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Sharp Nine Records


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Tenors Eric Alexander and Grant Stewart are every bit as good as guys recording for Blue Note or major labels
—Marc Edelman, Sharp Nine
It's a scene of riches: a marigold-colored moon so bright and full it looks like a gold coin tossed into the end-of-summer sky, while skyscraper windows towering over New York City's Central Park glitter like diamonds.

But the real richness of this particular evening is in the music played by six musicians framed in this iconic Manhattan nightscape high above the park by the cinematic wide-screen windows of Dizzy's Club. After a rousing number, the group One For All's tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander steps out to solo in "Little Lucas, a moving piece he wrote for his young son that is featured on the band's latest recording, The Lineup, released by Sharp Nine Records.

All six of these same talented performers are heard not only together as One For All but also in various configurations with other musicians on diverse Sharp Nine recordings. While the music on the Sharp Nine label is often though not always studio-recorded, the aural experience of this live September 2007 show at "Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner complex is representative of the sure-fire clarity of sound and message of this label's offerings. Like the flame-hued moon outside Dizzy's and the melodies, harmonics and rhythms that swing inside this pretty paneled room, those signature sounds tend to be warm, bright, encompassing, inviting, immediate, and—always—"straight-ahead.

Founded by Marc Edelman a dozen years ago and counting, when this former insurance broker was seeking a new venue in which to play out his working life, Sharp Nine Records has released many recordings and has encouraged the careers of a substantial number of top-quality musicians, many active in New York and some of whom had been underdiscovered or underappreciated by other labels at the time Edelman introduced them. Sidemen also can get a chance to be leaders. The roster includes the excellent One For All-ers Alexander, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth who made their first recording (and follow-ups) for Sharp Nine in 1997. There are many others, to drop a few names: trumpeter Brian Lynch (Brian Lynch Meets Bill Charlap, 2003); vibraphonist Joe Locke and the Milt Jackson Tribute Band (Rev-evlation, 2005); pianist Anthony Wonsey (The Thang, 2005); drummer Ray Appleton and his sextet, with Slide Hampton (Killer Ray Rides Again, 1996), and alto saxophonists Ian Hendrickson-Smith (Up In Smoke! , live from the New York club Smoke, 2003) and Julius Tolentino (Just the Beginning, 2001). Edelman also opened his doors to vocalist/pianist Dena DeRose.

It's almost like a family, with members in various states of closeness or distance to home base at different points in their lives. Pianist Hazeltine, whose new release The Inspiration Suite features his own compositions in a dual tribute to Cedar Walton and Buddy Montgomery, has been in on the Sharp Nine mission literally from its conception, when the idea was barely a twinkle in Edelman's eye.

"I was playing at this little place in New Jersey and we met, says Hazeltine, who at the time had returned to the New York area from Milwaukee where he had resided for ten years. "Marc liked my playing and had been thinking of taking piano lessons. So he started ... He was a fan of my playing and he was wondering why no one had recorded me. In one of our lessons, I said, 'Why don't you just start a label and record me?'

"And he started thinking seriously about it.

Edelman sees that first night as fortuitous—as at the time he had young children and hadn't been out to hear live music for a while. But he had heard on the radio driving home from work that saxophonist Ralph Lalama whose playing he liked was appearing near home, so he went to check out the show.

First out of the gate of his new business was a CD featuring Lynch (Keep Your Circle Small), who had already been recorded but at that point didn't have a label. But the second offering was all Hazeltine's.

Many Hazeltine projects followed. They've led to The Inspiration Suite, featuring tenor Alexander, Joe Locke on vibes, Webber on bass, Farnsworth on drums and Daniel Sadownick on percussion. Hazeltine wrote a four-part piece dedicated to two of his favorite jazz pianists/composers, Walton and Montgomery. Other pieces he performs as well on this appealing exploration include Walton's own "Shoulders and Montgomery's "Personage of War.

Why focus on these two particular guys?

Hazeltine, who teaches at SUNY Purchase but once thought he'd become an engineer, says he appreciates "the concise and well-organized nature of Walton's piano work. "He articulates everything as if he's playing Bach. It's so elegant and eloquent, and succinct. It's the closest thing to perfection I've ever heard in jazz. And that's not to say it's not adventurous.

"For Buddy, it's about adventure. I've never heard him do things the same way. Montgomery, whom he notes was self-taught, is also distinctive because as he started on vibes "he plays piano very much like a vibes player. To know what that's like you'll just have to listen.

Speaking of listening, the other new September 2007 release is Stop Look & Listen: The Music of Tadd Dameron. It's pianist Tardo Hammer's tribute to someone he appreciates. He didn't want to focus on another pianist's work as he felt that being a pianist himself that would be somewhat "redundant, but when Edelman suggested Dameron, "I thought it was a great idea. There's so much repertoire and it's very free-flowing and you can very much do your own thing with it. Dameron was really a composer of repertoire whether he played it or not. He's always been a hero of mine. His writing is brilliant. Starting with 'Hot House'—when he wrote it, in the time he wrote it, it just seems so visionary.

"He's making complex things but they're really composed of simple things, says Hammer of the pianist/composer who worked for and with Dizzy Gillespie, Lunceford and Basie and Sarah Vaughan and featured the likes of Fats Navarro, Allen Eager, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among many others, in his own groups.

