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CD Recommendations: June 2012

Martin Taylor & Alan Barnes: Two For the Road (Woodville Records) 

With the right combination of musicians, the duo can be THE most satisfying of jazz line-ups – and this CD is a perfect example. Martin Taylor (guitar) and Alan Barnes (clarinet) have created a beautiful, intimate, album which showcases their rapport and mutual respect and plays out like a series of conversations – some cosy chats, some playful banter and some lively debates. And you don’t have to be a fan of Taylor’s guitar monologues to get a huge kick out of his lovely, warm, lyrical playing on this CD. A joy.

Sonny Stitt: Now!/Salt and Pepper (Impulse! 2-on-1)

Two early 1960s albums from the underrated tenor and alt saxophonist Sonny Stitt appear on this CD. Now! (1963) finds him asserting himself mostly on the tenor, undoubtedly to shake off the Charlie Parker comparisons, but, with his driving, lyrical style and the Bird-like improvisations, the influence is still very evident. On Salt and Pepper (1964), accompanied by an almost identical classy trio (led by pianist Hank Jones), he goes head to head with the tenor man Paul Gonsalves with memorable results.

Harry Allen & Rossano Sportiello: Conversations – The Johnny Burke Songbook (CD Baby.Com/Indys)

An instrumental album paying tribute to a lyricist may seem a bit odd but American tenor saxophonist has a personal connection to Johnny Burke, the writer of such standards as It Could Happen to You, Pennies From Heaven and Like Someone In Love. All of these are included in this lovely CD which finds the eloquent tenor man well-matched with the elegant pianist Sportiello. Their pairing is magic on the ballads especially, and it’s a rare treat to hear some of the seldom played songs Burke co-wrote for Paramount movies as well as such “new” finds as I Wish You Needed Me.

 Nova Scotia Jazz Band with Brian Kellock: The Beale Street Blues (Cside) 

The fourth CD from Scotland’s swinging-est purveyors of hot, Chicago-style, jazz is another wee cracker. This time, the original quartet, headed by cornettist Mike Daly and clarinettist/saxophonist John Burgess, is joined by their regular special guest Brian Kellock on piano – and the results are superb, notably such lesser-played numbers as Shim Me Sha Wabble and That Da Da Strain. Only possible quibble? I’ll Be a Friend With Pleasure is such a pretty, poignant tune, it would be a treat to hear what Daly and Kellock could do with it at a slower speed.

Benny Carter: Four Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz) 

The quartet of 1950s/1960 LPs featured on this double CD showcases almost every one of jazz legend Benny Carter’s talents: as composer, arranger, alto saxophonist, tenor saxophonist and trumpeter. These LPs also find him in the top-notch company of the likes of Ben Webster, Andre Previn, Jimmy Rowles, Frank Rosolino and Barney Kessel – all of whom play on the opening album, the terrific Jazz Giant – and Earl Hines. It’s perhaps not essential Carter – but a superb snapshot of the great man in his (very long) middle period.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Jim Galloway

This sublime Duke Ellington number was my very favourite piece played by the wonderful Scots ex-pat saxophonist Jim Galloway and the ever-delightful pianist Rossano Sportiello at the Norwich Jazz Party.

Anyone who assumed that Galloway would be playing his usual soprano sax for his duo set with Sportiello was, as you can see, in for a surprise as he had borrowed Karen Sharp’s baritone for the occasion and played the whole set on it.

I love hearing great musicians in the intimate, duo setting – and this particular set was a joy from start to finish, thanks to the chemistry between the players, the top-rate performances and the imaginative choice of tunes which included such gems as Black Butterfly (Ellington), Lotus Blossom (Strayhorn) and Old-Fashioned Love (James P Johnson).

Here’s another one they played which I’ve never heard live before – the jaunty Santa Claus Blues 

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Alain Bouchet

One of the personal pleasures of this year’s Norwich Jazz Party was the chance for me to see the French trumpeter Alain Bouchet again – and the first time that I’d seen him in the company of Warren Vache, who had put us in contact in the first instance. Two decades ago!

In fact, it was exactly 20 years ago – in May 1992 – that I first heard of Alain, whose style of playing has been shaped by very similar influences to Warren’s. I was already a fan of Mr Vache’s music back then, and during a brief visit to my home town of Glasgow from Paris where I was working as an “assistante” in a school, I went with my father to hear Warren perform at the Glasgow Society of Musicians. On learning that I was based in Paris, he put me in touch with Alain who was then working regularly in the French capital.

