Saturday, October 20, 2018
Many years ago I purchased, on a whim, a copy of Gonzalo Rubalcaba's Suite 4 Y 20. Not only did that 1993 LP introduce me to Cuban jazz and its many sub-genres years before Buena Vista Social Club came along, but it also helped to cement my love for all jazz during a period of my life where I had become bored with pop and rock. To this day I still have a warm spot in my heart for that album, especially in the way those subtle afro-Cuban polyrhythms burrowed their way into my deep subconscious and still occasionally emerge as delightful little earworms. Saxophonist Carlos Averhoff Jr. has helped me to revisit some of that magic in his new album Qba!. He has subtitled the album Jazz Meets Cuban Timba, which refers to one of those Cuban sub-genres that blends Cuban folk music with salsa, funk and R&B. It's a sound that instantly takes me back 25 years to Rubalcaba, back to when jazz was a largely unspoiled frontier for me.
While the overall flavor of the album is fairly straightforward jazz, heavy on improvisation, Averhoff has enlisted the help of Cuban jazz musicians who have played with plenty of Timba dance bands, folks such as trumpeter Alexis Baro, pianist Rolando Luna, bassist Nestor Del Prado and drummer Oliver Valdes. That gives these eight tunes, classic compositions that have all been arranged by Averhoff, space to reflect the Timba approach. The result is romantic, abetted by plenty of liveliness that isn't necessarily spurred on by huge dollops of percussion. Averhoff is able to suggest these native rhythms through a pure lyricism, especially when it comes to his saxophone and Baro's trumpet. Their phrasing is distinctly Cuban in feel and transports standards such as Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No" and Jimmy Van-Heusen's "It Could Happen to You" right into a public square in the middle of Havana.
It's exciting to watch the two halves of this music come together, the sweetness and longing of the exquisite melodies and the pulsating rhythms, although they're not necessarily competing with each other at the same time. Qba! ebbs and flows with its energy, and it's designed to be enjoyed whole in a single sitting--almost like a travelogue. While Averhoff's arrangements fuse these disparate elements together with grace, it's Valdes' drumming that truly forms the bridge. He is able to communicate the idea of complex percussion while sitting behind his kit, often sounding like at least two men and sometimes even three.
Many of today's jazz fans are already primed for this type of music by Buena Vista, but the most illuminating part of Qba! is how the music chronicles Averhoff's love for Timba throughout his life, especially when he was a young boy and this type of music was being played all through his neighborhood in Cuba. Averhoff has come a long way from those days--he studied for years in the top conservatories in Cuba before moving to the United States and graduating from the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. That rich, sultry sound coming from his saxophone will always be his touchstone, however, since it's so evocative of Cuban jazz. Once you hear it, you'll never forget it.
Friday, October 19, 2018
My latest show report for the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one covers the Joseph Audio/Doshi Audio/Cardas room. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Thursday, October 18, 2018
While listening to trumpeter Mark Masters' new album, Our Metier, I started thinking about European influences in jazz and how to properly define them--a fool's errand, of course. Perhaps it's because of the impressionist painting on the cover, or Masters' propensity for using ethereal elements in his music such as voice and vibes, but these ten original compositions are dense and complex and moody and because of that they seem to be from somewhere else, somewhere more cultured. Masters is known for re-imagining the music of others into jazz idioms, most notably his adaptations of Steely Dan, but here he seems to be traveling abroad, at least in his mind, soaking his forward-thinking jazz in a sea of pastels.
That's the key here, colors, because that's what I hear when I listen to Our Metier. I'm not talking about synesthesia, of course, but the simple act of ascribing colors to moods. That apt cover was wisely chosen and sets those moods, and Masters has assembled what he calls a "free bop" large ensemble that can move and improvise in a way that highlights those natural and light-filled hues. There's a lightness to his music, the sense that everything is floating in space as one despite the focus on improvisation.
These impressions are mostly due to Masters' vivid arrangements, and his ensemble is unique enough to bring the composition and the execution together. He's enlisted two trumpets (Scott Englebright and Les Lovitt, a French horn (Stephanie O'Keefe), two trombones (Les Benedict and Ryan Dragon, plenty of woodwinds, including a bass clarinet (Kirsten Edkins and Bob Carr,. a piano (Ed Czach and thate ghostly, shimmering vibraphone (Craig Fundyga). That implies a horn-heavy presentation, which is certainly true at times, but that ethereal sheen levels the playing field so that the horn and woodwinds are balanced with the core sextet of soloists and the lovely, wordless vocals of Anna Mjoll. That's right, each track contains a solo from what Masters calls The Sextet: drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Putter Smith, trumpeter Tim Hogans and saxophone players Gary Foster, Oliver Lake and Mark Turner.
That's almost a big band right there, and at times it sounds like one. For the most part Our Metier has a much more intimate feel to it, however, a softer countenance that, despite all those horns, is smoother and lighter than you'd expect from such a large ensemble. For me this music offers only a passing resemblance to big band jazz--it is far more subtle and moody, and far more loose and exploratory. Perhaps that's why I keep thinking of this album as European in character--it seems to me that European big bands such as the WDR are far more willing to go beyond the boundaries of any particular jazz genre and give in to intuition. This is jazz from an impressionist master, with all those wonderful colors intact.
It's not often that you can call a big band jazz recording timely or topical, but here we are with American Dreamers, a project from John Daversa's Big Band that brings together DACA artists who can also play musical instruments and otherwise perform within a big band setting. Daversa worked with several non-profit immigrant organizations and was able to locate 53 Dreamers in 17 states, children of immigrants from such countries as Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and even Canada. American Dreamers, in its final form, is a busy, ambitious mixture of songs chosen by the Dreamers, songs such as "Living In America," "Immigrant Song," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "America" from West Side Story, all interspersed with stories of growing up in America from the Dreamers themselves.
As you can guess, this is a very unique big band recording, and not just because of the themes. Musically, Daversa's band is willing to take all kinds of crazy risks. You probably noticed that I mentioned "Immigrant Song"--yes, we're talking about the Led Zeppelin song, and it blends the big band sound with lots of churning, electric guitars and--wait for it--sections of pure hip-hop. It's wonderful and exciting and like nothing you've heard. In other tracks these dreamers perform musical and vocal solos, complex percussion grooves, spoken word poetry and more rapping. Did I say this project was ambitious?
The beating heart of this album, however, is the stories. One Dreamer talks of earning a university scholarship and being unable to take advantage of it because of his immigration status. Another explains that she became a drummer and percussionist because it helped to alleviate her stress about her immigration status. Another describes how her family came to America to get medical help for her sister. These stories are not casually told, but conveyed with heart and emotion.
