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David Lahm – Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell
Arkadia Jazz
Rhythm & Brass – More Money Jungle...Ellington Explorations
Koch Jazz
Andy Summers – Green Chimneys (The Music of Thelonious Monk)
RCA Victor
by Chuck Obuchowski

    The number of tribute recordings being issued has risen dramatically over the past decade. No matter what the musical genre, if you’re famous (or infamous) enough, chances are someone is concocting a compilation in your honor. Some have proved more successful than others: Billy Bragg and Wilco singing Woody Guthrie was brilliant; on the other hand, do we really need smooth jazz versions of Beach Boys favorites?
    Tribute albums in the jazz realm are hardly a new phenomenon. Satch Plays Fats, Louis Armstrong’s moving dedication to piano giant Waller, was a hit over 40 years ago. In 1999, jazz players are tripping over one another to cash in on the centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth by offering their own renditions of the maestro’s music. More Money Jungle is head and shoulders above most of the competition. It offers bold, contemporary arrangements of Duke’s songbook, played with conviction, precision and a fabulous sense of humor. The other two recent tribute releases discussed on this page also exhibit innovative approaches to material penned by the artists whose work they celebrate. Caveat emptor: for those who like their Joni, Duke or Monk delivered "straight, no chaser," it’s probably safest to stick with the originals.

Mo’ Betta Brass

    Rhythm & Brass was formed 10 years ago as a spin-off of the Dallas Brass. The group’s three previous recordings offer several glimpses of its affinity for Ellington’s work, but mostly showcase a refreshing, somewhat irreverent approach to the classical and jazz repertoires, and to some of Duke’s "beyond category" peers e.g., George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
    Right from the start, More Money Jungle commands attention, with an unidentified band member intoning the album title in a sinister, raspy voice; the band immediately jumps into action, establishing a funkified groove inspired by Kool & the Gang (!) and based loosely on Ellington’s "Money Jungle," from his 1962 trio session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Three songs originally on that date follow, now sporting clever arrangements for this brass-plus-rhythm sextet. Particularly enticing is "A Little Max," a rumba which finds drummer David Gluck "chatting" back and forth with his brass brethren for the duration.
    Rhythm & Brass also has great fun with several early Ellington classics—the band captures the spirit of Duke’s Cotton Club years, even as the players sneak in xylophone and tuba solos here, subtle dissonances there...creative embellishments which demonstrate jazz’s uncanny ability to constantly reinvent itself through the parallel tools of arranging and improvisation.
    The most radical reconstruction here occurs during the medley of "Caravan" and "Blue Pepper," both given ultra-modern treatments as world beat and hip hop rhythms mesh seamlessly with smokin’ horn charts. Narration from Ellington’s autobiography Music Is My Mistress eloquently recalls the dramatic impact his orchestra’s foreign travels had upon his music. R&B also makes effective use of spoken word by presenting guest Kurt Elling’s poignant reading of Aleda Shirley’s poem "Ellington Indigos," which segues naturally enough into a potent version of "Mood Indigo" (sans vocal).

Andy’s Monk Mania

    Andy Summers, onetime guitarist for The Police, has spent much of the last 15 years pushing the rock envelope on a series of quirky instrumental albums. He’s often employed jazz musicians in the studio and onstage, but the genre’s impact on his work seems to have grown since 1993’s duo project with fellow Brit John Etheridge, which featured several covers of Django Reinhardt and Thelonious Monk tunes. Andy’s 1997 RCA debut, The Last Dance of Mr. X, found his trio venturing even more deeply into jazz territory as they tackled classic material like "Afro Blue" and "Footprints."
    Still, those dabblings have hardly prepared the listener for the "brilliant corners" of Green Chimneys, Andy’s outstanding paean to Mr. Monk. Like Rhythm & Brass, Summers succeeds by revealing the essence of his mentor, without succumbing to imitation. Therefore, "Hackensack" is served up New Orleans style, a veritable gumbo of tantalizing musical ingredients: Peter Erskine’s impeccable second-line beat, gutbucket guitar licks, Joey DeFrancesco’s blues-powered Hammond B-3, and twangy cello accents from Hank Roberts. Monk’s humor and impish attitude come through loud and clear, but only as reflected through the prism of a self-assured Andy Summers perspective. The former Policeman also gives us a searing version of "Shuffle Boil," which sounds like it sprang forth from the bubbling electric brew of mid-70s Miles. The CD closes with "Ruby My Dear," performed solo on acoustic guitar; the stark beauty of this track is all the more striking for the contrast it provides to the manic energy displayed on some of these delightfully peculiar Monk mutations.
    Summers may not be an extraordinary soloist, but he has obviously learned from the likes of Bill Frisell and John Abercrombie about how to construct vivid aural environments in which creative improvisations can thrive. The music on Green Chimneys sounds fresh and vital—no copycatting here! Even the fairly straightforward rendering of "Round Midnight," featuring vocals by Andy’s old buddy Sting, comes off well, thanks to some minor variations: a "Little Wing" intro and outro, and an understated guitar break from the leader.

