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Free At First

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Album Review

South African chromatic harmonicist and pianist Adam Glasser has a foot firmly planted in his native Johannesburg, and the other in the modern mainstream of American jazz. While Toots Thielemans and Abdullah Ibrahim come immediately to mind as influences, Glasser uses few clichés from either, the title Free at First an accurate synopsis for the blending of cultures, at times being able to step away from one or the other. Growing up in London, he was able to convene with the apartheid-oppressed expatriates who lived there, most specifically Dudu Pukwana. He also has a soft spot for jazz standards, evidenced by the mix of selections, from American popular songs, modern jazz, township music and his own compositions. Of those standards, "How Deep Is the Ocean?'" and "On Green Dolphin Street" are not only stock choices, but fairly predictable, the latter number less so with a quick bossa nova beat. Much more daring are the versions of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" with a well extrapolated bridge, and Jackie McLean's "Little Melonae," where Anita Wardell's scatted vocal is attractively thin and sporadic in semi-tandem with Glasser's harmonica. Two other vocal pieces with the recitations of David Serame speak directly to the dichotomies, with "The Low Six" as a "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" cross with South African kwela in a story about slaughter houses and a mine shaft, while "African Jazz & Variety" has Serame referring to several local vocalists who, if you closed your eyes, would remind you of the likes of Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan. If you remember Pukwana's former vocalist Pinise Saul, she is here in a soulful tribute to the famous drummer Churchill Jolobe on the hot, tick-tock dance tune "Mjo." Of the originals, "Kort Street" is supremely impressive, as Glasser dishes out some incredible piano playing in a contemporary, spiritual but feverish bop-infused style. "Part of a Whole" definitely re-creates the funky Chicago R&B roots of Eddie Harris, while "Quickly in Love" is a bright, immediate and catchy swinger. The CD is bookended by tunes with an unnecessary synthesizer insertion, marring the otherwise well conceived modal modern jazz piece "Tourmalet," and melting into the spacy "Remembrance." At first sampling an uneven effort, listeners will still have to pick and choose their favorites on this otherwise credible debut effort from another new member — alongside Enrico Granafei, Gregoire Maret, and Hendrik Meurkens — in the jazz harmonica sweepstakes. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi

Free At First, Adam Glasser
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