Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Antonio Adolfo's Encontros Orquestra Atlantica

Composer and pianist Antonio Adolfo usually writes for smaller jazz ensembles. It's been a little over a year since I reviewed his last album, Hybrido: From Wayne Shorter to Rio--I started off that review with "I have to admit, I'm kinda sweet on this one." I loved the fact that he's firmly planted in the world of Brazilian jazz, and yet he doesn't necessarily subscribe to that trademark sound. His Brazilian influences are always subtle, placed carefully within layer after layer of sheer piano beauty.

His new album, Encontros Orquestra Atlantica, is Adolfo's fire foray into big band composition, with arrangements provided by Jesse Sadoc and Marcelo Martins. He's always wanted to do it, but he was always looking for the ensemble that could help him achieve his goal of creating vibrant Brazilian big band jazz. After seeing the Orquestra Atlantica perform in Rio, he knew his search was over. Adolfo has selected nine of his compositions, plus Miles Davis' "Milestones," to create one of the smoothest and sexiest big band recordings I've heard over the last couple of years.

Can big band jazz be sexy? In the Hybrido review I mentioned that "I believe his success and his accessibility is due to his understanding of the parallels between jazz and Brazilian tradition. He treats them differently and doesn't try to melt them into a whole--you can see the dual sensibilities weaving in and out of each other. Does that sound sexy? It is." I had the same immediate response to Encontros, that it featured such an easy, open feel for a big band recording, While there are certainly lively passages, which seems like a natural choice for Adolfo to make since he wanted to expand his compositions for more musicians, these compositions are imbued with a smooth demeanor that creates enormous amounts of air between the musicians. (The excellent sound quality helps in this respect.)

I also mentioned in my review of Hybrido that I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Brazilian jazz--it's sleek and beautiful but too much of it and the fatigue starts to set in. Adolfo's music is different because it requires a modicum of skill and musical knowledge to unearth those Brazilian jazz themes, and there are many other things to consume your attention than connecting those dots. The Orquestra Atlantica is indeed a great muse for Adolfo's expansion into this realm, but the greatest gift continues to be this man and his piano. He's quietly become one of my favorite jazz pianists on the contemporary scene, and you should take the time to introduce yourself to him.

Vinyl Hampdin's Red

Dang it, if the band is named Vinyl Hampdin I should have received it on vinyl, right? I received it on CD, and of course it sounds great, but while checking out the Vinyl Hampdin website I found so much promotional material on the vinyl release of their new album, Red, that I felt kind of left out. Red, released on red vinyl, is available on CD Baby for just $15. So if I really want it...well, I should stop complaining now.

Who is Vinyl Hampdin? By checking out the website and other promotional materials, I feel like they're just another popular musical act that's flown over my thick noggin, but Red is their debut album so I can relax. They classify themselves as "Rocked Out Seriously Funky Jaw Dropping Ear Candy!"--the exclamation mark is not mine--and my first impression of this album was "let's put on a big show, but a really BIG ONE." This is big music indeed, full of pyrotechnics and theatrics that seem rare outside of Vegas or Broadway. Vinyl Hampdin is founded by trombonist/arranger Steve Wiest, and his idea was to combine a funky big band sound that's a cross between Tower of Power and Chicago before Terry Katz passed away. He's added four horns to a drums-bass-guitar-keyboards funk rock quartet and given them one task, to play the hell out of these songs.

The album is divided between Wiest's original compositions and a unusual cross-section of covers. He and the band starts off with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," which shouldn't be much of a stretch for a funk-rock-soul outfit, but the arrangement is so unique in the way it amplifies the scope and pumps up the volume. Wiest adds this grand scale to just about everything, from Bonnie Raitt's "The Road's My Middle Name" to Bill Withers' "Use Me" to even Paul and Linda McCartney's "My Love." According to the liner notes, Wiest employs the Charles Mingus strategy that "if you want a band that sounds big, bring in musicians with big sounds." The cherry on top, so to speak, is singer Lisa Dodd. She has perhaps the biggest sound of all, her strong and sexy voice inspiring everyone else on stage to put a little more elbow grease into it and keep up. (She's also written the lyrics for two of the Wiest compositions, "Pay For it" and "Billions," so she's invested in every word.)

