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.
My review of Lars Jakob Rudjord's spectacular new LP, Indiepiano, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Friday, October 20, 2017
Hey wait. This ain't jazz.
Highlands & Houston reminds me of one of those projects they used to do with people like Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, where you take two accomplished musicians from different genres and throw them together so they can create something magical and unique. In this particular case, American guitarist Michael Hurdle has teamed with Scottish fiddler Paul Anderson to play mostly Scottish and Celtic folk ballads with a slight Texas twist. It works incredibly well, which is sort of the point--Hurdle initiated the project after a lifetime of exploring the intersections between genres such as gospel, country, soul, blues and even funk.
Both Hurdle and Anderson have plenty in common when it comes to the mastery of their instruments. Both have won numerous competitions, for example, and both are prolific songwriters. But while Anderson is very well known back in Scotland from his appearances on TV and radio, Hurdle spent most of his life working in the healthcare industry and didn't go professional until later in life. (He started off playing in his local church back in the '60s, with a 12-string guitar he named Sister Rose.) You wouldn't know that from listening to him play, however--he plays his hollow body Gibson with a confident style that suggests a huge catalog over many decades.
These two gentlemen probably could have delivered an astonishing album with just their fiddle and guitar, but they've assembled a large ensemble that allows them plenty of flexibility while they straddle musical styles--mandolins, keyboards, drums, vocals and yes, even bagpipes. Hurdle provides even more variety by playing dobro, bass and Cuban el Tres. Sometimes this results in a busy, bright sound, and folk albums should probably lean more towards the understated and natural (especially when the bagpipes appear in the final track, a melding of "Scotland the Brave" and "Auld Lang Syne"). But Highlands & Houston is different enough to be refreshing and lots of fun, and that counts for a lot.
I've been quite busy the last couple of weeks moving into my new Rochester digs. After 18 months in an apartment I finally have a house again, and a listening room. I also have a huge pile of music to review, so I need to spend the next few days diving into it, especially since I'm going on vacation in a few days. I'm certainly not going to rush through reviews the next few days--I've actually been getting very familiar with most of them over the last couple of months. One that really stands out is this one from jazz violinist Dave Kline. It's immediately likeable and engaging, and it's been in my car CD rotation while I move the last few boxes from Syracuse.
As you might deduce from its title, this album focuses on worldly themes and influences. Kline started off as a classical violinist while growing up in London, but when he moved to the US he became interested in music from other parts of the world--Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. As you move through these nine originals, you'll hear all sorts of esoteric motifs that range from good old-fashioned rock and roll guitars to Eastern European fiddles to Haitian percussion. It's a mish-mash of styles (the liner notes employ the word "smorgasbord," which is pretty accurate), but it works so effectively because of the energy and drama Kline injects into each composition.
While it's beautifully recorded, it's not purist by jazz standards. Kline has enlisted plenty of "plugged-in" musicians, in other words, and he's fond of using electric violins and layering tracks in order to create his own string sections. Normally this would push the effort into the jazz fusion genre, but so much of this music crosses over into world music and, let's face it, pop. But to suggest Shifting Borders is mainstream is doing a disservice to the sheer creativity involved. I'm not a huge fan of pigeon-holing music into genres, and Kline is delivering likeable, energetic songs that may appeal to the masses while emerging from a palette of uncommon colors.
Saturday, October 7, 2017
I'm not sure if audiophiles dig spoken word pieces or not. I can't think of a famous reference disc that consists of someone reciting poetry or prose with musical accompaniment. The closest thing I have to that in my music collection is an LP, part of the Jack Kerouac box set that came out a couple of decades ago, that includes Jack reading from the last few paragraphs of On the Road while Steve Allen improvises on the piano.
I fondly remember going to the Anti-Club in Hollywood back in the late '80s and seeing Henry Rollins and Exene Cervenka reading their poetry with spare musical accompaniment. I vividly remember those recitals. So I'm not sure why spoken word pieces aren't more popular. The voice alone, clear and naked, could be used as a true reference point for audiophile since most of them don't have access to a singer who can perform in their living rooms at a moment's notice. Throw in something substantial, such as a grand piano, and you might be able to start a new trend for the old dogs among us.
