Album Review: “Love Stories” by Russell Gunn

love-stories1In the first of what hopefully is many Groove Notes “audio blogs” KPLU jazz host Robin LLoyd was asked “Who in jazz is doing it right these days?” Her response was trumpeter Russell Gunn (hear the whole audio blog at here).

This was certainly an answer I found easy to agree with, since I still consider myself a young trumpet player (even though it has been a while since I’ve picked up the horn, and I seem to be getting less young every day).

I’ve always found the recordings of Russell Gunn inventive, and his covers of older recordings are always very distinctly “Russell Gunn-ish”.

Love Stories, released in September of 2008, is far from the exception. In fact, it may become the prime example of how inventive and creative Gunn really is.

I should start by saying that Gunn refers to Love Stories as a hip-hop record. If that frightens you, don’t let it. I for one typically dislike what often seems a forced combination of modern beats mixed with jazz, especially if the goal of the record is simply to try and modernize jazz. Gunn doesn’t appear to be out on a mission to create a modern revolution, but instead to create sounds and songs that are enjoyable and follow a theme that doesn’t age: love.

The whole album follows the theme of love, as the title might suggest, touching that theme in a variety of ways. This is highlighted right off the bat with a tune called Love Requiem, a tune from one of Gunn’s previous releases, although it has been completely transformed. This transformation no doubt follows the transformation of the marriage Gunn was in, and as Gunn puts it “started my whole love-hate relationship with love in the first place”.

Gunn also touches on the kind of “love” found by some with a “weaker mind” by arranging a version of rapper T-Pain’s song I’m In Love with a Stripper.

The highlight of the album to me is a song called B***h, You Don’t Love Me. The changes are based on the changes to St. James Infirmary, and offers wonderful trumpet, sax, and piano solos on top of a beat that even the purest jazz fans might enjoy…might.

Sax men Brian Hogans (who Gunn suggests will be a top ten player), and Kirk Whalum offer two different attitudes, but both bring the type of energy and soloing that Russell Gunn would demand on an album of this nature.

While the debate over whether or not hip-hop and jazz might continue, please don’t let the thought of that mix, or the titles of the songs, scare you away from checking out this album. In fact, I would go so far to say that this album is the prototype of how the blend of pre-programmed sounds and sampling and acoustic sounds should be mixed.

Love Stories – Released September 9, 2008 on High Note Records

Russell Gunn – Trumpet, Keyboards, Drum Programming

Kirk Whalum – Tenor Saxophone

Mike Scott – Guitar

Montez Coleman – Drums

Orrin Evans – Piano, Keyboards

Carlos Henderson – Bass Guitar

Heidi Martin – Vocals

Brian Hogans – Alto Saxophone

Khalil Kwame Bell – Percussion

Groove Notes Album Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Concert Review: Joshua Redman at Jazz Alley 4/9/09

redmanI often make mention that I find tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman the coolest man holding a saxophone these days. Each time our paths cross, I am not only reminded why, but his “coolness” factor only seems to grow exponentially.

Redman was in the same setting as the last time I saw him…just him, bass, and drums. Gregory Hutchinson joined him this time on drums, while Matt Penman played bass.

The band crept on stage behind me while I introduced them, and then Joshua Redman pretended to count off the first tune while I was still talking. I looked over at him, as he smiled wryly as if to suggest humor, but also  quite possibly a reminder that perhaps the audience was there to listen to him play, not to hear me talk. Mixing that thought with my my lack of comfort with standing in front of large crowds, I shortened my introduction and let the audience hear what they payed for.

There is not much debate going into a Joshua Redman concert that it is going to be good. But what surprised me, to a degree, was how artistic not only his playing was, but his new compositions as well.

Redman’s new album is titled Compass, which is worthy of a wonderful review on its own, and many of the songs performed that night were off the new release.

