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May Jazz Picks from ICON Magazine

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

Eric Reed: The Adventurous Monk - Philadelphia-born pianist Eric Reed grew up playing in his father’s storefront Baptist church and was discovered to be a child prodigy at age two. He was steered away from gospel and church music to classical, but dug jazz so much after hearing Art Tatum and Ramsey Lewis that he devoted himself to a different kind of soul music. He recounts in his bio that “I wasn’t interested in practicing Bach; I was too busy digging Horace Silver!” Fast forward to a call from Wynton Marsalis inviting Reed to tour with his band, a gig that lasted from 1990-1995 and established the pianist as a first-rate player, bandleader, and educator, as well an artist with more than 25 solo recordings to his credit.


Reed has a brilliant affinity for the music of Thelonious Monk, recently dedicating two albums to Monk’s timeless compositions on the trio-based Dancing Monk in 2011 and again on The Baddest Monk in 2012, the latter adding a two-horn frontline and vocalist Jose James for a version of “Round Midnight.” For his third go ‘round, The Adventurous Monk, Reed mixes things up with a dynamic band that includes saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. With no time to waste, dazzling versions of “Thelonious,” “Work” and “Reflections” trigger Reed’s fleet set, where he slips into a deep, easy groove cross-checked  by a swinging rhythmic conversation between Williams and Hutchinson. Seamus Blake, a saxophone powerhouse, authentically recalls the great Charlie Rouse, but delivers freethinking solos with a tone that’s juicy and flush with lyricism.

The engineers at Savant have cooked up one of their finest recorded efforts—you sink into the sound, your ears teased with nuance and flavor by Reed and his crew. Endlessly inventive, Reed serves up dollops of church soul and graceful Tatum-like runs that makes these Monk tunes sound both adventurous (“Nutty”), beautiful (“Pannonica”) and more than a little danceable (“Ba-Lues Boliver Ba-Lues-Are”). You can almost imagine the spirit of Monk strutting around Reed’s piano.
Ted Rosenthal Trio: Rhapsody In Gershwin - A leading pianist and conceptual improviser ever since he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 1988 (judges included Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Sir Roland Hanna), Ted Rosenthal puts his own authentic spin on the most famous George Gershwin tunes ever composed.

With his simpatico trio mates, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner, Rosenthal gets right down to it on the 17-minute-plus “Rhapsody In Blue” with a focused intensity that organically shapes the composition’s movements into various rhythmic styles—swing, mambo, the blues. It’s a credit to his resourcefulness that it progresses smoothly and naturally.

"Ted Rosenthal puts his own authentic spin on the most famous George Gershwin tunes ever composed."

But it’s the tunes that follow that provide genuine pleasure since they’re familiar standards played with a percolating freshness. Rosenthal’s playful phrasing enlivens “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “Fascinating Rhythm” darts and dips at a thrilling clip, and even the pianist agrees that Bill Evans inspired his arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy.” Altogether it’s an album of sophisticated swing and sly, off-kilter “derangements” as Rosenthal calls his takes on “Strike Up The Band” and “Love Walked In.” Regardless, this cat and his band sure can swing.

Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band: Mother’s Touch: Posi-tone - Orrin Evans is a true jazz advocate. One of the busiest leaders on the scene with more than 20 solo albums in his discography along with countless sideman appearances, Evans has a second-to-none work ethic in and around New York as well as his hometown of Philadelphia. An industrious musician with an impetuous streak (despite recognizing the economies of scale, he stated that he “can’t stand the trio format” in a July 2012 Village Voice interview), Evans thinks bigger, refusing to see limitations in presenting jazz or performing it. Pairing once again with Posi-Tone Records, Evans’ sophomore studio recording of his Captain Black Big Band is a particularly satisfying album that challenges the status quo. Leading a big band within today’s economic realities seems to defy reason, but Mother’s Touch marks a magnificent return of the CBBB and it scores in every way imaginable.

