Piano Men

by Andrew Elias

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE has long cemented his legacy in the pantheon of great jazz bassists, yet he continues to create music that is new and exciting. McBride has two new releases: Out Here, with his Trio, and People Music, with Inside Straight, a quintet featuring vibraphonist Warren Wolf. Both are outstanding, as expected, but Out Here is spectacular. And although McBride, as always, plays with class and heart, both plucking and bowing, much of the credit must go to the young pianist, Christian Sands. Sands plays with athleticism and soul, driving through jazz classics like ‘Hallelujah Time’ and ‘Cherokee’ as well as Johnny Taylor’s funky hit, ‘Who’s Making Love?’. He and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. have both been playing in McBride’s bands for years and the chemistry is especially apparent on their version of ‘My Favorite Things.’ Out Here is one of the best jazz albums of the recent past – and Christian Sands is a pianist worth keeping an eye on.

Aaron Diehl’s outstanding debut studio recording, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, is a smart, stylish and thoroughly modern outgrowth of the music Diehl grew up on – Duke Ellington and the Modern Jazz Quartet. It, too, features Warren Wolf on vibraphone. Diehl and band are as comfortable revisiting ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ as they are reimagining Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin.’ And yet, it’s his original composition, ‘Stop and Go’ that may be the highlight of the album, with Wolf matching him at every improvisational turn. An exciting debut that teases at the great music yet to come from a promising new pianist.

Another young pianist worth watching is Roberto Fonseca, a Cuban pianist who incorporates African elements into his urban Latin jazz. Fonseca’s new album, Yo was recorded in a single week in Paris with musicians from Cuba and Africa, and exudes spontaneity and energy. Fonseca plays with power and speed (‘80’s), and yet can be delicate and romantic, too (‘El Sonador Esta Cansado’ and ‘Asi Es La Vida’). Another highlight is ‘Gnawa Stop,’ featuring the kora, a 21-string African harp. Yo is different, original and intriguing.

I am sure that Fonseca grew up listening to and influenced by one of the great Cuban pianists, Chucho Valdes. Valdes, 71, has a new album himself – Border-Free – and it’s a winner. Valdes and his Afro-Cuban Messengers have fused Cuban and hard-bop jazz traditions with flamenco and Moroccan Gnawa music – even a little Bach and Rachmaninoff – to create an album that pays homage to both his musical roots and his personal roots (with songs dedicated to his father, his mother and his grandmother, as well as several musicians he has known). Highlights are three tracks recorded with saxophonist Branford Marsalis (‘Tabu,’ ‘Bebo’ and ‘Abdel’), who has never sounded better, and ‘Afro-Comanche,’ an 11-minute tour-de-force with hints of Native American musical elements. Border-Free is one of the best jazz releases of the year.

Will Calhoun is best known as the drummer in the rock group, Living Color. With his new album, Life In This World, Calhoun returns to his bebop roots for a collection of first-rate tunes that, with the help of trumpeter Wallace Roney, evoke the best of the late-60s Miles Davis recordings. Calhoun’s original compositions are excellent, but the best tracks on the album are covers of the jazz standard ‘Love for Sale,’ Coltrane’s ‘Naima,’ Monk’s ‘Evidence’ and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Etcetera.’ Calhoun propels the music, offering it up to Roney, Donald Harrison, and the nimble and adventurous pianist Marc Cary to color and sculpt. Excellent modern bebop.

Marc Cary has his own new release, For the Love of Abbey, a solo recording and a real showcase of his many and considerable talents. Pianist for the late Abbey Lincoln for more than a decade, Cary has created an intimate and soulful tribute to the singer, mentor and friend. The 14 tracks are extremely varied, in tempo and in emotion, but ‘The Music in the Magic’ (one of Lincoln’s signature songs), ‘My Love Is You’ and ‘Conversation With a Baby’ are standouts. A very personal recording and virtuoso performance by an intelligent and sensitive artist.

Years before Cary was accompanying Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Barron played piano in her band. At age 70, he is still going strong, as charming as ever, joining 91-year old Frank Wess on the tenor saxophonist’s new release, Magic 101. Wess, known for his bluesy tone and mellow style, reminiscent of Hank Mobley and Coleman Hawkins, sounds like a musician a quarter his age – strong and mischievous – but plays Irving Berlin’s ‘Say It Isn’t So,’ Ray Noble’s ‘The Very Thought of You’ and Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen’s ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ (a wonderful duet with Barron) with the affection of an old friend. Wess’ beautiful solo interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘All Too Soon’ is a terrific ending to a magical album.

Joshua Redman burst onto the New York jazz scene in the mid-90s, releasing several acclaimed and successful albums and playing with the likes of Elvin Jones, Pat Methany, Charlie Haden, Chick Corea, Christian McBride, and his father, Dewey. His new release, Walking Shadows, sees Redman re-teaming with pianist Brad Mehldau, who also produced the sessions. Mehldau, always tasteful, keeps a low profile, allowing Redman the space to explore and improvise against a string orchestra on songs such as ‘Lush Life,’ ‘Stardust,’ The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be, and a number of excellent original compositions. Possibly Redman’s best album in years.

“...It Was Beauty” is the 20th recording as a band leader by pianist Orrin Evans. Denser,and edgier than most of his recent releases (his Captain Black Big Band was one of the best jazz releases of 2011 and his Flip The Script, with his trio, was one of the best jazz releases of 2012), “...It Was Beauty” finds Evans dueling with long-time drummer Donald Edwards and bassist Eric Revis (a member of Branford Marsalis’ ensemble). Best here is their cover of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Blues Connection.’ “...It Was Beauty” is another excellent effort by Evans, who also has new releases with the group Tarbaby and vocalist J.D. Walter. •

Will Calhoun
Life In This World

Marc Cary
For The Love Of Abbey

Aaron Diehl
The Bespoke Man’s Narrative
(Mack Avenue)

Orrin Evans
“...It Was Beauty”
(Criss Cross Jazz)

Roberto Fonseca

Christian McBride Trio
Out Here
(Mack Avenue)

Joshua Redman
Walking Shadows

Chucho Valdes
& the Afro-Cuban Messengers
(Jazz Village)

Frank Wess
Magic 101

July-August 2013