I’ve found several recent releases of jazz-crossover music worthy of note. Roger Davidson’s tango album Te Extraño Buenos Aires, clarinetist Gary Gray’s jazz-classical hybrid Shades of Gray, and Pascal Bokar’s African-influenced Guitar Balafonics have little in common aside from fitting into the broad “crossover” category, but that’s the curse and the blessing of crossovers. These albums are excellent reminders that genre labels have their limits, a testament not to anyone’s lack of imagination but to the universality of this thing we call music.
Roger Davidson, Te Extraño Buenos Aires
American pianist-composer Roger Davidson had created tango albums before, but for his new one he serves only as composer, having handed the production duties to Argentine bassist-producer Pablo Aslan, who recruited three of the Buenos Aires tango scene’s top pianist-arrangers to realize the compositions. Pianists José “Pepe” Motta, Andrés Linetzy, and Abel Rogantini cover a wide canvas that includes dramatic traditional-style tango (as in Linetsky’s work-up of “Tango Triste,” with its big tango-show gestures), arty “nuevo tango” à la Astor Piazzolla (as in Motta’s “Recuerdo De Un Amor”), and tango-jazz (Rogantini’s “O Te Quiero”).
Some of the pieces have melodies so just-right I couldn’t help thinking “Isn’t this a standard?” Others are more free-flowing. But all are executed with hot skill and warm emotion by the pianists joined by Aslan on bass, Ramiro Gallon (violin), and Nicolás Enrich (bandoneon). The 15 tracks, five by each arranger, blaze together with one broadly satisfying glow to light up the milonga, the concert hall, and the living room alike.
Gary Gray, Shades of Gray
Clarinetist Gary Gray’s recent Centaur Records album opens with the Three Preludes of George Gershwin, the founding father of jazz-classical crossover. These 1927 pieces, familiar to many a piano student and here arranged for piano and clarinet, wrap earthy, bluesy jazz in classical-style packages. They also give Gray a chance to show off both his sober and playful sides with gentle piping and high-spirited squeals, accompanied by noted jazz pianist Bill Cunliffe, who also duets with Gray on a tight little rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” later on the album.
Of the album’s more modern pieces, Gernot Wolfgang’s Three Short Stories for clarinet & bassoon is my favorite, with a playful opening movement (“Uncle Bebop”) leading into the swan-like “Rays of Light” whose swooping melodies evoke a Russian ballet score. The off-kilter rhythms and wild melodies of the finale “Latin Dance” show off bassoonist Judith Farmer’s nimble playing and Wolfgang’s Stravinsky-esque imagination.
“Twilight” from Mark Carlson’s Hall of Mirrors for clarinet & piano provides a flowing, sweetly melodic interregnum before the arrival of the album’s centerpiece, the five-movement Blending for clarinet & violin by an American composer I’d never heard of, Charles Harold Bernstein. Here Gray and violinist Adam Korniszewski lope through a landscape that blends traditional-sounding harmonies and melodies with unexpected developments. The final movement suggests an Eastern European dance, then loops into surprising swirls.
Cunliffe contributes the album’s boppiest jazz segment, the “Canon” from his suite for clarinet and alto saxophone. Kenny Burrell’s “Blue Muse” follows, in an atmospheric arrangement for clarinet and guitar, with the legendary guitarist himself performing. Finally, after the album’s only miss, a spoken-word version of “Lush Life” (why?), it closes strong as Gray switches to alto sax for an improvisation with pianist Vince Maggio on Jobim’s “Wave.”
Pascal Bokar, Guitar Balafonics
Dr. Pascal Bokar Thiam works elements of traditional African music into jazz standards on this album. In addition to the flute and the West African drum known as the sabar, these arrangements also prominently feature the woody pizzicato Bokar gets from his electric guitar, a tamped-down sound reminiscent of a xylophone.
The couple of originals don’t measure up to the standards that fill most of the album, like “Cherokee,” “Solitude,” and “Have You Met Miss Jones.” On the other hand, the thousand-year-old West African hymn, “Massani Cisse,” is simple and compelling. Octogenarian guitarist Eddie Duran (of Stan Getz and Benny Goodman’s bands) joins Bokar’s band on two tracks, deepening the project’s roots in jazz’s golden age. But most important, Bokar, whose own roots are French and Senegalese and who grew up in West Africa, forges a comfortable, swinging, yet thought-provoking fusion of musical traditions from two continents – or, to put it more wholesomely, from connected parts of the One World.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00OJ0WWIA][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00KIW8L24][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00L6A5CHY]