The Jeff Benedict Big Big Band

The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful
(Groovy Panda)

Don’t be misled by the corny title of this stellar big band recording from veteran West Coast saxophonist and educator Jeff Benedict. According to the bandleader, who originally hails from Colorado, it’s just a playful commentary on the more flippant characteristics of Los Angeles culture, where style too often trumps substance. The album is actually inspired by the emotionally evocative and highly accessible music of 1970s Hollywood, when brilliant session players like saxophonist Tom Scott and trumpeter Jerry Hey ruled the studio scene and helped craft moody TV and film scores by legendary composers like Quincy Jones and Pat Williams.

Recorded over two sessions in September 2019, The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful is loaded with substance. It’s also rife with risk-taking, thanks to Benedict, who arranged four of his original compositions in addition to several covers for the occasion, and the 16 kindred spirits who bring an abundance of soulfulness, swing and sizzle to his namesake big band. Benedict’s title track is a minor blues featuring tight ensemble passages and strong solo contributions from pianist Jeff Hellmer, trombonist Paul McKee, baritone saxophonist Charlie Richard and tenor saxophonist Jeff Ellwood. Other noteworthy soloists include trumpeter Steve Hawk, who tears it up plunger-style on Jones’ “Hikky Burr,” and guitarist Dave Askren, who takes three joyful rides over the course of 10 tracks.

The saxophone section is prominent on Benedict’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek,” derived from Phil Woods’ vibrant interpretation of that standard on his 1977 album Live At The Showboat. On “Tom And Jerry,” a supremely funky piece by Sandy Megas, Benedict channels his hero Scott on alto, while trumpeter Brian Bettger plays the role of Hey in his hard-hitting solo. Benedict’s alto sound often has a juicy tartness to it, as well as a bluesy growl reminiscent of Cannonball Adderley. He offers a more “pure” tone on soprano, and shows a special affinity for sax-section writing with soprano lead—a possible nod to the delicately balanced yet always swinging arrangements of the great Thad Jones.

Covering a multitude of styles, time signatures and song forms, The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful is sophisticated, uplifting big band music executed with precision and passion by some of L.A.’s finest jazz soloists and section players.

Stick Men

Owari
(MoonJune)

When Tony Levin, Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto traveled to Asia in early 2020 for a series of gigs as the Stick Men with special guest Gary Husband, their tour quickly devolved into a single date at the Blue Note in Nagoya, Japan, as rapidly spreading COVID-19 and other complicating factors led to multiple cancellations. But that one show, played before a small audience with little preparation except a few soundcheck run-throughs, turned out to be an epic performance. Sure, the Stick Men had already played hundreds of gigs since the trio’s formation in 2009, bringing its metal-edged brand of improv-heavy instrumental rock to audiences around the world over the course of multiple tours. But the addition of keyboardist Husband to the established lineup—Levin on Chapman Stick (a fully polyphonic chordal instrument that’s also capable of electric guitar-like leads and deep bass lines), Reuter on Touch Guitar (which, like the Stick, is played using a “tapping” technique) and Mastelotto on drums and electronic percussion—made for a sublime experience, as documented on the pristine recording Owari.

By turns ethereal and aggressive, this music is a weird wedding of dreamy soundscapes and churning mechanics that produces a consciousness-heightening effect and encourages focused listening. Husband fits into the picture like a seasoned regular, incorporating sci-fi synth atmospherics and snaky keyboard lines into the Stick Men’s dense sonic realm. Standout tracks include the heavily distorted “Schattenhaft” (from the band’s 2016 studio album, Prog Noir) and the relatively mellow “Crack In The Sky,” a staple in the group’s live repertoire consisting of long, sustained arcs and featuring a spoken-word contribution from Levin. Another highlight is the hypnotic title track, a group improvisation that sounds like it was performed underwater (in the company of singing whales). Owari will resonate with Stick Men devotees, as well as fans of guitarist Robert Fripp’s iconic prog-rock band King Crimson, which includes Levin and Mastelotto in its lineup of instrumental all-stars.

Diego Figueiredo

Antarctica
(Arbors)

On June 24, 2017, at the Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland, this writer had the good fortune of catching a performance by guitarist Diego Figueiredo, who initially played solo before joining bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton for a mesmerizing trio set that merged jazz with bossa nova. From that day forward, I enthusiastically have followed the guitarist’s career.

Unlike Figueiredo’s excellent 2020 album, Compilation (Arbors)—for which he played electric guitar on about half the tracks—his new release is an all-acoustic, all-original affair featuring four solo guitar cuts and eight tunes on which he’s joined by the simpatico Brazilian crew of Alexandre Piu (piano), Eduardo Machado (fretless bass) and Fernando Rast (drums).

A native of Franca, Brazil, Figueiredo has crafted a program with song titles that allude to specific, appealing places—such as “Seville,” “Bryant Park,” “Edgewater Park” and “From Rio To Paris”—but no locale is more distant than the one cited in the title track, “Antarctica.” This suite-like solo guitar piece features intriguing, graceful transitions between the sections, resulting in a work that evokes the awesome majesty of the southernmost continent. Figueiredo composed the song while traveling via cruise ship. As he wrote in an email to DownBeat, I could explore the sea and land around Antarctica, and it was one of my best experiences of my life. The penguins, the silence, the beautiful sky and the icebergs—it was all a unique and new experience for me.”

