Thursday, June 28, 2018
Lars Jakob Rudjord came out with a single just a couple of months ago, so it makes sense that Ingvild Koksvik would follow up with one of her own. This one's called "Summerflokt," and it has more of a pop feel than her recent work, but plenty of her beautiful, original voice. You can here it on Spotify by clicking here.
Whenever it's time to review yet another female jazz singer who's covering the Great American Songbook, I feel some trepidation. I'm not going to continue to complain about the female voice recordings anymore, especially since I've heard so many stellar singers over the last few months--Lyn Stanley, Noa Fort, Rondi Marsh, Lynn Veronneau and a few others. But more often than not I find there's a flicker of something I don't like in the voice, an affectation that seems less than genuine, anything that makes me put on my Terry Fletcher mask and say "Not my singer." Am I that picky? No, not really, but I really want someone to check all the little boxes. I want a beautiful voice, yes, but one that still sounds like no one else. I want a voice that has lived the voice of jazz, that reflects the entire spectrum of the life of a jazz singer. I want a great band to back that voice, and I want excellent sound quality. I want to feel like the singer is in the room with me. Everyone wants that last one, I think.
I didn't know that Jacquelin Tabor's new album The Lady in the Gown was going to tick all those boxes. I tried to avoid judging the album by its cover--photo of a beautiful lady, title of the album, very little in the way of graphic design, kind of no-frills. Looking further, I saw that this is another GAS album full of songs like "On Green Dolphin Street," "Autumn Leaves," "Misty" and "Caravan." I settled in for what I thought was going to be a predictably pleasant journey and was immediately struck by several things at once:
1) Tabor's voice is perfect to me. It's husky and slightly weary and yet almost unlimited in range. She hits all the right notes.
2) The band, a simple trio of Cole Schuster's guitar, Greg Feingold's bass and Max Holmberg's drums, sounds like every great jazz guitar trio you've heard from the '50s and '60s. These three sound like the same three guys who backed Dean Martin on Dream with Dean.
3) What great sound quality! Tabor is so present and upfront, you can almost feel the air from the sweep of that gown when she turns to watch the musicians.
So the project is rather simple in its conception--a great singer backed by a swinging trio, recorded impeccably. But it seems to transcend those modest goals by the sheer perfection of the execution. I know this is a fairly personal thing, but there's something about Tabor's voice that is so exquisitely rendered and so subjectively flawless. I don't think she sings one single note that isn't the right note, with the perfect amount of sustained vibrato. Yet there's nothing about her voice that isn't deeply human and touched by the emotions contained in the lyrics.
I've have to be honest here. I've never heard of Jacqueline Tabor before playing this CD for the first time. I listen to a lot of these CDs, from male and female singers trying to present their individual takes on the jazz we all know and love, and it's been a while since I've heard someone handle the challenge with such purity and confidence. It's easy to get lost in a sea of a singers who all have the chops to make it big. Here's hoping Jacqueline Tabor does exactly that. Highly recommended.
I was raised on the idea that a classically beautiful voice was THE standard for excellence, but I kicked that idea to the curb as soon as I became a teenager and started listening to "my" music. I love the really distinctive and quirky vocalists out there, the ones that might make you flinch when you hear those first few syllables but then slowly charm you over time. Years later their voices become your best friends, familiar and comforting, a new standard for excellence. Think Neil Young, David Byrne, Isaak Brock...anyone who instantly makes you smile when you hear them. If I played these vocalists for my octogenarian parents, they wouldn't be impressed. But it's a different time for singers, and it's been that way for at least fifty years.
That was my first impression of Ezra Bell, a Portland band that's been releasing a series of intriguing EPs over the last few years. This is their first full-length LP, and it's a stunner. Out of the gate, the first thing you notice is Benjamin Wuamett's unusual voice. It's not so weird or so different that it takes time getting used to, nor is it something you haven't heard before. In fact, it reminds me of a combination of Young and Brock--perhaps that's why I mentioned those two by name. My parents would certainly exclaim, "He's different!" Being a boomer, however, I have a different reaction--here's a singer who's destined for something big. But this isn't about a great singer on the edge of the abyss known as Fame, but a breathtaking quintet of musicians who are creating something of high quality that deserves to be noticed.
Ezra Bell (yes, the name is out of the Jethro Tull School of No One in the Band Is Actually Named That) is a folk indie group, a nebulous term that combines Americana and folk strains with something a little more rocking. Aaron Mattison's horns and Jeremy Asay's piano also suggest a New Orleans sound, but perhaps that's because I just spent all day listening to the Matt Lemmler album. The songs here have that rollicking old-time sound that's made for the stage, and they're definitely borne from the past of rock and roll. What elevates this band is a superb sense of the past, an idea that we've covered some important ground over the decades and that we can always go back and rediscover forgotten ideas.
I have to admit that I'm surprised by this album and how much I instantly liked it. Indie rock has been a sore point with me lately--I feel like we're slowly parting ways because I'm not at home with the new trends. (If I hear "Feel It Still" one more time I may fling myself off a bridge.) I read another review of this album and the writer kept referring to the fact that this music is what excited him ten or twenty years ago. We don't get a lot of this honesty anymore. Distinctive and quirky are not in short supply these days, but real quality might be. Ezra Bell might get you excited about indie rock again.
Matt Lemmler's one of those great New Orleans jazz pianists who seems to deeply live and breathe that city's soul every minute of the day. His brand of jazz is different than the norm, whatever you believe that is, since it blends in liberal amounts of blues and rock and roll. On his new album, Love, he takes a dozen classics such as the Beatles' "In My Life," "Tara's Theme" and even "Gone with the Wind" and gives them that distinctive late night Orleans sound, a mid-tempo rock beat and approach that belongs in the same musical sphere as Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. There's one subtle difference, and that's Lemmler's piano. It plays those normal New Orleans rhythms and flourishes, but in a sweeping way that sounds like Bill Evans taking a one-night-only detour into Preservation Hall.
