Listener's Notes - From the CD Stack: Bad Plus, Jazz Folk, Monheit, Degibri, Lee

     We pull a few more CD's than usual from the stack this week, just because material has been piling up as a result of the excellent response to the reboot/return of Passing Notes.  Many days, the mailbox is full, and there's much music to listen to and many books to read.  I will almost always try to write a little -- if not a lot -- about the things I like, and leave the uninteresting stuff (mostly) to silence.

     Maybe the novelty of their sound has worn off a little, but the latest release from The Bad Plus, Never Stop left me frustrated at times, as much as I enjoyed hearing new tunes from the progressive group.  Something seemed unfamiliar about this CD.  In fact, all the tunes on the album are Bad Plus originals, so Never Stop marks a departure from the band's tried and true formula.  What is lost -- those memorably clever, hook-driven covers ("Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Iron Man," "Tom Sawyer") -- no longer overshadow the interesting writing the group had been doing all along. And those who asked that seemingly all-important genre question (Is it jazz-rock or rock-jazz?) can now simply understand that The Bad Plus is a piano trio that plays damn fascinating music of their own design.  Highlights of Never Stop are the tumbling, crashing opener, "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart," which closes with a lovely, infectious groove, and "You Are," a dramatic, evolving piece that offers surprises every sixteen bars.  Never stop moving forward, indeed.

     For listeners who might want something of a throwback to the old Bad Plus -- and then some -- there's this release from Jazz Folk, Jazz in the Stone Age.  Recorded and packaged in a decidedly low-tech idiom, bassist Peter Scherr, drummer Simon Barker, and pianist Matt McMahon pound out a pleasant mix of covers from Taj Mahal, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Hunter/Garcia, and Beck.  Recorded, mixed, and with liner notes from Scherr all the way from Hong Kong.  Jazz Folk manage, on each song, to pick a particular texture and stay with it, whether it's blues ("Corinna"), jazz ("That Song About the Midway"), or ballads ("To Lay Me Down").  The most remarkable tunes are a version of Reed's "All Tomorrow's Parties," which quickly rises to a loud, driving march and never lets up and the closer, a cover of Beck's "Cold Brains," clattering up from the world of lo-fi, widens into some lovely overdriven piano work, and then disassembles itself.  There's a vision to this release that I see more and more clearly each time I listen.  I'm going back to the stone age, and I think I like it there.  They have good jazz.

     For the more refined and (perhaps) better groomed among us, the new album from Jane Monheit, Home, is a delightful, comfortable collection of jazz standards from the likes of Rodgers & Hart, Schwartz & Deitz, and other notable pairs of names joined by an ampersand.  Perhaps the album could have been called Jane Monheit: Ampersand.  All cleverness aside, this is a great album of slightly off-the-beaten-path standards featuring Monheit's charming, lush voice backed by her usual expert band and a superb guest cast (Pizarelli, Vignola, Magnarelli, among others -- Ciao!).  Particularly appealing is the menacingly sexy "Everything I've Got Belongs To You," and the album's opener, "Shine On Your Shoes," which will encourage much skipping and swinging on lampposts.  Irresistible.  You'll want to take Jane and her new CD home in your pocket to meet the folks.

Anzic records took great care to surround saxophonist Eli Degibri with a first-rate ensemble on Israeli Song. Both drummer Al Foster and bassist Ron Carter have mentored Degibri over the years, and pianist Brad Mehldau commands almost as much respect for his intellect and writing as he does for his musicianship.  Degibri is a wonderful saxophonist who has worked with first rate groups all over the world since graduating from Berklee and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and going directly into Herbie Hancock's group.  Every song on the album is balanced and thoughtfully played, and although Mehldau seems at times like he might overwhelm the proceedings, Degibri shifts gears often and with enough confidence and presence to stay in command the whole time.  I enjoyed most of all a wonderful duet between Degibri and Carter on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," where the tenor holds back to let his former teacher's amazing playing share the song.  The title song, a soaring duet with Mehldau, in the end has the reed player and the keyboardist on equal footing.  In the end, Israeli Song sounds very much like the work of a mature musician among equals.

Finishing up the listening for this week is a notable set of compositions from bassist Scott Lee: Leaving.  Playing with old friends Billy Drewes on on reeds, Jeff Hirshfield on drums, and Gary Versace on piano, Lee's group's approach to improvising on his tunes goes a bit beyond the eight-bars-at-a-time approach.  Instead, they might lock in to a few bars in a song for an extended vamp, or the drummer might choose to change time signatures within a solo.  At the start, Lee's compositions start in familiar places, but travel in unexpected directions, although the band's been playing together for so long that they never seem to go too far out of earshot.  The best example of this occurs on "Old Friends Talking," which is an entirely free improvisation between Lee and Drewes, and makes for a simply lovely exploration of the full range of tones and effects from their respective instruments.

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