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March Jazz Picks from ICON Magazine

Nick Bewsey from ICON Magazine has a bunch of great jazz CDs to tell you about.

Mike DiRubbo, Threshold - The kinetic energy on alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo’s 8th solo project, Threshold, pops like a Roman candle. This is thrilling modern bop, enriched by DiRubbo’s appreciation of the art and teachings of legendary Blue Note alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean. He sheds notes as fast as Jackie Mac, soloing with gratifying intensity and a hint of swagger that’s in lockstep with his quintet. Through a well-ordered set list of nine originals, trumpeter Josh Evans matches DiRubbo’s momentum with a flinty tone and tasty solos that dovetail well with the saxophonist's bulletproof charts. Rounding out the rhythm section are three champions on the NY scene. It’s a treat to hear the soulful Brian Charette on piano (he often gigs on jazz records as a first-call organist), and along with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and beats master, drummer Rudy Royston, they seal the deal on this superb collection of dynamic no-nonsense originals that perhaps best recalls the Benny Golson/Art Farmer sessions from back in the day. Beautifully recorded and mixed, Threshold is one badass record that deserves to be played as loud as possible.
Stranahan, Zaleski, Rosato, Limitless
- Among the many fine recordings that were released toward the end of 2013, Limitless has remained in my listening rotation. As a group, drummer Colin Stranahan, pianist Glenn Zeleski and bassist Rick Rosato go for broke with a refreshing and accessible recording that evokes Brad Mehldau and Bill Evans as compositional touchstones, but their eight originals and jaunty reworking of Thelonious Monk’s “Work” gives you an opportunity to savor modern jazz trio music at its best. The virtues of these players come through on the title track, written by Zeleski, where piano, bass and drums ricochet and bounce on a percussive jet stream. Tunes with shifty time signatures (“Migrations”), a bittersweet ballad (“Cyclic”) and the zippy bass notes that run through the bracing “Forecast” cement their infectious chemistry. Limitless has an emotional directness paired with harmonic invention that’s especially palpable on the warmly conceived closer, “Chorale,” a gorgeous ode to pianist Fred Hersch.
Eli Degibri, Twelve - Saxophonist/composer Eli Degibri is a stealthy traditionalist with an edge. He’s so good that his previous recording featured no less than pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster. He invigorates his sixth album as a leader with his big tenor sound, which is smooth and sweet on “Autumn In New York,” the album’s sole standard. But it’s on tunes like the folkloric original “The Spider” where Degibri gives us a taste of his Brecker-like bite. Along for this ride are a few of Israel’s youngest and most accomplished jazz musicians. Belying their age, pianist Gadi Lehavi, 16, and drummer Ofri Nehemya, 18, join bassist Barak Mori to make up Degibri’s gifted quartet. This mostly swinging album has a pleasing variety of flavors where the band excels with vibrant soloing (“Mambo”), emotive dexterity (“New Waltz”) and virtuosic playing (“Liora Mi Amor”), the latter featuring the effusive vocals of Shlomo Ydov. The far flung musical influences that Degibri folds into the record have an organic feel, thanks to his svelte arrangements, an inspired use of a vocal choir, and his playing the mandolin on “The Cave,” a disarming anthem with a spiritual vibe.

Catherine Russell, Bring It Back  - The powerhouse vocalist Catherine Russell has a bluesy, authentic style that practically defines exuberance on Bring It Back, an energetic collection of early swing tunes, bar songs and punchy dance tunes that flirt with the early R&B, and backed by an exquisite 10-piece band with lots of brass accents, muted trumpet solos and tasty piano licks. Russell’s own roots reach directly back to Louis Armstrong—her father Luis Russell worked as Armstrong’s bandleader and arranger and penned “Lucille,” performed here for the first time. Soulful and flawlessly delivered, Russell belts out gems like “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” Ellington’s “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” and nine other rarely heard, utterly dazzling tracks that were written when jazz tunes were the pop songs of their day. Russell is a one-of-a-kind chanteuse who keeps on swinging.

Ulysses Owens, Jr., Onward and Upward - Recently, there’s been no shortage of excellent, forward-looking jazz albums led by drummers. For jazz fans who put groove and swing in their plus columns, Grammy-winner Terri Lyne Carrington, Kendrick Scott, Antonio Sanchez, Matt Wilson and Rudy Royston are taking music to new and satisfying heights. You can add Ulysses Owens, Jr. to this exceptional lineup—he’s a drummer determined to blaze his own trail with sonically inspired beats.


On the positively titled Onward and Upward, Owens brings together some of the freshest voices on the NY scene and delivers a set list that neatly connects the past with the present. As he did on his very fine previous release Unanimous (2012), Owens marries traditional grooves with stylish, contemporary material. It’s a formula he’s even more comfortable with here, beginning with a welcome outlier at the start of his disc where Owens sets The Stylistics’ “People Make The World Go Round” against a percolating rhythm that could have evolved out of Grover Washington’s “Winelight.” This tune, the album’s only vocal, features the enticing singer Charles Turner and gives the album an attractive starting point. Owens’ fresh instrumentals, a mix of covers and originals, make this record work, from a ravishing Phyllis Hyman cover, “Just 25 Miles To Anywhere,” to a sparkling Brazilian feature that highlights the incomparable clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen as well as Owens’ flair with samba percussion.

To fulfill Owens’ vision his band comes fully equipped with chops and invention to burn, like they do with an animated take of Wayne Shorter’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum.” Notably, the personnel include pianist Christian Sands (Owens’ band mate in the Christian McBride Trio) and the in-demand bassist Rueben Rogers. It’s a pearl of a trio that smoothly merges modern jazz swing with a trace of pop to give Owens’ band its signature sound. The 22-year-old Sands is poised to be the great pianist of his generation and unlike his more traditional work with McBride, here he extends an astonishing technique that reframes the architecture of Owens’ charts. No wonder the drummer calls the pianist “his secret weapon” since one listen to Sands play on his striking arrangement of “Human Nature” will give you reason enough to start following this young wiz.

Ace trombonist (and co-producer) Michael Dease, trumpeter Jason Palmer and Israeli guitar-phenom Gilad Hekselman round out the core group. Fun fact: Palmer is the lead actor in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a sweet, cool little jazz movie with a lot of heart, written and directed by Damien Chazelle.

Writing about Owens’ earlier recording, I spoke of Owens’ natural flow and his gift for making music that sounds and feels good. Onward and Upward provides all that and more, mixing beats with evocative tunes that tug at specific emotional threads (“The Of Forgiveness”) while connecting with the visceral essence of jazz at the same time. At 31, Owens has both arrived and is just getting started.

This article is from the March 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.