The jazz age

Gretchen Parlato
In a Dream

There's been plenty of buzz preceding this disc. Parlato won the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition and self-released a wonderful, self-titled debut disc. Now her sophomore effort on a "real" label delivers on the expectations. There's a lightness, an airiness, to her voice that's alluring. Some singers — Carmen McRae comes to mind — have voices as solid as the faces on Mount Rushmore. Parlato is at the other extreme, a cloud of a voice floating by. And she's chosen her repertoire, accompaniment and arrangements in keeping with that. Which is to say, she'll leave "I'm Always Drunk in San Francisco" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)" to others — at least until she figures out how to make them fit. And this isn't to say she only has a "sound" — she's also a singer with ideas aplenty and the chops to deliver them. She plucks the dreamy "Azure" from the Duke Ellington songbook, stretches wordless vocals along the melody of Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P." and sings "Butterfly" by Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin from their Headhunters days. (Yes, "Butterfly," turns out to have lyrics. News to me.) From American popland she takes Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help Myself" and SWV's hit "Weak." And though there's only one Brazilian tune here — "Doralice" by way of bossa legend João Gilberto — the influence and inflections of Brazil weave throughout the aforementioned tunes and the even more obscure pieces and originals that round out the disc. Her simpatico accompanists are guitarist Lionel Loueke (an almost telepathic pairing), keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer-percussionist Kendrick Scott.

Umbo Weti
A Tribute to Leon Thomas 1937-1999: Babatunde Lea

The great Leon Thomas turns out to be not so inimitable after all. And that's not a bad thing. Thomas, for the uninitiated, started out as a Basie band blues-belter in the mold of Joe Williams, then became the vocalist most identified with the post-Coltrane avant-garde. In addition to his bedrock of blues, he brought a prayerful presence to invocations like "The Creator Has a Master Plan." And he met the volcanic horn solos of Pharoah Sanders, for instance, with some heat of his own: a kind of avant-yodel that we might not have expected anyone to pick up on in his wake. But here's vocalist Dwight Trible covering all of Thomas' bases in a band led by Thomas' former percussionist Babatunde Lea. This is a tribute disc in the narrow sense of celebrating its subject rather than taking his work into new areas. We get such Thomas classics as the aforementioned "Creator," "Boom Boom" (from the John Lee Hooker songbook), "Cousin Mary" and the title track (and thankfully leaving behind Thomas' badly dated "China Doll"). Saxophonist Ernie Watts, keyboardist Patrice Rushen and bassist Gary Brown round complete the band.

Edmar Castaneda
Entre Cuerdas
Artist Share

Pioneers like Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane (both Detroiters, by the way) legitimized the harp as an instrument in jazz. Columbian-born Castaneda is taking he instrument somewhere new, adding to the familiar aural palette a percussive, flamenco-like attack over in-the-pocket bass lines. He can evoke those shimmering curtains of sound that Alice Coltrane used so well, but his more aggressive, two-handed attacks have to be heard. A New Yorker since 1994, Castenada incorporates Central American and South American elements into his playing, and they dominate more than a few tunes. But that's not say that he can't deliver more straight-ahead swinging numbers. He uses an unusual basic trio of harp, drums (Dave Silliman) and trombone (Marshall Gilkes), supplying bass notes from the harp to give an anchor where needed. Guests include electric guitarist John Scofield and vibraphonist Joe Locke.

Donny McCaslin

In 2004, this tenor (mostly) saxophonist picked up a Grammy nomination for a solo turn on Concert in the Garden with Maria Schneider's orchestra. Leading a little big band of his own on disc for the first time (or more accurately, a sax 'n' rhythm combo plus four-to-five brass), he sounds more than a little like Schneider, though this outfit is more about the kick in contrast to the floating harmonies that are Schneider's specialty. Highpoint: "Rock Me" with a knotty roller-coaster riff in its theme that sets up a shoutin' solo from the leader and then a trippy organ-backed solo from guitarist Ben Monder. This punched-up combo outing raises expectations for a true big band disc from McCaslin in the future.

W. Kim Heron may know a thing or two about jazz. Send comments to [email protected]
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