That big, almost theatrical style on the keys may come from Lemmler's four years touring with Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, but that's not really the point. Lemmler's connection to New Orleans has been filtered through many loves--Stevie Wonder, Scott Joplin, church hymns, '70s pop and even African folk music. There are also numerous tributes to the songwriters he loves such as Billy Joel, Lennon and McCartney and Lionel Richie. He tends to "Lemmler-ize" all types of songs, which is the common term for a common idea, which is making the music his, whatever the source. That means you get his classic soulful New Orleans voice combined with that strong piano current--all powered by what seems to be the biggest heart in the Big Easy.
Love is a very consistent album, with a level of energy that Lemmler maintains throughout, despite the mood. But the special surprise here is a bonus disc, titled Southern Songs and Sonatas, which was recorded live at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. This is where Lemmler switches it up and shows his range--he switches up the more rock-oriented band of Love for an ensemble that includes woodwinds, strings and a vibraphone. The set list here is more varied, but also gentler, with a mood that reminds me of Rolfe Kent's excellent score for the film Sideways. There's a light, carefree tone here that evolves into something deeper and even sadder when you least expect it.
That means you get two heaping helpings of New Orleans sound in Love, one that captures Lemmler in the place he is now, and one that captures everywhere he has been. While the two discs have a very different feeling to them, they are bound by a supreme musical sense, an approach that embraces the emotions and experiences of a vibrant city.
Friday, June 22, 2018
"Well, I don't think that title's nice. It's not nice at all. Nope, I don't like it one bit!"
It's hard to believe it's been more than five years since I reviewed The Smoking Flowers' 2 Guns right here. I really liked that one, the way this married duo reminded me of an even more road-weary Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, a country pair absolutely able to pour on the heavy rock and roll in an utterly convincing way. One of the most interesting things about Scott and Kim Collins is that they're not kids. They've been singing together for twenty years, and there's that incredible feeling of having been through so much together, a feeling that saturates every note. As I mentioned in my review of 2 Guns, Kim had just recently won her battle against breast cancer, and that album was a celebration of that victory. That means a lot more to me now than it did five years ago--my significant other just won the same battle last year--and this album is even more impressive in the way it proudly declares that they're still here, and they're kicking more ass than ever before.
Compared to the 2013 album, Let's Die Together sounds much more accomplished. Instead of being just a talented singer-songwriter duo, they're now something more--true artists who have a confident sound and attitude that comes from years and years of putting everything into their music, flesh and blood and a river of tears that carries it all downstream. The album starts off with a couple of face-peeling rockers, "Young & Brave" and "Rip It Off," full of anthemic riffs and angry, defiant lyrics. These are the songs you might hear at a club, one where you can get relatively close to the stage and know there's simply no way this is going to be a disappointing night. After that you get "Here 4 U Now," the kind of big and sweeping rock epic that Springsteen used to sing back when I gave a damn. (Stop groaning. You know what I mean.) Then an interesting thing happens, something fairly standard among talented musicians setting out to make an excellent album--they mix it up and slow it down.
This is where the country side comes out, the Gram and Emmylou feel, the great songwriting about the uncommon experiences of a couple who has been on the road for decades and has come out the other side with an even stronger sense of dedication. This is also where Scott gets to show off his guitar chops, where style replaces volume. He feels comfortable in so many styles, bluesy when he needs to be and sweet and lyrical in the more acoustic moments. It's easy to get lost in Kim's big and bold voice, and it's also easy to love the way the two harmonize. But Scott's a hell of a guitarist, and it's time I said so.
That title. Let's Die Together. I love it. Despite the ominous image on the cover of a submerged woman and an accordion floating to the bottom of some body of water, it's obvious what it means. After everything they've been through, it's obvious that they'll survive as long as they're standing side by side. They've walked the walk. The quote above refers to people who take things literally and are easily offended by nonsense--in this case it reminds me of an old girlfriend who, in retrospect, was far too Jesus-y for me. I was trying to make her cooler than she was by introducing her to Wilco, a favorite at the time (and still is). She heard the lyrics "I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me" from "Via Chicago" and was immediately convinced that she was listening to something evil and satanic. It started to explain the different layers of meaning and how Jeff Tweedy was actually being poetic and I realized that I was wasting my time. You have to know the whole story before you can hear a few words and then think you have it all figured out.
Or you can just listen to Kim. "You are a hurricane, I am the beach. You aren't going to outlive me."
Listening to guitar duos is so soothing and relaxing. For some strange reason, this is even more so when one of the guitars is electric and the other is acoustic. This applies specifically to the jazz style, of course, where the traditional electric guitar sound is smooth and mellow and generally unadorned with effects. It's already a soft sound, in other words, and adding an acoustic guitar to the stage softens that sound even more. You can really focus and concentrate on the differences between the two instruments--not just amplified versus non-amplified, but steel strings versus nylon. I have quite a few of these recordings in my collection, and they're the perfect representation of a late night album.
Kreisberg Meets Veras is a beautiful yet slightly adventurous entry in the jazz sub-genre. The dynamics are low-key and controlled throughout these eight tracks--a combination of originals and classics from Monk, Nascimento, Mingus, Shorter and Corea--so it's the perfect soundtrack for drifting away into the night. (Yes, I was prompted into a mid-day nap the first time I put this in the CD player.) On the other hand, close attention reveals that these two skilled guitarists are doing so much more than playing pretty music. Moments of subtle dissonance abound, and there's an edge to this gorgeous flow of sound that will capture your attention and keep you engaged.
