The Wee Trio


For its fifth album as a unit, The Wee Trio—James Westfall (vibes), Dan Loomis (bass) and Jared Schonig (drums)—have chosen to double down. The group has expanded twofold for this outing, recruiting colleagues Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Nir Felder (guitar) and Fabian Almazan (piano) to appear as guest soloists on individual tracks. The result is a spirited, intellectually rigorous 11-piece program that reflects the diversity of the individuals involved while pointing to a shared aesthetic of lush grooves and winsome improvising. The most engaging tracks on this disc are the ones that mix broad, watercolor ensemble play with pinpoint soloing and strong individual statements. “Rt3” begins in a mist of ambient sound, hazy to the point of abstraction, but then begins to crystallize around Felder’s rigorous harmonic structures. Similarly, “Climb,” featuring Almazan, rides in on a wave of chiming chords and crisp drums, but just as quickly dissolves into torrents of thrashing bass and pounding toms. Less extreme—but just as powerful—is “Belle Femme De Voodoo,” a New Orleans second-line groove featuring Payton at his most probing and articulate. Here, trad-jazz rhythms are bent and angled through a modern jazz prism, with Westfall sounding exotic harmonies in the upper register of his vibes and Schonig clacking out a fluid stream of notes on his snare. On top of it all floats Payton, whose bright, darting trumpet lines flit and flutter above the rolling sound. Behind all that bright-eyed interplay is a deep commitment to pushing at the boundaries, a mission objective that The Wee Trio—and its three visitors—are more than happy to share.

Martin Bejerano

Trio Miami

Pianist Martin Bejerano, who is an assistant professor at the University of Miami’s prestigious Frost School of Music, showcases the fluidity of his playing on a new trio album recorded with bassist Josh Allen and drummer Michael Piolet. The trio offers six of Bejerano’s original compositions, along with three interpretations, including a clever version of “Airegin” (the Sonny Rollins composition that was the lead track on Miles Davis’ 1954 Prestige release Miles Davis With Sonny Rollins). Bejerano—the recipient of a Chamber Music America grant in 2010—is adept at constructing sturdy, mini suites that allow enough space for intriguing flights of improvisation. He composed the short, lovely “Entrance To Eden,” using it as a preface to his trio’s adventurous reading of pop icon Peter Gabriel’s tune “Blood Of Eden.” This rendition is a compelling example of the trio’s sense of journey. Elsewhere, the original tune “Old School” gives Allen and Piolet room to show off their chops, as the interplay between the three bandmates generates some fiery, exciting exchanges. “Last Happy Hour (For Pops)” is spiced with a driving, deeply melodic bass passage from Allen, while “Disturbing Behavior” becomes a showcase for Piolet’s athleticism. Bejerano concludes the program in satisfying fashion, with a gorgeous reading of the standard “More Than You Know.” Tour dates posted on Bejerano’s website include Festival Miami on Jan. 26 and Florida’s St. Petersburgh Jazz Festival on Feb. 23.

The Flat Five

It’s A World Of Love And Hope

The Flat Five album has finally arrived. For 10 years, Chicagoans have swooned at the shows by this indie supergroup consisting of vocalist Kelly Hogan, vocalist/guitarist Nora O’Connor, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Scott Ligon, bassist/vocalist Casey McDonough and drummer/vocalist/recording engineer Alex Hall. But only recently has the band released its debut, a project that started in September 2014. The set list for a Flat Five concert is often a hodgepodge containing songs written or popularized by Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Dorough, The Free Design and The Monkees, as well as a killer version of “Sermonette” based on the arrangement used by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. But for this album, the quintet focuses on the work of one songwriter: Chris Ligon (Scott’s older brother). Humor is an important component of the elder Ligon’s oeuvre, and The Flat Five doesn’t shy away from it, as evidenced by the hilarious, Mills Brothers-style arrangement of “Buglight” or the goofy poetry of “Florida,” which extols the benefits of moving to the Sunshine State: “We’ll get a van, a window fan/ We’ll lay in the sand and get a tan in Florida/ We’ll give up meat, we’ll live on sweets/ We’ll trick-or-treat in the blazing heat in Florida.” But all is not fun and games here. Although there are some wry turns of phrase in the lyrics of “Birmingham,” O’Connor’s singing is simply heartbreaking. Elsewhere, a misty melancholy seeps through “Bluebirds In Michigan,” thanks to Hogan’s nuanced vocals and the work of guest cellist Austin Hoke. Due to its individual members’ busy schedules—McDonough and Scott Ligon are both in NRBQ—The Flat Five doesn’t tour much, but this album will allow listeners all over the world to check out a band that Chicagoans have treasured for a long time.