This is not to say that Joshua was not previously artistic, because he was, both live and on recordings. However his performance this time around just seemed to have an additional level of artistry and emotion that I had not previously heard from Redman. Three tunes in particular (Identity Thief, Ghost, and Insomnomaniac) were highlights of this artistry. The trio was in perfect sync, and drummer Hutchinson put it best as he addressed the crowd at the end of a drum solo by saying: “This isn’t exactly what you thought you would hear when you showed up tonight, is it?”

It was, and it wasn’t, but it was all good. It is always wonderful to see one of your favorite artists playing well, but even more exciting to see that they haven’t come close to hitting their ceiling.

Between shows I stuck my head in the dressing room, unsure if I would be bothering the Harvard graduate by saying hello, or if he would even remember me from the other times we had met outside of tonight. He did, asked how I was doing, what I was up to these days, and told me to say hello to my Program Director, who he mentioned by name. That, combined with his performance, completely added to his cool factor. Frankly I hate the word “cool”, but it most certainly should be used to describe someone who defines it.

Concert Review: Branford Marsalis 3/19/09 at Jazz Alley

branford-marsalis1It is rare that I take a vacation, especially a vacation that lasts longer than just a long weekend. For me to have a full week off is virtually unheard of. That being said, I decided that since I was going to take a week of, but was not going to leave town, I needed to make the most of it and fill my days to the brim with local entertainment.

What I began to realize is that sometimes the best form of entertainment during a much needed break can be going to bed early and waking up late. Hosting a midnight to 4 AM radio program combined with a variety of other work responsibilities doesn’t always allow for a normal sleep schedule, so I decided to take more time to find out what that was all about and less time seeking out things to do in the community.

One plan that I wasn’t about to give up in exchange for an early bedtime was emceeing opening night for Branford Marsalis at Jazz Alley in Seattle last Thursday. The only other time that I have seen him live was the last time he performed at the Alley, with his father Ellis playing piano as part of his quartet. While it was nice to see dad join the group, it was rumored that Branford had to hold his playing back a little bit with Ellis, and I definitely wanted to see Branford cut loose with his regular group.

His regular group has not changed over the last ten years, at least on his album recordings. Branford heads up the gang on saxes, while Joey Calderazzo plays piano, Eric Revis is on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Tain was not present for the concert, but in his place was a baby-faced eighteen year old by the name of Justin Faulkner. In fact it was his eighteenth birthday that night.

If it appeared that Marsalis was picking on Faulkner that night (be it yelling direction in his ear, or making fun of how Faulkner couldn’t play the next song two years ago and we would “see if he could get it right this time”), I didn’t translate it as so. In fact to me it appeared that Branford just wanted to make sure that, in a roundabout way, he was recognized and noticed. It certainly wasn’t needed. While Faulkner wasn’t the best musician in the band, he was certainly a highlight, offering colorful solos and entertaining playing overall.

Marsalis, Revis, and Calderazzo, as you might expect after ten years together, were in perfect sync, and the quartet as a whole kept the room energized for the entire show. Marsalis was articulate and artistic with his solos, but with the exception of directing traffic on stage, he didn’t overshadow any of his quartet members. One could be totally entertained simply watching Joey Calderazzo’s body language on stage, if it weren’t for his overwhelming playing ability. It is also apparent that Calderazzo has taken an active interest in studying classical music, as some of his beautiful ballad writing (take The Blossom of Parting for example) might suggest.

Even without “Tain” Watts, the quartet was evidence of what spending such a considerable amount of time together could produce. The ability to have such a clear understanding of where each musician is headed and how to best support them through sometimes complicated songs, while producing such a wonderful, “together” sound is reason why this quartet might be the best around.

Where is Norah Jones?

norah-jonesThe simple answer: Everywhere…still.

I started to wonder if Norah had finally slipped off the map a little bit since I hadn’t seen any new music cross my desk, and I hadn’t heard of any new tour dates. As it turns out, I just hadn’t been paying very close attention…at all.

