A late 2023 jazz omnibus review: Ahmad Jamal’s Emerald City Nights, Cal Tjader’s Catch The Groove, Chet Baker’s Blue Room, Lafayette Gilchrist’s Undaunted, and Espen Berg’s Water Fabric

cover, Emerald City NightsThe end of every year brings a flurry of music releases that’s hard to keep up with. To the usual year-end releases designed to appeal to holiday gift buyers has now been added the new tradition of archival sets being released for the Black Friday version of Record Store Day. As 2023 winds down, here’s a brief look at some jazz releases from late in the year.

Ahmad Jamal’s Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968

This is the third volume of Jamal Live at the Penthouse recordings released by Jazz Detective over the past two years (the first two covered 1963-64 and 1965-66). It is glorious, from the first notes of “Gloria” on Disc 1 to the fading strains of “Alfie” at the end of Disc 2. It was released on deluxe vinyl for Black Friday RSD, and on CD and download December 1.

These are superb recordings, captured at Seattle’s Penthouse by a Seattle radio host and audio engineer, produced and remastered for Zev Feldman’s Jazz Detective archival label, and overseen by Jamal himself before his death at age 92 in April 2023. The splendid package includes interviews with pianists Les McCann, Emmet Cohen, Monty Alexander, and Joe Alterman, and essays by the set’s producer Zev Feldman and journalist Eugene Holley, Jr., with rare photos by Don Bronstein, Chuck Stewart, and others.

But the music. Oh, the music. Jamal, born and trained in Pittsburgh, was one of the masters of the keyboard, a true giant of what he insisted on calling American classical music, never jazz.

“In Pittsburgh, we didn’t separate the forms. We studied music, M-U-S-I-C. In Pittsburgh, you had to study European classical music and American classical music, sometimes referred to as jazz,” he says in his essay. And it shows in his approach to and performance of the music.

The recordings were made in September 1966, two nights in August 1967, and April 1968 with Jamal at the piano, Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums. It’s hard to pick highlights, but the already mentioned opening track “Gloria” is heart melting; the trio goes on a long uptempo romp through Errol Garner’s classic “Misty” and swings through an even lengthier exploration of Mancini’s “Mr. Lucky.” A classical style introduction seduces us into the trio’s lightning paced bop on “Corcovado.” Listeners in 1968 would have been familiar with “Naked City Theme,” written by Billy May for a successful TV cop show, most memorably recorded by Nelson Riddle but also the title track of a 1965 Jamal album; here it provides the bones for a wide ranging hard bop excursion. And the trio’s light swing through Bacharach-David’s “Alfie” is a great closing track.

Ahmad Jamal was one of the most honored and prolific of our jazz pianists. Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968 is a lovingly curated trip through a handful of live dates that shows the master pianist as a journeyman whose greatness was already quite apparent.

(Jazz Detective, 2023)

cover, Catch the GrooveCal Tjader’s Catch The Groove: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1967

Cal Tjader hasn’t exactly been forgotten about, but in the 2020s he’s not exactly a household name anymore, either. The prolific vibraphonist, pianist, drummer, and composer played in Dave Brubeck’s early ’50s ensembles, had at least one hit single and album in the 1960s, and was an influential early figure in jazz movements as varied as bossa nova, Latin jazz, and acid jazz. He died of a heart attack tragically young at age 56 in 1982.

“Jazz Detective” Zev Feldman released this stunning set of live Cal Tjader sets on vinyl on his new Jazz Detective label for 2023’s Black Friday version of Record Store Day, and on CD and digitally in December. It’s the first new issue of unreleased Cal Tjader recordings in more than 20 years, and a major release that ought to get Tjader lots of attention from jazz aficionados of all generations.

The set consists of material from six separate dates at Seattle’s Penthouse jazz club: one in February 1963, two in May 1965, two in June 1966, and one in June 1967. (On the three-LP set, each of the dates gets a side.) The material mixes bop and standards with Latin, Cuban, Brazilian and more, plus at least one rock cover at the end. He fronts a shifting group of top notch rhythm section players through the period, including pianists Clare Fischer, Lonnie Hewitt and Al Zulaica; bassists Fred Schreiber, Terry Hilliard, Monk Montgomery, and Stan Gilbert; drummers Johnny Rae and Carl Burnett; and Bill Fitch and Armando Peraza on congas and other percussion.

Sound quality seems quite good throughout, especially for live recordings from the era, and the original recordings seem to improve as the ’60s progressed. On the earliest set of recordings, from 1963, the bass is pretty far back in the mix but audible, and the drum kit probably isn’t multiple-miked as you’d get later, but still these tracks are superb. At this writing I haven’t had time to do more than dip into the set, but I’m already smitten by this music. The groove is palpable on the first disc’s “Sunset Boulevard” (from the first of the 1965 dates) and I also love Tjader’s take on Brubeck’s delightful “In Your Own Sweet Way” and the Luis Bonfa classic “Manhã de Carnaval” from ’63. You wouldn’t know that Paul Horn is one of the founders of New Age music from his explosive Latin fantasy “Half And Half” that Tjader and Co. absolutely own. There are two covers of the standard “On Green Dolphin Street” by different ensembles, a lightly swinging straight ahead take by the group featuring Hewitt, Hilliard, Rae and Peraza, and another that pushes the tempo a bit and leans into the exotic elements with the splendid Montgomery on bass and Burnett on the kit. There are some real treats on the final side including Tjader’s composition “Fuji” on which everybody stretches out; Billy Strayhorn’s romantic standard “Lush Life,” and a superb Latin arrangement of “Along Comes Mary” which at the time was a big hit (the first) for the sunshine pop group The Association.

