Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Vinyl Anachronist #122 is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is about Roon, and how it has made my digital streaming much more fun...almost as fun as LPs! You can read it here.
It took me a while to unravel what was so different about Rafal Sarnecki's take on jazz, and I finally settled on "it's full of tension." Most jazz isn't like that. It's about telling a story, about taking the listener somewhere unexpected. Sure, there's tension and excitement and danger and everything else, but this is the difference between a friend telling you "Let me tell you a scary story" and "Quick, can you hide me? It's just for a couple of days until things cool down." Sarnecki, a jazz guitarist who was born in Poland and has been part of the NYC jazz scene for a number of years now, deliberately injects these vivid emotional strains throughout his new album Climbing Trees. The overall theme is overcoming fears and anxieties and staying focused on your dreams. To say you can hear those fears and anxieties in every one of these ten original compositions, however, is an understatement.
"Once I challenged myself to climb the top of one tree I felt an urge to climb a higher tree," Sarnecki explains. "The satisfaction from fighting the fear was very strong and addictive." The trees, in this case, are Sarnecki's obstacles in creating the music he wants--stage fright and a need to push the boundaries of his music into new frontiers. Such themes can be found readily in other musical genres, most obviously in popular music where songwriters are constantly doubting themselves, but in jazz the focus is usually on the abstract, of finding the way amid the total lack of restraints--all within established structures and themes. Jazz performers may be thinking about all these things while they are playing, and those fears may come out into the music one way or another, but to make this self-doubt the primary focus is quite unusual. It's also effective.
When you're writing music about fear, it's easy to make it sound like a nightmare. Sarnecki resists that temptation, relying instead on strong and cogent melodies. One of his most effective tools for keeping the humanity in these compositions is the addition of vocalist Bogna Kicinska, a fellow Pole. Kicinska offers vocal improvisations instead of lyrics, much like you'll find in Brazilian jazz, just a beautiful voice acting as pure instrument. This tempers the more turbulent aspects of the music, and Kicinska almost plays the role of a guardian angel, a muse that continually tells Sarnecki to stay focused on his dreams. Her presence reminds me of Jessica Lange's Angelique in All That Jazz--except for the whole Angel of Death part, of course. Kicinska is there to listen and to provide empathy.
Speaking of empathy, the rest of Sarnecki's ensemble seems really in tune with his vision, so much so that it appears we are witnessing the fears and concerns of everyone on stage. Sax player Lucas Pino, pianist Glenn Zalecki, bassist Rick Rosado and drummer Colin Stranhan are magical here because they are able to set aside "normal" approaches to jazz and come up with something entirely original in service to Sarnecki. It's a bit of a cliche to say a jazz ensemble is playing as one, but it's something else when they recognize a singular vision such as this and cast aside everything they've learned in order to make that vision a reality. Climbing Trees, if you haven't already guessed, stands out from most, if not all, contemporary jazz. It exists almost on its own plane. Sarnecki is using jazz as sort of a fuel to get from point A to point B, but you've never been in a car like this before. Highly recommended.
It's absolutely fitting that trombonist Peter Lin has titled his new album With Respect. Every part of it pays homage to jazz of the past, so much so that you might get tricked into thinking, once again, that this is a recording from the late '50s or early '60s. From the first song, "Forgotten Times," there's that close and intimate feel so germane to those Golden Era sessions, a sense that there's no fancy filler, only the flesh and bones of jazz. After cruising through this relatively brief outing, just seven tracks in just under a half an hour, you might not even notice what's so special about this album. Other than fellow trombonist Slide Hampton's "My Blues," this album is filled with jazz interpretations of popular songs from Taiwan and China.
Lin was born in Baton Rouge and graduated with an MM in Jazz Trombone Studies at Rutgers University. He's faculty at Jazz House Kids, a music school in New Jersey. He's also Slide Hampton's manager. He sounds like an average American kid who grew up loving jazz and decided he needed to be part of the excitement that life provides--which he is, obviously. His heritage is Taiwanese, however, and he has worked with the Taiwanese-American community for much of his life. It's only fitting that this is the young man who can make these songs from halfway around the world sound so distinctly American, so perfectly fitted to classic jazz idioms.
