Hiromi and The Piano In the “Spark.”

 

If you don’t know who Hiromi is yet you’re probably reading the wrong article. And listening to the wrong music.

There are three reasons why some people will not enjoy Spark, the fourth album from the Trio Project featuring Hiromi Uehara, the Japanese-born pianist and composer and drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Anthony Jackson:

1. It’s too complex.

2. It rocks too hard to be jazz.

3. It’s long (72 minutes).

None of these are good reasons. Here are three reasons which are good ones.

1. Simplicity has its place. So does complexity. 2. Jazz is not a hyphenated word. It’s just jazz. 3. You can’t make and bake a cake in two minutes. Patience is its own reward.

Hiromi continues to be one of the most inventive and awe-inspiring pianists in jazz today. Phillips’ drumming is alternatively both dynamic and precise. Jackson is the silent partner of the band, but is the glue which holds it together so it doesn’t fly apart into undisciplined soloing.

That’s the risk involved in a Hiromi recording. At what point will her dazzling proficiency give way to just spraying notes all around the joint like an Eddie Van Halen freak-out turned up to “11” on the overkill scale? This is an entirely fair comparison. Hiromi can match a guitar god like Van Halen for speed, frenzy and mindless self-indulgence when she goes off.

hiromi spark

“Spark” leads off with a gently synth/piano solo that takes off as soon as Phillips comes in and Hiromi engages in dueling leads as they chase each other in musical game of “tag.” Good luck with figuring out what the time signature is. The stuttering stop-start of “In A Trance” shows off the favored approach of the Trio Project to jazz: aggressive, inventing and very, very fast and furious.

Even when “In A Trance” slows down to a more traditional approach, it isn’t long before it reverts to the highly individualized nature of the players. Phillips launches into a drum solo, shows off some hot licks, and then ends up with some killer fills and cymbals work until Jackson and Hiromi come back in with a vaguely Latin piano riff.

Is “Indulgence” a playful jab at the naysayers who accuse the pianist of being more style than substance? Maybe so and maybe no, but whatever the intent it, along with “What Will Be, Will Be” is a showcase for Jackson’s contrabass guitar work and some mighty fine funky grooves and the restrained solo piano piece “Wake Up and Dream” washes over the listener like warm spring rain.

Like it or not (and some jazzheads don’t), Hiromi is much more than an programmed automaton who can play really fast. The rollicking closer “All’s Well” is funky good fun which connects emotionally on every level. For jazz to resonate beyond its base it has to—repeat—has to develop and promote artists the way rock, pop and country does. It cannot thrive and will not survive unless the new generation is alerted of the new innovators residing among them just beyond their range of hearing. Hiromi is one of those innovators.

Spark is Hiromi’s 10th  album and it’s the 10th album I’ve dug the hell out.   She has to be included on any short or long list of the best pianists in jazz today.  It’s not a coincidence that Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea have both tapped her to join them on solo projects.  She’s just that good and with Phillips and Jackson in tow the Trio Project has been blowing it up over four masterful albums in five years.

Oscar Peterson said, “Too many jazz pianists limit themselves to a personal style, a trademark, so to speak. They confine themselves to one type of playing. I believe in using the entire piano as a single instrument capable of expressing every possible musical idea. I have no one style. I play as I feel.”

Hiromi Uehara is living what Peterson advised. Hers is the piano in the Spark.
Track Listing: Spark; In A Trance; Take Me Away; Wonderland; Indulgence; Dilemma; What Will Be, Will Be; Wake Up And Dream, All’s Well

Personnel: Hiromi: piano, keyboards; Anthony Jackson: contrabass guitar; Simon Phillips: drums

The best “power trio” since Cream.

A different version of this review originally appeared at All About Jazz

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George Duke: A Weaver of Dreams

The end comes eventually for us all with only the time and method to be determined. Dream Weaver is an album constructed around death, loss, healing and moving on. George Duke lost his wife, Corine, in 2011 as well as guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, and vocalist Teena Marie who passed away in 2010 as she was collaborating with Duke on a jazz album.

Despite the sense of loss and sorrow hanging over the recording, Dream Weaver is hardly a solemn affair. Duke’s trademark good humor, playfulness and finely tuned ability not to take himself too seriously, as benefits someone who played with rocker Frank Zappa, shines through.

