Saturday, February 17, 2018
Do you like alt prog jazz?
I know, I know. I didn't know what that was either. In fact, I didn't even notice the genre designation when I first listened to Other Animal's eponymous debut album. All I knew was these instrumental tracks were like nothing I've heard before--rhythms that were clearly derived from both indie rock and the unusual and ambitious time signatures from '70s prog rock, driven by saxophone melodies that were clearly taken from jazz traditions. Coat all this with ambient synthesizer sounds and you'll have a good idea what brothers Peter and Bernhard Meyer are trying to accomplish.
The Meyer Bros. are both composers who take turns building these unusual yet musical songs. Peter plays the guitar and creates the electronic sounds, while Bernhard sticks to the bass. They are joined by Wanja Slavin on sax, flute, clarinet and synthesizers and the adventurous Jim Black on drums. They create dense, moody pieces that might remind you a little of some of the compositions people such as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were creating in the studio a good twenty-five or thirty years ago. Black can push these walls of sound with his versatility--he can make a song sound like it was performed by The Police ("Mr Manga") or a free-jazz orgy ("E Dance") or anything else he wants. His drumming is that potent and up-front.
What anchors this unusual yet endearing mix to jazz traditions is Slavin's contributions. His steady work on the sax drives most of the first half of the album, with the others slowly building their support until those melodies solidify and take flight. When he switches to the clarinet on songs like "No Fruit," it adds an almost Eastern European tinge to the music, an exotic and playful counterpoint to the near drone of the rhythm section. It's the kind of music that can force your brain to set out in different directions, only to stop and take a breath and eventually figure out what's really going on.
The liner notes mention that the band's motto is "playing consciously and intuitively, leaving out the irrelevant and standing above vanity and self-display." That's easy to detect in their style--this music succeeds because each contributor adds equally to the whole, resulting in considerable momentum. That's a necessary quality since it might be difficult to summarize this music in your head at first. It's the singularity of the vision they have makes Other Animal such a fascinating discovery.
Friday, February 16, 2018
Here's a utterly charming idea that winds up even better than I had thought--take some of the hits from the British Invasion and turn them into jazz. Guitarist John Hart, Hammond B-3 player Adam Scone and drummer Rudy Albin Petschauer perform a small miracle by sounding so big in this effort, which is why it works so well. They even call themselves a "little big band." Petschauer explains that combining Hart's "adventurous" guitar and Scone's B-3 eliminates "musical boundaries and can seamlessly and convincingly cover all styles: Blues, jazz, rock, soul, bossa nova all fit like a glove with the right organ trio." That's the secret, indeed--each one of these classics is met with a completely different approach from the smoothest of jazz to blazing rock and roll.
Did I say classics? The trio actually broadens the definition of the British Invasion by including some recent arrivals. The opening and closing tracks are from Amy Winehouse ("Rehab" and "Back to Black"), while we also get tunes from Lorde ("Royals"), Joss Stone ("Don't Start Lyin to Me Now") and Sade ("Turning Tables"). Just before you accuse these talented musicians of cheating on the whole '60s vibe they create, they throw in a couple of Dusty Springfield hits ("The Look of Love" and "I Only Want to Be With You.") Despite the ping-ponging from decade to decade, the entire album does feel like it comes from the past, across the pond.
What's amazing about this organ blues trio is that it consists of equal partners. Scone describes the arrangement process as very collaborative: "John would create a harmony here, and Rudy would bring the undeniable beat that works best with the Hammond Organ group." The synergy of this trio is superb--they move together as one, with incredible pace and dynamics. This is the essence of a great organ trio, a persistent sense of fun and versatility. I've been hearing this singularly enjoyable theme with nearly all of the organ trios I've heard over the last few months.
This is yet another stellar release from the Zoho record label. Every single album I've reviewed from them excels in sound quality, an amazing blanket statement to make about redbook CD in 2018. I'm not sure if it's a wise strategy to select albums entirely on the basis of the record label, but Zoho is, in my opinion, is a sure thing when it comes to fun, adventurous and great-sounding contemporary jazz. Kudos to them.
There are usually three distinct facets of any 2L Recording, three separate angles to discuss--the theme of the music, the performance and the sound quality. 2L's Morten Lindberg loves to include specific themes in his recordings, challenging and sometimes obscure facts that bind the program selection into a nice whole, such as having all the music relate to man's relationship with nature or that all of the compositions were inspired by a specific composer. The performances are usually spectacular, with 2L spotlighting Norwegian musicians who are extremely talented and somewhat daring in their approach. The sound quality is almost a given--using technology, unique recording approaches and carefully chosen venues--usually old churches--Lindberg's releases are glorious in their realism.