Lin isn't quite a "kid," since he's been a composer, arranger and band leader for many years. He doesn't play like a kid, either, since his trombone has that same forward sound that evokes beyond be-bop, stopping just short of Dixieland cadences. (This is most obvious with the New Orleans feel of "Rose, Rose, I Love You," even though the Chinese origins of the melody are more present here than anywhere else on the album.) There's a jovial brashness here, an inner light to his playing that suggests he's in love with this music, and while he seems to be a perfectly serious and thoughtful performer you can't help but imagine the smile on his face as he's playing.
He's surrounded by The Lintet, a seemingly revolving line-up of musicians that includes sax and flute player Anthony Nelson Jr., sax players Benjamin Kovacs and Anthony Ware, trumpeter James Zollar, guitarist Charlie Sigler, pianist Oscar Williams II, bassist Ben Rubens and drummers Winard Harper and Nick Cacioppo. Despite all this talent on stage, the overall sound is never busy--it's always light and spare. That allows the Asian themes to bloom into genuine jazz without feeling forced or disjointed. While With Respect can be enjoyed simply as a jazz album, one can only imagine how these arrangements compare to the originals, and how impressive Lin's talents truly are. I might have to give that a try!
Monday, July 30, 2018
Last week I mentioned how I had just received a batch of "female vocals" jazz recordings that were far above average for one reason or another. After excellent outings from both Melbreeze and Lucia Jackson, we now have a sedate and lovely offering from singer Rachel Caswell--the older sister of noted violinist Sara Caswell (who plays on three of these tracks). Rachel has an easy, relaxed voice that is full of romance. Her range is exceptionally wide, but her sweet spot resides in the upper registers where she clings lovingly to each note, letting them expand generously into the air as if they had wings.
While she's quite the presence here, it's notable that We're All in the Dance is produced by none other than guitarist Dave Stryker, who of course plays here along with keyboardist Fabian Almazan, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Johnathan Blake. Stryker has been a bit of a King Midas in contemporary jazz circles over the last couple of years. His arrangements are always considerate of jazz tradition, even though his talents can be applied to a number of sub-genres--he can play straight out of the songbook or he can add a vigorous, bluesy flavor when needed. The themes here tend toward the delicate, enhancing Caswell's generous and charming interpretations, but Stryker and his sensibilities are up-front most of the way.
Caswell has a serene way of setting herself up on stage, deep within the lush arrangements, but it's also noticeable that she's one of the few modern singers who can scat without adding too much nostalgia. She never barks out those quick cadences, preferring instead to transform those notes into pleasant counterpoints to both Stryker and Almazan. She can also frame these improvisations into odd time signatures with ease and conviction, as if nothing is beyond her talent. That pervasive smoothness, in other words, can be deceptive. It does all sound so easy, but don't assume any of this really is. For instance, you might think she's just another singer taking a swing at the GAS, a little Charlie Parker here and a little Rodgers and Hart there, but listen to the way she takes Sting's "Fragile" and makes it sound like it belongs with the other tunes.
Despite the outward appearance of lightness, Caswell does have a foil here--Blake's drumming is full of a brightly lit energy that often careens into uncharted territory. He never rests until he has added just enough tension to the arrangement to suggest the bittersweet, or even the tempestuous, which mates with Caswell's effortlessness in an almost illogical way. So while Caswell's voice may mesmerize you through the course of this beautiful album, the rest of the ensemble does so much more than add another layer. It's an intriguing blend, and that makes We're All in the Dance even more memorable.