Working with multiple players and guests, Duke’s final album is at times messy and sprawling, but Duke never allows all four wheels to leave the road. George Duke the producer was as accomplished as George Duke the musician and he was acutely aware of what his strengths and weaknesses were in both roles.

It was the old school funk of “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick” that put Duke on the map as a solo artist and the thumpin’ “Ashtray” is a worthy callback to those days. You’ll look in vain for the name of the bassist thumbin’ out those fat licks. It’s Duke with his battery of synthesizers ripping off bass riffs that would make Bootsy Collins or his old pal, Stanley Clarke, smile with admiration.

Clarke appears here on “Stones of Orion” showing off his underrated skills on the upright bass. “Missing You” features sensitive vocals from Duke and Rachelle Ferrell. While he sought to make the object of the ballad a generic woman, it is apparent whom the warm passion in Duke’s singing is directed to. The serious intent behind “You Never Know” belies its breezy, lightweight sound, but it’s a caution to treasure every moment because you never know when there will be no more moments.

Duke’s albums are frequently saddled with a few throwaway tunes and it’s “Jazzmatazz” and “Round the Way Girl” that don’t add much to the discography, though the instrumental “Brown Sneakers” featuring Michael Manson on bass is a fine bit of fusion.

If a title like “Change the World” weren’t a dead giveaway of Duke trying for a “We Are the World” moment, the assemblage of an all-star chorus (Jeffrey Osborne, Lalah Hathaway, BeBe Winans, Freddie Jackson and more) drive the point home with sledgehammers, but sincere as it is, it still feels generic and the clunky kid vocal at the end shows a bad case of the cutes.

Teena Marie was known primarily as a blue-eyed soul singer, but her interests ranged beyond belting out R ‘n’ B and before her passing she was working with Duke on an album of jazz vocals. If “Ball & Chain” is any indication of what the finished product would have been, Marie might have been successful in the attempt. Though the amazing range she exhibited on the classic “Portuguese Love” (seek it out and find out for yourself) isn’t evident here, “Ball & Chain” demonstrates Marie had down the phrasing of a jazz singer. As a producer, Duke had the ability to bring out the particular strengths of an artist rather than apply a signature sound to them.

“Burnt Sausage Jam” is a remnant from a session with Johnson and the rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer John Roberts that is just a jam and a rather pointless one at that. It never really develops into much but drags on for 15 minutes. Originally recorded for Face the Music (BPM, 2002) it recalls the similar “Ten Mile Jog” from that album, but Duke should have trimmed it down or left it in the vault, but having done neither it’s just an overly long song and the only outright clunker.

The concluding “Happy Trails” was probably meant as a lighthearted parting gesture, but a month after the release of Dream Weaver , George Duke succumbed to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was 67 years old.

Whether or not there will be further unreleased material from Duke’s lengthy recording career is a question for the future. Here and now, this versatile, accomplished and celebrated artist who was equally at home playing in a myriad of styles and genres, left a rich legacy of music with Dream Weaver being a worthy coda.

Track Listing: Dream Weaver; Stones of Orion; Trippin’; Ashtray; Missing You; Transition 1; Change the World; Jazzmatazz; Round the Way Girl; Transition 2; Brown Sneakers; You Never Know; Ball & Chain; Burnt Sausage Jam; Happy Trails.

Personnel: George Duke: vocals, synthesizers, piano, rhodes, drum programming, Nord 3 synth, Arp odyssey, mini-moog, Prophet 5, synth programming, Wurlitzer electric piano, castlebar clavinet; Stanley Clarke: upright bass (2) Gordon Campbell: drums (2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12, 15); Daniel Higgins: flute (2), tenor sax (4); Everette Harp: alto sax(2, 4, 8, 14); Kamasi Washington: tenor sax (2-4, 8, 13, 14); Gary Grant: trumpet (2, 4); Michael “Patches” Stewart: trumpet (3, 8, 13,14); Terry Dexter: background vocals (3); Lamont VanHook: background vocals(3, 5); Rashid Duke: “Ahoom” vocals (3); Erik Zobler: “Ahoom” vocals (3); Paul Jackson Jr.; guitar (4, 6); Chris Clarke: words and thangs (4); Rose Geddes: lady with a question (4); Rachelle Ferrell: vocals (5); Jef Lee Johnson: guitar (5, 9, 12, 14, 15); Larry Kimpel: bass (5); Jim Gilstrap: background vocals (5), vocals (7); Lalah Hathaway: vocals (7); Jeffrey Osbourne: (7); BeBe Winans: vocals (7); Lori Petty: vocals (7); Dira Sugandi: vocals (7); Freddie Jackson: vocals (7); Terry Dexter: vocals (7), background vocals (8); Howard Hewitt: vocals (7), Kennedy Fuseller: kid vocals (7); Michael Landau: guitar (8); Chill: rap (8); Ramon Flores: trumpet solo (8); Allen Kaplan: trombone (8); Josie James: background vocals (8); Lisa Chamblee-Hampton: around the way girl (9); Michael Manson: bass (11): Lenny Castro: percussion (11); Teena Marie: vocals (13); John Roberts: drums (14); Christian McBride: bass (14).