So I submit The Voice of Robert Desnos, with Antonella Chionna reciting Desnos' dreamy, surreal poetry backed by Pat Battstone's light and versatile piano. The sound quality is spectacular, precise and direct. But it's spoken word, the whole way through. Will that be interesting to us?
I say yes, and wholeheartedly. First of all, Chionna's voice is utterly charming with its moderate Italian accident--she sounds a lot like Valeria Golina's character in Rain Man. Even when she's digging into terse and repetitive poetry--Desnos had a habit of repeating words and phrases over and over for emphasis--her voice casts a spell. Desnos' poetry deserves equal attention since it's dreamy and surreal and delves deep into the human subconsciousness. Finally, Battstone's flowing keys provide the momentum as well as the actual direction. This is Battstone's project, after all, and he's the one who found the Desnos poems and sent them on to Chionna to see if she'd be interested. She was, as you see.
As much as I enjoy this CD and admire such a cerebral effort, my audiophile side still resists a little. To illustrate, I've listened to this recording a few times and two different people burst into the room and asked me what the hell was I was listening to. So enjoying this CD will depend upon a simple realignment of the way you listen to music, something to push you past the novelty. It's certainly something to think about.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
There are a lot of terms you can use to describe a jazz musician, but "self-taught" isn't a common one. Most jazz musicians work hard to get where they are, and they've studied with a few master musicians along the way. When I delve into the liner notes of some of these contemporary jazz titles I've been reviewing, there's always a story about a famous musician who influenced the artist when he was young, or where he was born into a family of musicians, or whatever.
Andy Adamson, however, is a self-taught jazz pianist and composer. Sure, he was influenced by Coltrane, Chick Corea and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but he sounds like he does because he's been doing this for 50 years. He's had time to poke around and figure out what this jazz stuff is all about.
His new CD, First Light, is a collection of originals from his "vast catalogue of original work." His fellow musicians--sax player Dan Bennett, bassist Brendan Andes, drummer Jonathan Taylor and trumpeter Ross Huff--are noted for their tremendous body of experience in the jazz world, and for their ability to handle some of Adamson's polyrhythmic structures in his songs. Throughout First Light you'll hear so many evolving textures and dynamics, an Adamson trademark, that you'll question whether or not the same five gentlemen are hanging around for every track. They are.
In some cases, the dynamic contrasts are contained in a single song--note the crazy, electrified coda for "Twilight in the Making." Throughout the album there's a sense that the space between the songs isn't aligned with what you're hearing, that some songs have suite-like structures while other themes pop up in one song only to end in another. Perhaps that's where Adamson's autodidact approach is a true gift since he's not bound by the few rules that do exist in jazz but still manages to construct moving and coherent melodies.
First Light deserves a listen because of that willingness to stand out from the crowd. It's original, and that's something in a genre so in touch with preserving the past.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
This one came at the right time, after countless jazz releases that seem a little too perfect, a little too accomplished. That's not to say these guys are sloppy and wild, just adventurous--like in the '50s and '60s when everything seemed so new. You know the risks that are being taken, and that creates a stronger interaction between performer and listener.
Gabe Evens is certainly no slouch when it comes to mining the history of jazz. Evens is an associate professor of jazz piano, composition and arrangement at the University of Louisville's famed Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program. He's also performed all over the world. He has the chops, he's paid his dues, he's done whatever he's expected to do to earn respect as a jazz pianist. That said, his approach to these ten original tunes isn't as academic as you would think. Or, perhaps, that's the point--Evens, along with bassist Lynn Seaton and drummer Ed Soph, knows that the foundations of jazz aren't grounded in logic and reason and structure. It's about catching the whirlwind and finding places no one else has been.
