The fall season already has produced several memorable jazz recordings. Among the best so far:
Tammy McCann: "Love Stories" (JTMusic). At last, Chicago singer McCann has released a recording worthy of her remarkable instrument. "Love Stories" takes on standard repertory, but the songs sound refreshed, thanks to the range of colors, textures and phrasings at McCann's command. From the opening track, "On Green Dolphin Street," it's clear that McCann is viewing well-worn tunes in deeply personal ways, altering rhythms and melody notes in expressive ways. No one is going to compete with Billie Holiday's version of "Don't Explain," yet there's no denying the singularity of McCann's whispered tone or the penetrating, worldly wise insight of her reading. Listen to the bloom of her sound in "Watch What Happens," the languor of her rhythms in "Old Devil Moon" and the silken delicacy of her account of "Daydream," and you're hearing a major artist announcing her gifts to the world. Much credit must go to pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood, who has given McCann something no one else has yet has been able to provide her: instrumental settings that respect tradition but sound utterly of the moment.
Jack Cooper: "Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra" (Planet Arts). At first glance, the thought of applying Ives' craggy classical music to a jazz context might seem absurd, considering Ives' gnarly dissonances, heavily layered orchestrations and complexly overlapping time signatures. But the character of Ives' music – which bristles with all-American hymns, anthems, marches and what-not – surely shows parallels to jazz. Cooper proves the point with stunning jazz-orchestral arrangements (or perhaps we should call them transformations) of Ives' works. In effect, Cooper's orchestrations deftly capture the spirit of Ives' originals while expressing it in a jazz context. The gauzy textures Cooper brings to "Mists" and "The Last Reader," the subtleties of color and voicing that emerge in "The Children's Hour" and the harmonic sophistication of "The Camp Meeting" cast a translucent new light on Ives' work. Many soloists contribute significantly here, particularly trumpeter Terell Stafford and pianist Randy Ingram. Ives purists might not be pleased, but one can't help but think that the composer himself would have been delighted with this wholly unorthodox approach to his thoroughly unorthodox music. "Mists" not only does justice by Ives but emerges as one of the most beautiful large-ensemble jazz recordings of the year to date.
Freddy Cole: "Singing the Blues" (HighNote Records). Contrary to conventional wisdom of our times, blues singing does not have to be loud, vulgar, raucous, overwrought or steeped in a rock esthetic. Nat "King" Cole's younger brother affirms as much in every track of "Singing the Blues," which offers a characteristically sleek, ultra-suave approach to the music. Whether he's coolly riding a triplets backbeat in "This Time I'm Gone for Good," making a soft lament of "Another Way to Feel" or digging into the grit and grain of his voice in the title track, Cole shows the power of understatement. And "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men" rarely has sounded more profound, or blue, Cole's knowing vocals accompanied by his poetic piano commentary and Harry Allen's tenor saxophone.
Kenny Werner: "Coalition" (Half Note Rercords). Werner ranks among the most creative pianists in jazz, and his new quintet packs an extraordinary amount of musical information into every compositions. Joined by guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Benjamin Koppel and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, Werner has convened a stylistically far-flung ensemble in which no single player dominates. Instead, listeners hear a bracing counterpoint of ideas, the distinct rhythmic concepts of Zenon's Puerto Rico and Loueke's Benin figuring into a complex, texturally ornate music. Yet for all the melodic activity, harmonic restlessness and rhythmic surge of this music, "Coalition" makes its points quite lucidly. No two compositions are similar, with instrumental balances constantly shifting and thematic material ever in flux. But the virtuosity of the players, the depth of the compositions and the rigor of the development of ideas make for gripping listening.
Conrad Herwig: "The Latin Side of Joe Henderson" (Half Note Records). The latest installment of trombonist Herwig's Latin-tinged re-conceptions of jazz repertory proves as satisfying as earlier installments. True, the compositions of saxophonist Henderson aren't as widely known as pieces by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and other, previous Herwig subjects. But that's part of the appeal of this venture, Herwig and a nimble ensemble reviving and re-considering Henderson works worth hearing in this context. These are not glancing traversals of Henderson's compositions but extensive reimaginings of them, with the formidable Joe Lovano taking Henderson's spot in the tenor chair. Though recorded live, the ensemble sounds quite cohesive, Lovano and Herwig's front-line work enriched by Ronnie Cuber's baritone saxophone, Bill O'Connell's piano, Richie Flores' percussion and more. The ebullience of the performance, perhaps partly attributable to the live setting, makes a strong case for Henderson compositions such as "Recorda Me" and "Black Narcissus," as well as Kenny Dorham's classic "Blue Bossa."
Stefano Bollani: "Joy In Spite of Everything" (ECM Records). Rarely has an album's title more aptly suited the music it represents. Pianist Bollani has created a joyous quintet recording, indeed, its rhythms buoyant at all tempos, its textures utterly transparent, its musical gestures direct and unaffected. With guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophone Mark Turner as his primary foils, Bollani unfurls original compositions notable for their melodic elegance and wide-open sense of space. And then there's Bollani's pianism, which captures attention whenever he places his fingers on the keys. Extraordinarily subtle in touch, lyrical in tone and gentle in delivery, Bollani's pianism – sensitively recorded here – piques interest with every passing sixteenth note. Ultimately, Bollani has created compositions that also serve as musical environments, each quite easy to get lost in.
Ann Hampton Callaway: "From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project." In a jazz era notable for meager voices (female and male), Callaway stands out. The size of her sound and creaminess of her timbres always have been immensely appealing and make her a natural to salute the work of Sarah Vaughan. But this album, recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, is no mere genuflection, its vocal colors and turns of phrase pure Callaway. The singer produces plenty of brass in "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," dusky tone in a medium-swing version of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" and poignant phrasing in Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge." Pianist Ted Rosenthal's decision to draw upon Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata as backdrop for Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" is a bit much, but otherwise the pianist, trumpeter Randy Sandke and reedist Dick Oatts, among others, serve Callaway well.
"Portraits in Jazz": Howard Reich's e-book collects his exclusive interviews with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others, as well as profiles of early masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Get "Portraits in Jazz" at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.