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.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Ah, smooth jazz. There was a brief time in the late '80s where I liked the genre, but that was probably just before I dove headlong into be-bop and started insisting on some bite and some edge to my jazz. I'd go as far as to say that I don't really like it but it's hard to be that critical of something that is, on the surface, so inoffensive and somewhat cheery. It reminds me of the time when an acquaintance asked me what type of music I liked. When I mentioned jazz he replied, "Oh, me too. Kenny G. is great!"
When I stuck Ed Maina's new CD, In the Company of Brothers, into my CD transport I immediately thought one thing: "smooth jazz alert." Maina's band consists of guys who play instruments such as electric basses, electric guitars, wind synths, synth strings and synth kalimbas. There are three individual percussionists here. More than once you'll hear the gentle brush and sparkle of a wind chime. It's THAT kind of music.
Nevertheless, I still enjoyed this album for a number of reasons. First, the sound quality is gorgeous--this is a full, lush band that explores dynamic contrasts in an enjoyable way. Maina, who has been a part of University of Miami's jazz department, plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes with emotion and skill--he also plays piccolo, flute, clarinet and keyboards as well. Despite my dismissive attitude toward the electric bass in modern jazz, Maina did manage to enlist the help of a master--Abe Laboriel. That's sort of the theme of this album--Maina states that he is fortunate to have played with so many great musicians over the years that he gathered as many of them as he could to play on this album. That, of course, results in a polished, professional mixture of standards and Maina originals.
Yes, a part of me wished for something wilder. These guys obviously have the chops. The way they blend Latin jazz influences into most of the songs is playful and intriguing. They're obviously not trying to push envelopes or express themselves through a series of improvisations. They are tight and controlled...and oh so smooth.
Friday, June 23, 2017
After the last few months I've learned one surprising thing--contemporary free jazz is far from dead. I know, because I've reviewed plenty of it. It's not easy to do because it's hard to talk about chaos in measured terms. Either you get it or you don't. When I review albums like Jason Kao Hwang's Sing House, I have to put my head in a slightly different space because the vast majority of jazz listeners will hit the stop button on their CD players about fifteen seconds into the first track. Others love it, get it and are challenged by it. I'm always concerned that someone will run out and buy these albums based upon my recommendation and then think WTF. Caveat emptor.
Sing House is different than most of the free jazz out there because Hwang's violin is out there, front and center. In the context of free jazz, the violin can make unusual sounds that other more traditional jazz instruments cannot. Is that a reason to put this album on a pedestal? Of course not. But Hwang is a superb performer and he can extract unique sounds from his violin--buzzing insects, percussion, random machines.
Hwang's approach to these four lengthy tracks (they range between 11:14 and 13:55) is a headlong critique of western concepts of "theme and reiteration." These original compositions are designed, in fact, to challenge the listener in unusual ways--melodies delivered in unusual intervals, strange call-and-response patterns and an endless array of musical textures. The energy levels throughout the album are disjointed in a fascinating way, since there are moments of genuine and familiar melody. Hwang's sensibilities, however, are an evolving puzzle. There's a method to the madness, but a well-defined solution may not be the point.
As I dig deeper into this genre, I realize that the point may be to find hidden treasures within the cacophony--not moments of recognition or reference, but a way to expand beliefs about what music is and isn't. Deep focus and commitment are prerequisites, since anything less results in leaps for the CD player remote. When you do find that elusive point of reference, the trick is to stretch it out and notice how it relates to the more abstract and manic ideas. If you can do that, you can't count yourself among the few.
I have to admit that I'm still working on it. One day I may work it out in my mind, or I might just go back to my Dean Martin, Julie London and Harry Belafonte albums.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
This new CD from the man who calls himself the Organ Monk starts off like so many other jazz albums I've heard of late--loose, free and delirious. The only difference to the chaotic, guttural rumblings that begin this album is the presence of a big, meaty Hammond B-3 which adds an almost surreal and almost sinister feel. On first listen, I thought about the fastening of seat belts in preparation for a long and bumpy ride, especially after spending so much time with the Oliver Lake CD I just reviewed. Then, after a couple of minutes, Gregory Lewis and his band settle in and start jamming like there's no tomorrow.