Jonathan Kreisberg, who also produced, plays his electric guitar with a gentle speed--his sound is effortless even when his fingers are a blur. This silky tone is part of what makes this music simultaneously relaxing and challenging, and that's because he's adept at expressing so many different emotions without altering his trademark style. Nelson Veras, you can deduce, plays the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. You'll immediately identify that as equally smooth, and yet much of the flavor of this music comes from him, the Spanish and Middle Eastern touches, the playfulness. It's almost as if Veras is the singer, and Kreisberg is the rest of the band. One lays down the mood while the other puts images in your mind.
Sound quality has to be spectacular in a quiet recording such as this, and it is. You want to hear each of the two guitars existing in their own space, but you want to hear a physical interaction between the two especially since both are playing hollow-bodied instruments. You want to hear the wood resonate in the air and against the torsos of the musicians. It's important for those cues to exist, the sound of humans making music with instruments, fingers on fretboards, the occasional sigh or slight shift in space. That's what delivers the illusion of having these two gifted gentlemen in your home, and this recording is wonderfully convincing in that respect.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
I'm not sure if this has ever been done before, or if it's even a fairly common thing, but it's incredible. On pianist Hakon Skogstad's new album Two Hands to Tango, he sets out to play some of the great tango songs of all time--on solo piano. There is no saucy string section, no Argentine rhythm section and--this is the amazing part--no bandoneon. This young Norwegian musician conveys the beautiful rhythms and feelings found in tango through a keen and precise sense of timing. He's so good at establishing the essence of this music that after just a few tracks that you'll no longer notice the absence of accompaniment.
Skogstad's decision to make this album was carefully considered. "As a performer of tango music I have always been fascinated by the unique sound of the bandoneon and how the instrument is used in solo arrangements and compositions," he explains. As someone who has worked extensively with bandoneon players in the past, he's uniquely qualified to adopt the mannerisms crucial to playing this instrument, which is "multilayered, flowing and improvisational." While he has plenty of experience with tango, it's with the piano parts. Playing the lead is clearly not the same thing, and it obviously took a lot of thought to transfer that style of performance to a very different instrument.
This approach is probably why the adaptation is so natural and believable. As I said, it's amazing that Skogstad is the first to think of this, or at least the first who turns his piano into bandoneon, not vice versa. That's not to say his playing style is odd--he's a brilliant pianist but his Steinway sounds like a Steinway--it's in the feeling. He's conveying the subtle techniques of the bandoneon in such a fluid manner, something that might not be apparent to someone who "likes" the tango but is not passionate about it. But if you know the difference between habanera and milonga, you can wrap your head around the magnitude of this effort.
Finally, I love the tango, and it's a real pleasure to hear songs other than "Por una Cabeza" when someone wants to show off the genre. (That song is pleasant enough, but it has become a cliche thanks to Hollywood.) We do get a couple examples of Astor Piazzolla's nuevo tango with "Tango del Angel" and ""Tistezas de un Dobles" which are Skogstad's tributes to an Argentinian master who has become notably popular in the last few decades. You also get "Sentimiento Tanguero," Skogstad's take on the music of Lucio Demare, and a unique arrangement of Leopoldo Federico's "El Marne." Whether it's one of Skogstad's original compositions or a homage, each of these ten tracks brim with originality and travel quite a ways from the original renderings--so much so that the "moments of realization" for true tango fans will be a singular delight. And if you're not quite up on your tango, this thoughtful and entertaining album might just prompt you to discover more of this wonderful music on your own.
I once had a girlfriend who told me that her favorite band of all time was A Flock of Seagulls. It's not that I had anything against the band, they were always "fine" with me--unlike the '80s synth pop bands that really aggravated me like Depeche Mode, Erasure and maybe The Cure. (I kind of like The Cure now.) But I did think it was odd that of all the bands across time and space, this one was her ABSOLUTE NUMBER ONE. Then she explained why in a long, convoluted tale about getting backstage during one of their concerts, meeting with the band, partying with them afterward and making out with one of them in the limousine. I thought oh, okay, they can be your favorite band of all time.
I haven't thought about the band very much in the last twenty years or so, aside from an occasional hairstyle reference or that sad '80s party scene in La La Land. So when I was approached about getting this reunion album in for review, I didn't jump at the chance. But here it is, playing in my system, and it's actually pretty good. The original quartet of Mike Score, brother Ali Score, Frank Maudsley and Paul Reynolds have released their first album since 1984, and while it's pretty much a straightforward performance of their biggest hits and a handful of deep tracks--backed by a large orchestra, of course--it's a remarkable blast from the past. That's because each song falls into one of the following fun categories:
1) One of the big, obvious hits
2) Oh wow, I haven't heard this song in forever
3) I know this song, but I didn't know it was an FOS song!
4) I never heard this one before. Is it new? I never really bought their albums.
Joking aside, Ascension is fun because it will remind you so succinctly that FOS indeed had a sound, one that was unique. They mastered that sweeping wave of synthesized romanticism, and while their melodies were basic, they were also memorable. The ringing guitars are still there as is the steady electronic drumming, and while it's clear the vocals are familiar they have a slightly aged sound that's the biggest departure from the band in its prime. The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra might have been little more than a novelty--I've heard plenty of forgettable tribute albums of modern pop/rock adapted to a big orchestra--but in this case the big string sections add to that trademark sweep, the grand and lush melodies that move so slowly within the otherwise lively beats.
If you are a big fan of FOS, like that old girlfriend, there's good news. A Flock of Seagulls will be touring in 2018 to support Ascension. They've actually been touring together for a while now. Mike kept performing with session musicians over the years, and they did reform in 2003 and 2004. While the original four have been performing here and there ever since, this is the first time they have been captured on record in 34 years. For the most part, they sound just as good as ever.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sarah Wolff is serenely beautiful, and Blaine Heinonen is rough and tumble, which presumably explains the name of this alt-country duo from Portland. The same thing could be said for their music, which is comprised of their beautiful harmonies blended with a loose, minimalist approach to the Americana catalog. If you think that Pretty Gritty is that easy to figure out, however, you're in for a gentle surprise. Sure, this is engaging and straightforward music without a lot of layers of meaning gumming up the works. What you get, instead, is heartfelt and streamlined. Pretty Gritty is the type of music where you constantly tell yourself that you really love the singer's voices and that you could listen to them all day.
