Thursday, November 16, 2017
Chris Parker is only 20 years old!
I'm not sure if that should be your lead-in. The protagonist in Whiplash was about that age, right? He was a jazz drummer. The Beatles were teenagers when they started their campaign of world domination. Mozart was an old grizzled vet by the time he started his third decade on this planet. Child prodigies are nothing new in the world of music.
Chris Parker is a hell of a jazz drummer, that's true. On his new album, Moving Forward Now, he's not flashy and precocious like you'd expect a 20-year-old drummer to be. He's steady, measured and has a light touch with his kit. He's generous with his fellow musicians and knows when to step out of the way to let them shine. In that respect alone he is an enormously mature performer.
As a composer, he's just as impressive. While he knows how to arrange music such as Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Rachmaninoff's Adaigio Sustenuto and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" into new jazz standards, half of this album contains Parker's original compositions. These new tunes blend seamlessly with the rest of the album--even a distinctive rendering of "Autumn Leaves." These choices reveal either an old soul or an apt pupil. Parker isn't trying to reinvent the wheel his first time out. He's proving one thing--he deserves to be out in front no matter his age, and he hopefully has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. And that's a gift to all of us.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
I went through a New Age phase about twenty years ago, a temporary enthusiasm that was prompted by a girlfriend at the time. I browse through my CD collection and I can still pick out all the titles from that era. A handful of them were genuinely interesting--Mychael Danna and Robert Rich, for example--but for the most part I think of them as dated, anchor-less precursors to the more highly structured genres of electronica that would soon appear on the musical horizon and capture my interest.
This new CD from oboe player Paul McCandless and the Paul Winter Consort, Morning Sun: Adventures with Oboe, reminds me of those twenty-year-old CDs. It's ambitious without being edgy, and it's full of beautiful melodies wrapped in an ethereal package rife with babbling brooks and other sounds of nature. It's an anachronism, albeit one performed with heart and skill.
McCandless has been playing with the Paul Winter Consort for 45 years, and this recording is a celebration of that partnership. He even formed Oregon with three of the consort's members, which now qualifies as the longest running jazz ensemble in the world. This familiarity creates a warm, relaxed and natural feel to this mixture of originals and covers. The trick, I suppose, is removing the temporal element of the music and enjoying it at face value--maybe you were really into this sound twenty or thirty years ago and you wish there was more of it. Maybe you'll dig the fact that the sound quality is far better than the stuff from the late '80s and early '90s--less of that digital glaze and more of that expansive and properly textured sound that's taken for granted these days.
So I don't want to come out and say that this CD isn't my thing. It's full of great ideas, strong melodies and exquisite performances. McCandless' oboe exudes an incredible amount of feeling during the slower passages, and this album clearly focuses on these impressive performances. This is, after all, a retrospective. If it was 1993, I'd probably be playing it a lot. But in 2017, I need a little more risk and a little less warm blanket freshly retrieved from a box in the attic.
Audiophiles love the female voice. So much so, in fact, that my review pile is currently flooded with jazz releases from women singers. I'm not about to say this is a new thing, especially since I've been gorging myself on a steady diet of Ella, Judy and Billie for the last couple of years. But I'm meeting quite a few chanteuses over the last year--talented singers who have clearly been around for a while, even though I've never heard of them until now.
I just received a double shot of Laura Ainsworth in the mail--both an LP and a CD. What's unusual is that it isn't the same release--Top Shelf is on LP, and New Vintage is on CD. Both were released within a few days of each other last August. Why the distinction? Well, Top Shelf is sort of a greatest hits album for Ainsworth, who hails from Dallas. It's aimed squarely at audiophiles or, more accurately, the trade show circuit where audiophiles wander from room to room and ask to hear Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jennifer Warnes. New Vintage is merely her latest release.
