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Album Reviews

A Fitting Tribute From One Master to Another

January 13, 2002|HOWARD REICH

****MARCUS ROBERTS, "Cole After Midnight", Columbia

Wynton Marsalis long has called Roberts the "J Master" (as in "Jazz Master"), and with each recording, the pianist reaffirms the accuracy of Marsalis' assessment. If in previous outings Roberts has radically reinvented music of George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, among others, this time Roberts finds new layers of meaning and romance in tunes associated with Nat "King" Cole. Yet even though Roberts revisits Cole standards such as "Unforgettable" and "Too Young," Roberts' idiosyncratic interpretations are as original as if these were newly composed works. Thus "Answer Me, My Love" unfolds as a hushed solo reverie, "Mona Lisa" as an excursion into ultra-sophisticated harmony.

The most intriguing piece may be Roberts' own "Cole After Midnight," a puckishly unpredictable work that emerges as a tour de force of jazz-trio improvisation. By closing his disc with several standards by Cole Porter, Roberts not only addresses another Cole, but also finds fresh ideas where lesser pianists simply recycle well-worn cliches.

***ETTA JONES, "Etta Jones Sings Lady Day", HighNote

In October, jazz fans mourned the passing of veteran singer Jones, who long had been overshadowed by younger, decidedly less accomplished vocalists. This disc, recorded just a few months before Jones died, therefore stands as a kind of monument to Jones' art, albeit an elegiac one.

Perhaps because she's paying homage to Billie Holiday, Jones leans toward slow tempos, unadorned phrases and a pervasively melancholy tone. If some of Holiday's most obvious mannerisms come through (including certain sighing phrases), Jones nonetheless proves hauntingly effective on Holiday anthems such as "You've Changed" and "Fine and Mellow." The soulful cries and expressively bent pitches that were Jones' stock in trade never were more aptly applied than in this recording, which was intended as a tribute to Holiday but also memorializes Jones herself.

***DAVID MURRAY, "Like a Kiss That Never Ends", Justin Time

Those who have considered tenor saxophonist Murray's work a bit too hysterical in avant-garde settings should find him more palatable in this less confrontational recording. For although he squeals and honks a bit in on the title track, more often he calls to mind vintage tenor-sax balladeers such as Ben Webster, particularly on Ray Drummond's "Dedication" and on his own, dance-tinged "Suki Suki Now." Irresistibly poetic melody is what this recording is all about, with Murray turning in long and winding lines on every track, including his up-tempo "Ruben's Theme Song."

***1/2DANISH RADIO JAZZ ORCHESTRA, "The Power and the Glory", Storyville

The past couple of years have seen uncounted tributes to the great Louis Armstrong, but few as direct, unaffected and persuasive as this. Considering that it features one of the best large jazz ensembles in Europe performing under the direction of a brilliant conductor-arranger, Jim McNeely, perhaps that should come as no surprise. But "The Power and the Glory" has the additional virtue of trumpet solos by New Orleans stalwart Leroy Jones, who captures the spirit, fire and energy of Armstrong's playing without descending to mere mimicry. And check out the ingenious new chart for "What a Wonderful World," penned by Harry Connick Jr., who is becoming one of the more skilled arrangers in the business.

*

Howard Reich is jazz critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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