The Breathe Suite, while funky and full of energy, also has a dark and serious side that underlines a tight set performed by a quartet headed by the ever-likeable B-3. Lewis has composed a suite in five movements, with each one dedicated to "an African American who had been killed during confrontations with police officer." So we have five distinct pieces for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner and Osiris Ausar. Each piece sustains a different feel and mood, and you can easily see how the circumstances of each death inform that feeling.
Lewis and his sidemen (which include Marc Ribot and Ron Jackson on guitar, Reggie Woods on tenor sax, Riley Mullins on trumpet, Nasheet Waits and Jeremy Clemons on drums) have always had a reputation for playing loud and fast. They're also known for their fun, revisionist treatments of Thelonious Monk, which explains Lewis' nickname. But this crew has been wowing audiences over the last couple of years with this new, original work. Lewis chose not to include lyrics, either sung or spoken, so that the music could "serve as an outlet for a deep emotional interface with a topic that can transcend an immediate reaction to a fleeting headline."
That's one reason why many of the passages are so contradictory in mood--there are periods of sadness and regret evident everywhere, but the almost jubilant sections exist as tributes to these human beings and the lives they led. A cursory listen reveals all these moods in an almost jarring manner, but once you sit and inform yourself about these five tragic figures you'll start to hear the fluid transitions that alternate between anger and resilience.
Even if you choose to take a step back and not submerge yourself in the important questions that get raised in the aftermath of tragedies, you'll still be moved by Lewis' exquisite and instinctive work with the B-3. If you love the Hammond as much as I do, you'll appreciate the newness he brings to these keys, the clarity and the speed and the energy. If you're willing to take a step inside to find out what's really going on, however, The Breathe Suite is a dizzying masterpiece.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Oliver Lake is a saxophone player who has built a career upon daring, progressive jazz. He plays with his noteworthy Organ Quartet, as well as a number of big band ensembles. He's dipped into world music with some success, having teamed up with Meshell Ndegeocello and Vijay Iyer. It's clear he's not afraid to expand beyond the borders of jazz--even free jazz that lacks traditional boundaries.
So it's fascinating that Oliver Lake has chosen to work with the Flux Quartet, an equally celebrated and adventurous string quartet. Right On Up sounds like a jazz album in title only--the majority of these seven tracks, all Lake originals, blur the line between avant-garde, "modern" classical music and the aforementioned free jazz. Even when Lake plays his alto saxophone on three tracks ("Hey Now Hey," "5 Sisters" and "Disambiguate"), it's not to provide an anchor toward the jazz side of the compositions. There is no beat to speak of, only pure improvisations by a string quartet that is eager to explore new sounds and states.
That's what is so tricky at first. This isn't a jazz album per se, and those looking to revel in Lake's saxophone improvisations will be scratching their collective heads. This isn't so much an album for fans of Lake's previous works--it's an invitation from the composer to follow him down this particular road and see if you can connect the dots between the foundation he has previously laid to this new ground, which pulses and fluctuates without the expected rhythms.
Instead, you get what the liner notes describe as daring, unique and uncompromising, which means this won't be easy listening for the average jazz fan. These original compositions are so full of pure improvisation by design, but the magic is in those moments where the quartet starts to breathe as one. It's clear, in other words, that Flux is one of those quartets that consists of members (leader Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris on violins, Max Mandel on viola and Felix Fan on cello) who have been together for years. In a world without boundaries, each performer carefully notes where the others are standing--with one exception.
