanding Hollywood Blues Destroyers. Out of this erstwhile union arises the superbly oddly titled In my Single, a six song EP made up of five Jones originals and one "standard" Timi Yuro's 1962 single "What's a Matter Baby." This piece also appears on Heller's That was Then. Why? Because Heller arranged and produced In my Single. In Jones, Heller met his creative-synergistic match. This brief EP contains the entire spectrum of American music performed with great precision and invention: country western ("Gonna Shine"), white gospel ("No Time at All"), jump blues ("I Hope it Makes you Mad"), it is all here. I am unsure if this recording has a flaw, but if it does, it is no matter...there is a creative match-made-in-heaven here that I want to hear much more of.

Thomas Fonnesbaek & Justin Kauflin
Storyville Records

Piano-bass duos typically make for very interesting listening and Thomas Fonnesbaek and Justin Kauflin's Synesthesia is no exception. A gem hidden in my to-review pile emerges with ten selections: three standards and seven originals that somehow channel the creative genius of Oscar Peterson without Kauflin losing his identity and without employing Peterson's considerable (and often over-used) technical prowess. "Nigerian Marketplace," originally from Peterson's 1981 Pablo recording of the same title reveals Peterson's sturdy architecture and Kauflin's keen ability to expose the same in an improvisational way not unlike Liszt's approach to the Beethoven Symphony transcriptions. Bassist Fonnesbaek is a sensitive equal in the recording, offering Kauflin the same impressive wares provided Sinne Eeg on Eeg-Fonnesbæk (Stunt Records/Sundance Music, 2015). This recording is my pleasant surprise of 2017.

Hot Texas Swing Band
Off The Beaten Trail
Self Produced

Take Dan Hick and His Hot Licks and add Van Morrison arranging the horns and you have something like the Hot Texas Swing Band. Then, that said, the recording begins more like a southern California version of a Western Swing band. Off The Beaten Trail is the band's fourth studio recording and is fashioned as a half standards-half originals outing. The title cut is fun and well-conceived and played. Bassist vocalist Alex Dormont has the voice, as does Selena Rosanbalm, but the two don't dig down until Benny Carter's "Cow Cow Boogie," which the group dispatches with verve and pizazz. "Snow in Amarillo" is a brisk jump tune that shows off Dave Biller's pedal steel guitar wares, as well as Cat Clemoms guitar playing. The highlight of the disc is a swinging "White Lightnin,'" recalling George Jones in all of his glory. Off The Beaten Trail is an evolution within Western Swing, one that softens rough edges and smooths out the craggy places. This is a fun romp. But don't expect Asleep at the Wheel.

Steven Schoenberg
What's Going On? Solo Piano
Quabbin Records

Pianist Steven Schoenberg, more than any other similar player, creates improvised interpretations of known music in such a way as to inform the listener while never falling into rote technical performance. He always provides something to listen for in old melodies. There is ample evidence of this on Schoenberg's previous recordings: 2009's Improvisational Journey (Record Label) and Christmas Disk (Record Label, Year). For What's Goin On: Solo Piano, the pianist chooses 11 selections from the last century (with an emphasis on the popular music of the late '60s and early '70s to have a deeper improvisational look at. Schoenberg infuses each improvisation with a personality equal to the original intention. He plays Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence" like a John Field Nocturne while taking "You are My Sunshine" into Roosevelt Sykes' barrelhouse. "Here Comes the Sun" is full of nuts and berries while "Down by The Riverside/Peace Train" smell of a clapboard country church. This is a recording in the spirit of America!

Paul Giallorenzo Trio
Delmark Records

That Delmark Sound. At once, precise and ill-defined. Pianist Paul Giallorenzo issues a second Delmark release, Flow, a collection of nine original compositions that probe those musical places not often visited. Giallorenzo favors angular compositions that stretch and contract time signatures and thematic moods. The art of the jazz piano trio has evolved into a realm of mathematical interpretation. Giallenrenzo's themes are rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically (or, anti-melodically) complex and always capable of sustaining lengthy solo investigations. the sonics are both interesting and awesome. Delmark favors a dry and unadorned background, something even more spare than Rudy Van Gelder's studio. This environment captures the most organic presence of Giallenrenzo's trio who give an old-fashioned performance for newly fashioned music. The jazz piano trio continues to provide a creatively inventive and fecund format for the music.

