Friday, February 22, 2019

James Fernando's The Lonely Sailor

Solo piano works aren't that rare in contemporary jazz, but pianist James Fernando has done something unusual with his debut solo album, The Lonely Sailor. Fernando is classically trained, as you can hear in this ambitious and sweeping work, but he aims to set down these eight instrumentals by "blending classical textures with jazz vocabulary, thus expanding the concept of jazz." Fernando feels that jazz pianists are usually limited to playing "chord changes in the left hand and melodies in the right hand," which limits the ability of the piano to cross into new frontiers of sound.

The result is a solo piano work about a sailor crossing the ocean, with subtle references to Debussy's La Mer in its rising and falling patterns, mixed with occasional melodic flourishes that conjure up a bit of Gershwin. Fernando takes this a step further by using an "electronically augmented piano," which means that the beautiful sound of his Steinway piano occasionally veers into more modern, synthesized textures. He achieves this by using contact microphones placed on the piano, and running it through computer software that he controls through a separate foot pedal. Sometimes it sounds as if Fernando is running everything through a Leslie speaker, which should be a familiar sound to most, but occasionally the distortion gets ramped up and takes on a life of its own. There are points where this becomes nightmarish and coincides, of course, with trouble on the open sea.

While this qualifies as an experimental piece, it wouldn't succeed as much without the beautiful, haunting melodies that emerge from the acoustic side of the recording. The idea of sailing across the ocean--"looking into unknown territory, looking for a better place"--is quite vivid, and it won't be difficult to imagine the waves, the weather and even the horizon. You can easily tell how those influences enter into each piece through the interface between old-fashioned melody and the completely novel way of mixing the acoustic and electronic halves of the compositions.

That makes The Lonely Sailor an unusually intriguing work, one that can appeal to both traditional ideas about beauty and a yearning to slip past the boundaries of both jazz and classical composition into a new realm of sound. The quality of that sound is equally beautiful and challenging--it's fascinating to hear the interaction of the piano, the way it excites the boundaries of the studio, and the nearly alien sound of the notes running through the software. I do love the sound of a prepared piano--one of the reasons why I'm so mesmerized by Arvo Part, for example--but Fernando has found a new way to do that, one that opens a multitude of doors for other composers.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Gary Dean Smith's Awakening

Jazz musicians are often fascinating people, and guitarist Gary Dean Smith's story is quite unique. He started off playing guitar in heavy metal bands and southern rock bands, which definitely requires a different touch on the strings than jazz. After finding a lucrative career in Los Angeles working with Joe Diorio, he gravitated toward jazz fusion styles and he currently leads a quintet named Xpansion of a Sum which features bassist Spencer Pyne, keyboardist Donald Young drummer Steve Fitzgerald and sax player Phil Reyes. All of this was nearly sabotaged by a recent surgery that impaired his vocal cords--he didn't know if he was ever going to speak again. So he grabbed his guitar and played and played and played, and after recovering his voice he set out to record this five-song EP, Awakening.

This album is a calling card, the kind you hand out when you're back and ready for action. Smith covers a lot of ground with these five songs, jumping from a clear-headed '80s R&B mode with the title song, which features a vivacious turn from vocalist Mer Sal of The Symbols, to a variety of styles, none too entrenched in the esoterica of fusion. The album even ends with satisfying organ jazz--"Lenny's Lament" is smooth and relaxed and swinging, and it's nearly lifted into straightforward rock and roll with Smith's blistering solos.

There's a clean quality to these five songs, and that's partially due to the production values of legendary bassist Jimmy Haslip (who also plays on "Lucky" with guests Jeff Lorber on keyboards and Gary Novak on drums). This is a sound that leaps out at you and is rife with the feeling that everyone is so happy to be there, playing, not long after Smith was truly worried about continuing. I suppose that word is joy, and it's tangible throughout. That '80s sound that's so vivid in the title track lessens somewhat over the course of Awakening, but there's a smoothness that follows through like a stray thread, one that demonstrates the sheer amount of experience and professionalism of Smith and his friends.

