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.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Roger Davidson embarked on a long journey to get where he is today. He grew up in both Paris and New York and was originally a trained classical pianist. He fell in love with jazz in the '90s and began a successful recording career in that genre. Oracao Para Amanha, his latest CD, is the result of more change--his love for Brazilian jazz has blossomed considerably in recent years, and he decided to form a new trio with bassist Eduardo Belo and drummer Adriano Santos. The three started playing the hot spots in NYC, and jazz lovers started showing up in droves.
This CD was recorded live over several nights in the Zinc Bar in NYC, a place famous for featuring Brazilian jazz musicians. (The applause is unusually muted and distant in this particular recording, which seems a little odd at first.) The trio was joined by Hendrik Meurkens, considered a modern virtuoso for both harmonica and vibraphone. The result is a crisp, electric set that jumps out and engages you immediately.
To show how committed Davidson is to Brazilian jazz, he composed all twelve of these tracks--an amazing feat when you consider how rich and distinct each song sounds. After the first couple of listens, I just assumed that Davidson and his ensemble were playing Brazilian standards. Despite the fact that much of the tracks are devoted to improvised solos, especially when it comes to Meurkens' unusually folksy harmonica, melody is king here.
While most of these contemporary jazz releases I've been reviewing have good to excellent sound quality, I will mention the excellence of Prayer for Tomorrow. Percussion sounds tight and punchy--you feel it in your gut. Other than the distant feel of the audience, this CD captures a lot of that energy and spontaneity that's only found in well-recorded live albums. Highly recommended.
"Life can be crappy, but you can be happy..."
Whew. Eric Idle references aside, that's a rough way to begin an album. When I first listened to MJ Territo's new album, Ladies Day, I thought that I had wandered into the same lyrical steppe as with Jeannie Tanner's latest album, where every line is a little too on-the-nose. Fortunately that first song, written by Territo herself, is short--and everything that comes after it is much, much better.
Territo came up with the idea for this album while assembling a set list for one of her gigs. She noticed that many of her song choices were written by women, and the Ladies Day project was born. Her choices are very interesting and more varied than you would think--Dave Brubeck wrote "In Your Own Sweet Way" with his wife Iola, for instance. She also includes straightforward versions of such standards as "Everything Is Moving Too Fast," which was co-written by Peggy Lee, and Abbey Lincoln's "You Gotta Pay the Band." For a more modern take, she's even included a version of Patricia Barber's "I Could Eat Your Words."
This project would have lost some of its purity if Territo had chosen a bunch of session guys to back her in this recording. As a result, we have another all-woman band, just like the 3Divas CD I just reviewed earlier this week. While I criticized 3Divas for relying too much on the outdated "diva" themes, I'm impressed with the way it's handled here--we have a group of talented musicians (pianist Linda Presgrave, bassist Iris Ornig, drummer Barbara Merjan, flautist Andrea Brachfeld, sax player Virginia Mayhew and harpist Brandee Younger) who simply dig in and make beautiful music. No qualifiers are needed.
None of this would work if Territo's voice wasn't so strong and agile. She does come from the straight-on school of jazz singing, where everything note is delivered with clarity and emphasis, but she doesn't succumb to the plaintive. There's a loveliness in the way she holds onto notes as if she's caressing each one before releasing it out into the world. Ladies Day is, ultimately, a lively and cheerful collection of performances that are nicely realized and delivered with the sort of brio that comes with always looking at the bright side of life.
(See what I did there?)
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
This one came in like a blast of fresh air, honest-to-goodness Britpop offered by a Seattle quartet that understands the exciting new vibe that was floating around a good twenty years ago. Maybe it's been all of the jazz of late, but I really need to rock out a little bit. (I am a child of the '70s, so I do enjoy rocking out more than I'm willing to admit.)