I can't overstate that this is big, exciting and ambitious music. There's a lot to enjoy here, but the real star is Wiest's arrangements, referred to as "re-imaginations," and how he keeps adding the gasoline to an already raging fire. There's no doubt that he intends to make a strong first impression as the leader of this group. Red is the closest thing to sheer spectacle that I've seen in the world of contemporary jazz. It's not intended as a soundtrack for a quiet evening at home. But for a big night on the town, this might be the recipe for getting the party started.

Maniac's Dead Dance Club

Here's another no-frills indie release, much in the same vein as the Machine review I wrote a few days ago--just a simple cover, song listing and credits on a single square of paper. Inside is something quite different from the goth aesthetic of Madeline Mahrie, a purist punk/pop that immediately reminds me a lot of the Ramones. The rhythm section--drummer James Carman and bassist Zache Davis, who's also one of the two singers--have that same "one speed fits all" approach to these ten songs, and you can almost hear Dee Dee counting off onetwothreefour at the start of each track. Most songs contain less than a handful of chords, albeit interesting ones. The guitar attack is heavy and congealed, although Justin Maurer and Andrew Zappin do assume the rhythm-lead hierarchy more than Johnny ever did on his own. The only thing missing is Joey's distinctive contribution--Maurer and Davis tend to sing it straight.

While there are a lot of bands that sound like this, I think it's a compliment to make comparisons to the boys from Forest Hills. That legendary band was all about energy and consistency, at least through the first three or four albums. (I may or may not continue to champion the more commercial Road to Ruin, but it was my introduction to the band.) Maniac sustains that same sense of exuberance, that garage band joy of figuring everything out and playing until your fingers are bleeding.

Maniac's from Los Angeles, and perhaps that sense of geography distinguishes them from that East Coast band. Sometimes the guitars suggest just a tiny scoop of '60s surf rock, and there's also a brightness and sunniness to the music that implies wide open spaces more than a claustrophobic garage in Queens. That's not to say they're a happy power pop ensemble--there's plenty of ragged edges in this music, confirmed by the recent video for "City Lights" which includes archival footage from LAPD crime scenes. But that's the essence of being punk in the 21st century, that you can't be afraid to tell the ugly side of your story.

It comes down to how you feel about garage bands. I've always enjoyed them because of the purity and lack of pretention, and plus I spent a good part of my youth hanging out in garages and listening to my buddies try to get it together so they could become rock stars. Dead Dance Club is cut from that same cloth, a minimalist jolt that's meant to be enjoyed at face value. It's a method for waking up, getting angry and getting things done. It's also plenty of fun.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Wayne Powers' If Love Were All

Wayne Powers, the second part of this two-fer, seems to walk the same rainy urban streets as Maurice Frank. The only problem with that observation is that Frank is a New Yorker while Powers plied his trade for years in Los Angeles, working with a band named Hoi Polloi. While Frank's album is his debut, Powers has recorded albums. His last one, however, was released in 1993. His story, therefore, is slightly different: "In the intervening quarter century, Powers' life has been full with both the poignant and the joyous--as all lives are." This seems to imply that life got in the way of Powers' singing career, and he has been working hard to get back to where he once belonged.

On the surface, this album sounds very similar to Mad Love and Romance. There's one subtle difference, of course, and that's Powers' equally amazing voice. Franks is upfront and genuine--he's just showing the world his gift and wants you to take him as he is. (I know, I said I wasn't going to compare the two.) Powers' voice, however, seems to be tinged with all of that experience he gained 25 years ago. He's more of a belter, and his voice is set back further from the front of the stage to accommodate that big delivery. There's a deeper resonance in his voice that sometimes sounds like he needs to distance himself from the emotions expressed in these love songs since they're still a bit too raw. There's something in his voice that suggests more of those poignant and joyous moments, and he may not be willing to let the audience see all of that pain.