EPs can be strange--sometimes they are too brief, especially if the results are good. The listener is left wanting more, which most people think is a good thing. Awakenings, however, feels very complete. It feels like Smith set out to accomplish something, to jump back into the studio and play and create something that makes him happy. Perhaps that's why this album feels so upbeat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

2L Recordings' Ljos

Let's play a musical game using logic. I think that 2L Recordings in Norway puts out some of the best-sounding recordings available, something that regular readers of my blog will know all too well. I also think that 2L's choral recordings are my favorite within the scope of their vast catalog. And I think that Ljos, the latest voice recording, is their best yet.

Suffice it to say, this is one special recording.

I love 2L's choral releases because of what they are--a mass of voices recorded in a huge church somewhere in Scandinavia. You can hear all the details in these recordings that would register if you were actually there in person, the separation between the massed voice sound, the rise of individual voices, and the way those voices travel throughout the big room and bounce off all the walls, rafters and pews. Ljos is a tad different from those releases, mostly since this is performed by the Fauna Vokalkvintett. If you say that last word over and over, you'll realize that there are only five voices here, and that shifts the dynamics of the recording so that you'll focus on different things this time around.

First of all, the five singers--Christina Thingvold, Silje Worquenesh Ostby Kleiven, Gudrun Emilie Goffeng, Camilla Marie Bjork Andreassen and Beate Borli Lokken--are standing in a circle when they perform, with the microphones situated above their heads. This placement results in a recording where you can clearly see where each woman is standing in relation to the others. That means you'll be able to "see" the distances between the singers as well as their distance from you. If your sound system is up to it, the realism will be eerie.

Ljos celebrates the holidays, which means I got my hands on it a little too late, but that doesn't matter. This is wintry music, as is typical for 2L, and it's still very much winter outside. "Autumn and winter bring months of cold and darkness to the North. This is why we have always so warmly embraced the Christmas season in our part of the world." That sentiment fuels the beauty of these Norwegian Christmas songs, which are mostly unknown to me. They have wonderful titles such as "I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve," "The Most Radiant Rose" and "The Mound-Goblin," and that helps to push the celebration past the New Year and out toward the spring. It's a warm, wonderful feeling.

If I had to pinpoint what makes this album so astonishing, it's the fact that this quintet is small enough so that you can hear the vocalizations in their naked wonder. This isn't an ocean of voices washing over you, but five humans with very tangible presences forming words with their lips and their tongues. It's a natural sound, just as natural as if these women were standing in front of you and talking to you. That said, the sound they make as a group is so joyous and beautiful that you begin to love the songs themselves, as unfamiliar as they may be, and perhaps one day these melodies will be a permanent fixture in your home during the holidays. That's what I'm thinking, anyway. Highly recommended, of course.

Kevin Quinn's Paramedic

Guitarist Kevin Quinn's debut album, Paramedic, starts off on a somber note--the album is dedicated to his father, who "selflessly gave his life to save others from the World Trade Center on 9/11/01." This is interesting for a variety of reasons, but particularly because it seems to suggest that there's an upcoming generation of artists--writers, musicians, visual artists and more--who have come of age in a post-9/11 world. How will this perspective characterize their works as a whole? Paramedic is certainly not a somber album since Quinn and his cohorts engage in a lively and forward brand of jazz, one that occasionally brushes up against rock thanks to a two-guitar line-up. But it will be interesting to see how 9/11 informs these artists over the next few decades.

There are plenty of underlying signs that show Quinn is an introspective performer. Look at the album cover and you'll see an intense young man focusing on his playing, and when you sit down and listen you'll hear that same focus, the feeling that every note is carefully chosen and to lose just one would diminish the result. After receiving a degree in Jazz Studies from SUNY New Paltz, he headed off to ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn to start his career as a sound engineer. You can imagine him hovering over the sound board in the studio with the same serious expression as he has on that album cover. He seems like a guy who has a lot on his mind, and you can hear it in the way he plays.