Tina Margareta Nilssen's new solo piano release, Appassionata, blurs those three subjects into an astounding whole...more so than usual. I've often discussed the concept of "listening with a clipboard," checking off boxes as you listen to a particular recording or audio component. Hmmm...nice soundstaging depth, tight bass, a little coloration in the upper midrange, all that stuff. You're checking off boxes instead of enjoying the music. The real magic happens when you fling that clipboard into the nearest wastebasket and allow yourself to be transported into an altered state of consciousness.
I do this every time I listen to Appassionata, which is unusual since I usually admire solo piano works more than I adore them. I can't decide which of those three distinct facets is responsible for this musical hypnosis.
In this case, the theme is simple. Nilssen has chosen three pieces that are passionate and full of intensity. As she explains in the liner notes, "I have chosen music that goes high and deep." She begins and ends with two fairly well-known works--Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 7 and Beethoven's Sonata No. 23 in F minor, which bracket a fairly unknown piece from female composer Signe Lund titled Cinq Morceaux, Op. 37. Lund's piece is more playful and bright compared to the storminess of the other two works, although the three pieces have an obviously flow to them that makes it a little difficult to pinpoint the program change--not because there isn't the prerequisite space, but because the resulting hypnosis is so potent. So while the "theme" is broadly defined, the music is fluid and unified and takes you on a long, uninterrupted journey that makes perfect sense.
Nilssen's performance must not be underestimated as it pertains to the whole. It is her exquisite and perfectly measured playing that produces such a sense of detached time and space. Her playing is effortless, masterful and lush. It's easy to get lost in the notes and forget all about the troubles in the world. Nothing matters when this level of beauty is so easily attained by a mere push of the start button on your digital transport. You won't discard your clipboard--you'll smash it to pieces and forget it ever existed.
Finally, there's the sound quality. What can I say that I haven't said before about the uniform excellence of 2L recordings? I will say this--I feel as if I'm sitting further back in the church than usual. That, of course, is not a bad thing because it allows the notes of the piano to leap out into the room and explore the ceiling beans of the now-familiar Sofienberg Church in Oslo with uncommon attention. I like this more distant perspective since it might be the reason why so much musical detail flows from my hi-fi system, embracing and mesmerizing me.
I think it should be obvious by now how I feel about Appassionata, and that is an essential piano recording. If you have yet to splurge on a 2L Recording, end the drought and start here.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Now here's a jazz singer.
Ori Dagan is a jazz singer who's not afraid to don familiar jazz affectations in the whimsical, wry and ready-to-scat style of Dave Lambert and Eddie Jefferson. He seems to check all of the boxes without trying, his distinctive baritone low-key until he needs a vocal exclamation for his phrasing, and his voice raises until he starts to sound like a voice actor working on the latest Pixar flick. (If you need an over-the-top example of this style, refer to Eric Idle's version of "The Penis Song" in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.) Plus, he's paying tribute to Nat King Cole on his new album, one of my absolute favorites. He's knocking it out of the park, right?
I'm not sure. The first time I listened to Nathaniel, I was torn. The opener, Wally Gold's "Lilette," is a little gem of a song, so perfectly suited to Dagan's unique style. This was so promising and distinctive and refreshing that I settled in for what I thought was going to be a small masterpiece. After a few songs, however, Dagan's voice became a romance gone sour--completely annoying, in other words. The endless affectations were like cake frosting--a perfect confection that becomes cloying once you decide to pop the lid and eat the entire container.
After a few weeks I came back to Dagan and discovered that I was, once again, too hard on this male jazz vocalist. I'm going out on a limb by saying your appreciation of his voice may depend upon your mood. That mood, of course, should be a fun and playful one. I'm sitting here now, listening to this album, and I'm totally enjoying it. First of all, the musicians behind Dagan (pianist Mark Kieswetter, guitarist Nathan Hiltz, bassist Ross MacIntyre, sax and flute player Jane Bunnett and drummer Mark Kelso, among others) are absolutely fantastic and a recorded with a great deal of care. This is a gorgeous, pristine recording that sounds live and real and immediate.
If you love the quick caprice of Parisian style jazz, you'll totally get this album. You'll dance in your kitchen while listening to it, and you'll use a wooden spoon for a microphone. You'll sing just like Ori Dagan. You'll copy all of his signature moves. But if it's a grey day and you want to feel sorry for yourself, it's only a matter of time before you hit the pause and eject button. Choose your mood wisely.
