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Audio Files

Published September 18, 2005


Harry Connick Jr., lately gaining raves for heartfelt Today show reports from his native New Orleans, strips down to the musical essentials for Occasion: Connick On Piano 2, a series of alternately pensive and joyous duets with fellow Crescent City native Branford Marsalis (owner of the label). It's a reminder of the singer/sometime actor's beginnings as an unusually inventive pianist with roots in the jazz tradition and the rumba boogie grooves of Professor Longhair.

The title track, with Marsalis on deep and woody tenor sax, is playful, as the two engage in games of tag and leapfrog. Connick slips into modified stride on Spot, and Marsalis' soprano sax sounds the melody of the moody, lush Steve Lacy, a salute to the late sax great. The disc is capped with two pieces that probably are even more meaningful now for the Big Easy expatriates: Chanson Du Vieux Carre is all Old World-meets-Deep South gentility, while the bluesy Good To Be Home echoes with the sound of the city's fabled piano professors. A-

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The number three was always significant and even spiritual to Charles Mingus, as evidenced by the opening line of the great bassist and composer's fanciful 1971 autobiography and several song and album titles. Multiple personalities, a trio at the very least, were alive within Mingus, likewise in his music, which was alternately earthy and lush, deep-grooving and free-minded. So it's fitting that the spirit of Mingus - his music and his larger-than-life personality - lives on in three interrelated repertory groups, all heard on the debut CD from a label operated by his widow, Sue Mingus. These ensembles are far too passionate and committed to reinterpreting Mingus' music to be dismissed as ghost bands.

The Mingus Big Band, whose Thursday-night open rehearsals at Manhattan's Fez basement were genuine '90s jazz happenings (the Iridium club is now the group's home), dominates with six of the disc's 10 tracks, including three arranged by late saxophone great John Stubblefield. The loose and chunky Song With Orange gets its kicks from a bluesy full-band riff and brash solos by trumpeter Kenny Rampton, tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton and trombonist Conrad Herwig, using a plunger mute. Orange is the Color of Her Dress effortlessly glides among a variety of rhythmic feels, handily navigated by bassist Boris Kozlov (playing Mingus' lion's-head bass) and drummer Jonathan Blake. Pedal Point Blues, built on a weaving, repeating bass line doubled by pianist John Hicks and echoed by the brass section, benefits from a bottom-scraping improvisation by baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, who sat in with Mingus in the early '60s.

The Mingus Orchestra offers the haunting tone poems Chill of Death and Todo Modo, and the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty, a new group bearing the name of the ensemble that disbanded in 1991, offers the spirit of its namesake with the gospel blues of Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and the evocatively titled swing-to-Latin piece Cell Block F Tis Nazi USA. A-

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For Sonny Rollins' first live disc since 1986, the fundamental things apply. The jazz giant remains loyal to a band that simply isn't in his league: nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone, pianist Stephen Scott, electric bassist Bob Cranshaw (acoustic would make a better fit) and drummer Perry Wilson. He gives far too much solo time to his sidemen; the music sags when he's not center stage. And percussionist Kimati Dinizulu adds very little to the mix.

The good news: Without a Song, recorded in Boston four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced Rollins to evacuate his Manhattan apartment, nevertheless offers a magnificent portrait of the artist as a septuagenarian. He still chews scenery, his big, burnished tenor saxophone gulping down everything in sight.

The tunes are familiar and apropos of the occasion. He turns in a medium-swinging Without a Song; romps harder on an original calypso, Global Warming, turning in some edgy horn effects; injects melancholy into the regal theme of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; and opens Why Was I Born with an affecting soliloquy.

Rollins, now 75, also reflects on the devastation in New York, with words of encouragement that are newly relevant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: "We have to try to keep the music alive some kind of way. Maybe music can help. I don't know. But we have to try something these days." A

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Brash and brassy, oversized and sassy, New York's JC Hopkins Biggish Band is a vintage-sounding good-time band that's far less hokey than that description implies. Eight horns roll along, pushed by a rhythm section that features former Miles Davis vibraphonist Warren Smith. It's all in the service of the commanding, soulful vocals of Harlem gospel singer Queen Esther on pianist Hopkins' elegant, Americana-soaked lyrics.

It jumps and jives and all that, but with far more sincerity and warmth than the neo-swing favorites of the '90s. Pick hits: One Never Knows, co-written with Norah Jones; the take-love-now ballad I've Got My Finger on a Star; the evocative title track; the half-cynical, half-hopeful I Still Believe in Some Kind of Love; the lovely ballad-to-swing piece Someday, smoked up by Patience Higgins' tenor solo; and the tongue-in-cheek Show Biz'ness, with Hopkins' giddy vocals somewhat reminiscent of Buster Poindexter. This could be the jazz sleeper hit of the year. B+

[Last modified September 15, 2005, 13:20:04]

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