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Winning Spins By George Kanzler
The most salient feature of jazz in the 21st Century is its enormous breadth and diversity. A music that once was defined largely by a unifying principle― swing ―has become fractured and fragmented stylistically, spawning hundreds of styles and hybrids that incorporate the influences of music ranging from serial modern to South Asian, tango to West African, chamber to symphonic. Nowhere is the scope of options more evident, in a handy microcosm, than in the traditional, acoustic piano trio: piano, bass and drums.
This Winning Spins highlights two new albums by piano trios: one of them, Cyrus Chestnut’s, comes out of the continuing mainstream tradition of swing and lyrical flair, and the other, John Chin’s, explores the freer rhythmic structures and variety of influences that have expanded jazz in recent years. While the albums are stylistically at odds, they share an admirable technical virtuosity in the players as well as a recording philosophy that emphasizes spontaneity and improvisation. Chestnut’s was recorded live at a club and Chin’s with the trio all together in one room in a studio.
Midnight Melodies, Cyrus Chestnut (Smoke Sessions), recorded over two nights late last year at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club on the Upper West Side, follows the contours of a single set by Chestnut’s trio with bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Lewis Nash. Surprisingly, it is Chestnut’s first live album as a leader and, judging from the results, should definitely not be his last.
The music has such verve that it palpably buoys your spirits when you hear it. Chestnut, like such predecessors as Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson, infuses his playing with a joyous energy and unflagging swing. This CD is loosely dedicated to one of Chestnut’s compatriots and mentors, the late John Hicks. Three of the 11 tracks are Hicksmaterial and in the notes Chestnut explains how Hicks’ versions of some of the others inspired him.
The CD kicks off with a pair of Hickstunes: the bright ballad “Two Heartbeats”and the composer’s tribute to another pianist, Sonny Clark, “Pocket Full of Blues.”The tracks amply display Chestnut’s crisp articulation and singing, ringing way with single note lines, as well as his ability to build solos from those through block chords and resounding climaxes, as Lundy and Lewis follow his lead with swinging dynamism.
But the highpoint of the album is another Hickspiece: “Naima’s Love Song,”the penultimate track. The first three minutes is a piano solo, beginning with a fond remembrance of a hymn, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,”then meandering on to a lush rendition of “For All We Know”before the trio hits the Hickstune. It is swung in a sprightly tempo with clean, crisp piano shadowed by attentive bass and drums; it then morphs into a dancing, tropical rhythmed final section before a decelerated piano and bass coda. It all adds up to a true tour de force. Also impressive are a pair of Billy Strayhorn numbers, two Nash originals and a quicksilver version of “Giant Steps.”
Marcus Belgrave: “The Nurturer” returns to the Big Apple
By Ken Franckling
Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a bebopper whose musical mentors included trumpeter Clifford Brown and soul music innovator Ray Charles, has made an indelible imprint on Detroit’s jazz scene for more than 50 years. He developed an atmosphere for promising young musicians to learn their craft, make their way into the local jazz scene and, in more than a handful of cases, find significant national exposure. “Geri Allen calls me ‘The Nurturer.’ That’s what I’m doing,” Belgrave, now 78, says in his raspy voice. “I’m just nurturing young talent.”
Pianist Allen is among the most prominent beneficiaries of his grooming and has gone on to mentor some college-level students previously influenced by Belgrave. Some other best-known are bassists Bob Hurst and Rodney Whitaker, saxophonists James Carter and Kenny Garrett, violinist Regina Carter and drummers Karriem Riggins and Ali Jackson.
Belgrave brings four more protégés to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. His “Detroit crew,” as he calls it, includes former students Marion Hayden on bass, Gayelynn McKinney on drums, Ian Finkelstein (one of those Allen students) on piano and Marcus Elliott on tenor sax, as well as his wife, Joan Belgrave, on vocals.
“One of the key developments of my continuation as an artist is that I was touched by the masters. It is very important that I am in a position to play with these young people coming along,” Belgrave says. “At this stage of my life, I don’t like traveling as much as I did before. I’m getting a chance to play as much as I want to, as much as I need to. These young kids keep me inspired.”
Belgrave grew up in Chester PA, midway between Philadelphia and Wilmington. At age 12, he got a job in a community band that also included Clifford Brown, a Wilmington native who was five years older. Brown taught him how to improvise, after writing out Belgrave’s first solo for “How High the Moon.” “I just got thrown in the water; I took his place with the band on lead trumpet a few years later. It just opened the door to the light. ‘Hey, come on through here. This is the way you go.’ I was so blessed to have been in that position and in that company.”
Belgrave came to prominence in the late 1950s when Charles hired him. He is the only surviving member of that Ray Charles’ small band horn section. He says the three and one-half years he spent with Charles taught him much about band leadership and about music. “Ray had tremendous ears, ideas and soul. He was 24/7 into the music. I don’t think he ever slept,” Belgrave says.
The young trumpeter also performed and recorded in the early 1960s with modernists Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Max Roach before he tired of the road. He picked Detroit as a home base chiefly because of the Motown label. “There was a burgeoning music scene and they were producing more recordings than anybody in the country at the time. I made more money in the studio in one day than I’d make on the road with Ray Charles in a week. That’s why I decided to stay here.”
Belgrave’s playing on his distinctive copper-belled trumpet (stolen from his car in March but found three days later in a local pawnshop) is a treat because of his Brownie-like approach to the horn, as well as the ideas that flow out during his solos. “The more I listen to young people nowadays, they play the same solo style on every song, whether it’s a ballad or it’s something faster,” Belgrave says. “Each song has its own story to tell. Once you slow them down and tell them what the story is all about, it’s not difficult to change that mindset. They’ll say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to express this in a different way.’”
Everything about Belgrave’s music comes back to teaching and mentoring, though he says he doesn’t always feel like the teacher. “Every student who wants to take lessons from me, I’m actually taking lessons from them,” he says. “There is no way in the world we can know everything there is about this music. It continues to unfold from all directions.”
Marcus Belgrave will appear at Dizzy’s Club Coca- Cola July 22-23 with Marcus Elliot, saxophone; Ian Finkelstein, piano; Marion Hayden, bass; Gayelynn McKinney, drums and Joan Belgrave on vocal.