Friday, October 20, 2017
Hey wait. This ain't jazz.
Highlands & Houston reminds me of one of those projects they used to do with people like Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, where you take two accomplished musicians from different genres and throw them together so they can create something magical and unique. In this particular case, American guitarist Michael Hurdle has teamed with Scottish fiddler Paul Anderson to play mostly Scottish and Celtic folk ballads with a slight Texas twist. It works incredibly well, which is sort of the point--Hurdle initiated the project after a lifetime of exploring the intersections between genres such as gospel, country, soul, blues and even funk.
Both Hurdle and Anderson have plenty in common when it comes to the mastery of their instruments. Both have won numerous competitions, for example, and both are prolific songwriters. But while Anderson is very well known back in Scotland from his appearances on TV and radio, Hurdle spent most of his life working in the healthcare industry and didn't go professional until later in life. (He started off playing in his local church back in the '60s, with a 12-string guitar he named Sister Rose.) You wouldn't know that from listening to him play, however--he plays his hollow body Gibson with a confident style that suggests a huge catalog over many decades.
These two gentlemen probably could have delivered an astonishing album with just their fiddle and guitar, but they've assembled a large ensemble that allows them plenty of flexibility while they straddle musical styles--mandolins, keyboards, drums, vocals and yes, even bagpipes. Hurdle provides even more variety by playing dobro, bass and Cuban el Tres. Sometimes this results in a busy, bright sound, and folk albums should probably lean more towards the understated and natural (especially when the bagpipes appear in the final track, a melding of "Scotland the Brave" and "Auld Lang Syne"). But Highlands & Houston is different enough to be refreshing and lots of fun, and that counts for a lot.
I've been quite busy the last couple of weeks moving into my new Rochester digs. After 18 months in an apartment I finally have a house again, and a listening room. I also have a huge pile of music to review, so I need to spend the next few days diving into it, especially since I'm going on vacation in a few days. I'm certainly not going to rush through reviews the next few days--I've actually been getting very familiar with most of them over the last couple of months. One that really stands out is this one from jazz violinist Dave Kline. It's immediately likeable and engaging, and it's been in my car CD rotation while I move the last few boxes from Syracuse.
As you might deduce from its title, this album focuses on worldly themes and influences. Kline started off as a classical violinist while growing up in London, but when he moved to the US he became interested in music from other parts of the world--Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. As you move through these nine originals, you'll hear all sorts of esoteric motifs that range from good old-fashioned rock and roll guitars to Eastern European fiddles to Haitian percussion. It's a mish-mash of styles (the liner notes employ the word "smorgasbord," which is pretty accurate), but it works so effectively because of the energy and drama Kline injects into each composition.
While it's beautifully recorded, it's not purist by jazz standards. Kline has enlisted plenty of "plugged-in" musicians, in other words, and he's fond of using electric violins and layering tracks in order to create his own string sections. Normally this would push the effort into the jazz fusion genre, but so much of this music crosses over into world music and, let's face it, pop. But to suggest Shifting Borders is mainstream is doing a disservice to the sheer creativity involved. I'm not a huge fan of pigeon-holing music into genres, and Kline is delivering likeable, energetic songs that may appeal to the masses while emerging from a palette of uncommon colors.
Saturday, October 7, 2017
I'm not sure if audiophiles dig spoken word pieces or not. I can't think of a famous reference disc that consists of someone reciting poetry or prose with musical accompaniment. The closest thing I have to that in my music collection is an LP, part of the Jack Kerouac box set that came out a couple of decades ago, that includes Jack reading from the last few paragraphs of On the Road while Steve Allen improvises on the piano.
I fondly remember going to the Anti-Club in Hollywood back in the late '80s and seeing Henry Rollins and Exene Cervenka reading their poetry with spare musical accompaniment. I vividly remember those recitals. So I'm not sure why spoken word pieces aren't more popular. The voice alone, clear and naked, could be used as a true reference point for audiophile since most of them don't have access to a singer who can perform in their living rooms at a moment's notice. Throw in something substantial, such as a grand piano, and you might be able to start a new trend for the old dogs among us.
So I submit The Voice of Robert Desnos, with Antonella Chionna reciting Desnos' dreamy, surreal poetry backed by Pat Battstone's light and versatile piano. The sound quality is spectacular, precise and direct. But it's spoken word, the whole way through. Will that be interesting to us?
