PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 24, 2005

The New (and Classic) Hotness

by Jim Newsom

I first played Curtis Stigers’ I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Concord) in my office while I was doing paperwork, and I didn’t think I liked it very much. Fortunately, I decided to put it on at home one evening after work and, actually paying attention to it, I had a totally different impression. It doesn’t work as background music, but if you’re willing to invest a little time paying attention to it, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Stigers’ voice falls somewhere between Ray Charles, a male Billie Holiday, and a somewhat inebriated Kurt Elling. The material runs the gamut from blues classics “My Babe” and “That’s All Right” to Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and Tom Waits’ “In Between Love.” The title track is one of Randy Newman’s most affecting compositions, and Sting’s old Police tune, “I Can’t Stand Losing You,” actually swings in its incarnation here. Co-producer Larry Goldings, best known as an organist, shows what a fine accompanist he is on piano, and trumpeter John Sneider and guitarist Pete McCann add tasty textural touches.

On Bayshore Road (Favored Nations), guitarists Peppino D’Agostino & Stef Burns play with the interconnected chemistry of two brothers who shared a room growing up. The blend of Burns’ electric Fender Stratocaster and D’Agostino’s custom acoustic produces a sound both beautiful and muscular on this collection of mostly original compositions. The kickoff title track is a joy to hear, and the twosome’s reinvention of “Birdland” gives that Weather Report classic a new lease on life. At times the music expresses a mournful ache, at other times a dark but festive kick, and it’s always filled with an invigorating soulfulness. “Jerry’s Breakdown” even veers into bluegrass/newgrass territory.

Burns’ credits include playing with Huey Lewis and the News for the last five years (who knew that band still existed?), and he also works regularly with Italian rockstar Vasco Rossi. D’Agostino is an Italian immigrant who started his American sojourn as a street musician in San Francisco 21 years ago, and has performed throughout the Americas and Europe. The music they make together is quite engaging.

Kevin Mahogany possesses an expressive baritone that could make even the most mundane lyric sound as though it’s dripping with meaning. When he was at ODU last fall, he showed himself to be an impressive entertainer as well.

Big Band, a new disc on his own Mahogany Jazz label, collects performances originally released elsewhere and puts them all in the same place for the first time. Six come from early ‘90s recordings with the Frank Mantooth Big Band, one from a 1997 T. S. Monk tribute to Thelonious, and one is a duet with Veronica Martell from her album, Lucky. Though recorded at various times over the past fifteen years, every track swings and all but the final track, a new piano & vocal walk through “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with pianist James Williams, wrap cookin’ big bands around Mahogany’s incomparable voice.

Last year, Sony Legacy released a 7-CD box set called Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963-64, that provided a comprehensive treasure trove for jazzmaniacs with an extra $125.00 lying around. But for those who may not feel the need to have every take Miles Davis recorded during this explosive two-year period, the Legacy folks have issued six single discs including the original albums that came out in the ‘60s. Most are live recordings from Europe, New York and Japan that capture the development of the band, but also suffer in varying degrees from the meandering self-indulgence that can permeate even the best live jazz at times.

The masterpiece of this era, however, was the 1963 studio recording, Seven Steps to Heaven. Hearing it now, 42 years later, it’s still a revelation, capturing Miles in flux just as Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams were joining up to form what would become known as Davis’ “second great quintet.” This is an essential recording for any jazz collection, the title track worth the price by itself. And with the crisp remastering, extensive liner notes and a pair of bonus tracks, it’s one of the best deals of the year.

I’ve been following South African trumpeter/flugelhornist Hugh Masekela since buying his chart-topping hit single, “Grazing in the Grass,” in the summer of 1968. He went on to become an outspoken expatriate crusader in the fight against apartheid and always integrated the distinctive sounds of his homeland into his recordings, even at their most commercial.

On his new CD, Revival (Heads Up), the 66-year old jazzmaster continues down the path he’s trod over the last four decades while also drawing inspiration from the kwaito music that emerged in South Africa after apartheid ended 1993. As such, there is an over-emphasis on vocals and chants by Masekela and his collaborators that draws attention away from his still-strong brasswork. Even so, the groove is solid, the guitars have that unique African funkiness, and when the instrumental frontline blows together, it’s oh-so-sweet.

You’d never guess from listening to What Now? (CAMJAZZ) that Kenny Wheeler had turned 75 years old in January. While the drummerless acoustic quartet he employs here represents the opposite end of the spectrum from that occupied by Hugh Masekela, the European contrapuntalities are just as invigorating in their own way. With Dave Holland on bass, John Taylor on piano and Chris Potter on tenor sax, Wheeler sticks to flugelhorn in guiding the ensemble through a set of mid-tempo and ballad compositions. The sound is occasionally dissonant but often transcendent, possessed of an indefinable beauty infused with partly cloudy skies and melancholy that speaks wordlessly to the soul.

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