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Jazz Plus: Ron Wynn surveys the latest jazz CDs, books and DVDs

Ernest Dawkins, Afro Straight (Delmark)

dawkinsThough usually pegged as strictly an outside/avant-garde type, saxophonist and bandleader Ernest Dawkins’ musical interests are much broader, as this fine new disc demonstrates. He’s as accomplished on standards and ballads (“God Bless The Child,” “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”) as on his own pieces (“Old Man Blues,” “Juju”), and Dawkins’ spirited solos on tenor and alto never lack ideas or energy. A vigorous percussion corps that includes drummer Isaiah Spencer and three conga/bongo and assorted instrumental contributors (Ruben Alvarez, Greg Carmouche, Greg Penn) keep the textures and tempos fluid and diverse. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes brings a strong second horn voice, and pianist Willerm Delisfort and bassist Junius Paul complete a rhythm section that’s equally aggressive and complementary. The result is a nice blend of classic styles and international influences.

International String Trio, Movie Night (International String Trio)

movienightGuitarist Slava Tolstoy doubles as producer on this release that puts more emphasis on arranging and cohesive presentation than individual presentation. But within each tune musicians get ample time and space to shape compelling, if shorter, solos. The menu ranges from familiar film/theatrical pieces like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Laura” to an ambitious rendition of Shostakovich’s “The Second Waltz.” There’s also a bright nod to vintage ’30s jazz, the standout version of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s “Minor Swing.” Violinist Ben Powell and bassist Ippei Ichimaru are the other members of the acoustic unit, which finds ways to inject exuberance and flair into all 12 tunes, regardless of their original settings. Even more sedate material (John Williams’ “Schindler’s List Maine Theme” for instance) sounds brighter thanks to the International String Trio’s adaptation.

Torben Waldorff, Wah-Wah (Artist Share)

Microsoft Word - Torben Waldorff Bio.docGuitarist Torben Waldorff’s latest quartet session spotlights his melodic flexibility and expressive tone, while also marking a departure in terms of group configuration. There’s no reed or brass voice on this disc. Instead,  pianist/keyboardist/organist Gary Versace serves as both second main soloist and main link to the tight, longtime supporting duo of bassist Matt Clohesy (who doubles on acoustic and electric) and elegant, swinging drummer Jon Wikan. Versace’s organ work is notable on “Poolside” and “Country and Fish,” while Waldorff’s phrasing, transitions and overall playing remains consistently subtle and inventive. It’s unusual these days to hear much electric piano on a mainstream recording, but Versace’s colors and playing also are compelling in that mode as well. In addition, Wah-Wah is a compositional showcase for Waldorff, nicely displaying his writing flair for either lengthy (“Circle and Up,” “Evac,”) or shorter (“Fat#2,” “Cutoff (The Eleventh Bar)”) pieces.

Sean Wayland, Click Track Jazz: Slave To The Machine (Seed Music)

waylandPianist/composer Sean Wayland’s 21st release might also be the most ambitious. The two-disc “Click Track Jazz: Slave To The Machine” contains 27 pieces. Wayland reconfigures past classics from such composers as Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane while continually experimenting with musicians and instrumentation. There are elements of funk, electronica and rock juxtaposed alongside traditional jazz patterns and arrangements. Wayland’s also unafraid to mix and match within songs. He’ll have acoustic piano lines converging alongside synthesized phrases, and he easily shifts gears from pieces with a pronounced rock/pop influence to those with a hard bop flavor.  Neither strictly fusion nor mainly acoustic, “Click Track Jazz” takes listeners on a journey through every style and sound that co-exists (sometimes uncomfortably) within the improvisational universe. It’s unpredictable, sometimes nearly chaotic, but always intriguing and expertly done.

Take 1 (Books)
whyjazzMarc Myers has brilliantly combined multiple careers. He’s an acclaimed music critic and regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal on jazz, R&B, soul and rock, as well as art and architecture. His blog JazzWax, which began in 2007, was selected as the 2012 Blog of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Myers is also a historian, and he expertly combines those occupations in his impressive new volume Why Jazz Happened (University of California Press).

Myers’ book takes a different approach to chronicle the music’s evolution. Rather than delve solely or mainly on personalities, he’s chosen a series of events through which he shows how and why jazz developed along certain lines as a result of their occurrence. These range from the development of the LP to the Civil Rights Movement, the changes brought about in Los Angeles as a result of suburbanization, the American Federation of Musicians strike during the early ’40s, and the rise of electronic instruments. Other critical areas he explores include the formation of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago, differences over decades in how jazz and other music has been promoted and played on radio, and the British invasion.

Myers profiles plenty of musicians, as well as producers, promoters, managers, even some DJ’s and writers over the book’s 11 chapters. But he’s most interested in showing there’s more to jazz’s evolution than the innovations of a few important players. His work also offers the scope and sophisticated analysis you get only from a trained observer of society. Why Jazz Happened provides fresh, sometimes controversial, but always provocative explanations for its existence and impact.

methenyTake 2 (DVDs)
Pat Metheny, The Orchestrion Project (Cine Music/Eagle Rock)

Over an amazing career that’s seen him win 19 Grammy awards and be a trailblazer in acoustic and electric improvisational frameworks, guitarist, bandleader and composer Pat Metheny has constantly refreshed and updated his approach and surroundings. The new DVD release The Orchestrion Project takes him in yet another direction. It’s a forum for Metheny’s solo performances on his own creation. The Orchestrion is a mechanically controlled mini-orchestra that responds to his touch on the guitar. It’s a variation on the vintage player piano, an instrument that fascinated Metheny as a child (his grandfather owned one). The Orchestrion’s instrumental armada includes several pianos, drum kits, marimbas, percussion devices, even something Metheny calls “guitar-bots.”

Metheny penned five new pieces for the Orchestrion, and performs those as well as other works from past releases. Grammy and Emmy-winning director Pierre & Francois Lamoureux filmed him over a two-day period at St. Elias Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. With no audience or band to work off or engage, Metheny still generates intensity and energy. He displays on “Expansion,” “Soul Search,” “Stranger in Town” and “Sueno con Mexico” the mastery and verve that’s made him a global favorite. While he’s operating something unique and technically awesome, he doesn’t sacrifice musicality or melodic sensibility. The Orchestrion in Metheny’s careful hands, despite its rather intimidating look, becomes a real instrument rather than some weird device.

The Orchestrion Project is available in two DVDs, or a three DVD/2 Blu-Ray disc package with a bonus digital video. The two-disc set includes four bonus cuts and five special features that cover the making of the project, plus an interview with Metheny. Whether you’re a longtime fan or not really familiar with his music, it’s well worth the investment.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.