I say yes, and wholeheartedly. First of all, Chionna's voice is utterly charming with its moderate Italian accident--she sounds a lot like Valeria Golina's character in Rain Man. Even when she's digging into terse and repetitive poetry--Desnos had a habit of repeating words and phrases over and over for emphasis--her voice casts a spell. Desnos' poetry deserves equal attention since it's dreamy and surreal and delves deep into the human subconsciousness. Finally, Battstone's flowing keys provide the momentum as well as the actual direction. This is Battstone's project, after all, and he's the one who found the Desnos poems and sent them on to Chionna to see if she'd be interested. She was, as you see.
As much as I enjoy this CD and admire such a cerebral effort, my audiophile side still resists a little. To illustrate, I've listened to this recording a few times and two different people burst into the room and asked me what the hell was I was listening to. So enjoying this CD will depend upon a simple realignment of the way you listen to music, something to push you past the novelty. It's certainly something to think about.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
There are a lot of terms you can use to describe a jazz musician, but "self-taught" isn't a common one. Most jazz musicians work hard to get where they are, and they've studied with a few master musicians along the way. When I delve into the liner notes of some of these contemporary jazz titles I've been reviewing, there's always a story about a famous musician who influenced the artist when he was young, or where he was born into a family of musicians, or whatever.
Andy Adamson, however, is a self-taught jazz pianist and composer. Sure, he was influenced by Coltrane, Chick Corea and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but he sounds like he does because he's been doing this for 50 years. He's had time to poke around and figure out what this jazz stuff is all about.
His new CD, First Light, is a collection of originals from his "vast catalogue of original work." His fellow musicians--sax player Dan Bennett, bassist Brendan Andes, drummer Jonathan Taylor and trumpeter Ross Huff--are noted for their tremendous body of experience in the jazz world, and for their ability to handle some of Adamson's polyrhythmic structures in his songs. Throughout First Light you'll hear so many evolving textures and dynamics, an Adamson trademark, that you'll question whether or not the same five gentlemen are hanging around for every track. They are.
In some cases, the dynamic contrasts are contained in a single song--note the crazy, electrified coda for "Twilight in the Making." Throughout the album there's a sense that the space between the songs isn't aligned with what you're hearing, that some songs have suite-like structures while other themes pop up in one song only to end in another. Perhaps that's where Adamson's autodidact approach is a true gift since he's not bound by the few rules that do exist in jazz but still manages to construct moving and coherent melodies.
First Light deserves a listen because of that willingness to stand out from the crowd. It's original, and that's something in a genre so in touch with preserving the past.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
This one came at the right time, after countless jazz releases that seem a little too perfect, a little too accomplished. That's not to say these guys are sloppy and wild, just adventurous--like in the '50s and '60s when everything seemed so new. You know the risks that are being taken, and that creates a stronger interaction between performer and listener.
Gabe Evens is certainly no slouch when it comes to mining the history of jazz. Evens is an associate professor of jazz piano, composition and arrangement at the University of Louisville's famed Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program. He's also performed all over the world. He has the chops, he's paid his dues, he's done whatever he's expected to do to earn respect as a jazz pianist. That said, his approach to these ten original tunes isn't as academic as you would think. Or, perhaps, that's the point--Evens, along with bassist Lynn Seaton and drummer Ed Soph, knows that the foundations of jazz aren't grounded in logic and reason and structure. It's about catching the whirlwind and finding places no one else has been.
It sounds like I'm describing chaos once again, but I'm not. The macro-structure of the music is intact, with themes and improvisations that sound fully comfortable within the be-bop canon. The inspiration is in the tiny details, especially when you take the time to isolate what each performer is doing at any given point. That's right...as a whole this sounds musical, lyrical, whatever you want to call it, but it's the Drummer's Drummer Syndrome where amazing things are happening in the margins if you know what you're looking for.
The best way to sum this up is to say this is perfect jazz, which doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means. By perfect I mean it pushes you to look in the crevices and find out what's hiding in the dark. It's music that's meant for up-close and careful listening, otherwise you might just mistake this for any number of perfect, accomplished contemporary jazz releases. It's not. It's better than that.
The latest installment of The Vinyl Anachronist is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is about warped records, and what you can do to avoid them. You can read it here.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Conrad the Band's new EP, Valley Days, features a snarling hyena on the cover. That instantly makes me think of one thing, and that's the cover of Grinderman II. Grinderman, of course, was an awesome side project for Nick Cave, a chance for him to explore wilder and more chaotic musical frontiers as the front man for a true garage band. That cover, now a classic, featured a mangy, snarling wolf in a very swanky apartment featuring prominently white decor. The message was clear--this is going to get messy.