Right On Up closes with a twenty-minute epic, "Einstein 100!" Written back in 2005, it was composed to celebrate the centennial of Einstein presenting his Theory of Relativity to the world. In that generous space, each member is given the chance to improvise without the structural support of the others, It's a fascinating exercise since you can almost work yourself into the heads of each musician and closely observe their physical relationship to both their instrument and the composition itself. That's where the listener can dig deep into wood and string and discover both the complete freedom and the intense focus.
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
"Ståle Kleiberg's Mass for Modern Man is about the loss of existential meaning as an antithesis to faith and belief. The work commutes between these two extremes, and raises the following underlying question: Is belief possible for modern man? In this work, the answer is 'yes'; not a resounding 'yes', but a 'yes' in spite of all."
This is such a fascinating concept to me personally. Every time I review a piece of sacred music--and 99% of the time it's been something from 2L Recordings--I have to mention something about my own religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and my attraction to music that is strongly spiritual "in spite of it all." Masses and requiems and hymns have such a delicate beauty to them because of the density of feeling and how the very idea of worship of a higher being conjures up such a complex set of emotions. They never fail to move me on some level.
Upon casual listening of Kleiberg's Mass for Modern Man, however, I immediately sensed a difference from the usual themes of belief and faith. On the surface, this piece is structured like sacred music, but there are themes that border on the earthly and the exotic. This is a piece for two soloists (soprano Mari Eriksmoen and baritone Johannes Weisser), and backed by the magnificent Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and Choir, and it is uncommonly lush with its imagery--uncommon for sacred music but not for the talented folks involved.
Kleiberg, whose music has been featured prominently on 2L Recordings prior to this, was commissioned to write this piece for Munchner Dommusik, and his inspiration was drawn from the fact that he knew it had to relate to "our modern condition" and not some divine piece of folklore from centuries ago. He enlisted the help of British writer Jessica Gordon to write the text, which has been supplied in the liner notes. This is where you can explore the daunting yet poetic aspects of the mass.
"I am forgotten, like a dead man out of mind; I have come to be like something lost." These are the first lines, uttered by a refugee who has lost his homeland, and while they superficially resemble so many traditional hymns ("I once was lost, but now I'm found"), there is a deeper lament that seems to originate from centuries and centuries of propagation and diaspora and even technology, the oft-covered loss of individuality. "No eye looks kindly on me, no friendly hand, no greeting called out in the morning air."
Fortunately, there's sort of a happy ending for modern man, something more tangible than "good news!" Kleiberg could have ended Mass for the Modern Man with the line "This is the valley as dark as death. I will sleep now." But his goal, as mentioned above, was to find solace in belief in spite of loneliness and despair. Kleiberg therefore ends his modern mass with a Gloria, albeit one that is not quite traditional. It is hesitant, as it should be. It's conditional and realistic.
It goes without saying that this recording sounds utterly beautiful in every aspect. Despite the heavy subject matter, it can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, one that embraces beauty and majesty and a sweeping sense of wonder hidden under the sadness. I'll even go out on a limb and say that this is one of the most listenable recordings 2L has ever made--not because the others aren't imminently listenable, but because this one is so moving. The usual intellectual challenge is there, of course, but you can also choose to forego the epic ideas in favor of an exceptionally beautiful mass.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
My review of The Secret Sisters' beautiful new album, You Don't Own Me Anymore, is now live at Positive Feedback! You can read it here.
Friday, June 16, 2017
Jeannie Tanner is a Chicago-based jazz musician known for her singing, songwriting and trumpet playing. I'm unfamiliar with her work, which means that I feel a little out of the loop when I receive this, a 2-CD set of her compositions featuring 12 talented vocalists from the Windy City. Who is she? Why should I know her? More importantly, why don't I know her?
The concept is certainly simple--Tanner writes jazz songs that sound like they belong in the Great American Songbook. That's both ambitious and little problematic; Words & Music contains 19 of these songs, tunes that sound familiar with lyrics that constantly discuss lips, promises and the fact that someone's heart belongs to somebody else. I'm sounding flippant and dismissive here, and not because there's a lack of talent behind the project--and that includes Ms. Tanner. It's just that, well, it sounds like an album where somebody hired somebody to write a bunch of songs that sound like standards.