Record Label: Heads Up International

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.

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Hiromi’s Slow Burn to Success

There are two things I’ll miss when I give up reviewing jazz this year.   The first is simple: free CD’s?   Who could gripe about that?   The second is the sublime joy of discovery that comes when a previously unknown musician is introduced to your musical world and eventually takes up permanent residence there.

It was ten years ago when Hiromi Uehara released her debut, Another Mind.   I was on my way to Nashville for a journalism workshop and I tossed the album in the bag along with the rest of the music for the road trip.   The acoustics of a car are not the optimum listening environment, but  traveling for six hours and almost 400 miles gave me plenty of opportunity to thoroughly explore the Japanese born, Berklee College of Music educated pianist.

It’s easy to view Another Mind as Hiromi’s graduating thesis paper set to music.   Among her mentors at Berklee was jazz bassist Richard Evans who taught arranging and orchestration, two skills she has put to fine usage.   Evans produced his student’s debut along with his friend and colleague, Ahmad Jamal, another stylish and visionary pianist whom Miles Davis name-checks several times in his autobiography as a major influence.

“She is nothing short of amazing,” Jamal said, “Her music, together with her overwhelming charm and spirit, causes her to soar to musical heights.”

Eight albums, two in-concert details, and collaborations with Chick Corea (Duet) and Stanley Clarke as part of an acoustic trio with drummer Lenny White on the exceptional Jazz in the Garden and again on Clarke’s “last” electric album, The Stanley Clarke Band, Hiromi is firmly established as one of the brightest young talents playing today.    Esperanza Spalding, her record label mate, gets most of the publicity as the latest “savior” of jazz, but that’s too big of a burden for her to carry alone.   Spalding should share the load with Hiromi, Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris and Jason Moran to name a few of the young lions holding true to the tradition even as they push it forward.

The opening notes of “Move” from Hiromi’s newest album of the same name start off with one note being repeated like water drip-drip-dripping from a faucet until Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on contra-bass join together to create what she calls “three-dimensional sound.”   Clocking in at over eight minutes in length,  Hiromi constructs an elaborate pastiche of elaborate soloing, funky grooves and an interplay with Phillips and Jackson that is both exciting to hear and astonishing to see.

There is always an overarching theme to Hiromi’s recordings and Move is no different.  The nine tracks are focused on living life on a normal day.   “You wake up and go to work and then hang out, she says.  “The album is like a soundtrack for a day.”

If Move is any indication Hiromi’s days must be pretty busy.    She’s a serious person who takes the music seriously but she has always balanced her creative temperament by not taking herself too seriously.     Her approach to the music has always been while a song like “Move” is a labor of love, it is labor.   “It’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written,” Hiromi says.  “I had great musicians with me, and we worked hard on that song.   In the studio and rehearsals, we spent a lot of time to play it right.  It’s very tricky because when a song sounds difficult, it’s not fun.   It has to groove and it has to go beyond ‘this is a difficult song.’  It has to make you groove and feel the rhythm.  To reach that point really took some time. ”

You mean you can’t just walk on the stage and just start playing?  You have to rehearse and learn how to play the song?    No wonder jazz gets treated like an ugly puppy nobody wants to play with.  It takes work.

Those that can’t do teach and those that can’t teach, review those that do.  That’s what my small little contribution to the health and well-being of jazz has been.   It is a source of satisfaction to know I’ve hipped others to Hiromi such as the music critic from the daily newspaper who sat with me at the annual Jazz and Rib Festival and grooved along to her live performance which is as inventive and energetic as her recordings.   It’s a good feeling to spread the knowledge about a true  talent that actually has paid her dues  and is goes about her business without  flashing skin, starting beefs, and making a spectacle of herself.

