CD Reviews/Jazz: Marsalis, Masekela, Roditi, Jones

By Michael Katz

The trumpet has long been jazz’s signature instrument, from Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong through Miles and Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Clark Terry and Freddie Hubbard. It seems like there is a cornucopia of fine trumpeters today; here are four recent releases from some greater and lesser known players.

 Wynton Marsalis

“He and She” (Blue Note)

            Leave it to Wynton Marsalis, in this age of limited attention span and digital downloads, to come out with a 75 minute performance piece that demands the listener’s unyielding attention. He and She mixes Marsalis’ poetic voice with a talented quintet drawn from his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. 

            The title poem, read by Marsalis with an engaging wink towards southern bluesmen, is broken into short riffs introducing the music, intended to explore the mystery of man and woman. Early on, it seems like a wonderfully performed period piece; School Boy features a ragtime groove, with Dan Nimmer on speakeasy piano and Walter Blanding echoing Sidney Bechet on soprano sax. Marsalis plays a muted trumpet on The Sun and the Moon, with Blanding on tenor and Nimmer playing a striking piano solo that carries the piece into the present.

              From there the suite picks up steam. Marsalis delves into the darker realm of self-doubt in his introduction to Fear: “What passions could cosmic bluesmen blame/if a man too scared to ask a woman her name”. That leads to a wah wah trumpet line, backed by Carlos Henriquez’s  foreboding bass.  The momentum builds with the suite’s most extended piece, The Razor Rim. Wynton’s mute is off now, Blanding provides a stunning tenor solo and drummer Ali Jackson  carries the time changes from ¾  to what Marsalis describes as “Elvin Jones 5/4” and back to 4/4.

            A live performance might have an intermission here, reconvening for Blanding’s lovely opening solo in Zero, which leads to a four part medley, First Crush/First Slow Dance/First Kiss/First Time.  By now the poetic themes become a bit muddled, and the listener wonders if he/she can just sit back and enjoy the music, especially the last segment which has a Latin flourish featuring Marsalis and Blanding. Marsalis must sense this, delivering his ensuing verse with tongue in cheek: What folly do sophic bluesmen find when a man think he know a woman mind?  He gives his quintet plenty of room to answer. Whenever the listener’s mind wanders, Dan Nimmer brings us back with emphatic swing.

            The suite closes with a gutsy blues, A Train, A Banjo and A Chicken Wing, with a burning solo by Blanding and a shout out by Marsalis.

 Hugh Masekela

“Phola” (Times Square)

            At 70, Hugh Masekela still possesses a warm tone on flugelhorn, a voice reminiscent of Harry Belafonte and a social conscience to match. His latest CD, Phola, is full of South African rhythms, the vocals mixed between English and native tongues. Phola translates to “heal, get well” or in slang, to chill, and that is what Masekela does here, aided by collaborators Eric Paliani and Ezra Erasmus, who between them contribute various guitars and keyboards. A couple of the tunes are autobiographical – Ghana tells how he first met his wife, Elinam at the Paris airport, where she was being held by immigration officials (They don’t care if you insult them/as long as it is en Francais) as he was on his way to Ghana. Sonny Boy takes him back to his childhood in apartheid South Africa, playing his first notes on the trumpet. In Bring It back Home, he chides the politicians and businessmen who have prospered from the end of apartheid to remember where they came from.

            All of this is played against the familiarly pleasing pop-jazz lilt that Masekela has been performing for the better part of fifty years. Guitarist Jimmy Dludlu sits in on Malungelo and the closer Hunger with some appealing work. Befitting Masekela’s international appeal, the music resonates through repeated listenings, even when the language is unfamiliar.

 Claudio Roditi

“Brazilliance x 4” (Resonance)

            Claudio Roditi is a veteran Brazilian trumpeter whose credits include stints with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Mann and Dizzy Gillespsie’s United Nations Orchestra. As dominant as the trumpet is in jazz, we don’t see it as often taking the lead in bossa nova, which tends to favor guitars (think Joao Gilberto and Charlie Byrd) or the  keyboards of singer/composers like Jobim and Ivan Lins. And, from the American side, the silky tenor sound of Stan Getz.

            Roditi, in his new CD Brazilliance x 4, has assembled a Brazilian quartet featuring pianist Helio Alves and percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca, along with bassist Leonardo Cioglia. It’s a sprightly program from the start, leading off with the upbeat Pro Zeca, an infectious line by Victor Assis Brasil. Alves, as he does throughout the CD, provides a bright Brazilian patter on the piano. Roditi has a clear, slightly muted sound, adroitly dancing in and out of the percussive themes. He alternates the more upbeat songs with slower bossas on the flugelhorn, most notably a gently swinging version of Miles Davis’ Tune Up. Rapez A Bem is a pre-bossa tune by Johnny Alf, written in 1953, that seems oddly familiar, perhaps because Roditi closes it with a riff from C Jam Blues.  Song For Nana is a nod to singer Nana Caymmi with a piano solo by Alves. Two of the last three cuts are extended versions of Roditi compositions, recorded live in Beverly Hills, and provide an added energy to an eminently listenable collection.

 Sean Jones

“The Search Within” (Mack Avenue)

            Sean Jones is one of the new wave of trumpeters, which includes Christian Scott and Jeremy Pelt. Like them, he is full of energy and a fine improviser. Similarly, his writing hasn’t yet caught up to his virtuosity on the horn.  His newest CD, The Search Within, features mostly his own compositions, with mixed results. The title track is broken into three interludes, played with a clear, resonant tone, leaving the listener to wish that any one of them might be stretched into a single tune.  Jones fares best in Life Cycles, which begins with a melodic solo on flugelhorn and features the harmonica of Gregoire Maret and the flute of Erika Von Kleist.  The Storm, one of two pieces inspired by philosopher Kahlil Gibran, has a bright Afro-Latin beat by percussionist Kahlil Bell, and more crisp soloing by Jones. Pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Lucques Curtis and drummer Obed Calvaire contribute a steady rhythm section.  There’s some fine saxophone work by altoist Brian Hogans, who contributes one of the two outside compositions, Summer’s Spring,  and by Walter Smith on tenor, particularly on Sunday Reflections and Frank Foster’s composition, Sean’s Jones Comes Down.  Jones ballads tend to be more declarative statements, serving as platforms for his soloing.  It would be nice to see some of the creativity evident in his improvisations go into the melodic themes. It’s laudable for musicians to explore their personal growth with their own tunes, but it would be useful to look to the compositions of other great improvisers – Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton come to mind – who have created more urgent or lyrical themes that endure long past their original recordings.

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