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Take four

A slew of new releases from a thriving jazz scene

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With the Rochester International Jazz Festival concluding a successful third year, a 24-hour jazz radio station (WGMC 90.1 FM), and world-class jazz educators at area colleges, few can doubt Rochester's prowess when it comes to jazz. But if further proof is needed, consider this fact: over the past few months four excellent jazz CDs have been released by local musicians. Here's a look at the bounty:

Get This is the new offering from bassist Bob Stata, who, over the years, has been one of Upstate New York's busiest musicians. Stata tours regularly with the Mambo Kings and, over the years, has played with Clark Terry, Marian McPartland, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others.

A crutial first step for any leader is the selection of top-notch players, and Stata has recruited the best. Saxophonist Grant Stewart, pianist Dino Losito, and drummer Mike Melito enliven a variety of great tunes, including Cedar Walton's "Something in Common" and Charlie Parker's "Quasimodo." The band's chemistry comes through loud and clear.

"If you do too many takes, the magic of the music goes right out of the tune," Stata says. "On the first couple of takes everybody's really fresh and in that session we got most of the tunes on the first or second takes."

The title tune is Stata's only original composition in the set, and it's the most exciting cut on the album. Ascending and descending bass lines create a sense of tension the entire group rides from start to finish.

"I wanted a tune that was uptempo," says Stata, "something everybody could blow on and stretch out on the solos. I called it 'Get This' because uptempo tunes are sometimes a challenge to dive into. My idea was to throw that tempo out there and see how everybody could deal with it."

The CD is the second release by Stata, who teaches music at Allendale Columbia School. No small part of Stata's mastery can be attributed to the fact that he attended the Eastman School of Music. All three of the other recent releases are by current faculty members at the school.

Tony Caramia is professor of piano at Eastman; Mark Kellogg is professor of trombone, euphonium, and chamber music (and a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra). Caramia is known for excursions into ragtime, and Kellogg is best known in the classical realm, but both also have long involvements with jazz. Together they have released Upstate Standards.

"I wanted the project to have some kind of hook," Kellogg says. "In this case it's the music of Upstate New York tunesmiths Jimmy Van Heusen, Alec Wilder, and Harold Arlen. More than anything we wanted you to hear their great tunes."

Their songs may be familiar, but not many jazz fans know that Van Heusen was born in Syracuse, Arlen was born in Buffalo, and Wilder was born in Rochester.

The album is filled with favorites like Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon" and Van Heusen's "Like Someone in Love," along with somewhat less-familiar compositions by Wilder. Most beautiful among them is "While We're Young," which features Caramia's Bill Evans-influenced piano work.

All of the tunes are reinterpreted through the most unusual pairing of trombone and piano. Perhaps the best example of how well this odd coupling works can be found on the album's last cut, Arlen's "If I Only Had A Brain." The arrangement first emerged at a concert last year.

"It was absolutely spontaneous," Caramia says. "I just started it in a minor key. My right brain said, 'huh?' My left brain said, 'huh?' And my fingers said, 'I don't know either, let's see what happens.'"

What happened was a completely fresh take on an old standard. Caramia's minor harmonies provide a mysterious dissonance that is only broken when Kellogg's trombone jumps in resoundingly with the familiar melody.

While trombone and piano is an unusual combination, Interconnection, a new album by Bob Sneider and Paul Hofmann, features a more traditional coupling: guitar and piano. There are many precedents, including Undercurrent, a classic album by Jim Hall and Evans.

Sneider teaches at Eastman with Hofmann in the school's Community Education division. Hofmann has released 10 albums as a leader on his MHR record label, including a duet with vocalist Kevin Mahogany. Sneider, who has toured with Chuck Mangione, has release two previous albums as a leader. After playing together for over 15 years, Sneider and Hofmann seem to have no trouble balancing their instruments.

"Our communication, coupled with our understanding of each other's playing, is very high," Hofmann says. "There is a good deal of 'flipping' we do, where I'll play a walking bass line under Bob's improvisation, followed by his doing the same for me."

Listeners will find beautiful arrangements of standards like Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Desafinado," along with some excellent originals. Hofmann's 19-minute "Jazz Suite for Guitar and Piano" is a tour de force; Sneider's "Rumblin'" is irresistible.

"Our styles are different but similar," Sneider says. "We blend together really well. I think the way the music came together really shows how interconnected the whole thing was."

With more than three decades of recording behind him, pianist Harold Danko is the veteran recording artist here. Danko, chairman of jazz studies at Eastman, first recorded on Woody Herman's Raven Speaks in 1972. He's gone on to record with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz and many others. Since 1975 he's released 19 albums as a leader (most of them for Steeplechase).

This time out, Danko is in a trio setting with Michael Formanek on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums. If the album's title, Trilix, seems strange, be assured Danko went to great lengths to find it.

"When I listened to it I felt that we were playing off each other," says Danko. "I would lead and then Michael or Jeff would just weave into the fabric. Braiding was the idea, three overlapping things. I was looking at tri or tre in dictionary and, in the derivation of 'trellis,' I found that the root was 'trilix,' which is Latin for 'the weaving of three threads.'"

Trilix is a winning combination of Danko's quirky song selections and his unique treatments. There are shades of Ahmad Jamal in his minimalist approach to Duke Jordan's "Flight to Jordan." And on Bobby Timmons' "Damned If I Know," Danko strums chords inside the piano before launching into Timmons' deliciously inverted melody.

Danko refers to this guitar-like strum as a "Freddy Green thing" he used to do with Jones and Lewis. "Thad would grunt, which would mean, like, keep it in."

All four albums are available at local music outlets. The only tough part will be choosing which one to buy first.

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