Hiromi’s way is a slow burn to success..  Letting the music instead of the hype do the talking .  It seems like such an old-fashioned approach to allow the substance to match the style,  but this is what is Hiromi is doing and  she continues to do it well.    Not everything she tries always works, but it never fails to keep me interested in what she’s doing next.    The anticipation of “what’s next?” is what motivated me to follow Miles Davis, Prince and Santana even when they led to creative blind alleys.     It hasn’t happened to Hiromi yet.   Hiromi has held my interest for a decade now and my trust has been rewarded by her continued innovative, adventurous and dazzling originality.

Steve Smith and Vital Information: Giving the Drummer Some (Respect, that is)

“Journey? Do we LOOK like Journey?”

Even now, the two questions probably most asked of Steve Smith go something like, “Hey, are you the Steve Smith who played drums in Journey?” and “What’s Steve Perry like?”

This is clearly unfair to Smith, who spent ten years in Journey but 30 years in his own band, Vital Information, and One Great Night is a live CD/DVD celebration of its high energy, fusion infused performance. .

Yes, this is the same Steve Smith and while pounding the drum kit behind the hairy likes of Perry may have been Smith’s most high-profile gig, he has some serious jazz chops that includes stints with violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Hiromi, Steps Ahead and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Some of Smith’s finest recorded moments are on Luc-Ponty’s jazz-fusion masterpiece Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977). Smith once auditioned for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose and was offered a place in both bands. He opted to join Montrose, the opening act for Journey before it tabbed him as its drummer.

Smith’s approach to the drums incorporates breath-taking speed, raw power and impressive precision. He won Modern Drummer magazine’s Number One All-Around Drummer award four consecutive years and has been named as among the magazine’s Top 25 Drummers of All Time, so there’s little doubt this is a serious man with serious chops.

So why does it seem that when it comes time to name the best rhythmatists in the biz, Smith is overlooked? Is it because Vital Information is unapologetically a jazz fusion group and those are dirty words to purists? Is it it his rock and roll past? Is it those kinda, sorta, terrible Journey music videos?

All will be forgiven once One Great Night cues up and “Cat Walk” kicks in as Smith and his Vital Information band mates tear through over an hour’s worth of high-energy and innovative playing. The other information specialists, bassist Baron Browne, guitarist Vinnie Valentino and keyboardist Tom Coster are in perfect sync with Smith’s “lead drums.”

Sharp-eyed readers of album liner notes will puzzle over Smith and Valentino being credited as playing “konnakol.” If that’s an unfamiliar instrument that’s because it’s not an instrument at all. Konnakol is the South Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally. Fans of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s Shakti project may be familiar with konnakol. To the untrained ear it might sound almost like scat-singing. “Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous” and “Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue” feature Smith and Valentino demonstrating their konnakol skills.

Fusion is notable for being propulsive and dynamic and as Smith’s drums are pushed to the front this occasionally pushes the other instruments to the background. This occasionally leads to a minimizing of Coster’s formidable keyboard skills. Browne and Valentino make fine contributions, though they seem be along for the ride. It isn’t that Smith doesn’t play well with others, but that playing with him is a like with having Lebron James on your side for a pick-up game of basketball: he’s so good at what he does even his teammates stand around watching him.

One oddity about One Great Night. For a live album the audience doesn’t seem all that lively. Perhaps that’s a result of a faulty sound mix or maybe the people were simply stunned by the virtuosity of Vital Information. Whether it’s listened to or viewed, One Great Night is absolute proof of how dominant a drummer Smith truly is. Maybe it’s time now to stop asking him what Steve Perry is like?
Tracks: Cat Walk; Time Tunnel; Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous; Seven and a Half; Khanda West; The Trouble With; Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue; The Closer: Jimmy Jive.

Personnel: Vinny Valentino: guitar, konnakol, voice; Baron Browne: bass; Steve Smith: drums, konnakol; Tom Coster: keyboards.

This review originally published at All About Jazz

The Grammy Awards Give Jazz the Crazy Uncle Treatment

Rolling in the deep and raking in the Grammys.