It might be as fair (or unfair) to call Norah Jones a jazz musician as it would be to call Ray Charles one. While both certainly recorded jazz, and did it well, there is a immense amount of versatility they both possess/possessed that keep them far from being labeled simply as jazz musicians. Ray could rock, play country, and team up with just about anyone for any project in any genre. Norah is, and has been doing exactly that.

And it was likely her versatility that kept me from realizing she was doing so much. When you write a blog about jazz, you focus on just that – jazz – and can lose sight of what talented musicians who play jazz might be doing otherwise.

While Norah and her website does not offer a tour schedule with any scheduled dates, that does not mean she is not performing live. On Valentine’s Day, Norah performed as part of the trio Puss n’ Boots as an opening act for former Band drummer Levon Helms and his band. The night before, she performed at the intimate Black Swan in Tivoli with three other women. The Tuesday before that, Jones was on stage at in New York with Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson performing a version of You Are My Sunshine…with a Latin feel.

Norah’s versatility doesn’t stop at live performances. In fact there are few projects that Norah Jones gets involved with in any way that doesn’t top the charts or bring home Grammy awards. Aside from winning five Grammy awards for her first big album Come Away With Me, she has contributed to award winning projects like the Ray Charles album Genius Loves Company, Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, and even a brief participation on the Grammy winning album Speakerboxx/The Love Below, by rap duo Outkast.

Other recent projects include a new DVD and vinyl release, containing 18 songs she performed as part of her involvement with the television series Austin City Limits, vocal work on the first solo release in nine years from hip-hop artist Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest), and involvement with a new release called Incredibad from Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Oh, and she had a lead role, as an actress, in a recent film called My Blueberry Nights. She also recorded for the soundtrack.

While many jazz purists might not appreciate all of the work Norah Jones does outside of jazz, it is hard to not appreciate her versatility. Ray Charles wouldn’t have been Ray Charles if he had spent all of his time trying to sound like Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, and Norah wouldn’t be Norah if she limited herself to jazz music. And at the very least, jazz fans can be thankful for her. While large record companies have had to cut back on signing jazz musicians, Blue Note Records has not, and continues to turn a profit as they celebrate their 70th year, due in large part to the 35 million copies that Norah Jones has sold over the past five years.

Watch Norah Jones perform the Ray Charles hit Drown in My Own Tears:

Portland Jazz Festival Escape – 2009 Review

Our 5th Annual trip to the Portland Jazz Festival – the KPLU Portland Jazz Festival Escape – was a big success. KPLU’s Promotions Director Brenda Goldstein and myself made the trip on the Amtrak Cascades with more than 70 KPLU listeners and had a wonderful time. Before I go into the details – if you haven’t taken the Escape with us before, do it!

The train to Portland featured a kindly Russian immigrant who kept us laughing with his intercom reminders about everything from Amtrak etiquette (don’t jump off the train when it’s moving) to important legal requirements (you can drink wine, you can bring wine, but you can’t drink the wine you bring – much funnier with a Russian accent).

We had a terrific time talking with listeners at our pre-dinner reception atop the Hilton in Portland – what a view! I’m always happy to see familiar faces, about half of our travelers seemed to be return visitors, and thrilled to see such a wide variety of KPLU’s listenership in attendance. It’s not just about Seattle or Tacoma or the Major Donors when we “Take the Abe Train.” Many of the listeners were from Canada or Bellingham or Olympia and even one fan from Colorado – and ranging in age from 20’s to 70’s. Most aren’t what we might term “jazz geeks”, they’re just along for a good time, some great jazz, great company and tax-free shopping in beautiful Portland.

The first show was, I think, the highlight of the first weekend. Dianne Reeves sang with her trio and the Oregon Symphony. What I feared would be schmaltzy was swinging and super cool. Dianne is one of the top 2 or 3 singers in jazz today and she’s on top of her game (catch her at the upcoming Bellevue Jazz Festival in May!). She even SANG some band introductions and scatted her way elegantly off stage, without microphone, after her encore. Her love of Sarah Vaughan was in full effect and kept all of us in a romantic Valentine’s Day mood.

