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Notes from the world of WWUH Jazz
Out Here & Beyond: Chuck Obuchowski's Favorite Jazz Releases of 1997

     You know the old adage "better late than never"? Some of us were just not born to meet deadlines. Hopefully, you'll enjoy this sampling of '97 recordings, despite its tardiness.
     A proliferation of new companies, independent releases and massive reissue programs created an unprecedented glut of recorded jazz material last year. However, since most American retailers have yet to learn how to market jazz, 1997's windfall did not create new legions of fans, as might have been anticipated; rather, many consumers ended up frustrated that the albums they sought are not stocked by their local mega-stores.
     Meanwhile, the increasing appeal of jazz around the globe has continued to drive more US artists to record for foreign labels, resulting in more hard-to-find recordings on these shores.
     Diligent fans of the music who took the time and energy to separate the wheat from the chaff were ultimately rewarded with many hours of splendid listening, especially those whose radio dials are locked in at 91.3 FM. The following is alphabetical list of my 1997 favorites.

John Clark- I Will- Postcards, Inc.
     Along with Tom Varner, John Clark has been the most audible advocate for French horn in the jazz realm. One listen to I Will is guaranteed to make a believer out of the staunchest skeptic. Whether tugging at the heartstrings of a classic ballad like "My One & Only Love" or traipsing through the gritty quagmire of his own "Bad Attitude", Clark knows exactly how to conjure up the appropriate sounds.
     Clark's arranging skills are also an important part of this CD's success. The leader has assembled groups of varying sizes and sonic qualities to accomplish his numerous objectives. The rhythm section--Pete Levin (keyboards), Mike Richmond (bass) and Bruce Ditmas (drums)--helps glue the many loose ends together.

Kurt Elling- The Messenger- Blue Note
     This exceptionally gifted vocal artist picks up where he left off on his debut about two years ago--one foot planted firmly in the tradition, the other dancing into realms of ecstatic stream-of-consciousness. The Messenger once again puts him in the company of several wonderful Chicago-based musical associates.
     Elling never falls to captivate, whether fashioning standards into vehicles for his own rich creative impulses or delivering original, inspired song-poems. "Time of the Season", a 1969 pop anthem from the Zombies, is transported into another sonic dimension by Elling and fellow Blue Noter Cassandra Wilson. Elsewhere, the singer uses source material as diverse as Thomas Merton, Lord Buckley and Dexter Gordon to stimulate his verbal improvisations.

James Emery- Standing on a Whale...- Enja
    Acoustic guitarist Emery has long been respected for his accomplishments as a member of the String Trio of New York. Outside that familiar context, however, his work has been largely ignored.
     This quartet recording should bring him wider recognition in a more "conventional" jazz setting. Joining forces with three similarly open-eared composer/instrumentalists, Emery shines on this program of originals (plus a short reading of a Monk classic). In fact, all of his colleagues--Marty Ehrlich, Michael Formanek and Gerry Hemingway--issued discs under their own names in '97. No wonder the creativity level is consistently high throughout this CD. Deserving of special mention are a few rare examples of Hemingway's distinctive approach to mallet percussion, as well as further proof that Ehilich is one of the world's most gifted improvising clarinetists.

Joel Harrison Octet- Range of Motion- Koch Jazz
     Not at all what one might expect from a guitarist-led date, this turns out to be one of the year's highpoints in terms of composition and structure. All nine tunes were written, produced and arranged by Harrison. (Four short improvised pieces are also included.)
     This west coast ensemble explores some exotic pan-ethnic soundscapes, not unlike another Bay Area favorite, the Hieroglyphics Ensemble. The leader's strong vision keeps things focused , despite the globe-trotting, and he's lucky to have a very tight band behind him to pull it all off. Veteran reedman Paul McCandless contributes some very exciting solos to the proceedings.

Blily Hart-Oceans of Time- Arabesque Jazz
     You want high-intensity straight-ahead swing? Try "One for Carter". How about a haunting, lyrical waltz? "Father Demo Square" will do the trick. Daring improvisational interplay, anyone? "Mindreader" is a sure bet.
     Drum virtuoso Billy Hart issued another fabulous recording in 1997, his fifth as a leader. Over the past 20 years, he's enlisted some of the best jazz players and writers to help him realize his concepts. The current septet includes strong musical personalities like John Stubblefield, Mark Feldman and David Kikoski.
     WWUH listeners were treated to an interview with Billy Hart last December 16 during Tuesday Morning Jazz (aka Out Here & Beyond).

