Thursday, March 8, 2012

Independent Review: The Jeff Hamilton Trio, "Red Sparkle"

Submitted to JazzTimes Community Pages on March 8, 2012 at 
Reprinted here for your convenience and comment.

Jeff Hamilton Trio - "Red Sparkle"

Class, sophistication, original material and inventive takes on classics make this album a delight to both critical musicians and casual listeners alike.

As a native Colorado-based jazz musician and enthusiast, I often drop over to the Bailey-based Capri Records to see what's new in the jazz world. Today I picked up The Jeff Hamilton Trio's newest effort, "Red Sparkle", released in Feburary 2012, and was immediately and aurally rewarded for the venture.

The Jeff Hamilton Trio is in essence a standard jazz threesome, made up of Tamir Hendelman on piano, Christoph Luty on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums. All of the musicians in this outfit are world-class, at the top of their game, and their rich experience in jazz truly shines on this album. The entire album, all ten tracks, is an ongoing and cohesive musical conversation throughout.

The album opens with a Hamilton original, "Ain't That a Peach"; a great and driving blues shuffle. From the first riffs on Hamilton's drum, this tune does not beg to be noticed; it takes you by the throat, throws you on its shoulders for a ride, and commands you to tap your foot during the journey.

Next, once you've departed the blues train, the trio takes you on an inventive trip to Thelonius Monk's world, with his classic, "Bye Ya", only this time, the group has smoothed it out and given it a less angular mood than Thelonius' original 1960s rendering. The gem of this tune lies in its flawless samba beat, held tightly throughout Hamilton's solos and traded-fours interplay with Hendelman and Luty. Two minutes into the piece, the fellas are in full Latin mode with constant rhythmic interchanges between Hendelman's comping left-hand and imaginative solos, to Luty and Hamilton's unfailing adherence to the groove. A delightful offering that had me bopping along, even as I wrote this review!

Usually by the third song in an album, I have an idea of what the rest of the effort will sound like, but Hamilton and team continue to throw fantastic curve balls to that experience. On the third track, "On and On", the trio pleasantly surprises with a complete overhaul of Stephen Bishop's 1977 pop ballad, beginning with Hamilton's almost-tribal toms and Luty's enchanting bass vibe. It is only when Hendelman introduces the melody at about 50 seconds in that you may recognize the tune and say, "Yes, indeed, this works, and in fact... I like it better than the original!" Gone is Bishop's influence on the tune; this treat is now fully and gently under new ownership and re-presented for us to enjoy once again. It is easily one of my favorite offerings on the album.

"Hat's Dance" is the next original tune (Hendelman and Hamilton) and is a joyful, straight-ahead swing, that continues to impress with its driving and yet understated command of rhythm and time. It is a tune sure to be enjoyed by serious listeners of jazz for its technical sophistication by the group, as well as swing dancers and casual listeners for its fun groove. The word "Dance" in the title is fitting; as a swing dancer, I would love to get up and move to this one.

Two Johnny Mercer (original lyrics) offerings come next in the shuffle. The first, "Too Marvelous for Words" (Whiting-Mercer), was made popular originally by vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday in the 1950s. Here, the trio approaches it with a slightly quicker tempo than usual, and also incorporates more "Monk-like", angular rhythms and breaks thoughout the solos. However, the overall effect is a fantastic hard bop romp that features Hendelman's amazing and imaginative soloistic style, coupled with Luty's tight doubling of the melodic line, and Hamilton's tasty brushwork on the kit.

The second Mercer-era offering is "Laura" (Raksin-Mercer), from the 1944 film of the same name. This tune takes the most liberties with tempo of all of the tracks on the album, is a piano feature, and is made more modern by the gorgeous use of Hendelman's polychordic structures (quartals, sustained fourths) and perfect use of simplicity and space in the melodic lines. The concept of the tune is deeply based in pauses and heavy rubato time, which in turn shows how tightly this group listens to each other's aural cues. And while Luty's bass execution is flawless throughout the entire album, I especially enjoyed hearing more of his beautiful and round tone on this track.

Leaving Mercerville, the seventh track on the album is "A Sleepin' Bee" (Harold Arlen - Truman Capote). This offering is primarily a bass and drum feature, as the tune is masterfully constructed as a traded-fours exchange (think Neal Hefti's "Cute") in which each member of the trio holds his own throughout the conversation.

Two of the three remaining tracks on the album are Hamilton and Luty compositions, with the third being a Ray Brown one, previously recorded as a vocal edition with Judy Roberts and Brown himself.

Track Eight is "Red Sparkle" (Hamilton), the album's namesake and neither the name nor the music disappoint. This is a bright, very up-tempo, unforgiving hard bop romp that features primarily Hamilton and Hendelman, but well-supported by a very, very understated, light bass treatment, so light that Luty at first uses it to accentuate the drumming and solos, much as a trumpeter might blow kicks in a big band chart to generate excitement. Luty doesn't even "walk bass" until almost two and a half minutes into the tune and by that point, he is fully on board, locking tightly with Hamilton to create a magic carpet for Hendelman to fly upon as he solos with dizzying dexterity. While frenetic, the delivery of the track is never out of control, kind of like when one rides a "Wild Mouse" rollercoaster that feels like it should fly right off the rails, but always turns on the track, and just in time. The chart eventually fades out to Hamilton's rock-solid, militaristic riffs and leaves the listener's room no doubt spinning with delight. A masterpiece not only of composition but also of execution by
the trio; rookies need not apply!

After the wild ride, Hamilton and team begin to wind the album down with the Ray Brown composition, "I Know You Oh So Well", and as mentioned, this originally was recorded with Hamilton, Brown, and vocalist Judy Roberts; however, this time, bassist Luty brings his bow to converse with Hendelman's treatment of the melody and the effect is brilliant. The sentiment of the chart still retains the mood of a "vocal" chart, as it is a beautiful edition of a timeless jazz ballad, coupled with classical sensibility.

Finally, the album closes with a Christoph Luty original work, "In An Ellingtone" and delivers a perfect end to a tight, flawless, and wholly enjoyable album. While the title of the chart recalls Ellington, as a fellow pianist, I believe that I heard more Horace Silver's style of the mid-1960s, from Hendelman's raised 9th voicings and Silveresque triplets in the melody, to Hamilton's heavier drive and rim clicks on the drums. In any event, the track is a tasty blues trip that completes an album that delivers an entire package of swing, Latin samba, blues, pop ballad, and hard bop.

"Red Sparkle" is definitely worth owning and is one of the few albums that I immediately downloaded, just from hearing the samples. From the Capri site, the album can be downloaded for $9.99 or a track at a time for $0.99 each. The physical CD media is pricier at $14.99.

For more information, visit the Capri Records site at to enjoy it as much as I did.

Best regards,
Kathryn Ballard Shut
President, Pianist
TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.
Denver, CO, USA

Twitter: @timkatent


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