"Music has always been tied to the fight for justice." This quote from U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, along with another from Senator Lindsey Graham, are featured prominently on the back cover of American Dreamers, and that provides the momentum for the album, the call to action. To appropriate an old musical cliche, Daversa's big band plays with feeling, but it's more real and sincere than usual. This album could have been shrouded in earnestness, but the skill and cohesiveness of these arrangements brings the cause to another level, one that should garner significant attention once the word gets out. Listening to American Dreamers also begs the question: why don't they take this on the road? Put it on Broadway! Keep fighting the fight.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
My review of Sunny War's extraordinary new LP on ORG, With the Sun, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here. Enjoy!
"I've never been a huge fan of those purists that think jazz stopped after 1960."
That's why trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes has named his latest album Always Forward, to push the idea that big band needs to evolve just as much as it needs to honor traditions. He's enlisted the help of the Germany-based WDR Big Band, which I've previously reviewed in the Zoho Records release Rediscovering Ellington. While I was floored by the WDR's precision and grace, I was less impressed with the overall sound quality of the release--a rare occurrence for the otherwise excellent Zoho.
Always Forward is on a different label, Alternate Side Records, and this is a whole new ball game (sorry, but it's the MLB playoffs right now). My first reaction to hearing this big band play Gilkes' stunning original compositions is how wonderful it all sounds, especially from the point of view of an audiophile. Big band jazz can sound fantastic, of course, but if you don't have huge speakers and a big room you can lose the illusion of a BIG BAND, if you know what I mean. Gilkes and the WDR are so seamlessly joined together that the music, whether dynamic or intimate, is incredibly cohesive and easy to absorb. The best way to describe the sound of Always Forward is that you are swept up in its ocean of sound, as opposed to being constantly jolted by the obligatory crescendos from the horn section.
The superb sound quality of this recording is the key to this sense of unity. It helps that Gilkes' music is beautiful and lush, particularly by big band standards, but my current test for the fidelity of these recordings is whether or not intimate moments can be conveyed with the same honesty and realism as those maximum-impact blasts. Gilkes' trombone, for instance, is a marvel in the way it can sound so soft and fluid and full of emotion when it's isolated from WDR. His horn just floats easily in space, a few feet off the floor, backed by all those other musicians on the stage who know it's better to let this man blow his beautiful horn without a lot of fanfare or artificial excitement.
In this way, Always Forward is revolutionary. It takes careful listening to determine what makes a big band recording unique and worthwhile, but here the excellence is nebulous since it all feels so right. There's a flow, a sublime feeling of perfection that comes from this album which is created through the synergy of a trombone, a big band, and a man who knows how to bring it all together without succumbing to the temptations of too big of a presentation. If that's the future of big band jazz, I'm all for it.
There isn't much to clarinet player Adam Price's bio sheet. It contains just the basics--where he grew up, where he studied music and what he's doing now (teaching clarinet and theory at the Ferrwood Music Camp in Pennsylvania). Oh yes, it also mentions that in addition to the clarinet he is also proficient "on all saxophones and flutes, and has recently been deeply exploring ethnic woodwinds such as the Native American flute and didgeridoo." That seems like plenty of information, I know, but there's something missing. His new album, House Ghosts, is an enormously engaging debut album, surprising in the broadness of its scope of jazz clarinet. Where's all the copy about his dreams, aspirations and hopes for his wonderful vision of jazz?
This is one way of saying that we should let the music speak for itself. Price and his core quartet--pianist Isamu MacGregor, bassist Jack Synoski and drummer Spencer Inch--aren't reinventing the wheel here, but they do have an honest and lyrical approach to these tunes that's charming and affable without glossing over the details. MacGregor, who coincidentally was featured on the Orkestra Eustoria album I reviewed yesterday, adds the same melodic strength and conviction through his detailed style, while Synoski and Inch are a capable and focused rhythm section. Jeff Hatcher's additional percussion adds texture and depth, and Kristina Rajgelj's gorgeous and seductive voice graces "Chameleon Colored Eyes" and "Summer Thunder." But this album is centered around one thing--Price's powerful and forward clarinet.
Personally, I have strong feelings about the clarinet. My youngest son played it for many years, and I was surprised that I was able to catch on quite quickly thanks to some basic training I had with saxophones many years ago. The clarinet, therefore, is relatively easy to play compared to other woodwinds and brass instruments--I still can't manage to produce a single smooth note on a flute--but the secret in the art of the clarinet is to capture that unique and evocative timbre of the instrument and convey feelings and emotions that are extremely specific. Price excels at this. Every note from his clarinet establishes the mood, the direction for others to follow.
House Ghosts, therefore, is a love letter to the clarinet, an album to listen to when you really want to hear this instrument soar. It's a pleasure to hear a talent like this emerge so confident and masterful the first time out, and I look forward to what Price attempts in the future--even if it's with a didgeridoo.
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Orkestra Eustoria sounds like an exotic jazz ensemble based in a far away land--there's something about the "eu" and the "k" that reminds me of the Basque Country--but this space-age modern fusion ensemble is based in Astoria, Queens. Saxophonist Peter Sparacino, the leader of the Orkestra, has adopted this esoteric moniker in honor of Astoria, which is home to a very diverse population. That theme carries over into the music, of course, with its melding of styles and influences from all over the planet. Sparacino grabbed a few of his friends, musicians who represented "some of the most innovative and internationally recognized tour musicians working today," and started rehearsing with them extensively so that he could "solve his own musical shortcomings."
That's an odd thing for a band leader to admit, but it's not a reflection of his own sax playing, which is superb. It does refer to Sparacino's interest in odd time signatures, however, and his attraction to organic compositions with difficult time signatures such as 11/8 and 5/4. He took a lesson from legendary NYC pianist Fred Hersch and wrote compositions in 45 minutes or less, which is Hersch's "antidote" to excess in his own compositions. That's not to say that Orkestra Eustoria sounds like Hersch and his angular yet effortless style. But this method does create a loose style of music that is busy and spontaneous without losing its accessibility.
On this debut album, HyperGiant Hi-Fi, the Blue Plate Special is a dense fusion with liberal doses of pure funk, wild and brash and yet contained in a loose wrapper. Sparacino's sax is front and center most of the way, but the overall theme is one of a strange cohesion among the band members. It's weird to state that these musicians are simultaneously loose and yet contained, but there is a complicated structure that lurks just beneath the surface, a scaffold that affords each member to explore and wander while paying attention to those challenging time signatures. It sounds like a tough listen, akin to free jazz, but it's not. This is the kind of jazz that Weather Report used to accomplish more than thirty years ago, swinging, wild stuff that does have a firm foundation in jazz traditions--even when producer David Binney adds a steady diet of synthesizer throughout these 11 originals.
