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One of the December rituals in the jazz writing community is for each individual writer to produce a list of “Top 10 CDs of the Year.” Although I find this process to be terribly self-indulgent, ascribing import to the writer that he or she may or may not deserve, I have also found the process of thinking back on the year through the lens of the musical soundtrack that accompanied it quite enjoyable.

So I give you, o faithful readers, the Official Lubricity First Annual List of Arbitrary Length Detailing a Number Of Excellent Jazz Musical Products To Which I Have Enjoyed Listening During The Past Year:

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As I mentioned below, on Friday I reviewed a Kenny G concert at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, NJ. If you missed it, read the review here.

Believe it or not, I actually pitched this assignment to the Star-Ledger, because after years of uncritically accepting the rampant smooth jazz bashing of my peers in the jazz community, I thought I should at least take a listen for myself and see if the unrestrained anger directed at this man is justified.

My brief impression of the show was that Kenny G is a shameless but devastatingly effective self-promoter, a decent technician on his instrument, harmonically and melodically limited to pre-bebop diatonicism and blues riffs, and an amazing onstage communicator.

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Innovative Jazz Passengers Preview Reunion Album With a Playful Concert

By Alex W. Rodriguez for the Star-Ledger

UPDATE: It looks like Nate Chinen caught their second night, featuring vocalist Debby Harry instead of Ribot’s guitar.

Short answer? Not this one. But after listening to the U.S. premiere of the “Swing Symphony” on WQXR live from Lincoln Center, I feel like I learned something about the man behind the work, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

I tuned in with morbid curiosity, not sure quite what to expect. On one hand, it seems to me that Wynton is a classical musician at heart, and has always shone brightest in a classical setting. But the idea of jazz being brought to the premiere of the New York Philharmonic season … well, it just feels a little funny.

Being the conservative jazz stylist that he is, Wynton’s composition stuck closely to stereotypes and older sounds. His trombones slide around, his saxes sound like they’ve been lifted from a film noir score, and the strings were usually used as textural pads behind more wind-oriented melodic statements. He throws in a few novelty jokes, such as an exposed contrabassoon fart noise which would have made Buddy Bolden (author of such notable compositions as “Funky Butt”) proud. Read the rest of this entry »

McGuinness’ Big Band Wows Blue Note

By Alex W. Rodriguez for the Star-Ledger

Thanks to a tweet by freeform, I was just hipped to this recent article in the Wall Street Journal by jazz writer Larry Blumenfeld about New Orleans wunderkinds Christian Scott and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. It’s well-done, so give it a read.

… done yet? OK, now for my take: I can see where Blumenfeld is coming from, citing their similar New Orleans musical pedigrees and holding them up as exemplars of young musicians expanding the style and reaching out into new, albeit different, musical horizons.

But having just listened through both of their most recent CDs — Andrews’s Backatown and Scott’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow — in the past month or so, I don’t believe that the comparison holds up upon closer examination. Maybe it’s just my bias towards kickass trombonists, but if anything these two are a study in contrasts in how to leverage a privileged New Orleans musical heritage. Read the rest of this entry »

Look, everyone: I’m a professional jazz journalist!

Heath Brothers Present Spirited Show at Newark Museum

By Alex W. Rodriguez, Guest Columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger

The Claudia Quintet, Royal Toast

Royal Toast, the most recent release by the innovative small jazz group The Claudia Quintet, doesn’t need me to rave about them; they’ve been getting a lot of well-deserved praise for the album already. But it belongs in this conversation because, more than any other album that I’ve heard this year, it beats Mehldau at his own game.

As some of you have pointed out, most of these CDs that I have written about this week are hard to compare to Mehldau’s latest project — they have different aims, different sounds, different frames for understanding the music. I don’t think Trombone Shorty, for example, will be applying for a Chamber Music America grant any time soon (although I would LOVE to be on that selection committee!)

