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Bob McWilliams

RockyGrass 2014

RockGrass2014Stage BMRockyGrass 2014 (Photo by Bob McWilliams)

RockGrass2014 BMRockyGrass 2014 crowds on the first day of the festival. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)

Last September, massive floodwaters from the St. Vraim River devastated the small Front Range town of Lyons, Colo., including the Planet Bluegrass Ranch, site of the annual RockyGrass and Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. While the main stage survived the floods, the Wildflower stage, office buildings and much of the rest of the ranch was swept away or buried in mud and other debris. But as soon as the waters receded, the Planet Bluegrass staff embarked on a crash recovery program to ensure that this year's festivals would go on. I can bear witness to both the amazing restoration of the festival grounds and the very impressive music at this year's RockyGrass festival. The entire Planet Bluegrass staff, led by Craig Ferguson, is to be highly commended.


BelaFleckAndAbigalWashburn TMBéla Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn, of Uncle Earl, on day one of RockyGrass 2014. (Photo by Trish McWilliams)I'm not going to go into a set by set review of this summer's RockyGrass, but want to mention some of my favorite moments. Hot Rize, which has only performed a few dates a year for many years, has a new CD out this fall and will be embarking on an extensive touring schedule over the coming year. They were in superb form this year, with many great new songs (most notably Tim O'Brien's "Blues Is Fallin'"), and their traveling companions, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers were there as well, with special guest trailblazers Elmo Otto and Waldo Otto (the two bore some resemblance to Sam Bush and Darol Anger). If Hot Rize comes to your town this year, do not miss them. In their first appearance together in six years, Uncle Earl showed why they were a beloved all-female string band, with zesty playing, singing and a bit of clogging, as well. Abigail Washburn of Uncle Earl is mostly busy these days both being a mom and playing duo shows with her husband, banjo legend Béla Fleck. Their set was outstanding, and they announced they are recording a duo album--you can bet you will be hearing that (and that new Hot Rize) on Trail Mix.


StuartDuncanAndNoamPikelny TMStuart Duncan and Noam Pikelny on day two of RockyGrass 2014. (Photo by Trish McWilliams)Three other special duo sets captivated me. Banjo player Noam Pikelny, best known for his work with the Punch Brothers, played music from his recent CD, "Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" in the company of legendary Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan. And Jazz met Bluegrass as guitarist Julian Lage (who was hired by legendary jazz vibist Gary Burton when Lage was in his teens) and guitarist Chris Eldridge were adept at both light fingered jazz and hard driving bluegrass. Meanwhile, on the smaller Wildflower stage, another guitar duo, of Grant Gordy and Ross Martin sparkled, even doing a tune by legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell. Speaking of jazzy bluegrass, the Matt Flinner Trio had dazzling improvisations in music that drew on both traditions.


Young bands who impressed me included last year's band contest winners, the Railsplitters, whose banjo player Dusty Rider (yes, his real name) was stranded at his home in Lyons during the floods, and Della Mae, a high energy, all-female band that includes the fantastic fiddler Kimber Ludiker.


DarolAnger TimOBrien_TMDarol Anger and Tim O'Brien on day three of RockyGrass 2014. (Photo by Trish McWilliams)One of the most purely FUN sets was Darol Anger's Big Chill. The fiddler—and mentor to so many young string musicians—led a large aggregation through pop music of the ‘60s (with songs by the likes of Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and the Kinks), concluding with a very cool version of the Rascals' "Groovin', with the line "You and Me and Leslie" changed to "You and Me and Leslies," at which point mandolinist Dominick Leslie was joined by his parents and siblings for a dance across the front of the stage.


