Monday, May 16, 2016

New on CD: Small-group jazz with first-class percussionist sidemen

Warren Wolf: master of mallets.
A couple of jazz releases that have brightened the 2016 scene so far  stand out because, in addition to the excellence of the leaders, the choice of sidemen is heartening — particularly in the percussion section.

"Pomponio" by Jemal Ramirez, a San Francisco drummer, features the vibraphone and marimba of Warren Wolf. (True, those are melodic instruments that in jazz often have a front-of-the-band position, but are still in the percussion family.) Wolf is a young master of his  instruments, and properly gets a prominent role in all 11 tracks.

Jemal Ramirez heads a peppy, unified septet on "Pomponio."
Ramirez leads a first-class septet in a program of one classic pop standard, "But Beautiful," two originals (by Wolf and trumpeter Joel Behrman) and eight pieces by a range of jazz stars, from Donald Brown to Bobby Watson. I like the unfailing inventiveness of Wolf's playing, whether in accompaniment or in solos. He makes the most of little ideas — sequences and melodic motifs — to construct a presence in the busy ensemble texture that is always arresting, while maintaining a collegial spirit.

The drummer, sometimes supplemented on Latin percussion by John Santos, is a busy player. And Ramirez's sound is high in the mix. But his busyness always comes across as productive — a driver of the high energy characteristic of the band. Other prominent voices include the tart saxophones of Howard Wiley and the trenchant piano, lyrical or  hard-charging as needed, of Matthew Clark.

The other CD hails from Canada. It's called "Fundamental" by Toronto guitarist Trevor Giancola, and is among the best jazz trio recordings without piano to come my way in several years.  Giancola has a traditional, pure, pinging guitar sound, phrased elegantly. It's applied to a couple of pieces by Elmo Hope, among other inspired borrowings. The disc ends strongly with a succession of three standards: "Just One of Those Things," Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars," and "You Go to My Head."
Trevor Giancola leads a first-rate trio.

The trio is notable for the smooth transitions it makes between solo and ensemble work. The veteran bassist Neil Swainson lends gravitas and tuneful heft to the band. In addition to becoming acquainted with Giancola's work (three of the pieces, including the title track, are by him), I found it exciting to make the recorded acquaintance of the 26-year-old drummer, Adam Arruda, for the first time. The three have years of experience in Canada under their belt, and that rapport is evident.

But a guitar-bass-drums trio wouldn't be very interesting without being musically as sturdy as a strong three-legged stool. And Arruda is compulsively listenable throughout: lots of ideas, including the kind that are best when tucked in while one of his bandmates occupies the spotlight. The good thoughts, well executed, never quit.