Carla Bley Big Band, "Appearing Nightly" ★★★ ½
Carla Bley, one of jazz's top composers, gets her inspiration from the 1950s, when she worked as a cigarette girl at the jazz club Birdland.
The main piece, "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid," pays tribute to a Monterey nightclub where Bley held forth as a 17-year-old pianist. The 25-minute piece was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The CD, recorded live in Paris, has the freedom of a Fellini film but with burlesque close by. Bley's 17-piece group resembles the Ellington band on steroids. Tin Pan Alley standards weave in and out. The horns swing, smear and go splat, often to a driving beat. The charts are full of verve and color, and humor is never far away, especially with the ever-ardent trombonist Gary Valente.
Javon Jackson, "Once Upon a Melody" ★★★
There's a place for jazz that relaxes. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson conjures up the more positive aspects of Valium on this quartet recording with pianist Eric Reed, bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer Billy Drummond.
Jackson, a New Jersey resident who matriculated at Berklee College of Music in the mid 1980s and held down the tenor seat in Art Blakey's final Jazz Messengers, knows old school well. The tunes here, including Wayne Shorter's slinky "One by One," seem magisterial, as if Jackson were recording for the Smithsonian. It's fitting that Jackson quotes "A Love Supreme" in his solo on McCoy Tyner's "Inner Glimpse."
Even the soul-jazz stomper "The In Crowd" gets a quieter treatment here, with Reed hinting at "Eleanor Rigby" during his somnambulant saunter through the changes.
Normally, holding back would be an indictable offense, but this quartet is rich in mood like an autumn day. Jackson blows a big tenor.
Kate Campbell, "Save the Day" ★★★
A daughter of the South, and of a Baptist preacher, Kate Campbell has long used her native South and her Christian upbringing as inspirations for folk-country songs of empathy, grace and universal resonance.
"Save the Day" is often concerned with transcendence, whether it's finding liberation in a "Dark Night of the Soul" or, in the title track, pondering where fulfillment lies. Reflecting the organic, acoustic-textured nature of most of the music, she does all this in down-to-earth and never dogmatic fashion. She can make a serious point and not sound smug or clever with a song about both Jesus and the King of Rock and Roll ("Everybody Knows Elvis"), but she also employs humor: "Looking for Jesus," a duet with John Prine, takes a gently whimsical approach to people's urge to believe.
Femi Kuti, "Day By Day" ★★★
Very much doing his father Fela proud, Nigerian musician-songwriter Femi Kuti takes Afrobeat to unexpected places on his first studio album in seven years. "Do You Know" starts as a wry tribute to jazz greats and then pursues a leisurely series of extended grooves until Kuti name-checks his dad at the end. "You Better Ask Yourself" has a polished funk sheen, complete with snappy horns and shimmering organ, only to have the lyrics remind us of the vast disparity between Africa's rich natural resources and its impoverished masses. Likewise, the electronics-tinged "One Two" is playful but still focused on injustice. These may be rallying cries, but Kuti's delivery and backing is so alive that you needn't dwell on the political edges unless so inclined.