The other band members are based in New York as well but bring all those worldly influences into focus--bassist Panagiotis Andreou and drummer Engin Gunaydin are members of the Gypsy All-Stars, guitarist Aki Ishiguro can play in a variety of styles and isn't afraid to shred on occasion, and keyboardist Isamu MacGregor isn't so much a world traveler as a time traveler, delving into classic modes that come straight out of the '70s. This is the kind of album that attracted so many jazz fans to fusion all those decades ago, a bridge from intelligent rock towards mainstream forms of jazz. HyperGiant Hi-Fi jams and rocks all the way through, and you can enjoy the exciting tension on the surface even if you're not quite able to crawl into the catacombs and discover its hidden treasures.
My first show report in nearly eight years is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. Over the next two or three weeks I'll have a couple of dozen reports published on the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This first one is on the Old Forge Audio room, featuring PureAudio, The Wand and Rethm loudspeakers. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
It's been more than a year since I've been to a high-end audio show, and about seven years since I went to one wearing a press badge instead of an exhibitor badge. But tomorrow I leave for Colorado to attend the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This is one of my favorite shows to attend because it's in Colorado, where I lived for a few years, and where my parents have retired. So I mix business with pleasure every time I go.
I'll be covering the show for Part-Time Audiophile, so watch for my coverage. Eric Franklin Shook, my colleague, has gotten the ball rolling with this preview.
I'm be roaming the halls, camera around my neck, so if you see me say hello!
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
It's been at least a couple of months since I've tackled any free jazz. It's interesting how jazz recordings seem to come in waves sometimes, one genre or another. I can think of a period, maybe a year ago or so, where I was inundated with free jazz releases. At first I felt challenged by this avalanche of chaos and doing my best--as I always say--to extract the structure from the cacophony. A funny thing happens when you dive into difficult music, however. It comes together. It makes sense. You don't shy from it. You might look around, as I often do, to see if anyone's nearby who's silently judging you. But my initial questions of who still listens to free jazz for enjoyment have been slowly replaced by the notion that every music has its place, and you just need to find the right mindset to explore that.
I mention this because I have this new CD from Enrique Heneine, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who was born in Mexico City but now plays in New York City. Haneine's new CD, The Mind's Mural, is free jazz by definition, but it is incredibly easy to digest--perhaps even to newbies. I couldn't put my finger on the reason until I read the liner notes. "[Through] the use of innovative rhythms in odd meter contexts and driving intervallic yet lyrical melodies, the free jazz conversation is achieved in a high caliber, sensitive linear setting." That hits the nail on the noggin, because Haneine's unusual compositions are framed in a percussive strategy that borrows from Latin and Middle East influences. (Haneine is also Lebanese.) Once those motifs are set, Haneine slowly builds the tension until he reaches those free jazz crescendos of noise, but the momentum is sure and helps to guide through the wilder ideas.
While Haneine plays the piano, he is also a thoughtful and curious drummer--he chooses drums, cymbals and an udu drum to push sax players Anna Webber and Catherine Sikora, along with bassist Carlo de Rosa, down this treacherous and exciting road. It's his drum work that stands out as the driving force since he's so fast and exact. It's quite simple--his drumming acts as the hand that's holding yours, while his sax players dance around and tempt you to stray off the main path. Drums and bass are forged together at points in a guttural conversation that whispers in your ear and tells you to keep moving forward.
In many ways, this free jazz is about vibration and resonance, which makes it intriguing on an almost subconscious level. Regardless of your feeling toward free jazz, you might find yourself surprised at Haneine's seductive instincts, that building of tension that echoes the faraway beating of drums somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle. I won't blame you if your cautious about free jazz, especially if you've been burned in the past, but this is such a mesmerizing entry point, one that will beckon you to come closer while it slowly unleashes the fury in a confident, measured way.
Everything about saxophonist Javon Jackson's new album, For You, is so simple and direct that it's incredibly refreshing. The cover, the name of the album, the straightforward approach to these standards--it's all sounds like my early days of exploring jazz, back in college, when I hit the record stores and started buying all the Davis, Coltrane, Rollins and Pepper I could find. Perhaps that's because Jackson has such strong ties to the past. He used to be a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for one, and he's also played with Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. Those are some serious credentials in the world of jazz, of course, but it's also important to note that For You is Jackson's 20th album as leader. He's worked with the best because he is the best.
For You is a mixture of original compositions and standards, and I write those words down quite often. The difference here is that Jackson has this type of jazz flowing through his veins, and it's just a matter of getting it out into the world. There is such a timeless ease to his originals, and he excels at blending those seamlessly with standards like "I'm Old-Fashioned," and "Backstage Sally." But let's go back to the Kern-Mercer tune, which opens the album. It is old-fashioned in spirit, so gentle and calm of a ballad, but it's also old-fashioned in the way it digs deep into the ground and finds something ancient and untouched. This isn't jazz that's trying to find something new, an angle or innovation. It is pure and from the past and there's a wildness about it that is just as exciting as it would have been in 1958.
I do come across jazz albums like this once in a while, albums that are so beautifully ensconced with the past that they exist on a different plane of existence. Jackson, who is a youthful 53-years-old, accomplishes this magic with a quartet that includes pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter--all seasoned jazz musicians as well. That's probably another reason why this album is so timeless--it's one of those superstar albums you used to see fifty or sixty years ago. Everyone has been somewhere else, learned a few things, and have come back around to learn a few more. Manasia's been playing with Jackson at the Village Vanguard for the last few years, Williams was a long-time fixture with Cedar Walton Trio and McClenty Hunter is, well, a young man who has been making quite a splash in the last few years. His debut as leader, The Groove Hunter, is one of the stand-out jazz albums of 2018.
For You is clearly a jazz album for people who know their jazz. To the uninitiated, it might seem polished and perfect, but the real jazz aficionado will instantly recognize how masterful these four musicians are, and how they settle into a unified whole that is a living, breathing definition of the finest of the genre. If you're looking for that next lost jazz classic that's been remastered and is selling for $50, try this out instead. It's everything you need.
Monday, October 1, 2018
Example #2,776 of how not to judge an album by its cover--I give you saxophonist Jeff Rupert and pianist Richard Drexler's R&D. Maybe it's Drexler's long ZZ Top-style beard, or the dark, smoky black and white photo on the cover, but when I first looked at this CD I thought one thing, and that's blues. You know, rough-and-tumble jazz with an edge, with maybe an all-electric ensemble that included one or more guitar players who really knows how to shred, within the parameters of jazz of course. What I didn't expect was this thoughtful, somewhat introspective live album, recorded at the Timucua Arts White House back in 2015. It's just the two men, veterans in the jazz world, playing a handful of standards with uncommon chemistry. It's an intimate performance, with a small but enthusiastic audience present, and it's one of those crystalline moments in jazz that's not just about a piano and a tenor saxophone. It's about the men behind the instruments and how they interact with each other and the rest of the world.
