Monday, June 18, 2018

Bob Mintzer Big Band and New York Voice's Meeting of Minds

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.

The Richard Shulman Group's Turned into Lemonade

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

Andy Zimmerman's Half Light Now Live at Positive Feedback

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

Michael William Gilbert's Radio Omnibus

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

The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra's Ain't It Grand?

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.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Frankfurt Radio Big Band: Jim McNeely's Barefoot Dances and Other Visions

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

Shawn Maxwell's New Tomorrow--Music in My Mind

"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

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart's Toy Tunes

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

Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkester's Tschuss Jazz Era

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

James Gang Rides Again on MFSL LP

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

Vinyl Anachronist #121 Now Live at Perfect Sound Forever!

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.