This isn’t going to be a long post because it’s about the Grammy Awards. I didn’t watch the show just like I haven’t watched the show for the better part of the last ten years. No, this isn’t yet another “You’re not getting old, the music just sucks” rant. I am getting old and the music does suck, but at least if you’re a jazz fan you don’t have to stay up past your bedtime.

This was the first Grammy program since they cut out most of the major categories for jazz, Latin and other genres that are not pop, hip-hop and rap. Those Grammys are awarded during a pre-broadcast ceremony outside of the TV cameras.   Nobody wants to watch some old jazz cats taking home the hardware for music nobody listens to in America.

My buddy, Rachel Z., writing in support of reinstating the jazz categories dropped by the Grammys said, “Most of the Major labels have in the past 3 years dropped their Jazz Departments.  That is the sole reason why you are seeing a drop in submissions.  Many independent musicians and labels cannot afford a NARAS membership on their own.  Previously votes presented by major labels though a block voting system implemented by the majors.  What would you suggest that I tell my students at the New School who spend their life dreaming of a Grammy that now there is only one Jazz Category?  2/3 less chance to win!  This gives them the same chance as winning the lottery now after the cutbacks in the Jazz Category.  They are competing with people 5x their age in the Jazz Category.  Not to mention putting Latin Jazz next to traditional jazz…???!!!”

When Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea accepted the Best Improvised Solo award for “500 Miles High” from the terrific 2011 album, Forever, I wonder who was there to watch them besides the workers setting up the stage?

Public Enemy once said, “Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?” and the marginalization of jazz at the Grammys only confirms that sentiment for me. I don’t care about award shows. I’d rather the musicians make a buck or two, but recognition for them is nice.  It validates my taste.  Unfortunately, jazz is treated like a crazy old uncle the music industry would rather keep out of sight and forget about.

"Does this mean we get to meet Adele?"

They obviously don’t want any more Esperanza Spaldings or Herbie Hancocks taking up any of the face time among all the b.s. awards they have to hand out to nobodies and trendy flavors of the month. In fact that’s what they should call the Grammys: This year’s Flavors of the Month.

Jazz is not a genre where here today and gone later today flourishes. Nor is it a form of music where you can get by as a barely competent rapper or studio enhanced singer. You have to be able to sing. You have to be able to play. And if you can’t do either, you can’t play jazz. Period.

A few thoughts about Adele cleaning up at The Adele Awards (formerly known as the Grammy Awards). I’m an agnostic n Adele. Can she sing? Yes, and no Auto-Tune or wearing costumes made of meat are necessary.

“Rolling In the Deep” is a great song (though, please don’t call it soul) , but 21 is not a great album. “Rolling” kills, but after that it’s pretty slow going. Adele will have a nice long career, but she needs better material.

The Grammys are about celebrity and popularity.  If they could figure out a way to give Kim Kardashian an award for record that wouldn’t make them look insane, they would do it. Most award shows are bullshit anyway.  The Grammy Awards finds all new ways to make themselves even more irrelevant to the art form they pretend to be celebrating.

One Year in Jazz: Nine of the Best and One of the Worst.

"Best Album of the Year? Me?"

1. Chris Standring/Blue Bolero: Playing jazz in America would serve as a great cover for someone in the witness protection program. A musician can labor at jazz for years and put together a nice body of work, but the music industry, the media, and the public may barely notice in their search for the next teenage pop star.

Chris Standring has never made an album quite like Blue Bolero. Standring could have stayed in a smooth jazz comfort zone of safe and innocuous music. Low risk can mean high reward, but Standring chose to go a different, riskier and far more ambitious route. The result is an album he should be both pleased with and proud of.

There are signature moments in a musician’s career when they make an album that both defines them and sets the course for their future. Herbie Hancock had his with Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973), Weather Report reached their summit with Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977), and George Benson took off with Breezin’ (Warner Brothers, 1976). Whether or not Blue Bolero belongs in that kind of distinguished company is a judgment call, but it is the best album Standring has made yet.

2.  Fourplay/Let’s Touch the Sky: For Fourplay, it’s all a numbers game. 2011 marks the band’s 20th anniversary, Let’s Touch the Sky is their 12th album, and “new guy,” Chuck Loeb is both Fourplay’s third personnel change and third guitarist replacing Larry Carlton, who stepped in for Lee Ritenour in 1998.