There was a time when I couldn't really stand any music that resembled country. Then a few things happened. I was exposed to several genres that are far more genuine than today's mainstream country music, which really isn't that different from Top 40 pop and rock in my opinion. The broadening of my horizon occurred in stages--first I was more amenable to the pioneers who kept it honest such as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, and then I heard that bolt-out-of-the-blue known as Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. From there, everything became much clearer for this rock and roll kid from Southern California. By the late nineties I was searching out artists such as Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, and buying old copies of Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Gilded Palace of Sin. I embraced No Depression wholeheartedly, and after a while I stopped noticing the narrow confines of genre definitions.
That, in a nutshell, is why I listen to modern performers such as The Secret Sisters and hardly bat an eye when it comes to categorizing the music. It's the same with these two, and how the beauty of their sound wins out.
Seven Year Itch starts off with a quiet, thoughtful cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," which sets up Blaine and Sarah's specific chemistry. Both of them play acoustic guitars and percussion, while Blaine branches out with a ukelele and Sarah grabs the banjo. This sets up an equal partnership between the two of them throughout the other eleven songs, mostly originals, even when one of them takes the lead vocals and the other scoots the stool a few feet back. That lends an arresting consistency through the album--there is no filler, no misfires. These two have been singing together since 2010, and they honed their craft busking on the streets of Portland. There's no room for half-assing it when you're in that kind of environment. You have to engage the audience every second, and Seven Year Itch reflects that.
It seems as If I've been buried under a pile of jazz forever, so I can't tell you how refreshing this album is. I was raised on classic '70s rock, then punk and New Wave, and then so-called alternative or indie rock--with a secondary but supportive vein of classical music running through my life and helping me to keep everything in perspective. Jazz came later, after I got out of college. Americana, bluegrass, alt-country and other similar genres are like new friends to me. Pretty Gritty won't necessarily blow your mind by introducing you to new ideas and concepts and philosophies, but this duo will be the kind of friends who invite you over and show you such generosity and kindness that you don't want to ever leave.
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
First things first--I hope I don't get in trouble for calling this an album from the Pat Battstone Sextet. The six names you see on the cover are the designated performers, and I can't see typing that over and over. On Pat Battstone's website, he has this album listed under the Pat Battstone Sextet.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about this very interesting experimental album. I've listened to Battstone before, having reviewed The Voice of Robert Desnos just last October. That spoken word album, backed by Battstone's intriguing turn on piano, was lifted by the incredibly charming voice of Antonella Chionna. The entire recording was somewhat off the beaten path, as spoken work recordings often are, but it was far more mainstream than Elements. This abstract project seeks to provide a musical rendering of the four elements of the ancient world--fire, water, wind and earth--and explain how these combine to form an elusive fifth element known as spirit.
This is accomplished with these six musicians creating sounds that are designed as "conversation between friends," an approach that naturally limited both solos and all six playing through a single song at once. "Everything was spontaneous, including each's silence."
That opens up the door for a wide range of sounds and ideas. Some of them are odd and disjointed, full of shouts and persistent percussion, while other moments abound in a gentle beauty uttered by a lone clarinet, piano or flute. These exchanges are peppered with both acoustic and electric sounds, performed live in the studio so that nothing sounds like a studio concoction. We're witnessing six skilled musicians letting go of their training, their ideas and beliefs about structure, and spending a single day with each other to act on their intuitions. Yes, this recording was captured in a single day when Battstone and his five Italian colleagues were in the same place at once, and the result was three long pieces that added up to 79 minutes. Editing was minimal, and only done to divide up sections and to eliminate talking between the performers.
This is a strange and slightly chaotic project to be sure, but it's also a valuable exercise into the nature of the purest improvisation. You always read about musicians playing off each other, and here that inspiration is channeled into its primal form. Elements reminds me of some of the more esoteric recordings from 2L Recordings of Norway, the ones that dwell on the outer edges of what's musical and what isn't. But the value and excitement is found in the definition of space, and how sound interacts with its surroundings.
How do you feel about party bands?
I have to admit I love them. It's not the kind of music that I play on the big system in my dedicated listening room while evaluating a new piece of hi-fi gear that retails for five figures. But in my college days, and for many years afterward, I spent my weekends at LA clubs such as Madame Wong's West, Coconut Teaszer and the Hollywood Palladium listening to bands like Fishbone and Oingo Boingo. Party music is stuff to listen to while you're out and about or driving through yet another big city on your way to an evening of barely-controlled trouble.
Free Radicals, for lack of a better term, is a party band designed for adults who once loved party bands but feel like they're way too old for party bands. That's not to say that Free Radicals is music for old, slow folks who used to rock and roll--I hate THAT music. It's just that this Houston-based collective of talented musicians is equal parts party-like-the-world-is-ending and sophistication. Their lively, uptempo songs are a mash-up of jazz, reggae, ska, world music, salsa, funk, hip-hop, cumbia, surf rock and anything else you want to throw in. While each song tends to focus on one particular musical genre, the others float in and out of the mix with a combination of stealth and wild abandon. This is fun music for people who are serious about their fun music.
I reviewed Free Radicals' last album, Outside the Comfort Zone, less than a year ago. It turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. "Boy, was I wrong about this CD," I wrote, referring to the fact that I thought it was more free jazz and so I put it on the back burner. You know what's funny? I started off that review talking about my club days, even mentioning Madame Wong's West and the Hollywood Palladium as well. That's how solid the images are when it comes to a "party band" of this caliber, the level of excitement elicited. I think DANCE FLOOR! I think 1982 bouncy dancing. I think bright colors being highlighted by bright lights in an otherwise dark club. I think wow, if I partied like this every night I'd be in the best shape of my life! God my feet hurt!