David Friesen Circle 3 Trio

Triple Exposure

David Friesen’s new album with his Circle 3 Trio is a deeply personal statement, from the clean, stimulating compositions that form the bulk of the disc to the original mixed-media collage that adorns the cover. As such, the music here feels buttressed by the support of real life experience, and almost always the listener gets the sense that highly individuated musical concepts are in play. The group wrestles with aspects of repetition and pace on the album’s opener, “Whetstone,” on which drummer Charlie Doggett and pianist Greg Goebel lock into a tenaciously ascending groove that brings the song to a fluid, shimmering close. And on “Let It Be Known,” piano and bass create an interlocking framework of punctuated notes, only to tug at the joints and junctions as the song goes on, testing its internal strength. Friesen plays a Hemage electric upright bass, and the warm, voice-like tone he extracts from that instrument is yet another facet of this album’s poetic quality. It is particularly compelling on “Everything We Are,” a brisk waltz-time number on which Friesen solos with the care and attention of a master sculptor; each stroke of the string is heard with immense clarity, lending a glowing sense of humanity to the shape of his lines. The waltz meter seems a comfortable form of conversation for this group, as two of the album’s other highlights—“Turn In The Road” and “Rainbow Song”—are also in 3/4. Despite their metric similarity, these songs are stylistically worlds apart. “Turn” is a quiet, windblown song with stretches of dark clouds rumbling through clear skies. With its internal focus and skin-close simpatico, it is reminiscent of Bill Evans’ trio work in the 1960s. “Rainbow,” meanwhile, is chest-thumping and exultant, a declaration of musical presence that swells from a brooding introduction into a climactic finale.

Chet Baker

Live In London

The latest unearthed treasure in the Chet Baker discography comes from the musical archeologists at Ubuntu Music, who in October brought to light a collection of recordings made by the wooly-toned trumpeter during a six-night stay at the Canteen in London. The resulting two-CD set finds Baker, then in his early 50s, in an invigorating partnership with the John Horler Trio—which at the time featured Horler on piano, Jim Richardson on bass and Tony Mann on drums. The recordings, captured on Sony STC audiocassette by Richardson, have been restored with meticulous care and made available for the first time ever. At times fervently funky, at others languorous and lonesome, Live In London is a well-rounded encapsulation of Baker’s late-period aesthetic, with all the worn edges, wispy threads and fragile surfaces intact. Baker is an artist who draws poignancy and strength from the sensuous and soft, and makes meaning of nonchalance. Compiled from a six-night residency, this album adroitly captures Baker’s melodic ingenuity and technical fluency, even as his health continued to deteriorate (he had long been plagued by addictions to cocaine and heroin, and he would die five years later after falling from a hotel window in the Netherlands). As one might expect, the album is replete with quintessential Bakerisms: gentle, curlicue opening lines, velvety subtones, canyons of space, purred vocals. But some of the most revealing moments on Live In London manifest in unexpected places. “Have You Met Miss Jones?” features Baker stacking bulky, dissonant long tones into a cumbersome tower—a strange and beautiful edifice in an otherwise familiar harmonic chord progression. “Margarine,” meanwhile, is an uptempo burner on which Baker seems to meld two solos simultaneously: one pointedly modern and cathartic, the other boppish and logical. The friction and eventual synthesis of the two is bracing. As stimulating as it is to hear new strains in Baker’s work—especially at such a late point in his career—it is equally comforting to hear him return to the touchstones of his catalogue. A sweeping rendition of “My Funny Valentine”—taken deliberately, with Horler’s piano chords landing like leaves on a pond—is as heartwarming as ever.

Various Artists

Jazz Loves Disney

Cinephiles of a certain age tend to cite The Jungle Book (1967) as their favorite animated Disney film. For later generations, movies like Toy Story (1995) and Frozen (2013) top the list. All these films offered spellbinding animation as well as terrific music. Songs from those films—as well as animation classics such as Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959)—are included on Jazz Loves Disney, a superb collection of recent recordings. Three of the numbers are sung in French, and each is très elegante: The incomparable Stacey Kent charms with “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” Montreal native Nikki Yanofsky, bolstered by lush strings, delights with “Un Jour Mon Prince Viendra” (“Someday My Prince Will Come”) and The Hot Sardines’ lead vocalist, Elizabeth Bougerol (a native of Paris), offers a grin-inducing “I Wanna Be Like You.” Melody Gardot and Italian vocalist Raphael Gualazzi are perfectly paired for a sly duet on “The Bare Necessities,” and Gualazzi’s English-language version of “I Wanna Be Like You” melds a potent big band chart, seductive Latin rhythms and the singer’s swinging piano solo into a stellar rendition.

