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Jazz CDs that travel new and different paths

Stewart Oksenhorn

Writing recently about Medeski, Martin & Wood, I commented that the keyboard trio had taken improvisation to the heights. Not only were their performances marked by spontaneity, but each recording seemed to be a thing unto itself – approached differently, recorded differently, using different sounds, instruments and techniques.This is an uncommon thing in the jam-band world, where Medeski, Martin & Wood tends to reside. But in the jazz realm, which has informed MMW as much as the jam world, it is standard practice to start from scratch with each recording – assembling a different combo, bringing in different guests, and even reaching for an entirely different sound and feel.Following are reviews of recent jazz CDs by artists looking to explore new paths.John Scofield Trio, “Live, En Route”produced by Scofield (Verve)John Scofield appears to be just a groovy guy. The guitarist has earned himself a reasonably large audience over the last decade by aligning himself with the jam-band scene, and making a series of groove-heavy records. “A Go Go,” his CD with keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, stands as a classic of groove-jazz.On “En Route,” Scofield plays it straight – or at least tries to. On this live recording, from New York’s Blue Note in December, Scofield pares it down to a trio, with a rhythm section of bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. But Swallow is on electric bass, Stewart has a definite funk in his beat, and Sco’ just can’t help but groove.All of which means that the Scofield Trio gets it almost just right on “En Route.” Scofield’s tone is sharp and his phrasings are angular; they seem to jump unexpectedly out of the corners. Stewart’s loose-limbed style is a perfect complement in making straight-ahead jazz with a natural sense of groove. If there is one big complaint here, it is that Swallow can hardly be heard beneath Sco’s bold tone.Greg Osby, “Public” produced by Osby (Blue Note)On his wonderful last album, “St. Louis Shoes,” saxophonist Greg Osby got nostalgic, paying tribute to his birthplace with bright-toned covers of mostly older jazz tunes. He also took a part-time job as a frequent guest with the Dead, the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead.”Public” reveals Osby’s looser and more modernist sides. Using much the same band as on “St. Louis Shoes,” Osby takes a sharp turn in sound and approach. “Public,” recorded live at New York’s Jazz Standard in January, features three original tunes. Most of the tracks, including a version of “Summertime” and the Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker bop tune “Shaw Nuff,” extend more than 10 minutes, where most everything on “St. Louis Shoes” wraps up in six tight minutes. Osby and his band – featuring trumpeter Nicholas Payton on four tracks – allows for some spacious explorations, like the sax-and-piano dialogue that opens Osby’s 13-plus-minute “Visitation.” The album concludes with Joan Osborne – an associate of Osby’s in the Dead – singing a smoky version of Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man.”Joe Lovano, “I’m All For You” produced by Lovano (Blue Note)Saxophonist Joe Lovano is not one to be caught standing still. One album he’s honoring his Italian roots, the next he’s assembling his nine-piece band for a be-bop session, and then he’s on to his “Trio Fascination” series, an ongoing recording project that has him mingling trios and instrumentation on one album.On “I’m All For You,” Lovano becomes a balladeer, and it’s a role that suits him as well as any of the others. Backed by an aged and wise trio of pianist Hank Jones, drummer Paul Motian and bassist George Mraz, Lovano breathes airy life into slow tunes he has played over the years: “Stella By Starlight,” “Monk’s Mood” and “Don’t Blame Me.” Lovano is without equal in his saxophone tone, and the deliberate pace allows him to shape each note. There is nothing forced or overly sentimental here, which is why the ballad, in the hands of Lovano and friends, can seem like the hippest thing happening.Charlie Hunter Trio, “Friends Seen and Unseen” produced by Lee Townsend (Ropeadope)Like Lovano, guitarist Charlie Hunter seems motivated in large part by a desire to tread new ground for himself. Hunter’s recent albums have included the vocal-oriented “Songs from the Analog Playground”; “Duo,” with percussionist Leon Parker; a song-for-song cover of Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread”; and last year’s “Right Now Move,” featuring a quintet of harmonica, saxophone, trombone and drums.With “Friends Seen and Unseen,” Hunter – whose eight-string guitar allows him to play bass, lead and rhythm guitar, as well as approximate an organ sound – returns to old ground. His first trio record in 12 years features woodwind player John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips. Appropriate to the smaller combo, Hunter scales back his playing to a more intimate, conversational level. The dynamics on a tune like “Darkly,” with Ellis on flute, are more subtle, but no less interesting than when Hunter is playing on a bigger field. As always, Hunter has a way of grooving using the most minimal strokes of sound; check out “Soweto’s Where It’s At,” which recalls both New Orleans funk and South African township music with just the slightest bits of sound. For those looking for the more extroverted side of Hunter, there is “Shuffle,” with skronging sax and wah-wah guitar.James Carter, “Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge”produced by Ahmet Ertegun and Carter (Warner Bros.)In 2000, saxophonist James Carter released two albums (simultaneously, if synapses are firing correctly). One, “Layin’ in the Cut,” was an electro-funk-jazz recording; the other, “Chasin’ the Gypsy,” was a tribute to guitarist Django Reinhardt.”Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge” is neither of those. There is no concept here, assuming that getting onstage and blowing your heart out doesn’t make up a concept. At Baker’s, in his hometown of Detroit, Carter assembles a group of fellow Detroit homies. Carter, who moves between soprano, tenor and baritone saxes, is on fire throughout; there’s probably not a more electrifying saxophonist playing today. Listen to him trade ear-bending solos with fellow saxman David Murray on a version of “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Keeping pace with Carter are organist Gerard Gibbs and 88-year-old saxophonist and singer Franz Jackson, who both put their stamp on the gig.”Live at Baker’s” comes as close to the exuberance of a 1949 New York jam session as you’re going to hear these days.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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