Sunday, December 31, 2017
My Top Five album releases are now live at Part-Time Audiophile as part of a survey of all the PTA writers. You can read it here.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Friday, December 29, 2017
Here's some more Hammond B-3 music for you. This one's grittier, more down and dirty than some of the other B-3 recordings I've been reviewing. Of course, this one is from a maestro--Gregory Lewis. I've discussed his groundbreaking work before when I reviewed The Breathe Suite back in June. That release, which contained tracks dedicated to African-Americans who had been killed during confrontations with police, was serious and inspired. "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," I said.
Organ Monk Blue is the fourth album from Gregory Lewis to celebrate the work of Thelonious Monk. This one, as you might suspect, is more centered on the blues with such compositions as "Blues Five Spot" and "Raise Four" and "Blue Sphere." The feel is more bluesy as well, which is why I used the term "down and dirty" before. I don't think I've ever used that term to describe music before, but that's the first thought I had while listening to this new release. It's raw and gutsy and dark and sounds like it was performed in a place where you might feel the urge to burn your clothes when you get back home.
Lewis' work on the B-3 is far more guttural than some of the other Hammond players out there right now. I've already gone on the record as a fan of the B-3, and I love all the organic and earthy textures you can extract from what is basically an electronic instrument. Lewis takes that to another level, a subterranean spot where the grime is tangible and the duct tape is about to give out. With legendary guitarist Marc Ribot acting as a melodic partner, as well as Jeremy Bean Clemons beating the hell out of his drums, Lewis takes us on a tour of back alley B-3, where you might run into some shady characters. And when they ask if you have a cigarette, you light it for them and hang out with them until they've finished their smoke break.
It's also surprising how much rock and roll slips into these blues, more than The Breathe Suite which was far more experimental in structure and tone. Perhaps that is the Ribot influence. It's certainly jazz at its core, but there are plenty of moments where this unique trio lets loose and tracks down some rock and roll history in the same vein as scholars such as Bill Frisell. Organ Monk Blue puts you into a dark, dank world where the music is fierce but cool, and you might need a shower afterward. It's worth it.
It's a bit dissonant, listening to Latin jazz while the outside world is covered with ice. This is some of the coldest weather I've experienced on the East Coast, and yet I keep thinking of palm trees and traveling down to the Caribbean with a suitcase full of silk bowling shirts so I can smoke a couple of Behike 52s. This Roy McGrath album is that good--it makes me ignore the fact that everything outside that window behind me is white and frozen.
Saxophone player McGrath has one of those names that makes him sound like an old legend, but he's actually a pretty young guy. He plays like he's been doing this for multiple decades; his understated playing comes from a soul who's been around the block a few times and has no urge to show that off to anyone else. He has a serious pedigree, however--born in Puerto Rico, McGrath has strong ties to the jazz community there and was recently commissioned to compose a jazz suite in honor of poet Julia de Burgos. The project evolved to the point where McGrath started thinking about all of the memories he had growing up in Puerto Rico, and how those "flashbacks" were informing his compositions. (Remembranzas" translates loosely to flashbacks, or fleeting memories.)
Knowing that adds an extra layer of appreciation for this album, but it's also one of those contemporary jazz releases that's immediately likeable and engaging. Excellent sound quality aside, this whole project has a loose, improvisational feel that really fleshes out the tiniest details from each performer. (Pianist Bill Cessna, bassist Joseph Kitt Lyles, drummer Jonathon Wenzel and percussionists Barril de Bomba-Buleador-Ivelisse Diaz and Junito Gonzalez are all spot on and as smooth as it gets.) But it's when you focus on McGrath's performances that you start to notice how he starts to explore outside the box, how he isn't afraid to let loose with a few wild ideas, muttering them quickly to see if you're paying attention.
As I listen to Roy McGrath and his tenor sax, I keep making an unlikely comparison to John Lurie back when he was playing with the Lounge Lizards. Lurie was informed by his knowledge of jazz and yet could stand out on the edge of it and suggest phrasing from other genres such as old rock and R&B. McGrath is standing on yet another edge, looking down, asking us to revel in such genuine and heartfelt Latin jazz while suggesting, on the sly, that certain notes and certain melodies may not belong until you play them like they belong. It's a subtle idea, one that requires concentration, but it does elevate this recording into something special.
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Just in time for the holidays--literally--my first music column for Part-Time Audiophile is now live! I cover three holiday jazz releases from Chris Pasin, Eyal Vilner and John Paul Curtis. You can read it here.
Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!
Saturday, December 23, 2017
If the world of contemporary jazz is going to have a theme for 2018, it's probably going to be "The Year of the Hammond B-3." Over the last few weeks I've received so many new jazz releases that feature the classic B-3 organ, and if I've learned anything it's this: I love the B-3. It puts me in a great mood, a sunglasses kind of mood. I love the growl, and I love how the player can easily manipulate the dynamics. It's the kind of instrument that can hang back, almost as a drone, and just add a little texture to the music--and it can also take the lead and drive the melody. It's unique and flexible and I'm not surprised that B-3 recordings have become so popular.
Robert Kennedy's new album, Closer to Home, is one of my favorites to come down the pike. One of the main reasons is because Kennedy, who has been on the stage since the late '80s, plays the B-3 a little differently than everyone else. His Hammond is a little more low-key than usual, but also fun and playful. He fleshes out the sounds of the B-3, and holds them up for everyone to see. Sometimes these notes are round and breathy, and sometimes they are guttural and fluid. Most B-3 players seem hyper-aware of the timbre of the instrument and know, in advance, that certain feelings will be evoked. These feelings may be mostly nostalgic, which tends to give most B-3 recordings a specific sense of time and place. Kennedy can do that as well, when he wants, but it's surprising how he's more interested in creating layers of sound and texture that allow his fellow musicians to shine.
