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Bittersweet by Mark Isham

Somehow it just doesn’t seem right. Trumpet fusion master Mark Isham, known to most as a Hollywood film scorer for so many movies and television shows, it just doesn’t seem possible one can live at the beginning of the 21st century and not have been inundated by his music (with film soundtracks such as Crash, Eight Below, Invincible, Bobby and The Black Dahlia as just a few examples, and television shows like EZ Streets and Chicago Hope as others), releasing a recording of jazz standards with vocalist chanteuse Kate Ceberano. Where are the synthesizers? Where are the quasi-shifting rhythmic patterns? It’s just not what you expect from the man who gave us incredible recordings like 1999’s Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project and 1987’s We Begin.

Released ahead of trumpeter Herb Alpert and wife-singer Lani Hall’s upcoming live collection of jazz and Brazilian music, Isham moves towards the laid-back where Alpert moves towards the mid-tempo. Don’t, however, confuse laid-back with not good. Isham, who has won Grammy, Emmy and Clio awards, as well as a bucket full of Academy Award and Grammy nominations (it’s just a matter of time before he wins), is joined by Australian multi-platinum and gold-selling album genre-crossing vocalist Ceberano.

Together, along with a trio including perennial pianist deserving wider attention Alan Pasqua, rock solid and empathetic bassist Tom Warrington, and the amazing Peter Erskine - nobody plays cymbals better than him - the group lays down 11 love-associated jazz standards. All on the metrically slow side, the tunes take their time developing their own steam.

Thoughout Isham’s tone is dark, slightly buzzy at occasional points, but still able to be fleet of foot on a moment’s notice - just listen to the hip ascending ripper he cuts loose on the introduction of "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore." His hard-earned and well-deserved compositional accolades come through in his playing through the manner with which he makes his phrase choices; crescendo here to bring out a particularly happy emotion or a decrescendo there to highlight a poignant moment there. Touching on just the right notes at just the right time, he actually reminds one of how soulful Charlie Parker could be; Isham just does it, on Bittersweet, at 1-16th the speed. His solo turn on "I Wanna Be Loved," his best soloistic moment on the disc, works equal shades of Chris Botti’s immaculate sound and Miles Davis’ breathiness into a rich and frothy mousse - spectacular.

Ceberano, on the other hand, is known more for up-tempo-ie dance inflected tunes like "Bedroom Eyes" and subtle late-night hold-me-close sweetly undulating numbers like "Avalon." Like Josh Groban, Ceberano has the chops to sing in a variety of styles and enough artistry to do it in a modern quasi-classical style when needed with great effect. On Bittersweet she stays away, for the most part, from the breathy and instead aims for light Ella-emoted cleanliness. The result is successful on tunes like "In A Sentimental Mood," but not so much on others like "In My Solitude" where she doesn’t quite capture the song’s deceptively intricate thoughts thoroughly enough to make the lyric believable.

Even though all the tunes are down-tempoed, with the exception of a mid-tempo yet still darkly rich "Night And Day," you’re never really conscious of that fact. In much the same way Boz Scaggs is able to make slow jazz standards weave their own spell in their own time on his two jazz albums, here Isham and Ceberano channel the ghosts of late-night New York piano bars so well you know the ghouls are gladly standing in line to get in. Overall this is an interesting musical direction choice from both artists and certainly a new chapter in the Isham canon.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mark Isham
  • CD Title: Bittersweet
  • Genre: Jazz Vocals
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: ABC Classics
  • Rating: Three Stars
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