As I mentioned, Paramedic features two guitarists, which is unusual for jazz. Fellow guitarist Mark Dziuba was Quinn's teacher at SUNY, and he provides a "quirky but melodic style of playing" that serves as inspiration. The two guitarists play seamlessly, despite the different tones. Sax player Dave Savitsky provides much of the jazz seasoning, so to speak--it would be a very different sound without him, which you can hear for yourself whenever he steps back and takes five. The rhythm section of drummer Jeff Siegel and bassist Ira Coleman are part of the reason why this album moves as it does, which is a major accomplishment in the wake of two guitarists. Their playing is intricate, and they never fade into the background.

As you move through Paramedic, you'll start to hear it. You'll start to hear the city and its influences, that special New York City jazz vibe that comes from busy streets filled with people from all over the world. You'll hear it when Savitsky's sax takes off and heads over the rooftops, and you'll hear it when Siegel's playing starts to sound more Latin in origin. Most of all, you'll hear it in the guitars and the way they deliver that edge, that bustling feeling like anything can happen. Quinn seems like a Serious Young Man, and there's nothing wrong with that if you can pull it together and say something with enormous feeling and conviction. He's certainly on his way, and I'll look forward to the directions he takes in the future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lori Goldston & Judith Hamann's Alloys

One of my favorite musical pieces of all time is Arvo Part's Fratres. It's such an emotional and edgy piece, full of sadness yet so ethereal that it sounds like it was captured by some ancient, primitive recording device. Fratres can be performed with all types of ensembles--everything from a violin and piano duet to, and this is my favorite, a dozen cellos. That sound, of a gathering of cellos, is a wondrous thing, all full of odd textures and subtle shifts in melodies that may or may not have taken place in real time. Perhaps that's why I responded to Lori Goldston and Judith Hamann's new CD, Alloys, in such an immediate and positive way. We have just two cellos here, not a dozen, but the actual numbers are obscured, just like they are in Fratres, because so many different layers of sound emerge and intertwine.

Alloys is one of those mystery discs that came out of nowhere. While Goldston is a noted cellist--she's toured with Nirvana, for instance, and can be seen on that incredible MTV Unplugged performance--there are many untested variables here such as a new recording label, Marginal Frequency, which is aiming its recordings at both audiophiles and music lovers who embrace the avant-garde. (That's me.) Alan F. Jones, a sound engineer who is based in Tracyton, Washington, handles mixing, mastering, audio restoration and sound design for film projects, so there's plenty of attention to the sonic details deep within Alloys. Working under the aegis of Laminal Audio, Jones seems to be the impetus of this project--he's the one who originally contacted me to listen to this unusual and satisfying duet.

Alloys is, among many other things, a full dissection of the cello and how it interacts with its human counterparts. There's the sounds I usually discuss, the human cues that occur simply by standing next to a musical instrument and to resonate with it. Goldston and Hamann, who hails from Australia, are like most skilled players of string instruments in the way they manipulate the angle of the bow to produce a wider canon of sound--not unlike the embouchure of a trumpet player. That's why Fratres is so hypnotic and mystical. Sounds come from the stage and you wonder where they are coming from since that was no cello, or was it? In these two extended compositions, which are largely improvised despite their exacting structures, the two cellists dig deep into the wooden caverns of their instruments and extract strange sounds you might not have heard before. It's not noise, though--it's something deeper and more guttural. It's haunting.

The cello is one of my favorite musical instruments. It has a warm, lush and romantic sound most of the time but it can take you down dark alleyways and leave you there, wondering what's going to happen next. Alloys is more dependable than that--this is a raw, windswept landscape that isn't for the passive or fearful, but Goldston and Hamann are there, holding your hand, telling you to stick close. It's a trip worth taking, even if you keep looking back over your shoulder.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Nicky Barbato Project's Every Day Is a Bad Hair Day

I can tell guitarist Nicky Barbato put this album out just for the looks on people's faces, that look that says "which kind of music is this?" Nicky's vision cuts through surf rock, jazz, '70s prog rock, funk and rockabilly--and that's just in the first song and a half. I stand by the theory that the best kind of music is the music you get from borrowing diverse ideas from others, and then throwing it back as something that's purely your own. I'm not saying this new CD, Every Day Is a Bad Hair Day, is something you've never heard before, but it's going to an easier ride for you if you're already predisposed toward Zappa, Captain Beefheart or any rock band that colors outside of the lines and onto the table and maybe a little bit on the walls.