Loeb has the advantage of appearing on several of James’ solo albums, and that familiarity serves him well, as his guitar is featured early on his own “3rd Degree.” Loeb’s style meshes well with the signature Fourplay radio friendly tunes, but his playing is noticeably funkier than Carlton, and his familiarity with James would seem to indicate his period of adjustment into this supergroup will be a relatively quick one.

Changes in personnel can be leading indicators of a band reaching the end of the line. Not this time. If anything James, Mason and East seem invigorated by their new playmate. Loeb is a perfect fit, and with his addition to the group as both a composer and player, Fourplay is well situated to continue on both artistically and commercially as a force with which to be reckoned.

3.  Stanley Clarke/The Stanley Clarke Band: Stanley Clarke is still playing the bass the way he wants to, still pulling sounds out of his assortment of electric, acoustic and Alembic basses like nobody else, and still slapping, plucking and thumbing his way through contemporary, fusion jazz, rock, funk and whatever else he puts his mind to.

Clarke, in all his improvisations and incarnations as an artist, has never distanced himself from his jazz-rock roots. “Larry Has Traveled 11 Miles and Waited a Lifetime for the Return of Vishnu’s Report,” despite its clumsy title, is a well-intentioned homage to the genre’s giants including drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Weather Report, trumpeter Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra among others.

There’s a sense of closure from The Stanley Clarke Band and it’s quite deliberate. Clarke says he’s done with making electric albums for a while. Aged 59, Clarke has considerable and deserved pride in what he’s accomplished as a composer and musician and whatever direction his future endeavors take him in, his legacy is already secured. He is to the electric bass what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar; an unparalleled virtuoso who sets the standard for others to follow even as they create their own legacies.

4. The Trio of Oz: The dilemma for modern jazz artists is how to grab the ears of younger audiences, while remaining respectful of the legacy of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong without recycling yet another variation of “So What?” The eclectic and restless musical tastes of drummer Omar Hakim and pianist Rachel Nicolazzo (aka Rachel Z) offer some mighty impressive bait to reel them in, The Trio of Oz‘s repertoire reading like an hour’s worth of college radio station programming.

Whenever jazz is in danger of becoming safe, static and scared to stray out of its comfort zone, that’s when it’s in the fast lane to becoming the Muzak for museums naysayers already claim it is. The Trio of Oz strikes that delicate balance between respecting tradition while refusing to be handcuffed by it. There’s a lot here, in one of 2010’s most brilliant debuts for both purists and pioneers to admire.

5. George Duke/Deja Vu: Duke is a proven funk master, highly successful producer, underrated pianist and masterful entertainer who, while never taking himself too seriously, never takes his jazz roots for granted, no matter how often he’s accused of abandoning them. Déjà Vu is a splendid, high energy and completely satisfying record by Duke, who has mastered the delicate art of looking back while simultaneously moving forward.

6.  Mindi Abair/In Hi-Fi Stereo: As soul music has vanished from urban radio, driven out by the predominance of rap, hip-hop and Auto Tune, it’s become harder to find real soul made with real instruments, either on record or on the airwaves.

A Mindi Abair album is not the go-to place that comes to mind for a showcase of old school soul and bluesy funk. Abair has carved out a niche as a capable, if not always inspired, smooth jazz saxophonist, cut from the cloth of her contemporaries Kenny G., Richard Elliot and others, whom occasionally dip a toe into R&B, but never totally immerse themselves in the idiom.

Once again, the danger of making assumptions is proven, because with In Hi-Fi Stereo Abair takes the plunge headfirst into the deep end of soul-infused jazz. Equal parts homage to the music of David Sanborn, Hank Crawford and The Crusaders offer a testimony of her own artistic growth. Abair makes a declarative statement that she is a formidable talent who can do far more than smooth jazz noodling.

7.  Hiromi/Place To Be: Some musicians take the tortured artist thing too far. With their on-stage, “in the zone” demeanor, some pianists look as if they’re on the verge of a heart attack. If they relaxed a bit would anyone think less of them? Hiromi Uehara is certainly a serious musician yet never leaves the impression of taking herself too seriously. She’s having too much fun for that.

Since her 2003 debut, Another Mind (Telarc), Hiromi has straddled genres of post-bop, acid jazz, and freewheeling improvisation while refusing to be neatly categorized. A leader in her own right and an accompanist,she’s proven herself to be no neophyte and for seven years through growth and development, she continues to create challenging music that is both edifying and gratifying.