Britpop does rock out. It's clean, it has tremendous energy and you can turn your brain off and still enjoy it. When Blur and Pulp and Oasis were ruling the airwaves, I didn't jump on the bandwagon despite the fact that many of my friends and family were quite enthralled. Maybe it was an age thing--after falling for Manchester and grunge just a few years before, maybe I was tired of The Next Big Thing. Britpop came and went in my world, a faint blip on the radar. It's time to re-evaluate.
In case you also missed the first wave of Britpop, the Knast brings it back for an encore. I'm more into it now, mostly because it takes me back to so many periods of my life. That's the thing about this type of music--it borrows heavily from several types of rock and rearranges it into a likeable and polished package. It jumps with ringing guitars, harmonies that will remind you of early Beatles, with an occasional nod to the psychedelic. The Knast doesn't revise or update a thing; this is pure nostalgia, whole, with nary a knowing wink to the audience.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
My review of 3Divas on CD is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here!
Ignacio Berroa is a Cuban jazz drummer. In a way, he's the Keith Moon of Cuban jazz drummers because so much raw energy and excitement flies off his drum kit as he's playing. He's far more disciplined than Moon, however, so don't expect me to apply the word "sloppy" to his playing. Ignacio Berroa is Moon-like because of the explosive quality of his playing, especially when his impossibly dense fills come out of nowhere and leave you breathless.
Straight Ahead from Havana, his new album, has a very accurate and descriptive title. Berroa takes Cuban standards such as "Alma con Alma" and "Deja Que Sigla Solo" and arranges them into straightforward jazz tunes. This is an idea inspired by the great Dizzy Gillespie--Berroa worked with Dizzy many years ago--and it focuses on the idea of "cultural connections" and how different jazz genres can be viewed as equal while "respecting the differences." With pianist Martin Bejerano and bassists Josh Allen and Lowell Ringel, Berroa guides this trio through a collection of tunes that are equally warm and full of fireworks.
What's astonishing about Straight Ahead from Havana is how little it sounds "Cuban" to the uninitiated who only know about this kind of music from Buena Vista Social Club. This is where your knowledge of jazz will come in handy, how these melodies have been transformed into something leaner. You could search out more traditional performances of "La Tarde" and "Nuestras Vidas," which will undoubtedly put a huge smile on your face once you discover the extent of Berroa's hard work and dedication. But even from the most casual perspective, the performances captured here are obviously coming from musicians who play at a rarified level, musicians who do more than play. They make history as well as keep it.
Berroa, like Gillespie before him, brings intelligence and thoughtfulness to a form of music known for its spontaneity and passion. That conclusion almost completely destroys the earlier references to Keith Moon, a man not necessarily known for his aversion to excess. That paradox is what makes Berroa so unique--explosive energy and extraordinary discipline can co-exist, and on Straight Ahead from Havana you can listen to it for yourself.
Saturday, August 5, 2017
Listening to four saxophones, and four saxophones alone, deliver a collection of jazz, ragtime and gospel standards, and you might think of the words "novel" or even "gimmicky." Listening to this new CD from The New Vision Sax Ensemble, Musical Journey Through Time, I thought the same thing. Many jazz recordings these days usually vie for some unique narrative, something to differentiate one recording from the pack of competent but fairly unadventurous releases out there.
Just a few minutes into Musical Journey Through Time, I had a very different reaction to what I was hearing. First of all, and I know that most of you realize this, but there are a lot of different types of saxophones out there, and each one can vary profoundly in tone and expressiveness. (The different musicians are, of course, a variable as well.) NVSE has taken advantage of this by including not only soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, you might hear a clarinet popping in from time to time. Diron Holloway, James Lockhart, Jason Hainsworth and Melton R. Mustafa also possess that hard-earned sense of unity that creates a unique dichotomy--they perform seamlessly as one, and yet each musician has a style that can be followed easily through each song.