As I mentioned in the review of Outside the Comfort Zone, Free Radicals show a little more depth than most party bands by focusing their music on social issues such as Black Lives Matter, women's rights, immigration rights (so important today, of all days) and more. They've been playing together for 20 years in the streets, at protest marches, in homes...even at weddings and funerals. The band is noted for their big, chuunky-style horn section, but they also love to throw in a few surprises such as 90-year-old vibraphone player Harry Sheppard, or a stray tabla or theremin--anything to keep the audience giddy with delight. Even if you're becoming a grumpy old curmudgeon like me, bands like Free Radicals will appeal to both your superior musical tastes (compared to the music you loved when you were young) and your nostalgia for the music you loved when you were young.
No State Solution is available from Free Radicals via Spotify, Amazon and other music services. You can also purchase the 7" single in the photo, which contains remixes of three of the songs from DJ Sun and others. (You can also see plenty of their videos on YouTube.) This is fantastic, addictive and FUN music, and no one does it better than Free Radicals.
You can purchase all these titles from Free Radicals at CD Baby.
Monday, June 18, 2018
Almost by definition, big band jazz should evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. Meeting of Minds, the new album from the Bob Mintzer Big Band and the New York Voices, doubles down on that sense of long ago by teaming a brash and tight big band sound with an equally versatile complement of singers. Using standards primarily from the Great American Songbook during the '30s and '40s, this sprawling album recreates the sound of a huge celebration in the heart of New York City during wartime. My first impression was that of a huge USO show, with all the big names coming out to wish the boys well before they were shipped out to the front. That's the essence of nostalgia, a very specific time and place.
In a way, this is genius. As I've said just recently, the trick to enjoying big band jazz is finding the novel theme or idea that propels the performances into something memorable. That's not always easy. If Meeting of Minds had not combined the two groups, the result would have been something professional and polished, but not especially distinctive. The magic resides in the partnership of Bob Mintzer and the Voices' Darmon Meader, two composers who take their own strengths and blend them into something complex where fascinating ideas thrive. Those ideas come in the form of thrilling solos, more than a dozen of them, a rarity when so many musicians are simultaneously involved and trying to keep everything seamless and taut.
Mintzer and Meader, along with 19 other performers, take an unusual approach to the musical union. Rather than simply blending equal measures of big band jazz and four-part harmonies, these arrangements weave in and out of the dual genres and create an evolving structure that doesn't always adhere to the nostalgic feel. It's almost like the streets of New York City, where you can turn a corner and find yourself in a radically different neighborhood. There are moments, fleeting of course, where the USO show folds up and suddenly you're hearing Brazilian jazz influences, or even funky sojourns that take you to more recent eras. It's surprising how much of this is instigated by the New York Voices--they can summon up the spirits of the Andrew Sisters, or they can drop the affectations and suddenly sound like they're singing contemporary pop. Because these deviations are so sly, it doesn't take you out of the moment. It's more of a roller coaster ride because the fun quotient remains constant.
Overall, Meeting of Minds sounds enormous in its scope. This is a big big band, and the complex vocal arrangements appear to double the size of the stage. There's a lot going on, obviously, but the sound never becomes muddled due to the exceptionally clean production values. Back in the '30s and '40s, they had words for shows like this, words like extravaganza. There's a wonderful New-Year's-Eve-in-Times-Square vibe to this album, and if you can forget that it's only June, you'll have a ball.
Last week was pretty chaotic and disruptive and eventful. I started off breaking in a new computer after the old one--with its slowly dying power supply--finally gave up the ghost. That always throws me off considerably, which has something to do with my status as an introvert who constantly works hard to get things just right. I went to Toronto over the weekend, a good thing of course, but anytime I whip out my passport I feel like I've gone on a major adventure...even if the so-called exotic international locale is only 181 miles from my front door. When I returned yesterday afternoon, my mailbox was stuffed with 14 CDs and 2 LPs, so once again the review pile is growing out of control. I feel like today is the day when I can finally get settled in with all the newness--which includes finalizing my sound system and finally getting my Roon software installed so that I can start organizing all my digital files, downloads and Tidal subscription.
Today, in other words, is a good day for a capricious cannonball into that burgeoning pile of music, and it's reassuring to begin with music that's so lithe and pleasant and calming. The Richard Shulman Group is a small and lively quartet that doesn't have an unusual angle or intricate theme behind their performances. Pianist Shulman, along with sax player Jacob Rodriguez, bassist Zack Page and drummer Rick Dilling, concentrate on lush melodies that are low on tension and high on a rare energetic beauty. A year ago I might have made a wisecrack about this type of music being more suited to a cruise ship than an honest jazz club. My first impression, after all, was "light and breezy." Considering I just spent so much of my review of Andy Zimmerman's Half Light talking about my fondness of sad music, you might expect me to damn this album with faint praise. I won't.
Part of the reason is these 14 original tracks, all composed and arranged by Shulman, have a somewhat cleansing effect, like sleeping in your own bed after a long and exhausting journey. These four musicians are certainly making lovely music, but they do it with confidence and skill that acts as the perfect antidote to ambition for its own sake. There's a flawlessness to these performances, and while that can be a bad thing in a genre that actively celebrates the crossing of new frontiers, there's no denying that there's a time and place for safe harbors.
Another plus is that the sound quality is top notch, especially when vocalist Wendy Jones joins in on "The Gifts You Gave to Me," "Homage to Pharoah" and "Finding Peace." Her presence almost provides an opportunity for a double-take--she breaks through the sweetness and light with a knowing and sultry richness that makes your ears perk. When she's not hanging around the microphone stand, the focus shifts to the fluid piano work of Shulman himself, who claims Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Bill Evans, among others, as inspirations. The sound of his piano is substantial, grand even, and it's the trusty foundation underneath the perfect soundtrack for a well-needed return to normality.