It sounds like I'm describing chaos once again, but I'm not. The macro-structure of the music is intact, with themes and improvisations that sound fully comfortable within the be-bop canon. The inspiration is in the tiny details, especially when you take the time to isolate what each performer is doing at any given point. That's right...as a whole this sounds musical, lyrical, whatever you want to call it, but it's the Drummer's Drummer Syndrome where amazing things are happening in the margins if you know what you're looking for.
The best way to sum this up is to say this is perfect jazz, which doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means. By perfect I mean it pushes you to look in the crevices and find out what's hiding in the dark. It's music that's meant for up-close and careful listening, otherwise you might just mistake this for any number of perfect, accomplished contemporary jazz releases. It's not. It's better than that.
The latest installment of The Vinyl Anachronist is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is about warped records, and what you can do to avoid them. You can read it here.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Conrad the Band's new EP, Valley Days, features a snarling hyena on the cover. That instantly makes me think of one thing, and that's the cover of Grinderman II. Grinderman, of course, was an awesome side project for Nick Cave, a chance for him to explore wilder and more chaotic musical frontiers as the front man for a true garage band. That cover, now a classic, featured a mangy, snarling wolf in a very swanky apartment featuring prominently white decor. The message was clear--this is going to get messy.
Conrad the Band, or just Conrad for short, seems to be appropriating the same swagger for this six-track album. Listening to the first song, "Devil's Gonna Find You," you'll quickly discover the same garage band aesthetic--it's a catchy, rough-around-the-edges blues rock tune that'll probably remind you of the Black Keys more than Cave's outfit. These two "old friends" from Bakersfield, Matthew Shaw and Nick Andre, do have a big chunk of that late '60s and early '70s stripped-down simplicity. It's just two guys, right? Two-man bands might be in vogue right now, but you have to be careful not to draw obvious comparisons.
The deeper you get into Valley Fever, fortunately, the less you'll think about the Black Keys and Grinderman. (To be honest, the latter band is doing something completely different.) Shaw and Andre have a knack for the disheveled psychedelic pop hit, and may be more deeply grounded into the '60s than Auerbach and Carney. There's a point, in fact, where I thought about how good these songs were, and that forty years ago this type of album would be treated as something a little more substantial. These two gentleman from Nashville West aren't just wearing their musical influences on their sleeves, they're focused on the little touches that show the world who they are--right down to the thin sound of electric card that's straight out of the Buck Owens manual. There's a lot of intelligence in this seemingly modest effort.
So this little side project from a couple of old friends is a little disarming merely because it is so solid and good, and in a way that seems totally off-the-cuff. Will anyone notice? I hope so, because Conrad the Band might seem like an impromptu garage jam from a couple of buddies, but it's much better than that.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
This one is entirely about the music.
That's a strange way to begin a music review, I know, but with a 2L release there's always so much more going on than the performances. There's the extraordinary care taken during the recording process to ensure that the sound quality is state-of-the-art, there's the cutting edge technologies used to achieve that goal and finally there's a theme to explore, usually a cerebral one that's aimed squarely at true lovers of classical music. These themes can be simple, or they can be so esoteric that only a handful of music lovers would discover the intent on their own without the help of the unusually detailed liner notes.
For Northern Timbre, that theme is graciously simple: Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen are arguably the most beloved Scandinavian composers, and they influenced each other in many ways. The avenue for demonstrating this hypothesis is also simple--three duets for piano and violin, played with extraordinary passion and commitment by Ragnhild Hemsing and Tor Espen Aspaas. But there's a point, perhaps a few minutes into Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor. where you're so swept up by this gorgeous music that you stop listening with your brain and the clipboard with all your notes falls to the floor without you even noticing.
That's the goal, of course. I've said the same thing about high-end audio for years, that you're not listening to the good stuff until you stop thinking about whether or not you're listening to the good stuff. When I review these wonderful 2L releases, I usually try to gather up as many brain cells as I can so that I can do justice to these exceptional and thought-provoking recordings and the intriguing ideas behind them. With those aforementioned themes, there are usually many layers to peel away from the onion which usually adds to the enjoyment--it's almost a multi-media approach. With Northern Timbre, I can't do that. I simply melt into the listening chair and take it all in and forget about everything else.
