Thursday, February 23, 2017
Over the last few months I've been reviewing a lot of jazz CDs from a variety of contemporary record labels. Most of these labels are small, and some of the packaging can be best described as spartan...or maybe just streamlined. This isn't a knock in any way, but it's obviously that many of these labels are small ventures that are dedicated to recording all of the musicians on today's jazz scene, the guys who are out there playing gigs 200 nights per year, sometimes for decades. But there's something strange about many of these CDs I've been getting. They sound fantastic. We're talking about redbook CDs, with no special designations on the back cover describing all of the hi-rez recording techniques, or the latest digital formats employed. They're just CDs.
Why do these "garden variety" discs sound so good?
Take Chris Rogers' album Voyage Home. I almost called it his new album, but it turns out it was released about a year ago. The label is called Art of Life Records. I've never heard of them before. Since 2000, they have released 46 compact discs and computer downloads. You can go straight to their website and order Voyage Home for $9.99. And it sounds great. I'm listening to a lot of hi-rez digital these days, mostly streaming from Tidal. Obviously I listen to a lot of jazz on LP as well, and I know what a great classic jazz recording sounds like.
I could play this at a high-end audio show, and I'm sure quite a few attendees would ask me what it was and where they could get it. I could blurt out something like, "Oh, this is the new Chris Rogers CD from Art of Life Records. You don't know them? They're fantastic!" I would never mention to them that it cost only ten bucks, because the jig would be up.
My point is this--a modest little jazz CD like this comes across my desk and I might not even pay that much attention to it for weeks. Then I slowly work it into the rotation, which means it plays in the background on a pretty high-quality system. When it comes time to review it, I start zeroing in. I sit in the sweet spot. I list to the entire disc beginning to end. By this time the album should feel comfortable and familiar. With these recent jazz CDs, however, this is the point where I'm totally surprised by the superb sound quality as well as the exciting performances. It's like I'm starting over and hearing them for the first time.
Rogers, who is a trumpeter and a composer, has been on the NYC jazz scene for quite a while--even though this is his debut solo album for Art of Life. He's assembled a big and bouncy ensemble that includes Michael Brecker (tenor sax), Ted Nash (alto and tenor saxes), Steve Kahn (guitar), Xavier Davis (piano), Jay Anderson (bass), Steve Johns (drums), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Art Baron (trombone), Mark Falchook (keyboards and Willie Martinez (percussion). He's also featured his father Barry Rogers, who is quite well-known for his legendary salsa trombone.
Lay this all out across nine original compositions from Chris, and you have a tight, horn-based jazz ensemble playing with a perfect combination of precision and adrenaline. These tracks are also distinctively melodic, which almost tricks you into thinking that at least a couple are old standards. They aren't.
Rogers and his ensemble aren't blazing new trails here--hopefully you don't think I'm being dismissive by saying that--but this is beautiful, richly-played jazz, heavy on brass yet still lush and exotic enough to seduce you. Voyage Home should prompt audiophiles as well as jazz lovers to explore more of the Art of Life catalog, something I plan to do. I mean...ten bucks.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
My review of the incredible new album from Mali supergroup Tinariwen, Elwan, is now live at Positive Feedback Online. You can read it here.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
A few weeks ago I was driving home late at night, listening to the local jazz station up here in Syracuse. It was yet another typically snowy evening and I was trying to focus on the road. Suddenly I heard the most beautiful and unusual music I've heard in a long time--a simple jazz trio playing standards, a trio that consisted of drums, bass and--get this--a harp. I didn't get the name of the trio or the recording, so it will remain a mystery for now--unless Tidal can solve this mystery for me. But I need to find that music and hear it again.
I bring this up to illustrate that something as simple and well-defined as a jazz ensemble can become something extraordinary and unusual with a minor tweak here or there. Case in point: Howard Johnson and Gravity. Based in New York, this ensemble is described in the liner notes as a "ten-piece tuba choir," a moniker I have not heard until now. Johnson himself has been a part of the New York City jazz scene since he arrived in the '60s, and he is known as a master of "low brass"--tuba, baritone sax and bass clarinet. (He also plays a mean electric bass guitar.) Testimony almost serves as a musical sampler for these instruments, and it's amazing how these jazz standards are transformed into something completely new and exciting when "low brass" is placed front and center.
Gravity is, indeed, a tuba choir. Johnson, Velvet Brown, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre, Joseph Daley, Bob Stewart and guest player Joe Exleyall play various tubas with various pitches--BB♭, F, E♭, CC, whatever you got. Pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer Buddy Williams flesh out the sound and make the ensemble sound much larger than it is--more like a big band. We are even treated to a couple of stunning vocalists--most notably Nedra Johnson on a rousing, sultry version of "Working Hard for the Joneses." The overall effect is loose and fun, a collection of long-time friends who really enjoy playing together.