Conrad the Band, or just Conrad for short, seems to be appropriating the same swagger for this six-track album. Listening to the first song, "Devil's Gonna Find You," you'll quickly discover the same garage band aesthetic--it's a catchy, rough-around-the-edges blues rock tune that'll probably remind you of the Black Keys more than Cave's outfit. These two "old friends" from Bakersfield, Matthew Shaw and Nick Andre, do have a big chunk of that late '60s and early '70s stripped-down simplicity. It's just two guys, right? Two-man bands might be in vogue right now, but you have to be careful not to draw obvious comparisons.
The deeper you get into Valley Fever, fortunately, the less you'll think about the Black Keys and Grinderman. (To be honest, the latter band is doing something completely different.) Shaw and Andre have a knack for the disheveled psychedelic pop hit, and may be more deeply grounded into the '60s than Auerbach and Carney. There's a point, in fact, where I thought about how good these songs were, and that forty years ago this type of album would be treated as something a little more substantial. These two gentleman from Nashville West aren't just wearing their musical influences on their sleeves, they're focused on the little touches that show the world who they are--right down to the thin sound of electric card that's straight out of the Buck Owens manual. There's a lot of intelligence in this seemingly modest effort.
So this little side project from a couple of old friends is a little disarming merely because it is so solid and good, and in a way that seems totally off-the-cuff. Will anyone notice? I hope so, because Conrad the Band might seem like an impromptu garage jam from a couple of buddies, but it's much better than that.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
This one is entirely about the music.
That's a strange way to begin a music review, I know, but with a 2L release there's always so much more going on than the performances. There's the extraordinary care taken during the recording process to ensure that the sound quality is state-of-the-art, there's the cutting edge technologies used to achieve that goal and finally there's a theme to explore, usually a cerebral one that's aimed squarely at true lovers of classical music. These themes can be simple, or they can be so esoteric that only a handful of music lovers would discover the intent on their own without the help of the unusually detailed liner notes.
For Northern Timbre, that theme is graciously simple: Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen are arguably the most beloved Scandinavian composers, and they influenced each other in many ways. The avenue for demonstrating this hypothesis is also simple--three duets for piano and violin, played with extraordinary passion and commitment by Ragnhild Hemsing and Tor Espen Aspaas. But there's a point, perhaps a few minutes into Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor. where you're so swept up by this gorgeous music that you stop listening with your brain and the clipboard with all your notes falls to the floor without you even noticing.
That's the goal, of course. I've said the same thing about high-end audio for years, that you're not listening to the good stuff until you stop thinking about whether or not you're listening to the good stuff. When I review these wonderful 2L releases, I usually try to gather up as many brain cells as I can so that I can do justice to these exceptional and thought-provoking recordings and the intriguing ideas behind them. With those aforementioned themes, there are usually many layers to peel away from the onion which usually adds to the enjoyment--it's almost a multi-media approach. With Northern Timbre, I can't do that. I simply melt into the listening chair and take it all in and forget about everything else.
I will say this in regards to the stated theme: as you move from the Grieg piece to Sibelius' Danses Champetres to Nielsen's Sonata No. 1 in A major, there's a certain flow that seems to reinforce the idea that these three composers were all in tune with the idea of the "Nordic Sound." I've been attracted to Scandinavian music for many years, back to the Opus3 recordings I fervently collected in the '80s and '90s. That attraction has always focused on one aspect--the ability of Scandinavian music to create vivid images of northern life, especially when it comes to the idea of a warm fireplace in a warm home in the middle of a winter storm. That stimulates the happy places in my brain.
The idea that these complex emotions and memories can be triggered so readily by a mere piano and violin duet speaks volumes about the quality of the performances, as well as Morten Lindberg's affinity for recording in big warm Norwegian churches. Hemsing's violin is swift and playful and strong when it needs to be. Aspaas, on piano, is an equal partner--this music is played as a true duet instead of a showcase for the violin with the keyboards acting as a rather austere foundation. Hemsing and Aspaas weave in an out of each other as if they were engaged in dance.
Winter is coming, and this California boy now lives in a place where that means something. I'm looking forward to spending this winter with recordings like this that celebrate the Nordic sound, ones that are lit up from within by sheer beauty.
