Jazz seems increasingly capable of leaping national borders in a single bound. From Asia to Europe to the Caribbean and South America, musicians are finding jazz a unique vehicle for the expression of musical ideas reflective of their own cultures. Here's a selection of current releases illustrating the music's far-reaching impact.
*** THE MOSCOW SAX QUINTET
"The Jazznost Tour"
There's never been any doubt about the spread of jazz into, first, the Soviet Union, and now into Russia. And given the country's musical sophistication, it's not surprising that some first-rate jazz players have emerged in the past few decades.
But the Moscow Sax Quintet is something else. Imagine Supersax combined with a classical woodwind quintet, and even that doesn't quite describe this remarkable ensemble. And their work is even more startling when one realizes that the quintet was organized in 1987, when the USSR was still in existence, and recorded during a brief American tour in 1990.
Their renderings of "Yardbird Suite," "Parker's Mood," "Donna Lee," "Chasing the Bird" and other bop classics--many complete with five-part transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos--are stunning. Although their own individual soloing is not quite up to top U.S. jazz levels, there is some first-rate improvising from, in particular, tenor saxophonist Vladimir Zarema, alto saxophonist Alexander Boychuk and, in the rhythm section, pianist Vladimir Soloviov. But, as an ensemble, the quintet's work stunningly illustrates a capacity of jazz undefined by nationality.
*** JANE BUNNETT, ORLANDO "MARACA" VALLE, RICHARD EGUES and CELINE VALLE
"Havana Flute Summit"
Canadian-born flutist Jane Bunnett's trip to Cuba last year resulted in a genuine flute summit--a collection of entrancing music that combines some virtuosic jazz flute playing with an irresistible undercurrent of Cuban rhythms. Bunnett is joined in the front line by Orlando Valle, arguably Cuba's most gifted flutist, the veteran Richard Egues, now in his 70s, and the classically trained Celine Valle (Orlando's wife).
Despite the "summit" title, however, the recording moves considerably beyond the usual jam session format. Orlando Valle has provided several intriguing compositions, including one--"Maraca's Tumbao" with an extraordinary, solo-like, four-part passage for the flute ensemble. As an added plus, the rhythm section is energized by the driving piano work of Hilario Duran, described by Jesus "Chucho" Valdes as "one of the great Cuban pianists of the 20th century."
*** 1/2 PAQUITO D'RIVERA AND THE UNITED NATIONS ORCHESTRA
"Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild"
Dizzy Gillespie's last big band, formed in 1988, was named the United Nations Orchestra to symbolize his belief in jazz as an international language. More specifically, the ensemble tended to reflect his own special interests in the fusion of jazz with Latin and Afro Caribbean sources. Gillespie's choice to succeed his own leadership of the ensemble was Cuban saxophonist (and co-musical director) Paquito D'Rivera.
The band now includes musicians from Argentina, Cuba, Canada, Peru, Curacao and the United States. And the musical quality is on a par with virtually any American big band that comes to mind. Recorded live in Pittsburgh at a Manchester Craftsmen's Guild concert earlier this year, the band plays a diverse array of music. The rhythms range from second-line New Orleans to Cuban danzon, Brazilian baiao, Puerto Rican bomba yuba and straight-ahead, mainstream big-band swing.
Among the numerous fine solos, there are outstanding efforts by D'Rivera, Cuban pianist Emiliano Salvador and trumpeter Diego Urcola (a finalist in this year's Thelonious Monk Competition).
** 1/2 FRED HO AND THE MONKEY ORCHESTRA
"Monkey: Part Two"
Saxophonist-composer Fred Ho has been pioneering the fusion of jazz with traditional Chinese music with some startling results. This is the second part of his epic work "Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of the Monkey," freely based upon a 16th century Chinese novel. (Part 1 is also available on Koch.)
The music is filled with surprises. Passages for Chinese-style soprano vocals by Yu Shan Min suddenly give way to roving, avant-garde-styled jazz rhythms, succeeded by ensemble textures combining saxophones and trombone with Chinese instruments. Curiously, some of the segments emerge with a kind of Duke Ellington coloration. Others are utterly unique. But, like Wynton Marsalis' "Blood on the Fields," Ho's composition affords striking testimony to the capacity of jazz to create an astonishing array of dramatic moods, textures and emotions.
** 1/2 VARIOUS BANDS
"Township Jazz 'n' Jive"
In the '50s and '60s in South Africa, jazz made a curious return trip to its roots, as an unusual combination of swing music and African vocal harmonies combined to produce a popular form of township dance-jazz known as marabi. The result was a creative environment that ultimately produced such expatriate artists as trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim).
In its basic form, it was jive-styled music, dominated by dance rhythms reminiscent of America's urban blues-jazz of the '40s and '50s. A few gifted instrumentalists--all present in some of the 18 fascinating tracks included here--emerged, among them saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. And singers Dorothy Masuka and the female vocal ensemble the Skylarks add their own special take on American jazz-pop singing.
* Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).