My pal and I went to hear him at Le Montana, a club on the rue Saint-Benoit in Saint Germain-des-Pres. As impoverished students, we couldn’t afford the bar prices so we shared (and topped up) a bottle of Perrier as we listened to the jazz. Alain’s group didn’t come on until 10pm and the music wasn’t due to finish until 2am, by which time the trains out to the suburb where we stayed would have stopped forthe night. Determined not to miss a note, I persuaded my pal to stay until the end of the gig. Then we crossed the boulevard Saint-Germain to the Pub Saint-Germain , where we nursed another Perrier until 6am when our trains started running again. The things we do for jazz…

Anyway, I was an immediate fan of Alain’s lovely playing. Warm, lyrical, swinging and joyful, it is beautifully captured on a CD from that era which I still play regularly: his 1991 Jazzology album Introducing Alain Bouchet (in His Premier American Recording) which found him in the company of Vache and several other top American solo stars.

In Norwich, he was in great company too – playing with the likes of Rossano Sportiello (piano) for the very first time. Here they are in action:

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012

Aaaarrrgghhh! Where to start? The Norwich Jazz Party has been finished for three days and I’m still processing the music that I heard there. The jazz party format is great fun but it’s also an endurance test for those of us who want to get as much out of the concentrated musical activity as possible – while avoiding turning into zombies. Mind you, by the end of the first afternoon, I was definitely suffering from what saxophonist Alan Barnes diagnosed as “jazz fatigue”. Continuous jazz, with only a two-hour break for dinner and a change of shirt for the sweatier musicians, is the order of the day at one of these events and it’s so intense that it can threaten to sap the fun out of the party – if you don’t take precautions.

This year, I had vowed to take more breaks and try not to fret about what I might miss. I bought a tripod for my camera and planned to leave the photographic equipment doing the work of recording the music so I could nip off for some fresh air/chat/kip. However, the tripod idea didn’t work out – too many heads in the way – so I did sit through just about everything and, in the process, perfected the art of holding the camera still using props.

At least I knew that if my brain switched totally to zombie mode, I wouldn’t have to rely on zombie-penned notes as aide-memoirs later on.  Mind you, watching back some of the videos, I’ve realised that all the numbers I marked as the stand-outs for me at the time are still the stand-outs. So at least I’m consistent…

I’ll be writing a considered overview for Jazzwise magazine but instead of the more detailed reviews I’ve done in the past on this blog, I’m going to let the music do the talking – and throw in comments and observations here and there.  It didn’t help that Marty Grosz wasn’t in attendance this year – I always feel inspired to take notes when he’s throwing gags around the place.

The first clip, above, was the highlight for me of a Benny Carter-themed set on Sunday night, and this next one – with a similar line-up – is from a Coleman Hawkins-inspired session on the same day. More to follow as I get it all uploaded .. 

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CD Recommendations: November 2011

Houston Person: Moment to Moment (HighNote) 

As anyone who’s heard the seventysomething American saxophonist Houston Person perform knows, he plays with an authority, a bluesiness and a robustness which mark him out as belonging to the Gene Ammons/Illinois Jacquet school of tenor sax. Those qualities, plus his lyricism and graceful handling of ballads, shine through on this CD which teams him with boppish trumpeter Terell Stafford plus quartet. Highlights include Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, Johnny Green’s I Cover the Waterfront, plus the bossa E Nada Mais.

Coleman Hawkins: Today and Now/Desafinado (Impulse)

To mark the 50th anniversary of Impulse! Records, a new series of two-album CDs is being launched. This double bill of 1963 LPs by the saxophone giant Coleman Hawkins is superb. Playing as beautifully as ever in the last decade of his life (and accompanied on both albums by a rhythm section led by pianist Tommy Flanagan), the Hawk is in raunchy form on the uptempo numbers on the first album, notably the sensational opener Go L’il Liza, and manages to make the bossa nova his own on a string of tracks associated with Stan Getz. The absolute stand-out, however, is the sublime Love Song (AKA My Love and I) from the movie Apache.

Warren Vache: Ballads and Other Cautionary Tales (Arbors Records) Few artists are brave enough to make an album entirely composed of ballads, but with American cornettist Warren Vache – one of the greats at wearing his heart on his musical sleeve – it’s a long overdue and natural decision. The 12 tracks featured here show that ballads come in many forms – sexy, bluesy and playful among them. Vache is at the top of his game these days, and is surrounded here by the best, including pianists Tardo Hammer and Richard Wyands, and special guests John Allred (trombone) and Houston Person (tenor sax).

Johnny Hodges: Second Set – Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz) Attention Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges fans! Devotees of the slinkiest, sexiest alto saxophonist of them all should note that this double CD includes a Rabbit rarity: his 1958 strings album, Johnny Hodges Plays the Prettiest Gershwin, hitherto very difficult to come by. You may already have the other three albums (from the early 1950s) but the strings is a must; Hodges’s exquisite, swoonsome sax beautifully complemented by the Stuttgart Light Orchestra playing Russ Garcia’s elegant arrangements.