Closer to Home is sort of a sampler for Kennedy. He includes ten tracks from ten different composers including Bobby Timmons, Clifford Brown and Bill Bell, and they cover such a wide range of jazz genres--bebop, soul, blues and even gospel. That gives each tune a very different feel and yet Kennedy is the constant throughout, adding just enough of his keyboard magic to let you know he's the driving force behind these tunes.
Yet there's something more here, something that makes me really settle in and float along with this music. This isn't wild, rollicking jazz--it's deliberate and smooth and very relaxed. The sound quality is superb, and that allows you to hear the B-3 in its fixed point in space against the other superb musicians (guitarist Terrence Brewer, sax player Ben Torres and drummer Cody Rhodes), and that illustrates how the entire instrument is a living, breathing thing. That may be the characteristic I find most impressive about the B-3--it's an electronic keyboard that sounds utterly organic and natural. Robert Kennedy understands this, and that's what makes Closer to Home so rewarding.
Friday, December 22, 2017
I like this one because it's really nice.
Imagine if all music reviews were like that. (And I've definitely seen a couple of reviewers who say little more than that, in a couple of hundred words of course.) But when I say this new album from Argentine jazz ensemble El Eco is really nice, I mean exactly that. You listen to the romantic melodies, the tight playing, the gorgeous sound quality, the passionate performances and, most importantly, the artistic risks and you think "Man, this is niiiice." It's not vague, it's not damning with faint praise. This is a jazz recording that immediately captures your interest and puts a smile on your face.
This project was the brainchild of drummer Guillermo Nojechowicz, who studied film scoring at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. As a child he used to travel to Buenos Aires with his family, and he discovered an old passport and photographs of his grandfather that triggered so many musical memories. When you think about the world in 1933, you'll understand why these memories are not necessarily happy ones--Nojechowicz's father was only three at the time his family left Europe for South America, and many of the people they left behind did not survive the Holocaust. That's why much of this beautiful music is imbued with deeper emotions such as the fear of change, or having to deal with extreme financial hardship so that your children might have a better future. We're no longer talking about things that are nice.
These hidden depths might not be immediately noticeable during a casual listen. Kim Nazarian's vocals, for instance, are very sultry and passionate and even border on celebratory, and it takes a keen ear to sense the sadness--but it's there. Many of the songs here start off with an almost funereal tempo, to reflect the troubles in Europe, and burst with energy once the South American influences emerge. And because we're talking mostly about Argentina, we do get those stirring undercurrents of the tango, with occasional punctuation from Roberto Cassan's accordion.
But this album belongs to Nojechowicz. It's his drumming and percussion that drives these songs, and his subtle inflections that determine where we are traveling at any given moment. He uses time signatures to underscore his themes with amazing subtlety. It's his attention to detail that makes the whole so musically pleasing, so complete in its execution. It's nice to hear a jazz release in 2017 that's both original and so very confident.
Let me set this up. It's just a couple of days before Christmas, and it's snowing outside. It's really snowing. I know, because I just drove an hour and a half to get here, to the office, and it was an ordeal. Once I settled in I stuck this disc into the CD player, the latest from 2L Recordings in Norway, and to my surprise and delight it's a choral work. Choral recordings from 2L are even a bigger treat than normal since these are the albums where you really hear the big Norwegian churches that usually serve as a venue. The voices rise to the big wooden beams overhead and then blossom and expand in size. At the same time, you can hear each voice in the chorus. You can single one out and follow it all the way through--just like you would if you were actually present at the recording.
Sitting here in this warm room, listening to yet another beautiful recording from 2L, I'm suddenly realizing that I do this every year around this time. There's something about these 2L Recordings that really enhance the idea of winter, of staying inside and keeping warm. So Is My Love is indeed about love and faith, which is appropriate for December the 22nd, and the beauty of that is not lost on me even though I am a heathen. (I always feel compelled to throw that in somewhere.) It's becoming sort of a tradition for me, and I'm usually the last person to observe holiday traditions.
Ensemble 96, a chamber choir of 24 voices, is highly respected throughout Europe and has been nominated for a Grammy or two in the past. I mention this because So Is My Love has also been nominated for a Grammy this year (Best Surround Album). It's not hard to see why. Led by 34-year-old conductor Nina T. Karlsen and periodically augmented by Mari Skeie Ljones' gorgeous violin, the choir delivers their interpretation of choral works by Martin Odegaard, Torbjorn Dyrud, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur and Frank Havroy. It's hard not to be moved by all the sheer beauty in one single disc.
The album's title, according to the liner notes, has dual meanings: "For me, love is like this" and "This is what my beloved is like." These musical selections were chosen because they explore those themes in depth--the differences between love in and of itself, and the very nature of the things that we love. In particular this music describes how prayer can reflect opposites--longing and joy, passion and humor and so on. Many of the pieces here draw inspiration from the Bible, Song of Solomon in particular, but other sources are used such as William Blake's poetry and the music of Thomas Tallis.
It sounds like a deep and heady meditation for the holidays, but it is surprising how light and ethereal it all sounds coming out of the Uranienborg Church in Norway. This definitely music that expresses joy instead of loss--one of the Dyrud pieces is titled "Laughing song"--and as I listen to it and stare out the window at all of the falling snow, I can't help but smile.
Oh, and good luck to 2L's Morten Lindberg at the Grammy Awards!
Saturday, December 16, 2017
Those who can't, teach.
That old saying seems to be obsolete in the world of contemporary jazz. So many of these new jazz releases I've been reviewing are fronted by academics, usually musicians who head departments of Jazz Studies at major universities. I just received a pile of CDs from the University of North Texas, for example, and they are very serious about their jazz department. But before I get to those, I have this rather low-profile CD to review from the Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati, Phil DeGreg. I refer to this CD as having a low profile because I've had it in my possession for a few weeks now, and I haven't really given it much time until now. That was a mistake.