Hammer cites "Hot House," featured on this new Sharp Nine recording in addition to nine other Dameron works, as a good example of an "incredibly intricate weave of fairly simple elements. "It's extremely exotic but some of it is just chromatic scale positioned just so, so it sounds beautiful.

So Sharp Nine—named after the sharp 9 chord, an altered dominant chord often used in playing modern jazz—may be straight-ahead but you get original music and the standards are served up fresh, straight-up and sometimes with a twist.

Grant Stewart, a talented tenor who plays regularly with his own group at the downtown New York club Smalls on Tuesday nights and has been working on making a name for himself here and abroad, is the latest addition to the Sharp Nine lineup and he definitely spins standards his own way. Often compared to Sonny Rollins for his warm rich tenor sound, the Toronto-born tenor player has a style all his own.

Nobody can accuse Edelman of not being opinionated, for not doing what he believes in or for not speaking out on behalf of his artists. "For tenor playing, I think Eric Alexander and Grant Stewart are every bit as good as guys who are recording for Blue Note or major labels ... the Joe Lovanos or the Joshua Redmans, for example, he says. "I think Hazeltine and Hammer are great piano players. Period.

Stewart can be heard on Sharp Nine's recent In the Still of the Night, a well-executed collection of songs played with heart and finesse that features him as leader along with Hammer on piano, Peter Washington on bass and drummer Farnsworth (obviously Farnsworth who is also on Hammer's new release with Webber is someone who gets around in this neck of the woods). Earlier, Stewart appeared on another well-regarded Sharp Nine release, Planet Jazz 'In Orbit', featuring a band of Smalls regulars who are fixtures on the New York scene, including pianist Spike Wilner, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Joe Strasser.

But this month (October 2007) Stewart will record his second release as leader for Sharp Nine, with the same rhythm section. It will feature standards, but also a few of his own compositions.

As for why he likes standards, and why he often plays them, Stewart explains, "The most important thing for me is melody. And I don't care what anyone says, there haven't been composers like Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and Gershwin and Berlin since then. They could write melodies like nobody else. So their songs not only are harmonically interesting but melodically they're also so strong.

"I love songs. I don't think it's anything that goes in or out of style. Also, when I improvise I tend to be pretty busy and play a lot of complicated stuff so it's good for me sometimes to use the standards as a vehicle because they're not overly complicated so I can work off of them, adds Stewart. "As opposed to taking songs that are really complicated and then what I put on top of it may make it a little too dense.

"For me there's so much to playing a melody, he explains. "The details and subtleties of jazz music—that's what makes jazz. It's not necessarily scales and patterns and formulas, it's the things that you can't put into a formula or into a pattern ... That stuff makes jazz for me, rhythmically and also things like the way you approach a note, a melody, the way you attack in a note. Those things don't get much attention because they're impossible to teach, especially en masse.

Thoughout the last dozen years Edelman has always stuck to his original mission in his New Jersey-based venture, to record the best in straight-ahead and, as he likes to describe it, bebop and hard bop-derived music that's "in the pocket. "I haven't changed my focus because this is really what I love and I wouldn't be able to make stuff that I don't really like. I'm just a straight-ahead guy. For me it's melody, harmony and rhythm, swing and the feeling of swing. That's what I like and that's what I think jazz music is all about.

Staying alive as a small label hasn't been easy. And with two kids needing to be financed through college—one of whom has turned out to be a "good alto player, says Dad—it hasn't got any easier. "It's a tough thing with a small business, says Edelman. "We can't do market research, we function on anecdotal evidence. People read reviews, hear stuff on the radio, read other things, and some wander into a club and see somebody ... But it's fragmented. There's no one way that people find out about you. In fact, they don't find out enough. Because there are so few jazz fans in such a large population, it's hard to market effectively to them. And with sales coming down as they have, there's less money for advertising. I'm just trying to keep my costs down while still putting out a quality product, using good studios and musicians and photographers, hoping that the core fans will find those records and hope for the best. It's rough.

With some 40 releases in his catalog, he is trying to ride with the times. "All my stuff is available for digital downloads from itunes and emusic... and some decent money is coming in. But what I am actually thinking about is putting out some of the stuff on vinyl, because there is a vinyl market out there. Obviously with vinyl, no one's copying it, no one's stealing it. The point is to have the vinyl and put it on your $5,000 turntable and listen to it. So that does away with the problem of people not paying for music.

Meanwhile, no matter what the challenges, life goes on. "When I started I had not spent one second in any facet of the music business, not in retail, not in wholesale, not in a studio ... nothing. So I feel gratified that I'm still here to talk about it 12 years later.

Edelman, who readily acknowledges the not-small contribution of his supportive wife through all of this, can't help but wonder how things might have gone if from day one he knew what he does now. Not possible, after all. But artistically, he doesn't doubt he got a good break. "I was lucky when I started to get around (the music scene) to wander into a group of guys who were really good musicians, says Edelman. "Sometimes I think I could have as easily wandered into a crowd that was not as good and I would have made a few records and been done.

Luckily, for straight-ahead fans and musicians, it didn't turn out that way.

Sharp Nine Reviews at All About Jazz.

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