This is one of those splendid live performances that's so much more than tone. These two men have been playing together since the 1980s, and they are completely comfortable in each other's company. Both have played with the greats--Rupert has worked with Maynard Ferguson, Bob Berg and Kenny Drew Jr., and Drexler has played with Mose Allyson, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Diahann Carroll, Vic Damone, Amy Grant and Al Jarreau. Rupert's better known as the founder of Flying Horse records, and director of the Flying Horse Band from the University of Central Florida. I've reviewed two of their albums: Big Man on Campus and The Bat Swings!. Drexler is also part of the faculty at UCF.
It's a pleasure to hear these two musicians apart from their usual big band surroundings. This is the type of recording I usually hear from the likes of 2L Recordings, that deep sense of being able to walk among these two performers and hear their human presences deliver this wonderful music. Rupert has a soft, breathy way with his sax, full of the personal mechanisms that are usually associated with greats such as Stan Getz. Drexler's piano is lush and emotive, and his reach across the keys is impressive in its agility. They share their space with an enormous amount of vivaciousness, always sensitive to what the other is feeling. In other words, this is an ideal recording for gauging that aforementioned chemistry, that magic that only happens between old friends.
Was I disappointed that this album was so different than what I expected? No, I was delighted. I'm listening to this on a cold, rainy day, that time of the year when we can finally say that summer is gone and now we can look forward to another deep winter in Western New York. This is yet another wonderful and simple recording that begs you to move closer and dig around, to bask in the closeness and yes, the love these two performers have for each other, the music and the audience.
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This column is about tonearms, and how they contribute to the overall analog system--based upon my recent experiences with mounting The Wand tonearm from New Zealand. You can read about it here.
Friday, September 28, 2018
Aimee Allen has an incredible voice, yes. It's rich and full and classically right for jazz. But what impresses me the most about her new album, Wings Uncaged, is that she has such obvious respect for the music she's singing, especially when it comes to the musicians who share the stage with her. That sounds a little vague, I know, but let elaborate. Back in the day (a phrase that a famous music scribe told me to avoid), you had a jazz singer, either male or female, someone like Ella (a personal favorite of Allen), and the record label knew that you needed more than just an incredible voice to stand out in the crowd. You needed those musicians behind you to be somebody as well, somebody known for the company they've kept and the records they have made. That's why they used to list the other musicians right on the front cover of the album whenever possible. Jazz aficionados love a singer who really shines, but they also want to know who's playing bass and drums and piano and whatever else.
Allen is, to use one of my favorite jazz words, generous. She understands that jazz is not only about your talent, and that it's important to step away from the microphone once in a while and bathe in the ideas that come from other parts of the stage. So many jazz singers have that "look at me" aura, of lifting the rest of their ensemble on their shoulders. But Allen has this remarkable way of belting out a few lines, smoothly and with such feeling and ease, and then she steps back and tells the audience "Oh, you like that? Wait until you hear this."
Wings Uncaged is one of my favorite recent albums featuring a female singer because it's so much of a collaboration. Let's get this out in the open--Allen's voice is special and deserves to be well in front. Without her amazing trio, she would still be a treasure and I would still like this album. A lot. She has a tremendous warmth in her powerful and clear voice. You want to listen to her, song after song, both her original compositions and standards such as "Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves," and you quickly realize that she's singing about herself. The original compositions are mighty in their fluency--these are real jazz songs, as real and honest as it gets. But bassist Francois Moutin, pianist Billy Test and drummer Kush Abadey stand out on their own, basking in the spotlight when required, but knowing how important it is to be a vital part of the whole.
Wings Uncaged, therefore, is a stunning meditation on the power of chemistry. Allen's been making records since 2006--her debut Dream featured her singing in English, French and Portuguese. She's played with a lot of big names, but it seems that these three are her spiritual home, the place where she feels comfortable and confident enough to deliver a set this impressive. At almost any point in the album you can simply focus on one of the four, and you'll be rewarded with pure, knowing excitement. It's that rightness, that feeling that no one else could do it any better. In a nutshell, these four performers need to stay together indefinitely and keep recording albums as wonderful as this. Wow.
Lush and tropical.
Everyone wants lush and tropical, right? Music that is lush and tropical is not only romantic, it's romantic in the sense that it takes you somewhere beautiful, a place where you can relax and be yourself and enjoy every moment. Jazz that is heavy in both Latin and Caribbean influences usually accomplishes those feelings and connections with ease. People who are fortunate to travel to such idyllic locations earn a splendid imprint on their psyches, a supreme feeling of contentment that this type of music instantly summons. Ken Wiley's new album, Cuerno Exotica, is such a vessel for that kind of happiness with its dense, modern structure and superb musical performances. It's a magical balm for your stressful existence in every conceivable way.
Wiley fronts this magnificent music with an unusual instrument--the French horn. (He also plays piano.) Despite the fact that one of my exes plays the instrument, I've always associated this brass instrument with a more civil tone, a reserved countenance that reminds me more of the English countryside than anything else. In this context, however, Wiley's horn is winsome and attractive. It reminds me of such words as "tradewinds," of traveling to places that can only be approached with a catamaran. Coupled with Mark Leggett's gorgeous acoustic guitar and Dan Higgins' wistful flute and piccolo, Wiley re-imagines a dream, a vacation from odd angles and jagged edges. He's smart enough to embrace plenty of percussion to solidify those Latin places and emotions, but there's no denying that he's created an innovative way to present his idea of world music in a way that's incredibly sure and hypnotic.
Cuerno Exotica starts off with a casual and seductive rendering of Ravel's Bolero. It's immediately identifiable, of course, but it's so languid in its method that you might wonder why it hasn't been offered in this way before. If you're convinced that this piece is an expression of love and lovemaking, you'll connect the dots rather quickly. But if you're like me, an avid lover of Ravel, you'll be equally compelled by the structure of the piece and how it was so revolutionary at the time of its debut. Wiley's version, however, does ooze with the visions of a forbidden tryst on a seductive beach, one where the participants are mesmerized equally by each other's eyes and the distant horizon where adventure awaits.
From Bolero we are treated to more exacting arrangements of those lush and tropical themes--McCoy Tyner's fabulous "Sama Layuca" and Cal Tjader's "Black Orchid" are far more logical in their interpretations. What elevates this music from being a mere "Bali Hai" travelogue is that denseness I described, how the music flows easily while offering an almost infinite range of details. The rhythm section is subdued and yet vital, producing a momentum that expands upon the obvious vision of Ravel. This album rewards deep listening, but it's also magical in its role as the soundtrack for the vacation of a lifetime, spent on a veranda with a soft sound of waves crashing on the sand.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Pure improvisation is a tricky thing when it comes to musical composition. Few people can do it consistently while simultaneously engaging the audience--pianists Keith Jarrett and Jan Gunner Hoff immediately come to mind. It's one thing to "explore" the instrument you are playing, toying with scales, coming up with spontaneous burst of melody that may eventually evolve into a finalized idea. It's quite another to have a gift of pure improvisation and create a sound that already feels finalized. One of the great joys of pure musical improvisation is when the listener is surprised that it's improvisational, that they're listening to something that hasn't been carefully composed.