YouAndMeAndLeslies BMYou and Me and Leslies on day three of RockyGrass 2014. Dominick Leslie (far left) was joined by his parents and siblings for a dance across the front of the stage. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)


There was plenty more great music. Alison Krauss and Union Station were totally at the top of their game, with especially strong performances by banjo player Ron Block and dobro master Jerry Douglas. Peter Rowan was a treasure, focusing on traditional bluegrass (or, as he sang "Keepin' It Between the Lines), while Laurie Lewis and her Right Hands were a delight. The Steep Canyon Rangers showed they don't need that Steve Martin guy to put on a great show. Pert Near Sandstone provided a blast of youthful energy. I had to leave before Sam Bush's closing set started, but it was a blast to just being around Sam before that. His enthusiasm and energy are a real hallmark of RockyGrass.


My advice: if you want to go to RockyGrass, go to the Planet Bluegrass website and sign up for their email list. This year's festival sold out very quickly way back at the start of the year. And check out the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest that happens every August. I am not able to attend that this year, but it is on the same beautiful site and always has great lineups.

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Bob McWilliams

Radio Bob's 2013 Jazz Year in Review


bob mcwilliamsBob McWilliams,               aka Radio Bob Beyond my top five albums for the year, I was quite impressed with many other jazz offerings in 2013 (click for my Top 5 Jazz Albums of the year). Here are my thoughts on these notable new jazz releases.




A Year In Review: 2013

AfterBlueOn the vocal front, Tierney Sutton collaborated with pianist Larry Goldings, members of the Turtle Island Quartet, and guests such as Hubert Laws and Al Jarreau in a gorgeous tribute to Joni Mitchell, After Blue. Highlights include the duet with cellist Mark Sommer on All I Want, the medley linking the jazz standard April in Paris with Joni's Free Man in Paris, and a finger-snapping take on The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines with Goldings, Laws and drummer Peter Erskine.



PocockAriel Pocock (Photo by Hadley Jordan)Making her debut on Touchstone, twenty-year-old Ariel Pocock shows off both her appealing vocal style and her serious piano chops. With a stellar band of bassist Larry Grenadier, guitarist Julian Lage, drummer Eric Harland and tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake (who appear in various combinations throughout the disc). Highlights include the opening number, a vocal and drums duet on Exactly Like You that shows Pocock to be a very rhythmically assured singer as she trades licks with drummer Eric Harland, her angular instrumental Barrel Roll, and her version of Keith Jarrett's Country. She is adept singing both standards and the songs of everyone from Randy Newman to Kate Bush.


There were plenty of good vibes in 2013, with three notable releases standing out. Gary Burton has yet to slow down and continues to hire some of the finest young musicians on the scene. Guided Tour is the second CD by the band billed as "The New Gary Burton Quartet," with guitarist Julian Lage (who first played with Burton when Lage was just 12), bassist Scott Colley, and longtime Pat Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez. Whether on the intense and complex Fred Hersch piece, Jackalope, or on Michel Legrand's quiet and lovely Once Upon a Summertime, the band is adept at many styles and rhythms. Two highlights are Burton's own memorably melodic Jane Fonda Called Again and the very tasty Sanchez piece, Monk Fish.


Warren WolfWarren Wolf (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

Joe Locke is no stranger to intense, complex music (see his work with pianist Geoffrey Keezer), but he keeps the focus on groove and melody on Lay Down My Heart: Blues and Ballads Vol. 1 with pianist Ryan Cohan, bassist David Finck and drummer Jaimeo Brown. The infectious nature of Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine gets the disc off to a stellar start, and there are terrific versions of two al-too-little played but great tunes in Sam Jones' Bittersweet and Frank Foster's Simone. A terrific album for late at night with the lights turned down low. Warren Wolf is making his case as one of the finest young vibists to come along in jazz in recent years (note his work with Christian McBride's Inside Straight and pianist Aaron Diehl), and he takes a major step forward as a leader on Wolfgang. Variety is assured by two different rhythm sections. The highlight of the tracks with Christian McBride, Benny Green and Lewis Nash is the deeply bluesy Frankie & Johnnie, and I am quite partial to the hard-driving modernism of Grand Central, one of the tracks with the younger band of Aaron Goldberg, Kris Funn and Billy Williams, Jr. There are also two lovely duets with pianist Aaron Diehl, including an exploration of their roots in classical music on the title track.



