Friday, August 17, 2018

Mike Freeman ZonaVibe's Venetian Blinds

Maybe vibes will become the next big thing in jazz, just like organ trios and big band have been over the last year. I say that because I love the vibraphone. The first jazz music I truly loved came from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Milt Jackson's mallets were the point of entry. I have a fever, and the only cure is, get it. So my ears prick up when I slap a CD into the player and I immediately hear the vibes (or the marimba, which also gets my attention). If you're an audiophile like me, vibes are one of those instruments that can sound so alive on a real sound system. Like the drums, the vibraphone has a distinct set of tones that emerge with every note--the striking of the mallet on the key, the note itself and the way that note travels out into the room. There's that heady sound of wood in the mix, unique and exotic. It's wonderful.

When I first saw this CD in my mailbox, I thought that Mike Freeman was a vibe player that was so into the sound of his instrument that he legally changed his last name to ZonaVibe. No, it's just Mike Freeman and his group is known as the Mike Freeman ZonaVibe, just like the George Baker Selection. Freeman is considered to be one of the most exciting vibraphone players in contemporary jazz, and he specializes in albums that pay tribute to jazz legends--his last album Blue Tjade was of course a tribute to Cal Tjader. On his new album Venetian Blinds, Freeman pays tribute to Tito Puente and Bobby Hutcherson.

That means, of course, that this album has a Latin flavor and the vibes are right at home. The spirit here is light and fun, something that's in the same ball park as Rolfe Kent's amazing soundtrack for Sideways, and the main theme for Sex and the City--but with a lot more heart and style, at least compared to the latter. The point is, this is music that constantly celebrates life. It should inspire you to dance the night away with its overflow of energy. Freeman's vibes create flurries of seemingly impossible notes, such is his speed. It's not frantic playing, just fluid and lush as it should be. He creates an ocean of sound that creates a natural buoyancy for the other players (bassist Ian Stewart, drummer Joel Mateo, trumpet player Guido Gonzalez and conga player Roberto Quintero). The former two are well-known in the New York Latin jazz scene, while the rhythm section features two up-and-comers. There are, however, no seams showing anywhere in this glorious music machine.

While this is certainly Freeman's show, you might get pulled away once or twice by Quintero. In the liner notes he is referred to as a "conga master," and boy does he have the mad skills. His conga is propulsive and deft--he is Freeman's equal in tempo and spirit. As I said, I'm a huge fan of the vibes but I've actually messed around for a while on the congas (old girlfriend story) and it's easy to be immersed in all the subtle variations in sound that a slap can make. Quintero's conga is an encyclopedia of those sounds, and it's a pleasure to focus in on him and discover what he's doing. Then again, the same thing can be said for Freeman. This is a recording that rewards your concentration, despite its breezy and casual demeanor.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sasha Mashin's Outsidethebox

How do you feel about Russian jazz? Yes, I don't know much about it either, although I have no doubt that it not only exists but on a rather large scale. I tend to think of Russia as the motherlode of great classical music, and I have many outstanding classical records from Russia. It's not a coincidence that some of my favorite classical composers are Russian--Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky--and I tend to classify most of this music according to its nationalistic traits. I'm talking mostly sad and somber, borne from a tough land where nothing is easy. But Russian jazz? Lay it on me.

Sasha Mashin is a Russian jazz drummer, born in St. Petersburg in 1976. Through the '90s he studied and played with everyone in Russia, it seems, and he eventually settled into the Moscow jazz scene and played with all the big names--in Moscow, of course. In 2005 he joined the Open World USA Program in New York and wound up playing with other greats, more Western-friendly names such as Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Barron. He was even a fixture at the Blue Note Jazz Club for a while. Since then, he invites many of his colleagues from all over the world to play in Russia and discover how vital the jazz scene has become. Outsidethebox, his first album as leader, comes from those global collaborations.

Working with a simple ensemble consisting of trumpet player Alex Sipiagin, alto sax player Rosario Giuliani, keyboard player Alexey Ivannikov, bassist Makar Novikov and vocalist Hiske Oosterwijk, Mashin sets out to reveal Russian forms of jazz as something far more universal. Oosterwijk's voice, in particular, will remind you of Brazilian jazz the way it flutters and skips on top of the notes. Giuliani's sax is also earthy and sexy in a way that naturally evokes New York City during the summer, that storied grittiness. As for Mashin's drumming, it's quick and light and hardly echoes the seriousness of his classical counterparts. The music, especially in the melodies, does have a plaintive quality that reminds me of wide open spaces, but these are spaces that aren't too far from the similar fields frequented by Pat Metheny and Bill Laswell.

Outsidethebox is, for all intents and purposes, different and unique. But it's not distinctive because it's Russian jazz per se, something alien and never heard before. It is, instead, a summary of a vast amount of musical knowledge, how musicians bring their own experiences to the stage and the leader's job is to make it all fit without changing too much of those instincts. Mashin is so resolute when it comes to preserving this energy that he often calls these collaborations mashups, and it's more that a play on his name. It's the idea that two musicians, from different parts of the world, can come together and play jazz and make it sound absolutely terrific.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Max Moran & Neospectric

Max Moran is the man, a 28-year-old bassist and composer, and Neospectric is his concept, a hard-driving funk band that uses legendary bands such as The Meters, Kool & the Gang and of course Parliament/Funkadelic as a jumping-off point--

Wait, did you hear that? The drumming! Are you listening to this?

...uh yeah, a jumping-off for a 21st century version of--

Man, listen to how fast he's drumming! Listen to those time signatures! Man, this is amazing drumming. Who is this?

It's hard to focus on the writing of this review, because I keep hearing that magnificent drumming, that mind-blowing rhythm. The first time I listened to Max Moran & Neospectric, I wrote myself a little note that simply said "incredible drumming." I saved the reveal for today, the day I decided to write the review--I didn't even want to know the name of the drummer until I was ready to dive deeper into this extraordinary funk. By the time I started reading the liner notes, I was thoroughly confused since there were several drummers credited. They're all awesome. But the one who really blew my mind was Alfred Jordan. Write that name down.

Max Moran is the bassist, so you'd imagine this album be more about him, and in a way it is. But he envisions himself as more of an architect, and his compositions use the bass primarily for the melodies. He starts off with the bass line, in other words, and builds the song from there. Neospectric was a longtime vision of his, to create a funk band made up of his close friends who knew how to jam and improvise along with him. Moran was looking for "Like-minded musicians who can just relish in the joy of simply playing music, lingering inside the grooves, and encouraging listeners to join them for the audible ride."