Thursday, July 26, 2018
For me, Brazilian jazz is one of those musical genres that has a rather narrow definition. There are very specific traits to the music, the rhythms and the way vocals are employed, that make something true Brazilian jazz or make it something else that's just sort of Brazilian. Sure, you can slyly add Brazilian influences to another type of music and make it a hybrid, but then it becomes something else...right? I'm asking because I'm not so sure anymore. I've listened to a lot of contemporary Brazilian jazz lately, and everyone is trying to bring something new to the game. In some cases, such as Antonio Adolfo, the result is a purer form of jazz that is merely informed by Brazilian traditions. But Melbreeze's new album, Animazonia, liberties are taken. Unusual elements are introduced that are like nothing I've heard from Brazil, and yet this is clearly an album of Brazilian music. It's as obvious as can be.
Melbreeze was born in Turkey, and she grew up with music that featured both Greek and Roman origins. She pursued ballet for a big chunk of her life, raised a family and then realized that her "love for music...never wavered and she dreamed that one day she could do they kind of music she wanted." Animazonia is a realization of those dreams. This is her ninth album, and she's already established a strong presence with her music and with her visual arts, usually combined as one, but this is the album where she "shares all her thoughts and feelings that she kept hidden inside for years."
This sounds like an ambitious project, and it is. Her approach is exotic, but not in the normal Brazilian way. Her versions of such Brazilian jazz standards as "Quiet Nights," "One Note Samba" and "Desafinado" are faithful at their core but embellished with unusual touches that circumvent the term "hybrid" and become something altogether new. She's not afraid to introduce other cultures into her arrangements, such as the steady tambla and sitar in "How Insensitive" or lush interludes enhanced by synthesizers and programming. Her voice is husky and filled with experience and maturity, a very different approach than someone like Astrud Gilberto would take. It's almost as if she's an old-fashioned torch singer who spent a few years in Rio and came back with a vision of blending the two worlds into one.
The answer is yes, this is still Brazilian jazz, but perhaps for a new generation of fans. Purists might balk at her adventurous choices, but there's plenty of excitement in the way she pins down those old traditions and fleshes them out with modern techniques. At times she brushes up against pop, but there's an inherent respect in every note that reminds me of Sade and how she assembled old ideas into something that sounded fresh. If I could, I would grab the nearest Brazilian and ask "Well, what do you think of this?" They might hem and haw a little bit, but I suspect they'd like Animazonia a lot, and that there's plenty of room for this kind of innovation in their world.
For a guy who has done his share of complaining about the preponderance of female voice recordings in contemporary jazz, not to mention audiophile obsessions with those same recordings, I'm certainly confronted with an embarrassment of riches right now. Just a few weeks after hearing Jacqueline Tabor's fabulous, near-perfect The Lady in the Gown, I suddenly have a plethora of new CDs that feature women jazz singers--and some of them are downright exquisite. Lucia Jackson's debut album, You and the Night and the Music, was the one that really leapt out at me at first listen, and for a number of reasons. First of all, I immediately connected with her voice. It doesn't have the rich, deep undercurrents of Tabor's voice, but it does have that charming girlishness that I hear in Ella Fitzgerald, that clarity that translates into honesty when it comes to supplying the meaning behind the lyrics.
Like The Lady in the Gown, this album also includes a gorgeous small ensemble that captures the magic of the late '50s and early '60s, something in the air that propels me back into Julie London's best recordings. Perhaps this is because her father is the great jazz guitarist Ron Jackson, master of the 7-string electric archtop, and he has produced this album and arranged these classics and supplied the vision. (His daughter did help with the arrangements of "Sophisticated Lady," "I'm a Fool to Want You" and her own composition "Feel the Love.") Father and daughter blend beautifully with the rest of the ensemble, pianist Yago Vasquez, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Corey Rawls, and we're also treated to special appearances such as Dan Garcia's flamenco guitar on "Feel the Love" and Javier Sanchez's sweet and wistful bandoneon on "I'm a Fool to Want You."