Sinatra used to do that as well. Ol' Blue Eyes had a wry way of singing songs that revealed his strategy--sure that stuff happened to me, but years have gone by and I'm ready to move on even though it still hurts some. You'll also hear plenty of Sinatra in Powers' voice, the way he digs down deep and treats each lyric as if he's telling a story rather than talking solely about his feelings in front of strangers. Here and there you'll detect a catch in his voice, a moment where he starts to reveal something deep and personal and then changes his mind. Not every singer can add that much subtext to a love song. Sinatra could, and so can Powers.

Powers is backed by a relatively understated quartet--tenor sax player Ziad Rabie, pianist Keith Davis, bassist Ron Brendle and drummer Al Sergel--and they are there in service to that powerful voice. That's not to say the musicians are any less skilled than on "that other album"--they focus instead on creating a beautiful mood as a single, coherent unit. Another plus is that these performances were all captured live in the studio, so there's a spontaneous feeling afoot even if the solos aren't quite as dominant.

As I said, I won't tell you which of these two albums I preferred. There's a flow between them, but not one that feels like two separate albums from the same crew, captured at different times. The feelings, however, are still the same...a "personal yet universal saga of love lost and love found."

Maurice Frank's Mad Romance and Love

Today I'd like to tell the story of two jazz singers, Maurice Frank and Wayne Powers. Both of their CDs arrived in my mailbox on the same day, sent from the same publicist in the same padded envelope. Both men look physically similar, the proverbial grey foxes, and they've both set out to sing classics from the Great American Songbook. Both CDs have love in the title. Both men are surrounded by small ensembles that are absolutely fantastic. The natural course would be to compare them, to determine how well each man accomplishes this rather common (not sure if I like that word, since very few people can pull off this task) goal. But I don't like comparisons. They each possess singular strengths that will get you in the mood for love.

Maurice Frank is first, and he's remarkable since he's yet another singer who's been around forever but is just now getting around to releasing his first album. "Maurice Frank is a native New Yorker. He grew up listening to the great singers of the '50s and '60s and it left its mark on him." That implies Frank was one of those guys in the neighborhood. You know, the guy who had all of his friends and family saying "Have you ever heard Maurice sing jazz? He's amazing! The next time he's over, ask him to sing you something!" From looking at his photo on the cover, he seems to be one cool cat, well-dressed, wearing a beautiful suit open at the collar. He's a jazz guy, through and through.

From that countenance he seems gruff, a guy who's lived jazz close to the blacktop for many decades. His voice, however, is surprisingly light and agile, bordering on that classic croon of people like Bobby Vinton or even Bobby Darin. He's not into weird jazz affectations--his voice is clear and strong and classically beautiful, full of a warm and a longing embrace of every note. His voice has that familiar warmth to it, a feeling that he looks at every word he's singing and then determines the best way to include the right emotions. He's the kind of guy you might see singing at a club, and you might wonder why you haven't heard of him already. He's a charmer.

As I mentioned, his ensemble is as real and as talented as it gets. John DiMartino handles the arrangements and plays a subtle, understated piano that's matches Frank's warmth note for note. Two horn players, Eric Alexander and Aaron Heich, add plenty of excitement--they build on the energy Frank creates. Guitarist Paul Meyers, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Obed Calvaire and percussionist Samuel Torres are pros in the best sense of the word, occasionally showing what they're made of but providing the kind of smooth support that never outshines Frank's remarkable gifts.

If this sounds like the kind of music that would please you to no end, it is exactly that. This is music meant to be heard with your sweetheart, your true love. He's establishing a sublime mood, and there should be more singers like him.

Oh, wait...there is!