Pianist Phil DeGreg, along with bassist Aaron Jacobs and drummer John Taylor, have created a simple, compact jazz masterpiece with Queen City Blues. Sure, it's just a recording of a jazz trio. Sure, they're playing the usual mix of standards and originals. On the surface there's nothing extraordinary about this Cincinnati trio, but when you crawl inside you'll find plenty to celebrate.
First, the sound quality is spectacular. It's not hard to make a jazz trio recording sound great. But this is a redbook CD that's been self-released, which probably means with the help and direction and funding from the university. And sound-wise it's a reference disc. Jacob's bass is woody and dense and full of individual timbres that contribute to such a fleshed-out sound. Taylor's drum set shimmers and booms and is so dynamic, despite the fact that he has an understated style that emphasizes his deft work on the hi-hat and cymbals.
And then there's DeGreg. He's a great player, of course, steady and quick and genial. He's strong on melody, on being in service to the tune. But I'm hearing all those wonderful cues in space that signal a great recording reproduced on a great sound system--the way the notes emerge from different areas of the sound board, the way those same notes float out into the room and blossom in strength. I can almost imagine him playing this CD in the classroom, telling the students that this is the way to do it--if he does say so himself. Highly recommended.
Friday, December 15, 2017
Gabriele Tranchina's new CD, Of Sailing Ships and the Stars in Your Eyes, has a lot in common with the Veronneau album I reviewed yesterday. Both singers specialize in jazz, but they have unusual voices for the genre--Lynn Veronneau has a relaxed, folk-rock voice that reminds me somewhat of Carole King or Joni Mitchell, while Tranchina has a thinner and slightly more plaintive voice that makes me think of Astrud Gilberto. That's certainly not a knock, since Gilberto's voice was so charming that she's still a legend after singing one song 50 years ago. (Let's not forget that the others who performed on that album weren't exactly chopped liver.)
Another similarity between these two modern albums is that, like Veronneau, Tranchina has her talented husband nearby for musical support. That suggests a certain synergy between performers, also known as love, and it's presumed that should carry over into the music. Joe Vincent Tranchina provides layer after layer of keyboards throughout these twelve tracks, piano, Hammond B-3 and programming. That said, this is album heavy with percussion. That gives more than half of the album a distinct Latin feel.
On the other half of the album, Trnachina's voice is the star. I've suggested it isn't the richest or most sultry voice you'll hear in jazz, and I am hearing more processing in the recording than usual for a jazz album, but her voice does become more impressive once you scoot in for a closer listen. First of all, she sings in multiple languages on this album--French, Portuguese, German, Italian and of course English. On a beautiful Cormon/Carre arrangement of Bizet's "Je Crois Entendre Encore," the show-stopper of the album, you'll hear Tranchina at her most committed. Every syllable is like a long, soft kiss--I wish more of the album consisted of this kind of music since it's more suited to her.
Another slight knock? Perhaps. There are some missteps here, most notably some Middle Eastern scatting on "A Song for India" that veers a little close to nasally cliches. (Instrumentally, however, the song is more intriguing with its atypical layering of keyboards that almost reminds me of Dead Can Dance.) The title track is a skip-over--the melody makes her sound a little flat. I think another problem, as I've already suggested, is in the recording of Tranchina's voice. At times it's buried in the mix. That's unfortunate, since I do think she's an interesting singer, and perhaps a different approach might have made a bigger first impression.
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Not all jazz/female vocal albums are created equally, although it does seem that most of them are aiming squarely at sultry, romantic and nostalgic. Some model themselves after Diana Krall and her album theme du jour, and others may go for the more purist approach, say Julie London (my preference). I hate to break it down to those two extremes, but whenever I hear a female vocal album these days it seems like they're targeting one or the other. Sure there are exceptions--Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions Vol. 2 is the obvious example of someone trying to do something truly new with the Great American Songbook. But over the last year, these standouts are becoming quite rare.
If you want to get my attention, in other words, you have to do something different. It's one thing to have a wonderful singing voice, but it's quite another to carve your own niche in a well-traveled genre. You don't have to be crazy or unorthodox, just distinctive. Just a few minutes into Veronneau's new CD, Love & Surrender, this jazz trio had my attention. I don't even want to call them a jazz trio--that pigeonholes them. This trio, which consists of singer Lynn Veronneau, and guitarists Ken Avis and David Rosenblatt, is different because they're "doing their own thing," meaning that they're covering a lot of interesting tunes, throwing in some originals, and really finding unique strengths in each melody.
What's most striking about Veronneau the band, obviously, is Veronneau the singer. Lynn Veronneau has a lovely, rich and expressive voice that, for lack of a better word, is genuine. She's putting herself into these songs without gimmicks, and without affectation. It sounds like a cliche to talk about "singing from the heart," but how many singers these days are hyper-aware of the uniqueness of their voice and how they have to sell themselves to audiences, record labels and the like? Veronneau (the singer) sings as if she has no idea anyone else is listening. It's almost like we "catch" her singing and she gets all embarrassed and apologizes and explains that she didn't know anyone else was around. She's singing because she loves to sing, because it's her natural state of being.
Avis (Veronneau's husband, by the way) and Rosenblatt are fine company for her lovely voice--the dual guitar approach is delicate, beautiful and matches the singer's sense of spontaneity. There are also plenty of other guest musicians who provide a fuller and more satisfying feel to songs such as Serge Gainsbourg's "La Javanaise" and Jim Webb's "Moons a Harsh Mistress." Dave Kline, whose Shifting Borders I just reviewed, creates a strong presence through multiple tracks on his violin.