I wasn't looking forward to reviewing an album called Love A to Z: Angelo Divino Sings the Many Facets of Love--unless, of course, it was released in 1960. But this is 2018, and I hope that whoever came up with this title was trying to be just a little ironic or nostalgic. Just look at this guy with his snazzy clothes and perfectly coiffed hair, walking along the beach and singing songs of love. Oh, brother.
But I was pleasantly surprised when I played this album for the first time. I know I was rough on Bob Mundy in the last review--I just think he's more pop than jazz. Angelo Divino, if that is his real name, sounds a lot like Bob Mundy but with one crucial difference--he does have a little bit of that edge I'm looking for when it comes to jazz. Despite the hair, he seems a little more mussed up, a little more seasoned. It sounds like he's been listening to Sinatra his entire life and understands how important inflection is, and how to sound more wry and wise than heartbroken.
Another plus is the sound quality here. I didn't mention this in the Bob Mundy album, which sounded really nice and clean, but I'm impressed with the sonics here--especially in the low frequency department. Adrian Rosen's bass is deep, full and ripe and really stands out. If you're trying to impress your audiophile buddies with the natural and full sound of a double bass, this is a great place to start. Keyboardist Rich Eames, drummer and harmonica player Michael Rosen and horn players Doug Webb and Jonathan Dane are all accomplished and perfect as well.
If I have a bone to pick, it might be with some of the song selections. The opener "Hey Life," with its constant affirmations of "Yeah, life!" is a little too happy-go-lucky to be taken seriously, and the sci-fi synthesizer conceits in "Flying Saucers" are totally out of place and goofy AF. (This is perhaps the one way where I prefer Bob Mundy's relative seriousness.) But there are plenty of moments where singer and band come together perfectly and swing like they mean it.
Lately I've been wrestling with my bias against today's male jazz vocalists. I just don't seem to respond to them in the same way I respond to female vocalists--maybe there's a connection to that whole audiophile female voice thing. I love Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme and many other jazz legends, but they all had swagger, style and attitude. Today's male jazz singers seem too nice in comparison, too earnest and lovestruck to be interesting to me. I've reviewed a few of these contemporary guys over the last few months and I want to encourage them--especially if they have perfectly wonderful voices. But I also want to tell them to hit the road and sleep in bus stations for a couple of years and maybe start chain-smoking Newports. They need to be roughed up by life so that I'll believe what they're singing. Perhaps they need to open for Robert Sarazin Blake for a few months and take up residence on his filthy couch between gigs. That'll give them the edge I desire.
I have three new CDs from jazz male vocalists in front of me, and I'm going to attempt to review all three in one day since they're all very similar. First up is Bob Mundy, the kind of guy who puts a pull quote from Betty Buckley on his publicity sheet that says "Bob, I love your voice!" There's nothing wrong with that, of course, because there's absolutely nothing wrong with Betty Buckley. But this does point out why I hesitate to embrace these singers so readily--they're more Broadway than Birdland. Bob does have a perfectly lovely voice, a classic crooner's voice, and to his credit he doesn't try to gum that up with phony jazz singer affectations. He sings it straight, and I appreciate that.
Fortunately, Mundy surrounds himself with incredible talent that includes pianist Dan Kaufman, bassist Peter Slavov, drummer Mark Ferber, guitarists Lage Lund and Sean Harkness and many others. You could remove the vocals and I'd still really enjoy this album, and that's not intended to be a slap at Mundy. In fact, I'm grateful that Mundy is so generous with the interludes and really lets his cohorts show off their chops. He doesn't step all over them--he's a team player.
I'll even go as far as to say this is one of the most enjoyable male jazz singers I've heard in quite a while. I think the only real issue here is that Mundy's not really a jazz singer. He's a pop singer, more Manilow than Sinatra. He'd do well playing Marius Pontmercy. He sings with considerable feeling and sincerity. But if he wants to sing jazz, he needs to start sleeping in a few doorways.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
My review of Takaaki's New Kid in Town is now live at Positive Feedback. If you're a fan of the original Three Blind Mice recordings from the '70s, you'll dig this! You can read it here.