This album, however, doesn't come off as one of those interminable jam records where everyone doodles for half and hour per turn. It's ambitious, structured and varied. It's precise in the way it shifts gears. It's the best kind of jam music, the kind that holds amazing surprises for you around every corner. It reminds me of Thurston Moore's great album from last year, Rock and Roll Consciousness, and how every moment of those epic-length songs were exciting and interesting due to the constant change-ups. While the music here is wild and unpredictable, it's performed by musicians who are extremely disciplined and talented, people who aren't flying by the seat of their pants. Moran's bass, in particular, isn't quite as prominent as most funk bands because he loves to stay low, building that foundation. When he does kick it up a few notches, he's supremely musical and doing so much more than holding down the groove. In his own way, he's the lead--when he can avoid that freight train named Jordan.

I'm always looking for great modern funk, stuff from the '70s that's just down the block from R&B and jazz but still driving its own car to the downtown clubs on the weekends. I'm often disappointed with something small, an over-reliance on electronica, the lack of a distinctive rhythm section...something. Not here. If you're looking for a spark, the next big thing in funk, this might be it. Between Jordan's drumming, Moran's adventurous compositions and surprise after surprise after surprise, the future is right here. Highly recommended.

Carmela Rappazzo's Howlin' at the Moon

Carmela Rappazzo's a little different than most contemporary jazz singers. First of all, she writes most of her own material. Her lyrics have that quick yet conversational tone that sometimes borders on something you might hear in a Sondheim musical, a rush of words that cuts through the melody and provides you with an additional dense plot to consider. In Howlin' at the Moon, her sixth album, Rappazzo uses her storytelling skills to document her recent move to New Orleans as well as her friendship with actress Margaret Whitton (who passed away in 2016). Her voice has plenty of Broadway in it, that playfully clear way of advancing the story that comes naturally from being a seasoned stage actress.

This album isn't the same type of grand production presented in Tom Hook's amazing 62; the stage is much smaller and intimate. Rappazzo deals mostly with a piano trio (drummer Gerald T. Watkins Jr., bassist Jasen Weaver and pianist Oscar Rossignoli), accented with a few horn players--including Steve Glenn's tuba--to give it that "marchin' down Bourbon Street" feel. While there are nine distinct tracks here, including one cover of "Lullaby of the Leaves," the music flows continuously and often features recurring themes--especially in regards to Rappazzo's phrasing.

This unity gives Howlin' at the Moon the feel of a stage musical, or more specifically a one-woman show. Rappazzo is generous with the amount of time she offers to her ensemble--Rossignoli's piano fully supports the drama she introduces, while Watkins' percussion supplies the exclamation points. On her explicit tribute to Whitton, "State of Grace," Rappazzo enlists lutar player Mahmoud Chouki to provide that perfect touch of the esoteric, suggesting the mystery and sophistication of her friend. It's the most interesting track on the album.

The rest of the album has that wild, rollicking feel you might expect for music dedicated to living in New Orleans--even if it functions as an elegy. Then again, we all know about funerals in the Big Easy. A very high level of energy is maintained throughout Howlin' at the Moon, right up to the closing ballad "Making My Way Back to You." So much of jazz is focused on supplying personal emotions to lyrics that hundreds have sung before, but in this case you have an expressive, intelligent singer who is also an expressive, intelligent songwriter who is telling you about her life in a truly unique way.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Vivian Lee's Let's Talk About Love

I feel like I've been on a wonderful lucky streak with female jazz singers lately. There's Jacqueline Tabor, Lucia Jackson and a few others over the last several weeks, women with appealing voices backed by incredible jazz musicians who always lend a huge dose of classiness to the affair. My bias against female voice recordings, mentioned many times over the last couple of years, has nothing to do with the genre but rather the slavish devotion to them afforded by audiophiles. I think this will be the last time that I mention that peccadillo because it has become moot, especially when I have another fantastic new recording right here.

Vivian Lee is incredibly appealing and sweet. I use the world sweet deliberately, because that's the primary quality I notice in her voice. So many singers, especially in jazz, have that much larger-than-life sound, something so big and impressive that you tend to forget these are mere mortals. Vivian Lee has an incredibly sweet voice, the kind of voice you want to curl up next to, the kind of a voice that makes you want to introduce yourself to her and get to know her better because, if you're lucky, she might decide to sing for you one day. Her lovely and somewhat quiet delivery is gentle and soothing and makes you float off into the ether. That's fortunate, because she's singing a collection of standards that are, as the title suggested, devoted to the subject of love. She has an extraordinary touch.

Lee hails from Sacramento, which isn't exactly a hotbed for jazz--at least I haven't heard about it yet, and I've been in that city plenty of times. None of that matters, because Lee is the type of jazz singer who holds such tunes as "Wives and Lovers," "Some Other Time" and "Waltz for Debby" close to her heart, so much so that you might be convinced that the songs were written for her. Her soft voice can sound a little understated at times, but it's forward enough in the mix so that you might be tricked into thinking her head is on her shoulder. (It sounds like I have a huge crush, and I might.) She surrounds herself with an equally simple and quiet ensemble, mostly a trio of pianist Brenden Lowe, bassist Buca Necak and drummer Jeff Minnieweather. They come off as the perfect piano trio, that kind that might be wandering from studio to studio fifty or sixty years ago.

That perfectly measured sound of the trio, taken from the vibrant past, also influences how Lee's voice comes off--she's deep in the past as well. She's playful when she needs to be, like Julie London in one of her lighter moods, and she often sounds like some undiscovered treasure from long ago. These days there's such a propensity to belt out the songs with all your might, to show off that talent so no one will hesitate to be impressed. Lee does something entirely different. She charms you over time, and she finds the way to your heart by just being herself. Needless to say, highly recommended.

Allen Austin-Bishop's No One Is Alone

With Allen Austin-Bishop, it's all about interpretation. He's known for having a warm, conversational tone, and he bend the notes into something unusual, something you haven't heard before. On his new album, No One Is Alone, he tackles some of the softer jazz ballads in the songbook in a way that will make you feel like he's in your living room, sitting next to you, putting that proverbial new spin on everything from "The Way We Were" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to "Amazing Grace," and he does it with the road-worn weariness of someone who's been out there for decades. He's doing nothing by the numbers, and it might challenge you if you're expecting someone more, well, forgettable.

This is a slow album, one that takes its time because it's about something--the interpretation. His back-up ensemble is minimalist, a trio consisting of pianist Alex Maydew, bassist Mao Yamada and drummer Rob Hervais-Adelman, and they understand the pace. They're also sensational in the way they set the mood behind Austin-Bishop, providing music in an unusually grounded manner. On the other hand, they understand the drama that is so essential to a big, warm voice in the middle of it all.