Can you imagine what happens when two musicians attempt the same thing on the same stage?
Pianist Carol Liebowitz and tenor sax player Birgitta Flick haven taken this idea to a new level with their new album Malita-Malika. I have listened to many improvisational duets over the last few years and I find that they can be fascinating and yet inconsistent. There's always a diverging and converging of ideas, when the two performers lock in step and create something magical out of thin air, when they inspire each other with counterpoint, and when each one is fumbling in the dark. Liebowitz and Flick, however, have inserted an unusual structure for their divergent and convergent patterns by mixing original compositions and standards with their improvisation.
That creates a mood where the difficult and challenging passages throw out random ideas, the original compositions gather those ideas into little piles, and songs from the Great American Songbook such as "Marionette," "September in the Rain" and "You Don't Know What Love Is" provide beautiful little music boxes for storage of those ideas. The title track, which comes after three dark and brooding improvisations, is the lone original composition by Flick--it acts as the shifting focus between two very different modes. As Flick and Liebowitz explain on the liner notes, "To us it's all one: we're guided by the spirit and the intuition of the very moment the music comes into being."
The difficult passages are indeed difficult, with plenty of discord and turmoil tossed back and forth between the instruments. But when that focus kicks in the result can be perfectly lovely, especially as Liebowitz's piano starts churning out the gorgeous surf and Flick's saxophone dances on top of the waves like seabirds. Liebowitz's voice, featured on two of the standards, also acts as a lovely anchor for all those ideas. Malita-Malika features such a wide range of emotions and structures that it can be described as "not for everyone," but as an expression of musical spontaneity it is quite impressive.
I'm honored to join the Part-Time Audiophile team on a regular basis as Managing Editor of The Occasional, their lifestyle publication. You can read the press release here for more details. We'll be attempting something unique with The Occasional--instead of being yet another high-end audio website, we'll be focused on things audiophiles also enjoy. We're painting on a much bigger canvas here--fine wine, fashion, cigars, watches, automobiles and, hopefully, a lot more about the music.
I'll be returning to the equipment reviewing game as well, something that I've missed greatly during the last seven years. I'll be covering high-end audio shows as well, starting with the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest which is right around the corner, October 3-5.
As for this blog, I'll continue posting as time permits. I will also continue posting music reviews for Positive Feedback, since they partner with Part-Time Audiophile in posting content. I receive so much music from artists, record labels and publicists that I'm not sure how to cover it in a quarterly publication. So we'll let everything evolve naturally.
Suffice it to say that I'm extremely happy with this sudden and unexpected turn of events--I've always thought of myself as a writer more than anything else, and now I get to live that dream! Thanks to everyone who has encouraged me over the last few years...I appreciate it.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
My latest music review for Positive Feedback, Sarah Reich's New Change, in now live. This is an exciting and innovative release since Reich is a tap dancer, and is employing her talented feet as a lead instrument! You can read it here. Enjoy!
Thursday, September 20, 2018
Listening to Q Morrow's new album, There Are Stars in Brooklyn, I'm immediately reminded that the acoustic guitar is woefully under-represented in contemporary jazz. I don't know why this is, since Morrow's playing fits in perfectly with most sub-genres of jazz--especially those with Latin and Caribbean roots. But even that's pigeon-holing this unique performer and underestimating how expansive his sound really is. Morrow, who obviously calls Brooklyn his home, is originally from the suburbs of Boise, Idaho. At 18 he left for California and studied music in Santa Cruz and later went to the University of North Texas, a place I now know pretty well due to my recent head-first dive into their legendary jazz studies program. From there he traveled to India to study Carnatic music with Jayanthi Kumaresh. As a result of his musical sojourn, he is well-versed in jazz, funk, pop, rock, classical, Cuban, Brazilian and of course Indian guitar styles.
If you listen casually to his style of playing, you might think of flamenco first, especially during the epic opening title track. As you move through these eight originals, his approach slowly morphs into Brazilian motifs. A-ha, you might exclaim. Isn't Brazilian jazz a sub-genre that uses acoustic guitars extensively? I would agree with you there, except that acoustic guitars are usually employed for their rhythms and textures, and that Brazilian music rarely uses this instrument as a lead instrument, much less one with a virtuoso presence such as this. So are we talking maybe Bola Sete? Yes, maybe that puts us in the right ball park, but that's starts us drifting into the realm of world music. And it's true that each of these songs evokes a different landscape and a different sensibility, all lovingly caressed by Morrow's magnificent guitar. "Pupusa Da Jamaica" doesn't stray too far from the Brazilian compositions, but it has a far livelier tempo that suggest flapping wings more than a steady float on an air current. The lovely and quiet "Inferno Astral" walks the southern edges of Spain like Morricone and Leone once did. The closer, "Loose Ends," has that classic free-wheeling and smart feel straight out of the NYC jazz scene, or at least the Brooklyn end.
What keeps There Are Stars in Brooklyn firmly planted in the world of jazz is Morrow's cohorts for this project--Will Vinson on sax, Evan Francis on sax and flute, Sam Bevan on bass and Raj Jayaweera on drums. These four keep Morrow's versatility not so much in check as somewhat grounded in tradition, his multitude of influences and aura of limitless possibilities tethered to a solid structure. This clean, spectacular recording is clearly about the man and his guitar, but the others know how to frame that exquisite talent in an explosive and exciting setting, and they also know how to step away as they do on "Inferno Astral" and let this daring musician produce almost hypnotic strains of pure beauty.
This is Q Morrow's second album. His first, All Around Dude, was released six years ago. I sampled some of it from his website, at http://www.qmorrow.net/, and it also showcases his amazing guitar skills but with significant tonal differences. I'm intrigued by this idea--so many of these reviews I've been doing feature musicians who wait five, ten, fifteen years or more between albums, something that's almost unheard of in the realm of pop and rock unless we're talking about one of those ubiquitous comeback tours. I think it's different in the world of jazz--artists go out and perform and live life and travel the world, like Morrow has, and those experiences seem to find their way into the music. It's more revealing to wait for these musicians to go through the next phase and deliver the goods once the differences are meaningful. Morrow certainly has arrived at the next level and has given us something full of imagination.
You can download this album at the Q Morrow website.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Another day, another jazz masterpiece from Zoho Records.
