Recent Recordings by Area Musicians
It has been some time since we last surveyed recent local recordings and the inbox has become quite full. Among them we find the debut CD by pianist Ellen Rowe, Sylvan Way (BOPO 014). Rowe has been very busy on the local scene ever since she joined the faculty of the U-M School of Music, playing with her own combos as well as with the Bird of Paradise Big Band and other groups. On this recording she is joined on most of the tracks by three fellow members of the big band: saxophonist Andrew Bishop, bassist Paul Keller, and drummer Pete Siers. Dan Kolton and Tom Brown replace the latter two on two numbers; John Clayton and Pat LaBarbera step in on "Hymn." The album offers a good overview of Rowe's full range of talent; she composed five of the nine songs and is featured in quartet, trio and solo format. From the opening romp of "Visa Blues" to the quiet, meditative solo "Reminiscence," we are offered many moods and feelings. Rowe plays the piano in an understated manner, without unnecessary bombast and gesture, taking her time to develop statements and to explore ideas. She likes to step back at the beginning of a solo, hunker down and work into a coherent statement, without ever letting up on the swing or momentum of the piece. Hank Mobley's "Funk in Deep Frieze" offers a perfect example of this; Rowe takes over from Bishop, builds up her solo with rising determination, and hands it back to him at just the proper moment. The following "Shadow of Your Smile," which highlights the pianist's wistful meditative side, nicely offsets the strong propulsion of this piece. Rowe could not have picked better fellow travelers for this venture and everyone involved plays their roles just right. Listeners will find their favorite moments, but in the end the success of this recital results from the sum of the parts.
Ellen Rowe appears on another recent BOPO CD, Paris Blues (BOPO 011), by the Bird of Paradise Orchestra, and offers another example of her swinging, sensitive piano playing on the title tune, composed by Ellington but arranged here by Andrew Bishop. The arrangement cleverly modernizes Duke's piece, retaining the spirit of the original without imitation. This orchestra has been together for thirteen years and this CD their fourth is the most ambitious to date. Current or former band members penned almost all of the arrangements and many of the tunes are originals. Although four of the baker's dozen compositions are by Ellington, they are transformed in most interesting ways, and James Dapogny's beautiful "Short Story" actually sounds more Dukish than any of the arrangements of the master's pieces. Thus Paul Keller's version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light," a feature for Susan Chastain's lovely voice, is a perfectly danceable Latin rendition. By now we have come to expect tight section playing, taken the amazing rhythm section and the superb soloists for granted, and have casually noted the breath and scope of the band's book. This CD forces one to acknowledge once again the stylistic diversity of BOPO, a diversity which forms part of the artistic identity, but which never leads to bland promiscuity. On this album, resolutely modern pieces such as Chris Smith's "Mum's the Word," and his arrangement of Woody Shaw's classic "Rosewood" happily coexist with James Dapogny's more traditional pieces, and even with the closing "I'd Love It" from the pen of Don Redman. The same can be said about the solo playing, which is never revivalist. This is without doubt one of the best big bands in the land and this is their finest recording, until the next one comes along.
For his latestCD Jake Reichbart has once again decided his strong solo electric guitar talents. Long Ago and Far Away (Sandrine's Music 002) contains nine well-known standards, an original blues, as well as one composition by Thijs van Leer ("Focus V"). By any measure this is an impressive recital. Reichbart has developed an impressive finger technique that allows him to play the guitar as if it were a piano, mixing up chords with single note runs and providing walking bass line accompaniments. He has programmed the CD with care, mixing different tempos and different moods and using a wide range of harmonic voicings. He begins with a lightly swinging version of the title tune and soon arrives at "Moonlight in Vermont." Ever since Johnny Smith laid down his classic version of this chestnut, guitarists approach this some apprehension, just as tenor saxophonists view "Body and Soul." Reichbart offers a lovely personal version, tipping his hat to Smith while putting his personal stamp on the rendition. By the time he arrives at "Blue in Green" he is ready for a sparse, pensive interpretation that pays homage to the classic original Miles Davis version. Guitarists will love this CD, but it offers something for all lovers of swinging, unmannered jazz. One might add that the guitar was recorded while plugged in directly to a computer and the resulting sound is clear and pure.
Occasionally we stray from the immediate environs covered by SEMJA to review recordings done by neighbors. Stratford, Ontario is best known for its theatrical productions, but the city and surrounding are home to some excellent jazz musicians. Some of the best local players have come together to form the Festival City Big Band, which has produced two CDs For the Love of It (FCBB001) and Easy to Love (FCBB002). This is classic big band jazz, complete with classy vocals by Cathy Whelan; altogether they work through thirty-two well-known tunes in their original arrangements. There are Glenn Miller favorites such as "String of Pearls" or "720 in the Books," arrangements by David Wolpe and Sammy Nestico, modern jazz pieces as well as standards. The band plays with verve and everyone is obviously having a great time. The pieces are relatively short; most of them under five minutes, and therefore the solos are usually restricted to a chorus or two. Nevertheless, both albums are peppered with nice features for many of the individual musicians. It would be impossible to mention them all, but special mention should be made of guitarist Ron Daniels, trombonist Paul Dearlove, saxophonist Hal Goodman, as well as of flügelhornist and trumpeter Clare French. By all means visit Stratford to brush up your Shakespeare but also make an effort to seek out the Festival City Big band and enjoy some exciting and swinging music.