If I'm suggesting his voice is different, it is. Some people, as I've hinted, might not get the way he injects the tangible sadness into the discussion. The first time I listened to this album, in the background, I was struck by the fact that Austin-Bishop doesn't care about hitting those high-notes that can deliver the goosebumps. He sings with authority, and he also sings with plenty of ragged edges, the kind of edges that might throw off the listener during a cursory listening session. Focus on what he's doing, however, and you'll unearth something else, a naked honesty that comes from living a life marked by a singular vision. He doesn't bow to convention, and that might not appeal to everyone.

When you look at the whole picture, however, a different perspective emerges. Honesty, as I've already mentioned, is sometimes a rare commodity among jazz singers. He sin't afraid to toy with the tempo, or find another key that fits what he is feeling. It's different, as I've said. But it commands your attention in a way that's refreshing. There's a deep resonance in his voice, something that gets pulled deep from within this man, and it means something.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Rocket 3's What's the Frequency?

It's been a while since I heard from my longtime Facebook friend, Ramune Nagisetty--March of 2017 to be exact. That's when she sent me a digital copy of a new album of her side project, Avalanche Lily. In that review, I noted that "what Avalanche Lily does, thankfully, is transport me back to that same period of the early 1990s where so many pop genres blended together which resulted in a general broadening of young minds." It's been about four years since her last album from her main band, Rocket 3, which I found to remind me of half a dozen '90s girl-led bands such as Letters to Cleo, Clouds and Elastica. I found Avalanche Lily to possess a cleaner and more stripped-down sound than Rocket 3, although I loved both albums.

Now it's time for a new album from Rocket 3, which sort of takes the best parts of those two albums and combines them into a beautiful pop valentine. What's the Frequency is, as you might imagine, a nod to that famous REM song from Monster, but it's also a loving poke at new bassist Kenneth Foust, who joined the band in 2015. Ramune, of course, sings and plays lead guitar, and she has that fabulously breathy and innocent kind of voice that takes you once again to the '90s when indie bands like Belly were taking over college radio. Ramune's guitar has always taken her bands down a different road--it's clean and relatively lacking in effects, which brings an unusually present and alive sound to the mix. Drummer Andy Anymouse also returns--I've been always been a big fan of his energetic approach on his kit that matches so comfortably with Ramune's style. A fourth member, Gavin Duffy, contributes saxophone and keyboards that broaden the sound.

Like the other two albums, What's the Frequency catches you off guard with its friendly demeanor. I've used words such as "sunny" and "crisp" to describe Ramune's music. It's the kind of upbeat pop/indie rock that instantly puts you into a good mood. What I hear in this album, however, is the inevitable maturing that comes with recording, the playing around with the recipe until it tastes incredible. Ramune's lyrics are more bittersweet here, as they should be with anyone who's sharing the same time-space continuum as the rest of the world, but these nine songs are so consistent with that encouraging demeanor that makes you step back and wonder if we should all start listening to music as content as this.

Another thing I've always liked about Rocket 3 (and Avalanche Lily, of course) is the devotion to great sound quality. Since this is a basic, uncluttered ensemble, the music has always come off as unusually bright and clean--not audiophile bright, which is a bad thing, but crystalline. If you want to check out What's the Frequency right now, and you should, check out their website. If the world is gettin' ya down, this will fix you right up.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Carol Liebowitz and Bill Payne's Spiderwebmandala

Difficult and dissonant, Carol Liebowitz and Bill Payne's new album Spiderwebmandala is not the type of easy jazz you want to reserve for a rainy day. Liebowitz plays the piano and Payne plays the clarinet, and this series of duets was improvised on the fly during a live performance at the Output Performance Space in Albuquerque. Poet Mark Weber presided over the two-day event, and he punctuates these duets with his ethereal poetry. The overall effect provides many of the same challenges as much of free jazz, even when Liebowitz and Payne occasionally wander into somewhat recognizable melody structures that ease these songs into a more lyrical and softened state.

The simple fact that this is just a piano and a clarinet in a live, open space helps to avoid the cacophony that free jazz sometimes creates. The simplicity of this ensemble allows you to climb into the notes from each instrument, and you'll start to hear both the sophistication in Liebowitz's style and the unique jazz timbre in Payne's clarinet. It's intriguing how the clarinet, through a seemingly spare progression of notes, can establish jazz themes and provide a firm foundation for the rest of the improvisation--it almost serves as the rhythm section and establishes the musical structures while the churning piano provides all of the dense and troubled emotions.

The duo has been performing together since 2010, and their first release featured a trio ensemble that included violinist Eva Lindal--hence the eponymous title Payne Lindal Liebowitz. That 2015 release generated a lot of buzz for the three musicians and was actually voted one of the Top Ten Jazz CDs of the year in an NPR poll. This release is a tad more esoteric, perhaps because the violin might serve as a middle ground for the other two. Your appreciation for it might just depend on your personal relationship to the piano and the clarinet. In addition, both musicians are skilled at coaxing unique phrases that often mimic sounds in nature, and the rapid shifts in theme suggest animal behavior--which reminds me, of course, of Diane Moser's Birdsongs.

What makes a pure improvisation like this so special is the fact that it can't be replicated. It can't be taken out on tour. It is a fleeting, one-time occurrence that would have only been heard by the 150 people present in Albuquerque if it had not been recorded. I've been hearing more and more recordings like this lately, the flowing uncharted improvisations, the kind of music Keith Jarrett used to put out regularly. This type of music is daunting to novices, but the joy comes from deeply knowing the physical characteristics of these instruments and how musicians are inspired by them to produce something that's truly one-of-a-kind.

The South Florida Jazz Orchestra's The Music of Gary Lindsay: Are We Still Dreaming

If you've already read my big band jazz article in Part-Time Audiophile already, "Deep Into Jazz in Texas," this new release from The South Florida Jazz Orchestra is very evocative of the work being done at the University of North Texas. (On a side note, a few minutes ago I received the latest release from UNT's One O'Clock Band, so I'm not through with them yet.) The Music of Gary Lindsay: Are We Still Dreaming, isn't directly tethered to a university jazz program, although a similar spirit exists in this project. The SFJO "includes some of the best jazz and studio musicians, as well as jazz educators, in the southeastern part of the United States." The orchestra is directed by founder Chuck Bergeron, and the tracks here are composed and/or arranged, of course, by Gary Lindsay--it's noteworthy that the two are educators in the jazz studies programs associated with the University of Miami and their Frost School of Music.

There are subtle differences as well, stemming from the fact that this CD features performances from professionals instead of students. (They were all once students, right?) That's not meant to impugn the talent of those wonderful students in jazz programs all over the world, but there is a sense of a bigger budget at play. The sound quality of Are We Still Dreaming is just a notch above most of the UNT recordings, which are already said to be among the finest in the United States. In addition, we are treated to performances from vocalists Nicole Yarling and Julia Dollison--they possess beautiful and strong jazz voices that are quite dazzling. Again, I hate to sound like I'm drawing a line between jazz programs at universities and the rest of the jazz world. It's just that this album is a bit of a hybrid, borne from an outstanding academic program yet swirling around in the so-called professional realm with steady authenticity and just a bit of that splendid and seasoned jazz swagger.