This one, from tenor and soprano saxophone player Marco Pignataro, focuses on one thing--melody. We're not just talking about pretty songs here, but rather an overall sound that is incredibly engaging and gorgeous and will make you sit up in your listening chair and say "Wow, this is truly beautiful jazz." Pignataro is based in Boston, but Almas Antiguas ("old souls") chronicles his Puerto Rican and Italian heritage to create a lush romantic sound that leans heavily on both Mediterranean and Latin rhythms. It's not easy to conjure up these influences with "just" a saxophone, but his playing is sensitive to these folk traditions and winds up being more than convincing.
On the opener, Teo Ciavarella and Flavio Piscopo's "Panarea," his evocative playing inserts a Middle Eastern sensibility that is both exotic and devoted to jazz traditions--just think, once again, of "Caravan" and how that classic opens up a whole new world to lovers of jazz. Can he accomplish all this with just a saxophone? Well, he has plenty of help with an adventurous quintet that includes drummer Adam Cruz, pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Eddie Gomez and tenor saxophonist George Garzone. Cruz, in particular, is kinetic and almost impossibly dynamic and acts as Pignataro's right-hand man through this mix of original compositions and standards such as "Alfonsina Y El Mar" and "Samba Em Preludio." Much of Zoho's current catalog digs deep into Brazilian jazz, but Almas Antiguas broadens those horizons considerably by adding both European and African touches.
"This CD is about roots from the Mediterranean, and how jazz can become this lens that absorbs all these different colors," Pignataro explains, "through which you can create a new sound and bring out your cultural identity." I've heard many of these jazz albums in the last couple of years, and usually that means you need a working knowledge of those cultural idiosyncracies to understand what is being put where, and why. Pignataro encapsulates this complex approach in something so breathtakingly lush that you can coast along without thinking. You're completely under his spell even as he shifts gears and plunges into a quieter and more dramatic sound, such as when Gomez pulls out his bow and works in harmony with the others, creating a seductive new layer to the voices here.
It's important to point out the wonderful chemistry in this quintet, the way they can closely follow Pignataro's personal visions for each song and make them come alive with meaning. Each member is regarded as a virtuoso, but this is the first time they've playing together as a unit. As usual, I have to throw in a mention of the sound quality here--Zoho always does a remarkable job of making everything sound lifelike, spontaneous and natural. Almas Antiguas becomes a first-among-equals in the Zoho catalog--it's a great starting point for anyone who wants to investigate this thrilling indie label and discover how they're keeping jazz from all over the world in front of deserving audiences.
With all these female vocal recordings I have on hand, it's interesting to pick out each one and find out what makes it different. Really, I'm trying to figure what makes each singer distinct--some sound like Julie, some sound like Ella, some sound like themselves, which is always a good thing. In rare cases, it's the music that's unique. If it is, that's an interesting reflection on the singer since it's ultimately about her tastes, and what she feels comfortable singing. Christine Hitt's new album, Magical Kite, is very different than most of the jazz albums I've been listening to lately because it drifts away from the traditions of jazz so frequently. In many ways she's a pure pop singer, taking on whatever songs have meaning for her. This isn't about taking familiar songs such as "Don't You Worry About a Thing," "Shower the People" or "Shine On Harvest Moon" and turning them into jazz standards. It's about finding something true to each composition and showing respect.
Hitt, who lives in the frozen tundra of Northern Wisconsin, is a pop singer with a sensitivity to jazz traditions, perhaps in the same vein of audiophile favorites such as Anne Bisson. That means she has eclectic tastes--everything from bebop to gospel to standards. She came to Los Angeles to record Magical Kite at Capitol Studios and recorded with some the best jazz musicians out west including pianist John Beasley, drummers Gene Coye and Jeff Hamilton and alto sax player Bob Sheppard. That means she can hit the straight jazz on songs like "Wade in the Water" and "Yardbird Suite" with authenticity and passion. Then she'll throw in a gentle ballad such as "Believe in Me," replete with strings and a gentle lead from Leo Amuedo's acoustic guitar. The track listing is so balanced, with each song radically different from then last one, that it almost reminds me of listening to Queen albums back in my teens.
Hitt is not purely defined by this variety, however--her voice is unusually warm and comforting, sweet and affectionate and powerful when it needs to be. She's the glue that holds these genres together, possessing a tonal consistency that keeps you focused on her talent instead of the way she darts around these swings in style. In the long run these shifts aren't as startling as they sound, especially if you imagine Hitt as the opposite of a pop singer who wants to take a crack at a jazz song, which is far more common. Call her a jazz singer who is also a music lover, one who wants to sing it all if given the chance.
Magical Kite is produced and arranged by pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer, who gives this album a rich, professional feeling with the impression that the budget was large and that all the best people were involved. It's his skill as arranger that makes this album so fluid despite the constantly changing scenery. He's almost an unsung yet equal partner with Hitt, which is perhaps why they share the spotlight on the final track, "Around the World." It's just Hitt's voice backed by Keezer's piano, and he takes one hell of a victory lap with a stunning performance. It's a lovely, quiet way to end this charming album.
Saturday, September 15, 2018
Judith Lorick is the type of jazz singer where you hear her voice and say, oh yes, I've been listening to Judith Lorick for years...she's fabulous! She's so relaxed and confident in the way she stretches out every word, and it's obvious she's mastered her craft. There's a subtle perfection to her voice that comes from a lifetime of performing jazz. "Judith Lorick is a vocalist we should have heard from long before now," the press kit exclaims, and I actually agree with this description wholeheartedly. She should be famous.
I know, that sounds like a lot of shameless hyperbole, and we reviewers are supposed to avoid that. I'm not saying that Lorick is the finest singer I've heard, because that is hyperbole. But you will listen to her masterful takes on these ballads and wonder why she isn't a household name. There's a story behind that, which is why her new album is titled The Second Time Around. First, these ballads celebrate "several life events for Judith, most notably the reunion with her long lost love Artie." Secondly, this album also celebrates her reunion with pianist Eric Reed. She met Reed back in 1995, and the chemistry between them was obvious. She spent almost thirty years in France, but when she returned in 2004 she reconnected. Hence, this album is the second time around in more way than one.
Naturally there is plenty of emotional significance to the making of this album. The subject matter is familiar--""If You Could See Me Now," "He Needs Me," "When I Look in Your Eyes" and "Why Did I Choose You?" all must have a very personal meaning to her. The idea behind this album is that Lorick has chosen songs that are reflected in her recent fortune, and she and Reed are arranging them in a way that's convincing...as if Artie is sitting in the first row of her performance and they can't take their eyes off each other. The highlight of the album, for me anyway, is her rendition of "Wild Is the Wind." I first heard this, of course, when I bought Bowie's Station to Station back in 1976, and I've never heard another version of it. She transforms this already deeply romantic song into something more earthly and real and, most importantly, tender.