In contrast to the title track, the quartet tunes “Samba For Haroldo” and “Caribbean Gonzaga” offer a tropical vibe that conjures images of rolling waves and seaside strolls. Figueiredo composed another one of the album’s quartet tracks, “My Friend Menescal,” as a tribute to the bossa pioneer Roberto Menescal (who composed the standard “O Barquinho” and who wrote the liner notes to last year’s Compilation).

Some of the music here would be an appropriate soundtrack for deep thinking and even meditation, but the melodies are consistently compelling. The program concludes with the uplifting “Alma,” an anthem punctuated with Piu’s buoyant piano lines and the leader’s intricate, cyclical solo. The song conveys a mood of “Seize the day,” prompting this listener to spin it over and over.

Fire!

Defeat
(Rune Grammofon)

In its incarnation as a trio, as well as a big band, the sparks igniting Fire! generally come from Mats Gustafsson.

For about 30 years, the Swedish multi-instrumentalist has moved among the jazz, free-improv and rock worlds, showcasing acuity on baritone saxophone, flute and electronics, as he does on Defeat, a follow-up to the ensemble’s Actions from 2020. In a trio format here, Fire! occasionally takes on a calmer aspect, finding cavernous grooves on “each millimeter of the toad, part 2.” Bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin dig in as Gustafsson plays relatively straight, adding in skronky embellishments on occasion, supported by a few guest horns. It’s by no means a betrayal of the band’s past, one that rakes in amorphous improvs as much as it does pummeling certitude—though the charming chorale that closes out “each millimeter” comes as a definite surprise.

For both the opener (“a random belt. rats you out.”) and closer (“alien (to my feet)”), Gustafsson focuses on the flute, making the music feel a bit lighter, even as the band retains its sense of adventure. There’s an almost Harold Alexander-like exuberance to his work here, though, rooted more in the European avant-garde than 1970s groove music. But the fact that Fire! can cover so much territory within the free-jazz context—and on such a regular basis—means that we’re not only likely to embark on new explorations with the troupe shortly, but we’ll also be encountering new vistas of sound along the way.

Veronica Lewis

You Ain’t Unlucky
(Blue Heart)

With one spin of Veronica Lewis’ debut album, You Ain’t Unlucky, blues fans immediately will recognize some key artistic influences on the 17-year-old singer/pianist. Along with an original tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis (no relation), she unleashes a rollicking version of Katie Webster’s “Whoo Whee Sweet Daddy” (found on the 1988 album The Swamp Boogie Queen). The New Hampshire native concludes the program with a boogie-woogie romp, “The Memphis Train,” in which she name-checks Webster, Jerry Lee and Pinetop Perkins—three pianists unlikely to turn up on the playlists of the average U.S. teen.

Gifted with a voice that combines power with an elastic range, Lewis delivers a program centered around her original compositions, all of which nod to tradition. Eschewing tender ballads in favor of rowdy barn burners, she offers up a rarity in the blues world nowadays: an album without any type of guitar. She recruited five musicians for the sessions, but the instrumentation remains consistent throughout the program: a trio of piano, saxophone and drums. Unafraid to utilize all 88 keys, Lewis favors a beat that’s steady, a horn that honks and piano that talks. (Three cuts feature acoustic piano lines recorded at Lewis’ home, where she played a 115-year-old upright named Margaret.)

This fat-free, 33-minute program probably won’t inspire a musicologist to write a dissertation on Lewis’ charming, straightforward lyrics, but it will motivate listeners to lace up their dancing shoes. You Ain’t Unlucky, a charming gem currently generating airplay, announces the arrival of a young talent who can belt out a narrative with authority and pound out a piano solo with marvelous muscularity.

Calvin Keys

Shawn-Neeq
(Real Gone Music)

California pianist Gene Russell founded the Black Jazz imprint, and began releasing albums by folks like Doug Carn and Walter Bishop Jr. in 1971. The label only would last until 1975, but during its run, Russell was able to offer an in-the-moment sketch of what was happening in the soul-jazz universe.

Guitarist Calvin Keys—who released his leader debut on Black Jazz the year the imprint was founded—would go on to tour and record with Ahmad Jamal, and solidify his spot as a ranking elder in the Bay Area jazz scene. But on the reissue of Shawn-Neeq, the composer and bandleader seems so effortlessly at home in his quartet (occasionally augmented by flutist Owen Marshall), it’s a bit surprising that he never became a more visible national figure.

Keys’ debut opens with “B.E.,” a 4/4 workout that’s suited more to the dancefloor than the confines of a traditional jazz club; the following “Criss Cross” and the closer, “B. K.,” reaffirm the vibe. The guts of Keys’ album, though, have a different feel. The title track is a contemplative, slowly paced piece leavened by Marshall’s contributions. The flutist also ranks as the main voice on “Gee Gee,” where the tempo picks up a bit, retaining the spirited flow of the era’s best electric work.

The guitarist’s second and final Black Jazz release, the 1974 album Proceed With Caution!, would feature luminaries like percussionist Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and pianist Kirk Lightsey. But this is where it started, making Shawn-Neeq a notable historic marker, as well as a sonically engaging, if all-too-short, run through the era’s soul-jazz territory. Just steer clear of Keys’ 1980s recordings, which still rely on his keen guitar work, but in a setting that’s a bit too smooth for its own good.


On Sale Now
July 2021
Julian Lage
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