If this big band recording is remarkable for one thing, it's the ease in which the scope of the music expands and contracts. Many of the songs, such as the opening "Moment in Time" and Pat Metheny's "Better Days Ahead," open with a solo instrument so lovingly presented and so intimate that it's almost a shock when the rest of the band suddenly joins in. This is a dynamic program, as most big band recordings are, but those quieter moments are presented in a very original manner, something that's a bit of a novelty in big band circles. Usually these types of bands occupy large stages in large venues and a solo performer can get lost in all that space. It's a testament to Bergeron and Lindsay's production skills that they can still make a smaller ensemble sound small, even if it's a part of something much bigger.

The focus of this album is, of course, Lindsay's original compositions as well as his arrangements of such standards as "Spring Is Here," "'Round Midnight" and Billy Strayhorn's "UMMG." Lindsay, who also plays the alto sax, has been described as easy and accessible in his approach to arrangements. So much of this music represents that dedication to smooth, fertile beauty. Lindsay isn't consumed with expressing the power of his big band and most of the prerequisite dynamics occur in waves rather than sudden peaks and valleys. Bergeron shares the credit for that sense of gentle flow, obviously, but it's the sheer audacity of quiet moments in a big band setting, engineered by Lindsay, that makes this recording so unique.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

James Austin Jr.'s Songs in the Key of Wonder

I was all set to begin this review with a discussion of the novelty of jazz covers of Stevie Wonder songs. But after a cursory Google search, I discovered that many, many performers have come up with jazz arrangements for Mr. Wonder, everything from organ trios to big bands and everything in between. It shouldn't be a surprise that Wonder's songs lend themselves so easily to straightforward jazz genres, considering the original renditions were filled with jazz, funk, fusion, R&B and rock influences. It also helps that most of Stevie Wonder's biggest hits were marked by their one-of-a-kind melodies, the kind of melodies that are instantly recognizable no matter the context of the genre. Record a grindcore version of "My Cherie Amour" or "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and chances are most people will figure it out by the first chorus.

James Austin Jr., a jazz keyboard player from Chicago, hasn't come up with any wild angles on Wonder's biggest hits. He simply approaches them with the same sense of reverence as anything from the Great American Songbook, which is where they probably belong in the first place. His ensemble is smallish yet heavy with Latin jazz accents, so the playing is tight and controlled but varied enough to keep things interesting. He's the type of bandleader who has probably figured this out many years ago--Wonder's melodies are so strong, we merely have to trust our own instincts and play our way. Songs such as "Isn't She Lovely," "Part-Time Lover" and "Golden Lady" already have great bones, to butcher a real estate term, and the roadmap is quite simple when it comes to improvisation.

That's not to say music like this is easy. Each one of Austin's cohorts--sax player Jarrard Harris, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, bassist Ben Rubens, drummer Kobie Watkins, percussionist Samuel Torres and guests guitarist Bobby Broom and bassist David Williams are all consummate pros, polished and professional when they need to be and also able to take off when the spotlight hits. Austin maintains such an easy, friendly tone in his band and he seems to guide them all equally with his economical piano playing, which is gentle and precise and anchored to those incredible melodies.

What comes through on this debut album most clearly is Austin's love and respect for Stevie Wonder, something that I share as well. "James regards Stevie Wonder as one of the greatest composers of our time," it says on the liner notes, and it's hard to dispute that. I came to Stevie Wonder relatively late in life, around the same time I also discovered my love for Marvin Gaye. As I said in the Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne review from earlier today, I was a Southern California rock and roll kid and it took many years to break free and discover new, wonderful things like the Stevie Wonder songbook. Austin seems like the kind of man who was already there from an early age, knowing these special melodies that were probably passed down to him by family. This music lives deep in his soul, and his respect for this material is beyond reproach.

Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne's Eastern Standard Time

The first time I heard The Manhattan Transfer, I was so young that I had no idea what kind of music it was. Maybe it was an early appearance on Saturday Night Live, or maybe it had to be before that since SNL started in 1975, when I was in the eighth grade. I certainly had to know this kind of jazz already, right? But I was raised in Southern California in the '60s and '70s--my 56th birthday was yesterday, by the way--and I grew up on a steady diet of rock and roll and the ultra-tame stuff my parents liked, everything from Eddy Arnold to Johnny Mathis. The Manhattan Transfer was so different, I didn't know how to process it. Now I understand and appreciate this type of dazzling urbane jazz, and after all these years it seems surprising that Cheryl Bentyne, one of the long-time members of TMT, is still out there making the same music--and doing it well.

Maybe I was initially surprised because she still looks great, and her voice is just as strong and beautiful as ever. But she's not one of the original members. This singing ensemble first appeared in 1969, which made me expect someone much older after doing the math. Cheryl didn't join until 1979 (which means she wasn't one of the four singers I witnessed back when I was young), but she's still an active member of that group and she's also released a dozen solo albums over the years. As it turns out, she's only a little older than me, which is why she sounds so vibrant--because she, we are. For the last eight years, however, she's been performing with singer/lyricist/producer Mark Winkler, and as the promotional material states they go together like "champagne and caviar." That statement alone foreshadows what you'll hear on their new album, Eastern Standard Time. It's the kind of music you might hear at an event that might be referred to as "black tie." This is jazz that lives and breathes the island of Manhattan.

This is their second album together. Their first, West Coast Cool, was released in 2013 and recaptured the classic '50s "West Coast sound" represented by tunes such as "Talk of the Town" and "Route 66." This follow-up obviously takes place on the other coast, expanding beyond the watery borders of Manhattan, and features music that reflects Bentyne's adventurous past with the Transfer, everything from "The Best Is Yet to Come," "The Gentleman Is a Dope" and even "Walk on the Wild Side"--even though the duo censors themselves on that famous line about Candy. While the magic is centered on the two and how they interact as a team--they do have an undeniable chemistry on every track--this album also boasts some of the greatest jazz musicians on the scene such as drummer Dave Tull, pianist Rich Eames, bassist Gabe Davis, sax player Bob Sheppard, percussionist Kevin Winard and guitarist Grant Geissman. (Guest stars include cellist Stephanie Fife and guitarist Pat Kelley.) In other words, every aspect of this album oozes class.

Circling back to that chemistry between Winkler and Bentyne, it's clear that they really like each other--they've reportedly become great friends over the last few years. You can hear that in the music, their delivery, the way they sing as if they're having a real conversation and just not taking turns at singing. Bentyne's voice is perfectly calibrated and coated with honey, while Winkler is more playful and whimsical. Every word they sing is a projection of their vivacious personalities, and by the end of the album you'll feel like you've made a couple of new friends. If you're already a fan on TMT, this album will provide you with everything you crave. You already know this music, and now it's time to dig in.