I will say this in regards to the stated theme: as you move from the Grieg piece to Sibelius' Danses Champetres to Nielsen's Sonata No. 1 in A major, there's a certain flow that seems to reinforce the idea that these three composers were all in tune with the idea of the "Nordic Sound." I've been attracted to Scandinavian music for many years, back to the Opus3 recordings I fervently collected in the '80s and '90s. That attraction has always focused on one aspect--the ability of Scandinavian music to create vivid images of northern life, especially when it comes to the idea of a warm fireplace in a warm home in the middle of a winter storm. That stimulates the happy places in my brain.
The idea that these complex emotions and memories can be triggered so readily by a mere piano and violin duet speaks volumes about the quality of the performances, as well as Morten Lindberg's affinity for recording in big warm Norwegian churches. Hemsing's violin is swift and playful and strong when it needs to be. Aspaas, on piano, is an equal partner--this music is played as a true duet instead of a showcase for the violin with the keyboards acting as a rather austere foundation. Hemsing and Aspaas weave in an out of each other as if they were engaged in dance.
Winter is coming, and this California boy now lives in a place where that means something. I'm looking forward to spending this winter with recordings like this that celebrate the Nordic sound, ones that are lit up from within by sheer beauty.
Friday, September 22, 2017
Gotta admit that this CD didn't look promising when I first picked it up. This collection of slick, over-produced lite jazz tunes seemed a little too New-Age to me, its aim toward the ethereal far too forced. Even the title was a bit of a turn-off. Fly away, butterfly? What is this, 1968?
Slowly I started to change my mind. Composer Carol Albert lost her husband back in 2014 and Fly Away Butterfly is a chronicle of her grief and her return to songwriting after many years. The end result isn't bare and revealing like Nick Cave's brilliant Skeleton Tree or as honestly quotidian as Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me, both released earlier this year. Butterfly is liberation, as its title implies, a moving toward happier places. While words such as "original" and "ground-breaking" will never be applied to an album like this, the optimism is contagious.
I'm also impressed with the sound quality of this recording. I didn't expect to be impressed. On casual listening it all sounded too polished, a little too sharply digital, a little too bubbly and bright 1980s in its presentation. Once you sit down and give this music your full and undivided attention, you'll start to discover just how much thought and effort and feeling is hiding in the dark corners. While this music can fall prey to some of that '80s Nagel-esque slickness, Albert is adding important details here and there--distant vocals that symbolism her engagement to the world around her during the grieving process, not to mention her use of other classic songs such as "One Way," "Chasing Waterfalls" and a faithful version of "Mas Que Nada" to show that the world turns with or without her. You might as well succumb to the beat, she seems to be saying.
Albert has wrapped this up in too pretty of a package, and I ultimately prefer an attitude closer to Nick Cave's--the death of a loved one can be a bulldozer that pushes you closer to the abyss. Dusting yourself off and starting over may be a healthier approach, but it's not the stuff of great art. But if you listen to Fly Away Butterfly without knowing all the back story, you may find plenty to enjoy.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
The Flying Horse Big Band is a juggernaut from the University of Central Florida, a large ensemble of talented musicians who have released eight albums on their own label. This one, Big Man on Campus, pays homage to composer Harry Allen and includes both his classic compositions and arrangements, custom-tailored for Flying Horse. That's a fairly dry description of this album, but this release is such a classy and professional affair that it's hard to stray from a reverential tone. The twenty performers that share this stage are the epitome of poise, and they create music that is preternaturally perfect--for jazz, that is.
Big bands aren't necessarily known for passion and improvisation and spontaneity--anyone who has seen Whiplash knows this all too well. (For a more humorous and frightening take, search out videos of Buddy Rich dressing down members of his band.) But job #1 for a big band should be working as one big well-oiled machine. Flying Horse is that and more, saxes and trombones and trumpets all executing with perfect precision, as well as a rhythm section with organs, electric bass and guitars that keep the proceedings light and loose, but in moderation. At the center of these colorful performances is Harry Allen himself, having an extraordinary amount of fun with his tenor sax.