Friday, February 9, 2018
Italy 2016 sounds like the title of a live jazz album. Pianist Billy Lester's new album isn't live, but the liner notes suggest that he's aiming for "the vibrant feel of live performances." I'd have to agree--at the end of each track I halfway expect to hear applause. The idea behind this album, however, is that Billy is joined by two esteemed jazz musicians from Italy--bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri. This trio first met in 2014 and built up such a natural rapport as a trio that they decided to record this album in Italy in...well, you know when.
Billy Lester has built up quite a cult following, which is unusual since he's recorded only seven albums in the last 20 years. He definitely has a distinct style, employing quick and adjacent keywork that rolls steadily back and forth across the board. It sounds as if he's playing with his hands and fingers closed in, fast and repetitive over the same geography. He's adventurous in the way he goes off on improvisational tangents as well--he's not afraid to veer into dissonance, but he does return quickly and precisely. He's a jazz pianist's pianist.
His Italian cohorts match his small, quick journeys with equal subtlety. Stranieri, for instance, plays softly and doesn't draw undue attention to himself but his momentum is essential to the drive of these six original tracks. (These sojourns run between seven and twelve minutes each.) Testa matches Lester with an almost fraternal sense of rhythm. It's easy to see why Lester bonded with these two gentlemen--there's a drive to this trio that seems carefully calibrated, even when the improvisations go off the map.
Sound quality is also strong--as I mentioned, the musicians were able to capture the sound of a live performance in the studio, and that's not easy to do. While the overall feel of this album is introspective, without wide sweeps of emotion or dynamics, this is the type of "interior" jazz that pulls you in and dares you to consider the placement of each note. Perhaps this synergy will convince these three men to come to the US and play for American audiences--people who know there jazz and are willing to pay close attention.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
I'm pretty sure this isn't jazz. It's not even jazz-rock, whatever that might be. This is rock that's pretty straightforward, thinking man's rock, the kind of stuff Bill Frisell puts out once in a while. It might be informed by jazz in the way intricate themes are explored, but tell me this--when you listen to jazz, any jazz, are you compelled to crank up the volume and rock out? I didn't think so.
Carl Filipiak has been referred to as "a dynamic jazz guitarist," part of a genre referred to as "new fusion," but when you listen to his new album, What Now, you think of one thing: rock and roll. With his Jimi Jazz Band consisting of drummer Frank Young, sax player Paul Hannah and bassist Matt Everhart, Filipiak creates the kind of rock and roll you might hear from very seasoned session musicians. (I have to admit that Young reminds me of Jim Keltner in a big way, solid and precise without being flashy.) These guys sound like they're the best in the business, and they all got together to play one day just for fun. They're not as cohesive and connected to a singular vision as most rock bands, but they are skilled. They're professional. They play their asses off.
Another distinction is that these eight tracks--six originals, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Sunny"--are instrumentals, and I think that omission might tempt the average listener to say yeah, I guess it might be jazz. A typical rock singer in the Lou Gramm-Paul Rodgers mold would completely push this into rock territory. There are other details that support the jazz label--there are a couple of spots where Jimi Jazz as a whole dips momentarily into a more jazzy feel, almost as a tease. There's even a spot or two where the band feels like they're channeling Santana and wandering into the world of Latin jazz. But for the most part, this is great rock and roll that's been recorded with care--as if they were an intimate jazz ensemble. This is a clean, clean recording.
It's so clean, in fact, that you can really turn up the volume and it still sounds great, unlike most of today's victims of the Loudness Wars and all that compression. The label, Geometric Records, may have stumbled onto something: record rock and roll as if it was jazz. Works for me.
Man, Veronica Swift sounds a lot like Ella Fitzgerald. I'm not saying this in a oh-she's-copying-Ella kind of way, but in a wow-at-last-someone-contemporary-knows-how-to-scat-without-making-me-wince sort of way. It's clear Ella is an influence--Swift has that same girlish innocence mated to a supreme and confident sense of swing. At just 23 years old, Swift has that ease that usually comes from years of performing. She's a little more delicate than Ella, a tiny bit more fragile, but I could listen to her all day.
Alas, Ms. Swift is just one piece of the puzzle in this excellent album from saxophone player Jeff Rupert. With a title like "Let's Sail Away," you might think this is a breezy and light "escapade" of an album, something you might hear at yacht club dinner. In fact, this album starts off sounding exactly like that, a fun and capricious gig at a fancy shindig with lots of rich people. But then a couple of things happen. First, you fall in love with Swift's voice. After that happens, Rupert's band really takes off and starts playing with fever and vision.