Lorick and Reed are both supremely talented, but the rest of her ensemble is downright brilliant: trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, drummer McClenty Hunter, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and tenor sax player Chris Lewis. It's hard to stand out as a musician when you're playing ballads, especially ones that are being sung by such a powerful and direct singer, but everyone has a chance to shine. We're not talking improvisational solos that show off someone's talent--we're talking about each musician, particularly Pelt and Lewis, sharing their own story, talking about the second chances they've experienced in their lives. There's a magical sense of dedication in The Second Time Around, that each performer shares in Lorick's joy and is genuinely happy for her. It's rare when everything clicks together this well. Highly recommended.
Friday, September 14, 2018
An embarrassment of riches, indeed.
I've mentioned that I have numerous releases to review right now, as usual, and a significant percentage of albums in the pile are spectacular releases from gifted female jazz singers. Vocalist and composer Johnaye Kendrick is yet another stand out--which begs the question that if everyone stands out, are they still standing out?--but I gravitated toward the loveliness of her voice and the way it reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald without sounding too much like Ella, much in the same way Kate Reid sounds like Julie London while still retaining a modicum of originality. Kendrick studied and graduated from Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute and has worked with Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others, which is why she has a grand sense of the classic traditions. But she also casts this mix of original compositions and standards in a light that is clearly modern--just like Kate Reid does. As a result, her new album Flying doesn't sound like a classic Ella, but an Ella who is still alive in 2018 and who enters the studio to show her enduring relevance.
"I was relatively shy about performing my music while in the program," Kendrick explains, "because it was so personal." Once you hear those words, you sense the same shyness in the music--there's a beautiful yet tentative quality about her velvety voice that suggests she might a little nervous about revealing so much about herself. It's not quite vulnerability, which can be a very desirable trait in a singer's voice, since she does sing as if she's confident about her talent. Flying, however, has the feeling of a stolen deep breath before walking out on stage, of saying "Here we go" and knowing that a lot is riding on this. Not only is she throwing that magical voice out there and hoping you'll love it, but her arrangements have that same compelling sense of risk. Fortunately she understands the deep emotions a beautiful melody can summon, and her big move turns out to be the right one.
Kendrick adds one addition element to her songs that sets her apart--she's topical. The opener, an original song titled "Never You Mind," tackles BLM and informs the listener that "You come from a legacy of warriors and though there's fear/Know that fear's what fueled the fire of courage that led us here." She invests so much of herself into these lyrics; she describes the songwriting process as "performing journal entries, as the pieces were always so honest and literally based on my experiences." She even infuses the standards such as "It Could Happen to You" and "The Very Thought of You" with that same spirit of adaptation. If you need proof of this, listen to her stunning arrangement of "I've Got No Strings"--you might forget about the source.
Flying is a brave album, augmented by sensitive musicians such as keyboardist Dawn Clement, bassist Chris Symer and drummer D'Vonne Lewis, along with a few guest artists. Kendrick even plays the harmonium with that same personalized touch--you can hear her longing, regret and hope through its notes. Kendrick may use Ella as a jumping off point, but by the end of the album she has gone off on a trajectory that is purely this woman and no one else. She's a warm and emotional singer, a gifted arranger and an artist who knows that the past is prologue, so there's plenty of room to be like no one else.
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Have you read my article in Part-Time Audiophile yet, the one about Zoho Records? As soon as that article went live, I received a couple of releases from Zoho that should have been included since they're so fantastic; they capture the essence of this unique label that tends to focus on South American jazz musicians. This release right here, from Brazilian guitarist Sergio Pereira, doesn't quite have the complex and innovative approach of the other releases mentioned in that article. Rather, it captures that essence of Brazilian jazz, that smooth and lush feel that marks the best of that specific and popular genre.
That's not a bad thing, of course. If you've fallen in love with something obvious, say Getz/Gilberto, you'll feel right at home with Nu Brasil. That title alone suggests a new direction, but it's more of a precise summary of what makes this type of jazz so popular. (Actually, nu in Portuguese means "naked," which is a more accurate description of these ten original compositions.) We're talking, of course, about beauty and a breezy motif that implies that life in Brazil is full of celebration, love and yes, just a hint of unbridled sex appeal. "There's a certain something inherent in the music of Brazil," the liner notes explain, "that goes well beyond the notes and speaks more of the soul of a culture." That description is deliciously apt and indicates, as usual, that the folks at Zoho know and feel and understand the music they are releasing. They seem to understand this more than just about any other contemporary jazz label.
Pereira fits the typical profile of a Zoho artist. At 59, he's been playing Brazilian jazz for most of his life--even though he left Rio many years ago for the lights and the freedom of the New York City jazz scene. His guitar is soft yet intricate, full of so many flavors that instantly transport you to the Southern hemisphere. He surrounds himself with many of Brazil's most famous musicians, including a trio of vocalists (Paula Santoro, Sergio Santos and Viktoria Pilatovic) who know how to take that gentle ease of Astrud Gilberto and build on that appeal by making these songs less about the people of that country and more about the experiences you might have while living there.
Top that off with Zoho's welcome dedication to sound quality, and you have a release that redefines what it means to feel alive, and how music helps to accomplish that joy. Brazilian ensembles often create a rich and fluid sound through a large contingent of performers--it's far more intimate than a big band orchestra where every musician is adding a specific ingredient to the recipe. Pereira's compositions and arrangements lean toward the impressionistic, resulting in a sound that envelops you with warmth, vivaciousness and a miraculous gift of seduction.
Is anyone out there getting their vinyl fixes off 7" 45RPM singles? I'm sure the answer to that question is dependent upon how old you are. I suspect plenty of young people, not to mention people of all ages who still love indie rock from small indie labels, still grab the little 45s whenever they can. They're fun, they're relatively cheap and it's a great way to get a new band's music out there to the fans in a very specialized way--one that can't be replicated by digital streaming. I also believe there are plenty of people my age and older who started off their love for music with a stack of 45s and a little record player. This group may still be attracted to the novelty of the 7" single for purely nostalgic reasons.
I've noticed that my own collection of 45s is growing quicker now, in 2018, than during any other time in my life. I lot of this has to do with the connections I've made with the indie rock world over the last decade or so, going back to my days in Portland and up to and including the local Syracuse record labels such L.R.S. I've mentioned Ean Hernandez of Top Drawer Records before--he was my source for Date Night with Brian and the recent 14 Soda Punx LP. He sent me an email a few weeks ago about "a new 7" that I'm putting out for my old bandmates: Denny and Josh from Sicko." The new band is named The Drolls, and they actually provided one of the tracks on the Soda Punks album. They're joined with Julie from Guest Directors to form a true power pop trio.