What else can you say about a classy enterprise like this? If you prefer hearing mysterious sonic dispatches from the edges of the frontier, you might have to dig deeper than most to find the hidden treasure in this recording. I, for instance, find a great deal of joy in the breathy sounds of Harry's sax. Here he reminds me of Stan Getz at his most relaxed, ready to swing.
Other than that, Big Man on Campus is a rarity, a modern big band recording delivered with love, dedication and talent beyond reproach...in 2017.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
And there is no new thing under the sun.
This old gem from the Book of Ecclesiastes is particularly apt when it comes to contemporary jazz. So much of the scene is devoted to preserving the past, known affectionately as the Great American Songbook, especially if you can pay homage by merging two different styles of jazz—ragtime/salsa, be-bop/lite, whatever you got. It’s slapping puzzle pieces together. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you’re having fun.
But when is the last time you’ve heard something fresh and new in the world of jazz, a music that sounds perfectly original and contemporary instead of reverential?
I submit the Julian Gerstin Sextet as exhibit A, your honor. Gerstin is a percussionist who mixes beats from Martinique, where he studied for years, with an eclectic portfolio of music styles from Cuba, Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt. It all makes sense on paper, all these rhythm-heavy cultures coming together and producing a satisfying and unique beat. But this is a little more complicated than blue plus yellow equaling green.
This is simply one of the most original and distinctive sounding jazz releases I've heard in a while, and not because it is strange or "out there." This is unusually melodic jazz, full of beauty, held together by Gerstin's percussion. He specializes in a relative rare drum called the tanbou, which can be played with both hands and feet. But it's Anna Patton's expressive clarinet and Don Anderson's trumpet and flugelhorn that bring the sheer beauty to these original tracks. It's these two musicians who act as a bridge between Gerstin's African and Caribbean beats and these emotional Eastern European melodies.
The recording quality of The One Who Makes You Happy is excellent. Gerstin's percussion has that unique slap of flesh upon drum head, guttural and earthy. Wes Brown's bass is unusually clear and lively and provides, as it should, an agile anchor for this moving and memorable music. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Jazz cimbalom? Or, for the more folk-inclined, the hammered dulcimer? The instrument doesn't come up a lot while discussing jazz emnsembles. Marius Preda would like to change that with this new CD, appropriately titled Mission Cimbalom. Preda also plays vibraphone, violin, accordion, contrabass, piano and the pan flute. He sings, too. But it's the cimbalom that's in the spotlight for this release, with its quick hammered tempos and light textures it makes just as much sense as either the piano or the vibraphone--at least in the context of jazz.
Preda's love for the cimbalom dates back to his fourth birthday when he received the instrument as a gift from his grandmother. He loved the instrument and spent most of his early years learning it and refining his technique. When he was older he took up the vibraphone, and the mastering of that instrument led him back to his childhood toy. Playing jazz vibraphone prompted a few new ideas about playing the cimbalom, inspiring Preda to become the "world's first jazz cimbalom player."
Much of Mission Cimbalom addresses this theme, that the jazz cimbalom is far more than a novelty. The sound and timbre of the instrument is especially impressive as the speed of the hammering increases and the woody sound of striking strings starts to jump forward, away from the other musicians. That's when the cimbalom takes on a new roll as the bridge between rhythm section and soloist and sometimes replaces both.
Since he's surrounded by eight other musicians, Preda does get a chance to perform in different roles with completely different energies and moods. That's particularly obvious when he shifts away from the cimbalom to play tango with his accordion, or to single a quiet ballad while accompanying himself on piano. Mission Cimbalom does tend to distance itself from its titular musical instrument as it goes along, but the album also settles into a more solid groove in the later tracks. Early on I get a heavy sense of the emerging '90s nostalgia, plucked electric bass and a deepening dependence on "pretty" synthesizers that seems to be slipping into more and more recordings these days.
