Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sundae + Mr. Goessl's When You're Smiling

In this day and age, I feel I have to be cautious when choosing adjectives to describe female singers. For instance, when I'm listening to Kate Voss, aka Sundae, sing these old originals from the first half of the 20th century, the first two words I think of are coquettish and kittenish. In their defense, those two words are old-fashioned in the right context and not at all dismissive since Sundae + Mr. Goessl are anything but from "this day and age." Voss and guitarist Jason Goessl are a "vintage duo," a seemingly new name for a very old sound. You've heard it before, probably in other recordings that have been pigeonholed into the genre known as hot Parisian jazz. I've been hearing a lot of these recordings lately; it's a thing, and I'm happy about it.

I do have a word, I think, and it's adorable. Sundae's voice is equal parts Billie Holiday and Teresa Brewer, light and silly when it needs to be and tinged with an old soul's wry wit that pulls these vintage themes away from forced innocence into something more pure and knowing. She's a charmer. She casts an undeniable spell on you and she does it by staying honest and doing things that have been done before, just not for a long time. Once you hear her simple and loving takes on old songs like "Stardust," "Embraceable You," "The Best Is Yet to Come" and the title track, you might forget about everyone else's versions, at least for a while.

Ah, but Sundae is not singing acapella. None of this would work as well without Mr. Goessl's hot Parisian acoustic guitar, played with deft uke strums from the Django Reinhardt School of Casual Virtuosity. Just when you think you have a handle on his style and his instrument, he switches it up with a classic electric jazz guitar ("Caravan") or he turns up the reverb ("Bang Bang") or he throws in a little country twang (Patsy Cline's "Any Time"). Sundae often provides an amusing counterpoint with her little melodica, reinforcing the whole Parisian aspect, and both add a smattering of bells and chimes whenever punctuation is required. Percussionists Adrian Van Batenburg and Sam Esecson provide the beats and subtle rhythms when needed.

Most of the time, Sundae and Mr. Goessl give everything that's required in a pared down, almost pristine manner. It's a beautiful recording, enhanced by the compact simplicity of the accompaniment. You won't be digging through layers of texture and meaning here--this is a concise idea that's composed of a lovely voice and an exquisite guitar delivering familiar classics in a way you haven't heard in a very long time. Don't be surprised if the younger generations immediately pick up on When You're Smiling and turn it into a thing. Remember how everyone jumped onto the martini wagon twenty years ago and started listening to Sinatra and Tony Bennett? This album has that same combination of hipness and historical flair. Or, as one of these classic tunes declare, "S'wonderful."

Friday, March 16, 2018

OKB Trio's The Ing...

Jazz trios don't usually sound this full and open. I think about my favorite trio albums such as Sonny Rollins' Way Out West and how these albums always do such a superior job of isolating what each member of the trio is doing and how each contributes to the whole. Even so, there are a lot of empty spaces in jazz trios, which is certainly not a bad thing. It just is.

The OKB Trio sounds a little too full and warm at first, as if these three musicians--pianist Oscar Perez (the O), bassist Kuriko Tsugawa (the K) and drummer Brian Woodruff (the B)--aren't really a trio after all. They sound a lot bigger at first, and that's mostly because there is this fluid warmth that defines the way they play together, interlocking ideas that fill in the gaps. There's a point, obviously, where your mind is able to organize each musician's space and conclude that this is an unfettered trio with no tricks up anyone's sleeves. It's tough for a contemporary jazz trio to distinguish themselves so clearly from similar ensembles, but OKB manages to do it quite easily.

OKB was born in 2010, when Woodruff played a run at Blackbird's in Queens and was able to book different musicians each week. One June evening Tsugawa and Perez jumped on stage. By the end of the night, all three had a drink together to celebrate their extraordinary synergy. Tsugawa declared, "I always want to play with this trio." Listening to this mix of original and standards, it's easy to understand why. Again, this trio sound sounds incredibly fluid in an entirely intuitive way, and that comes from pure unadulterated chemistry. Whether they're playing from the GAS (Ahlert and Young's "I'm Going to Sit Right and Write Myself a Letter") or taking turns with their own compositions (each submit two), they get it down like no one else.