Pianist Geri Allen mostly plays solo on Grand River Crossings, her tribute to the Motown scene of her home town of Detroit. She approaches such classics as Smokey Robinson's Tears of a Clown and Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues in an elegant, sometimes oblique way, searching for the inner beauty of the music more than taking a rip-roaring approach. Though there is more of the latter on a brief take on Itching in My Heart, with saxophonist David McMurry, and Gerald Wilson's Nancy Joe, one of three tracks featuring Detroit trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave.


C Terri Lyne Carrington Photo by Annette BrownTerri Lyne Carrington (Photo by Annette Brown)The past year brought a fine selection of mostly trio dates; the most ambitious being Terri Lyne Carrington's Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, which reimagines the music of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach on a classic album from 50 years ago. Here, the core trio is Carrington on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano and Christian McBride on bass. On the opening title track, you hear the voices of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King, Jr., over the hard driving riffs. There are also effective guest spots by the likes of Tia Fuller, Robin Eubanks and Antonio Hart, but at its core, this is a piano trio album with a hard-swinging excursion on Very Special and a cool Latin groove on Wig Wise.



Benny Green Magic BeansA more traditional piano trio date is led by drummer Gerry Gibbs with pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Ron Carter; the CD is aptly titled Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio. Barron and Carter are simply jazz legends, but Gibbs fits right on a mostly hard-swinging affair that kicks off with Thelonious Monk's Epistrophy and features four Gibbs originals, notably the nod to Carter on Hear Comes Ron. There's a blazing version of Herbie Hancock's The Eye of the Hurricane and tasty tunes from Barron (Sunshower) and Carter (A Feeling). Benny Green, who recently turned 50, may be the outstanding hard bop pianist of his generation, and on Magic Beans he presents a set of original music inspired by the Blue Note sound of the late '50s to early '60s. The swinging opener, Benny's Crib, sets the stage for a superb outing with Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. Other highlights are the Latin groove of the tune named Jackie McLean (there are also tunes named Kenny Drew and Harold Land, as Green tips his hat to his jazz forebears) and the rather oblique but still swinging Flying Saucer (with hints of the piano music of Herbie Nichols and Elmo Hope).


EldarDjangirovEldar Djangirov

While it seems like pianist Eldar Djangirov has been on the scene forever, he's still just in his mid-twenties. While his technique has been dazzling from the start, his new CD is aptly titled Breakthrough, as his continued musical growth shows more and more that his technique is a means to musical expression rather than an end in itself. With his longtime bandmates bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Afonso, Djangirov's dazzling opening number, Point of View Redux (click for video) is an exciting, intricate tune that shows the brilliance of the entire band. From there, Djangirov slides into a brisk but lovely version of Somebody Loves Me, where he plays with displacing the rhythms in an effective manner. There are other jazz standards like No Moon at All and a gorgeous solo reading of Good Morning, Heartache, and an entrancing take on Radiohead's Morning Bell. Meanwhile, pianist Ahmad Jamal, whose elegant, understated piano trios brought him to fame in the mid 1950s, has actually become rather more assertive, even aggressive at times, at the piano, as he shows on his CD Saturday Morning, with hard swing and funk rhythms from bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley, and Latin percussion from Manolo Badrena, as on the kick-off track, Back to the Future. Jamal remains a master of using space and unexpected but perfect chords, as on his versions of I'll Always Be With You and I'm in the Mood for Love, and of musical quotations (he weaves in several Ellington tunes on this version of I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good).