"And we need 'em by Friday!"
That's too bad, because I don't like to disrespect musical performances since it's always a matter of taste. I'm certain that this LP, which is generous in quantity, will be loved by a great deal of people, and I also suspect that a significant percentage of them are from Chicago and know who Jeannie Tanner is. Maybe I shouldn't be reviewing this. Maybe I should discard this post. Not every album that crosses my desk is my cup of tea.
I will be positive by saying that the sound quality is exceptional, and the musical side of these compositions are crisp, lively and professional. The singers--including Rose Colella, Andy Pratt, Tammy McCann and of course Tanner--possess an interesting cross-section of styles, and it's clear that Tanner took extra care in choosing the right singer for each song. I just wish that the "words" part of Words & Music was a little more daring and adventurous and not so prone to cliches. For instance, a song titled "Vegas" shouldn't be discussing the danger of the town as something naughty, exciting and adventurous unless it mentions standing at the ATM machine at Cheetah's or winds up with a final stanza that takes place in an Albertsons parking lot in the north part of town after midnight and involves a 90-year-old guy with no teeth named Joe.
But that's just me.
Friday, June 9, 2017
While listening to this new album from Seattle musician Ayron Jones, I keep thinking about the word ambitious. Having ambition can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the end result. You can bite off more than you can chew and wind up with an ambitious failure, and people will talk about the time that you overestimated yourself and showed your bare ass to the entire world. (Think Aldous Snow and "African Child.") Or, you can work quietly and steadily on a project, devote yourself to it completely and surprise the world. (Think Janelle Monae and The Archandroid.)
Ayron Jones' new album, Audio Paint Job, leans toward the latter. This album came out of nowhere. I had expectations and preconceptions. I stuck it in the CD player and started listening. Wow. It's powerful, melodic and inventive. It's like Lenny Kravitz, but less derivative. It's like, well, Janelle Monae in its ability to borrow from numerous genres--big arena rock, grunge, hip-hop, blues and pop--and roll them up into a big tasty helping of ambition that pays off in a big way.
Jones has been wowing audiences in the Pacific Northwest for some time now. He's quite famous for the energy of his live shows, and the ultimate goal has always been to capture that lightning bolt, put it in a jar and release it in the studio. So Jones teamed with producer Barrett Martin and mixer Jack Endino--the same guy who helped Nirvana put out Bleach for a few hundred bucks--and assembled a killer line-up of PNW musicians such as bassist Bob Lovelace, drummers Ehssan Karimi and Kai Van De Pitte, and DJ Indica Jones. The result is an album that sounds like it was released by a famous rock star at the peak of his creative powers.
I brought up the Lenny Kravitz comparison because he has that knack for writing original songs that sound like old classics, with titles that feel like they're balanced on the tip of your tongue. The first single off Audio Paint Job, "Take Your Time," has that same familiarity and likeability with its Keith Richard guitar riffs (Jones is a hell of a rock guitarist, by the way). "Stand Up (Take Your Power Back)" starts off with a big, heavy dose of Jimmy Page, repetitive and fast and full of swagger. The majority of these 14 tracks are designed, in fact, to rock big audiences with pure showmanship. But Jones is no drugged out rocker singing about The Endless Party. His lyrics are sometimes blunt and simplified, but his passion is undiluted--the heartfelt and anthemic ballad "Love Is the Answer," which draws obviously upon "What's Going On," is the proof.
What I like most about this album is how cohesive it is from beginning to end. Many new bands take aim at the best music of the '70 through the '90s and manage to create a "sound" that's evocative...song by song, that is. But Audio Paint Job casts its spell across the entire stretch, building up tension where it needs to and offering release at just the right moments. This album is so good, in fact, that I'm wondering how well it will do out in the real world. Will Ayron Jones eventually become a huge rock star? He certainly sounds like one right now.