Perhaps we can expect more focus on the cimbalom in the future, and its ability to dig in and represent jazz. I think Preda makes an outstanding case for a leading role.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
If the name of a jazz ensemble is Joe Mongelli and the Cape Jazz Crew, the new CD is titled "WashAshore," and the album cover features a small boat that has indeed washed up on a shore in Cape Cod, you're probably going to think this music is going to be really, really mellow. And it is. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Think "mellow jazz" and you might conjure words such as "boring" or "vapid" or even the dreaded "lite jazz."
This new album from trumpeter and arranger Joe Mongelli is a different type of mellow, one you can explore with both sides of your brains. While these ten tracks are all old standards such as Ellington's "I Got It Bad" and Bacharach's "Alfie" and Milt Jackson's "Bags Groove," Mongelli is known for his thoughtful and distinctive arrangements. His dedication to this side of the process had to do with an injury (the liner notes don't elaborate) that sidelined him as a classical trumpet player for thirty years. During his convalescence he honed his songwriting and arranging skills and even experimented in electronica, pop and other genres before centering on jazz.
That career diversity theme certainly isn't plastered all over this album, but you do get the sense that Mongelli takes every genre with equal seriousness. Joe and his band--pianist Fred Boyle, bassist Ron Ormsby and drummers Steve Langone and Bart Weisman--play it pretty much straight when it comes to delivering sultry and lush jazz. They are being inventive and thoughtful with arrangements, but not revolutionary. This is the stuff of cotillions, swanky nightclubs, the type of wedding that set back the bride's father six figures, but that's not a knock for not taking risks. Mongelli and his crew are precise and polished, yes, but they've backed into something deeper and more thoughtful, a sound that is both hypnotic and flattering to the jazz fan's intellect. He has big and vibrant ideas, but they always make sense.
Mongelli also serves as producer, and he does a credible job with creating a big sound for an intimate jazz ensemble--the stage feels like a warm and well-lit cocoon, round and big. When Mongelli plays a muted horn it can be just a touch forward, but that's what muted horns do. It's otherwise a soothing album with a big heart and plenty of drive, the kind of music that makes you think about forgetting about thinking.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
I've lumped these two contemporary jazz titles because they almost didn't make the cut. No, they weren't that bad--they just wouldn't play in my reference CD player. I looked at the surfaces of the two CDs to see if they were scratched and they appeared to be okay. I shoved them off to the side and planned on sending an email to the publicist when I got the chance. Then I thought hey, maybe it's not the CDs. Maybe it's the CD player. So I brought them out to my car and yes, you guessed it...they played perfectly fine.
That was a couple of weeks ago, and they're both still in my car's CD player. It took me a while to break through to each album's greatness--they didn't make solid first impressions mostly because car stereos kind of suck, even the good ones. But after a couple of weeks, and after playing them in another high-quality CD transport, I'm here to say that if you're looking for jazz that features incredible percussion work, these two CDs are among the best of the year.
Both albums are very different, especially during casual listening. Melodic Intersect's new album, Looking Forward, has a novel approach: take a tabla and a sitar and add them into a traditional jazz ensemble with guitar, keyboard, sax and cajon, not to mention additional percussion. The blend is not initially as successful as I thought it would be, mostly because Enayet Hossain (tabla) and Hidayat Khan (sitar) are playing at a masterful level of innovation while the others rely too much on a somewhat dated sound that comes straight out of the digitally-glazed 1980s. Tabla, sitar and acoustic guitar--a nice match. Tabla, sitar and synthesizer--way too New Age. Tabla, sitar and saxophone--bad idea.
Forget those disparate elements and concentrate on Hossain and Khan and suddenly you'll see the genius. Hossain is listed first in the album credits, and strangely enough the album does center upon the tablas. He is an incredible drummer who can extract a wide variety of sounds from his drum, and he can run through the most difficult time signatures with ease. The final track of this album, "Rhythmicpaths," is where Looking Forward becomes a masterpiece because it's just twelve minutes of tabla and "world percussion." It's hypnotic and crazy beautiful.
