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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.

Music Review: Jazz-Crossover Albums from Roger Davidson, Gary Gray, and Pascal Bokar

roger davidson te extrana buenos aires tangoI’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.

gary gray clarinet shades of grayOf 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 balafonicsPascal 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.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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One comment

  1. I’m sorry you think LUSH LIFE is the only miss on the album SHADES OF GRAY is a miss – because you are the only critic out of many who thinks that. Perhaps you are not familiar with this particular story telling form of art. There are many jazz standards from the GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK where the lyrics are often overlooked or people don’t really listen to them. It’s clear from the album cover that this is a bonus track – therefore people don’t have to listen to it if they want to move on. I’m curious what brought about such a strong reaction. And just so you know, Although I am Gary’s wife – there is no nepotism involved I’m a professional voice over artist with many years experience and also quite an expert on the GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK – http://www.juliettegrayvo.com