As different as Love & Surrender is, it's not revolutionary. It's sweet and relaxing--it's more Carole King and Joni Mitchell than Krall or London or anyone else out there. It's slight and sunny, but in a completely charming and unique way.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
In my review of bassist Reggie Young's Young Street, I mentioned that the wide variety of tracks were inspired by the sounds Young heard in the streets of New York City. Jeff Dingler, another bassist, was inspired by the same thing in his new album In Transit--the music he heard while walking around New York City. Dingler, however, spends equal time there and in Ethiopia, and those very different places set the mood for this collection of eight original tracks.
Middle Eastern and African influences are hardly new to the world of jazz, as anyone who has listened to "Caravan" knows. But Dingler is able to combine exotic themes with a profound sense of what it means to be home, especially when home can exist in two places on opposite ends of the planet. Dingler and his quartet (guitarist Brad Shepik, pianist Lou Rainone and drummer Gusten Rudolph) sound as skilled and accomplished as any contemporary jazz ensemble out there--as a group they play notably quick and clean and with oodles of energy--but when the Ethiopian influences emerge (often earmarked by guest appearances from percussionist Josh Bailey) the music suddenly becomes much more complex and intriguing.
I had to dig deep into this recording before I realized an old point of reference--Ethiopiques, a collection of Ethiopian jazz from 1965. If you've seen the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers, you know this album intimately. There's an awesome synergy at work between Ethiopian folk music and Western jazz genres, and you'll hear it on In Transit as well. Ethiopiques sounded primitive--it was a primitive recording, and many of the musicians playing could barely maintain control of their instruments. But that was the magic in the recording, that it all set into such a mysterious whole full of beauty. Dingler and his ensemble are precise where the Ethiopians in 1965 were sloppy, but that stunning mix of the familiar and the esoteric is still there, lurking just beneath the surface.
I've one more comparison, and it goes back to the Reggie Young CD. Young is a maestro when it comes to his electric bass, and the entire album centers around that. Dingler is a very solid and thoughtful double bass player, and he likes to stay in the background. His playing isn't flashy, but it will be appreciated by fellow bass players. The strength here is in the compositions, and they way the evoke two very different worlds. It's quite an accomplishment.
Bassist Reggie Young's new album, Young Street, is kind of odd. I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just that as you move through these 11 tracks, you'll start to wonder who Young is, and what kind of sound he's going for.
You can see his intentions--he's an incredible electric bass guitar player, and he's showing off how his unorthodox style can be applied to a number of jazz genres. There's certainly nothing odd about that, since many jazz musicians take that challenge. He starts off with a couple of tunes, "Young Street" and "Smash 'Em Up," that seem perfectly suited to his dynamic and funky aesthetic. From there he moves into "Brazilian Dreams," which of course shows off his taste in Brazilian jazz. He's still hanging in there, despite light and flippant backing vocals that border on stereotypical (ba-ba-ba-BAH!). Then comes a song called "Magic," which is hampered by sleepy, repetitive vocals and a lack of focus.
After that we get "Riding Low," which is more rock and roll than anything else--it definitely has momentum. From there we get Reggie Young's take on all sorts of genres, and for the most part they all sound great. I guess I'm wishing for more consistency in these tunes--I want "Young Street" as an album to feel more of a whole instead of a mere outlet for Young's virtuosity.
Young is far from a rookie--he's won a few Grammies, and he's played with Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder and Ruben Studdard. Fodera, a manufacturer of bass guitars, has released a Reggie Young Signature model. The sound of his bass guitar here is strong, distinctive and never trivial. Despite what I said before, he's not a show-off--he knows how to support his fellow musicians. Young Street was written to reflect the sounds Young hears walking through the streets of New York City, and perhaps that's why it's all over the place.
The liner notes state that "when you go hear him play live it's just remarkably entertaining." That's the album this should have been, focusing on this awesome bass player and how he interacts with his band. Instead, it feels like a greatest hits album that features tracks recorded in multiple decades, through multiple artistic periods. It's still quite good, but it is odd.
Saturday, December 9, 2017
Here's another new release, like RK Dawkins' Journey, that seems to draw from so-called New Age music from twenty of thirty years ago to create a new pocket genre for contemporary jazz. The RK Dawkins album used jazz fusion and funk to draw the overall sound away from the ethereal synthesizer music from the '80s and '90s. Guitarist Justin Piper is more evocative of the Windham Hill style of music from the '80s--you can almost hear the late Michael Hedges nodding in approval.
Piper, who hails from the Boston area, uses the same layered approach to recording as Dawkins. Every sound on every track on Transcend is created by Piper--he starts with the guitar track and then adds texture through such instruments as a lap steel, bass, oud and banjo. He then uses programming instead of a mere synthesizer to create the dense backgrounds of sound. While he fancies his music as acid jazz, his classical guitar training is the first thing you'll notice. His acoustic guitars sound dense and fanciful, and his style is intricate and impressive. When I think of acid jazz, I think of something completely different than this.
The sound quality on Transcend merits discussion, and for the same reason as RK Dawkins' album. Twenty or thirty years ago, performers like this would add layer after layer of sound to recording in their efforts to be a true one-man band. In the old days, this meant adding track upon track, which also meant adding tape hiss, noise and other studio artifacts. While early digital recordings were supposed to address this, you could still hear those layers of haze piled on top of each other.
But with Journey and now Transcend, a lone musician can walk into a studio and create a multi-layered recording and still make it sound like it was recorded live and in one take. I'll freely admit that I don't know the particulars of how this is accomplished, or how long these technologies have been available in the recording studio. All I'm saying is that I'm really noticing this clean, pure sound...I almost said "for the first time," but I'm not sure if that's true. What I am saying is this might be the trademark of whatever genre this turns out to be, where one person can walk into a studio and create something that's, well...synergistic with one's self.
