Album Reviews: Six New Jazz Albums

Ignacio Berroa Trio – Straight Ahead from Havana (Codes Drum Music)
Cuba has a long, storied and proud history of jazz. But owing to the U.S. Government’s half-century-long embargo on all things Cuban, few Americans know much about it. The doors were opened less than a year ago when President Obama relaxed some – but by no means all – of the restrictions regarding travel to and in Cuba by American nationals. The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – who does not deserve the dignity of having his name printed (but oh, does he love to hear and see his name) – arbitrarily reversed those rules, citing as his justification the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As consolation, we have this new collection by Cuban-born drummer Ignacio Berroa, who explores the many facets of Cuban jazz in highly appealing form. Until the U.S. comes to its collective senses and kicks the Orange One to the curb (or better yet, Guantanamo Bay), this set of ten immortal Cuban tunes interpreted by the former Dizzy Gillespie sideman will do quite nicely.

B.J. Jansen – Common Ground (Ronin Jazz)
It’s a neat trick to make something new while conjuring the aesthetic of something old. But (a) that’s what is expected of jazz players of a certain stripe, and happily (b) that’s what baritone saxophonist B.J. Jansen has taken on as his mission. And with Common Ground, he succeeds. Joined by five musical heavyweights, Jansen tears through a dozen tunes – mostly originals – that evoke warm memories of hard bop, West coast cool and other classic jazz styles. Recommended.

Dave Liebman / Joe Lovano – Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane (Resonance Records)
To note that NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman(tenor and soprano sax, recorder, flute) and Joe Lovano (tenor sax, clarinet, flute, etc.) are established artists is to engage in laughable understatement. But for this new set, the two men set aside their own material and focus instead on the music of Coltrane. Aided by a trio, they tear through six tracks. In the process they succeed both at making the songs their own and remaining true to Trane’s spirit. From thrilling to adventurous to soothing, Lovano, Liebman and band strike all the right notes.

Microscopic Septet – Been Up So Long it Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues (Cuneiform)
This New York outfit’s ethos is expressed by soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston’s slogan, “Break all the rules and respect all the saints.” That’s as good an aphorism as any for soul – or blues-jazz. And that’s what’s on offer here: not so much of the odd meters and such; more of the blues-based approach to jazz that keeps one foot in melodic accessibility and another stretched into adventurous territory. And – unlike some of the more “serious” jazz out there – it’s fun.

The Ed Palermo Big Band – The Great Un-American Songbook: Vol. I & II (Cuneiform)
With a style best described as big band fusion/pop, here the Ed Palermo Big Band plays big-group jazzy interpretations of songs more often associated with progressive and/or psychedelic rock. With former Frank Zappa associate Napoleon Murphy Brock fronting the nearly 20-person ensemble, the works of (to name just a few) King Crimson, the Beatles, Traffic, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Radiohead and Jethro Tull are reinvented with a varying (but generally high) degree of success. Who – beyond prog fans and those who appreciate Zappa-style weirdness – will enjoy much less even know about this release remains to be seen, but for those who take the time to discover it, The Great Un-American Songbook is rich with delights. Bring on future volumes, please.

Christian Sands – Reach (Mack Avenue)
Sands’ deft touch on the piano is a thing to behold. His lengthy melodic lines demand a good deal from the listener; his ambitious approach all but requires close attention. Backed by supremely tight and creative rhythm sections, he expresses all range of emotion in his eight original (and two cover) pieces. The covers are interesting, too: Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is reinvented to the point of being nearly unrecognizable, but Sands’ reading still conveys the original’s vibe. Some tasty (and tasteful) elective guitar crops up now and then as well.