Ainsworth has a playful, almost cheery delivery. You can almost see her smile as she sings. While the cover of Top Shelf is clearly a tribute to those wonderful old Julie London albums I love, I wouldn't call Ainsworth's voice sultry. It's enthusiastic, vivid and quick. She also gravitates toward lyrics that are meant to evoke knowing smiles and soft chuckles rather than longing and heartbreak. Both of these albums are fun and uplifting, which is not quite in the spirit of the traditional torch song. This isn't the blues. This is a celebration.
Ainsworth employs the same band for both albums--pianist Brian Piper, bassist John Adams, drummers Mike Drake and Steve Barnes, woodwind player Chris McGuire, trumpeter Rodney Booth, flutist Pete Brewer and vibraphone player Dana Sudborough--and they are a tight and skilled ensemble across the board. But I favor Top Shelf over New Vintage for a number of reasons. The sound quality on the latter is smoother and richer and adds a layer of seriousness that counters the liveliness of Ainsworth's voice. While "New Vintage" is cheerful and exciting, the LP is the one I'd bring to a trade show and show off to the attendees. It's more "classic" in its approach, which is what I want from my female voice audiophile recordings.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Have you ever been blind-sided by something that's quiet, gentle and disarmingly familiar? I have. It happened with this modest little CD from a guy named Dylan Hicks who is sort of an amalgam of '70s singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and a half-dozen other guys who possess an easygoing and subtle intelligence. Hicks, who hails from Minnesota, fancies himself as a "singer, songwriter, minor novelist, folk pianist, essayist and odd-jobber." His lyrics express simple pleasures of love and companionship, but they're also very literate in a direct way--this guy knows how to turn a phrase in a very precise way. His stories aren't vaguely poetic--they name people and places and times with alarming specificity.
That's right, he's one of those guys who's still a storyteller. Whether he's talking about bartenders named Amanda, your father's charcoal suit or a set of rumble strips where your girlfriend used to ride her bike, Hicks zeroes in on the little details in life that stick in your mind for a long time after the song is over. That's the novelist in him, adding important details--the Swiftian "two shoes, not mates." It's a relaxed sort of genius, one that might slip by unnoticed.
Hicks band is interesting as well, with lots of banjos and pedal steel guitars dancing around a basic mid-temp rock ensemble that centers mostly around his friendly, likeable voice and his piano. His songs adhere to a certain pop economy, but he can also shift into Steely Dan jazz-rock with a sudden appearance of a big horn section. He does country-rock especially well--the twang is used sparingly yet effectively. There's a consistency to the core of his songs so that he can dabble with different arrangements and still sound like Dylan Hicks, singer-songwriter.
The sound quality of this album is surprisingly good for what is basically a small label release. It feels live and genuine. These songs feel borne from the bars and the small clubs and the taverns. Hicks has created a small gem here, and it deserves notice.
It sounds really juvenile, I know, but my attitude toward jazz flute has been ruthlessly compromised by Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story. I suppose the jokes hit upon some ancient nerve, the one that suggest that a certain musical instrument might be unsuitable for a certain musical genre because it sounds a little too carefree, lightweight and capricious. I tend to agree with that, especially when I see a jazz release that prominently features someone on the flute.
I felt that twinge when I grabbed this CD and put it into the CD transport. My preconceptions were immediately kicked to the curb. Nestor Torres released this live album as a tribute to flutists such as Frank Wess and Moe Koffman who "were playing the instrument when it was still showing up in the 'miscellaneous' categories of major categories of major 1950s polls." (He's also focusing on more modern flute players such as Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws and Yuself Lateef.) These eleven standards, performed live, are bolder and more substantive than I could have imagined. While there is a rare moment or two that borders on cliche, this is a bold and rich release that redefines the instrument and shows it can be capable of gravitas and an infinite range of expression.
Torres and his band--pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Jamie Ousley, drummers Michael Piolet and Marcus Grant, percussionists Jose Gregorio Hernandez and Miguel Russell and alto saxophonist Ian Munoz--deliver these tracks in a sultry manner, one heavy with earthy and romantic themes. As you can see from the line-up, the focus is heavy on rhythm. But Torres' serious and passionate flute floats above the Latin percussion with an almost contradictory sense of freedom.