Tom Hook's 62 Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of Tom Hook's 62, an exceptionally fun and lively jazz revue, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Samuel Martinelli's Crossing Paths

This new release from drummer Samuel Martinelli touches on two phenomena in contemporary jazz that I personally enjoy. First, as I've mentioned repeatedly, I love it when a drummer leads a band and can use rhythm in order to inspire his fellow performers when it comes to taking up the melody that's on the page. In this case it's Martinelli's debut recording, so it's doubly exciting that he can take the reins and guide this exciting and talented quartet through a recording that contains mostly his original compositions. (The lone standard is Dizzy Gillespie's "Birk's Works.") Second, I've been discussing how Brazilian jazz often follows exact rules, and it's fascinating when someone ventures past the boundaries and offers something that's only tangentially a part of that genre. Martinelli is actually from Brazil, so he has that unique perspective that is borne from a lifetime in the midst of these distinctive rhythms and how to place them in a greater context for the rest of the world.

This is, therefore, Brazilian jazz performed by a straightforward quartet--Martinelli has chosen veteran horn player Claudio Roditi, bassist Marcus McLaurine and pianist Tomoko Ohno to accompany him on this ride. First impressions are of a straightforward quartet playing fabulous jazz, not necessarily brimming with the prerequisite polyrhythms and angelic voices but with a warm simplicity that immediately plugs in the right connections. Each one of these four musicians have that razor-sharp feel for their instruments and how the percussive sounds they create can somehow lock horns with the drummer, who also happens to be the boss. McLaurine is particularly adept at this with his expressive bass runs, which is no surprise since he's played with both Count Basie and was Clark Terry's bassist for more than a couple of decades.

Martinelli, however, has such a comprehensive knowledge about jazz drumming that the Brazilian influences are just one small part of his signature. He's committed to educating the public about Brazilian music since he has created a music school, Brazilian Clef, which serves that exact purpose. The jazz here is so straight, so universal, that it takes someone very familiar with South American innovations to spot them. Crossing Paths doesn't have an overriding theme like so many contemporary jazz releases. This is a calling card, and the fine print suggests that whatever you throw at Martinelli, he can through it back at you and make you nod approvingly. The icing on the cake, of course, is that he composed and arranged seven out of eight tracks. So it's not so much about arranging and interpreting as it's merely showing you what he possesses in his heart. It's real and genuine.

That all goes back to the first point, that drummer-bandleaders are usually fascinating when it comes to arrangements. Contemporary jazz has long eschewed the Buddy Rich-Gene Krupa model of having an amazing drummer show off and then dare the others on stage to keep up. Like many of his contemporaries, he is unusually kind to the others here. Maybe that's because he's surrounded by three incredible musicians with a daunting ledger of experience, and he doesn't want to step on anyone's toes. I think that's a cop out--jazz quartets are all about synergy, and these four musicians give the listener so much to think on. If there's one obviously Brazilian point to all of this, it's the beauty in which they play as a group.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Vinyl Anachronist #122 Now Live at Perfect Sound Forever

Vinyl Anachronist #122 is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is about Roon, and how it has made my digital streaming much more fun...almost as fun as LPs! You can read it here.

Rafal Sarnecki's Climbing Trees

It took me a while to unravel what was so different about Rafal Sarnecki's take on jazz, and I finally settled on "it's full of tension." Most jazz isn't like that. It's about telling a story, about taking the listener somewhere unexpected. Sure, there's tension and excitement and danger and everything else, but this is the difference between a friend telling you "Let me tell you a scary story" and "Quick, can you hide me? It's just for a couple of days until things cool down." Sarnecki, a jazz guitarist who was born in Poland and has been part of the NYC jazz scene for a number of years now, deliberately injects these vivid emotional strains throughout his new album Climbing Trees. The overall theme is overcoming fears and anxieties and staying focused on your dreams. To say you can hear those fears and anxieties in every one of these ten original compositions, however, is an understatement.

"Once I challenged myself to climb the top of one tree I felt an urge to climb a higher tree," Sarnecki explains. "The satisfaction from fighting the fear was very strong and addictive." The trees, in this case, are Sarnecki's obstacles in creating the music he wants--stage fright and a need to push the boundaries of his music into new frontiers. Such themes can be found readily in other musical genres, most obviously in popular music where songwriters are constantly doubting themselves, but in jazz the focus is usually on the abstract, of finding the way amid the total lack of restraints--all within established structures and themes. Jazz performers may be thinking about all these things while they are playing, and those fears may come out into the music one way or another, but to make this self-doubt the primary focus is quite unusual. It's also effective.

When you're writing music about fear, it's easy to make it sound like a nightmare. Sarnecki resists that temptation, relying instead on strong and cogent melodies. One of his most effective tools for keeping the humanity in these compositions is the addition of vocalist Bogna Kicinska, a fellow Pole. Kicinska offers vocal improvisations instead of lyrics, much like you'll find in Brazilian jazz, just a beautiful voice acting as pure instrument. This tempers the more turbulent aspects of the music, and Kicinska almost plays the role of a guardian angel, a muse that continually tells Sarnecki to stay focused on his dreams. Her presence reminds me of Jessica Lange's Angelique in All That Jazz--except for the whole Angel of Death part, of course. Kicinska is there to listen and to provide empathy.

Speaking of empathy, the rest of Sarnecki's ensemble seems really in tune with his vision, so much so that it appears we are witnessing the fears and concerns of everyone on stage. Sax player Lucas Pino, pianist Glenn Zalecki, bassist Rick Rosado and drummer Colin Stranhan are magical here because they are able to set aside "normal" approaches to jazz and come up with something entirely original in service to Sarnecki. It's a bit of a cliche to say a jazz ensemble is playing as one, but it's something else when they recognize a singular vision such as this and cast aside everything they've learned in order to make that vision a reality. Climbing Trees, if you haven't already guessed, stands out from most, if not all, contemporary jazz. It exists almost on its own plane. Sarnecki is using jazz as sort of a fuel to get from point A to point B, but you've never been in a car like this before. Highly recommended.

Peter Lin and the Lintet's With Respect

It's absolutely fitting that trombonist Peter Lin has titled his new album With Respect. Every part of it pays homage to jazz of the past, so much so that you might get tricked into thinking, once again, that this is a recording from the late '50s or early '60s. From the first song, "Forgotten Times," there's that close and intimate feel so germane to those Golden Era sessions, a sense that there's no fancy filler, only the flesh and bones of jazz. After cruising through this relatively brief outing, just seven tracks in just under a half an hour, you might not even notice what's so special about this album. Other than fellow trombonist Slide Hampton's "My Blues," this album is filled with jazz interpretations of popular songs from Taiwan and China.

