While children spend after school-hours and weekends working on homework and spending time with their families, they also have play dates. They get together with other like-minded friends to let loose and blow off some steam. Musicians often do the same thing and, appropriately enough, three of the five performers on Playdate have been friends since high school. Guitarist Amanda Monaco, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and pianist Noah Baerman have a shared history, having studied music together in Connecticut, and they’ve joined forces with bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza to form Playdate.

The group/album title makes perfect sense because of the relationship of the participants but it can be misleading if viewed from a musical stance. This isn’t a loose blowing session with overdone standards. The press materials mark the album as a “delightful combination of the hard bop tradition and modern sophistication” and, while this is largely accurate, the scales tip a little toward the latter. Five of the seven tracks on this record were written by the participants and each song has something different to say. Monaco’s tone is warm and inviting and Escoffery—lacking rough edges here—matches her with his own sound.

The album begins in with the mid-tempo swing of Monaco’s “Copper Tone.” Escoffery spins out instantly appealing and simply executed melodic lines that dovetail with Monaco and, to a lesser extent, Baerman. At times, Monaco blends so well with Escoffery, that it almost seems like another horn is present. James Williams’ “Yes, Yes Oh Yes!,” receives a red carpet reading, beginning with Monaco’s solo introduction and moving to a cool swing vibe, highlighted by Escoffery’s nonchalant and incredibly hip delivery. A long run of solos, featuring some deep bellowing notes from Escoffery, is capped off by a sax cadenza and some arco bass toward the end of the song.

Sperrazza proves to be a double-threat here with his fine drumming and intriguing compositions. His “Milan Kundera,” taking its name from the famed author, sounds like a cheery Vince Guaraldi-style Charlie Brown song—in seven—with slight calypso inflections adding to its originality. While Escoffery’s main axe is his tenor saxophone, his work on soprano here is fresh and proves to be one of the highlights of the album. The connection established between these musicians, both in terms of personal history and in musical empathy, is solid; hopefully this won’t be a one-time play date. 

David Gibson - A Little Somethin’

Trombonist David Gibson arrived in New York in 1999 and wasted no time making his presence felt. Work with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band,Slide Hampton, the Hot Pants Funk Sextet and a string of leader dates for Nagel-Heyer Records helped to cement his reputation in the New York jazz community and beyond. A Little Somethin’ is Gibson’s recording debut for Posi-Tone Records and features his working band, with the unique instrumentation of trombone, alto saxophone, organ and drums.

The nine tracks on this album are just as much of a showcase for Gibson’s writing as they are for his playing. Two Gibson originals start the album and set the tone. “The Cobbler” is an inviting, mid-paced tune with a swing-meets-Latin undercurrent that serves as a fitting introduction to this group. Gibson’s funk experience comes into play on “Hot Sauce,” as the quartet turns up the heat. Organist Jared Gold stirs this soulful musical stew while drummer Quincy Davis lays down some firm and funky beats behind him. Alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino takes the first solo and wastes no time making his mark. Gibson and Gold follow with some equally captivating responses.

“April in Paris” is the album’s lone standard. Tolentino takes the lion’s share of the tune after a quick run-through of the melody, with both horn players getting a chance to shine. Gibson and company choose to keep this one simmering rather than bringing it to a boil, and things quietly fade away in the end. Gibson’s “French Press” shines a spotlight on Davis as he trades eight’s with various members of the group toward the track’s end, while “The Seraph’s Smile” begins with a brief, gospel-inspired organ solo before the other musicians settle in for the ride. Gibson feeds off the vibe that the rest of the band creates as he contributes a captivating, soulful solo statement.

In addition to showcasing Gibson’s writing talents, A Little Somethin’ features a pair of pieces from Gold and one from Tolentino. The brash, adrenaline-fueled funk of “In The Loop” begins with a wild organ riff and features some extroverted soloing from Gibson, and fun and farout organ soloing from Gold. Gold’s other contribution, “This End Up!,” is a mellow, hip-swaggering tune that prominently features Tolentino. Sandwiched between these tracks is the altoist’s “One for Jackie,” underscored by a gentle, lilting groove and hints of Brazil in the background. The album ends with the title track—a slow-cooking, swing tune that seems to give a nod toward organ groups of yesteryear and serves as a fitting finale.

Ralph Bowen - Dedicated

Many new releases seem to follow one stringent formula or another—whether to deliver cookie-cutter music to the masses, in hopes of getting noticed by commercial radio, or to adopt a certain trend, be it the traditional piano-led trio or covering standards. With that in mind, it’s rarely, if ever, a bad thing when an artist or group just plays. That’s the approached used by saxophonist Ralph Bowen for Dedicated.