Full Time

The St. Louis record label Nighthawk was founded by Robert Schoenfeld and Leroy Jodie Pierson in 1976. Initially the label was devoted to post-World War II blues compilations, the label was transformed into a reggae outlet in 1980. The label recorded Justin Hinds, the Itals, Albert Griffiths, Winston Jarrett and the present Gladiators. Omnivore Records has required the Nighthawk (and Ru-Jac) labels, beginning a re-release series. The Galdiators' Full Time (1983) is the first out and offers a keen contrast to the better know reggae outlets like UB40, Peter Tosh, and the Bob Marley franchise. The results here are a subtle brand of reggae with emphasis on a plush bottom and slightly reverberated vocals. Led by Albert Griffiths, the band participated in several sessions that that originally afforded Symbol of Reality, Serious Thing and Dread Prophesy. Full Time was drawn from these sessions. What makes this recording so appealing is the fact that a large majority of the music market will have never heard this music, it being eclipsed by Marley and Tosh in the popular realm. This is deep and languid music that deserves to be heard many, many times.

Ethiopians & His All Stars
The Return of Jack Sparrow

Ethiopian (aka Leonard Dillon) recorded a brand of R & B-infused reggae for Nighthawk in the late 1980s. Closely associated with the Gladiators, Dillon toured with the band numerous time. His own band, the Ethiopians were a popular Jamaican harmony group instrumental in advancing not only reggae, but ska and rocksteady before reggae. The Return of Jack Sparrow is a previously unreleased album now seeing the light of day. By the mid-1980s, Dillon had recorded two albums under his own name after pairing with Gladiators for Dread Prophecy on Nighthawk Records (1986). What was unknown until now is that Dillon had recorded an album for Nighthawk after Dread Prophecy. The Return of Jack Sparrow is that recording. This is happy, hopeful, and warm music, intoxicating in its breadth and depth, while still remaining firmly in the realm of ska/reggae. It is easy to see how Dillon as the Ethiopian was a popular local act in Jamaica. It is high time that we all are allowed to enjoy this infectious music.

Pam Taylor
Steal Your Heart
Self Produced

South Carolinian Pam Taylor has been a work in progress coming fully into fruition with her third recording Steal Your Heart. Taylor introduced herself with the solid Hot Mess, originally released in 2012. She followed this with Dirty Southern Soul (Self Produced, 2015) under the guise of Stolen Hearts. Taylor recently sent out a teaser for the present Steal Your Heart in the form of "Squeeze Me." The entire Steal Your Heart is an Americana dream by an artist whose time has more than come. Taylor projects a well-scrubbed and innocently seductive sex appeal that makes her music irresistible. So, don't be frightened to enjoy this recording as much as Taylor obviously had making it.

Tómas R. Einarsson & Eyþór Gunnarsson
Innst Inni
Blánótt Records

Icelandic jazz broke my consciousness barrier with Joel Palsson's Naxos Jazz release, Prim (2000). Several years later, I was introduced to bassist Tómas R. Einarsson with his recording Bassanott (Blánótt Records, 2013). Einarsson follows this recording this a lovely ballads recording presented with longtime pianist collaborator Eyþór Gunnarsson. Cool and isolated climes give way to warm and inviting nocturnal musical musings on Innst Inni. This is a wonderfully quiet, consonant recording that is perfect with that glass of Cab after a hectic day at work. Consisting of 11 Einarsson originals, Innst Inni is decidedly untethered to any particular nationalistic or music point of origin. It is simply music...uncomplicated and soothing. Both men adopt a light touch for the recording as if walking in stocking feet as to no awake their lovers. This is more than music, it is a mood, and environment where all is okay, at least for the duration. Allow this recording to give way to peace.

Van Morrison
Roll with the Punches
Caroline Records

Van Morrison exists in rarified company. Only Willie Nelson (living), Ray Charles, and Prince (passed) are his peers in the respect that these musicians can assimilate any musical genre and make it their own successfully. Morrison returns to his familiar blues and R&B territory on Roll with the Punches. A highlight of the recording, besides Morrison's still impressive vocals and arranging is Jeff Beck's slide guitar playing, to which we are treated to a copious amount on the recording. Morrison reprises "Stormy Monday (coupled with Doc Pomus' "Lonely Avenue") and Sam Cooke's "Bring it on Home to Me," presenting both as dramatically different accounts when compared to his original recordings. To these, Morrison adds Sister Rosetta Tharp's "How Far From God" (a perfect Morrison vehicle if there ever was one, to which he gives a barrelhouse piano tune-up) and strolling rendition of Ruth Brown's "Teardrops from my Eyes." The de rigueur celtic-cum-rhythmic "Benediction" acts as a prelude to two blues Morrison was yet to cover, Little Walter Jacob's "Mean Old World," where this singer brings the song down low and Bo Diddley's spectacular "Ride on Josephine."