The album maintains swing at its core, a kind of groove-oriented center that gives it ballast and flow. Evans uses horns as the band’s primary voice, but closer listening reveals that as the primary composer, the pianist takes advantage of a larger canvas to create earthy textures and a spectrum of brassy color. Threading a groove throughout, the recording is reminiscent of the big band recordings of McCoy Tyner—there’s a cinematic thrill in the way that the rhythm section pairs with the horns. Evans, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Anwar Marshall keep the music pulsating underneath surefire solos by Stacy Dillard and Marcus Strickland on both parts of the title track and again with tenorist Victor North on the gorgeous “Maestra.” First-rate drummer Ralph Peterson guests on “Explain It To Me,” a track with a swinging, churchy feel. Wholly modern and accessible, Mother’s Touch is among Evans’ finest recorded work. He maintains a decisive point of view (the tricky scales on “Prayer For Columbine” give it a meaningful heft) and that consistency makes Evans’ Captain Black Big Band the perfect introduction to his music.

The North: Slow Down (This Isn’t The Mainland) - The acoustic music made by the trio that call themselves The North is utterly compelling. It’s certainly classifiable as jazz, but taken as a whole these ten instrumental compositions unfold like a book of short stories, each track strumming an emotional thread until it concludes with a satisfying completeness. On Slow Down (This Isn’t The Mainland), nominal leader and French-born pianist Romain Collin joins with Hawaii-based friends, bassist Shawn Conley and drummer Abe Lagrimas, to explore tunes that teem with leisurely melodies, accessible rhythms and earthy beats with every member inserting subtle, virtuosic touches on six heartfelt originals and a tune each by Monk, Corea, Bob Dylan and Christina Courtin.

Engaging to its core, The North evoke places traveled like “Great Ocean Road,” a tune that takes flight on a double-time brush shuffle, or they tap into a chill vibe like the irresistible beat that hovers beneath the wistful title song. This modern jazz trio has an affecting vision that seduces with its ambling back-porch sound, ace talent and unpretentious charm, and it adds up to make Slow Down a rather spellbinding record.

Kris Bowers: Heroes + Misfits - Polished with a deliberative edginess, the promising young pianist Kris Bowers is full of surprises on his debut disc, Heroes + Misfits, an eclectic thrill ride through amped-up electronic keyboards, soaring saxophones and acoustic piano played over lush soundscapes. Bowers, who recently turned 25, is a Julliard graduate who won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 2011 where the judges included Herbie Hancock and Ellis Marsalis. With a diverse knowledge of music, he’s as comfortable playing piano as a featured member of jazz group, The Next Collective, as he is recording with Jay-Z and Kanye West (“No Church In The Wild” from 2011’s Watch The Throne). He’s toured with Marcus Miller and currently opening with his own band for singer José James on James’ national tour as well as playing keyboards in the vocalist’s band and records. As a film composer with a foot in Hollywood’s door, Bowers’ credits include the 2013 documentaries, Seed Of Time and Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

"...this crossroads where jazz meets pop is also where [Kris] Bowers embraces both."

Bowers’ compositions are replete with the unfiltered confidence that comes from youth and discipline. After a couple of spins, you get that it’s natural for Bowers to juxtapose synthesized whomp-whomp sonics against rock-infused guitar swells, and it’s a world with which he’s at ease. He forges his sound with ferocious beats and electro-percussion from drummer Jamire Williams and the deep, thumping pitch of bassist Burniss Earl Travis II. Bowers composed most of the ten tracks and collaborated on the others, every one of them strong and decisive, highlighted by sharp improvisations from saxophonists Casey Benjamin and Kenneth Whalum III.

It’s easy to get caught up with “Wake The Neighbors” a slick bounce tune that throbs with a righteous guitar hook supplied by Adam Agati, or the soaring multi-tracked vocals by Julia Easterlin on “Forget – Er,” a spiritualized hang-up on a romance gone sour. The vocalists come on strong midway through the recording (Chris Turner croons with conviction on “Wonderlove”) and this crossroads where jazz meets pop is also where Bowers embraces both.

While he’s pulling from every genre, Bowers is not shy about his roots, melding classical-tinged acoustic piano with blazing horns on the multi-faceted  “#The Protestor,” a provocative tour-de-force inspired by the uprisings staged around the world in 2011. As a keyboardist, he rules on the trip-hop jazz track “Vices and Virtues,” with a natural fluidity on the Fender Rhodes and captures a sound that’s uniquely modern yet retro. Of all the bands that shuffle jazz, soul and hip-hop into something potently consumable, Heroes + Misfits makes a persuasive case for Kris Bowers and his leader-of-the-pack sensibilities.

This article is from the May 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.