Lin was born in Baton Rouge and graduated with an MM in Jazz Trombone Studies at Rutgers University. He's faculty at Jazz House Kids, a music school in New Jersey. He's also Slide Hampton's manager. He sounds like an average American kid who grew up loving jazz and decided he needed to be part of the excitement that life provides--which he is, obviously. His heritage is Taiwanese, however, and he has worked with the Taiwanese-American community for much of his life. It's only fitting that this is the young man who can make these songs from halfway around the world sound so distinctly American, so perfectly fitted to classic jazz idioms.

Lin isn't quite a "kid," since he's been a composer, arranger and band leader for many years. He doesn't play like a kid, either, since his trombone has that same forward sound that evokes beyond be-bop, stopping just short of Dixieland cadences. (This is most obvious with the New Orleans feel of "Rose, Rose, I Love You," even though the Chinese origins of the melody are more present here than anywhere else on the album.) There's a jovial brashness here, an inner light to his playing that suggests he's in love with this music, and while he seems to be a perfectly serious and thoughtful performer you can't help but imagine the smile on his face as he's playing.

He's surrounded by The Lintet, a seemingly revolving line-up of musicians that includes sax and flute player Anthony Nelson Jr., sax players Benjamin Kovacs and Anthony Ware, trumpeter James Zollar, guitarist Charlie Sigler, pianist Oscar Williams II, bassist Ben Rubens and drummers Winard Harper and Nick Cacioppo. Despite all this talent on stage, the overall sound is never busy--it's always light and spare. That allows the Asian themes to bloom into genuine jazz without feeling forced or disjointed. While With Respect can be enjoyed simply as a jazz album, one can only imagine how these arrangements compare to the originals, and how impressive Lin's talents truly are. I might have to give that a try!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Rachel Caswell's We're All in the Dance

Last week I mentioned how I had just received a batch of "female vocals" jazz recordings that were far above average for one reason or another. After excellent outings from both Melbreeze and Lucia Jackson, we now have a sedate and lovely offering from singer Rachel Caswell--the older sister of noted violinist Sara Caswell (who plays on three of these tracks). Rachel has an easy, relaxed voice that is full of romance. Her range is exceptionally wide, but her sweet spot resides in the upper registers where she clings lovingly to each note, letting them expand generously into the air as if they had wings.

While she's quite the presence here, it's notable that We're All in the Dance is produced by none other than guitarist Dave Stryker, who of course plays here along with keyboardist Fabian Almazan, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Johnathan Blake. Stryker has been a bit of a King Midas in contemporary jazz circles over the last couple of years. His arrangements are always considerate of jazz tradition, even though his talents can be applied to a number of sub-genres--he can play straight out of the songbook or he can add a vigorous, bluesy flavor when needed. The themes here tend toward the delicate, enhancing Caswell's generous and charming interpretations, but Stryker and his sensibilities are up-front most of the way.

Caswell has a serene way of setting herself up on stage, deep within the lush arrangements, but it's also noticeable that she's one of the few modern singers who can scat without adding too much nostalgia. She never barks out those quick cadences, preferring instead to transform those notes into pleasant counterpoints to both Stryker and Almazan. She can also frame these improvisations into odd time signatures with ease and conviction, as if nothing is beyond her talent. That pervasive smoothness, in other words, can be deceptive. It does all sound so easy, but don't assume any of this really is. For instance, you might think she's just another singer taking a swing at the GAS, a little Charlie Parker here and a little Rodgers and Hart there, but listen to the way she takes Sting's "Fragile" and makes it sound like it belongs with the other tunes.

Despite the outward appearance of lightness, Caswell does have a foil here--Blake's drumming is full of a brightly lit energy that often careens into uncharted territory. He never rests until he has added just enough tension to the arrangement to suggest the bittersweet, or even the tempestuous, which mates with Caswell's effortlessness in an almost illogical way. So while Caswell's voice may mesmerize you through the course of this beautiful album, the rest of the ensemble does so much more than add another layer. It's an intriguing blend, and that makes We're All in the Dance even more memorable.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Melbreeze's Animazonia

For me, Brazilian jazz is one of those musical genres that has a rather narrow definition. There are very specific traits to the music, the rhythms and the way vocals are employed, that make something true Brazilian jazz or make it something else that's just sort of Brazilian. Sure, you can slyly add Brazilian influences to another type of music and make it a hybrid, but then it becomes something else...right? I'm asking because I'm not so sure anymore. I've listened to a lot of contemporary Brazilian jazz lately, and everyone is trying to bring something new to the game. In some cases, such as Antonio Adolfo, the result is a purer form of jazz that is merely informed by Brazilian traditions. But Melbreeze's new album, Animazonia, liberties are taken. Unusual elements are introduced that are like nothing I've heard from Brazil, and yet this is clearly an album of Brazilian music. It's as obvious as can be.

Melbreeze was born in Turkey, and she grew up with music that featured both Greek and Roman origins. She pursued ballet for a big chunk of her life, raised a family and then realized that her "love for music...never wavered and she dreamed that one day she could do they kind of music she wanted." Animazonia is a realization of those dreams. This is her ninth album, and she's already established a strong presence with her music and with her visual arts, usually combined as one, but this is the album where she "shares all her thoughts and feelings that she kept hidden inside for years."

This sounds like an ambitious project, and it is. Her approach is exotic, but not in the normal Brazilian way. Her versions of such Brazilian jazz standards as "Quiet Nights," "One Note Samba" and "Desafinado" are faithful at their core but embellished with unusual touches that circumvent the term "hybrid" and become something altogether new. She's not afraid to introduce other cultures into her arrangements, such as the steady tambla and sitar in "How Insensitive" or lush interludes enhanced by synthesizers and programming. Her voice is husky and filled with experience and maturity, a very different approach than someone like Astrud Gilberto would take. It's almost as if she's an old-fashioned torch singer who spent a few years in Rio and came back with a vision of blending the two worlds into one.

The answer is yes, this is still Brazilian jazz, but perhaps for a new generation of fans. Purists might balk at her adventurous choices, but there's plenty of excitement in the way she pins down those old traditions and fleshes them out with modern techniques. At times she brushes up against pop, but there's an inherent respect in every note that reminds me of Sade and how she assembled old ideas into something that sounded fresh. If I could, I would grab the nearest Brazilian and ask "Well, what do you think of this?" They might hem and haw a little bit, but I suspect they'd like Animazonia a lot, and that there's plenty of room for this kind of innovation in their world.