Friday, June 15, 2018
My review of Andy Zimmerman's incredible new LP, Half Light, is now live at Positive Feedback Online. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Once in a while I get an album from one of my contemporary jazz contacts that isn't quite, well, jazz. That brings up the old brain twister about the definition of jazz, of course, and I have learned that all sorts of sounds can be informed by jazz without sounding like it. I actually welcome these releases because they tighten the focus I have on the idea of a musical genre. And if you love music, you know that the music that refuses to be pigeon-holed is usually the most fascinating and illuminating kind.
Michael William Gilbert's Radio Omnibus is certainly one of those creations. You can hear jazz in it of course, deep in its core, beneath the cracked foundations. Gilbert is not the typical jazz composer--he grew up in Connecticut and Belgium and gravitated toward the music of Varese, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry and placed it within a context of world music he heard from Japan, India and Africa. He went from studying electrical engineering to electronic music, and he settled in on a career in the design and teaching of synthesis systems. That's why his compositions are firmly within the realm of electronica, with one subtle difference--he strives to make that music more "human" by adding percussion, wooden flutes and voices. That's where the jazz comes in.
If I wanted to perform the rather useless practice of coming up with musical hybridization to describe the work here, I would call it a cross between electronica, perhaps trip-hop, and fusion jazz. I'm not sure that would do justice to these compelling songs. This isn't a unique countenance, and you might find a lot of it familiar. Here the magic is in the elusive whole, of purposing a lot of synthesizer noises and tones into something with a funky beat, something that uses fusion jazz as a touchstone before heading for the outer reaches of space. Just to mix it all up, Gilbert includes two acoustic chamber compositions that peel back a few layers from what's really happening deep inside this music. Oh, and he evens throws in some "multi-cultural" folk such as "Night Walk," which contains the flute, bassoon, vibraphone and a string orchestra. It comes from out of the blue.
If that sounds a tad too exotic, it's not. This is music that's extraordinarily likeable in its beauty, weirdly delicate in a way that's not off-putting, original in the way the seams are obscured. It sounds fantastic, with deep synthesizer bass smashing through the floorboards, and dozens of layers of mechanical drones and swirling highs that set up a huge space for Gilbert's ideas. My first impression, of course, was "This isn't jazz," but I sat still for the duration, bathing in a hypnotic soundscape that prompted my mind to wander and entertain a host of new ideas. If you're into electronica (I am) or fusion jazz (eh, not so much), you will find common ground here. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
I have a warm spot in my heart for things related to the Great Depression. I love movies either made or set during the '30s, and the music from the era has this constrained yet grand feel that accurately conveys the seriousness of the times while adopting an outward sense of escapism. Well, the Glenn Crytzer Orchestra gets that. This 17-piece band not only records music from the era with an impeccable sense of authenticity, but they recreate that classic sound by using the Associated transcription service "sound" as a model.
The Associated transcription service offered an alternative to the sonic presentation offered by most 78rpm records of the time. There's a greater sense of space and reverb in the recordings, even though they were still recorded in mono. The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, along with Blue Rhythm Records, have perfected this glorious sound in their latest double CD, Ain't It Grand. These 30 classic songs sound like they chronicled a wild yet proficient band from 80 years ago, and yet there's a subtle clarity to the sound that hints at a more modern recording approach--to well-trained ears, that is.
"The album allows us to hear vintage big band swing in a whole other way, auditorily speaking, and takes classic music and makes us hear it in the audio equivalent of 3D IMAX--it's quite a wonderful, unique sensation." That might be overstating it a bit, but you get the point. I've been listening to this CD on a fairly expensive audio rig, and I don't get the "entirely new perspective" point as much as I'm convinced this sounds like a very clean copy of a long-lost master tape. It reminds me of an audio dealer I used to know who was firmly committed to listening to 78rpm records with an optimized playback system (with a mono phono cartridge mounted on an old restored Micro Seiki turntable that could spin at that speed). He managed to find a few unplayed 78rpm records, and the results were stunning--while the overall presentation sounded hemmed in and small, the timbre was especially pure. Vocals, in particular, sounded pristine. That system provided plenty of goosebumps.
Ain't It Grand? approaches that same feeling of wonder, of capturing and preserving a precious historical moment. These extraordinary musicians have spent an enormous amount of time and talent perfecting the classic sound of a Depression-era orchestra, and the casual listener will immediately be convinced that it is. You won't find a lot of performers working this hard to recapture such a specific time and place in musical history, so my hat's off to Crytzer and his crew. If you're the type of music lover who still gets a charge from listening to old mono recordings that have been meticulously stored, or old 78s that haven't been tortured by old playback equipment, this is a wonderful gift to you.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
Deep Into Jazz in Texas: The Jazz Program at University of North Texas Now Live at Part-Time Audiophile!
At last! I've finally finished the UNT article for Part-Time Audiophile, You can read it here. Enjoy!
Friday, June 8, 2018
It's not news that I've been inundated with big band jazz recordings over the last few months. And yes, the UNT big band jazz project is long finished and will be appearing in Part-Time Audiophile shortly. Through all of these recordings, most of them fantastic and illuminating, I've questioned deep down that it might not be my specific cup of tea. But I've soldiered on, stepping outside of myself to give these huge ensembles the credit they deserve. I suppose my reservations revolve around the fun factor in this music--it's splashy and exciting and precise.
Is that my thing? I'm not sure. I like my jazz to be on the moody, forlorn side of the spectrum. Most big band jazz performances are focused around the standards, delivering them with the prerequisite amounts of dazzle. If I could just find a big band sound that captured the more melancholy and reflective side of music, a sound that's new and distinctive and shies away from more than just a novel theme or approach. Ask and ye shall receive, in the form of this new release from the Frankfurt Radio Big Band--located, of course in Germany.