The Ing... is special in another way. It is the very first performance recorded at Big Orange Sheep, a new studio that was built by many in the Queens jazz community including Woodruff, Perez and Tsugawa's husband. The warmth I describe is partially due to this space, which was built as a true labor of love. Woodruff produced the album, and Chris Benham, the owner of Big Orange Sheep, recorded and mixed and mastered the album. So there's something quite special about this inaugural offering, a combination of community love and support and getting everything right by doing it yourself. It shows in every note of this excellent album.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Andrew Gould's First Things First

Remember that 1982 song by Fear titled "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"? I do, and whenever I hear about a sax player and his relationship with NYC I immediately think about Lee Ving and his crew talking about being pushed in front of subways, dealing with drunks in their doorway and freezing to death on the street. That certainly described the city back in 1982, but I've been to New York plenty of times over the last few years and I now see it as something vibrant and exciting and relatively safe, if not quite sparkly clean.

Saxophone player Andrew Gould has a very specific relationship with New York, which is why his debut album is dedicated to the experiences he has had living and working there. First Things First captures that pure, bristling energy with an exciting and extremely dynamic brand of jazz that simply jumps out at you by describing the heartbeats that drive the town. He doesn't paint broad panoramas in an effort to encapsulate his theme; he touches on his personal connections such as his jazz influences which include Coltrane, Joe Henderson and others. He also writes compositions based on the simpler pleasures of life--"7am" is named for the time when he finished composing it and captures the morning rush of the subway, and "Song for Millie" relates to a week he spent dog-sitting and how impressed he was with the animal's kind gentle nature.

Gould's cohorts are standing right by his side, boisterous and clear-headed. Pianist Steven Feifke is a steady, driving force who connects Gould to his rhythm section (bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Jake Goldbas, who shine and work well together). Together this quartet is explosive and sometimes teeters on the edge of free jazz, although Gould will pull them back from the edge of the precipice in time to introduce a lovely new Coltrane-esque theme. Only once does the quartet settle down and smooth out, and that's when singer Ioana Vintu takes the lead on "On a Darker Moon." (Her voice is charming, by the way, and Gould's lyrics are sweet and intelligent.)

What I find fascinating about First Things First is just how confident this quartet is on their debut album. I've been hearing this a lot lately, debuts that just fly out into the air and come alive. Gould has been playing in NYC for many years, and perhaps that's the reason--these jazz guys tend to pay their dues before the record labels come-a-callin'. He has plenty of presence and is destined to make his mark in saxophone-friendly NYC.

Diving Into RTR with Lyn Stanley Now Live at Positive Feedback

My latest article for Positive Feedback is now online. I discuss my continuing adventures with reel-to-reel tape, and Lyn Stanley's new Signature Series Tape releases. You can read it right here. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hughes Smith Quintet's Motion

"The HSQ is a Detroit-based jazz quintet that performs original music with purpose."

This is the opening sentence on the press kit, and my first reaction was "Purpose?" What does this mean? Is the purpose to advance contemporary jazz into new frontiers? To showcase the performers? To get some money in the bank? I know this is cynical, but that's exactly what I was thinking until I started listening to this new album from Hughes Smith Quintet. My first impression was straightforward and pure. This isn't groundbreaking jazz, it's just performed with an impeccable instinct for the genre. If you can imagine what jazz is, in your mind, for just a few seconds, it would sound a lot like this. So maybe purpose is the right word after all.

HSQ isn't led by a guy named Hughes Smith, it's led by sax player James Hughes and trumpeter Jimmy Smith. Their base in Detroit figures heavily into their sound--when I think of Motor City I tend to think of big horn sections way out front. Indeed, most of these original compositions focus on the Hughes-Smith tandem leading the way, driving the melody, creating all the big excitement. That's not to diminish the rest of the quintet, which includes Phil Kelly on keyboards, Takashi Iio on bass and Nate Winn on drums. Kelly, in particular, serves as yet another soloist on occasion. His Fender Rhodes electric piano takes are exquisite and further reinforce that Detroit feel of late nights at the club, the booze flowing and the air thick with smoke.

This is the kind of jazz quintet that sounds like it's been together for decades, but HSQ has only been around since 2013. The band put out an album then called From Here On Out and another one two years later called Ever Up and Onward that AllMusic selected as "Favorite Jazz Album" for 2015. I haven't heard either album, but I am impressed with the confidence on display in Motion, especially how it affects the level of the performances. If this had been an album of standards, I might say the HSQ's only flaw, a relatively minor one, is that they leave nothing to chance. Knowing these are all originals, I have to yank that observation off the table. It's difficult to make original compositions sound so classic, as if you've heard them all before. And if you haven't, where have you been, man?

I haven't mentioned the rhythm section until now, but I should. Winn plays the traps with a high-energy style that sounds like he's really into old Lalo Schifrin movie soundtracks from the '60s and '70s. He's a dramatic drummer, one who focuses on his big exclamation marks, and he brings enormous and tangible energy to the quintet. Takashi Iio underlines the trend of Japanese musicians finally receiving plenty of respect in American jazz circles--the days of criticizing the streamlined TBM sound are long over. Iio's bass is tricky, light and always searching for new phrases. He's a gem.

