Carl Sandburg’s Jazz Poetry
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) won three Pulitzer Prizes, wrote poetry and prose, sang folk songs and advocated for civil rights. He was born in Illinois one town over from where drummer/composer Matt Wilson would be born 86 years later. Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto Records), is Wilson’s way to say thank you to an American icon. Utilizing a quintet of guitar, cornet, reeds, harmonium and bass, Wilson juxtaposes the music with the spoken word, as the poetry flies by in a rare and different sort of listening experience. Heady, entertaining, Sandburg’s folksy charm seeps through to make this 18-track experiment actually work.
John Beasley Presents MONK’estra Volume #2 (Mack Avenue Records), as a tribute to arguably the greatest and also the most tortured jazz musician ever, Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982). Beaten by the cops, cheated at the clubs, battling mental illness, having to fight tooth and nail for every inch of his dignity, Monk was also a dreamer, a dancer, a romancer, a composer on a par with Bach and Beethoven, and a once-in-a-lifetime piano player who did everything wrong yet it always came out right. (Book Tip: Robin D.G. Kelley’s 2010 Life & Times of an American Original is a must.)
Co-produced, arranged and conducted by pianist John Beasley, its 16 moving parts coalesce into a carnivalesque amalgam of shifting landscapes to make “Criss Cross” Latin, to make “Crepuscule for Nellie” into Ellingtonia (complete with a Ray Nance-styled bowed violin solo by Regina Carter), and to make “Evidence” into a screaming Coltranesque vehicle for rising superstar tenor saxophonist, Kamasi Washington. Dianne Reeves emulates Carmen McRae singing “Dear Ruby.” The pure joy of Mardi Gras day in Louisiana is approximated in “I Mean You.” Bravo!
When sax man/composer, Gary Meek, asks that musical question, “What Happened To My Good Shoes,” he’s not kidding. His eight, self-released Originals is his first CD as a leader in 15 years so. As such, he’s garnered a super duper octet to flesh out his visions. He’s backed up others, both in the studio and on stage, over 150 times (including a stint with Green Day). Originals boasts drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, trumpeter Randy Brecker (doubling on flugelhorn), and Return To Forever percussionist Airto, in an all-star assemblage backing up the Coltrane-inspired Meek. Meek does Monk too, as his “When You’re A Monk” takes as much from Thelonious as it does from West Side Story. “Suite For Maureen” is tender, filled with love for Mrs. Meek. Here’s where Airto fills the room with his myriad of Brazilian toys. “Spiritual For Iris” is for navel-gazing at its finest, its air of melancholy inspired by Rite Of Spring, Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet. There’s two smooth blues, one of which, “Mr. DG,” is a tribute to pianist Don Grolnick (1947-1996), a Brecker Brothers mainstay. Oh, and I would advise Meek to look under the bed as far as those shoes are concerned.
When I was a stoned-out hippie rocker at 18 in 1969, the one jazz album I loved was Memphis Underground by Herbie Mann. I distinctly remember trying to turn my long-haired tribe on to its sinewy rhythms before they’d rip it off the record player for Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf and Black Sabbath. I forgave them because they knew not what they did, but Mann became a hero to me. Enter Nestor Torres and his Jazz Flute Traditions (ALFi Records). He does “Memphis Underground” as well as others by Yusef Lateef, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chick Corea and Cole Porter in a history lesson of funky, swingin’, soulful, post-boppin’, high-flying fine-flute tunes that arrive right on time with the help of a skin-tight hot band of piano, bass, drums, percussion, more percussion, alto sax and more drums. Plus, it all ends with a rhumba. Man, I’m still wiggling to this one!
The Last Shade of Blue Before Black (Severn Records) by The Original Blues Brothers Band Featuring Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and “Blue Lou” Marini is a 14-track balls-to-the-wall frenetic nerve-wracker, recorded in beautiful, downtown Hoboken. It features a host of hot guests in lieu of Jake and Elwood Blues all pan-fried into constant sizzle, like Dr. John on his own “Qualified,” Stax legend Eddie Floyd “On A Saturday Night,” and the ultimate wisdom of “Don’t Forget About James Brown” plus blues icon, Joe Louis Walker, on Willie Dixon’s, “Don’t Go No Further.” Because they practice what they preach, they also do James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as arranged by Paul Schaffer. Dan Penn’s “You Left The Water Running,” Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big,” Delbert McClinton’s “Cherry Street” and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do” are all highlights. This thing rocks!
Solo Jethro Tull Dude
The Mark Zeleski Band’s terrific new, Days Months Years, is a must-hear project wherein the Berklee professor, 31, plays both sax and bass after touring with Jethro Tull. Ballads, bebop, Bird (“Big Foot”), Monk (“Epistrophy”), Latin and prog-jazz are the order of the day here and every track hits home hard.
Classical’s Loss Is Jazz’s Gain
Blame it on Oscar Peterson. Pianist/Composer/Arranger Bill Cunliffe, 56, would today be a world-famous classical pianist soloing with international symphony orchestras had he not heard Oscar Peterson. Hello jazz, goodbye classical. Still, in a career with highlights galore, after stints in the bands of Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra, after Hollywood soundtracks, teaching at universities and leading a trio, a big-band, a Latin band and a classical-jazz ensemble, he’s put it all together for one major-league masterpiece: “BACHanalia” (Metre Records). Its eight tracks are, in a word, sublime. He covers Bach, Prokofiev, Oscar Levant and Cole Porter as well as writing the amazing highlight, “Afluencia,” which contains possibly the soprano sax solo of the year (Bob Sheppard). Bravo!