Musical Journey Through Time is as advertised, with jazz standards such as "A Night in Tunisia" and "Round Midnight" leading backward through selections from Porgy and Bess and Scott Joplin. The ensemble finishes with a somber and eloquent version of "Amazing Grace" that will give you chills. What's fascinating about this program is how four saxes (and a clarinet) can vary wildly in their tone according to the song--the ragtime songs are pure and uplifting, and brief rendering of Leonard Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty" is perfectly whimsical, and "A Night in Tunisia" is played with just the right amount of the exotic and the sultry.
This CD manages to surprise, however, because it is so forward and crystal-clear. I own plenty of recordings from woodwind ensemble and brass ensembles and percussion ensembles and there's always at least a trace of that attitude of novelty, but this recording is exquisitely balanced. It makes sense on its own terms. It's bright and dynamic, even without a killer rhythm section.
Friday, August 4, 2017
This eponymous new CD from the Janet Lawson Quintet is wild, crazy and quite a bit different than many of the jazz releases I've been reviewing of late. Billed as an antidote to the perception that contemporary jazz has become "artistically moribund," with a market that has "shrunk to something of a rump," it sounds like something straight out of the '70s. Is it politically correct to call something "hippie" jazz? You get Lawson's exuberant vocal improvisations that vary between Ella and Yma Sumac, occasional jazz flute flourishes, a big funky bass line and a steady diet of breakneck speed.
I'm a bit taken aback by the liner notes, which claim that this is "quite simply one of the finest jazz records of the last 35 years." That takes us back to 1982, certainly not a Golden Era for jazz, but still I'm amazed at this level of hyperbole for a purely subjective art form. That aside, I think your opinion of this album will rest on whether or not you love Lawson's voice. She can be "out there," which is a familiar neighborhood in the world of jazz, but she is also supremely talented and has an wonderful range. But she's also on the manic side, in love with the energy that blasts from the stage and out toward a possibly stunned audience.
As for her band, well, they have the chops all right. They also act as an anchor for her more esoteric tangents. Roger Rosenberg, who plays the flute and all the saxes, stands out in particular--Lawson is more than willing to stand back and let his evocative playing dictate the direction the song takes. The other musicians--Ratzo Harris and Mike Richmond taking turns on bass, Jimmy Madison and Billy Hart on drums and Bill O'Connell on piano--play as if they've been on the same stage for decades. The sound is tight and precise.
When it comes to the best jazz album of the last 35 years, well, I've heard a lot of great releases just over the last year or so. In fact, just today I received the new Jane Ira Bloom release and I have high expectations after last year's Early Americans. The Janet Lawson Quintet is certainly about excitement and energy and, most importantly, originality. It's good, really good. I'll leave the "Best of" awards to you.
Bill Evans playing Nirvana songs?
That's the first thing I thought of when I listened to Texan pianist Art Fristoe's new CD, DoubleDown. His trio, which includes bassist Daleton Lee and alternating drummers Richard Cholakian and Ilya Janos, starts off this 2-CD set with their version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and it's something to behold. These three skilled musicians have turned an angry grunge anthem into something lyrical and full of sadness, and they did so without needlessly deconstructing the rock classic. (You'll recognize the song just a few bars in.)
This rich, generous hunk of music adheres to that same commitment to unbridled emotion--"tenderness" is used in the liner notes and it's the right word to use. Fristoe specializes in taking familiar tunes and doing so much more than "putting a new spin" on them. As the trio tackles everything from "Caravan" to a couple of Beatles tunes ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Blackbird"), my first instinct is oh no, not this, and then you hear those feelings and marvel at just how honest and surprising these songs truly are.
Fristoe, who is the son of jazz bassist Joe Fristoe, is also remarkable for his mere presence. Touted as a "gentle giant," he is a massive man, 6' 6" tall, with supposedly enormous hands that cover the keys with a focused grace. He's known for his stunning knowledge of all types of music, and it shows in the outstanding choices he makes here. Even the aforementioned cover of "Caravan" is striking--I feel like I've heard two dozen different versions over the last year, but this is the one that sticks in my mind the most. Fristoe starts off purposely guarded and jumpy and stiff, and then the energy slowly unfolds into a mass burst of excitement, still terse but with a swiftness that is incredibly ornate for a mere trio.
