JAZZ America Marketing or JAM, Washington's new record label, has just issued its first three releases. Among them is the 1981 Grammy nominee by the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Bang, "Farewell to Mingus" (JAM 003) originally issued in Japan last fall.
Even those who view the Grammy awards as a questionable measure of quality and musicianship will probably find "Farewell" deserving of all the attention it can get. It's a remarkable album, as reflective of Akiyoshi's composing and arranging skills as anything her big band has recorded.
"After Mr. Teng," a salute to U.S. diplomatic recognition of mainland China, opens the album at a torrid pace and, within a span of nine minutes, brilliantly outlines the composer's gifts. Her writing for brass has never been particularly subtle, but it is forceful and when augmented by her characteristically odd accents and the sweeping precision of the reeds led by her husband, the combination can be enormously effective.
Typically, "Teng" also allows for contrasting solo space. Like Ellington, Akiyoshi has had the advantage of writing for a relatively stable group of musicians. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the cadenzas she often scores for Tabackin. Here, however, Tabackin and John Grass engage in a snarling tenor duel, each zeroing in on the other's patterns like opposing Spitfires before Akiyoshi brings the curtain down on the contest with questionable authority.
Of all the pieces on the album that reveal Akiyoshi's imaginative and often unconventional palette of tonal colors, "Song for the Harvest" is the most vivid. Drenched in autumnal shades, it's a portrait when that wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for a reed section resourceful enough to supply two flute, two clarinets and a bass clarinet on demand.
The same shifting contrasts are evident on the title track. "Farewell" features an unusually subtle and reflective contribution by Tabackin, whose playing is quietly shadowed by Phil Teele's bass trombone. Ultimately, the track, the like the album itself, is as much a tribute to Akiyoshi's continuing progress as it is to Mingus' enduring legacy.
JAM's other releases aren't quite as impressive, but both of them are clearly a cut above what we've come to expect from Jimmy McGriff and Michal Urbaniak recently. Both musicians have been responsible for some rather uneven albums in the past few years; in McGriff's case the term uneven is perhaps a bit charitable.
As a matter of fact, the disco lights are still burning brightly on "My Way," one of two tracks on "City Lights" (JAM 002) that amounts to little more than commercial leftovers. What McGriff does best is play the blues. His attempts at disco or funk sound so tired and bland that the listener may have difficulty making it beyond the first two tunes. "My Way" is a lethargic lounge ritual, and "Funky Accents" is just what its name implies -- nothing more, nothing less.
The balance of the album, however, is welcome news. "Brickyard," which owes much to Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing," is a no-nonesense burner, powered in part by trumpeter Danny Moore's might and guitarist Jimmy Ponder's flying accents.
"Teach Me Tonight" occasionally suffers from an unwieldy arrngement, but McGriff is right at home digging into the blues. Just as pleasing is the strutting "City Lights" and the blowing sessions found on "Jimmy's Room." While it's not easy to reconcile these tracks with the ones that open the album, it's clear that McGriff is moving in the right direction on "City Lights."
So, too, is Michael Urbaniak on "NY 5, Music for Violin and jazz Quartet" (JAM 001). Actually, this is one of Urbaniak's finest albums, but the credit has to be shared with his session mates -- Roy Haynes, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and Ted Dunbar.
For the time being, at least, Urbaniak has turned his back on his jazz-rock interests and concentrated instead on developing a straight-ahead approach to the violin and jazz quartet. Stephane Grapelli, Stuff Smith, Ray Nance and Claude Williams have all had a measure of success working in this vein, but it's a combination that has produced more than its share of sugar-sweet recordings and third-stream failures.
Urbaniak succeeds most often on the three Horace Silver tunes where he replaces the original trumpet and sax leads with violin and guitar, frequently overdubbing the violin to give it a more muscular and assertive tone. As an ensemble, the quintet reveals its depth and compatibility on several tunes, especially Wayne Shorter's "House of Jade." Washingtonians will get a chance to hear Urbaniak's NY 5 next weekend when they appear at One Step Down.
Another locally distributed jazz album of note is Jessica Jennifer Williams' "Orgonomic Music" (Clean Cuts CC 703), but the music it contains is by no means as rarefied as one might think. It's true that the cover are suggests the calming influence of Manfred Eicher, and Williams' own self-absorption has made for some heavy going in the past.
Yet much of what Williams has written for "Orgonomic Music" is rooted firmly in jazz tradition and almost all of it is highly accessible. That's particularly true of "The Weapon of Truth," a minor blues built on a brief bass ostinato which underpins expressive solos by Eddie Henderson and Jim Grantham.
"Experiment XX," like "The Demise of Armored Man," is more in keeping with the post-bop idiom. Williams works beautifully with drummer Dave Tucker on the first piece; the second, a compelling orchestration, hightlights Henderson's flugelhorn as well as the composer's probing touch. He has managed to straddle the past and present in a powerfully moving fashion on "Orgonomic Music."