Envisioned by conductor and composer Jim McNeely, these seven songs depart from big band canon with liberal doses of the sad and the surreal. I'm not talking about abstract or "free" ideas that branch out on nervous tangents, but rather somber moods and places I haven't been. There are moments during this amazing recording, which was culled from two live performances back in 2014, where the big band moniker doesn't seem to apply. There's a dreaminess to McNeely's vision that skirts along the more substantial nooks and crannies of jazz as we know it. There's an almost magical way this band travels into darker territory, a land where brash dynamics surrender to a far more intimate feel. The emotions here are complex and full of doubt and regret. It's not downbeat as much as thoughtful, serene and perhaps a bit confrontational.
These pieces present seven "imaginary scenes" that start off as chamber-bound and develop into the appropriate size and scale of big band. That's why there such an unusual sense of the sacred and the fantastic. Fantasy is the key word here, with the tracks borne from "imaginary friends; winning the 'big game;" confronting monsters; visits from mysterious people we don't recognize." That essence informs the listener every step of the way, providing a new roadmap to a big band sound I didn't realize was possible. If you have predisposed ideas of what a big band jazz ensemble should be accomplishing, I challenge you to listen to this new album and bask in completely new visions of sound.
Thursday, June 7, 2018
"One of the preeminent performers in Chicago jazz, saxophonist Shawn Maxwell--"
I could almost stop you right there. Start talking about jazz and Chicago and saxophones, and I'm going to imagine a particularly energetic sound. We're talking about big horn sections, acting as a singular force, and more than the usual helping of blues and rock and roll drive. To tell you the truth, I heard a lot of that on the surface of Maxwell's new CD, Music in My Mind, blaring horns leading the way, lots of ooomph, the antithesis of introspection. During subsequent listening sessions I heard something else emerge, a more modern approach that employs different levels of dynamics simultaneously. If this is Chicago jazz, there's something new in the wind off Lake Michigan.
There's a busyness to the sound that comes from meticulous composing and strong pushes of sheer originality. Maxwell and his usual quartet New Tomorrow (keyboardist Matt Nelson, drummer Phil Beale and rotating bassists Patrick Mulcahy, Junius Paul and Tim Seisser) are joined by three well-known Chicago horn players (Victor Garcia, Chad McCullough and Corey Wilkes). Guest appearances include vocalist Dee Alexander, who has an unusually sweet and velvety approach to improvisation. There's a lot of talent here, patiently taking turns to shine, and that's where it sounds so different than the traditional Great Lakes vision of precision and teamwork. It's a swirling, detailed delivery that constantly circles around in your mind.
These ten original compositions from Maxwell are given flight by his versatile sax--his shifting of gears is fluid and he has a lot of emotions at his fingertips. He can blast when he needs to, or lurk in the background like a low voltage charge, ready to spur on his cohorts when inspiration is warranted. There's a consistent vibe here of support, of each of these musicians encouraging the others who share the stage. Maybe it's love--it certainly feels like it.
As I listen to this album, I keep making an unlikely connection to Sufjan Steven's epic Illinois, which certain shares those geographic cues. The reasons are surprisingly subtle, however. Maxwell and Stevens both like a lot of musicians on the stage at the same time, and there are intersections with some of the instrumentation--especially with the vibraphone and some of the percussion. It's fleeting, but it's enough. That doesn't mean you should get one if you like the other, because this is a very specific and personal observation. But it all goes back to that feeling of love--not in a schmaltzy way, but in a shared joy of playing music that is obvious to the listener. Shawn Maxwell and his crew loved making this recording, and it shows.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Another day, another organ trio. As I've said repeatedly, this is not a bad thing. I'm really digging the preponderance of these ensembles in today's contemporary jazz scene. After listening to a least a dozen of these outfits over the last few months, the thing that strikes me the most is how these simple trios can adopt such a distinctive sound and attitude despite the simplicity of their arrangements--hip, nostalgic, earthy, sinister, whatever else you got. Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart have been recording as an organ trio since the early '90s--Toy Tunes is their twelfth release--and they whip up a distinctive mood as well, and that's mellow.
Mellow can be intriguing, of course, if you know how to focus and listen carefully. While there's a certain spareness to their overall sound, bordering on reticent, they teeter along the precarious edges of jazz enough so that they're never boring or indifferent in the way they pursue familiar themes and melodies. This smoothness, always flirting with the adventurous, is usually centered on Bernstein's guitar. It's that classic jazz guitar sound, clear and unfettered with distortion. He plays the lead most of the time, carrying the melody, while Goldings' Hammond B-3 provides the atmosphere. I know I overuse the term texture at times when I'm describing jazz, but it's an essential trait for most B-3s. There's a flow, an almost drone-like layer of feeling and emotion that acts as a canvas for the other players. Stewart, the drummer, invokes much of the excitement with his restlessness and his constant shimmer. As a trio, these seasoned musicians are the proverbial still waters. There's a lot going on that you won't hear from the next room.
Goldings summarizes this unique feel and structure by revealing that "our approach has never been dictated by the 'organ trio' format but rather by our individual personalities." This is precisely right. Toy Tunes is one of those rare organ trio recordings where you can easily follow each musician through the track and keep the other two in the periphery. In other words, you can listen to each song straight three times and have three separate impressions. Despite the calming effect of the whole, Goldings, Bernstein and Stewart are often pursuing separate journeys--they're walking down the road together but seeing and feeling different things. This makes for a sound that begs you to crawl around inside of it.
The trio also specializes in intricate song structures. The first tune, "Fagen," is obviously a tribute to the famous Donald from Steely Dan, and it seems like a natural instinct to pay homage to another individual who prefers innovative song structures. While the majority of tunes are originals, with equal composing credits from each of the three, there are also knowing nods in the form of adaptations from kindred spirits such as Carla Bley ("And Now the Queen") and the title tune from Wayne Shorter. G,B & S is hardly an organ trio for beginners, but these gentlemen are a gift to those who want to think about their jazz as well as float along with it.
