CD Reviews: Melvoin, Park, Cunliffe and Wolff

By Michael Katz

While this year’s Grammys went to the usual suspects, there has been a flurry of outstanding CDs by some less appreciated artists that should brighten up anyone’s winter night.

Mike Melvoin and Kim Park

“The Art of Conversation” (City Light Records)

Leading off is The Art Of Conversation, by pianistmelvoin-cd Mike Melvoin and alto saxophonist Kim Park.  Minus the familiar timekeeping of bass and drums,  a duet album might challenge the listener’s attention, but Melvoin, a stellar first-call player here in LA, and the lesser heard Park,  son of the late Stan Kenton soloist John Park, reward the listener at every turn.  On Tangerine, the spirit of  fellow Kansas City native Charlie Parker is evoked as Park explores the breadth of the instrument in exhilarating style, with Melvoin deftly filling in underneath, ending up with a quote from Sweet Georgia Brown.   A Time For Love features Park caressing the melody, exploring the lower register of the instrument, leaving it for Melvoin to seamlessly bring up the pace. When you listen to this album you can’t help but recall Stan Getz and Kenny Barron’s People Time. Park was an artist-in-residence with Getz at Stanford in 1988, and demonstrates a striking lyricism throughout. Melvoin’s contributions are more complex, providing the rhythmic underpinnings for Park’s solos, while blending his own unaccompanied dialogue into the conversation. From the first pensive notes of Danny Boy to the sprightly upbeat rhythms of You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To and Speak Low, it’s a gorgeous set throughout.

Bill Cunliffe

“The Blues and the Abstract Truth: Take 2” (Resonance Records)

Pianist Bill Cunliffe has been one of LA’s most versatilecunliffe-cd musicians since winning the Thelonious Monk piano competition in 1989.  In 2008 he was commissioned by the Pasadena Jazz Institute to do a re-imagining of Oliver Nelson’s classic Jazz and the Abstract Truth and the result is this outstanding Take Two. Cunliffe makes no attempt to turn classic compositions such as Stolen Moments and Hoe Down inside out, using subtle harmonic alterations, particularly in the latter, to introduce the listener to a new set of soloists. Though it is impossible to compete with Nelson’s ensemble which included Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, Cunliffe has assembled a group of principally West Coast all-stars led by reed man Bob Sheppard, whose tenor sax (and sometime soprano) burns through the Nelson compositions,   augmented by the altos of guest soloist Jeff Clayton and Brian Scanlon.   The biggest instrumental change is the presence of trombonist Andy Martin, who takes the lead in Stolen Moments and shines throughout. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford meshes beautifully with Martin and Sheppard on Stolen Moments, burning brightly through Cascades and Yearnin. Cunliffe’s own piano licks are featured in Hoe Down and Teenie’s Blues, but are most prominent in his two original compositions, Port Authority and Mary Lou’s Blues, dedicated to Mary Lou Williams.  Tom Warrington and Mark Ferber provide steady support on bass and drums, along with Larry Lunetta on trumpet. Cunliffe’s CD is both a tribute to Oliver Nelson and a showcase for a terrific modern ensemble.

Michael Wolff

“Joe’s Strutt” (Wrong Records)

Pianist Michael Wolff’s playing has always had a dark,wolff-cd soulful undertone, spattered with just enough playfulness to suggest that things are going to work out in the end (or will they?). His new CD Joe’s Strut features five original compositions, alternating crisp trio work with a robust quintet featuring the alto and soprano sax of Steve Wilson and the tenor of Ian Young. On the opener, Harbour Island, the saxes introduce the main theme before giving way to Wolff’s infectious glissandos, then add driving solos of their own before bringing the tune home.

The title composition is a spiritual nod to the late keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul, whose chair Wolff filled in the last Cannonball Adderley band.  It has a foot stomping, New Orleans vibe; the trio format gives Wolff a chance to show off his funky side.  Steve Wilson turns to soprano on Wheel of Life, weaving a lovely interplay with Wolff, subtly backed by Chip Jackson on bass and Victor Jones on drums.

I especially like Wolff’s interpretations of two standards, If I Were A Bell and Come Rain Or Come Shine, with Rich Goods taking over on bass. The latter is an introspective, darkly textured reading; one almost senses a lingering doubt that the title’s pledge will be reciprocated. Wolff returns to the Cannonball legacy for a rousing sendoff, bringing back the quintet for Zawinul’s 74 Miles Away.

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In Memoriam: Reed player Gerry Niewood and guitarist Coleman Mellett, both members of Chuck Mangione’s band, were among the victims of last week’s plane crash near Buffalo. I was a long time admirer of Niewood, who was with Mangione from the beginning, contributing memorable soprano solos to “Land Of Make Believe” and “Legend Of The One-Eyed Sailor” on the Mercury quartet albums of the early ’70s. He was famously featured as a sideman on Simon and Garfunkle’s “Concert In Central Park,” and was a consistently fine player over the years. They will both be deeply missed.  M.K.

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