8.  Sade/Soldier of Love: The best thing about Sade Adu is also the worst thing about Sade Adu: her near fanatical commitment to consistency. There’s no difference between vintage Sade and contemporary Sade. She’s the antithesis of the snowfall cliché: with Sade you always know exactly what you’re going to get.

Soldier of Love is Sade’s first album in a decade, and only the sixth by the group in 25 years. Flooding the market with material is not a crime Adu can be accused of. However, while this is a new album it’s the same sort of music Sade has been making all along.

Soldier of Love seems longer than its tidy 41 minutes. It might be because, even on the mid-tempo songs like the title track and “Babyfather,” neither Sade Adu the front woman or Sade the band swing. But then, you don’t buy a Sade album because you want to dance. You buy a Sade album because no matter how bad your day’s been, hers has been worse. A lot worse.

9.   Ronny Jordan/After 8: The ninth best album of the year was actually released in 2004, but I didn’t hear it until 2010 and since it’s my list I get to choose my own qualifying criteria.   There’s no shortage of great guitar players in jazz, but so many of them are only recycling riffs from Wes Montgomery/George Benson.   Jordan is going off in different directions as if to say, “”We’ve done that.  Let’s try this.”

 

In a field full of imitators, Jordan is an original and After 8, he goes beyond the acid-jazz/funk and just kicks back to jam.   The result is an album I listen to repeatedly and with the volume turned up high.

…and the WORST album of 2010 was…

10.  The Jazzmasters/The Jazzmasters VI: To understand why Paul Hardcastle’s latest Jazzmasters album is such a tedious drag its first necessary to understand that the multi-instrumentalist has taken an unfortunate interest in a subdivision of smooth jazz, called Chill.

Chill relies on ambient sounds, airy vocals, quietly tinkling keyboards, and the occasional alto sax bubbling away in the mix. It’s so smoothed-out and laid back that it’s nearly comatose. Chill is less ambitious than smooth jazz but not as lightweight as New Age. Take a marshmallow, pour honey over it, dip it in a sugar bowl, then swallow the gooey, gloppy mess whole in one bite. That’s Chill.

Note:  I really, really hated this album.  When I wrote my first review I just dumped all over it for the cardinal sin of being a lazy-ass waste of time.   The editor at All About Jazz rejected the review and we swapped some terse and tense e-mails back and forth over lines like this:

” This is music to peel potatoes, iron clothes and vacuüm the rug by.  This album is so devoid of an impromptu moment,  Hardcastle probably woke up one morning, sipped a cup of coffee, padded off in his slippers and robe to a home studio, banged this out in a few hours and was finished by lunch.”

“This is modern day Muzak that should be piped in the overhead speakers of upscale shopping malls and day care centers to lull unruly pre-schoolers into taking their naps.”

“Jazz” is a catch-all for various genres that are only loosely connected to each other.   Paul Hardcastle has carved out a niche for himself as a staple of the smooth jazz/Chill division, but it takes a certain presumption to proclaim oneself as a “Jazzmaster” when the music barely meets the minimum qualifications.”

I don’t usually like ripping a musician a new one, but Jazzmasters VI didn’t just bore and displease me.   It offended me on a fundamental level.  I gave in to the editor’s wish for a more diplomatic review, but I make no apologies for dogging out the record for the utter piece of shit it was.

To find the rose you gotta  risk the thorns.

Jazz is doing fine. You’re just having trouble hearing it.

Stanley Clarke is still putting the jazz funk in yo' face.

 

If you were to ask me, “Where’s the best place to hear some good jazz?”  without hesitation I would tell you either in New York City, Europe or on a computer with a pair of good speakers and a fast  internet connection.    Look for it most anywhere else and you’re throwing darts in the dark.   

I love jazz music, but many times I get the distinct feeling it’s playing to an empty room.   As a contributor to Allaboutjazz.com I get to hear a lot of stuff I’d otherwise miss completely.   Unless you’re fortunate to live some place where there’s a progressive college radio station or an active jazz community, you’re  unlikely to be exposed to serious jazz .    Oh, and forget about Smooth jazz radio.   Screw smooth jazz radio.   It’s more snooze than smooth and it hurts jazz more than it helps.  