The Difference Between Talking About Music and Reviewing Music

I just received a comment from a reader in regards to one of my recent reviews. It's been quite a while since I've fielded this specific complaint, but there was a time, more or less when I started this blog more than eight years ago, where I received some criticism about the way I review music and audio. Evidently I talk a lot about myself when doing reviews, and my critics feel that this is unprofessional. Reviews are supposed to be straightforward. Is it good? Is it bad? How does it compare to the artist's prior work? What artists should I already like if I'm going to like this one? There is a specific reason to read a music review, and that's to know whether or not an album or an artist is worth your time and money. Right?

I've always had a set of ready answers for these critiques of my reviews, but I don't always get to reply in public. One of my most vocal critics is a very well-known writer and reviewer in the world of high-end audio, and I've heard him complain in print about this lousy new wave of "internet" writers who spend more time talking about themselves than the object they're reviewing. (I've mentioned this story before--I quickly read his latest magazine column and discovered he had used me, myself or I several times in the first few sentences. He also told a story in the same column about how someone had recognized him at a recent rock concert. Wow, how exciting for you!)

Anyway, I don't want to get all grumpy about this. I did write about this once before in the original Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever almost seven years. If you get me going, I'll wind up repeating everything I said back then. But you can read that column by clicking here.

Let me just give you a few quick reasons why my reviews read the way they do:

1. Music reviews are subjective. A product review can contain many facts and specific points. But when you review music, it touches something intangible deep within you, and that touch is going to feel different to every single person on the planet. I've seen reviews where the writer merely says whether the release is "good" or "bad" or if they "liked it" or "didn't Like it." (My favorite crappy review was from a former colleague who told everyone to play hooky from work the next day to wait in line for the new album from one of his favorite bands. That was the nadir of music criticism in the modern world, in my opinion.)

In other words, I doesn't matter if I like it or I don't like it, because you just might. I happen to think Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" is the worst song ever, mostly because of the incredibly inane lyrics. It might be your favorite song ever, however, because that song was playing on the radio the first time you met the love of your life. What I try to do is give you a little more detail and context about why I felt this music was good or bad based upon my own life experiences. If you can relate to why I liked something, you might have a better idea of why you might like it, too.

2. It's a blog, FFS. I'm not pretending that this is the leading resource for well-written music reviews on the internet. This is my blog, and blogs are the place where you share your feelings and your hopes and your dreams and whatever the else you want to talk about, including yourself. I do not get paid to write this blog--Google unplugged the money-making machine from this site once it got too popular. I could start a website and put ads on it, which to tell you the truth isn't a bad idea. But I don't make any money from this blog. I do it because I love to write, and writing every day is what keeps me sane.

If someone wanted to hire me to write music reviews and they told me I had to stop talking about myself so much, of course I'd do it. I've written for many magazines and websites and I've worked with many editors and I've also been an editor. I know how this stuff works. In fact, I do get paid to write music reviews for other publications such as Perfect Sound Forever, Part-Time Audiophile and Positive Feedback. And so far, everyone's cool with the way I write. I think it's because they consider my articles to be features or editorials and not so much reviews. I'm cool with that.

3. People like me! They really, really like me! Eh, this is hard for me to say because in my everyday life I'm quiet and introverted and full of self-doubt. But for every person who complains about my writing, there are many, many people who seem to really enjoy it. Remember when I said that writing keeps me sane? People saying they really enjoy my writing makes me something better than sane--it makes me happy. So to the person above who told me I needed an editor to cut out all references to myself, I say to you...

...well, actually I'd love an editor. I'm always going back into this blog and fixing typos and removing commas.

It sounds like my feelings were hurt by this complaint, and maybe they were...just a little bit. But my reason for droning on and on about this is a little more complex. Reviews, quite frankly, are a dime a dozen. I rarely read them anymore, because my tastes have become so specialized that no one else's opinion matters to me anymore.

Oh, but to talk about music! To share really cool music with others! To remember music from the past, and talk about how some new band reminds you of one of your favorite old bands! To tell a funny story from your past that is somehow connected to music!

That's the stuff I want to read about. How about you?