As a sax player, Rupert is suitably sultry. He's played with people such as Mel Torme, Maynard Ferguson and Benny Carter's Harlem Renaissance, so he has the smooth and romantic delivery thing down pat. His core band--pianist Richard Drexler, drummer Marty Morell and bassist Charlie Silva--are game for anything. They can sound as if they're playing entirely in the service of the music, even when Rupert's arrangements start to explore new possibilities. A ten minute take on Rhapsody in Blue, for instance, both condenses the original composition and allows it to wander through new ideas. Placed roughly midway through the album, this Gershwin piece becomes the cue for everyone to truly sail away into sheer inspiration.
The sound quality is, of course, the cherry on top. It's warm, expansive and completely natural. This is another case of me judging an album by its cover--I didn't expect a whole lot from this album by its somewhat pedestrian nautical theme, but repeated listening has won me over completely. If you enjoy Ella Fitzgerald, George Gershwin and a band that sounds like it can play anything you want and anyway you like it, this album is for you.
I've discussed the comeback of reel-to-reel as a reference analog source for some time now, both here and in my original Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. In a nutshell, reel-to-reel recordings can easily surpass the fidelity of vinyl, especially when sourced from the original master tapes--vinyl is pressed from these masters in most cases.
I've had this TEAC X-1000R reel-to-reel deck at my disposal for the last year or so, but I haven't had any quality software to use with it. This machine was restored and serviced by a local guy in Syracuse, and he included a reel of stuff he recorded from other sources. While it's fun to play that reel, the sound quality does not hint at the sonic nirvana that's routinely produced by tape sourced from the masters. The problem is that most of these excellent pre-recorded tapes retail for $250 to $750 or more...PER TITLE. Machines like this TEAC are relatively affordable--I'd sell this TEAC for $1000. That's probably the cost of two tapes.
Fortunately, singer Lyn Stanley came to the rescue! I've recently reviewed both volumes of The Moonlight Sessions--vol. 1 has reviewed here on my blog while Vol. 2 was reviewed at Positive Feedback Online. In both reviews I hinted that I'd love to hear the very rare and very pricey R2R versions of these releases, and she sent me this copy which has been making the rounds. (Lee Scoggins, a fellow scribe at Part-Time Audiophile, had it right before me.)
So I'll be listening to this on a very nice system over the next week or so and will offer my opinions! Thanks, Lyn!
Saturday, February 3, 2018
Remember Van Dyke Parks' work with Joanna Newsom and Inara George about a decade ago? Parks' works for small orchestra at the time were so light-footed and whimsical, so extracted from a world that didn't exist any longer. Listening to Benji Kaplan's new album, Chorando Sete Cores (which translates to "Cries of the Seven-Colored Tanager"), I'm reminded of that same world--delicate, possibly borne from some forgotten corners of La Belle Epoque. It's the type of music you hear in old movies, outside of the classical canon so to speak yet still expressive in the way it allows specific instruments to reach their potential.
Guitarist Kaplan has written this, his fourth album, for a wind quintet with just four performers including himself. How does one do that? Well, through the use of musicians who are adept at swapping instruments during the course of the song. Anne Drummond, for instance, plays two flutes--alto and C. Remy Lebouef plays the clarinet and the impressive and memorable bass clarinet, which acts as the lone low-frequency anchor on the album. David Byrd-Marrow sticks with the French horn, and Kaplan sticks with his nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. This type of ensemble allows Kaplan's arrangements to thrive on endless counterpoints while maintaining a small, intimate feel.
In a nutshell, this is fanciful music that hasn't an unkind thought or a menacing note. The mood is positive and encouraging, which leaves the listener free to explore the relationships of the constant call-and-answer of the instruments and how they take turns telling the same story. This type of aural storytelling is so at odds with the music we hear every day. While most of the tracks are self-contained tales such as "A Joyful Stroll" (which is brisk since the walk takes place in New York) and "Leaves in the Wind" (self-explanatory), this is not an album about ideas and narratives. It's about feelings and textures and the celebration of beauty.
As you listen to all 13 tracks, you'll find a flow and a unity as well. It's unusual easy to keep track of that flow since the recording quality is so fantastic and clean. That allows you to consider every note, every trill, and how it contributes to a beautiful whole. Chorando Sete Cores may sound trivial if you're not truly committed to it, but if you take the time to hear these four (or five?) musicians have an enthralling conversation, you'll want to sit in.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
My latest installment of my original Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. #119 is about the state of vinyl cleaning in 2018 and why you shouldn't just use the Discwasher system you had back in the '70s. You can enjoy it here.