I've never been a proponent of quantity over quality, but I really enjoy the large amount of music that wound up on this disc. For me, double albums often require more than one listening session in order to absorb everything, but DoubleDown is a CD where you push play and then forget about what you're going to do over the next couple of hours.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
This was unexpected, getting this particular title sent along with all the other contemporary jazz releases I've been receiving over the last few months. Lyn Stanley, for want of a better phrase, is an "audiophile-approved" female singer. That means her recordings are usually considered excellent on the basis of sound quality, which is valuable since many audiophiles use female vocals exclusively as a sonic reference for hi-fi systems. That puts her in a group that includes Jennifer Warnes, Patricia Barber, Anne Bisson, Eva Cassidy and, of course, Diana Krall. That may or may not sound flippant, so let me elaborate--in most cases this is a wonderful thing. I know I like to grumble about these singers, but only because audiophiles are so conditioned to listen to them as an evaluation tool. If I had a dollar for every time an audiophile walked into my room at a high-end audio show and asked me to swap out my carefully chosen recording for "female voice, please," I'd probably have enough to pay for the room and break even.
I've gotten that out of the way. Now let me talk about Lyn Stanley and this recording, which was actually released a few months ago. I started hearing her name in audiophile circles a few months ago. I heard a lot about her at AXPONA back in April because she was there and she was performing. I went down to the marketplace and saw The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 1, along her other recordings, being sold all over the place. Of course it was available on LP, and everyone said the sound quality was gobsmacking. Then Stanley had upped the ante by making her album available on reel-to-reel, taken right off the master.
In the land of audiophilia, that means Stanley is serious. The real thing. Respect.
That's why I'm a little disappointed to review The Moonlight Sessions in its hybrid CD/SACD form. This crappy attitude changed once I slapped the little silver disc into the CD transport and pressed play. Of course the sound quality is terrific, beautifully quiet in the right places, warm beyond belief but with plenty of detail and air. This collection of sultry, romantic standards has such a beautiful balance from top to bottom, and it's all anchored to Stanley's husky, deep and sensuous voice.
I'm also pleased to see Mike Garson as a featured pianist, along with Tamir Hendelman and Christian Jacob. Garson is also "audiophile-approved" and I own many of his incredible CDs and LPs from his Reference Recordings days. Whenever he's playing, I'm immediately attracted to that trademark lithe yet confident style.
If I had one teeny tiny complaint, it's that Stanley's expressive and powerful voice is perhaps too front and center. That's sort of a traditional way to spotlight a fascinating singer who's backed up by talented musicians--Julie London's amazing LPs feature that sort of balance, but for some reason I'm more forgiving because it allows a more interesting historical perspective on the recording. With The Moonlight Sessions it sounds as if you're about three or four rows back, and Stanley has climbed down into the crowd and is now singing at your table.
That's certainly not a bad thing, but I do notice it. Other than that, I think her voice is incredibly sexy and inviting. It's much closer to London than too-cool-for-school Krall and for that reason I'll be more than happy to bring this to all future trade shows. Unless, of course, I get a hold of one of those LPs.
Monday, July 31, 2017
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now live! This one is my take on the 50th Anniversary LP pressing of Sgt. Peppers. You can read it here.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
My review of Sasha Matson's new LP, produced by Stereophile's John Atkinson, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.
Saturday, July 29, 2017
My latest cigar column for Part-Time Audiophile is now live! This one is about boutique cigars and how they will survive the upcoming FDA regulations. You can read it here.
Friday, July 14, 2017
The week of "female vocals" continues since I have plenty of these in The Pile. But you know me. I get bored if I listen to the same type of music over and over. I like to mix it up. I like to stay engaged.