Van Morrison
Caroline Records

Van Morrison is no stranger to performing jazz. His own "Moondance" is one of the jazziest pop songs composed in the early 1970s. Add to this his mid-'90s releases of How Long Has This Been Going On (Verve, 1995) and Tell Me Something (Verve, 1996) and I would say his jazz bona fides are pretty solid. What it present Versatile provides is a collection of originals and standards so rich with both intelligent arranging and production that one wonders why Morrison has not strolled through the Great American Songbook as Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan have (with their mixed results. Then again, Morrison is not that type of artist. He is a cut above. I believe the deal maker/breaker on this recording is "Unchained Melody" a song so steeped in the performance by the Righteous Brothers that I could scarcely conceive of anyone else singing this song. What Morrison does is make it one of his trademark Celtic R&B classics. It works and works well. "Makin' Whoopie" is pretty convincing also.

Theater of Voices, Paul Hillier
In dulci jubilo -Music for the Christmas Season by Buxtehude and Friends
Da Capo Classical

Some last minute recordings simply must be added last minute. Just when the listening unconscious has completed tired of holiday fare, Paul Hillier and his Theater of Voices identifies some neglected baroque music that has not been performed to death. When the majority of the new releases are either re-releases or flash-in-the-pan quasi-jazz/pop, it is nice to hear a well-programmed and reasoned release for a change. Hillier draws together Christmas and Advent music from Northern Germany in the late 17th Century, reflecting the effect of the Protestant Reformation on sacred music of the season. Central to this recording is the music of Dietrich Buxtehude, who while not completely unknown, is hot as well represented in seasonal recordings. Organ, Choral, and small period-ensemble music makes up the best part of the release. Programmed to take the listener through the liturgical season from Advent through the Epiphany. Among the other composers included are Heinrich Scheidemann, Franz Tundar, and Johann Sebastian Bach's great-uncle, Johann Christoph Bach. Hillier demonstrates considerable precision in this programming and conducting of the old pieces revealing a wealth of surprises.

Chuck Berry
Dualtone Music

In the short span of eight months, time claimed first, Leon Russell; second, Chuck Berry; and third, Gregg Allman. All three men managed to release a valedictory recording with Russell's On A Distant Shore (Palmetto) showing up in October and Allman's Southern Blood (Rounder Records) appearing shortly after their respective deaths. The same occurred for Berry, who passed away March 18th with his album hitting the electrons on the following June. Simply entitled Chuck, Berry's final word was assembled from newly composed material from between 1980 and 2016. All of the recordings were made after 2001. Berry is in exceptionally good voice for his advanced age, making me think the recordings were made closer to 2001 than not. Berry never considered himself and "oldies" act (what might be considered prehistoric to today's "Classic Rock" fantod). Chuck turns out to be a beautifully strange collection of ten songs, strange, because they are not what the listener might suspect. Neither a cheap exercise in wistfulness nor a frantic attempt at relevance, the recording is something vastly different: a new album that feels like bona fide Chuck Berry music, music that first saw shellac and vinyl in 1955 with "Maybelline." Berry was rock music's great theoretician. We are diminished by is absence but thankful for this last word.

Craig Harris
The Band: Pioneers of American Music
214 Pages
ISBN: #9780810890402017
Rowman & Littlefield
2017 (Paperback)

Craig Harris' expansive exploration of the Band turns three years old and has finally made it into paperback. Harris took the opportunity correct a couple of errors with this reprinting, improving an already exception book and an equally exceptional band. An enigma from the beginning, The Band was a most unlikely assemblage of talent: a classically- trained keyboard player, a Jewish-Native Canadian guitar wizard with a golden knack for capturing the miscible interface between the agrarian pastoral and the industrial combine that was to become modern America. Those two and three of the finest voices in American popular music: one fecund and sensual, one like a dying man's breath, and one so steeped in the American South, he defined the Band. Harris traces the quintet's early association with Ronnie Hawkins, the New York Lefties, and, ultimately, Bob Dylan. As different from the Beatles as the Rolling Stones, and as different from the Rolling Stones as Pete Seeger, The Band did not imitate, they created an alternate universe that Greil Marcus call "Old, Weird America." Harris wipes off a bit of that romantic patina, revealing a truth about The Band and ourselves. We are everything we think we are and ... nothing at all.

Critic's Note: Anno Domini 2017, marks the 100th Anniversary of recorded jazz, deftly noted by the release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's shellac "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step (A)/Livery Stable Blues (B)," Victor 18255, recorded February 26, 1917 and released March 7, 1917. Just for perspective, in 1917, my father was 18 months old and my mother was yet to be born for two years. It is also the twentieth anniversary of me writing for All About Jazz. The first recording I reviewed for the magazine was Art Pepper's San Francisco Samba (Contemporary, 1997), published December 1, 1997. I am using this article as part of a series noting my twentieth anniversary with the magazine and paying special tribute to my fellow writers at All About Jazz and Publisher Michael Ricci.



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