Friday, September 22, 2017
Gotta admit that this CD didn't look promising when I first picked it up. This collection of slick, over-produced lite jazz tunes seemed a little too New-Age to me, its aim toward the ethereal far too forced. Even the title was a bit of a turn-off. Fly away, butterfly? What is this, 1968?
Slowly I started to change my mind. Composer Carol Albert lost her husband back in 2014 and Fly Away Butterfly is a chronicle of her grief and her return to songwriting after many years. The end result isn't bare and revealing like Nick Cave's brilliant Skeleton Tree or as honestly quotidian as Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me, both released earlier this year. Butterfly is liberation, as its title implies, a moving toward happier places. While words such as "original" and "ground-breaking" will never be applied to an album like this, the optimism is contagious.
I'm also impressed with the sound quality of this recording. I didn't expect to be impressed. On casual listening it all sounded too polished, a little too sharply digital, a little too bubbly and bright 1980s in its presentation. Once you sit down and give this music your full and undivided attention, you'll start to discover just how much thought and effort and feeling is hiding in the dark corners. While this music can fall prey to some of that '80s Nagel-esque slickness, Albert is adding important details here and there--distant vocals that symbolism her engagement to the world around her during the grieving process, not to mention her use of other classic songs such as "One Way," "Chasing Waterfalls" and a faithful version of "Mas Que Nada" to show that the world turns with or without her. You might as well succumb to the beat, she seems to be saying.
Albert has wrapped this up in too pretty of a package, and I ultimately prefer an attitude closer to Nick Cave's--the death of a loved one can be a bulldozer that pushes you closer to the abyss. Dusting yourself off and starting over may be a healthier approach, but it's not the stuff of great art. But if you listen to Fly Away Butterfly without knowing all the back story, you may find plenty to enjoy.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
The Flying Horse Big Band is a juggernaut from the University of Central Florida, a large ensemble of talented musicians who have released eight albums on their own label. This one, Big Man on Campus, pays homage to composer Harry Allen and includes both his classic compositions and arrangements, custom-tailored for Flying Horse. That's a fairly dry description of this album, but this release is such a classy and professional affair that it's hard to stray from a reverential tone. The twenty performers that share this stage are the epitome of poise, and they create music that is preternaturally perfect--for jazz, that is.
Big bands aren't necessarily known for passion and improvisation and spontaneity--anyone who has seen Whiplash knows this all too well. (For a more humorous and frightening take, search out videos of Buddy Rich dressing down members of his band.) But job #1 for a big band should be working as one big well-oiled machine. Flying Horse is that and more, saxes and trombones and trumpets all executing with perfect precision, as well as a rhythm section with organs, electric bass and guitars that keep the proceedings light and loose, but in moderation. At the center of these colorful performances is Harry Allen himself, having an extraordinary amount of fun with his tenor sax.
What else can you say about a classy enterprise like this? If you prefer hearing mysterious sonic dispatches from the edges of the frontier, you might have to dig deeper than most to find the hidden treasure in this recording. I, for instance, find a great deal of joy in the breathy sounds of Harry's sax. Here he reminds me of Stan Getz at his most relaxed, ready to swing.
Other than that, Big Man on Campus is a rarity, a modern big band recording delivered with love, dedication and talent beyond reproach...in 2017.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
And there is no new thing under the sun.
This old gem from the Book of Ecclesiastes is particularly apt when it comes to contemporary jazz. So much of the scene is devoted to preserving the past, known affectionately as the Great American Songbook, especially if you can pay homage by merging two different styles of jazz—ragtime/salsa, be-bop/lite, whatever you got. It’s slapping puzzle pieces together. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you’re having fun.
But when is the last time you’ve heard something fresh and new in the world of jazz, a music that sounds perfectly original and contemporary instead of reverential?
I submit the Julian Gerstin Sextet as exhibit A, your honor. Gerstin is a percussionist who mixes beats from Martinique, where he studied for years, with an eclectic portfolio of music styles from Cuba, Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt. It all makes sense on paper, all these rhythm-heavy cultures coming together and producing a satisfying and unique beat. But this is a little more complicated than blue plus yellow equaling green.