My only objection to this collection is when Johnson takes a turn on solo pennywhistle on "Little Black Lucille." Compared to the low brass, the pennywhistle is far too whimsical and silly and this great ensemble loses some of its, well, gravity. I have to be honest--I skip the track entirely when I listen to Testimony. It just doesn't fit. The rest of the album, however, is wonderful. It reminds me of listening to the incredible Double Bass Concertos LP from Opus3 from the '70s, where's it's strange and unsettling at first to hear an instrument with such low registers take over as the lead solo instrument and then your ears adjust and you suddenly hear all the textures and subtleties. Having an entire choir of low brass is something even more extraordinary, with even more textures to explore.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
This little 7" single from L.R.S. Records here in Syracuse had slipped through the cracks. Or, more accurately, it slipped between two 12" LPs and has stayed there for who knows how long. I don't remember Nicolas Oliver or Mark Turley from L.R.S. dropping it off, so it might have been here for months and months and months. I'm glad I found it.
Who is Ronnie Crawford? After a perfunctory glance I determined it was yet another local Syracuse singer-songwriter, but then I read this in the included pamphlet:
"It is with great pleasure that we have the opportunity to share with the world, for the first time in over 50 years, the legendary and influential music of Ronnie Crawford."
That quote is from Nic, who then goes on to include a bio on Crawford. He was born in Texas in 1937, headed out west at 17 and was soon busking on the streets of Santa Barbara. He wound up having modest success throughout the late '50s, partnered with a young producer named Phil Spector and recorded dozens and dozens of songs. Then on one fateful day in 1960, near Roswell NM, his car went off the road and his body was never found. In the aftermath, Crawford's later recordings were never released--they were destroyed in a fire. The bio ends with this sentence:
"With Spector now facing a life sentence in jail, it is possible that the location of Crawford's tapes will die with him in his dessert [sic] prison cell."
Shades of Jim Sullivan aside, it's a great story. It's also a sad story, since the four songs included here are superb and indicate a talent who should have been as famous as Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. These tunes are best described as delicate rockabilly, ballads that roll along like Crawford's 1957 Chevy through the New Mexico desert. His falsetto is equally delicate, hinting at the strong emotional meaning behind these simple songs.
Clocking in at a little over 12 minutes and costing just $8, this disc is definitely worth the time. You can order it from L.R.S. here.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Terms such as soft jazz, or quiet jazz, or anything that implies a soothing, relaxing jazz sound for a Sunday morning spent reading the New York Times--well, that's not always my bag. I want a little bite from my jazz, a little impoliteness. Lite jazz, smooth jazz, adult contemporary jazz, that all makes me shudder. Then I remind myself of the time I introduced a friend to Kind of Blue and he summarized it as slow, depressing and sad. I was astonished at his comments since I've always seen the playfulness. But I still think about what he said and it colors my perceptions every time I listen.
Guitarist Brad Myers and bassist Michael Sharfe remind me of the highly subjective nature of intimate jazz ensembles in their new CD, Sanguinaria (Hopefulsongs), which seems very pleasant and amiable on the surface and feels like the perfect background music for solving crossword puzzles on a balcony somewhere in Tribeca. Even when accompanied by a combination of various drummers, percussionists and keyboard players throughout the album, Myers & Sharfe are busy creating an intimate conversation between themselves. This is an unusually quite interplay, thoughtful and soothing, and it will make you drift.
At the same time, this music is neither light nor simple. These two Cincinnati jazz musicians have known each other for a very long time, and the melodies they create together are unusually seamless--it's almost as if one musician found a way to play both instruments at the same time. Additionally, these two are not so comfortable with the partnership, complacent even, that they are unwilling to take chances. Each of these twelve tracks, which combine original compositions with standards from Brubeck ("In Your Own Sweet Way", Guaraldi ("Great Pumpkin Waltz") and Jarrett ("Country"), shows off a wide variety of colors and moods. Only "Norm's Ridge," a homage to Pat Metheny, seems to lack enough sparkle to draw my attention, and that has more to do with my feeling about Metheny's music than anything else. (I find it bleak and plain too much of the time.)
Much of this variety comes from a careful approach to the arrangements for each song. As I mentioned, Myers and Sharfe are supported by two different drummers (Dan Dorff Jr. and Tom Buckley), a percussionist (Marc Wolfley) and a melodica player (Dan Karlsberg). In addition, the two frontmen also play with both acoustic and electric guitars and basses as well as something called "guitar bongos." The bond between this duo is front and center on each track (except when they play solo), but the contexts vary and glow with imagination.
Finally, the sound quality on this recording is an absolute treat. Much of the emotional connection between Myers and Sharfe wouldn't be obvious otherwise. I must concede that it's relatively easy to make an intimate jazz recording like this sound good. Maybe not easy, but common as long as you keep it simple. Sanguinaria, however, was also produced by Myers and Scharfe, which shows that the creative chemistry between these two men permeated every aspect of this release and the reason for its excellence.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
I think this is the last LP from my Syracuse stack that I need to discuss. I have a few more 7" singles that have snuck into my hands over the last few weeks, such as the Steven Douglas Wolfe collection I received just a couple of weeks ago. But I received this particular pile of LPs way back at the beginning of the summer and I was shocked and dismayed that a couple of titles slipped through the cracks.