Bowen was co-leader of the sextet, OTB—Out of the Blue—a sextet based in New York. During that time, he associated with Kenny Garrett, Steve Wilson, Rene Rosnes and others. A performer in clubs, concert halls and at festivals, Bowen is joined on this date by guitarist Adam Rogers, bassistJohn Patitucci and drummer Antonio Sanchez.

“Canary Drums” features Bowen’s sunny lead, subtly aided by the rhythm section. Rogers, Patitucci and Sanchez are in a groove, expressing themselves both as a unit and individually. Meanwhile, the tenor explores upper and lower reaches of its range, at times at a fiery pace, with Rogers also contributing a solo.

Trumpeter Sean Jones joins the ensemble for “Mr. Bebop,” playing the melody in unison with Bowen. Bowen then takes off on a solo, at times punching into high squeaks, elsewhere shifting to low-end, high-speed riffs. Jones follows with a spirited solo of his own, as does Rogers. After a repeat of the melody, Bowen and Jones split into freestyle play as the song slowly winds down.

Pattitucci starts “Prof.” setting up a duet between Bowen and Rogers. During his solo, Bowen puts the tenor through a series of high-speed rolls, powerfully emotive throughout. Rogers, however, tones it down a little during his solo; still expressive, but mellower than Bowen. The tenorist returns at a slower pace but with more power, followed by a guitar solo even subtler than the previous one; accompanied only by bass and drums, it’s an effective way to bring the song to a close.

Though Bowen is out front most of the way during Dedicated, the music never loses its group sense. Patitucci and Sanchez don’t offer any solos, but their accompaniment is top notch. All six songs were written by Bowen and are dedicated to his mentors, including Keith Blackley, David Baker and William Fielder.

Mike DiRubbo - Repercussion

Posi-Tone Records, a new jazz label out of Los Angeles, has certainly hit the ground running. They are signing some of the best young jazz talent, mostly in the bop and hard bop vein. We’ve previously reviewed Posi-Tone releases from trumpeter Jim Rotondi and saxophonist, Ralph Bowen. Positone just recently signed B-3 organist, Sam Yahel, as well. You can add alto saxist, Mike DiRubbo, to their roster and it’s an excellent move. DiRubbo, whose playing brings to mind Jackie McLean, previously recorded for Criss Cross and Sharp Nine.

His new CD, Repercussion, is made up of a quartet featuring the great vibist, Steve Nelson, a regular member of Dave Holland’s group, and bassist Dwayne Burno. This 2008 recording also featured drummer, Tony Reedus, who sadly passed away last year from an embolism at the young age of 49. It was a terrible loss for the jazz community as Reedus was a first call New York drummer, who had several CDs as a leader for Criss Cross. It’s hard enough to lose our jazz favorites at older ages, but to lose one such as Reedus, in the prime of his life, is especially devastating.

The sympathetic pairing of vibist Nelson with DiRubbo makes for a great interaction. On the title cut, DiRubbo brings to mind Coltrane, and Nelson’s vibes provide an intriguing foil to Mike as they brighten up the mix. Engineer, Nick O’Toole, has done a great job bringing out the full flavor of ring of the vibe tones.

DiRubbo wrote seven out of the nine tracks on this CD. Brubeck’s The Duke is one of the two tracks Mike adds to his own compositions. It shows off Mike’s lyrical abilities, and Nelson again comps nicely. Lunar follows and you can feel the drive that Reedus brings to the quartet, with Mike bringing some great bop lines. Highbridge Lullaby, is very special and at only 3:38, one wants a bit more of this lullaby.

Nightfall and Déjà Vu continue in this warm vein, as DiRubbo combines both warmth with a keening searching edge that was a specialty of Jackie McLean. Both invite close listening. Nelson is always right there to provide fills and sparkling solos. Too Late Now is a ballad in which the simpatico of Mike and Steve is shared. It would make great late night listening. Nelsonian, written by DiRubbo for Nelson, lets Steve have free rein and he brings to mind Milt Jackson, with his command of his instrument.
I’m hopeful that DiRubbo will keep the vibraphone in his future recordings – (an invitation to Joe Locke?) – as Repercussion has such a great alto/vibes communication. This CD keeps the winning Posi-Tone streak alive.

TrackList: Repercussion, The Duke, Lunar, Highbridge Lullaby, Nightfall, Déjà vu, Too Late Now, Nelsonian, Pisces Rising