Michelle Bradley's Body and Soul is about as far from Kathy Sanborn as it gets, at least as far as contemporary female jazz singers and their recordings go. Sanborn's album was slick, polished, progressive and different, but it was also wrapped in a gauze that made it a little difficult to crawl around and explore. It sounded soft and indistinct. It was also intriguing, but I felt that the beautiful melodies could have been energized by a few more musical risks here and there. Ms. Bradley's new collection of jazz standards, Body and Soul, is razor-sharp, simple and straightforward. These are classic songs performed by a supremely gifted vocalist--and that's sort of the point. Listen to this voice everyone!
Once you learn who Michelle Bradley is, the point of this album becomes obvious. She's actually a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera Company, trained by the legendary Marilyn Horne. She spent many years singing with the renown Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston. This resume suggests she has a big voice with plenty of range, and she can absolutely own a song like "Misty" or "Moonlight in Vermont" or "Key Largo." I suppose you can imagine the production meeting--hey, we have an singer from the Met and she's into jazz and she wants to record ten tracks from the Great American Songbook. It sounds a little perfunctory, and maybe a little too perfect, but most people would say yeah, sure, let's do this.
The actual story is more interesting and has more to do with long relationships and past projects and a general love and respect for Bradley's wonderful and refined voice. So when someone popped with the idea of a Michelle Bradley jazz album, it was borne from a group of people who has been wanting to make this album for years. Her voice is effortless and dynamic, but the precision creates its own style. There might have been some trepidation in the studio, concerns that she wouldn't loosen up to project a true jazz attitude, but all of that must have vanished in a sea of wide, knowing grins once she started in with these tunes. Body and Soul, in all its simplicity, is a great idea executed well, something that might seem odd in the world of jazz.
(I do want to say something about her band. Art Fristoe serves as the pianist and co-producer. I have his new CD in for review, and it's fantastic. With bassist Tim Ruiz, drummers Jerre Jackson and Richard Cholakian and a host of guest musicians, Fristoe is one of those lyrical yet economical pianists who thrills using the space between the notes. The balance between Bradley and Fristoe, the give and take, the generosity of their partnership, is quite stunning.)
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
When I was first exposed to trip hop about a decade ago, I thought wow, if you squint hard enough this sounds like any other pop/r&b/easy listening/jazz with female vocals. Just remove the spacier elements, the programming, the DJ and his two turntables and the core of this music is pretty traditional. (You can probably tell I was listening to something like Supreme Beings of Leisure and not Portishead, but hopefully you get my point.) The first time I listened to Kathy Sanborn's Recollecting You, I thought the exact opposite--if you squint hard enough you can almost imagine the beeps and the quirks amid a vast and synthetic landscape.
Recollecting You isn't quite that accidental trip-hop album, but the way certain sounds and moods are suggested through layers of keyboards and guitars is curious--it's as if Sanborn had been listening to LOTS of trip-hop before she circled back to her next studio release. This exotic layer was probably influenced by Keerthy Narayanan, the India-based musician who produced this album as well as playing keyboards and bass. Pianist Aman Almeida and drummer Abhinav Khanna are also from India, and this triumvirate is vital to the rich, gorgeous sound. (Trumpeter Wayne Ricci, violinist Rocio Marron and guitarists Vito Gregoli and Ciro Hurtado also make important contributions.)
I'm thinking about making this a week where I discuss a lot of female voice recordings, especially since I have quite a few jazz recordings on hand that fit the bill. I've had this conversation many times before, so you probably know I'm not one of those audiophiles who thinks the female voice is the ultimate evaluation tool for sound. (My friend Bob Clarke of Profundo prefers a grand piano, and I love using percussion and drums recordings that are really dynamic.) But I do understand the emotional connection that can be made when you're listening to a very realistic recording of a beautiful and talented singer. (That's kind of the point with pop singers, right?)