In the past I've reviewed singles, and in recent years it seems as if the goal is to cram as much music as possible onto this little discs--at least two songs per side, accompanied by a nice dollop of inner-groove distortion by the time you get to the dead wax (which is minimal at this point). Ean keeps it old-fashioned and clean, however--just two brief songs, "Follow That Dinosaur" and "Alternate Timeline," one on each side. This single has the same minimalist indie production values as Soda Punx, but as I mentioned in that review it's sort of desirable for the punk and post-punk ethos. So you're not getting brilliant sound quality, but you are getting a purist approach to this kind of music which is essential to its enjoyment.
That said, if you loved Soda Punx, you'll love this. Ean and his friends at Top Drawer straddle that bridge between old-fashioned punk and power-pop from the '80s and '90s. (Ean officially calls it "pure power pop punk rock.") There's that same quickness, same grittiness (especially in the vocals and the Nirvana-esque chord progressions). There's also a distinctly happy feel to these two songs--Top Drawer isn't about gloom and doom and terror and sheer unbridled anger, but energy that invigorates. I don't know if I can dig that deeply into a two-song single, but I can tell you that you can check it out yourself without making a major investment, and maybe you'll browse through the Top Drawer catalog and re-discover how much fun this music truly is...especially on 45 singles!
You can order it here, complete with download card, for just $6.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Julie London is the woman!
That doesn't quite sound right--it's not the same thing as saying that some guy you know is the MAN! I'm just trying to express my pleasure that Julie London, one of my very favorite female jazz singers, has become sort of a model for other contemporary singers over the last couple of years. When you dig into Julie's wonderful (and wonderfully well-recorded) catalog, you'll slowly remove the layers of the proverbial onion and realize there's so much to discover in a style that, for the most part, seems simple and straightforward. Sure, she was sultry and sexy and evocative, but she also had a sort of innocence about her that isn't discussed that much. When I listen to today's jazz singers try to channel her spirit, they often miss that subtle paradox.
Once again I've noticed that my review pile is full of recordings of female jazz singers. There was a time not so long ago when I'd be complaining about that, but this year's crop of "female vocals for audiophiles" is ripening into quite a stellar harvest. Kate Reid, who hails from the Great Lakes region, stands out from this current crowd because she's adopting London's minimalist presentation, one that keeps everything quiet and direct. That's smart, because Reid's alluring alto has plenty of nuances that shouldn't be hidden by an over-produced release. Her style is close enough to London's that you'll admire her taste in music--her new album, The Heart Already Knows, is a mix of standards and pop tunes--but she's doing so much more than paying homage to a legend. (This isn't even a tribute since these songs are not known as London songs, but there are many similarities in the approach.)
I should stop with the endless comparisons, since that isn't quite fair to the very talented Reid. It is fair to say that she affects me in the same way as London, which is basically wow, I love listening to this person sing these words in such an interesting and heartfelt manner. Reid's complex set of vocal inflections are the mark of someone who knows a classically-trained voice can't always convey a wealth of life experiences--either good or bad. That's why the skilled musicians who share the stage with Reid are so reticent. They're standing out of the way, letting you soak up that big, warm voice. In most cases she's accompanied by little more than a piano or a guitar, albeit from all-stars such as Paul Meyers, Larry Koonse and yes, the great Fred Hersch. It's interesting that Reid is also known as a talented pianist, but she chooses focus everything on her splendid vocal interpretations.
The Heart Already Knows, if you haven't figured it out yet, is a singer's album, one where most of your attention is continually drawn toward the woman in the black dress at the front of the stage. I suspect that accounted for so much of Julie London's charm, that she mastered the art of commanding attention from the audience. Inside that charm is that innocence I mentioned, and that makes this singer even more intriguing. Listening to Kate Reid gives me the identical impression of a singular spotlight, one that captures the essence in each syllable. Highly recommended.
Friday, September 7, 2018
Way back in July I reviewed Miguel Zenon's intriguing new work for string quartet and saxophone, Yo Soy La Tradicion. The problem is, the release date wasn't until September 21. I got my copy way in advance. So I promised to remind everyone of the review as we got closer to the release date, so you can read the original review here
Miguel's publicist has also informed me that the single "Promesa" will be available as of today on Spotify, Tidal, Amazon and other digital platforms. Please check it out--it's really good.
Trumpeter Randy Brecker got his start back in the '70s, when he and his late saxophonist brother Michael teamed up as The Brecker Brothers. I bring this up first because Together, Brecker's big band collaboration with arranger Mats Holmquist and the Umo Jazz Orchestra, sounds like it's been plucked right out of that era. There's something kind of jazzy and funky in the vibe here, from the way the music sparkles and glistens like a Lalo Schifrin film score to touches of soul that nearly evoke James Brown and his measured, synchronized ensembles. Brecker is out front, however, his big trumpet sound leading this 18-piece orchestra straight out of Helsinki.
That's right, the Umo Jazz Orchestra is from Finland and Holmquist, for those who already know, is Swedish. That might lead you to search for Scandinavian influences in this vibrant album, but I've tried and I can't hear any. I've always thought that musicians in Scandinavian countries, Sweden in particular, are quite adept at taking American musical genres and playing them in a way that's nearly subterfuge. I'm thinking of everyone from the stunning Swedish metal bands to hip-hop/pop singer Robyn, and how you can listen to them without ever saying "Wow, and they're Scandinavian!"--unless, of course, you start digging into the liner notes. The Umo Jazz Orchestra sounds exactly like any American big band ensemble from the '70s and '80s. They way they evoke those specific impressions is masterful, something you'd expect from an ensemble that has been playing steadily since 1975.
Together is also notable because it's not loaded with old standards like many big band recordings these days. Holmquist is not just a fine arranger, but his original compositions such as "One Million Circumstances" and "All My Things" blend in perfectly with three compositions from Chick Corea--"Crystal Silence," "Humpty Dumpty" and "Windows." (The album also includes a striking arrangement of Evans & Livingston's "Never Let Me Go.") There's a lively and consistent feel through these nine tracks, summarized by Brecker's comment on the liner notes that "there are absolutely no dull moments, you are going to be taken on the ride of a lifetime."
What I find most intriguing in this recording is that sense of expansion and contraction, something I've recently mentioned in other reviews of big band ensembles. It's easy for a big band to go non-stop through the course of an album since they possess all that firepower, but it's an exhilarating feel when they can transition into a quieter passage with precision and ease. It's a remarkable feeling when you shift those gears and go from 18 performers to just a handful, and that adds to the excitement of these big band recordings. That's the very definition of dynamic contrast, of course, and a leading cause of the "goosebump effect." With Brecker's mighty horn at the lead, you should experience this phenomenon over and over during this album.