A couple listeners chose to get tickets to see guitarist John Scofield’s show later that night and their reviews were expectedly positive. He’s a groovy guy and easily likeable, playing in a trio with Matt Penman on bass and Bill Stewart drumming. They were joined on a few songs by saxophonist Joe Lovano, who played several times over the weekend. A handful of listeners chose the free show at the Art Bar featuring legendary pianist Dave Frishberg in a trio that didn’t feature his iconic vocals, to more positive reviews.

Sunday had us gathered back at the lovely Arlene Schnitzer Auditorium for a pair of shows. We saw the amazingly talented clarinet and sax player Don Byron with his Ivey Divey Trio – piano & drums – and while some songs were a bit on the avant garde side of jazz, his humor and pure chops had us all impressed.

After a short intermission, headlining pianist McCoy Tyner brought a quartet to the stage, including the sax great Joe Lovano plus bass & drums. There were some technical difficulties – the piano seemed too quiet and Lovano’s sax mic didn’t even seem to be working for the first 3 or 4 songs – but because of our great seats we could at least hear what was happening on stage. Unfortunately, Tyner’s drummer couldn’t hold a candle to the other drummers we’d seen. He seemed to think volume made up for lack of talent – too loud, man! I’d have hated to be his parents while he was learning drums as a kid. Eventually, the sound improved and we were treated to some outstanding playing, including Tyner’s piano quoting from a pair of Coltrane classics in the encore song.

Listeners had a wide range of options if they wanted to catch more jazz Sunday night. Many from our crown caught Portland drummer Ron Steen’s jam at Clyde’s Steak House, where a number of local and touring musicians stopped in to play – review: great jazz by some “new” faces in a great atmosphere. Others went to see guitarist Lionel Loueke’s show in the Hilton Ballroom. The overwhelming response from our gang was that the opening singer, Joe Lovano’s wife Judy Silvano, was hard to listen to – some of the audience walked out! – but that Loueke’s set was beautiful, if not strictly jazz. Finally, a few from our crew joined the youth crowd at the Greyboy All-Stars show that night at the amazing Crystal Ballroom. The dance floor is built on tires, making for a perfect spot to hear this modern soul-jazz group.

The weather was great for Portland in February, just a touch of rain Sunday morning with partly sunny skies and around 50 degrees the rest of our stay. The Hilton in Portland was a great hotel, the train was terrific, and the listeners priceless. I had so many conversations with people so obviously enamoured with what we do at KPLU, it gives me renewed energy to keep bringing great radio to all of our listeners around the Northwest and the world. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect face to face with so many KPLU listeners and hear about their compliments and concerns, building a closer relationship with people who consider our station a vital part of their lives.

For the final weekend of the festival ( singer Cassandra Wilson’s show was canceled, but stellar musicians like pianist/singer Patricia Barber, pianist Aaron Parks, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, guitarist Pat Martino and singer Kurt Elling – doing a Coltrane/Hartman tribute with Ernie Watts! – close out this year’s festivities in fine style.

The Portland Jazz Festival almost didn’t happen this year, Alaska Airlines stepped in with critical sponsorship support at the last minute, so I’m hopeful they keep it going so we can be there again next year!

Your purser & baggage handler,

Abe Beeson (KPLU Evening Jazz/Jazz 24 host)

Dianne Reeves' latest album When You Know
Listeners from B.C. Jane Whiteley & Hugh Jones on the Jazz Train
Listeners from B.C. Jane Whiteley & Hugh Jones on the Jazz Train
(L to R) Jeff & Gretchen Coulter, Kevin Nielsen & Cathy McDonald talking jazz in Portland
(L to R) Jeff and Gretchen Coulter, Kevin Nielsen and Cathy McDonald - talking jazz in Portland