Lucia Jackson's You and the Night and the Music

For a guy who has done his share of complaining about the preponderance of female voice recordings in contemporary jazz, not to mention audiophile obsessions with those same recordings, I'm certainly confronted with an embarrassment of riches right now. Just a few weeks after hearing Jacqueline Tabor's fabulous, near-perfect The Lady in the Gown, I suddenly have a plethora of new CDs that feature women jazz singers--and some of them are downright exquisite. Lucia Jackson's debut album, You and the Night and the Music, was the one that really leapt out at me at first listen, and for a number of reasons. First of all, I immediately connected with her voice. It doesn't have the rich, deep undercurrents of Tabor's voice, but it does have that charming girlishness that I hear in Ella Fitzgerald, that clarity that translates into honesty when it comes to supplying the meaning behind the lyrics.

Like The Lady in the Gown, this album also includes a gorgeous small ensemble that captures the magic of the late '50s and early '60s, something in the air that propels me back into Julie London's best recordings. Perhaps this is because her father is the great jazz guitarist Ron Jackson, master of the 7-string electric archtop, and he has produced this album and arranged these classics and supplied the vision. (His daughter did help with the arrangements of "Sophisticated Lady," "I'm a Fool to Want You" and her own composition "Feel the Love.") Father and daughter blend beautifully with the rest of the ensemble, pianist Yago Vasquez, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Corey Rawls, and we're also treated to special appearances such as Dan Garcia's flamenco guitar on "Feel the Love" and Javier Sanchez's sweet and wistful bandoneon on "I'm a Fool to Want You."

The story behind Lucia Jackson is intriguing as well. Like Janelle Monae, she was a dancer and a model and her career was going in all the right directions. But there's a problem--like Monae, it seems like a sin to keep a voice like this away from the world. (I'm a bit biased in this regard because I have much more use for a singer in my life than a dancer or a model.) She's developed a strong following in recent years and those fans raised $15,000 through Indiegogo for this project, which is compelling for a number of reasons. First of all, it's similar to the digital video revolution in the film industry in that artists can achieve their goals for far less money than traditional approaches. It's fairly amazing that $15,000 from a group of dedicated fans can ultimately result in an album this polished and classy. Second, this strategy forms a stronger bond between performer and audience. There are less people in the middle grabbing a piece of the pie.

It all comes back to the real treasure here, which is Jackson's smooth and relaxed voice, both lighthearted and vulnerable, the type of voice that makes you feel lucky to be in its presence. There's a precision in the way she ends each phrase, the care in which she delivers that last consonant with just the right amount of texture. Every word means something to her, and you should pay attention so you can catch her drift, so to speak. Lucia Jackson is the type of female singer who makes me want to forget every snarky comment I've made about the flood of female voice recordings out there. She makes me forget, in fact, why I had any complaints in the first place. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Rebecca Angel's What We Had

It's all about the youngsters today on my blog. Hanson Briggs from Amra is just 23, and jazz singer Rebecca Angel has him beat at just 22 years of age. For a singer-songwriter in indie rock to record a first album at this young age is perfectly common since rock and roll is about youthful rebellion--or at least it was fifty years ago. Jazz is different, I believe. It's about experience and tradition and, as I've mentioned once or twice, it's about building some character that can be heard in your voice or in the way that you play. It's easy to like rock and pop--most people make an instant connection to it. Jazz is different for both performer and listener. It needs to be approached more carefully, hopefully from a perspective that you've lived a bit of life and some of these abstract ideas are easier to figure out.

Does that mean Rebecca Angel has a big disadvantage here, delivering an album of Brazilian jazz at such a tender age? Of course not. Talent gets your foot in the door, even in jazz, and she has an instantly likeable voice. In fact, it's more than likeable--it's sexy and alluring in the way Brazilian jazz has always been. I could remind you of "The Girl From Ipanema" and how that was a song about a beautiful girl walking along the beach and getting a lot of attention. There's something overtly sexual about Brazilian culture, at least to Americans. It's about having a relaxed attitude, and showing a little more skin than usual because it's so warm out. (Please remember that I'm talking about Brazilian jazz traditions in general, and not the singer.)

What am I trying to say? Perhaps Brazilian jazz needs to be youthful and invigorating in spirit, so it helps when someone with such a pure and sultry voice finds a kinship with it. Angel has a breathy, sweet voice that might be just as comfortable singing pop hits, but she's able to bypass that observation through great taste in her material such as Hoagy Carmichael's "Winter Moon" and a gorgeous and unique cover of "Stand By Me." She's come up with a couple of original compositions on her own--the title track and "Feel Alive," both which blend seamlessly with the rest of the album. She also has plenty of talent behind her, a large ensemble that focuses on Caribbean and South American and sounds incredibly crisp and alive.

This is just an EP, five songs that are designed to get your attention. Fortunately you also get a couple of bonus tracks--"Stand By Me" comes in both a "radio mix" and an "electro remix," with Angel adding some programming touches on the latter. You also get two versions of Marcos Valle's instrumental hit "Jet Samba" in a radio mix and an "Ipanema remix." (This is the first time "Jet Samba" has ever been recorded with vocals.) This suggests there is far more to Angel than just being a young singer trying to get noticed. She's done such a good job here, from the singing to the arranging to the composing to the choice of material, that it's kind of silly to keep bringing up her age. So I'll stop.

Amra's What Made It Easier

Hanson Briggs is a young singer-songwriter from LA, by way of Kansas City. I feel like I knew a lot of people like him when I was involved with the film industry almost thirty years ago, people who came from the Midwest to LA to make it somehow in the entertainment. I didn't make it, obviously, but plenty of people I knew did--one became a high-powered William Morris agent, one became an executive for Dick Clark Productions and yet another was a creator and show-runner for a sci-fi series that lasted on cable for a few seasons. These three old friends had one thing in common, however. They were all from the Midwest. And there was something about each one of them, a direct honesty, a wholesomeness that was backed up by enough intelligence to know they weren't in Kansas anymore and that they had to develop some deep survival skills if they were going to achieve their goals.

I see that in Briggs. He is basically Amra, although he does work with a band when he performs live. His songs exude, well, a wide-eyed innocence. I hate using that cliche but it is apt, and it seems to define what he's trying to accomplish in his debut album What Made It Easier. Briggs is traveling in some of the same circles as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie, singing about heartbreak and loss and trying to mine the art that can heal those wounds. That sounds like some of the maudlin singer-songwriter stuff that's filling the indie charts these days, but Amra as a band avoids most of those downbeat, self-absorbed conceits with an upbeat, electronica-based sound that also borrows liberally from the '80s.