Scott Hamilton Scandinavian Five: Live at Nefertiti (Stunt Records)

Tenor sax king Scott Hamilton shows that he reigns supreme on this Swedish-made album (and DVD), recorded in a Gothenburg jazz club with a band comprising members from Sweden and Denmark. Devotees of Hamilton’s rich, full-bodied sax sound and swinging style may not find it as essential a buy as his recent duo CD with Rossano Sportiello but it’s a great find all the same, with Hamilton demonstrating how thrilling a live player he is, and that, when it comes to ballads, few can touch him.

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!! (OJC Remasters) The pioneering alto saxophonist’s first recording session (from 1958) is, perhaps surprisingly for someone whose name connotes far-out, avant-garde jazz, extremely accessible – and very much in the bop idiom. Accompanied by a quartet featuring Don Cherry on trumpet and the hard-swinging Walter Norris on piano, Coleman powers his way through nine of his own compositions, showcasing his squawky yet appealing sound and conversational style in the process. Highlights include the immensely catchy The Blessing, Sphinx and the opening track, Invisible, which launched Coleman on unsuspecting listeners for the first time.

The Rossano Sportiello Trio: Lucky to Be Me (Arbors Records) 

The wonderful Italian-born, New York-based pianist Rossano Sportiello is the darling of the mainstream jazz scene these days – and this trio album shows why. He has a similar lightness and delicacy of touch as the late John Bunch, as well as a comparable combination of lyricism, swing and whimsical humour. This CD, on which he’s accompanied by Frank Tate (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums), is a hugely enjoyable, classy affair.


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Nairn Jazz Festival 2004

I was too busy throwing up round the clock (I was pregnant with twins) to make the 2003 Nairn Jazz Festival but I managed to get to the 2004 event – for one day only.. As it turned out, however, heavy rain caused a landslip on the train line between Inverness and Glasgow and I ended up having to spend an extra night away from the babies…

This write-up was first published in the September 2004 issue of Jazz Review 

It takes some jazz festivals a week to notch up the quantity of quality music on offer in a 24-hour period at the Nairn event. In the space of just one day, slap bang in the middle of this most laid-back of festivals, it was possible to hear clarinettist Bobby Gordon three times, and many of the other stars – including Bob Wilber, James Chirillo, Rossano Sportiello and John Sheridan – twice apiece. Old band-mates were reunited, and new alliances were formed. And this year, the programme featured a significant injection of new names (drummer Herlin Riley’s Swing Quartet went down a storm with aficionados of a more contemporary persuasion) alongside long-established favourites.

One Nairn newcomer whom it was impossible to avoid was the veteran American violinist Johnny Frigo. It may not have been his fault, but by the time he had gatecrashed his second concert (delaying the start, much to the inevitably vocal chagrin of Kenny Davern who was expecting to kick-off at the advertised time), Frigo was beginning to outstay his welcome. His impressive age (he’s 87) and impish sense of fun may allow him to get away with a great deal (a degree of arrogance and a penchant for reading his own poetry onstage to name but two examples), but his invitation for requests was dangerous, since what most of the audience wanted to hear was the band they had bought tickets for – Summit Reunion.

This musical meeting of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber – the twin titans of the clarinet (plus, in Wilber’s case, the soprano sax) – turned out to be well worth the wait. It’s two years since their last Nairn summit, and clearly the time apart has had only a positive effect on their collaborations. Their concert in the excellent, Davern-pleasing,acoustics of the Newton Hotel’s conference room was – by their own reckoning – their best ever. What shone through was the fact that they were revelling not only in each other’s company, but also in the company of a terrific band – the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello (whose exquisitely tasteful playing won him many fans), guitarist James Chirillo, bass player Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Tony De Nicola.

This was classic Soprano Summit: Davern and Wilber jostle and joust with the melody, bouncing it to and fro before one of them throws down the gauntlet with his solo; then, all solos taken, the pair reunite for an invariably exhilarating  climax, packed with the kind of harmonies that cause spines to tingle. This time out, the tunes ranged from such old SS favourites as Some of These Days to numbers – Comes Love, for one – which aren’t associated with this band. As ever, the leaders seemed energised by each other’s playing, and the results were utterly thrilling.