Various Artists

African Rumba

Since 1993, the Putumayo label has been introducing listeners to numerous types of world music. The label’s compilations are often a great starting point for exploring an individual artist’s oeuvre, or for learning about the various styles of music from a specific country or region. The tracks on the collection African Rumba span from 1956 to 2015, but most of this music is from the past decade. The focus is on Afro-Latin dance music that melds rhythms/traditions from Africa with those from Cuba. That merger is exemplified by “Aminata,” an exhilarating track by Senegalese bassist Alune Wade and Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa that appeared on their 2015 collaborative album Havana–Paris–Dakar (World Village). Another highlight here is Wade’s tune “Mame,” which showcases the talents of an artist who has worked with Bobby McFerrin, Youssou N’Dour and Joe Zawinul. The compilation’s liner notes don’t list any individual musician credits, but they do include a short essay on each track, allowing listeners to learn more about artists such as Orchestre OK Jazz, Pape Fall et L’African Salsa, Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, Banda Maravilha and Michel Pinheiro’s African Salsa Orchestra. No matter what a listener’s level of familiarity is with Afro-Latin music, there are plenty of tunes here that will motivate him or her to hit the dance floor.

Frank Kimbrough


Frank Kimbrough is a pianist of uncommon tenderness and restraint at the keyboard, attributes that have made him an ideal accompanist to some of jazz’s most progressive composers and performers. His musical history is flecked with extraordinary partnerships. Upon first moving to Washington, D.C., he had the good fortune of crossing paths with vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn, with whom he struck up a musical partnership. After relocating to New York City, he traveled in the same circles as Carla Bley and Maria Schneider, whose band, The Maria Schneider Orchestra, he eventually joined. Released in November, the month of his 60th birthday, Solstice is Kimrbough’s expression of gratitude for the colleagues and mentors in his life. The album features eight renditions of compositions by a handful of dear friends, as well as one original that spotlights Kimbrough’s trio mates, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield. Horn, Bley and Schneider are all paid tribute here, as are Andrew Hill, Annette Peacock and Paul Motian, and Kimbrough’s life partner, Maryanne de Prophetis, also receives a lovely tribute as the subject of the delightfully poetic title track. There is both a deep sense of nostalgia and powerful glint of optimism in the work of Kimbrough’s trio. The group’s take on “Seven,” by Bley, dwells as much in shadow as in light, giving equal consideration to strains of sadness and strength. They produce a similar effect on “Here Comes The Honey Man,” a take on the Horn classic that, like a perpetual motion machine, winds in on itself as it unfurls, the energy never flagging, even during moments of profound stillness. The album closes with Schneider’s “Walking By Flashlight,” which appeared on her 2013 album Winter Morning Walks, a collaboration with Dawn Upshaw. Kimrbough’s version preserves the pristine, first-snow brilliance of the original, but he finds new channels into the emotional core of the song, bringing to light themes of wonderment and discovery.

Ray Charles Orchestra

Swiss Radio Days Vol. 41: Zurich 1961

Ray Charles was on the verge of international stardom when he and his big band played this concert in Zurich, Switzerland, their first stop on a fall 1961 European tour that included a well-documented and acclaimed series of concerts in France. Fresh on the heels of the release of his now iconic album Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse!), Charles, then 31, is true to classic form in this context, his vocals and piano oozing with blues, soul and gospel. Balancing out the jazz end of the equation is Charles’ orchestra, which swings with authority, charges headlong into uptempo numbers and features several outstanding improvisers of the day, among them alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, tenor saxophonist/flutist David “Fathead” Newman, tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and drummer Bruno Carr. The program is well-paced, with a smart song selection that includes material from Charles’ Atlantic years (“I Believe To My Soul,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,”), tunes from his recent ABC recordings (“Georgia On My Mind,” “Sticks And Stones,” “My Baby,” “Margie,” “I Wonder,” “Hit The Road Jack”) and instrumentals arranged by Quincy Jones (“Happy Faces,” “Along Came Betty,” “The Birth Of A Band,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Ray Minor Ray”). Completing the virtual picture of perfection are the obligatory Raelettes, their well-rehearsed four-part choir infusing tunes like “Hit The Road Jack” and “I Wonder” with tight harmonies, sacred-to-profane sentiment and just the right amount of theatric drama. This was the template for an ingenious formula that clearly bore Charles’ stamp and would make him world-famous for decades to come. Listening to Zurich 1961 is like getting a sneak-peak into Brother Ray’s imminent stardom. The live recording quality is decent-to-good, leaving something to be desired balance-wise when compared with Charles’ studio albums from this important era. But inspired performances by the leader, his go-for-the-throat band and the delightful Raelettes more than make up for this technical flaw.

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April 2019
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