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Jazz CD Reviews

Brad Mehldau Synthesizes, Branford Marsalis Rhapsodizes

September 01, 2002|HOWARD REICH




Warner Bros. Records

Young jazz musicians increasingly have been trying to tap into the sounds of today's pop and avant-garde music, but few have done so as eloquently as pianist Mehldau on this stunning, genre-defying disc. At first glance, the prospect of a pianist such as Mehldau drawing on dance backbeats, cutting-edge electronics and novel sonic effects might seem like a gimmick. But Mehldau's meticulously conceived arrangements for acoustic and synthesized instruments prove revelatory, the pianist weaving his own carefully wrought melodic lines into brashly innovative, unexpected ensemble sounds. The grinding beat that drives "Dusty McNugget," for instance, might seem to be the antithesis of bona fide jazz rhythm. Yet Mehldau finesses drummer Matt Chamberlain's hard dance beats with extraordinarily sleek, delicately swinging piano lines, then interrupts the proceedings with unabashedly classical writing for a small horn section. The oscillating, head-tripping electronics of "Dropjes," the distorted-piano effects of "Sabbath," the blips and bleeps of "Free Willy," and the Samuel Barber-like chamber-music setting of "When It Rains" distinguish this as one of the most daring new recordings of the year, and one of the most successful.

*** 1/2


"Footsteps of Our Fathers"

Marsalis Music

The Grammy Award-winning saxophonist and former leader of Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" band made news earlier this year when he announced that he was forming his own record label. If this, the imprint's first release, is indicative of the recordings to come, there's cause to celebrate, for this CD embodies precisely the commitment to art over commerce that Marsalis said his label would represent. Moreover, it stands as a significant achievement for Marsalis, who intelligently reinterprets two landmark jazz works, Sonny Rollins' "The Freedom Suite" and John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Marsalis is not simply retracing the steps of two acknowledged masterpieces. On the contrary, he offers a decidedly fresh perspective on these milestones, attaining profound balladry in certain passages of "Freedom," and ferocious energy and a searing intensity in the climactic sections of "Supreme." Like many carefully conceived recordings, this one takes time to gather momentum, but when it does, there's no denying its emotional force.

*** 1/2


"The Improviser"

Premonition Records

Although he has been a mentor to several generations of American jazz musicians, the mighty Chicago tenor saxophonist has been tragically under-recorded. Yet as he approaches his 80th birthday, Freeman--whom everyone in jazz simply calls "Vonski"--has enjoyed belated recognition, which is sure to deepen with the release of this beautifully recorded, shrewdly conceived CD. Because so few Freeman discs are available, the producers of the "The Improviser" wisely opted to record Freeman in several musical settings. Thus, "If I Should Lose You" documents his romantic, 1930s-era solo playing; "What Is This Thing Called Love?" shows his state-of-the-art bebop style as he leads a quartet; and Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" casts Freeman in a haunting duet with noted young pianist Jason Moran. The unorthodox phrases and squealing bent pitches that Freeman produces alongside Moran attest to the saxophonist's still-adventurous spirit, and to the allure he holds for a new generation of jazz talent.



"Silver Spines"

Delmark Records

During the past few years, cornetist Mazurek has earned a place at the forefront of jazz experimentation, his latest release again taking him into strange, uncharted terrain. Granted, the chiming tubular bells, rumbling Moog synthesizers, random "found sounds" and freewheeling cornet solos will strike some listeners as wholly unrelated to the vocabulary of jazz. Anyone who wants to learn where one of the more radical free-thinkers of 21st century jazz sees the future heading, "Silver Spines" offers an uninhibited crash course.


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

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