The story behind Lucia Jackson is intriguing as well. Like Janelle Monae, she was a dancer and a model and her career was going in all the right directions. But there's a problem--like Monae, it seems like a sin to keep a voice like this away from the world. (I'm a bit biased in this regard because I have much more use for a singer in my life than a dancer or a model.) She's developed a strong following in recent years and those fans raised $15,000 through Indiegogo for this project, which is compelling for a number of reasons. First of all, it's similar to the digital video revolution in the film industry in that artists can achieve their goals for far less money than traditional approaches. It's fairly amazing that $15,000 from a group of dedicated fans can ultimately result in an album this polished and classy. Second, this strategy forms a stronger bond between performer and audience. There are less people in the middle grabbing a piece of the pie.
It all comes back to the real treasure here, which is Jackson's smooth and relaxed voice, both lighthearted and vulnerable, the type of voice that makes you feel lucky to be in its presence. There's a precision in the way she ends each phrase, the care in which she delivers that last consonant with just the right amount of texture. Every word means something to her, and you should pay attention so you can catch her drift, so to speak. Lucia Jackson is the type of female singer who makes me want to forget every snarky comment I've made about the flood of female voice recordings out there. She makes me forget, in fact, why I had any complaints in the first place. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
It's all about the youngsters today on my blog. Hanson Briggs from Amra is just 23, and jazz singer Rebecca Angel has him beat at just 22 years of age. For a singer-songwriter in indie rock to record a first album at this young age is perfectly common since rock and roll is about youthful rebellion--or at least it was fifty years ago. Jazz is different, I believe. It's about experience and tradition and, as I've mentioned once or twice, it's about building some character that can be heard in your voice or in the way that you play. It's easy to like rock and pop--most people make an instant connection to it. Jazz is different for both performer and listener. It needs to be approached more carefully, hopefully from a perspective that you've lived a bit of life and some of these abstract ideas are easier to figure out.
Does that mean Rebecca Angel has a big disadvantage here, delivering an album of Brazilian jazz at such a tender age? Of course not. Talent gets your foot in the door, even in jazz, and she has an instantly likeable voice. In fact, it's more than likeable--it's sexy and alluring in the way Brazilian jazz has always been. I could remind you of "The Girl From Ipanema" and how that was a song about a beautiful girl walking along the beach and getting a lot of attention. There's something overtly sexual about Brazilian culture, at least to Americans. It's about having a relaxed attitude, and showing a little more skin than usual because it's so warm out. (Please remember that I'm talking about Brazilian jazz traditions in general, and not the singer.)
What am I trying to say? Perhaps Brazilian jazz needs to be youthful and invigorating in spirit, so it helps when someone with such a pure and sultry voice finds a kinship with it. Angel has a breathy, sweet voice that might be just as comfortable singing pop hits, but she's able to bypass that observation through great taste in her material such as Hoagy Carmichael's "Winter Moon" and a gorgeous and unique cover of "Stand By Me." She's come up with a couple of original compositions on her own--the title track and "Feel Alive," both which blend seamlessly with the rest of the album. She also has plenty of talent behind her, a large ensemble that focuses on Caribbean and South American and sounds incredibly crisp and alive.
This is just an EP, five songs that are designed to get your attention. Fortunately you also get a couple of bonus tracks--"Stand By Me" comes in both a "radio mix" and an "electro remix," with Angel adding some programming touches on the latter. You also get two versions of Marcos Valle's instrumental hit "Jet Samba" in a radio mix and an "Ipanema remix." (This is the first time "Jet Samba" has ever been recorded with vocals.) This suggests there is far more to Angel than just being a young singer trying to get noticed. She's done such a good job here, from the singing to the arranging to the composing to the choice of material, that it's kind of silly to keep bringing up her age. So I'll stop.
Hanson Briggs is a young singer-songwriter from LA, by way of Kansas City. I feel like I knew a lot of people like him when I was involved with the film industry almost thirty years ago, people who came from the Midwest to LA to make it somehow in the entertainment. I didn't make it, obviously, but plenty of people I knew did--one became a high-powered William Morris agent, one became an executive for Dick Clark Productions and yet another was a creator and show-runner for a sci-fi series that lasted on cable for a few seasons. These three old friends had one thing in common, however. They were all from the Midwest. And there was something about each one of them, a direct honesty, a wholesomeness that was backed up by enough intelligence to know they weren't in Kansas anymore and that they had to develop some deep survival skills if they were going to achieve their goals.