Friday, December 8, 2017
Do you like New Age music?
In 2017, the term "New Age Music" is about as nebulous as "New Wave Music." Both terms have becoming meaningless, except in terms of nostalgia, in the last couple of decades. Back in the '90s I went through a New Age phase or, more specifically, I loved ethereal synthesizer music that was called "space music." You know the stuff--it started back in the '70s with Klaus Schulze and Popul Vuh and a few others and then by the '90s everyone started adding beats and the "New Age" split up into dozens of new musical genres--ambient, dubstep, trip hop, you name it.
I'm bringing this up because I've received quite a few new releases that feel, for want of a more specific label, like the New Age music I was listening to twenty-five years ago. The only difference is that instead of wearing hip-hop influences on its sleeve, I'm hearing more jazz and funk. The synthesizers are still out in front, as are the drum machines, but this new genre seems focus on themes and improvisations in the same way as classic jazz. On the surface, it feels like New Age. But there's a different level underneath it all, something based more on old traditions. RK Dawkins' Journey is the first of many CDs I've recently received that seem to be fixated on creating a new hybrid subgenre. There's probably already a name for it.
Dawkins has even adopted the New Age approach of people such as Robert Rich and others by playing all of the instruments on Journey. He's primarily a jazz guitarist who counts Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington Jr. and Earth, Wind and Fire as his primary influences. He started off each compositions by focusing on a strong bass line and guitar lines saturated with effects, and then builds up layer after layer. That way he can focus on the "flavor" each instrument brings to the song. That's why each composition will remind you of so many different types of music at the same time--jazz, funk, Middle Eastern music, pop, techno, whatever you can think of.
While the one-man band approach to composition can occasionally lack both variety and a sense of synergy, Dawkins takes a different approach by thinking of each layer of music as a "contribution" from a musician with unique experiences and influences. As you listen to Journey, it sounds like it was performed by a group of musicians who love playing together. This wasn't always the case back in the New Age Era. Perhaps it's because today's studio technologies can provide a more seamless feel between the layers, but a lot of it has to do with Dawkin's ability to make this sound like a great jazz-funk-techno band all by himself. While Journeys doesn't quite sound revolutionary or even evolutionary from a perfunctory glance at its gleaming surfaces, it might just signal the arrival something very new.
If you read last week's review of Dave Stryker's Strykin' Ahead in Positive Feedback, which you can read here, I make the subtle suggestion that Stryker is everywhere in the world of contemporary jazz, perhaps one of its biggest stars in 2017. So I wasn't the least surprised to see him as a featured guest on saxophonist Steve Slagle's new album Tribute. For the record, this is not Slagle's tribute to the semi-ubiquitous Stryker--each of these nine tracks is dedicated to a particular performer who inspired the recording such as Sonny Rollins, Steve Swallow, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter and so on.
Slagle even dedicates some of these songs to ideas--"Major In Come" is dedicated to the concept of "swing" in jazz and "Triste Beleza" is dedicated to the "great spirit of the music of Brazil." Dave Stryker, as uniquely talented as he is, even takes a step back from the edge of the stage to allow Slagle to pay each of these tributes--it is the saxophone that carries the heart and soul of this album forward.
Slagle isn't a stranger to me either. I reviewed his last album, Alto Manhattan, earlier this year. I focused on the fact that AM was wild around edges and full of measured chaos, which I loved. "[It] impressed me with its breathlessness, its furor," I wrote. This observation was relative, of course--I was reacting to the fact that my review pile at the time was rich with journeymen performers who were competent and capable and dedicated but perhaps lacked a bit of spark. On Dedication, Slagle is still using the same core of musicians (drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Scott Colley and pianist Lawrence Fields), and has added Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz. So is this a continuation of the same wild spirit of Alto Manhattan?
I'm going to say it's somewhere in between. Dedication is certainly as inspired as anything else Slagle has done. It's just a little more clear-headed than usual. Each performer has perhaps a bit more focus and restraint than the last time out, and while this new attitude makes Dedication more calm and reflective, it doesn't rob the music of its primal energy and brilliance. Imagine Alto Manhattan as a performance you want to hear at the beginning of the evening to get you all pumped up, and Dedication as the late night session that eases you into a night of vivid dreaming. Even with Stryker, one of jazz's most exciting guitarists, Slagle's ensemble is magical yet precise. Highly recommended.
I have enormous respect for the trombone. Why? I'm not much of a musician, but I have tried to learn quite a few instruments over the years--drums, guitar, piano, saxophone, clarinet, ukelele and a few others. The trombone was the one instrument that would not allow me to create a single solitary note, not even by accident. So when I hear the sound of the trombone in a particular recording I think oh, there you are you obstinate bastard. Are you mocking me again?
It's all said in jest, of course, but this is the reason why I get a thrill from listening to great trombonist ply their craft. I know how difficult it is to play this seemingly simple brass instrument (by simple, I mean no valves), so I marvel when it's done beautifully. Bob Ferrel is one of those rare humans who have mastered the trombone and have made it sound beautiful, complex and full of emotion. Ferrel has been performing for over forty years with such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He's also played with Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Stevie Ray Vaughn. You want a great trombonist? Here's a legend.
On his new album, Jazztopian Dream, Ferrel provides sort of an advanced primer on the trombone. This mixture of classics and originals shows just how varied this brass instrument can be--Ferrel engages in such techniques as triple-tonguing, multi-phonics and lots of "growl." He can soften the tones, he can blur them and he can even coax them into an astonishing level of purity and clarity. His large band is just as flexible--they can sound like a traditional big band, an Afro-Cuban ensemble or they can even pull the focus and sound like a tight be-bop quartet or quintet. Dwight West sings on a handful of tracks as well, sounding like Joe Henderson with a big clear delivery that seems to emphasize every syllable.