Sound quality is strong, even with the rather small audience sounding isolated and contained to the side. The sonic colors are warm and inviting--they ooze with a honest sexiness that can't be trivialized. Veronica Corningstone be damned...I like this one a lot.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Like most jazz lovers, I have a ton of Duke Ellington recordings in my collection. That includes original live and studio recordings, of course, but also a lot of tributes from other artists. Once you start becoming an Ellington completist, there's seemingly no end to the recordings you can find. So when I see a new CD that is subtitled "New Takes on Duke's Rare and Unheard Music," I instantly think that I've still probably heard it all before--just not in this particular package.
This new CD, Rediscovered Ellington, from arrangers Garry Dial, Dick Oatts and Rich DeRosa, is meant to pay tribute to the lesser known Ellington songs by offering them with totally new arrangements. Dial, Oattes and DeRosa are purists somewhat, and their goal was to preserve the essence of what made Ellington such an original. In other words, they aren't revisionists--it's almost as if they're adding an extra ingredient to the recipe in order to elevate these nine tracks into something more whole. These songs, as a result, as perfectly rendered as Ellington tunes and even casual fans should recognize them as such. You've just never heard them before...unless you're one of those crazy completists.
The result is highly polished and precise, of course. Oatts, who was in charge of arranging these tunes for the WDR Big Band, paid special attention to selecting soloists whose style matched the tone of each passage. When you hear a particular solo improvisation, it sounds relaxed and natural as if the musician was famous for playing that specific song in his own unique way. And when you have three arrangers working together on a big project like this, you bet the pieces all fit together perfectly.
My only reservation is the sound quality, which is merely good. This album is from the Zoho label, which has released some sonic gems over the last year. Rediscovered Ellington is a little bright, a little flat and it just doesn't open up like a big band recording should with a sense of almost unlimited dynamics. But if you're an Ellington fan, you won't mind. Seeing these "lesser" tunes get their chance in the spotlight is very exciting, which is certainly the point.
Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Lately I've been scratching my head at the preponderance of '80s-style fusion jazz that's being released these days. To paraphrase John Oliver's show on HBO, I'm wondering why this is still a thing. To me it sounds dated. I'm not talking about the compositions or the execution, but the instrumentation--twinkly electric pianos, funky bass runs, sax solos straight out of Lethal Weapon and most of all glassy, slick production values that comes straight out of digital's early years. When it comes to jazz, preservation of classic styles is often paramount--but I'm still questioning the necessity of preserving this stuff. It's all about preferences, I know, and I'm being kind of a pig about it. But sometimes I kind of go, "Ew."
Then I get proven wrong by fusion jazz that balances the old and the new. Drummer Brian Hudson's new album, Next Level, is a case in point. This is funky fusion jazz that does sound thirty years old, but in a good way. This collection of originals from Hudson and keyboard player Randy Hoexter is bristling with pure energy and excitement, and the whole album is executed with such precision that you'll understand why these two gentlemen are so dedicated to this genre.
What sets this album apart from some of the others I've heard recently is that Hudson has gathered a collection of fusion all-stars who have played with such legends as Larry Carlton, Earl Klugh, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and many more. They're all ringers, in other words. Hudson is no wallflower, either--his drumming is up front and center, always full of complex rhythms and textures. From an audiophile point of view, his work is a tutorial on dynamic contrast. The overall sound quality of this CD is stunning in its superb sense of flow and balance. It doesn't sound glassy and bright in that woefully cheery '80s style--it's warm and full and engaging, which is probably why I like the album so much.
So am I warming up to this genre? It's hard to say. I could go back and re-evaluate some of those CDs I dissed over the last year and determine whether or not I needed a valid entry point. But what I really believe is that this is a smooth, professional, expertly played CD that makes me realize that fusion can still be as intriguing now as it was in 1986.