Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Luke Sellick's Alchemist on CD

Right off the bat, there are a few interesting things about Luke Sellick. First, and this is plastered all over the place, he's only 26 years old. Second, he's from Winnipeg. Third, he plays double bass and yet is the leader of this particular ensemble, which has complimentary echoes of Mingus. Fourth, he was mentored by the great Ron Carter. Finally, he's a hell of a composer. On Alchemist, from the Cellar Live label, Luke presents nine original songs that have that old soul feeling in spades, something from someone someone who's spent a lifetime perfecting a craft.

That might sound a tad effusive, but I've been listening to Alchemist casually for the last few weeks and it never occurred to me that Sellick played the bass. He's so generous with his bandmates--Jimmy Greene on tenor sax, Jordan Pettay on alto sax, Benny Benack III and Mat Jodrell on trumpet, Adam Birnbaum on piano, Kush Abadey and Jimmy MacBride on drums--that any one of them could stand up and declare "I'm in charge" and possibly no one would say a word. Well, maybe Sellick would say something.

This unity, however, comes from a group of musicians who are very familiar with each other. Sellick has played bass on Jimmy Greene's albums, so the two share a special bond on most of these songs. (Sellick has also recorded with Russell Malone, Johnny O'Neal and a few others.) His style is not flashy, and these nine tracks are not punctuated with constant double bass solos. Instead, Sellick's foundation is as smooth and as fluent as can be, a flowing river of low notes. One could argue that he's the backbone because his presence is so constant, but the real star of Alchemist is the compositions themselves. They are uniformly carefree and winsome. I hate to keep uttering this same cliche over and over, but in this instance it is unusually fitting--these sound like lost classics. So many of the contemporary jazz I've been listening to combines originals and classics in a way that suggest the building of endless bridges, but in this case we have nine strong jazz compositions that are heavy on structure and stingy with needless tangents. There's tremendous focus here.

The liner notes suggest something unusual, that most of these compositions are reflections of Sellick's Christian faith, "which was instilled in him during his Canadian upbringing." I wouldn't have guessed this in a million years, but I'm not the person to seriously think about the connection--especially when there are no vocals. But those ideas may connect to the central tones that attract Sellick, that this is content jazz, relatively free from conflict. As soulful as this album is, it is certainly not the blues. But it is a smart jazz album, and a well-recorded one, so it's well worth your time.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack's The Harry Warren Songbook Now Live at Positive Feedback!

My latest review for Positive Feedback Online is now up, and you can read it here. This one is of an amazing new jazz CD from Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack's The Harry Warren Songbook, where classic Warren standards are played in the "hot Paris" style of jazz a la Django Reinhardt. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jan Gunnar Hoff's Stories from 2L Recordings

I'm at the tail end of my first Syracuse winter, and I seem to have survived. According to the locals, it's been a pretty average season--well over 100 inches of snowfall so far, but certainly not all clumped together at once. Other than slipping on the ice four times in one week right before the holidays, I appear to be strong enough to handle northern life.

Today, however, we are expecting a big snowstorm. It's the middle of March, and we're still not out of the woods yet. The first piece of music I'm playing today is Jan Gunnar Hoff's Stories, another exquisite recording from 2L Recordings in Norway. I've played this disc several times over the last few weeks--it's the perfect soundtrack for watching the snowfall through a big window. These fifteen pieces for solo piano are all songs in the strictest sense of the word--they range from two to five minutes long, and they have specific song structures. Most importantly, they all tell a story.

Jan Gunnar Hoff is a familiar face to anyone who has been purchasing Blu-ray discs, CD/SACD hybrids and even LPs from 2L. I've already reviewed several of his releases right here on this blog: Living was reviewed in 2013, and the Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night is one of my favorite LPs to demo at a trade show. As a solo pianist, Hoff is one of those inventive performers who can sit in front of a keyboard and improvise endlessly. His style is fluid and lyrical, but at the same time he can connect to a wide range of emotions--it certainly isn't just pretty piano music he's playing. There's bite and there's thunder.

In Stories, however, Hoff does an amazing thing. Those beautiful improvisations are blended with familiar songs, familiar passages, even fleeting moments. Aside from a glorious and thoughtful cover of "God Only Knows," a rearrangement of the traditional Norwegian folk song "Varmlandsvisan" and Gerhard Winkler's "Answer Me," these are all original compositions from Hoff, so those gentle moments of recognition are wonderfully ethereal. At various points through Stories I'm reminded of everything from Thomas Dolby to Alan Silvestri's original score from Cast Away. These are incidental, however--the moment I lock in with a flash of realization, Hoff has moved onto something else.

This wavering between pure improvisation and surreptitious homage make Stories one of the most rewarding solo piano works I've heard in some time. By now you know that 2L Recordings are perhaps the most lifelike and natural you can buy in 2017, so I don't need to tell you how warm and spacious the Sofienberg Church sounds, or how producer Morten Lindberg has a better handle on how to bring out the wood and the wire of a piano out into the open better than anyone else.

Just grab this recording and wait for a snowy day, like today, and stare out the window and think about everything that matters to you.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Avalanche Lily's Dream Horizon EP

"The band is reminiscent of the Raincoats, Beat Happening, and perhaps the Minutemen, if the Minutemen were fronted by a couple of women."

That description is enough to get my attention, but the real reason I'm talking about the new Portland band Avalanche Lily is that I've known singer-guitarist Ramune Nagisetty since I reviewed Rocket 3's CD Burn back in 2014. (We've been friends on Facebook, so don't think I drop by her house a couple of times per week for a frosty pint of Pliny the Elder.) I actually loved her old band, which reminded me of such fun '90s bands as Letters to Cleo, Veruca Salt, Elastica and especially Clouds. Plus, I always pay attention to her on my newsfeed because Ramune Nagisetty is such a cool name.