aaron diehlPianist Aaron Diehl is only 27, but unlike many young musicians, he is less concerned with flash than with restraint, not unlike a main influence, the late John Lewis (Diehl worked in organizing the Lewis archives). On The Bespoke Man's Narrative, he adopts the format of Lewis's main band, the Modern Jazz Quartet, with vibes (Warren Wolf), bass (David Wong) and drums (Rodney Green) and like the MJQ, this quartet's music is filled with elegance, form and intricate interplay. Highlights include a gorgeous reading of Duke Ellington's Single Petal of a Rose, Diehl's own Stop and Go, with very uptempo passages alternating with medium swing, and a Milt Jackson blues done by the MJQ, The Cylinder, with a loping feel. It should also be noted that this is a beautifully-recorded album, with great definition among the instruments and a very natural sound. In other words, even more so than with most recorded music, you miss out a lot by relying on MP3s.


The RiverA long overdue leader debut for Kansas City pianist Roger Wilder, Stretch is an impressive collection of strong originals and well chosen (and not overplayed) covers. Whether on the insistent Latin groove of Pelican, with the twin soprano sax work of David Chael and Matt Otto, or the early '60s Blue Note sound of Alley Cat Harrison, with Chael and Otto on tenors, Wilder's composing talents are well displayed. He even dips into some Fender Rhodes funk on the title track. Wilder's piano chops shine on the blazing Sal Nistico line Comin' on Up, and he and Chael navigate the tricky changes in a duo version of John Coltrane's 26-2. Inspired by a month-long tour of East Africa, pianist Ryan Cohan leads a seven-piece band through an impressive album of original music infused with African musical elements (The River), in what works as one long suite, with linking music between the various tunes. The writing and playing is so strong throughout that it is hard to pick out highlights, but I am especially taken with Brother Fifi and the joyous grooves of Last Night at the Mannenberg.


MattBakerMatt BakerNew York City continues to attract and nurture an amazing amount of young jazz talent, as shown in albums by Matt Baker and Bryn Roberts. Baker is from Australia, but his first recording since moving to New York is Underground (while this was released in 2012, it first got national radio distribution this year). With bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, Baker takes a brief romp through If I Were a Bell and caresses his way through his original Central Park North. Along with six other trio tracks, the disc features trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist Dayna Stephens on two lengthy and compelling Baker originals, the title track and Refuge. Pianist Bryn Roberts keeps busy both in the world of jazz, where he has worked with many of New York's finest artists in his decade plus in the Big Apple, and in the world of pop, rock and folk, most notably touring with singer-songwriter Dar Williams. For his second leader date on Fables, Roberts assembled a first-rate band with saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Orlando LeFleming and drummer Johnathan Blake. The writing is strong and the playing excellent on the six Roberts' originals; I am especially taken by Corlear's Hook and the title track. Blake sits out on the two standards, a brisk take on In the Still of the Night, and totally lovely but poignant version of Guess I'll Hang My Tears out to Dry.


Magic 101Magic 101 by Frank Wess (who died in 2013) was recorded in 2011 when Wess was a mere 89, with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. Wess, known for his innovative work on flute and as one of the great ballad players in jazz, stuck to tenor sax here but proved he was still a great ballad artist, on such numbers as The Very Thought of You, Easy Living, and a totally solo reading of Ellington's All Too Soon. I don't know if Wess made other later, yet unreleased records, but if this was his last one, it marked an excellent end to an extraordinary career.


