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Jazz Legacy Productions: Dreaming The Impossible Dream?

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On the surface, launching a new jazz label in the music-biz climate of 2009 seems an almost crazy notion. But Jazz Legacy Productions co-founder John Lee seems to know exactly what he is facing, and has clearly given this some serious thought.

Blogcritics had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Lee recently, who is a formidable bass player as well as a newly-minted record label boss. The first thing we discovered is how dedicated he is to the music.

When asked about the decision to initiate the project, Lee’s answer was a simple one, “Having recorded for so many companies, for longer than I care to mention, I thought it was about time there was one that would be friendly to the artists.”

With a career stretching back nearly 40 years, John has recorded and performed with a number of legends. His first big gig was with Joe Henderson, and he went on to appear with Pharoah Sanders, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie, just to name a few.

“A lot of the older guys are playing better than ever,” says Lee, “but the record labels today will not touch them. That leaves a hole in the history of jazz. I think a lot of their stuff should be heard, and that was one of the reasons we founded Jazz Legacy.”

“The fact that I have my own studio, and have been recording for most of my career made the decision that much easier.”

JLP’s launch was fairly low key, their inaugural release consists of four titles: Cyrus Chestnut – Spirit; Heath Brothers – Endurance; Steve Davis – Eloquence; and Sharel Cassity – Relentless.

Plans for 2010 are a little more expansive, with eight releases on the drawing board. Not all are confirmed, but Lee mentioned records by One For All, Michael Dease, Randy Weston, and Israeli guitarist Yotam Silberstein as being in the pipeline.

“Another goal of JLP,” says Lee, “is to record new artists such as Sharel Cassity and Yotam Silberstein, to get their stuff out there. Jazz has no future without the infusion of new blood.”

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of JLP discs is the branding. Back in the day, albums on labels such as Blue Note, and especially Impulse! were immediately identifiable by their appearance alone.

We asked John Lee about the Jazz Legacy Productions brand, and what it means to the company as a whole.

“I grew up with CTI Records,” he explained. “I loved the way their covers looked. In fact, even though I already knew a lot of the music, there were still times I bought records based simply on the cover art.”

“When we formed Jazz Legacy, it seemed natural to have a uniform look and feel. We use the same photographer for each artist, with our own unique background. If you notice, each release is a simple one word title chosen by the artist to best reflect their music.”

In the end, it really comes down to the music though. What follows is a brief summary of Jazz Legacy Production’s first four releases:

Steve Davis – Eloquence

The title of trombonist Steve Davis’ latest obviously refers to the playing of 91 year old piano legend Hank Jones, Davis’ key collaborator here. At this point in his life, Jones could be excused for laying back a little, but he never does. Throughout Eloquence, Jones and Davis share a musical banter that is easy, economical, and well – eloquent.

The disc opens up with Charlie Parker’s classic “Yardbird Suite.” In addition to Davis and Jones, the quartet is filled out with bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Joe Farnsworth, and both are featured prominently on this track.

A couple of Hank Jones classics are included, “Minor Contention,” and “Peedlum.” In addition to the basic quartet, “Minor Contention” also features Roy Hargrove and Steve Nelson. John Lee adds his distinctive bass to “Peedlum.”

My personal favorite Eloquence track also features Lee on bass: “Road Song,” by Wes Montgomery. Check out their version of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django” as well.

Heath Brothers – Endurance

Endurance is the first CD to be released by the Heath Brothers since the unfortunate passing of Percy Heath in 2005. Although his bass is clearly missed, surviving brothers Jimmy (saxophones) and Albert “Tootie” Heath (drums) have fashioned a powerful new quartet to move forward with.

Bassist David Wong is solid as a rock, and equips himself admirably in his role. But it is the discovery of pianist Jeb Patton which really moves this record ahead.

Endurance is a disc that slots in easily with earlier Heath Brothers recordings. There is their patented easy swing on tracks such as “Wall To Wall,” and “Dusk In The City.” Patton’s playing is a joy to hear on cuts like “Changes,” and “Ballad From Leadership Suite.”

Jimmy Heath’s sax has lost none of it’s fire on “Autumn In New York,” and closing track “Rio Dawn.”

Endurance is an excellent addition to the legacy of the Heath Brothers, and their elegy to Percy, “From A Lonely Bass,” is stunningly beautiful.

Cyrus Chestnut – Spirit

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut has been around for quite a while now. He has played with everyone from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band to Wynton Marsalis.

While he has recorded extensively, Spirit is his first solo collection of spiritually inspired music. Spirit contains straight-up gospel numbers such as “Oh How I Love Jesus,” and “Old Time Religion,” not to mention his own "Gospel Improv 1."

What I find much more intriguing however, are Chestnut's versions of secular tunes such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Lean On Me.” In many ways his interpretations remind me of Lyle Mays, both in their economy, and tastefulness.

Spirit ends with Cyrus’ version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” a fitting conclusion to this deeply moving solo outing.

Sharel Cassity – Relentless

As the “token newcomer” to the JLP stable, expectations may be high for Cassity. There is no question she is up to them though. Having (fairly) recently completed her Masters at Juilliard, Relentless is actually Cassity’s second solo outing following her 2008 debut Just For You.

While having never heard Just For You, I can only guess as to it’s quality. I can state without hesitation however that Relentless is a well-chosen title for her sophomore release.

Her sax playing is shockingly powerful on tracks such as opener “Say What?” and “No Turning Back.” Her band are no slouches either, pianist Orrin Evans runs with “Relentless,” the tune written for Cassity by partner and trombonist Michael Dease.

The bass of Dwayne Burno and drums of E.J. Strickland are solidly dependable throughout. The rhythm section gets a little flashy at times, but mostly serves to ground these young lions perfectly. By allowing Cassity in particular the space to open up her improvisational skills, they fulfill their obligation in no uncertain terms.

They allow the star to shine, and it is my belief that we will be hearing much more from Sharel Cassity in the future.

Launching a boutique jazz label in 2009 is unquestionably a gutsy move. With that in mind, we wish Jazz Legacy Productions all the best.

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