This is simply one of the most original and distinctive sounding jazz releases I've heard in a while, and not because it is strange or "out there." This is unusually melodic jazz, full of beauty, held together by Gerstin's percussion. He specializes in a relative rare drum called the tanbou, which can be played with both hands and feet. But it's Anna Patton's expressive clarinet and Don Anderson's trumpet and flugelhorn that bring the sheer beauty to these original tracks. It's these two musicians who act as a bridge between Gerstin's African and Caribbean beats and these emotional Eastern European melodies.
The recording quality of The One Who Makes You Happy is excellent. Gerstin's percussion has that unique slap of flesh upon drum head, guttural and earthy. Wes Brown's bass is unusually clear and lively and provides, as it should, an agile anchor for this moving and memorable music. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Jazz cimbalom? Or, for the more folk-inclined, the hammered dulcimer? The instrument doesn't come up a lot while discussing jazz emnsembles. Marius Preda would like to change that with this new CD, appropriately titled Mission Cimbalom. Preda also plays vibraphone, violin, accordion, contrabass, piano and the pan flute. He sings, too. But it's the cimbalom that's in the spotlight for this release, with its quick hammered tempos and light textures it makes just as much sense as either the piano or the vibraphone--at least in the context of jazz.
Preda's love for the cimbalom dates back to his fourth birthday when he received the instrument as a gift from his grandmother. He loved the instrument and spent most of his early years learning it and refining his technique. When he was older he took up the vibraphone, and the mastering of that instrument led him back to his childhood toy. Playing jazz vibraphone prompted a few new ideas about playing the cimbalom, inspiring Preda to become the "world's first jazz cimbalom player."
Much of Mission Cimbalom addresses this theme, that the jazz cimbalom is far more than a novelty. The sound and timbre of the instrument is especially impressive as the speed of the hammering increases and the woody sound of striking strings starts to jump forward, away from the other musicians. That's when the cimbalom takes on a new roll as the bridge between rhythm section and soloist and sometimes replaces both.
Since he's surrounded by eight other musicians, Preda does get a chance to perform in different roles with completely different energies and moods. That's particularly obvious when he shifts away from the cimbalom to play tango with his accordion, or to single a quiet ballad while accompanying himself on piano. Mission Cimbalom does tend to distance itself from its titular musical instrument as it goes along, but the album also settles into a more solid groove in the later tracks. Early on I get a heavy sense of the emerging '90s nostalgia, plucked electric bass and a deepening dependence on "pretty" synthesizers that seems to be slipping into more and more recordings these days.
Perhaps we can expect more focus on the cimbalom in the future, and its ability to dig in and represent jazz. I think Preda makes an outstanding case for a leading role.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
If the name of a jazz ensemble is Joe Mongelli and the Cape Jazz Crew, the new CD is titled "WashAshore," and the album cover features a small boat that has indeed washed up on a shore in Cape Cod, you're probably going to think this music is going to be really, really mellow. And it is. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Think "mellow jazz" and you might conjure words such as "boring" or "vapid" or even the dreaded "lite jazz."
This new album from trumpeter and arranger Joe Mongelli is a different type of mellow, one you can explore with both sides of your brains. While these ten tracks are all old standards such as Ellington's "I Got It Bad" and Bacharach's "Alfie" and Milt Jackson's "Bags Groove," Mongelli is known for his thoughtful and distinctive arrangements. His dedication to this side of the process had to do with an injury (the liner notes don't elaborate) that sidelined him as a classical trumpet player for thirty years. During his convalescence he honed his songwriting and arranging skills and even experimented in electronica, pop and other genres before centering on jazz.
That career diversity theme certainly isn't plastered all over this album, but you do get the sense that Mongelli takes every genre with equal seriousness. Joe and his band--pianist Fred Boyle, bassist Ron Ormsby and drummers Steve Langone and Bart Weisman--play it pretty much straight when it comes to delivering sultry and lush jazz. They are being inventive and thoughtful with arrangements, but not revolutionary. This is the stuff of cotillions, swanky nightclubs, the type of wedding that set back the bride's father six figures, but that's not a knock for not taking risks. Mongelli and his crew are precise and polished, yes, but they've backed into something deeper and more thoughtful, a sound that is both hypnotic and flattering to the jazz fan's intellect. He has big and vibrant ideas, but they always make sense.
