Year-End Odds and Ends: Jazz, Vol. 3

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by S. Victor Aaron

This article makes it twenty-three albums covered in the span of eight days, which put a nice dent in my backlog, and there’s just a couple more to go before turning our attention to the year 2009 in music. The batch of records covered here draws attention to jazz veterans and rooks alike who are off the beaten paths of jazz, those side roads where the scenery is often more appealing, or at least more interesting. These five records aren’t led by any big names, but are nonetheless bristling with talent, with the added benefit of the hunger for more recognition. As is often the case, the combination of the two made for some good records.

The level of adventurism varies by album, so which ones would be most up your wheelhouse depends on your taste for risk-taking, although no one here gets waaay out there (we lumped those kind of “odds and ends” records together in this article). And so, here are a few more reasons why 2009 was a very good year for the jazz idiom:

David Widelock Trio Skating On The Sidewalk: David Widelock might not be a name you recognize, but jazz lovers in the San Francisco Bay Area know him. As a fixture performing in the area since the early seventies, this guitarist has made some records since 1985, but Skating On The Sidewalk is his first trio record since that first one about 25 years ago. Widelock’s new record, out on September 1st, is appealing for a couple of reasons. First, Widelock is a accomplished plectrist, and in this small setting he keeps the song’s structure firmly grounded, keeping listeners well connected to the melody; he picks his spots to solo carefully. The other secret to his success is presenting a set of songs that separated by distinct character. He’s got only two covers, but he adds a swinging flair to Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” and jazzes up Tom Waits “Sixteen Shells From a 30-06.” Widelock’s own best tune is the title song, a lively number that is anchored by a Latin groove from his rhythm section of Fred Randolph (bass) and Jim Kassis (drums). Widelock plays both acoustic and electric guitars on this, with equal acumen. Skating On The Sidewalk is made available by Beegum Records.

Plunge Dancing On Thin Ice: Plunge is a New Orleans brass band, but if you’re thinking Dirty Dozen Brass Band or Rebirth Brass Band, think again. This is a only trio with Mark McGrain on trombone, Tim Green on saxes and James Singleton on double bass. Even though McGrain wrote all the songs, they each make their own statements. And it’s not necessary jazz, either. Many tracks could be better described as acid-jazz grooves, such as “Friday Night At The Top,” “Life Of A Cipher” and the wicked, electronically-enhanced “One Man’s Machine.” But put aside the swagger of this compact unit for a moment, and you find three sharp musicians, which comes from many years of playing with guys like Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris, Anders Osborne, Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel, John Scofield, Natalie Cole, the Marsalis’ and the Nevilles. Dancing On Thin Ice, which went on sale August 11, is light and nimble in furnishing uncommon grooves. This is a good one to pick up for a the kind of change-up that won’t make your head hurt…and may even make your feet happy.

The Worst Pop Band Ever Dost Thou Believeth In Science?: Who is The Worst Pop Band Ever? Turns out the answer is easy: they’re a Canadian quintet dedicated toward combining pop voicings with improvised performances. They revel in their distortion of pop so much, they adopted the name as a badge of honor: “Imagine the ugly love child of Radiohead and Miles Davis,” they are proud to say. This concept put into action falls squarely within the acid jazz realm. This five-piece band is made up of electric piano, saxophone, bass, drums and turntables (which gives the band a little edge to their sound). A truly democratic group where everyone pitches in on the songwriting, the WPBE are very listenable, even when they aren’t grooving (“Bonita” qualifies as a pleasantly presented ballad). The real curve ball is thrown on the seventh track, a spacey, drawn-out rendition of The Carpenter’s hit “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” sung with delayed phrasing by Elizabeth Shephard. These Juno Award (Canadian Grammy’s) winners might be a little weird but they strike a good balance between accessible and creative, and is one that should be checked out by anyone looking for bands like MMW or The Bad Plus.
Purchase: The Worst Pop Band Ever – Dost Thou Believeth In Science?

Graham Dechter Right On Time: Another jazz guitarist, but instead of being decades into his career like David Widelock, Graham Dechter is just getting started. This record is his first, and the 23-year-old plays with the authority of a guitar player twice his age. When most guys in his demographic are more concerned about raw speed, power and heavy riffs, Dechter prefers the light, bouncing swing and imagination of Montgomery, Pass and Martino. Like those prestigious forbears, he understands and uses the full harmonic range of the hollow-bodied electric to create rich, chordal phrases and clean, popping single lines. Having already spent about four years in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (the drummer, pianist and bass player come from this band), Dechter also appreciates comping as much as he does leading. And, he can conjure up one more meaningful rendition of a widely covered jazz standard or dig out a gem of a tune out of obscurity. All of these attributes ar
e present in Right On Time, and while nothing in this set of songs threatens to introduce new ideas into jazz, that’s not the point. Simply sit back, soak in the swinging grooves and appreciate some fault-free jazz guitar with a sympathetic backing band. Right On Time from Capri Records hit the streets last September 22.

Jeff Hamilton Trio Symbiosis: On the same date (September 22) that Capri Records issued Dechter’s album, so did they release one by the co-leader of the band he is a member of (and played on Dechter’s debut CD). Jeff Hamilton’s seasoned and highly nuanced drumming reflects three and a half decades playing for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Monty Alexander, Oscar Peterson, and Woody Herman. These days, he co-leads the aforementioned Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, but he puts on his trio face for Symbiosis. As the leader of a small combo that includes Tamir Hendelman (piano) and Christoph Luty (bass), Hamilton is selfless, much more interested in putting his cohorts in the best possible light. It’s the very thing that makes this CD such a good listen; you don’t get scads of boring drum solos, but he will get plenty of well-placed accents fills, breaks and just plain ol’ solid timekeeping. Hendelman, not Hamilton, gets most of the spotlight, and his sweeping, hard swinging Peterson style meshes perfectly with Hamilton’s personality. With eight of the nine selections being covers, the trio’s treatments are crisp and free of fluff. My favorite is Lionel Hamilton’s “Midnight Sun,” where the sophistication of the tune is fully realized thanks to Luty’s highly professional arrangement. Hamilton only takes significant solo time on his own “Samba De Martelo,” which is lively and intelligent, but not overdone. In fact, the entire record avoids being overdone, but well-done, instead. Jeff Hamilton’s trio is a crack unit on Symbiosis.

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