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Your first impression of Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkestra, other than the whimsical name of the ensemble, might be that their music is fairly straightforward big band jazz, full of bright and splashy dynamics and a keen sense of fun. After a while you might pick up a few odd cues here and there, that the ensemble does an especially good job of sounding bigger than it actually is, for instance. Here are twelve very talented musicians, all Korean--a horn section, a flute, a cello, a four-piece rhythm section and a male voice--and they're versatile enough to deliver all manners of size and scale. Jungsu Choi is this group's leader, composer and arranger, and while he chooses that familiar big band sound to realize his original compositions, he also borrows liberally from other genres and mediums such as modern dance, TV spots, film scores and musical theater.
That gives JCTO a unique sound that carves out a distinct niche in contemporary big band jazz. "I am ready to welcome the new jazz," states Choi, "bye-bye jazz era!" I know, that sounds a bit precious. But the five epic tracks on Tschuss Jazz Era are made up of ingredients that sound familiar yet have never been mixed up in these specific portions before now. There's a certain daring to Choi's approach--he takes classics from Parker, Ellington and Corea, along with a couple of original pieces, and blends them into a sprawling journey that turns itself inside out at times. (One of the tunes is titled "What if Ellington Didn't Take the 'A' Train?") Yes, there are just five songs here, but each one contains a series of vignettes so that every couple of minutes you'll find yourself in a very different place.
The pace is manic, and exciting ideas are constantly being revealed at breakneck pace--the Tiny Orkester doesn't slow down until the opening of the final Corea track ("Spain"). The rotation of voices from Jinho Pyo, Sehyun Baik and Choi himself are the most exotic ingredient here, and they don't always blend seamlessly with the music. But this is where the chances are being taken, to mate the core components of big band jazz with something that underlines Choi's declaration of "out with the old and in with the new." The result isn't something radical as free jazz, a genre that Choi often alludes to in the liner notes: "My music is meant to free jazz from jazz, without any labels," he explains. But it does possess that same unpredictable spirit.
Fortunately he's taking it one step at a time with these five compositions, with those big band elements serving as beacons to reveal the occasional excursion into the unusual. If you can use the more traditional touchstones to steady yourself--like holding onto the pool's edge while you navigate toward the deep end--you'll find this album to be far more accessible than it should be.
Monday, June 4, 2018
As most music lovers know, there's often a gap between the musicians we know and the songs we've heard. I'll give you an example. 25 years ago I was the manager of a Toys 'R' Us, and I was subjected to a steady stream of Muzak from the store's sound system. I heard a lot of Top 40 hits over and over again. I didn't know who was singing these pop songs, but I actually knew the artists just by pop culture osmosis. I just hadn't put two and two together. Oh, so that's what Britney's voice sounds like. Hmm. Now I know.
My experience with the James Gang is a slight variation on that theme. I knew there was a '60s rock band named James Gang, and a lot of my friends thought they were really good. I also knew Joe Walsh, of course, because of The Eagles and his solo hits such as "Life's Been Good" and "Rocky Mountain Way." Everyone knew who Joe Walsh was back in the late '70s. Up until a few years ago, however, I never knew that Joe Walsh had his major breakthrough with the James Gang. Someone mentioned the trio, which of course included drummer Jim Fox and bassist Dale Peters when they recorded James Gang Rides Again in 1970, and once I had a moment alone I looked them up on the internet to listen to some of their songs. Of course I started off with "Walk Away" and "Funk #49" and instantly thought oh, of course I know these songs. I imagine I just always thought they were early Joe Walsh songs.
Now I don't like The Eagles much, but I've always liked Joe. He's a goofy guy with a great sense of humor and he's a hell of a guitar player. Over the last couple of years I've streamed most of the albums from James Gang--their 1969 debut Yer' Album, for instance, 1971's Thirds (which contains "Walk Away") and this one, which was instantly my favorite. I told myself, "You gotta find some of these on LP when you get the chance."
Last year I heard that Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs was remastering Rides Again, and I was determined to buy it when it came out. Seems like it's been a while since I bought an MFSL LP, even though I probably own close to 100 of them. Just haven't been paying attention, I guess--I'd love to get on their mailing list. Well, I forgot about it until a few weeks ago when I attended a grand opening event for one of my dealers in Mystic, Connecticut--Castle Hill Audio/Video. They have a great selection of audiophile LPs up front, and there it was, right in the front of one of the bins. I knew I wasn't leaving without it.
I'm not sure what I can tell you about this 48-year-old album that you don't already know--it's a nice, tight and surprisingly ambitious album. It's starts off with "Funk #49" of course, which just kicks butt in that early '70s hard rock way, but there's plenty of acoustic songs, string arrangements and even a variation on Ravel's "Bolero." But I'll tell you something--as much as I like Joe Walsh, who is definitely front and center for the entire album, I really enjoy Jim Fox's drumming first and foremost. He's one of those rock drummers who's always doing something special, offering gifts to those who pay close attention. He's a more rambunctious version of Mick Fleetwood, keeping the time but never taking the easy way out. He is the "James" of "James Gang," so he was never going to fade into the background, but he's the biggest reason I like this band at this specific point of my life.
I don't have a garden-variety version of this album, so I can't compare the MFSL. But overall, it does sound clean and compact. It's a 1970 rock recording, which means it sounds a bit muddier overall than something recorded ten of fifteen years later, but you get a clear window into the performances of these three talented musicians. They were kids when this album came out, but they knew what they were doing.
Friday, June 1, 2018
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one discuss another promise of "hi-rez" vinyl technology, and how my latest forays into reel-to-reel have given me a new perspective into analog formats. You can read it here.