Cecil McBee- Unspoken- Palmetto Records
     It's shocking to note that 12 years have elapsed since this bassist/composer's last release under his own name. As the jazz press trips over itself to crown the latest young lion king, middle-aged masters like McBee are left to toil in obscurity.
     That said, Unspoken demonstrates he's apparently no worse for the wear; McBee has produced a bold, brilliant work, accompanied by a quartet of relative unknowns who swing their collective butts off. Drummer Matt Wilson, in particular, is a player to watch. A veteran of several outstanding Boston bands, he moved to New York last year and issued his own CD for Palmetto, featuring sax great Dewey Redman, along with McBee.

Chris Potter-Unspoken- Concord Jazz
     Potter has been raising eyebrows as a sideman since he first moved from South Carolina to the Big Apple to join Red Rodney's band in 1989. It's hard to believe that Unspoken marks his sixth release as a leader--and he's not yet turned 27!
     Considerations of age aside, this reed player has landed himself in the company of three of the jazz world's most in-demand players... to play a program of his original compositions. Potter is hardly intimidated by such bandmates, however; in 1997 he also recorded for Billy Hart, Renee Rosnes and Steve Swallow, among others. Here, with a rhythm section like Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, sparks are bound to fly. Guitarist John Scofield is along for seven of the CD's nine tracks, all of which show the leader confidently walking the tightrope between freedom and structure.
     Listen for an exclusive interview with Potter on WWUH in the near future.

Ken Schaphorst- Over the Rainbow: The Music of Harold Arlen-Accurate
     I guess I've always been a bit of a sucker for tribute albums, but this paean to one of the American Songbook's heroes really is extraordinary: short on nostalgia, long on innovation, and one hell of a roller-coaster ride!
     Eight different groups tackle 13 Arlen favorites, all arranged by Schaphorst.. The leader used to front a big band in Boston, and many of the participants are graduates of that short lived ensemble, with a few new recruits from his current Wisconsin digs thrown in for good measure.
     Alternative darlings Medeski, Martin & Wood get the most space, but great performances abound: I defy you to listen to "If I Only Had a Brain", as interpreted by the Charlie Kohlhase Quintet, without cracking a smile. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, there is Schaphorst's sublime solo trumpet weeping the "Over the Rainbow" blues. In between are amazing reconfigurations of "That Old Black Magic" and "Get Happy", confounding expectations and forcing us to hear these classics in very new ways. Bravo, Ken!

Fernando Tarres-The Outsider- Savant Recordings
     Jelly Roll Morton used to speak of "that Spanish tinge." The curious marriage of Argentina's rich folk music to southern European sounds is very much in evidence on The Outsider, along with a healthy infusion of Arican and Latin-American jazz dialects.
    Tarres has, over the course of the past five years, carved out an assured, solid niche for his Arida Conta Group in the often confusing landscape of late 20th century jazz. This release fulfills the promise of the band's previous efforts. The guitarist's compositions and arrangements come to life in the able hands of his colleagues, especially saxist/flutist Donny McCaslin.
    Tarres is not afraid to take chances. "Alfonsia y El Mar", one of two pieces here not written by Tarres, features guest pianist Danilo Perez playing against an improvising string quartet; the results are stunning.

Kenny Wheeler-Angel Song- ECM
    Every once in a great while, this overindulged set of ears encounters a recording which defines itself so completely that it cannot be ignored. Angel Song is one such disc. Not to suggest that it is superior to any of the others on my list of favorites--actually, at first I dismissed this music as being too polite and too minimalistic. Upon repeated listenings, however, I've come to appreciate it precisely for its simplicity and for the clarity of its vision.
    Trumpeter/flugelhornist Wheeler possesses an instantly identifiable sound and compositional style. Here he has chosen three equally distinctive musicians--Lee Konitz, Dave Holland and Bill Frisell--to give voice to his nine angel songs. The four engage in aural dialogues of profound grace and beauty.
    Wheeler also released a duo project in 1997 with fellow Canadian expatriate Paul Bley; Frisell ventured into unlikely territory with Nashville, an inspired tribute to country and folk stylings; Konitz collaborated with West Hartford native Brad Meldau and Charlie Haden for a live session on Blue Note; Holland remained one of the busiest bassists in the business.

Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 1998

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