Kenny Garrett (Photo by Keith Major)Kenny Garrett (Photo by Keith Major)Tenor and soprano saxophonist Tim Warfield first came to my attention for his work with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and Payton, along with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Clarence Penn on Warfield's Eye of the Beholder, a more than solid post-bop outing with strong tunes and excellent musicianship. The band stretches out on Warfield's Blues for Mr. Bill to open the disc, and a lovely Warfield piece, Forever, One Day at a Time, to close. Other highlights are Warfield's solo introduction to a 5/4 version of I Remember You, and a fine mid-tempo groove on Mulgrew Miller's Second Thoughts. Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett's Pushing the World Away is the CD I most regret not squeezing into my top five of the year. Whether on the fiery post-bop of A Side Order of Hijiki, the cooking Latin rhythms (with Benito Gonzalez sounding rather Tyneresque on piano) of Chucho's Mambo, or the tasty calypso on J'ouvert (Homage to Sonny Rollins), Garrett brings intelligence and fire to his improvising. There are many other highlights as well, with the terrific bass and drums work of Corcoran Holt and Marcus Baylor anchoring most tracks and Vernell Brown sharing the piano chair with Gonzalez. Garrett even sits down at the piano for his piece Brother Brown, with some lovely string work in a tribute to pianist Donald Brown.


Jaleel ShawAt age 35, Jaleel Shaw has earned a reputation through his work with Roy Haynes and Orrin Evans as one of the finest "young veterans" on the scene and he shines on The Soundtrack of Things to Come, which features all original music and a more than solid rhythm section of pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Boris Kozlov and one of my favorite young drummers, Johnathan Blake. Shaw is on alto for eight of the ten tracks, and the soprano on the other two, and his playing can exhibit fierce swing, gospel shouts and quiet tenderness. Highlights include the searching I Wish I Didn't Know, the cooking Conclusions (great rhythm work here) and The Wheel of Life, Shaw's musical interpretation of a cloth painting representing the Buddhist doctrine of the Four Truths, which opens in a folkish vein over a droning bass line and builds into an impressively beautiful piece.


Two impressive saxophonists who are new to my ears, Diego Rivera and Adam Rongo each had impressive releases on trombonist Michael Dease's fine label, D Clef Records. Rivera, who teaches at Michigan State University, is joined by fellow faculty members Dease and bassist Rodney Whitaker, on a hard-swinging session on The Contender, and album that also features trumpeter Greg Gisbert, pianist Mika Hayama and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. Special treats are Rivera's swinging tribute to bassist Rodney Whitaker, The Whit; the catchy Latin number El Pachuco; and a terrific version of Silver's Serenade. The 25-year-old Rongo's debut CD, Tell Your Story, is a straight-ahead hard bop and post bop outing, but while not breaking new ground, features outstanding playing and an interesting selection of tunes, with a core band of Dease, Whitaker and Owens plus one of my very favorite young pianists, Emmett Cohen, with some fine guest spots from trumpeter Etienne Charles, vibist Behn Gillece, and guitarist Randy Napoleon. The CD gets off to a burning start on a Steve Wilson tune, Tell Your Story, and Rongo also covers pieces by two other sax greats, Jimmy Heath and Johnny Griffin. Charles and Gillece are part of the uptempo Rongo original, Temporary Paralysis.


Michael DeaseTrombonist Michael Dease steps to the fore on the CD Coming Home. Dease may not be well-known to the jazz public writ large, but he's built a reputation over the last decade as one of the finest trombonists on today's scene. He's got ridiculous chops (check out his original Solid Gold or his playing on Freddie Hubbard's Take It to the Ozone), but is far more than just someone showing off his technique: check out the drop-dead gorgeous playing on Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood. Other highlights include the rapid and very catchy Oscar Peterson tune, Blues Etude, and bassist Christian McBride's The Shade of the Cedar Tree. With McBride on bass and Ulysses Owens, Jr., on drums, the rhythm is both rock solid and suitably supple, and the band has two excellent veterans in pianist Renee Rosnes and saxophonist Steve Wilson.