This is another jazz release that's just on the mark. It sounds right. I shouldn't be going on and on about this and that--just listen to Motion for a few minutes and you'll understand its purpose.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Fernando Garcia's Guasabara Puerto Rico

This is a case where I can judge a book by the cover. Based on a specific font on the cover, as well as the general graphic design, I don't even have to see the little Zoho logo in the upper right hand corner to know this is going to be exciting contemporary jazz. Zoho is a jazz label that puts out consistently good product, jazz releases that are heavy on vision and theme and always break some sort of new ground. From Gil Spitzer's Falando Docemente to Oscar Feldman's Gol to many others, Zoho is consistently excellent in terms of sound quality and performances.

I'm excited by drummer Fernando Garcia's latest release since he's the type of drummer who can also compose and conduct. This means he knows music as well as rhythm, and he understands how to integrate unusual time signatures into melodic pieces. He also explores Puerto Rican traditions of polyrhythms and employs, with Victor Pablo, such fascinating percussion as clave, congas, barril and even the cowbell. He's one of those drummers who is constantly moving and shifting, covering lots of physical ground during a performance while keeping his sextet chugging along in unison.

Did I mention his time signatures? This mix of originals and a pair of traditional Puerto Rican folk songs uses many--12/8 (abakua style), 5/4 (cuembe style), 7/4 (seis corrido style) and even 5/4 and 7/4 being played simultaneously by two different drums. In other words, this is a superb album if you're a fan of drumming, percussion and Latin jazz in general. The playing is absolutely breathtaking. The rest of Garcia's band floats in and out of this sophisticated beats with aplomb--pianist Gabriel Chakarji, guitarist Gabriel Vicens, bassist Dan Martinez and tenor sax player Jan Kus are all "hooked on bomba" and have been playing it for years--with considerable passion. Legendary alto sax player Miguel Zenon is also a featured special guest, and adds a sexy and sultry sound to all this rhythmic heat.

When it comes to folkloric Puerto Rican music, Garcia isn't necessarily a traditionalist. He blends these classic sounds with a more modern approach, especially with the harmonies and polyrhythms. If you're well-versed in this genre of jazz, you might detect these differences. But if you're not as familiar, you'll hear a beautiful whirlwind of sound, fast and exciting, the kind of music that's made to get your heart pumping, to get you out on the floor to dance the night away. You can't listen to Guasabara Puerto Rico passively. It's just too thrilling.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Diane Moser's Birdsongs

Every composer from Mozart to Kate Bush has been inspired by birdsong, so pianist Diane Moser isn't quite a revolutionary by releasing this, her new album. But Moser has spent most of her life doing exactly this--she was just five years old when she first wrote a song based upon the beautiful and varied sounds uttered by our feathered friends. "I love to listen to the sounds of nature," she says on her website. "All of it sounds like a big symphony to me, with master improvisers at work." During a 2008 residency, Moser would play her piano along with the birds outside her studio and she recorded the interactions. That started the whole Birdsong Project for her--over the years she has arranged these pieces for several types of ensembles and has performed them at all kinds of venues.

This particular recording focuses on a very simple yet beautiful trio--Moser on piano, Anton Denner on flute and piccolo and Ken Filiano on bass. As you can probably imagine, Moser is recreating the original conversations she had out in the woods, with Denner playing the part of the bird. Filiano provides just enough foundation and rhythm to place these compositions in the realm of jazz, although there are plenty of stretches where those genre anchors are cut and Birdsongs becomes singular in its observation of beauty in both nature and music.

There are plenty of moments where the sounds might seem a little too on-the-nose, especially if you don't know the origins of the project. Of course they are trying to replicate the sounds of birds with musical instruments, you might think. How hard is that with the piccolo? What makes this music succeed on a much deeper level, of course, is that it's based on real conversations Moser has had with her avian contemporaries. She sat and she listened and all of her musical instincts kicked in and that's what you are listening to, not some sentimental scribblings based on the idea that birdsong is nice and our lives are the better for it.

Moser becomes even more introspective in the final sections of this album, letting Denner and Filiano take a break while she focuses on using just her piano to communicate her ideas. This is where you start to marvel at how beautifully she plays--at her most playful she sounds a little like Bill Melendez, and at her most somber she seems to pull melodies together that sound simple and yet as exotic and original as any bird outside of your house, right now. The more you listen to Birdsongs, the more exotic and original it becomes, which is why it's such a special album.