The album ends with a hoot--"Soul Bop" stretches the timbres of Ferrel's trombone into an almost guttural language. It's hard to decide if Ferrel is exploring new frontiers or if he's just having way too much fun. I lean toward the latter--just listen to everyone laugh at the end. (Someone says, "That's some fun stuff.") But you're missing something if you don't sit and listen carefully since Ferrel and his band have locked into a rare groove. I could listen to an entire album of this sort of hijinks. The rest is pretty special too--especially if you're a fan of the trombone.
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
I was fairly surprised to see a new album from soprano sax player Jane Ira Bloom so soon after her monumental Early Americans, which I enthusiastically recommended in my Positive Feedback review last year. Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago, and I immediately thought "Wow, Jane is very prolific--this new one is even a 2-CD set." I started listening to it almost immediately. How could you go wrong with Jane's music mated with Emily Dickinson's poetry, read by actress Deborah Rush? What an ambitious project, I thought.
Then I started hearing it, familiar songs and passages from Early Americans, and that's when I started wondering about this project and what it was trying to accomplish. After careful listening I deduced that those familiar tracks from Early Americans were performed by a quartet this time, with pianist Dawn Clement joining bassist Mark Helias and drummer Previte. The arrangements are therefore slightly different, a little more complex this time out. Clement's piano work is rich and adds a fullness to the overall sound.
As I explored Wild Lines, I started realizing that this project was so much more than setting Emily Dickinson's poetry to jazz featured in an already extraordinary album. Then I discovered the true scope of the project. First, I started off thinking that this was only a single CD album--the other one had been hiding deep in the CD gatefold--and I had actually been listening to the second disc, which is the only one where Rush appears. The first disc is the music itself, without the poetry reading. So I went back and listened to the entire work in order, disc one first, and had to re-evaluate everything I had already heard.
Wild Lines is an expansion of Jane's themes that she explored in EA and elsewhere, matched to Dickinson's words. Jane explains in the liner notes that "I didn't always understand her but I always felt Emily's use of words mirrored the way a jazz musician uses notes." Taking lines from both Dickinson's collected works and the envelope poems "The Gorgeous Nothings," Jane has allowed her compositions to evolve into something deeper and more complete. If you're a fan of Emily Dickinson, it might be a revelation to hear her words take on those jazz rhythms and dance between your speakers. If you're a fan of Jane Ira Bloom, you get the privilege of hearing her dig deeper into a masterpiece and place it into a new context.
The relationship between the two discs--one instrumental and then one with Dickinson's words--is a bit more complex and may take more time for me to fully digest. Bloom could have taken the easier path and just released the second CD as the complete work, but by allowing you to hear the music both ways she's tempting you to apply the poetry in your mind, to hear it implicitly. Whether you're able to do that successful may depend upon how familiar you are with Emily Dickinson. I've read her poetry but I'm far from a scholar. But if you do love her poetry as Jane Ira Bloom does, this might be the most fascinating album you've heard in a very long time.
Sunday, December 3, 2017
My review of Dave Stryker's Strykin' Ahead on CD and LP is now live at Positive Feedback! You can read it here.
Saturday, December 2, 2017
When you see a title like Jazz Horn Redux, you generally think of lots of blasting brass instruments all up in your face. Or perhaps you think of big horn sections backing up a big, bluesy Chicago or Detroit ensemble. I don't know what you think of, actually, but I do know that I approach these types of jazz albums with a fair amount of trepidation. I guess it goes back to that time I went to the Elephant Bar in Austin and sat up front, and the bell of the trumpet was no more than six feet from my face the whole time. I felt like my eyes were crossed for two weeks after that. I like a little more distance, thanks.
That's why Ken Wiley's new album is so surprising. He's a french horn player, which obviously sounds a lot more mellow than a trumpet or a flugelhorn or a sax or a trombone. Wiley is celebrating the contribution of horns in the jazz songbook, so we get smooth and textured renderings of such classics as Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower," Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," John Coltrane's "Equinox" and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo." You even get two faithful covers from Kind of Blue--"All Blues" and "Freddie Freeloader."
Surprisingly, this isn't Wiley's take on these classics, all performed on French horn. He's assembled a huge collection of L.A. jazz musicians to deliver these fairly straightforward yet beautifully captured performances. As band leader--and this is Wiley's fourth time doing this--he doesn't like to stray too far away from the original arrangements or come up with some crazy new way to do things. He's reverential in his approach, and a little bit of a perfectionist, and that means Jazz Horn Redux will sound like many legendary big band performances you might find from fifty or sixty years ago.
What Jazz Horn Redux also shares with those old recordings is beautiful sound quality. We're not talking about the simple late night impromptus that turned out to be magical, but a well-balanced and clean presentation that will reveal layer after layer of talent as well as a palpable whole that reveals how much these wonderful musicians know each other, and how much they enjoy playing on these types of ambitious projects.
Friday, December 1, 2017
Jason Gross, publisher of Perfect Sound Forever, is putting together a benefit concert for Planned Parenthood at The Bell House in Brooklyn this Wednesday, December 6. The evening will feature performances from Cindy Wilson of The B52's, Kaki King, Amy Rigby and more! Advance tickets are just $20 (they're $25 the day of the show), and you can also get special VIP tickets for $40--you'll get to meet Cindy!
For more information, check out The Bell House's website here.
When I first started listening to jazz seriously, probably right after I left college and went to live in Virginia, my entry point was the vibraphone. More specifically, I really responded to Milt Jackson's vibes, and I set out on my jazz journey by purchasing several albums from the Modern Jazz Quartet. There's something about the vibraphone and the way the notes float and shimmer in space that really sends chills down my spine.