This album takes a couple of steps further into pure goodness, however, by Barbato's incredibly dry song intros, delivered with that same ironic flatness that makes me think again of Jonathan Richman--for the second time in the last couple of weeks. A typical one of these intros goes like this: "This next one is about dating an au pair. It's called 'Au Pair.'" Secondly, the mix between Barbato's original, evocative and often hilarious arrangements are juxtaposed against some intriguing cover choices..."Dancing Queen" and "Norwegian Wood." Barbato and his core band--drummer Tony Mason, sax player Jon Irabagon and bassist Chris Anderson--perform a balancing act between these two modes, especially when the originals are often odes to the everyday such as "Space Heater" and "50 Dollar Chevy."

This is the formula for Barbato's well-known live shows, which are known for their energy and unpredictability. That's the focus of this album, Barbato's debut. Producer Irabagon and Barbato made the decision to grow the ensemble out with some string arrangements, a choir and various keyboards. That could be a risky move, and hijack some of the intimacy a smaller ensemble would have delivered. Instead, we get a mood that is closer to a big live show from a big live band, perhaps even at the holidays. This extended musical support is much of the glue that hold these songs together as a whole, a necessary thing since the shifting of gears between the songs--and within the songs--can be dizzying.

Nicky Barbato Project has one major strength, besides Barbato's ability to really shred on guitar, and that's sounding like four talented musicians who decide to meet on the weekends and play whatever they want. I've mentioned the shifts in tone, and there are times during this album where you simply lose your place. You forget how the song began. You have no idea where the song is going. And right now, in the present, you have no idea where you're at within the song. That's an exciting place to be if you're up to it, and I am.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

June Bisantz & Alex Nakhimovsky's Love's Tango

There's a happy little place in the music section of my brain where I really respond to tropical jazz, that smooth yet enormous sound that floats along with the tradewinds, that stuff made so popular in the '50s and '60s by people like Martin Denny and Henry Mancini. The perfect trigger for me, for this kind of connection, is Mancini's "Lujon," which I'd never heard until I watched the 2000 film Sexy Beast with the amazing Ben Kingsley. Or perhaps Annette Bening's character in American Beauty playing an old recording of "Bali Hai" during dinner also evokes that same sense of adventure, coupled with a supreme sense of being at rest while enjoying the spoils.

Singer June Bisantz and pianist Alex Nakhimovsky have toured together since 2005. They also love a lot of the same things--classical music, for instance, and Latin rhythms. The first few minutes of this new album is directed right at the heart of the world of tango, which shouldn't be a surprise, but you'll start to hear those same shifts in the music, toward Mancini and Denny, and that's when those emotional connections are made and it all sounds so lush and beautiful. Actually, it sounds Lush and Beautiful, because this is the type of music I think about when I hear those two words. Remember the old Calgon bubble bath commercials? Like that.

It's the classical training this duo shares--they both played violins as "their first instrument"--that really stretches out that gorgeous Tahitian sunset, the one that was filmed in Technicolor. Bisantz's voice is smooth, mellow and beckoning--by that last word I mean that she's calling out to you to pack your bags and come along. Nakhimovsky's piano is stoic and provides that stability for the soloists to shine--Norman Johnson's guitar, winning horn and string sections and Ed Fast's amazing support on all sorts of percussion. The perspective can shift depending on Bisantz--it moves in close when she's singing, and then it pulls away and spreads out when she steps back to enjoy the solos.

Love's Tango really sails when all decks are on hand, and I promise to stop using nautical terms after that. But that's the essence of this music, the big string sections, the sound of musical notes skipping along the tops of waves, the feeling of that warm wind across your face. That's not a bad thing in the middle of winter. I warned you that that a lot of tango was coming this way, and it was going to be "a thing" in 2019. Now I'm just wondering if it's a seasonal thing, a way to comfort jazz fans and get them through the winter in one piece. I see no problem with that; it's working.