The theme of loss stems from a recent death of a parent, something all of us go through but perhaps not at age 23. That's what gives most of these songs a two-sided, tempered approach. Briggs seems to possess a lively pop instinct--some of his music will remind you of Coldplay but with much better lyrics. of course. His voice even sounds a little like Chris Martin, that emotive but ever so slightly broken delivery that swings you back to the other side of this music, the sadness and despair. It might be a case of a spoonful of sugar, but where bands like Coldplay (and Bon Iver, for that matter) trip up is that they don't quite have the honesty to sell it. Briggs is far more convincing because of his age, the fact that he is still a very young man and these things seem to hurt more when you're young and haven't figured everything out yet.

Those Midwestern roots have helped to get Amra on the radar thanks to publications such as No Depression, whose critics have championed this release. I'm curious about that, because this is clearly not cut from the same cloth as the usual alt-country genres. As I said, there's far more pop and synthesizers in the mix. But it might mark a new turn in the so-called roots rock scene, an expansion of the genre. Taken from that perspective, What Made It Easier is a compelling album from a young man who I hope doesn't grow up too soon.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Redd Kross' Third Eye--Special Record Day 2018 Pressing

I'll go ahead and say it--Redd Kross is the most underrated power pop band of the '90s, and possibly beyond. I've liked them since the moment I watched The Spirit of '76, a 1990 comedy that was one of the first film parodies of the goofy trends of the '70s. It featured brothers Jeff (guitars, vocals) and Steve (bass, vocals) McDonald as two dim-witted teens who help David Cassidy and Olivia D'Abo repair their time machine and return to the year 2176--the time-travelers originally set the course for 1776 but wound up, obviously, in 1976. The brothers McDonald were part of the the Southern California punk scene, once even opening for Black Flag, and by the 1980s they had changed the name of the band from The Tourists to Redd Kross (a naughty reference to a famous scene in The Exorcist) and started playing their trademark brand of power pop that was heavy on pop culture and sheer fun.

My appreciation of the band was also boosted by my younger brother, who still adores them to this day. He turned me onto the original albums as well as some of their interesting side projects over the years. One of them, Ze Malibu Kids, featured Steve and his wife Charlotte Caffey--yes, that Charlotte Caffey from The Go-Gos. The band also featured their daughter Astrid, who was only 10 when she joined as the drummer. Perhaps the most gleeful side project of all came from Steve when he added bass guitar to all of the tracks from the White Stripes' White Blood Cells and called it Red Blood Cells. Jack White is said to have loved it, and gave his endorsement. I have it on my music server and it is fascinating--although I might still prefer the original. You can check out the tracks on YouTube.

Third Eye was their third album, originally released in 1990 as their major label debut with Atlantic, and it finally provided the band with some success due to the hit single "Annie's Gone." It also features long-time Redd Kross bandmate Robert Hecker on guitar, and Victor Indrizzo on drums. Jack Irons, one-time drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers, toured with Redd Kross for the Third Eye tour. And that naked masked girl on the cover? That's Sofia Coppola.

They have a great pedigree, obviously, but to this day I meet very few people who know Redd Kross. When I do meet someone, they're always a huge fan. Maybe they were a SoCal sort of band, or maybe their overall sound is a little too bubble-gum to be taken seriously by some people. That's sort of missing the point. Despite the fact that they alienated some fans when they switched from punk to this guitar-driven pop music, there's a bit of irony in the delivery. The brothers and Hecker, who does an amazing impersonation of Paul Stanley on "1976," offer a believable and enthusiastic take on this style of rock, and they're also serious musicians. You want great hooks, furious drumming and kick-ass guitar solos? You got them right here. It's amazing how good this album still sounds 28 years later.

A lot of that can be traced to this new pressing, which was released for Record Story Day earlier this year. Well, sort of, since the release was delayed and didn't make it into stores on time, which is why I have it now. It comes in green vinyl and includes a new insert with the lyrics. It was remastered on vinyl by Infrasonic Mastering in Los Angeles, and it sounds unusually clean and the pressing is first-rate. Part of the thrill of having this album available is because it was out of print for many years. Maybe that's why they've faded from memory, despite releasing the well-received album Researching the Blues in 2012. Honestly, Redd Kross is the kind of group that deserves a major comeback in 2018, and maybe this exciting reissue will accomplish that.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Trees Speak

Just after I complained about the lack of band info on a couple of other indie-rock reviews this week, I received this very mysterious disc in for review. You can see the cover above, and that's pretty much all I had to go on. There are no credits on the back, no musician line-up, not even a list of tracks. I threw it in the CD player not knowing what to expect, and my God this stuff is fantastic. After a bit of research I found some info on social media, mainly on the group's Facebook page. Trees Speak defines themselves as experimental rock, which implies underground, which implies that this is uncommon music that's not being marketed in the traditional sense. "An exploration in expression!" the Facebook page also declares, and that seems again to imply that this is free-form music, It's definitely hard to describe, but I'll take a shot.

Imagine if the legendary and innovative Krautrock band Can, back during their '70s peak of creativity, decided to cover Brian Eno's Music From Films. That gets you close to what's going on here, I think. This eponymous first album is a collection of fifteen instrumental mood pieces, most of them only a couple of minutes along (there is an epic suite toward the end that lasts a little over twenty minutes), that are strangely devoid of traditional melody. There are two distinct sides to this music, however--they're blended together but still at odds with each other. The first half consists of some good old-fashioned acid rock, drums and bass and guitars, while the second half is more modern with lots of electronic touches and sounds and beats. Additional guitar work soaked in effects and distortion acts as the go-between. This music isn't modern in the sense that it's full of samples and such--everything sounds like it was recorded live with synthesizers and the random pummeling of percussive objects and machines with a lot of knobs.

This sounds extremely adventurous and weird, but I loved every minute of it. Despite the lack of a final element that might hold this music together and propel it into something more mainstream--vocals, a lead instrument or the aforementioned paucity of melody--it's still a fascinating and verdant soundscape. The drums and bass, as basic as they are, deliver plenty of momentum within the depths of these compositions so that you're feeling like this is indeed rock, perhaps a new offshoot of visionary jam band aesthetics. They do cite Can and Miles Davis as influences and go on to describe their approach as transcending "mainstream influences by incorporating elements of Avant-garde, neo-psychedelic and Minimalism."

That effectively covers it in a satisfying way, but you'll still be surprised at this music when you hear it for the first time. It's quite original, but not so weird that you won't "get it," especially if you do have a taste for the psychedelic. What's so enthralling about Trees Speak is the way they've brought those old trippy vibes into 2018 with a clean and well-recorded sound, and with touches of pseudo-electronica that may or may not actually be there. This album is such an eye-opener that I can't help but think this is part of a larger genre music, one I need to discover immediately.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Antonio Adolfo's Encontros Orquestra Atlantica

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

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

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

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

Vinyl Hampdin's Red

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

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

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

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

Maniac's Dead Dance Club

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

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

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

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