I also love the marimba, almost in the same way I love the vibes. My interest in the marimba predates my interest in jazz--I once fell in love with a very funky marimba that I found for sale in La Luz de Jesus, an art gallery/curio shop on Melrose in Hollywood. It was $700. I never quite saved enough to buy it, but I'll remember its glorious sound for the rest of my life.
Perhaps that's why I immediately responded so favorably to Steve Hobbs' Tribute to Bobby. Hobbs has been a true legend when it comes to jazz marimba and vibraphone--he has been recording for Challenge Records for 43 years. The "Bobby" in question is Bobby Hutcherson, who was Hobbs' mentor and dear friend who recently passed away. This tribute includes many Hobbs originals with just a couple of exceptions--Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and "Where or When" from Rodgers & Hart.
Hobbs enlists the help of the musicians who have played with him on his last three albums--sax player Adam Kolker, pianist Bill O'Connell, bassist Peter Washington and drummer John Riley. This quintet can move gracefully through all sorts of jazz genres such as calypso, Latin, funk and even a bit of gospel (on "The Road to Happy Destiny," which does sound like it belongs on a different album), but this recording's strongest asset is Hobbs, who can really dig out the sound of mallets hitting blocks and bars. For me this is the true thrill of so-called struck idiophones, the way the sound of the mallets against the bars can sound so immediate and present and normal--and by normal I mean familiar, as in a familiar sound that doesn't sound ethereal or impossible. Anyone can make that sound at least once, and so it registers as something comfortable in the back of the brain.
Of course the secret is stringing those notes together in a way that is not only musical but unique, especially in terms of the entire performance. Hobbs is quick and light, in the manner of most of his colleagues, but he is also very caring in terms of extracting the right tone from his instrument. In a way he is the David Gilmour of struck idiophones, where every note is carefully chosen and winds up being the perfect fit for the song.
The sound quality is indeed excellent, which is important when it comes to hearing the striking of the mallet, the note produced by the instrument and then how that note moves and fills the room. Perhaps that's why I'm so in love with the sound of these instruments--you can crawl inside of these sounds and explore. There's so much to feel here.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one features my annual year-end wrap up including my favorite new LPs, reissues, phono cartridge and turntable. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Reviewing the Dave Askren and Jeff Benedict CD earlier today made me instantly think of Paul Moran's new CD, and how both recordings have so much in common. Both are mellow, smooth and cool. Both prominently feature the Hammond B3 organ. Both contain covers of The Beatles' "Come Together." If these two albums were films, they'd make a great double feature.
Paul Moran is known for being Van Morrison's musical director for many years and playing keyboards and brass on many of Morrison's albums. The liner notes hint at the idea of what kind of music Moran, or any other longtime professional musician, might make when left to his own devices. The answer is decidedly NOT Morrison-like. Moran, who is based in London, is the proverbial jazzman, someone who wants to pay tribute to a wide spectrum of influence that includes Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and even Rodgers & Hart.
Moran's B3 work is remarkable. He can coax those long notes into profound statements of love and desire, or his fingers can fly quickly up and down the keyboard and barely trigger those little puffs of air that can be so expressive on their own. He's the kind of performer who makes you sit up and say dammit, I love the B3 and the waves of nostalgia it summons with ease. He's also wise enough to surround himself with a game collection of fellow musicians such as guitarist Nigel Price, bassist Laurence Cottle, drummer Mez Clough and many others.
Compared to the Askren/Benedict disc, this has a bit more energy and a wider range of moods. The R&B classic "Have You Seen Her" is lush and romantic and almost sexy, despite a theme sunk deeply into having the blues. Moran's own "Scallywag" sounds like a lost hit from The Ventures with its slow, barely evolving melody and relaxed tempo. The band can also inject plenty of energy into these performances--I think Moran's version of "Come Together" has a little more zip than Askren and Benedict. If you have a free afternoon or evening, I strongly suggest listening to both CDs one after the other. It'll put you into that aforementioned "jazz mood," whatever that is.
A friend of mine recently brought up the idea of a "jazz mood." When I asked him what he meant, he replied something about cool, relaxed and mellow, something to be enjoyed while wearing dark sunglasses. Indoors. At night. He's not really a jazz fan, but I kind of understood what he meant--jazz is supposed to be cool and hip. I don't want to suggest that it's not, but over the last year I've been submerged in the stuff and I think it's not mellow at all. It's dynamic and punchy and exciting at times, but I don't experience many old-school jazz moods these days. Besides, cool and relaxed leads you directly into that palace of sin known as "lite jazz." Let's not be that "cool," okay?
Here's a surprise, however--guitarist Dave Askren and sax player Jeff Benedict, along with organ player Joe Bagg and drummer Paul Romain, have come up with a pure jazz album that is cool, relaxed and mellow in a completely undorky way. Come Together stands out from the crowd, and not because it's doing crazy things that have never been done before. This collection of standards, centered around the epic yet understated Beatles track in the title, exists in its own world where you can put on a pair of sunglasses at night and no one will say a word about it.
