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From violin to banjo to guitar orchestra, strings add zing to jazz recordings. (Roundup review from JAZZIZ, spring 2016)
Stringed instruments have played a vital role in jazz since the genre's inception. While mostly relegated to rhythm in the beginning, virtuosos such as guitarist Charlie Christian, violinist Joe Venuti and bassist Jimmy Blanton would not be ignored. They paved the way for generations of spotlight-stealing jazz geniuses who pick, strum or bow, including the musicians on the handful of new releases reviewed here.
One could be excused for thinking that the alliance of Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke and Biréli Lagrène would result in an intense set of fusion. Violinist Ponty and bassist Clarke were, after all, innovators in that genre. And guitarist Lagrène, while a leader of Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy-swing bands, has also excelled on occasional fusion projects. However, their collective recording D-Stringz (Impulse) is a real change of pace, with each of the maestros being featured in an exclusively acoustic setting.
The trio, which first came together for a Ponty concert in 2012, performs six originals plus four standards. It's a treat hearing Ponty stretch out on bop-oriented pieces such as Clarke’s “Bit of Burd” (based on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”), a hard-swinging “Blue Train” and a samba version of Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” Other material ranges from stirring post-bop and moody ballads to acoustic fusion and a soulful “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The interplay between the musicians and their emphasis on joyful melodic improvising make this a particularly memorable and unanticipated outing.
It's no understatement to say that piano-banjo duets are rare. But so is the brilliance of Béla Fleck, arguably the only significant banjoist who sounds at home in a modern jazz setting. Fleck and Chick Corea recorded their studio album The Enchantment in 2007. Two (Stretch), a double-CD set, features highlights from the duo's concert performances. They play extended versions of 10 of the 11 songs from The Enchantment plus four additional numbers. While many of the pieces include strong melodies and some agreed-upon frameworks, Corea and Fleck constantly improvise and challenge each other, never coasting or playing predictably. Among the high points are a surprising bluegrass romp on the early jazz classic “Bugle Call Rag,” an episodic and extensive exploration of Corea’s “Children’s Song No. 6” and a hyper and explosive version of Fleck’s “Spectacle.” Throughout, the duo creates dramatic and mutually inspiring music that occupies its own category, beyond jazz or bluegrass.
Percussionist Adam Rudolph is best known for his adventurous writing (most notably for Moving Pictures) and for his longtime association with the late Yusef Lateef. His Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra’s Embracing the Eternal Light (Cuneiform) affords him the opportunity to write for an ensemble composed of nine guitarists, a bass guitarist and an electric bassist who doubles on steel guitar. The music is often quite picturesque and conjures images of a trip through the cosmos. Starting with a drone piece and continuing through concise performances titled “Solar Boat” (inspired by Sun Ra), “Galactic Drift” and “Specular,” the 13 selections form a suite that is filled with complex polyrhythms, rhythm cycles and sound explorations within the rhythms. Major jazz-world guitarists such as Rez Abbasi, Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, David Gilmore, Jerome Harris and Joel Harrison, while providing some individual heroics, blend together to form a unique orchestra. They, in turn, serve as a canvas for Rudolph’s fertile imagination as he explores new areas of sound.
On Firm Fun Fragile (Buzz Music), Dutch guitarist Marnix Busstra and his quartet with pianist Rembrandt Frerichs perform 11 original songs that cover a wide variety of moods. Busstra later asked non-musicians to supply one-word summaries of each song, which he then used as titles. To mention a few: “Deep” is somewhat downbeat; “Crazy” is humorous and manic; “Mild” starts out like cool-toned West Coast jazz; and “Smoky” is a bluesy strut. While none of the moods is all that extreme, Busstra’s singing tone — which at times resembles John Scofield's — is attractive, and he succeeds in creating thoughtful solos that make each note count. - Scott Yanow