Mehldau’s record, with its overt orchestral borrowings and dark, brooding ambiance, is clearly taking himself very seriously. After all, he’s got to show something for the fact that he’s this year’s Carnegie Hall Composer-in-Residence. The result is a high-minded, high-budget affair that fits perfectly for a big-budget arts institution like SFJAZZ, J@LC or Festival Productions.

Musically speaking, Royal Toast excels by all of those same standards, only Hollenbeck’s group manages to imbue them with a playful vitality that Highway Rider seems to be missing. Furthermore, Hollenbeck manages more timbral intrigue with a six-instrument palate (Chris Speed on woodwinds, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass, Hollenbeck on drums, Ted Reichman on accordion and Gary Versace as a special guest on piano) than Mehldau and Brion manage with seemingly unlimited resources.

Suffice it to say that I can’t wait to hear what this eccentric ensemble comes up with next. I can’t think of many better models for how to create innovative, exciting jazz in the 21st century.

Trombone Shorty, Backatown

Backatown, the latest release from New Orleans brass prodigy Trombone Shorty (aka Troy Andrews,) takes the explosive musical milieu of New Orleans to a new level, bringing New Orleans jazz, funk and whatever else goes on down there into a sound he calls “supaphunkrock.” The result is an intensely funky party album that manages to be both immensely entertaining and musically fascinating.

If the tracks on this record don’t make your body move, there’s something seriously wrong with you. The whole album oozes exuberant musical energy, from the opening track’s brass riffs (“Hurricane Season”) through the heavy metal guitar and drum beat of the final number, “The Cure.”

Although it features a spate of impressive musical guests including Lenny Kravitz and Allen Toussaint, Backatown is at its best when it features Andrews as a soloist, as on “Suburbia,” “Backatown” and “The Cure.” He rarely strays from his deeply blues-inflected melodic vocabulary, but he never has to. As with funk trombone godfather Fred Wesley, the groove speaks for itself. Unlike Wesley, though, he projects one of the ballsiest trombone sounds I have heard on record, yet he manages to convey it with a clear, focused tone.

Like A Vacant Lot, many jazz fans wouldn’t classify this music as jazz. Even my girlfriend was very surprised to hear this coming through my living room speakers (even better, she dug it!) Produced by Galactic funkateer Ben Ellman, the overall sound owes much more to R&B and funk than jazz. But between Andrews’s instrumental virtuosity, the interlocking instrumental riffs, improvised solos and the propulsive rhythmic drive throughout, there’s a lot here for a jazz fan to like.

For more on Backatown, click here to listen to an interview with Trombone Shorty on The Checkout.

The Inhabitants, A Vacant Lot

On the surface, A Vacant Lot by The Inhabitants looks like a bizarre, eff-you DIY punk project–that was my reaction, at least, when opening the album to put the CD into my car stereo. The black-and-white album cover features a weird wolf-crow spiderman thing, no liner notes and a font that might have come from the credits to a zombie movie. I expected an assault of distortion and angularity, no holds barred.

What actually transpired, though, was quite different. The quartet–which features JP Carter on trumpet, Skye Brooks on drums, Pete Schmitt on bass and Dave Sikula on guitar–creates a stunningly unpredictable ambiance that ebbs and flows in a way that moves the ear easily along with it. The assault does come occasionally, such as in the beginning of “Let Youth Be Saved,” but is only a small part of the group’s musical palette.

To call this music jazz might be a bit of a stretch–the group does utilize a recognizably rockish aesthetic. But it fits, swaying from pounding drums and distorted guitars to rubato, ambient ruminations. The loose articulation and patient transitions between sections create beautiful musical tension that is usually resolved by blending subtly into new material. And clearly, the spontaneity and melodic contours of some of the songs owe themselves to a jazz-inspired tradition.

A Vacant Lot conveys bold, raw and forthright creativity. This group is still on their way up, for sure–once they incorporate ways of better dealing with some of the more repetitive aspects of the songs to keep things interesting, I can their concept really taking off. Keep your eye out for these guys–we might be looking at the next group of Vancouver imports to the New York scene, now that BC jazz pioneers like Ingrid Jensen and Darcy James Argue seem to be making themselves comfortable here …

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