Askren is the de facto leader here--he's one of those jazz guitarists who's been around forever and has what they call an "impeccable pedigree." (He's the guy who once recorded a fabulous tribute to Bill Evans--on guitar.) Benedict, despite the nature of his instrument, is the quiet core of the group. His sax performances are solid and understated and keep the quartet firmly grounded--a good idea since there is no bass player per se. That's where Joe Bagg's earthy and gritty Hammond B-3 comes in, supplying the lower foundation while almost single-handedly providing layer after layer of cool. Paul Romain's drumming is also fantastic in that same subtle way. He's not flying all over the place with macrodynamic flamboyance, but creating new depths of rhythm and shine.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the sound quality of Come Together is uniformly excellent, but it has a dash of that live feel as if the audience was present but had their hands tied behind their backs. The immediacy of the performances and the chemistry within the quartet are fleshy and vibrant. But because the music is so calm, so confident, you might not recognize the greatness. It's there, however, sitting in the corner, wearing a pair of Wayfarers.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
The theme of this particular 2L release is quite simple. Beethoven's Quartet no. 11 in F minor is indeed in a minor key, but as a fairly short piece it is often overlooked as one of his most important works. Schubert's Quartet no. 15 in G major is in a major key, and it is also considered to be a major work, one of imposing length and substantial impact. The idea here is to boldly place these two works on the same album and let the listener come up with an answer to the question "What is truly minor and what is truly major when it comes to music?"
Both pieces are played by the Oslo String Quartet, a 2L mainstay. Violinists Geir Inge Lotsberg and Liv Hilde Klokk, violist Are Sandbakken and cellist Oystein Sonstad take a purist approach to this music, playing it with precision and yet with all of the appropriate emotions intact. They understand, for instance, that one of the most intriguing characteristics of the Beethoven quartet is that despite the minor key it is not a sad or sorrowful work. Think about that for a second, because I certainly had to wrap my head around it. Back in college, my Music 101 professor told us that minor keys expressed sadness, regret, danger, anger...all the negative emotions. In about twenty-two blissful minutes, he is proven wrong.
The Schubert quartet does not prompt the same sort of musical revelation and re-evaluation; it is merely ambitious and grand. The Oslo String Quartet is up to what must have been a physically challenging performance for them--there is so much furious energy here, and you can definitely hear the musicians breathing hard and pushing their bodies to the limits in order to deliver a flawless performance. As usual this is where 2L excels, at reminding the listener of the intimate relationship between musician and instrument (something I obsess over every time I get one of these spectacular Norwegian recordings), and how mere humans have to push themselves to the brink to commit to perfection.
Finally, I want to throw out an idea--string quartets are a perfect match with 2-way speakers. 2L Recordings' Morten Lindberg might disagree with this since he's a pioneer when it comes to using such technologies as 9.1 Dolby Atmos and 9.1 Auro 3D 96 khz and MQA for even a "simple" quartet recording. (It's obvious that these surround-sound technologies come in handy when it comes to placing a small quartet in a large Norwegian church.) But I use several high-quality 2-way loudspeakers as a reference in my two channel set-ups, and for me this is the ultimate in realism. I've heard plenty of bigger speakers enlarge the size of small ensembles to the point where each musician is ten feet tall. Excellent two-way monitors really prove their worth when it comes to this kind of music, which is why I could spend my golden years listening to recordings like this--quite simply, it approaches sonic perfection.
Monday, November 20, 2017
I've been a little grouchy over some of this '80s jazz-funk-r&b stuff I've been getting lately. Twinkly keyboards, plonky bass lines, mindless danceability--it's just not my thing. It's dated, and back in the day I didn't like it, either. It's not holding up well. Stop it.
Then, of course, something comes in to change my mind. Trumpet and flugelhorn player Harold Little has just released Akoben, a funky blast of '80s fun that rises above the genre through his superb horn work. He captures the best of the era--hot, sultry playing that boasts hidden depths, sort of like Miles Davis' strange yet pioneering Tutu and Amandla. Little's supporting band is a little less enigmatic than Miles' crew, however--this is mainstream jazz that is far more entertaining than challenging. But it's a lot more interesting than most of the lite/cool jazz I've been evaluating.
Little's been around for a while, playing with contemporary jazz greats such Chuck Brown, Butch Warren and Calvin Jones. He definitely inhabits a specific place and a time with this music, playing it straight and without irony. Normally I would wince at a jazz/funk cover of "Step," something that just isn't necessary under most circumstances, but Little's version slowly evolves into something vital and different. On "We Need Love," which features gorgeous vocals from Karen Linette and a slew of backup singers, Little's sudden and dynamic horn blasts will remind you of Hugh Masakela.
Look at it this way--this album won't single handedly change my mind about this sub-genre of music. But I've already mentioned two of my favorite horn players, Miles Davis and Hugh Masakela, so it's clear that there's a serious and intriguing undercurrent in this music that gives it an added layer of meaning. Plus, and I've mentioned this once or twice before in the last month, the sound quality here is absolutely pure and gorgeous. It lacks the digital glaze that would coat Akoben if it had come out in 1988 or so. Perhaps that's what elevates the recording, but I'm really fond of the way Little plays as well.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
My review of Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 2 is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.
If you want to read my blog review of the first volume of The Moonlight Sessions, you can find that here.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Chris Parker is only 20 years old!
I'm not sure if that should be your lead-in. The protagonist in Whiplash was about that age, right? He was a jazz drummer. The Beatles were teenagers when they started their campaign of world domination. Mozart was an old grizzled vet by the time he started his third decade on this planet. Child prodigies are nothing new in the world of music.
Chris Parker is a hell of a jazz drummer, that's true. On his new album, Moving Forward Now, he's not flashy and precocious like you'd expect a 20-year-old drummer to be. He's steady, measured and has a light touch with his kit. He's generous with his fellow musicians and knows when to step out of the way to let them shine. In that respect alone he is an enormously mature performer.
As a composer, he's just as impressive. While he knows how to arrange music such as Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Rachmaninoff's Adaigio Sustenuto and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" into new jazz standards, half of this album contains Parker's original compositions. These new tunes blend seamlessly with the rest of the album--even a distinctive rendering of "Autumn Leaves." These choices reveal either an old soul or an apt pupil. Parker isn't trying to reinvent the wheel his first time out. He's proving one thing--he deserves to be out in front no matter his age, and he hopefully has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. And that's a gift to all of us.