 The local outlet, WJZA  has no local on-air disc jockeys,  plays acts that have lack even any relation to the genre  (Alicia Keys?  Steely Dan?  COLBIE CALLIAT ?  Get the fuck out of here!)  and features only the most bland, innocuous, boring shit that gets tracked over and over (I dig George Benson but he made so many better records than “Turn Your Love Around”).    After each song, WJZA repeats their call letters if you forgot what radio station you had tuned to three minutes ago,  but even if they do accidentally play something that sounds good, the only way to find out what it was is to log on to their website.    WJZA is so programmed up the ass they don’t even care if you know who you just listened to.Here’s the part that blows:  There’s a LOT of great, exciting jazz out there from avant-garde to contemporary to fusion and everything in between.  When you listen to jazz it makes the air smell sweeter,  food taste better,  teeth whiter and you smarter.   You just can’t find it to hear it.    

Even if  you could find out who that was playing that song you liked, where would you go to buy it?  Record stores disappeared a decade ago.    Maybe if the artist is semi-popular, you might be able to find them in the pitifully small space allocated to jazz at a Best Buy,  Barnes and Noble or Wal-Mart, but if  you want to check out the artist in question’s back catalog,  you’re doomed.    I get all my jazz either directly as advance copies from the record companies and what I don’t get from them I order it online from CD Universe or Amazon. 

Yes, her instrument is bigger than she is, but she can play it.

 

If jazz is in bad shape trying  to find any on the radio, it’s  in even worse trying to sell it  as a recent article in The Root  pointed out how poorly the genre fairs in the marketplace:   In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased. 

 Are you kidding me?  12,000 albums sold by an individual artist would be no reason to pop the champagne cork.   But less than 12,000 jazz albums even bought at all?   That’s reason enough for any jazz artist to consider career counseling .     I’ve labored under the happy illusion a successful  jazz album sold in the low five figures.   Don’t I feel like a horse’s ass.   Once you learn only 2  percent of records released even sell 5,000 copies,  any notion that it’s easy to make it in the music business runs headlong into a brick wall of cold reality. 

 Then again, I never thought it was easy.  I just didn’t know if you play jazz just how hard it is to make a living at it or to get anyone to pay attention.  

Recently I reviewed The Stanley Clarke Band and while it’s a kick-butt album it bothers me that it’s doomed to disappear like dropping a stone in the sea because there’s no radio to play it, no television to view it,  and few venues to hear it.     If you’re not listening to an online music source such as Last FM, Slacker or internet radio, I don’t know where you’re supposed to go for your new jazz music fix.   Clarke is touring to support his last album featuring his electric bass playing, but while he’s all over Europe, he’s nowhere near Ohio as .Columbus is pretty much a dead zone for national jazz acts    There used to be a handful of clubs that played live jazz such as the 501 in downtown Columbus.    Hearing it live is still the best way to be exposed to jazz, but unfortunately the 501 closed several years ago and nothing has emerged to fill the void.   

Look, I know you can’t grab somebody and scream at them, “This is really good!  Why won’t you LISTEN to it?”  People have to find their own way past the b.s. to better music created by real musicians.   I’m not hating on rap and pop music.  There’s a place for utterly disposable entertainment.  My kids haven’t developed a taste for jazz either and I’m okay with that.  At their age I wasn’t into jazz as my tastes ran closer to Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone.    You have to get through your Kool-Aid phase before your tastes grow advanced enough for something that’s aged longer than an hour in the refrigerator.   Between the triple whammy of smooth jazz diluting the genre down to  bland and numbing pabulum, fast buck record companies with no interest in developing, grooming and allowing artists to flourish and corporate chain stores relegating jazz music to little more than an afterthought,  it’s easy to be discouraged about the present state of jazz.    

Yet despite the gloomy state of the business end,  jazz as an art form has a way of defying expectations it’s going to  die off, dry up and blow away any minute now.  There’s plenty of life left in the genre as young lions such as Robert Glasper, Hiromi Uehara, Stefon Harris, Four80East, Tia Fuller, Eric Darius, Victor Wooten, Esperanza Spaulding, Jessy J.  and many others continue to step up to carry on the tradition.  Jazz never had to depend upon recognition on American Idol and Glee or selling out stadiums to keep up its vitality.   In some ways some of the best jazz I’ve ever listened to I’m hearing now.  My worry is if the time comes my kids do decide they want to sample a taste of jazz  the only place they will find it is in tucked  away in some obscure corner of  a museum.Jazz is fine.  You’re just having trouble hearing it.