February 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

March 10, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

Scenes: Variable Clouds

Rick Mandyck, tenor saxophone; John Stowell, guitar; Jeff Johnson, bass; John Bishop, drums

Origin 82862 (CD, also download). 2022. Bishop, Johnson, Stowell, prods.; Dave Dysart, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

If these four guys are not the best players in the Pacific Northwest on their respective instruments, they are all on very short lists. Scenes has made eight albums in the last 20 years. It was reduced to a trio, and remained so for most of its history, when one charter member, Rick Mandyck, had to take a 15-year break from playing the tenor saxophone due to health issues.

The news about Variable Clouds is that Mandyck is back playing tenor—clarion, powerful, thrilling tenor. He announces his return on the opening track here, his own “Tilbury Hill.” His sound is commanding but never harsh even when he executes his signature intervals, leaping from lower register blasts to plaintive treble cries.

There are seven nice originals, but the two best tracks are standards. On “It’s Easy to Remember,” by Rodgers and Hart, Mandyck reveals that he is a closet romanticist. He marks out the melody with surpassing tenderness. John Stowell deepens the song’s atmosphere with warm, glowing chords and flowing counterlines. Mandyck’s aggression and Stowell’s lyrical sensitivity create an intriguing aesthetic tension. Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai To” derives from a Native American funeral chant. Scenes slowly, inexorably builds it into a hypnotic ritual with passionate calls from Mandyck at the end.

Jeff Johnson’s poetic bass solos make you think of Scott LaFaro. John Bishop, in his unobtrusive precision, makes you think of Lewis Nash. All Bishop does is swing his ass off.

This album was recorded live at Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival in 2021, in a medium-size venue. Engineer Dave Dysart comes in close for a vivid, visceral rendering of the four instruments and also uses room mikes for what he calls “a little glue and a sense of the space.”—Thomas Conrad

Owen Broder: Hodges: Front and Center, Vol.1

Broder, alto and baritone saxophones; Riley Mulherkar, trumpet; Carmen Staaf, piano; Barry Stephenson, bass; Bryan Carter, drums

Outside In OiM 2224L (24/96 stream, available as LP). 2022. Broder, prod.; Aaron Neveezie, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

It is highly desirable, but rarely possible, for a critic to hear a band live, performing a new record, right before reviewing it. This time the stars aligned. Owen Broder played songs from Hodges: Front and Center at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in November 2022. Work on this review began right after.

Johnny Hodges was an alto saxophonist whose resplendent, singing sound was indispensable to Duke Ellington’s orchestra from 1928 to 1970. Broder reveres him. Not surprisingly, his tribute album is tighter, more concise, more “on message” than the live gig. In its optimistic bounce, it sometimes sounds quaint, especially in the work of pianist Carmen Staaf and trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, who always stay in character.

Broder, as arranger and principal soloist, keeps this session on a fine line that is essential for such projects: a line between honoring past greatness and infusing a contemporary perspective. His impeccable charts are faithful to the originals in their snappy calls and responses and their orderly riffs. But they are full of fresh touches. For example, Broder reimagines “Take the A Train,” Ellington’s theme song, using only fragments from the famous melody. Then, at the end, the band plays all of it—almost casually.

When Broder solos, there are always moments when he channels his subject. It is fun to be reminded of Hodges’s bright trills and lilting glissandi. But Broder always moves on, to make his own statements. He is a formidable alto saxophonist, but on Billy Strayhorn’s aching lament, “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” he switches to baritone, on which he is fully capable of portraying shameless emotional vulnerability.—Thomas Conrad

Ahmad Jamal: Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1965–1966

Ahmad Jamal, piano; Jamil Nasser, bass; Chuck Lampkin, Vernel Fournier, Frank Gant, drums

Jazz Detective DDJD-005 (2 CDs; also download, LP). 2022. Zev Feldman, prod.; Jim Wilke, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ***½

Zev Feldman is building an archival jazz empire. The new Jazz Detective is his fourth historical label. This two-disc set, from 1965 and 1966, like many of Feldman’s projects, comes from a gigantic stash of tapes recorded by disc jockey Jim Wilke at the Penthouse. Between 1962 and 1968, it was Seattle’s premier jazz club.

Full disclosure: I was there. Well, almost. In 1967, I saw Ahmad Jamal at the Penthouse with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant, the rhythm section on the 1966 tapes.

In 1958, Jamal’s At the Pershing had been a huge hit. I owned the LP. Everyone did. It had sold 450,000 copies its first month. I remember that at the Penthouse I was puzzled, because the music was different from the Jamal I knew. On his early records, he had formed his own distinct style. His signature mannerisms were captivating: tinkling, tension-building right-hand runs; internal riffs; tags; cunning vamps. His tight little arrangements told complete stories in three minutes.

Listening now to Emerald City Nights, I realize that the developments I heard in Jamal’s music at the Penthouse were incremental, logical, and fascinating. He had opened up his art, enlarged it, given it new scale and impact. In 1958, when he portrayed “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” it took four minutes. By 1965, the song is 15 minutes of extravagant digressions and addenda. On Anthony Newley’s “My First Love Song,” every statement of the melody provokes lavish decoration, for 10 minutes. On “Poinciana,” essentially Jamal’s theme song, he hits the groove hard for 9 minutes.

These nine tracks from four nights long ago bring back for me how exciting it was to experience Jamal in person in his prime. Too bad you weren’t there. I was. Almost.—Thomas Conrad

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