May 2024 Jazz Record Reviews

Rufus Reid and Caelan Cardello: Rufus Reid Presents Caelan Cardello
Liam Records ARF-1 (180gm LP). 2023. Michael Fremer, Robin Wyatt, exec. prods.; Duke Markos, eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics *****

The jazz piano world is filled with contenders these days, and Caelan Cardello is a name to watch.

This relaxed set, a duo with veteran bassist Rufus Reid, was impeccably recorded at 24/96 resolution at the small venue inside New York City's Klavierhaus, a piano restoration specialist business. The recording is unadulterated; according to the liner notes, engineer Markos only did "a bit of EQ and image placement tweaks" to the original digital files, with input from the great Joe Harley, who ably helms Blue Note's Tone Poet series. The lacquers were cut by Matthew Lutthans at The Mastering Lab, and the LPs were pressed at QRP.

The recording has a vital presence and a warm, appealing sound thanks in part to the now-retired Bob Ludwig, who chose this as one of his final projects to master for vinyl.

Reid is steady throughout, leaving lots of room for Cardello. As a player, Cardello is still young, yet to fully form. He is at his best here in a version of Cedar Walton's "Bolivia," where an upbeat Brazilian rhythm spurs him to scamper across the keys, at one point dropping in a quote from "The Girl From Ipanema." Also lively is a reading of Benny Golson's "Stablemates."

So far, Cardello is a pleasant, nostalgic pianist well-versed in jazz history. His choices could be more imaginative. His ideas do not explore much new ground. But then he is just starting out. The complexity will come.

One obvious drawback to this session, for me at least, is the lack of a drummer, the presence of which would have changed the dynamic. Tempos are much the same throughout. Reid is not a driver here; he stays in the background, allowing the pacing to linger.

A promising start to be sure, this beautiful-sounding set hints at an intriguing future for a talented player.—Robert Baird

Julie Kelly: Freedom Jazz Dance
Kelly, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano, keyboard; Larry Koonse, guitar; five others
Laurelwood LW3088 (auditioned as CD). 2024. Josh Nelson, Barbara Brighton, prods.; Talley Sherwood, Harriet Tam, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Talented jazz singers are never in short supply. The trick is to find one who moves you. Currently, two of the most acclaimed, Jazzmeia Horn and Samara Joy, possess extraordinary vocal instruments, but they sometimes seem more interested in displaying their chops than telling a story, much less breaking your heart.

Julie Kelly is none of the above. She is not new. She began performing in public in the 1970s. She is insufficiently acclaimed. She does not have a set of pipes that can blow the windows out of auditoriums. But she has the kind of voice you want to spend time with. It projects qualities that are in short supply, like personality and integrity.

You could enjoy such a voice singing any good song, but Kelly finds songs that sound meant for her. Sting's "Practical Arrangement" is a dry-eyed, unsentimental love song. "Sunday in New York," by Peter Nero and Carroll Coates, is one of the most joyful of the world's countless New York songs. Kelly's rejection of sentimentality makes her credible on the subject of joy.

Where Kelly truly shines is on relatively familiar material like Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." When you hear it interpreted by her lived-in, streetwise voice, you feel you finally understand the tune. Her mashup of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" and Bill Withers's "Hello Like Before" deepens both by making them one story. The songs by Lightfoot and Nelson and Withers demonstrate that Kelly is an artist with range: She can portray joy, but she can also render complex feelings like sadness tempered by irony and resignation.

This album has two other virtues: elegant arrangements by Josh Nelson and crystalline sound by Talley Sherwood and Harriet Tam.—Thomas Conrad

One For All: Big George
Eric Alexander, tenor & alto saxophones; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Steve Davis, trombone; David Hazeltine, piano, Fender Rhodes; John Webber, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; George Coleman, guest tenor saxophone
Smoke Sessions SSR-2401 (WAV, available as CD). 2024. Paul Stache, Damon Smith, prods.; Owen Mulholland, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Hard bop was born in the mid-1950s when bands like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers began to play a bluesier, funkier version of bebop. It was more explicit melodically yet more open-ended.

Hard bop still cuts a large swath through the jazz landscape. In the right hands, it never gets stale, because it allows for, and in fact stimulates, creative elaboration and individual expression.