EtienneCharlesEtienne CharlesA trio of CDs from trumpeters Etienne Charles, Tom Harrell and Terence Blanchard are among this year's highlights. On Creole Soul, the Trinidadian trumpeter Charles explores a wide variety of African and Caribbean rhythms in an album bursting with joy and movement. From the opening title track, with the Haitian vocals of Erol Josue and the fiery electric guitar of Alex Wintz to the delightful calypso that closes the CD, Doin' the Thing, this album covers a broad terrain stylistically but never feels like a jumble. The rhythm is anchored by bassist Ben Williams and drummer Obed Calvaire, along with keyboardist Kris Bowers. Check out the reworked rhythms on Thelonious Monk's Green Chimneys. At age 67, Harrell continues to be a font of creativity, as shown on Colors of a Dream, where he supplements his regular band of tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake with alto sax player Jaleel Shaw and vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding. The two bass format and mostly wordless vocals bring a new twist to the proceedings (where all the pieces are composed by Harrell), with highlights including Phantasy in Latin and Blues 2013, and the vocal take by Spalding on a classic Harrell piece, Sail Away, with Portuguese lyrics. Blanchard's Magnetic features his working quintet (plus such guests as Ron Carter, Ravi Coltrane and Lionel Loueke) blending inventive post-bop acoustic jazz with judicious use of electronics and contemporary rhythmic grooves. The title track, written by Blanchard, is an ambitious, sprawling piece stuffed with powerful drumming from Kendrick Scott and strong soloing, including Blanchard's processed trumpet. The 21-year-old bassist Joshua Crumbley's tune, Jacob's Ladder, shows the quietly powerful acoustic side of the band, and there is sprightly, dancing bop on Blanchard's Don't Run, with great interplay with guest saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and guest bassist Ron Carter. Pianist Fabian Almanzar's extended, ambitious piece Pet Step Sitter's Theme Song, explores the outer reaches.


Trumpet SummitThe Kansas City jazz scene is thriving these days, and one strong piece of evidence of that comes from trumpeters Stan Kessler, Hermon Mehari, and Mike Metheny on their CD, A Kansas City Trumpet Summit. Kessler and Metheny have been two of the stalwarts of the scene for many years, as is the bassist here, Gerald Spaits, and the new generation of KC players is served well by Mehari, pianist T.J. Martley and drummer Brian Steever. This is no wild extravaganza of "can you top this?" pyrotechnics, but rather an exercise in melodicism. All three shine on the swinging Charlie Parker tune, Segment, that opens the proceedings. There's two by Jobim, and Mike Metheny uses his EVI (electronic valve instrument) to good effect on So Danco Samba and on a lovely, little heard Bill Evans tune, Comrade Conrad. Mehari shines on Body and Soul. It's a polished, gorgeous CD, but I would love to have a live recording where everyone cuts loose more (as all three can).


Kendrick Scott (Photo by Todd Williams)Kendrick Scott (Photo by Todd Williams)Drummer Kendrick Scott, a key part of the bands of Terence Blanchard and singer Kurt Elling, leads his own terrific band, Kendrick Scott Oracle on Conviction. Considering his oft fiery work with Blanchard, one might expect this to be a showcase for drum pyrotechnics, but it's anything but. Instead, the vibe might be called "passionate restraint." The lineup is a who's who of gifted young musicians: guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Joe Sanders and saxophonist John Ellis. Highlights include a lovely reading of Herbie Hancock's I Have a Dream, the leader's Cycling Through Reality, with a fascinating drum solo intro, and a gorgeous composition by saxophonist Walter Smith III, Apollo.


Ali RyersonAli Ryerson (Photo by Dennis Guillaume)Last but not least, the one big band album that grabbed me this year was anything but a conventional big band. On Game Changer, Ali Ryerson led her Jazz Flute Big Band, with 16 flute players plus rhythm, charging through big band charts, plus three distinguished guest flute soloists: Holly Hoffman, Hubert Laws and Nestor Torres. In one way, this WAS a conventional big band, though, with swinging mainstream arrangements by the likes of Mike Wofford, Mark Levine and Michael Abene. Highlights include Clifford Brown's Daahoud, Oliver Nelson's Stolen Moments (with great work by Laws) and a gorgeous reading of Dizzy Gillespie's Con Alma, with tasty work in a Latin vein from Nestor Torres.

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