Mongelli also serves as producer, and he does a credible job with creating a big sound for an intimate jazz ensemble--the stage feels like a warm and well-lit cocoon, round and big. When Mongelli plays a muted horn it can be just a touch forward, but that's what muted horns do. It's otherwise a soothing album with a big heart and plenty of drive, the kind of music that makes you think about forgetting about thinking.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
I've lumped these two contemporary jazz titles because they almost didn't make the cut. No, they weren't that bad--they just wouldn't play in my reference CD player. I looked at the surfaces of the two CDs to see if they were scratched and they appeared to be okay. I shoved them off to the side and planned on sending an email to the publicist when I got the chance. Then I thought hey, maybe it's not the CDs. Maybe it's the CD player. So I brought them out to my car and yes, you guessed it...they played perfectly fine.
That was a couple of weeks ago, and they're both still in my car's CD player. It took me a while to break through to each album's greatness--they didn't make solid first impressions mostly because car stereos kind of suck, even the good ones. But after a couple of weeks, and after playing them in another high-quality CD transport, I'm here to say that if you're looking for jazz that features incredible percussion work, these two CDs are among the best of the year.
Both albums are very different, especially during casual listening. Melodic Intersect's new album, Looking Forward, has a novel approach: take a tabla and a sitar and add them into a traditional jazz ensemble with guitar, keyboard, sax and cajon, not to mention additional percussion. The blend is not initially as successful as I thought it would be, mostly because Enayet Hossain (tabla) and Hidayat Khan (sitar) are playing at a masterful level of innovation while the others rely too much on a somewhat dated sound that comes straight out of the digitally-glazed 1980s. Tabla, sitar and acoustic guitar--a nice match. Tabla, sitar and synthesizer--way too New Age. Tabla, sitar and saxophone--bad idea.
Forget those disparate elements and concentrate on Hossain and Khan and suddenly you'll see the genius. Hossain is listed first in the album credits, and strangely enough the album does center upon the tablas. He is an incredible drummer who can extract a wide variety of sounds from his drum, and he can run through the most difficult time signatures with ease. The final track of this album, "Rhythmicpaths," is where Looking Forward becomes a masterpiece because it's just twelve minutes of tabla and "world percussion." It's hypnotic and crazy beautiful.
Ron Francis Blake, however, hits the ground running with his new CD, Assimilation. At first it sounds like a very talented jazz ensemble cranking out impressive versions from a variety of jazz genres. Blake is a trumpet player, and he has assembled a large ensemble that sounds like nothing but horns and percussion from a distance. After repeated listening, you'll eventually say something like "do you hear that drummer?" Once you lock in to that, you'll suddenly realize that you're in the middle of one of the most impressive percussion records you'll ever hear.
Jimmy Branly is, for lack of a better term, the lead percussive talent on this album, and he plays as if he's possessed. The crazy change-ups, the intricate time signatures and beats you've never heard before--it's astonishing. Add in such guest percussionists Poncho Sanchez and Joey De Leon and suddenly you have a master class in jazz percussion. Then you notice how the more demure musicians add a dreamy and provocative ring around the edges of sound--Nick Mancini's vibraphone, Andy Langham's piano and all those horn players, eleven of them in total.
While Looking Forward contains hidden treasures, ones that may require a bit of digging, Assimilation is like jumping into a railroad car full of gold bullion. Both are utterly fascinating from a percussive perspective. Highly recommended.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I WILL NOT JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER.
I've been sitting on this release for a few weeks now. I received it during a time when I was reviewing a lot of free jazz, and I needed a break from the measured chaos. I saw the name "Free Radicals" and thought oh, that's just a catchy name for a jazz ensemble that handles lot of free jazz. The title of this CD, Outside the Comfort Zone seemed to confirm this--this was going to be another sonic and intellectual challenge. It's hard work analyzing free jazz and mapping out its structure. So I set it aside.
Boy, was I wrong about this CD.
Back in the '80s, when I used to hang out in places like Madame Wong's West and the Hollywood Paladium, we'd call Free Radicals a party band. That meant they were lively, energetic genre-crossers that made music to energize an eclectic and knowing crowd. This particular nine-piece ensemble has been marketed rather loosely under jazz, but you'll hear just about everything else in the mix--ska, '70s funk, '60s TV show themes, Delta blues, acid rock, New Orleans jazz, arena rock and perhaps a soupcon of straightforward jazz. Along with at least a dozen guest stars, Free Radicals create unique songs that plant themselves firmly on their own unique planets, and each tune will remind you of something you've heard before, something from the past that was really, really cool. 22 of the 23 tracks included on Outside the Comfort Zone are original compositions/improvisations from the group regulars, and the final track is a very loose adaptation from Sun Ra.