You hear it said of a lot of records, but this set is must listening for any fan of foundational jazz from hard bop through Latin and beyond. It definitely places Tjader in a splendid light as interpreter, composer, and frontman.

(Jazz Detective, 2023)

cover, Blue RoomChet Baker’s Blue Room: The 1979 VARA Studio Sessions in Holland

As a big fan of cool and West Coast jazz, I was guaranteed to like this swell new set of recordings by Chet Baker. Its two-disc LP release in April 2023 was a highlight of Record Store Day, and its Black Friday release as a double CD set is sure to please the more budget minded fan. Baker’s star was considered by some to have waned by this late period of his life and career, but this release says he was still a great player.

These previously unreleased performances were recorded in VARA studio by producers Edwin Rutten and the late Lex Lammen in 1979 for radio KRO in Hilversum, The Netherlands. It’s from two separate dates with different side players: on April 10 with pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, and drummer Charles Rice; and November 9 with pianist Frans Elsen, bassist Victor Kaihatu, and drummer Eric Ineke.

I come to Chet Baker for his trumpet playing, but his cool, dry vocals are a good match for his blowing, and his phrasing is impeccable with either instrument, likewise his scatting; check out “Oh You Crazy Moon” on the first disc for evidence. And Markowitz, Rassinfosse and Rice are perfect accompanists – Markowitz’s superb solo on that same song is a highlight. Although, who am I kidding? This set is nothing but highlights. In particular, the title track Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Room,” Miles Davis’s “Nardis” and swinging “Down,” and Baker’s own “Gilles” will be on my favorite tracks playlist for 2023.

The accompanying notes with this one are above and beyond, with an overview from Baker’s biographer Jeroen de Valk, tributes from trumpeters Randy Brecker and Enrico Rava, and pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, plus interviews with the original technicians on the dates and session players Markowitz and Rassinfosse, and track by track notes by original producer Edwin Rutten, and some historic photos. What a treasure Blue Room is!

(Jazz Detective, 2023)

cover, UndauntedLafayette Gilchrist’s Undaunted

Pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist was born in Washington, D.C., but became a musician in Baltimore. Shades of the two rivalrous twin cities run through his music, with perhaps an occasional side excursion to New Orleans. His music has been used prominently in HBO’s series The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce, which rocketed him to a level of stardom in the jazz world. On Undaunted he fronts a quintet of Brian Settles (tenor), Christian Hizon (trombone), Herman Burney (bass), Eric Kennedy (drums), and Kevin Pinder (percussion, chiefly bongos, which give the album its main flavor of swinging “go-go” beat, apparently D.C.’s signature sound).

The pianist really struts his stuff on the stretched-out second track “Ride It Out,” an allusion to the fever that accompanies Covid. With a portentous, Latin-flavored piano figure running throughout, the track runs through a range of styles, all of which blur into one another as in a fever dream. He draws on classical sounds on the whirling “Into The Swirl,” the piano and bowed bass setting a frenetic pace over which the horns soar and quest. “Southern Belle” blends New Orleans strut with 12-tone type passages, unexpected harmonizations, a feel of tango and a Latin flavor from the percussion – quite the excursion.

The album opens strongly with the title track, which sounds like it could be a mission statement for Gilchrist. It’s just blue, straightforward, grooving and swinging jazz that’ll make you snap your fingers if nothing else. Great duetting by trombone and tenor on the main statement and sharp solos make this one stand out. And it wraps with the jittery urban groove of his tribute to D.C. and Baltimore, “Metropolitan Musings (Them Streets Again).” Makes you want to check out the night life.

Lafayette Gilchrist has his finger on the urban pulse of his hometowns, and this ensemble delivers the goods. An unexpected pleasure.

(Morphius Records, 2023)

| Facebook |

cover, Water FabricEspen Berg’s Water Fabric

Following on the heels of the critical success of his trio’s 2022 album Fjære, Norwegian composer and pianist Espen Berg revisits chamber jazz – with a twist or two – on Water Fabric. It’s thematically coherent, exploring water in it’s many states as metaphor and analogy, but stylistically fluid in its approach.

To a core trio that includes trumpeter and flügelhornist Hayden Powell, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, pianist Berg has grafted a string trio of international credentials: Harpreet Bansal on violin, Ellie Mäkelä on viola, and Joakim Munkner on cello. What emerges is an enticing program of seven tracks that draw on jazz and chamber music with regular excursions into the complex rhythms and tonalities of Hindustani classical music and more. In mood, it flows from the slow-bulding majesty of the opener “Sun Glacier” and moody, mysterious “1914” through the hyperactive “Hydrophobic” and rollicking “Duelling Rivers,” the expressive (but manifestly not dewy-eyed) “Acres Of Dew” and the multi-modal triumphant final track “Triple Point Suite.”

Best of this strong program is the overdriven, fusionistic single “Circumzenithal,” with the most pronounced Indian influence of them all. Hard to pigeon-hole but easy to enjoy, Water Fabric shows why Berg is one of the central figures in Norwegian jazz, whether solo, trio, or in larger ensembles. Recommended.

(Odin Records, 2023)

| Website | Facebook | Instagram |

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

More Posts