Ron Francis Blake, however, hits the ground running with his new CD, Assimilation. At first it sounds like a very talented jazz ensemble cranking out impressive versions from a variety of jazz genres. Blake is a trumpet player, and he has assembled a large ensemble that sounds like nothing but horns and percussion from a distance. After repeated listening, you'll eventually say something like "do you hear that drummer?" Once you lock in to that, you'll suddenly realize that you're in the middle of one of the most impressive percussion records you'll ever hear.
Jimmy Branly is, for lack of a better term, the lead percussive talent on this album, and he plays as if he's possessed. The crazy change-ups, the intricate time signatures and beats you've never heard before--it's astonishing. Add in such guest percussionists Poncho Sanchez and Joey De Leon and suddenly you have a master class in jazz percussion. Then you notice how the more demure musicians add a dreamy and provocative ring around the edges of sound--Nick Mancini's vibraphone, Andy Langham's piano and all those horn players, eleven of them in total.
While Looking Forward contains hidden treasures, ones that may require a bit of digging, Assimilation is like jumping into a railroad car full of gold bullion. Both are utterly fascinating from a percussive perspective. Highly recommended.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I've been sitting on this release for a few weeks now. I received it during a time when I was reviewing a lot of free jazz, and I needed a break from the measured chaos. I saw the name "Free Radicals" and thought oh, that's just a catchy name for a jazz ensemble that handles lot of free jazz. The title of this CD, Outside the Comfort Zone seemed to confirm this--this was going to be another sonic and intellectual challenge. It's hard work analyzing free jazz and mapping out its structure. So I set it aside.
Boy, was I wrong about this CD.
Back in the '80s, when I used to hang out in places like Madame Wong's West and the Hollywood Paladium, we'd call Free Radicals a party band. That meant they were lively, energetic genre-crossers that made music to energize an eclectic and knowing crowd. This particular nine-piece ensemble has been marketed rather loosely under jazz, but you'll hear just about everything else in the mix--ska, '70s funk, '60s TV show themes, Delta blues, acid rock, New Orleans jazz, arena rock and perhaps a soupcon of straightforward jazz. Along with at least a dozen guest stars, Free Radicals create unique songs that plant themselves firmly on their own unique planets, and each tune will remind you of something you've heard before, something from the past that was really, really cool. 22 of the 23 tracks included on Outside the Comfort Zone are original compositions/improvisations from the group regulars, and the final track is a very loose adaptation from Sun Ra.
You can sit back and listen to this music, your toes tappin', and you might even get up and dance. But there's another hidden layer to explore--the group is trying to make socially conscious music that scrutinizes such issues as the Iraq War, white supremacy and border walls. They're playing instrumentals, so you have to dig a little into such titles as "Ambush ICE," "Audacity of Drones" and "Freedom of Consumption." Or you can see the collective perform live, where they'll be more active guides.
Free Radicals started off in a Houston pawn shop about twenty years ago, and since then they've put out a handful of albums while performing "in clubs, street protests, punk rock house parties, art openings, weddings, funerals and breakdance competitions. This album shares that same grassroots attitude into its production values--this isn't an audiophile disc so to speak, but that certainly doesn't matter when you're having this much fun.
Friday, August 25, 2017
This one has the looks, the vibe and the attitude of a great jazz reissue, and that's why it stands out from the flood of contemporary jazz releases I have in for review. Saxophonist Oscar Feldman comes from Argentina, where he plays for big and appreciative crowds. That's why Gol, his latest release, sounds both polished and revolutionary--this guy plays in entirely his own space and sounds like no one else and he's known for that. His bandmates--drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist John Benitez, keyboard player Leo Genovese and vocalist Guillermo Klein--are all old friends of Feldman, and they have that masterful aura of a quintet that has flourished through most of its long and storied career.