Kathy Sanborn's voice on this album, however, could have used a little less processing in this recording however. It's such a lush and dreamy recording, full of memorable melodies, that her voice should stand up, shake your hand and introduce itself to you. Here it seems to be floating down this river of sound, on a big inner tube, maybe a beer in its hand. I'm almost compelled to "nudge her out of the light" a bit and explain how more trip-hop elements could possibly turn this music into something bolder, especially if she's going to let someone in the studio tamper with her voice like this.
Or she can keep singing traditional jazz with a modern gloss, and record that seductive voice so it's up-front and honest and persuasive.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Didn't I just tell a story about Bucky Pizzarelli? Just a couple of months ago? Yeah, it was during my review of the Doug Munroe/Le Pompe Attack album on Positive Feedback. I guess I have a few pleasant memories about that old Chesky CD with Johnny Frigo, along with Bucky Pizzarelli and his son John. On that audiophile release, which I've had for almost thirty years, violinist Frigo was the focus of a "living tribute" from the father and son guitarists. Bucky was sort of the bridge between his son, the whippersnapper and Frigo, who was 72 at the time. (He still had quite a few good years left--he died in 2007 at the age of 90.)
Now we have Bucky Pizzarelli in a similar role as elder jazz statesman in Larry Newcomb's new album. Bucky is now 91 years old, and he still plays his archtop guitar with that same flowing ease, with crisp phrasing and a sly sense of fun. Newcomb is obviously no slouch--many of his performances are about paying homage to other musicians who influenced him, and he always does a fantastic job with those subtle interpretations.
Despite the fact that Bucky's very distinctive acoustic guitar work graces eight of these eleven tracks, I'm amazed at how Living Tribute stretches out and seems so varied--gentle ballads, blues, gospel and even a little bit of Grand Ol' Opry ("Gold Top"). Bucky isn't spotlighted through this mixture of standards and a handful of Newcomb originals--he's the foundation, the rhythm guitarist who keeps a study hand on the tiller so that Newcomb, pianist Eric Olsen, bassist Dmitri Kolesnik and drummer Jimmy Madison can explore and improvise--albeit modestly. It's a tight ship, and not because there's a 91-year-old guitarist on stage. He's holding his own.
The only off moments occur when Leigh Jonaitis comes aboard to sing on "One Heart Ain't As Great As Two" and "Love Is Here," two Holcomb originals. Her voice is lovely and rich, but it's recorded with a lot of echo, a lot of reverb, and she sounds like she's isolated on a different planet, or maybe the same Laurel Canyon bathroom where Jim Morrison sang "LA Woman." Lay off the knobs, guys. But other than that, Living Tribute is a smooth, precise and tempered homage to a one-of-a-kind jazz musician.
Friday, July 7, 2017
What does this remind me of? Hmmm.
Transient Songs is a Seattle-based band that classifies themselves as psychedelic, but I hear something more specific and provocative in their somewhat dreamy and heavily textured indie pop. Their new album, Stealing Sand, is easy on the ears, sunny even, a reminder of languid days on the beach listening to new types of music take hold and blossom. Pinpointing the timetable of those exact days is somewhat elusive--perhaps the mid '90s? With so much of today's music focused on electronic and sampled creations full of sharp corners and spurious noise, Transient Song is a band full of the soft contours so typical twenty years ago, with compact songs full of unusual chord progressions and a deep-seated affection for long-ignored pop trends.
Jon Frum and Michael Shunk specialize in a two-guitar approach that blurs the lines between rhythm and lead--both have different yet complementary styles that sound like a calmer version of what I heard on Thurston Moore's epic Rock and Roll Consciousness last month--tight, uniform and logical. Frum's vocals are equally relaxed, which gives these ten songs a deliberate feeling, an obvious beginning and end.
The band, which also includes bassist Dayna Loeffler and drummer Craig Keller, does flirt with psychedelia as advertised, but only for brief periods. That gives the music an edge that separates it from the mindlessly happy--pop groups usually don't performed songs titled "Shoppin' for Coffins" and "Drug Dreams"--but you won't mistake Stealing Sand with White Light, White Heat. If anything, the band reminds me of Ultra Vivid Scene or perhaps Afghan Whigs.