Ramune sent me a PM a couple of weeks ago asking me to check out her new band, Avalanche Lily. She didn't want a review or anything--just an honest evaluation. Their new EP, Dream Horizon, is coming out next week so she sent me out a quartet of tracks to download. Compared to Rocket 3, Avalanche Lily sounds much cleaner, purer and sunnier. I'm not hearing Minutemen's jam econo, but I do hear Mazzy Star, kind of dreamy and sexy albeit with more clarity and a penchant for quiet, brief jams. I'm drawn to drummer Andrew Anymouse's persistent brushwork, which is steady and hypnotic, along with the sound of Ramune's clean, undistorted guitar sound. Filling out this trio is Cyndy Chan, who plays bass and sings beautifully measured harmonies with Ramune. It's even more fun to learn about their day jobs--Ramune is an engineer in high-tech, Andrew is a cyber-security specialist and Cyndy raises chickens on her farm and works in a factory.

What Avalanche Lily does, thankfully, is transport me back to that same period of the early 1990s where so many pop genres blended together which resulted in a general broadening of young minds. Best of all, this stripped-down trio is bright and whimsical and easy on the mind. You can get more info on ordering at the Avalanche Lily website.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Collected Works of Stephen Douglas Wolfe

Last month I told you about meeting local singer-songwriter Stephen Douglas Wolfe, and how he delivered three 7" singles and a CD (an EP containing the contents of those singles) in order to thanks for a review I did last summer.

I'm not sure how much I can add to those blog entries. I do have a different perspective on the all of the tracks, thanks to the CD, and what it adds up to is a terrific side one on an LP. The 7" singles are gorgeous in packaging, sound quality and musical content, but listening to small chunks of music and then flipping the records over ever few minutes...wait, where did the Vinyl Anachronist go? This guy is complaining about flipping over vinyl!

Naw, it's not like that. I'm just saying that listening to all of the single tracks in a row impressed me because I saw the flow between the songs better, and I feel confident that Stephen Douglas Wolfe is more than just a promising Syracuse performer. He's good enough to make it big, make it on his own, go national, go global, whatever cliche you want to add. I hope he does. I hope he adds a side two sometime soon.

If you're interested in ordering these recordings, you can visit his website for more info. The total cost of the three 7" singles is $30, which might seem like a lot until you remember that the pressings sound fantastic. (It's sold under "SDW Vinyl Single Series.") I'm tempted to stick in a qualifier--really good sound from a small indie label--but I listened to the CD extensively on a big reference system and there's none of those small label budgetary concerns here. This is a first-class collection from a talented singer-songwriter and an all-around decent fellow.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Chris Rogers' Voyage Home on CD

Over the last few months I've been reviewing a lot of jazz CDs from a variety of contemporary record labels. Most of these labels are small, and some of the packaging can be best described as spartan...or maybe just streamlined. This isn't a knock in any way, but it's obviously that many of these labels are small ventures that are dedicated to recording all of the musicians on today's jazz scene, the guys who are out there playing gigs 200 nights per year, sometimes for decades. But there's something strange about many of these CDs I've been getting. They sound fantastic. We're talking about redbook CDs, with no special designations on the back cover describing all of the hi-rez recording techniques, or the latest digital formats employed. They're just CDs.

Why do these "garden variety" discs sound so good?

Take Chris Rogers' album Voyage Home. I almost called it his new album, but it turns out it was released about a year ago. The label is called Art of Life Records. I've never heard of them before. Since 2000, they have released 46 compact discs and computer downloads. You can go straight to their website and order Voyage Home for $9.99. And it sounds great. I'm listening to a lot of hi-rez digital these days, mostly streaming from Tidal. Obviously I listen to a lot of jazz on LP as well, and I know what a great classic jazz recording sounds like.

I could play this at a high-end audio show, and I'm sure quite a few attendees would ask me what it was and where they could get it. I could blurt out something like, "Oh, this is the new Chris Rogers CD from Art of Life Records. You don't know them? They're fantastic!" I would never mention to them that it cost only ten bucks, because the jig would be up.

My point is this--a modest little jazz CD like this comes across my desk and I might not even pay that much attention to it for weeks. Then I slowly work it into the rotation, which means it plays in the background on a pretty high-quality system. When it comes time to review it, I start zeroing in. I sit in the sweet spot. I list to the entire disc beginning to end. By this time the album should feel comfortable and familiar. With these recent jazz CDs, however, this is the point where I'm totally surprised by the superb sound quality as well as the exciting performances. It's like I'm starting over and hearing them for the first time.

Rogers, who is a trumpeter and a composer, has been on the NYC jazz scene for quite a while--even though this is his debut solo album for Art of Life. He's assembled a big and bouncy ensemble that includes Michael Brecker (tenor sax), Ted Nash (alto and tenor saxes), Steve Kahn (guitar), Xavier Davis (piano), Jay Anderson (bass), Steve Johns (drums), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Art Baron (trombone), Mark Falchook (keyboards and Willie Martinez (percussion). He's also featured his father Barry Rogers, who is quite well-known for his legendary salsa trombone.

Lay this all out across nine original compositions from Chris, and you have a tight, horn-based jazz ensemble playing with a perfect combination of precision and adrenaline. These tracks are also distinctively melodic, which almost tricks you into thinking that at least a couple are old standards. They aren't.

Rogers and his ensemble aren't blazing new trails here--hopefully you don't think I'm being dismissive by saying that--but this is beautiful, richly-played jazz, heavy on brass yet still lush and exotic enough to seduce you. Voyage Home should prompt audiophiles as well as jazz lovers to explore more of the Art of Life catalog, something I plan to do. I mean...ten bucks.

Sunday, February 19, 2017