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Recent Recordings by Area Jazz Artists

Reviewed by Piotr Michalowski

It has been quite a while since the last SEMJA review article and the inbox has piled up with CDs by local musicians. I will try to catch up in a series of articles; here is the first batch in somewhat random order.

AcaciaI begin with Jessie Kramer's Acacia (www.jessekramerdrums.com). Kramer is one of the most in-demand drummers in our area and plays regularly with musicians of various generations and stylistic preference. On his debut CD, he has focused on an eclectic kind of modern jazz influenced by various African and African-American idioms. He is joined by a relative young cohort of musicians, mostly graduates of U-M and MSU jazz programs: trumpeter Kris Johnson, saxophonist Marcus Elliot, Glenn Tucker on electric keyboards, and electric bassist Damon Warmack.

With one exception, all the compositions are by the leader and they reflect an interest in various types of popular music from this continent as well as Africa. The rhythms shift, the melodies contain riffs and hooks, leading to imaginative idiomatic solos that stress the jazz roots of the eclectic tunes and the program contains an impressive variety of expressive means.

Most important, this is not simply a collection of tunes but is a well thought out recital. The rhythmic drive builds up tension throughout the first five cuts and then is topped off by something completely different, a laid back feature for Elliot's tenor sax: the old spiritual, "Were You There When they Crucified my Lord?"

In Our Own WayPaul VornHagen, on the other hand, has been a mainstay of the local jazz scene for quite a while now and his more traditional modern jazz approach is on good display on In Our Own Way (PKO 066). VornHagen, on his main horns, flute tenor and soprano saxophones, heads his quartet with Gary Schunk, piano, Kurt Krahnke, bass and Randy March on drums.

The ten tunes on this CD include two originals by the leader; the rest are well known modern jazz standards with interesting harmonic structures. On this outing he favors the big warm sound of his tenor saxophone and the flute, while the fresh samba arrangement of "Alone Together" is the only feature for his sweet-voiced soprano saxophone.
The recital begins with Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," on which VornHagen shows his formidable flute chops. As good as he is on tenor, I found myself gravitating to the flute tracks perhaps because he is so good on this instrument. The penultimate track, Bonfa's well-known "Samba de Orfeus," is a demonstration of just how far he has come in his mastery of the flute, which, unlike many doublers, he treats very differently from his tenor or soprano saxophone.

The other members of the band contribute mightily to the excitement and success of this CD.

KrupaPete Siers has been exploring the history of the drums with a scholar's eye and although he can work in any style, I suppose it is hardly an exaggeration to state that he is one of today's finest big band drummers. In his decades of performances with the Paul Keller Orchestra he has shown a great affinity for Gene Krupa's drumming. Krupa was not only a pioneer of drum soloing in jazz, but also contributed to the standardization of what is now the generally used drum kit. He came to national prominence with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and after he left the clarinetist in 1938, shortly after the famed Carnegie Hall concert, started his own big band. Beginning in 1945 he began to record with a trio made up of band members Charlie Ventura on tenor sax and Teddy Napoleon/George Walters on piano, partly in imitation of the bass-less trio he played with in Goodman's band. In 1952, after the band had disbanded, the trio was reunited, recording and touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic.

For this recording Siers has gone back to the trio sides, in the company of clarinetist Dave Bennett and pianist Tad Weed on Krupa: The Pete Siers Trio Featuring Dave Bennett and Tad Weed (PKO 061). The fifteen tunes on this CD reproduce the original arrangements of the various incarnations of the original trio with excitement and passion. There are differences with the originals, however. The substitution of Bennett's clarinet for Ventura's tenor saxophone makes a difference because the younger man channels Goodman in all details and uses a different way of phrasing, rhythmic concept and harmonic language than Ventura did.

Tad Weed is, quite frankly, a far better pianist than anyone used by Krupa. Here, he often references Teddy Wilson, who was the pianist with Goodman's trio. As a result if often sounds like the Benny Goodman trio playing Krupa trio arrangements. Having said that, this is not a dry tribute, but music played with love and conviction by three exceptional musicians.

The ContenderTenor and soprano saxophonist Diego Rivera shows that he really is The Contender (D Clef Records DCR 159) on his new CD featuring fellow MSU jazz professors, alumni as well as a few up-and-coming players working in New York: Greg Gisbert, trumpet, Michael Dease, trombone, Miki Hayama, piano, Rodney Whitaker, bass, and Ulysses Owens Jr., drums, with a few additional musicians on some tracks.

Rivera wrote eight of the eleven tunes and arranged all of them. The music is basically hard hitting modernized hard bop with a driving vitality that plays off the formidable rhythm section. Rivera is the main soloist and he provides succinct and exciting statements with a wonderful deep sound and melodic logic. He has created his own synthesis of Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, ‘Trane and others and only on his tribute to Griffin, appropriately entitled "Little Giant," does he really channel anyone else.
His instrumental mastery is impressive, but here he also demonstrates his power as a composer and arranger, sometimes reaching into his Latin roots, as on "El Pachuco," at other times paying tribute to his Detroit connections, creating a warm jazz arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour." His admiration for Horace Silver shows in his wonderful original arrangement of "Silver's Serenade," but also on his own tribute to his wife, and to Frieda Kahlo, entitled simply "Frieda."

He provides his cohorts plenty of solo room; Gisbert, Dease and Hayama take full advantage of this and offer impressive contributions. Everyone sounds good with the mighty Whitaker behind them and his outing on "The Whit," Rivera's tribute reminds once again what a formidable, big toned bass player he is.

Swingin' the DThe wonderfully eclectic Planet D Nonet gets wider exposure on its Swingin' the D on the Detroit Music Factory label, a subsidiary of Mack Avenue Records (DMF 2002). There is really no band around today that is like them in repertoire and spirit.

This time they offer a collection of tunes from a variety of sources, from the repertoire of the Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Johnson, Les Baxter and Sun Ra orchestras, as well as from the books of various swingers such as Louis Jordan, or Detroit's Paul Williams. Few of these tunes are well known, and as noted in the excellent liner notes by Jim Gallert, the Planet D folks enhance rather than redo the older musical material. As usual, most of the arrangements are by baritone/alto saxophonist Joshua James, with additions by Walt Szymanski, Pat Prouty and Mike Irwin Johnson and they are designed to take advantage of the three saxophone, three brass and rhythm composition of the band.

The rhythm and blues pieces such as "Paradise Valley Walk" guarantee that the basics are covered, and indeed the feeling of the blues permeates much of the collection. Although this is primarily a group effort, there are fine solos throughout by all concerned. Trombonist John Paxton sings two numbers, and a cameo vocal by Thornetta Davis really does justice to Big Maybelle's "Candy." Another Singer, Dan Devins, really rocks on the shuffle blues "Well All Right," which also features a guest spot by George Friend on guitar. All of this rides on the rock steady drumming of RJ Spangler, who co-leads the Nonet with trumpeter James O'Donnell.

All in all this is a fine presentation of some fascinating, rarely heard music played with guts, precision and feeling that is equally good for listening as for dancing.