You can sit back and listen to this music, your toes tappin', and you might even get up and dance. But there's another hidden layer to explore--the group is trying to make socially conscious music that scrutinizes such issues as the Iraq War, white supremacy and border walls. They're playing instrumentals, so you have to dig a little into such titles as "Ambush ICE," "Audacity of Drones" and "Freedom of Consumption." Or you can see the collective perform live, where they'll be more active guides.
Free Radicals started off in a Houston pawn shop about twenty years ago, and since then they've put out a handful of albums while performing "in clubs, street protests, punk rock house parties, art openings, weddings, funerals and breakdance competitions. This album shares that same grassroots attitude into its production values--this isn't an audiophile disc so to speak, but that certainly doesn't matter when you're having this much fun.
Friday, August 25, 2017
This one has the looks, the vibe and the attitude of a great jazz reissue, and that's why it stands out from the flood of contemporary jazz releases I have in for review. Saxophonist Oscar Feldman comes from Argentina, where he plays for big and appreciative crowds. That's why Gol, his latest release, sounds both polished and revolutionary--this guy plays in entirely his own space and sounds like no one else and he's known for that. His bandmates--drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist John Benitez, keyboard player Leo Genovese and vocalist Guillermo Klein--are all old friends of Feldman, and they have that masterful aura of a quintet that has flourished through most of its long and storied career.
Gol, humorously enough, is named for a soccer victory, as in "GOOOOL!" It's no secret that soccer and music are a huge part of Argentinian culture, and this collection of standards and originals is celebratory in a vaguely football sort of way. You'll get a free-form yet supremely musical version of Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" that is held together with Feldman's outspokenly melodic sax, and you'll get a rambunctious version of the Beatles' "I Feel Fine' that resembles a drunken post-game party with plenty of Quilmes. You'll get Beck's "Nobody's Fault But My Own," which will not remind you of Beck at all until you look at the track listing and realize that yes, this is a Beck song.
Feldman's lone composition, "Viva Belgrano"--Guillermo Klein is responsible for the other two originals--is the thematic centerpiece of the album. This is where Feldman rhapsodizes about his hometown football team and the goal that propelled them to stardom, all marked by a climactic GOOOOOL. You get the crowd noise, the commentary and all of the excitement in a unique jazz song that manages to elevate the originality of all eight tracks as a whole. Gol flows with this athletic and fanatical energy; it never stops to catch its breath.
The sound quality, by the way, is exceptional. This is another release from Zoho Records, and their releases have been uniformly excellent when it comes to creating magic in the studio. There's only one thing that could make Gol even greater, and that's a release on vinyl. The music, the artwork and the quality of these performances deserve the best.
Thursday, August 24, 2017
A collection of 20th century violin and piano duets can be heady, troubling work, especially when these pieces come from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Witold Lutoslawski and Fartein Valen. Yet there's something incredibly lyrical about Interactions, the latest hi-rez recoding from Norway's 2L Recordings. Featuring Bard Monsen on violin and Gunnar Flagstad on piano, this recording isn't quite as lush as a mint Shaded Dog of Clair de Lune, but under those expected sharp edges you'll find plenty of real emotion and beauty.
These three pieces--Sonate from Valen, Duo Concertant from Stravinsky and Partita from Lutoslawski--were extracted from the cusp of certain classical periods, where each composer was inspired by the distant past to venture into the unknown. That means you'll hear traditional Bach counterpoints in Valen's late Romantic work, and occasional Baroque flourishes from Lutoslawski. (As a college student I once attended a Lutoslawski concert at the Dorothy Chandler in LA--with the composer himself conducting. It was an ear-opening experience.) Stravinsky stretches back even farther into the past by employing Virgil's antique verse forms.
Okay, okay...I'll stop reading from the liner notes now. As usual, 2L releases contain cerebral themes that are far from obvious to casual listeners, and the generous booklet contains the keys to enjoying these pieces on a deeper level.
What makes this recording so special, and I've discussed this before, is that Morten Lindberg of 2L is a master of capturing duos, trios and other intimate ensembles in a way that makes them sound spacious. We're not talking about preternatural spaciousness--I've heard my share of recordings where singers stand fifteen feet tall and the piano soundboard stretches for miles. No, this expansive feel is due to the venue, yet another Norwegian church, and Morten's talent for mating the acoustics of that space with the sounds of the musical instruments.
