I N - T H I S - I S S U E :



Index of SEMJA reviews


Recent Recordings by Area Musicians


Saxophonist extraordinaire George Benson has appeared on countless sessions but has put off making his own compact disk until now. His quartet date Sax Master (Alembic Arts AACD-60, terjar@maeritech.jar) was well worth waiting for. Accompanied by a first rate Motor City rhythm section (Gary Schunk, piano, Don Mayberry, bass, Tom Brown, drums), Benson works his way through a dozen standards playing the tenor and alto saxophones. The title of the recording is an understatement; Benson has a confident mastery of both horns that only comes from years of constant playing. His broad tone on both saxes reveals his swing era roots, but his harmonic sense lies more in the bebop era. The tunes are all well-known and well chosen and the programming is well designed. After three swinging tunes, culminating in a burning version of "The Way You Look Tonight," Benson gives us a singing, poignant alto sax rendition of "For Heaven's Sake." His other ballads are equally impressive, from a warm, big-toned tenor reading of "I Surrender Dear: to a slow drag on "The Shadow of Your Smile," via "A Child is Born," where you hear a master craftsman at work, who knows how to lay back, take his time, and touch your heart without cheap drama. The whole affair ends with a burning bop version of "After You've Gone" that sets your feet tapping. The other musicians are in top form as well; Mayberry is solid and supportive, while Brown really mixes it up on the drums. On the final tune he and Benson play a few fabulous choruses without the other two and really turn on the heat. The leader is generous towards his pianist, who gets plenty of space to show off his romping inventive chops. Schunk takes full advantage of the opportunity and contributes fine solos and sensitive support throughout. Mainstream modern does not get much better than this.

Rodney Whitaker lays it down with swing and class on Ballads and Blues: The Brooklyn Session (Criss Cross Jazz 1167), together with old friends Ran Blake on soprano and tenor, Stefon Harris, on vibraphone, Eric Reed, on piano, and Carl Allen on drums. Wycliff Gordon adds his roaring trombone on two numbers. The recording is dedicated to fellow bassists Paul Chambers and George Duvivier and includes tunes from their pens as well compositions by the leader, pianist Reed, as well as Carly Simon, Harry Edison, and Charlie Parker. The whole date has a laid back, swinging feel; the arrangements are simple and the tunes either new or rarely played. Whitaker never stays in place and this collection contrasts nicely with his last which was more compositional in design. His bass playing also continues to evolve, and whether he is plucking his way deftly through a solo on "Ease It," or bowing soulfully on "The Way they Always Said it Should Be," he proves once again that he is not only a sensitive, attentive accompanist, but a first rate soloist as well. 

Things really get into a groove on "Centerpiece," taken at just the right tempo Whitaker states the melody, and then Gordon struts his plunger stuff. Harris plays the blues with understated melodic restraint, followed in the same vein by Reed, and Blake on tenor. Throughout the leader keeps the momentum going with his big-toned bass, walking, prodding, and holding it all together. A bowed solo caps it off and then the full band recaps the head. All the blues on this collection are splendid, but this one stands out for its restrained Kansas City feel.

All the musicians shine on these ballads and blues, but I would like to single out two for special mention. Stefon Harris has been on many recordings lately and he once again shows that he has taken over the place of the lamented Milt Jackson. He does not indulge in pyrotechnics, but plays everything for musical value. His feature on Eric Reed's lovely "Wise Young Man" shows his ballad playing in a good light. Ran Blake also continues to mature, and his tenor outings on this are the best I have heard from him on record; his burnished tone stands out and like his cohorts he demonstrates sophistication and restraint. All in all, this is a superior date from some of the best young mainstream players around.

The Western Jazz Quartet is a peripatetic group, traveling to other countries and recording with other artists. Their visits to Poland have resulted in a number of recordings, the latest of which results from collaboration with a local pianist. The Wlodek Pawlik Quartet has released The Waning Moon (Mercury 546739-2), featuring the leader's compositions as well as his piano, with Trent Kynaston on tenor and soprano saxes, Tom Knific on bass, and Tim Froncek on drums. Pawlik's compositions cover a wide range of moods and influences, drawing on a variety of Polish folk music sources, but also on Chopin and Monk. The complex compound folk rhythms of the pianist's native land are used to good advantage on "Pieniny" (a mountain range) and "Polish Folk Dance;" the visiting Americans handle these difficult tunes with ease. The delicate ballad "Almost Nothing" reminds one of another Polish composer-pianist, Krzysztof Komeda, and Kynaston even recalls somewhat Bernt Rosengren, the Swedish tenor man who performed and record often with the famous film score writer. Both saxophonists share an admiration for Stan Getz. Knific also shows his perfect taste and intonation on a lovely solo on this ballad.

The musicianship on The Waning Moon is first rate, and the compositions are superior. As good as all of this is, to me the outstanding contributions are by Kynaston. A fabulous saxophonist, who is equally at ease in the classical as well as jazz repertoire, Kynaston seems to have found a perfect context to put all his skills together. On the ballads he transmits a poignant sense of love and desire; on the swingers he digs in to explore all the corners of the music handling the most difficult passages with ease. But he outdoes himself on "Kadysz," Pawlik's tribute to the history of the Jews of Poland. The tenor saxophone solo on this piece makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck — it is a cry over desolation, desecration, and loss that is pure poetry, saying things that cannot be said with words. 

Kynaston is also the director of the Western Michigan University Jazz Orchestra, which has just released a new disk entitled Sweet Tango (Sea Breeze SBV-4537). One has to complement the faculty and students at Western; this does not sound like an academic big band. The complex arrangements are played with verve and the soloists are all most accomplished, with individual voices. The success of this recording owes much to the rhythm section, which is swinging and sensitive, propelled by the marvelous drumming of Quincy Davis and the propulsive bass playing of Lyman Medeiros (even when the latter switches briefly to the electric horror and sounds like everyone else). Among the soloists one has to mention the saxophonists James Danderfer and Carl Cafagna, trumpeters Marc Landes and Ryan Bullard, and trombonist Dave Lambert, as well as pianist Chris Sargent. Readers of the Update will be happy to hear that one of the featured soloists is none other than Shawn "Thunder" Wallace, who performs on the tenor and alto saxes. Wallace is formidable as ever, and his technique, always impressive, has continued to develop. On his own composition "The Humbler (Peace Out)" he follows after a very good tenor solo by Danderfer with a short alto outing that demonstrates well his amazing chops at faster tempos. On Don Ellis' "The Great Divide" he goes even further with a bravura alto solo that is somewhat overdone. Wallace continues to be a traditionalist, drawing on Coltrane as well as on others, and it is fascinating to observe the development of this talented musician.