I listened to this LP, Safe's Cinematic Ocean, right after Ulf Oesterle from Aux Records gave it to me. Actually, he gave me three copies of the album, all different colors. I've included two of the colors here--I never saw the third pressing because Shayne at Tenacious Sound grabbed it before I could open it. So I don't have the "complete" collection. But I do have an extra copy!
I'm not sure why I saved this LP for last. Of all the Syracuse records I've listened from L.R.S.. bettyElm and Aux, this one is perhaps the most polished, most professional and most likely to be heard on a college station--and I don't mean any of this as a diss to Safe. Over the last few months I've been trying to get a handle on the Syracuse music scene, and for the most part the DIY/indie rock influences run strong in Salt City. It's rough around the edges, passionate, retro--not that different than other medium-sized cities in the US--but there's more of a sense of fun here.
Cinematic Ocean, however, is dense and textured indie rock quartet music, a couple of guitars and a rhythm section and vocals that are earnest and clear without being too poppy. For a debut album it's very consistent, with each track maintaining the same high level of energy; it's an indie rock version of Damn the Torpedoes. There's a seriousness and dedication at work here--this quartet has mastered the concept of sounding like themselves, finding their sonic signature and making songs that sound like, well, Safe. That's something a lot of bands don't get right for a few albums, after they've earned their freedom by selling a few millions CDs.
In researching the band and this album, I made an interesting discovery--Cinematic Ocean was released in November of 2012, more than four years ago. Still, it's in the new release section at The Sound Garden, the record store here in Armory Square. I was also playing this LP in Shayne's store a few days ago and someone walked in and immediately asked if this was Safe. In a way Safe represents the great Syracuse hope, a local band that has garnered a great local rep and is perhaps ready to push for bigger exposure. If so, it's been four years already, so I hope we get that awesome sophomore breakthrough album--for all I know it's already out--and then I can say you heard about it here first.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Last week I was rummaging through the pile of LPs and CDs I have to review, and I discovered that I still had some quality Syracuse vinyl that I had yet to talk about. I've been in Syracuse since April, and I probably received the bulk of this music in May or June. And here it is, deep into February, and I can still go on and on about great local record labels around here such as L.R.S., bettyElm and Aux simply because I have a ton of their music unheard and spread out all over the place. I'm going to focus on the remaining vinyl this week. I promise.
Mark Turley of L.R.S. served as a wake-up call. He's been talking about the new album from his band, Bridge Under Fire, for the last few weeks. I reviewed a 7" EP from BUF for Perfect Sound Forever back in my June 2016 column "We Specialize in Vinyl," along with a handful of other L.R.S. releases. I wrote that "Bridge Under Fire's I Got a Guy for That offers a big healthy serving a lo-fi, hard-driving grunge that's recorded with the same minimalist approach as early hardcore--a tribute to the little record labels thirty years ago."
I was talking about SST, by the way. Listening to L.R.S. bands reminds me of some of my favorite bands from the now distant past.
I also noted BUF's propensity for funny song names. On the new LP, Gluttons Before Grace, you get a few more: "No I Don't Want to Hang Out with You, Now Bring Me to Taco Bell and Take Me Home," If Wishes Were Horses, I'd Have a Lot of Glue" and "Rhythm and Booze." So the familiar sense of humor from the earlier EPs is intact, but there's something deeper and more accomplished going on. There's a distinct feeling that Turley, who sings and plays guitar, got together with guitarist Chris Whitemore, drummer Steve Lowe and bassist Jeff Walker and said, "You know guys, we've been having a lot of fun playing these gigs and being kind of goofy on stage but I feel like there's something deeper we can explore."
As a result, Gluttons Before Grace is a surprisingly ambitious dollop of post punk despite a minimalist studio aesthetic. Mark's still a screamer, and on the surface that can seem at odds with the more complex musical themes such as the suite that encompasses "Prelude" and "Blacklisted at Hop Sings" and returns for the album's "Epilogue." Listen deeper, however, and you'll start to hear the anger that fuels many of these songs. On the aforementioned "Blacklisted," Turley sings "Make it all impossible to make anything creative and new/We need more big retail to sell all that bullshit to you." (Double Nickels on the Dime, anyone?) While those types of angry anti-establishment sentiments are touchstones to the origins of punk rock forty years ago, the band has the maturity to temper that rage with the realization that we're all older and we're all going to get sucked in to suburbia and we're all going to forget why we were so pissed off.
All of this starts to make sense when you add in the music. Turley's howl can make you think BUF is more hardcore than it is, but if you isolate some of the quieter passages you'll catch something more beautiful than you expected. Gluttons Before Grace is full of conflict, paradox and confusion, at the surface at least, but at its core is change. It's not about growing up or getting older as much as it's just about figuring it all out, and going with the flow as long as you can occasionally bash your head against a wall in frustration.
That's pretty impressive subtext for a local Syracuse band, but don't forget that Turley runs L.R.S. Records with Nic Oliver and those two guys have probably seen it all while dealing with the business side of the industry. And if you can run a record label and still put together a side band and release an album this good, then maybe it's all worth it.