Dan Sperber is a composer, guitarist and burgeoning vocalist, but by no means a music writer. In the nineties and early aughts he made a small splash writing and performing with jazzy crossover bands, The Relaxomatic Project and The New Loungehead. His new band, called Dan Sperber Dance Band reunites him with Relaxomatic’s Luke Casey and presents his original music in a mash-up of jazz, disco and world music styles. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
1 – Hilton Ruiz Ensemble, Something Grand: Jazz had taken a terrible turn in the 1970s. Rock gave it herpes and disco a cocaine come-down. It seems like jazzers in the 1980s wanted to clean up their image. Recordings were proudly ‘digital’. Album sleeves, once so stylish, were pastelly with dull block type, promoting fashion-challenged men looking for a safe place to strut their moustaches. Musically, many recordings of this period either held closely to historically defined sub-genres (straight ahead, be-bop, big band, Dixieland etc.) or in lieu of actual modernity, drowned poodle noodlings in cheesy synths and gloopy slapped bass.
So pianist Hilton Ruiz’s album from 1987, with its block letters, pastels, and spot-lit moustache on the cover, sitting ignored at Glen Eden’s Salvation Army Family Store in 2013, came as a pleasant surprise to me. According to the sleeve notes, Hilton apprenticed with Freddie Hubbard Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Clark Terry, and briefly Charles Mingus.
The album features Steve Turre, who not only makes the trombone sound very reasonable but also blows a mean shell (if you’ve heard Auckland musician Kingsley Melhuish do this, you’ll know it’s a gorgeous, haunting sound). Timbales, congas, guiro further liven up the party. Ruiz’s (acoustic) piano is assured and flavoursome throughout. The stand-out track is Sunrise Over Madarao, featuring a montuno figure reminiscent of Afro Blue and a Coltrane-referencing Sam Rivers on a very reedy sounding soprano sax. I also like the album’s opener, Home Cookin which sounds both slick and saucy.
2 – Kurt Elling, Man In The Air: I used to play this album to annoy my wife, but sadly the CD is now jammed in the CD changer of our Toyota Windy. Thankfully Spotify is opening new avenues for us. Elling’s schtick here is to vocalise fairly hip and/or contemporary instrumental jazz tunes by the likes of Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Grover Washington. He adds lyrics, not just to the main melody ‘heads’ but the improvised solos too. It’s bonkers, and the words are fruity as all hell, as in Elling’s rendition of John Coltrane’s masterpiece ‘Resolution’, where not a squeak or scronk of Trane’s incredible sax solo is safe from his lyrical invention. Here’s a mid-solo excerpt, for the brave reader:
“The nexus of timetable tides/in the final lighthouse at shining earth’s ending/at the spinning of the finishing of sweeping time/driving silence like a stampeding careening wash in charging advance/digging the sound of passing everything away into the secret of eternity’s pivot dance”
Indeed! Also somehow very beguiling is Winelight, Grover Washington’s ubiquitous cocktail bar hit from 1980. With the help of Stefon Harris’ superb vibraphone playing, Elling, intoning about being “In the winelight /livin’ lovin’s soft delights/ Smooth and mellow /feelin’ how we move so right” makes the song sound even smoochier than the original. Doesn’t sound appealing? Fair enough, I’ve not met anyone who loves this album as much as I do.
3 – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, The Sound Of Music: I’d always hated musicals, and this long nuns and Nazis hodgepodge just seemed like the worst thing on TV at Easter time. But my two-year old, Valentine, disagrees, and he has great taste. In fact recently he wandered off into Glen Eden library, came back holding a biography of George Gershwin, handed it to me and said “You should read this, Daddy”. OK, it’s a little heavy on extraneous detail, but overall a great read. Well done, Valentine.
Back to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s syrupy classic, I found a decent American pressing of the movie soundtrack at Real Groovy (Note: The NZ pressings are dire, which is a pity because every op shop holds it as a stock item. And let’s not get started on the gruesome colours on the locally printed LP covers). So, through gritted ears I’ve come to love Do Re Mi, which I can now play on guitar while Valentine yells “Faster, Dad!” and the awesomely creepy I Am Sixteen Going On Seventeen.
4 – Bressa Creeting Cake, Bressa Creeting Cake: How can one album be humorous, fastidious, exuberant, funky, exotic, poignant, innovative, timeless and undeniably ‘Kiwi’ all at once? Bastards!
5 – Billy Cobham, Crosswinds: Heather from this recently acquired album is my favourite tune featuring a sexy saxophone solo, ever. It builds very slowly and quietly. The rest of the album is a mix of excitable jazz-funk, which makes Heather stick out. Drummers (like Cobham) often write great tunes, and some of my favourite jazz-funk albums are drummer-led – Stix Hooper’s The World Within and Harvey Mason’s Earthmover are two other examples, the former featuring a version of Little Drummer Boy which is the best Christmas Carol jazz-funk instrumental ever recorded.