Slappin' That Bass: Earl May, Jim Donica, Esperanza Spalding & John Menegon

Andrew Velez By

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Earl May
Swinging The Blues

Jim Donica
Stepping Up

Esperanza Spalding

John Menegon
Soul Advice

A quartet of new, bassist-led releases bring to mind Ira Gershwin's ever-peerless lyrics: "Slap that bass, slap it till it's dizzy ... Happiness is not a riddle when I'm listening to that big bass fiddle... .

Earl May's certainly been slappin' bass for about a half century in big bands and small groups. His latest set Swinging the Blues mixes pop standards like "Tea for Two (one of a pair of tunes on which pianist Barry Harris guests) with some lesser known jazz originals, Charlie Parker's "Confirmation , a couple of Basie staples like "Swinging the Blues and standards like "Blame It On My Youth .

May's not one for grandstanding solos. He's definitely very much a team player. For instance, he begins the melody on "My Foolish Heart and then shares complementary and unhurried measures with David Glasser's alto sax. The set's opener, "Swinging the Blues , has Glasser's alto leading in. Along the way a May solo quotes humorously from other older tunes. This is simply and deliciously a feel good, straight-ahead swinging set.

Stepping Up opens with a strikingly sonorous passage by bassist Jim Donica in tandem with pianist Bruce Barth. Then suddenly the mood is shifted dramatically with swinging brass and a heated solo by trumpeter Randy Brecker. It's one of several good tunes by Donica. While the group really cooks on a jaunty version of Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat , it's on the classic "But Beautiful that Donica has some extended, soulful moments with ultra sympathetic punctuation by Brecker and Barth.

Esperanza Spalding's Junjo is an auspicious debut album. Though several of the tunes on the set are her own, the opener is Jimmy Rowles' delightful "The Peacocks , which here radiates an otherworldliness, a quality which suffuses the set. The group's take on Chick Corea's "Humpty Dumpty offers a change of pace. Francisco Mela (drums) and Aruan Ortiz (piano) weave in and out, accelerating and then slowing down as Spalding maintains a constant rhythm. The overall effect manages simultaneously to be contemplative, tasty and energetic.

Throughout Spalding augments her acoustic bass with wordless vocalizing. The sound is high, light and emits inventiveness. For instance, notably on Gismonti's "Loro , think bossa wedded to vocalese with scat around the edges. Spalding reveals just enough to keep us intrigued while taking us to pleasantly unfamiliar places.

Canadian bassist, composer and arranger John Menegon's appropriately named "Boo Bop Bass opener on Soul Advice is akin to stepping into a welcoming room on a frigid winter night. It's an immediate immersion into bop - energetic, heated, forceful and harmonically complex. Feels GOOD! Tani Tabbal on drums keeps everything going as each member of the group solos while always remaining a part of the rhythmic fabric. One could say John di Martino's organ is especially rich, but really each member of the group makes his own piquant contribution. For the set's bluesy title tune, di Martino switches to piano and with Tabbal and Mark Dziuba (guitar), it's a shimmering wall of sound.

Tracks and Personnel

Swinging the Blues

Tracks: Swinging the Blues; Blame It on My Youth; My Foolish Heart; Tea for Two; Blue Iridescence; Make Someone Happy; Under African Skies; Sioux Suite; My Old Flame; Confirmation; Wishes Are Starting to Don't Come True; It's So Divine; Lester Leaps In.

Personnel: Earl May: Leader, Bass; David Glasser: Alto Sax; Larry Ham; Piano (Except Tracks 4, 9); Eddie Locke: Drums; Special Guest Barry Harris: Piano (Tracks 4,9).

Tracks: The Art of Wayne; Still Here; Urban Survival; Goodbye Porkpie Hat; In Your Eyes; Horizontal Grey; But Beautiful; Tricotism; Sirabhorn; Isotope; Skank.

Personnel: Jim Donica: bass; Peter Erskine: drums; Bruce Barth: piano; Randy Brecker: trumpet; Justin Flynn: tenor and soprano sax.


Tracks: The Peacocks; Loro; Humpty Dumpty; Mompouana; Perazuan; Junjo; Cantora de Yala; Two Bad; Perazela.

Personnel: Esperanza Spalding: Acoustic Bass & Vocals; Aruan Ortiz: Piano; Francisco Mela: Drums.

Soul Advice

Tracks: Boo Bop Bass; Chapter One; Mobile Infirmary; Soul Advice; Mr PZ; In Sea On Land; That Groove; Monk's Dream.

Personnel: John Menegon: Bass; John di Martino: Piano, Organ; John Gunther: Bass clarinet, Soprano/Tenor Sax; Mark Dziubo: Guitar; Toni Tabbal: Drums.

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