May Jazz Review Roundup

Dheepa Chari: Some New Fashion (Dheepa Chari)

A young New York singer releasing her first full-length (after an EP I haven't heard), Chari is part of the new breed of jazzers who are looking beyond standards for their repertoire. Not that other jazzers haven't already covered the Beatles (she sings "Here, There, and Everywhere") or Billy Joel (in my youth I heard Count Basie play "Just the Way You Are," which not only closes this album but also gives it its title), but I bet she's the first to take on Depeche Mode's "World in My Eyes" and Linkin Park's "Shadow of the Day." The funny thing is, as much as I was ready to look down my nose on the latter choice, it works beautifully, thanks not only to her vocal delivery but to Vikas Hebbar's lovely arrangement, which features violin and muted trumpet.

The majority of the song choices will be less shocking to jazz sensibilities, as she has interesting taste in standards: not only the usual suspects -- "Night and Day," "Sophisticated Lady," "Skylark," Old Devil Moon" -- but also less common choices: "Black Orpheus" and, especially, Duke Ellington's blues "Rocks in My Bed." Her backing band's good as well, with -- as already noted -- more than the expected piano trio backing. I'd like a little more world-weariness (or psychological depth) on some numbers, notably "Sophisticated Lady," but that will come with maturity. She's beyond promising; she's already good and seems likely to get even better.

Ms. Chari will be performing at Rockwood Music Hall on Sunday, May 27, at 5pm.

Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (ACT)

Speaking of jazzers playing unexpected covers, Iyer plays material by electronica artist Flying Lotus and '70s R&B band Heatwave. Miles Davis beat him to "Human Nature," but Iyer makes it more intricate. Even the jazz rep here is unexpected, drawing on Henry Threadgill and the rarely covered Ellington tune "The Village of the Virgins"). And while a few aficionados are into the Herbie Nichols revival, his "Wildflower" is hardly standard.

The other five tracks are Iyer compositions, always welcome; he's managed to create a distinctive new style that merges the harmonies of modal jazz with the hypnotic pulse of electronica (perhaps via Minimalism) and the melodicism of indie rock. He's one of the most interesting pianists of his generation, working within a trio that's honed its interactions for years; Stephan Crump is one of the best arco jazz bassists around, and Marcus Gilmore makes tricky rhythms sound funky. This is a must-own album.

Roberto Magris Trio: One Night in with Hope and More…vol. 1 (J-Mood)

There is one standard here, Rodgers & Hart's "My Heart Stood Still," but the rest is a tribute to true jazz composers: Tadd Dameron, Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill, and especially Elmo Hope (his "Happy Hour" and Magris's own "Elmo's Delight") and Mal Waldron, the only composer with two pieces here, "Autumn Dreams" and "Fire Waltz." Magris is relatively little-known in the U.S., but he's one of the best Italian jazz pianists; his playing here is a tad more accessible than on albums of his own music, more lyrical, more bebop-oriented whether swinging hard or mellowing out in a Latin style or playing a ballad gently.

Magris has a jazz giant as a collaborator here: the drummer is Albert "Tootie" Heath, who unlike many drummers, even very good ones, never falls into strict patterns. One could spend the entire length of the album focusing entirely on how Heath varies the rhythm constantly, never exactly repeating himself from one measure to the next. I haven't heard of bassist Elisa Pruett before, but she lays down a solid, undemonstrative bottom. This is not the best introduction to Magris's style, but it's the easiest, and an excellent album by any standard.

Conrad Herwig/Richie Beirach/Jack DeJohnette: The Tip of the Sword (RadJazz)

This 1994 session seeing its first release is not what we're used to from trombonist/leader Herwig, who lately is usually, as his PR puts it, "'Latinizing'...classic compositions of jazz greats." Here, by welcome contrast, we have all original compositions and freewheeling improvisations in the company of two masters, pianist Beirach and drummer DeJohnette, leaders in their own right. The theme is Taoism, with each track title linked to a quote from Zuangzi (369-286 BC).

Paradoxically, two styles alternate: roiling, uptempo tracks propelled by DeJohnette's polyrhythms and spotlighting Herwig's agility, or contemplative tunes which correspondingly place Herwig's compositional prowess ("Moonlight on the Water/Rebirth" deserves to become a standard) and rich tone to the fore and highlight Beirach's pastel tints -- until "Being/Non-Being" closes the album by using both styles. While this is not free jazz, the tracks are very advanced harmonically, so while it's not quite "anything goes," it's highly unpredictable and unsettled, hence stimulating and exciting. (It's also available exclusively through Herwig's website, which is where the above link will take you.)

In the category of "better late than never," a review I should have written three years ago:

David "Fathead" Newman: The Blessing (HighNote)

This was Newman's last recording session, five weeks before he died of complications from pancreatic cancer. Many albums made under such circumstances have a special aura, and with its program including "Someone to Watch Over Me," "As Time Goes By," pianist David Leonhardt's "Whispers of Contentment," and Newman's title track (a delightfully upbeat album-closer on which he plays flute), this is one of them.

Most of all, though, it's good jazz with a superb backing group: vibraphonist Steve Nelson, Leonhardt, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist John Menagon, and drummer Yoron Israel. It's a mellower album than Newman's norm (not that he wasn't always versatile, and not that there aren't some uptempo tracks showing off his bebop chops on tenor sax), but if age and illness had damped his youthful fire, the compensation is a gloriously smoky, breathy timbre on the ballads a la Ben Webster (we're not talking about anything even close to the level of Billie Holiday croaking her way through her last albums). Anyone coming to this album with no knowledge of the circumstances would find nothing to complain about; no allowances need to be made. From his days with Ray Charles all the way to this final session, Newman was a master. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His newly recorded song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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