I wound up enjoying this album more than I initially thought--mostly because it takes me back to a time when a simple four-piece rock band could conjure up moods and ideas by merely being themselves and playing songs that come from the heart. This is the second time in a week I've declared that an album "grew on me," and a lot of that feeling was reinforced by sticking this CD in my car and driving around all week in its good company.
Thursday, July 6, 2017
From the "judging a book by its cover" file, entry #4,117: if you're going to name your group "Urbanity" and your album "Urban Soul," shouldn't it be a little more...funky?
When I first received this CD, I felt a little excited--maybe this is some rambunctious funk full of attitude and groove, I thought. I slipped it into the CD player and out came some very mellow, very smooth and very "lite" jazz. I was hoping for a little There's a Riot Goin' On, and I got something a little closer to G Force.
Maybe that's a little harsh. Guitarist Albert Dadon, aka "Albare," first teamed up with keyboardist Phil Turcio 27 years ago, and there's quite a sense of musical synergy between them. Or as Turcio explains, "Everything I throw at Albare comes back as if I would have played it myself." That creates a genuine seamlessness in these ten tracks, and Urbanity sounds like a four or five piece outfit instead of a duo. (Turcio also handles all of the synthesizer and percussion programming.) Both Turcio and Albare are genuinely talented performers and really know their way around their respective instruments, but they are unusually generous with each other as well. The improvised solos are there, but they are calm and refined and they serve as an invitation for the other partner to join in whenever he's ready.
Another interesting thing about Urbanity is that these two gentlemen are from Australia--Melbourne to be exact--and perhaps their idea of "urban soul" is more akin to urbane than gritty. So while the overall effect can seem tame at times, there are exotic influences floating quietly through the performances such as Latin rhythms and even a nod to the Rolling Stones with an interesting cover of "Angie," which is done quite well with all of the original longing preserved.
Urban Soul did grow on me, despite the initial disappointment of having to critique more lite jazz. But here's my recommendation--get rid of the drum machines and the synthesizers, add a killer rhythm section and let these two musicians deliver some real soul, all scuffed up and full of passion. That's an album I'd love to hear.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017
Ronny Whyte is unabashedly old-school. This singer and pianist has one of those big, clear voices like Joe Henderson or even Sinatra. He sounds like Vegas, and not in a bad way. He's seasoned and he knows how to sing a song as if it's an outtake from his autobiography. You know this guy. You've heard him before, even if you've never heard of him before.
I didn't know about Ronny Whyte before I heard his latest CD, Shades of Whyte. But he sounds very familiar in a refreshing way. This collection of standards and originals doesn't break new ground as much as it sweeps the floor and puts on a nice coat of wax. It simply has that smooth, almost perfect delivery that comes from decades of performing in all sorts of jazz venues.
That might not be everybody's thing, and in the last few months I've made it clear that I still love a little innovation in my jazz--the genre means more to me than merely dusting off some old tunes and seeing if you still got it. Whyte obviously still has it--there's a youthfulness in his voice that seems at odds with the man himself. (I'm not knocking him for his age, but some of these performers --Sinatra was one--aren't afraid to show how weary they are and how tough it is to manage these performances at this level.) Whyte still sounds enthusiastic and in love with songs such as Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned" and "Dancing in the Dark."
What elevates this particular album is the fantastic musicians that share the stage with Whyte. His piano is smooth and energetic, but the rest of the band--bassist Boots Maleson, guitarist Sean Harksness, drummer Mauricio De Souza, trumpeter Alex Nguyen and Lou Caputo on tenor sax and flute--play fast and lively, so much so that this album speeds by like a gentle breeze. Sound quality is fantastic as well, with exquisite warmth and a tangible sense of camaraderie among the performers. If you're in the right mood and you have the proper cocktail in your hand, Whyte will make perfect sense to you.