That means you get the usual warmth and decay that you'll find in most 2L Recordings, if not all. In a way this almost feels like a cop-out, a variation on "if you like 2L Recordings, you'll love this!" But here's the thing--maybe Morten's adventurous recording style keeps improving with age. Maybe he's been discovering more ways to take advantage of the various technologies at his disposal--Dolby Atmos, 2.0 LPCM, 9.1 Auro-3D 96 kHz. Maybe he's done this so many times that every set-up is arranged by instinct. Maybe Morten has the answer. There's just something about the way he captures the essence of a piano, a violin and a church that excites the synapses in my brain so that I feel that this is the way a piano and a violin and a church would sound if I was there in the Sofienberg Church in Norway, sitting in on the performance.
It's a simple idea, but isn't that what it's all about? By supplying that sort of clarity and logic, Morten makes it easier to dig into the inspired performances of Monsen and Flagstad and to appreciate those didactic yet playful themes.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Roger Davidson embarked on a long journey to get where he is today. He grew up in both Paris and New York and was originally a trained classical pianist. He fell in love with jazz in the '90s and began a successful recording career in that genre. Oracao Para Amanha, his latest CD, is the result of more change--his love for Brazilian jazz has blossomed considerably in recent years, and he decided to form a new trio with bassist Eduardo Belo and drummer Adriano Santos. The three started playing the hot spots in NYC, and jazz lovers started showing up in droves.
This CD was recorded live over several nights in the Zinc Bar in NYC, a place famous for featuring Brazilian jazz musicians. (The applause is unusually muted and distant in this particular recording, which seems a little odd at first.) The trio was joined by Hendrik Meurkens, considered a modern virtuoso for both harmonica and vibraphone. The result is a crisp, electric set that jumps out and engages you immediately.
To show how committed Davidson is to Brazilian jazz, he composed all twelve of these tracks--an amazing feat when you consider how rich and distinct each song sounds. After the first couple of listens, I just assumed that Davidson and his ensemble were playing Brazilian standards. Despite the fact that much of the tracks are devoted to improvised solos, especially when it comes to Meurkens' unusually folksy harmonica, melody is king here.
While most of these contemporary jazz releases I've been reviewing have good to excellent sound quality, I will mention the excellence of Prayer for Tomorrow. Percussion sounds tight and punchy--you feel it in your gut. Other than the distant feel of the audience, this CD captures a lot of that energy and spontaneity that's only found in well-recorded live albums. Highly recommended.
"Life can be crappy, but you can be happy..."
Whew. Eric Idle references aside, that's a rough way to begin an album. When I first listened to MJ Territo's new album, Ladies Day, I thought that I had wandered into the same lyrical steppe as with Jeannie Tanner's latest album, where every line is a little too on-the-nose. Fortunately that first song, written by Territo herself, is short--and everything that comes after it is much, much better.
Territo came up with the idea for this album while assembling a set list for one of her gigs. She noticed that many of her song choices were written by women, and the Ladies Day project was born. Her choices are very interesting and more varied than you would think--Dave Brubeck wrote "In Your Own Sweet Way" with his wife Iola, for instance. She also includes straightforward versions of such standards as "Everything Is Moving Too Fast," which was co-written by Peggy Lee, and Abbey Lincoln's "You Gotta Pay the Band." For a more modern take, she's even included a version of Patricia Barber's "I Could Eat Your Words."
This project would have lost some of its purity if Territo had chosen a bunch of session guys to back her in this recording. As a result, we have another all-woman band, just like the 3Divas CD I just reviewed earlier this week. While I criticized 3Divas for relying too much on the outdated "diva" themes, I'm impressed with the way it's handled here--we have a group of talented musicians (pianist Linda Presgrave, bassist Iris Ornig, drummer Barbara Merjan, flautist Andrea Brachfeld, sax player Virginia Mayhew and harpist Brandee Younger) who simply dig in and make beautiful music. No qualifiers are needed.
None of this would work if Territo's voice wasn't so strong and agile. She does come from the straight-on school of jazz singing, where everything note is delivered with clarity and emphasis, but she doesn't succumb to the plaintive. There's a loveliness in the way she holds onto notes as if she's caressing each one before releasing it out into the world. Ladies Day is, ultimately, a lively and cheerful collection of performances that are nicely realized and delivered with the sort of brio that comes with always looking at the bright side of life.
(See what I did there?)
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.