Laminations for Joni

    As a longtime admirer of Joni Mitchell’s work, I had been anticipating keyboardist David Lahm’s tribute—begun in 1993—since I first heard about it from Thomas Chapin, a key contributor to this album. Lahm’s homage to a woman he describes as "the best and most original post-Tin Pan Alley songwriter we’ve ever heard" has finally been released by one of the most promising new independent record labels: Arkadia Jazz (www.arkadiarecords.com).
    The Canadian native first made her mark as a member of the burgeoning folk-rock scene in Southern California during the late 1960s. However, by the time everyone was clamoring to crown her the new queen of folk, she’d already shed the guitar-toting-hippy-poet image. As a matter of fact, Joni has spent much of her professional life defying critical and public expectations. She’s assimilated elements of blues, pop, Latin, jazz, African, r&b and orchestral forms into her compositions. Her collaborators have included Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny, as well as Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel and the Warrior Drums of Burundi, among many others! Joni’s relentless pursuit of the Muse has made her one of the most respected—and least marketable—artists in the world of so-called popular music.
    Lahm, a favorite accompanist of many vocalists, steps out front once in a blue moon to lead an intriguing recording session...then fades quietly back into obscurity, leaving behind another collector’s item. Thanks to Arkadia’s widespread distribution, and to Joni’s worldwide recognition, perhaps Lahm will get to enjoy the limelight for a while this time around.
    The leader, despite setbacks and delays, ultimately assembled an hour’s worth of inspired Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell, featuring 18 excellent New York players, in various groupings. He chose some of Joni’s lesser-known compositions as the foundation for his unusual instrumental arrangements; next, he carved out space within each piece to allow his colleagues an opportunity to convey through their instruments the emotions evoked by the songwriter’s original lyrics and expansive musical vocabulary.
    Consequently, Jazz Takes sports some remarkable soloing: the prayer-meeting fervor of Thomas Chapin’s alto sax on "Shadows and Light," David Friedman’s angelic vibes on "Song for Sharon," and the ecstatic swing of Lew Tabackin’s tenor on "Solid Love," to site several of the most obvious examples. And Randy Brecker’s stunning flugelhorn contributions throughout the angst-ridden "Edith and the Kingpin" surely rank among the finest recorded examples of his work on this horn.
    Lahm’s wry arranging skills are in the forefront on "The Fiddle and the Drum," conceived by Joni as an acappella piece. Here, Lahm places trombonist Ed Neumeister in the "vocal" role, and pits him against violinist Mark Feldman, who is assigned a counter-theme borrowed from jazz composer George Russell. Ron Vincent adds another "voice," personifying the drum metaphor Joni used in her 1968 original. While each player executes his part with ample passion, this arrangement is also the most glaring example of the album’s shortcomings. The author was able to deliver a powerful antiwar soliloquy without accompaniment, thanks to the significance of her words. It’s much more difficult to convey the meaning of this piece instrumentally, since the lyrics were so integral to the original. The Jazz Takes rendition of "The Blonde in the Bleachers" suffers a similar fate.
    Listeners unfamiliar with the vocal versions of these songs are thus denied some of their magic. Lahm’s liner notes offer insight into each composition’s "story," minus Joni’s sublime imagery, of course. Still, producing this project was obviously a labor of love for David Lahm and company, and the music they’ve created is a testament to the esteem long due this dedicated artist by her peers. Come to think of it, there are few singers who can really do justice to Joni’s songs, so perhaps Lahm should ask her to sit in for a second volume of Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell. Now, that might make for some magical music!

Copyright©WWUH: July/August Program Guide, 2000

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