Less thrilling, but extremely satisfying nevertheless, was the reunion of most of the group featured on the recent Arbors CD Yearnings. Clarinettist Bobby Gordon, making his Nairn debut this year, initially appeared ill at ease next to the majestic-sounding Bob Wilber on the bandstand and, until the volume of his microphone was bumped up, he didn’t make much of a musical impression. By half-time, however, he had hit his stride, playing with ever greater assurance, and revealing – even more than he had in a far from relaxed duo concert with James Chirillo the previous day – a breathy, Pee Wee Russell-informed style which was a joy on his featured number If You Were Mine. Towards the end of the set, he felt sufficiently comfortable to sing –  a charmingly unaffected, characterful rendition of Sweet Lorraine which was reminiscent of Doc Cheatham’s similarly gentle vocal version.

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CD Recommendations: July 2011

Ben Webster & Johnny Hodges: The Complete 1960 Sextet Jazz Cellar Recordings (Solar Records) Released for the first time in its complete form, this is a historic encounter between two of the greatest exponents of the saxophone in jazz: tenor man Webster and altoist Hodges. It does not disappoint; in fact, it’s an absolute treasure, a must for fans of Hodges’s sinewy sound and/or Webster’s breathy tenor – and anyone who loves funky, blues-infused jazz. The dream team is swingingly accompanied by a quartet featuring Lou Levy (piano) and Herb Ellis (guitar), and this 17-track CD also includes five rare octet outings from 1961. Blues’ll Blow Your Fuse, Ifida and The Mooche-like I’d Be There (surely a tribute to their Ellingtonian background?) are among the many stand-outs.. Frankly, I’ve been playing this obsessively since before I even got my own copy (I had already worn out my dad’s) – and I’m hoping that that great tenor-alto duo of our time, Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, unearth some of these brilliant tunes for their next joint outing..

Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark: Tell Me Once Again (Linn Records)

Vested interest declaration time: I wrote the liner notes for this, the first duo CD by the peerless Scots vocalist Kidd and her wonderful guitarist Clark. Their duets have long been highlights of Kidd’s concerts, and this collection of 12 songs shows why. This is musical storytelling at its best, and a superb example of the scope within the duo format: along with several exquisite ballads, the songs range from R ‘n’ B – You Don’t Know Me – to a bossa nova version of Stevie Wonder’s Moon Blue. There’s a lovely arc to this highly personal album which culminates, fittingly, with The End of a Love Affair.

Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (OJC Remasters )

Stan Getz’s playing is like a cool summer breeze, and this lovely 1958 album is as fresh and lovely-sounding as his more famous, subsequent, bossa nova LPs. He and vibes player Tjader have a great rapport, and, accompanied by a quartet that includes pianist Vince Guaraldi, work their way through a delicious mix of standards and Tjader-penned tunes, with Guaraldi’s joyful Ginza Samba a rousing opener. A gem.

Scott Hamilton & Rossano Sportiello: Midnight at Nola’s Penthouse (Arbors Records)

In recent years, the American tenor sax great Scott Hamilton and the nimble-fingered Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello have increasingly sought out each other’s musical company, and their affinity is evident on all ten tracks included here. The phrase “less is more” could have been coined for this supremely tasteful double act: Sportiello’s delicate touch and Hamilton’s soulful, breathy sax were made for each other, and the choices of off-the-beaten-track tunes – among them such ballads as the beautifully spare Wonder Why, A Garden in the Rain and In the Middle of a Kiss – are spot-on.

Karen Sharp: Spirit (Trio Records) 
Baritone saxophonist Karen Sharp graduated from the Humphrey Lyttelton band and is now established as an in-demand solo star, who fits perfectly into mainstream and contemporary line-ups. This quartet CD, which features her Tokyo Trio colleague Nikki Iles on piano, veers more towards the contemporary and features mainly jazz compositions written by pianists as well as some familiar movie/musical numbers. A terrific introduction to Sharp’s authoritative, always-swinging baritone sax style.

Warren Vache, Alan Barnes and the Woodville All-Stars: The London Session (Woodville Records) Having written the liner notes, I’ve been living with this CD for months – and I’m still finding more things to love about it. Cornettist Vache and multi-instrumentalist Barnes may have worked together many times but this album is as exciting as they come: it features them getting their teeth into some imaginative arrangements in a septet setting. Their delight in each other’s company is evident throughout, and both are at the top of their game, notably when tearing up such storming numbers as Molasses.

Various: First Impulse – The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary (Verve) To mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic jazz label Impulse!, founded by producer Creed Taylor, an impressive, four-disc (but LP size) box set has been released comprising all six of the albums that Taylor himself produced – plus some previously unissued rehearsals by John Coltrane. It’s a great collection, with classic recordings from Ray Charles (Genius + Soul = Jazz), Gil Evans (Out of the Cool), Oliver Nelson (Blues and The Abstract Truth), Coltrane (Africa/Brass) and Kai Winding (The Great Kai and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones).

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