Gol, humorously enough, is named for a soccer victory, as in "GOOOOL!" It's no secret that soccer and music are a huge part of Argentinian culture, and this collection of standards and originals is celebratory in a vaguely football sort of way. You'll get a free-form yet supremely musical version of Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" that is held together with Feldman's outspokenly melodic sax, and you'll get a rambunctious version of the Beatles' "I Feel Fine' that resembles a drunken post-game party with plenty of Quilmes. You'll get Beck's "Nobody's Fault But My Own," which will not remind you of Beck at all until you look at the track listing and realize that yes, this is a Beck song.
Feldman's lone composition, "Viva Belgrano"--Guillermo Klein is responsible for the other two originals--is the thematic centerpiece of the album. This is where Feldman rhapsodizes about his hometown football team and the goal that propelled them to stardom, all marked by a climactic GOOOOOL. You get the crowd noise, the commentary and all of the excitement in a unique jazz song that manages to elevate the originality of all eight tracks as a whole. Gol flows with this athletic and fanatical energy; it never stops to catch its breath.
The sound quality, by the way, is exceptional. This is another release from Zoho Records, and their releases have been uniformly excellent when it comes to creating magic in the studio. There's only one thing that could make Gol even greater, and that's a release on vinyl. The music, the artwork and the quality of these performances deserve the best.
Thursday, August 24, 2017
A collection of 20th century violin and piano duets can be heady, troubling work, especially when these pieces come from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Witold Lutoslawski and Fartein Valen. Yet there's something incredibly lyrical about Interactions, the latest hi-rez recoding from Norway's 2L Recordings. Featuring Bard Monsen on violin and Gunnar Flagstad on piano, this recording isn't quite as lush as a mint Shaded Dog of Clair de Lune, but under those expected sharp edges you'll find plenty of real emotion and beauty.
These three pieces--Sonate from Valen, Duo Concertant from Stravinsky and Partita from Lutoslawski--were extracted from the cusp of certain classical periods, where each composer was inspired by the distant past to venture into the unknown. That means you'll hear traditional Bach counterpoints in Valen's late Romantic work, and occasional Baroque flourishes from Lutoslawski. (As a college student I once attended a Lutoslawski concert at the Dorothy Chandler in LA--with the composer himself conducting. It was an ear-opening experience.) Stravinsky stretches back even farther into the past by employing Virgil's antique verse forms.
Okay, okay...I'll stop reading from the liner notes now. As usual, 2L releases contain cerebral themes that are far from obvious to casual listeners, and the generous booklet contains the keys to enjoying these pieces on a deeper level.
What makes this recording so special, and I've discussed this before, is that Morten Lindberg of 2L is a master of capturing duos, trios and other intimate ensembles in a way that makes them sound spacious. We're not talking about preternatural spaciousness--I've heard my share of recordings where singers stand fifteen feet tall and the piano soundboard stretches for miles. No, this expansive feel is due to the venue, yet another Norwegian church, and Morten's talent for mating the acoustics of that space with the sounds of the musical instruments.
That means you get the usual warmth and decay that you'll find in most 2L Recordings, if not all. In a way this almost feels like a cop-out, a variation on "if you like 2L Recordings, you'll love this!" But here's the thing--maybe Morten's adventurous recording style keeps improving with age. Maybe he's been discovering more ways to take advantage of the various technologies at his disposal--Dolby Atmos, 2.0 LPCM, 9.1 Auro-3D 96 kHz. Maybe he's done this so many times that every set-up is arranged by instinct. Maybe Morten has the answer. There's just something about the way he captures the essence of a piano, a violin and a church that excites the synapses in my brain so that I feel that this is the way a piano and a violin and a church would sound if I was there in the Sofienberg Church in Norway, sitting in on the performance.
It's a simple idea, but isn't that what it's all about? By supplying that sort of clarity and logic, Morten makes it easier to dig into the inspired performances of Monsen and Flagstad and to appreciate those didactic yet playful themes.