Recent Recordings by Area Musicians
Randy Napoleon grew up in Ann Arbor where he learned to play jazz guitar at Community High and at the University of Michigan, and perfected his craft at gigs all over town. After graduation he left to play with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and toured as a member of Benny Green's trio. His current projects includes a trio with two other young New York musicians that made its local debut recently at the Bird of Paradise in celebration of their first CD, Enjoy the Moment (PKO 019). Napoleon is joined in this venture by B-3 organist Jared Gold and drummer Quincy Davis; this instrumentation conjures up memories of funky organ trios of days gone by, but although these musicians tip their hats to the days of soul jazz, they have a broader palate in mind, inspired perhaps by the organ trio led by Wes Montgomery in his Indianapolis days. Half the compositions are by Napoleon and Gold, and half are standards, including the Lennon and McCartney tune "In My Life." The arrangements are tight, and the programming is designed to offer a wide variety of tempos and moods. Both Napoleon and Gold combine fleet chops with a bluesy feeling as they wind their way through the changes with ease, offering many fine moments of classic modern jazz, spurred on by the driving yet subtle drumming of Davis.
Two other Michigan expatriates living in New York have also released recent recordings. The duo of singer Heidi Hepler and guitarist Michéle Ramo perform virtuoso wonders on Felicitá (Ramo 2002-1), an album of original compositions by Ramo set to lyrics by Hepler. It is hard to characterize this recital, which blends southern European and American motifs with jazz and cabaret spices, performed with amazing musicianship. Hepler has an immediately recognizable voice, for she sounds like no one else, and while she would undoubtedly list numerous influences, they have been absorbed and blended into a truly personal style. She has operatic chops and dead-on pitch, without which the blend that she achieves with Ramo would not be possible, and her lively romantic personality comes out in every song. This exuberance is matched perfectly by Michele's amazing nylon string guitar playing, which takes the place of a full orchestra, providing unison or harmony lines, chords, and walking bass lines all at the same time. He has taken the styles of Baden Powell and Charlie Byrd to another level, and developed a technically dazzling, exciting style that is amazingly original, incorporating a broad range of guitar styles, invoking Gypsy caravans, Sicily, Andalusia, Brazil, Harlem and many points in between. Paradoxically, the weakest moment on this cd are the two tracks that include other musicians; they are marred by cheesy synthesizer backgrounds.
Michéle Ramo is not only a virtuoso guitarist but also an equally accomplished violinist. Classically trained in his native Italy, where he played in symphony orchestras, he is now making his mark in New York as one of the great fiddlers in jazz. He demonstrates his talents as a soloist and composer on Full Moon Above New York City (Ramo 2002-2), accompanied on all but one track by Tommy Jones on piano, David Dunaway on bass, and Jimmy Madison on drums. Although the recital includes two Latin swingers, the focus here is on heart-on-your sleeve ballads. This could be dangerous but Ramo's sentimental lush violin walks the fine line between passion and bathos, and the swing is never far away. The proceedings are capped off with a romantic guitar number ("Terra e sole") recorded at the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival in 1994 in the company of bayan master Peter Soave, bassist Kurt Krahnke, pianist Ian Smith, drummer Miguel Gutierrez, and percussionist Jamie Rusling.
For almost three years the quartet Bop Culture has been playing Sunday nights at the Firefly Club in Ann Arbor, developing the kind of rapport that only a steady gig can provide. Now pianist Rick Roe, trumpeter Mike Byerly, bassist Paul Keller, and drummer Billy Higgins have released Bop Culture (PKO Records/Unknown Records 17), which offers a taste of the kind of intimate swinging jazz one can hear on their end of the week sessions. The tunes are characteristic of their repertoire: a few standards, originals by band members, a Shorter tune, and, as is customary when Roe is involved, a Monk composition. The shifting rhythms and tempos as well as the give-and-take interaction harken back in spirit to the Hancock-Williams edition of the Miles Davis Quintet of the middle sixties, but this quartet avoids direct imitation. The prominence of the trumpet adds to the impression and Byerly clearly loves Miles, but that is only one of the building blocks of his style.
These musicians have the whole of modern jazz in their pockets, and they create a mix that acknowledges tradition without repeating it, directing their efforts to avoiding the obvious and to creating new ways of approaching the quartet format. The set opens with Byerly's memorable "Blues for the Morning Rush Hour," and moves on to a clever arrangement of the Rodgers and Hart chestnut "Falling in Love with Love." The piano delicately states the melody over a bass pedal that recalls the Davis Quintet version of "Someday My Prince Will Come," the trumpet repeats the strain in waltz rhythm. Halfway through Byerly's increasingly intense solo the tune switches to 4/4, and by the time the piano takes over for a blues inflected outing, the band is digging in hard, eventually doubling the tempo and then bringing it down again as Roe recapitulates the theme in soulful fashion, before the trumpet comes back in again and restates it in waltz time. This kind of group interaction is characteristic of this recital and it allows the quartet to present old standards in new arrangements. Bop Culture is a group to be reckoned with, and their first recording offers many musical gifts and documents the first phase in the development of a first rate jazz combo.
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