Hard bop has been in the right hands for 27 years with the band that calls itself One for All (after the title of Art Blakey's last recording). On Big George, their 17th album, they announce themselves with a raucous summons, "Chainsaw." The solos are on-point and on fire. The group's pianist, David Hazeltine, has called the front line of Jim Rotondi, Eric Alexander, and Steve Davis "the best horn section currently, and ... one of the best in history." That is extravagant praise, but when you hear how these three nail tune after tune and how they keep one-upping each other on solos, it is hard to disagree. When they slow down for a ballad, like "The Nearness of You," you can feel the raw power they've held in reserve.

Big George is an atypical One for All record. It has a special guest. Sax player George Coleman, 87 years old and a hard bop legend, sits in on three tracks. Coleman entered jazz history in 1964, when he played on one of the greatest live jazz recordings of all time, Miles Davis's My Funny Valentine. The highlight of Big George is "My Foolish Heart," where he spills his guts and bares his soul. He calls up the song from within himself, in short bursts of passion, across intervals from keening cries to deep rasps. George Coleman endures.—Thomas Conrad

Archie Shepp: Derailleur
Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone), Arthur Harper (bass), Denis Charles (drums)
Triple Point TPR 311 (LP). 2024. Joe Lizzi, Ben Young, prods.; Art Crist, Paul Gold, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

It is hard to imagine, if you were not there, a now-legendary artist scuffling for work. After they've achieved it, it always seems like they were destined for greatness. Derailleur, an early recording by Archie Shepp, certainly makes it seem that way.

In spring 1964, when these tracks were laid down in Bell Sound Studios by early Savoy/ESP-Disk engineer Art Crist, Shepp was hardly unknown; he had already spent a couple of years with Cecil Taylor, had a shared Savoy date with Bill Dixon, and played with the seminal avant-garde ensemble the New York Contemporary Five. But he did not have that elusive record deal, and Impulse head Bob Thiele was not returning his calls. Thanks to an assist from John Coltrane, by that summer, Shepp was making the first of many albums for Impulse!.

Heard here with Shepp are trombonist Roswell Rudd, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, drummer Denis Charles, and bassist Arthur Harper. The music includes two Shepp pieces not heard elsewhere and "Sophisticated Lady," the first of many times Shepp would record the Duke Ellington classic. Those tracks take up the A side; the flip is breakdowns and alternate takes. Included with the LP (mastered by Triple Point's Joe Lizzi and Ben Young, lacquer cut by Paul Gold) is an insert with a fascinating historical survey by Young, one of the premier historians in jazz.

This is a demo, not intended for public airing, but it is professionally recorded (in mono), and Shepp sounds fully formed as a player and as a composer, especially on his "Viva Jomo." Lacy's playing is revelatory; somehow he makes his soprano sound like a flute. Furthermore, this sounds like a working band, listening to each other and playing together.—Andrey Henkin

Chris Potter: Eagle's Point
Potter, saxophones, bass clarinet; three others
Edition EDN1237 (24/96 WAV, available as CD, LP). 2024. Potter, prod.; John Davis, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Chris Potter is one of the elite tenor saxophone players in jazz. He associates with the best people. But even for him, the personnel list on his new album pops off the page. How's this for a rhythm section: pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade.

Supergroups, which rarely spend a lot of time together, don't always make super albums. But Potter's sidemen are extraordinary. On "Other Plans," his piano player establishes an encompassing atmosphere with just a few chords (and the spaces between them). When his bassist is asked to introduce the plaintive melody, he makes it sing.

As for Potter, he responds to this rarefied level of support with work of luminous inspiration and superlative technical execution. The prevailing mood of this music is reflective. But if the tempos of "Málaga Moon" and "Dream of Home" and the title track are medium, their concentrated intensity is not. Potter sounds like he pushes himself to his creative edge on every song. His solos are treatises of thematic elaboration, proclaimed in his clarion tenor saxophone tone. The only true ballad is "Aria for Anna." Potter (on soprano saxophone) and Mehldau release their closely held passion and let it flow freely and flower as lyricism.

This excellent album succumbs to the current fashion in jazz that prioritizes original composition. Potter is a much better player than composer. His pieces are always intelligent, and some, like "Other Plans," have nice melodies. But on Eagle's Point, he could not see his way clear to offer even one standard. It would have been fascinating to hear these four brilliant voices engage with some songs we know. And a newly assembled band, even one this good, might benefit from the secure footing of familiar material.—Thomas Conrad