I see that in Briggs. He is basically Amra, although he does work with a band when he performs live. His songs exude, well, a wide-eyed innocence. I hate using that cliche but it is apt, and it seems to define what he's trying to accomplish in his debut album What Made It Easier. Briggs is traveling in some of the same circles as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie, singing about heartbreak and loss and trying to mine the art that can heal those wounds. That sounds like some of the maudlin singer-songwriter stuff that's filling the indie charts these days, but Amra as a band avoids most of those downbeat, self-absorbed conceits with an upbeat, electronica-based sound that also borrows liberally from the '80s.
The theme of loss stems from a recent death of a parent, something all of us go through but perhaps not at age 23. That's what gives most of these songs a two-sided, tempered approach. Briggs seems to possess a lively pop instinct--some of his music will remind you of Coldplay but with much better lyrics. of course. His voice even sounds a little like Chris Martin, that emotive but ever so slightly broken delivery that swings you back to the other side of this music, the sadness and despair. It might be a case of a spoonful of sugar, but where bands like Coldplay (and Bon Iver, for that matter) trip up is that they don't quite have the honesty to sell it. Briggs is far more convincing because of his age, the fact that he is still a very young man and these things seem to hurt more when you're young and haven't figured everything out yet.
Those Midwestern roots have helped to get Amra on the radar thanks to publications such as No Depression, whose critics have championed this release. I'm curious about that, because this is clearly not cut from the same cloth as the usual alt-country genres. As I said, there's far more pop and synthesizers in the mix. But it might mark a new turn in the so-called roots rock scene, an expansion of the genre. Taken from that perspective, What Made It Easier is a compelling album from a young man who I hope doesn't grow up too soon.
Friday, July 20, 2018
I'll go ahead and say it--Redd Kross is the most underrated power pop band of the '90s, and possibly beyond. I've liked them since the moment I watched The Spirit of '76, a 1990 comedy that was one of the first film parodies of the goofy trends of the '70s. It featured brothers Jeff (guitars, vocals) and Steve (bass, vocals) McDonald as two dim-witted teens who help David Cassidy and Olivia D'Abo repair their time machine and return to the year 2176--the time-travelers originally set the course for 1776 but wound up, obviously, in 1976. The brothers McDonald were part of the the Southern California punk scene, once even opening for Black Flag, and by the 1980s they had changed the name of the band from The Tourists to Redd Kross (a naughty reference to a famous scene in The Exorcist) and started playing their trademark brand of power pop that was heavy on pop culture and sheer fun.
My appreciation of the band was also boosted by my younger brother, who still adores them to this day. He turned me onto the original albums as well as some of their interesting side projects over the years. One of them, Ze Malibu Kids, featured Steve and his wife Charlotte Caffey--yes, that Charlotte Caffey from The Go-Gos. The band also featured their daughter Astrid, who was only 10 when she joined as the drummer. Perhaps the most gleeful side project of all came from Steve when he added bass guitar to all of the tracks from the White Stripes' White Blood Cells and called it Red Blood Cells. Jack White is said to have loved it, and gave his endorsement. I have it on my music server and it is fascinating--although I might still prefer the original. You can check out the tracks on YouTube.
Third Eye was their third album, originally released in 1990 as their major label debut with Atlantic, and it finally provided the band with some success due to the hit single "Annie's Gone." It also features long-time Redd Kross bandmate Robert Hecker on guitar, and Victor Indrizzo on drums. Jack Irons, one-time drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers, toured with Redd Kross for the Third Eye tour. And that naked masked girl on the cover? That's Sofia Coppola.
They have a great pedigree, obviously, but to this day I meet very few people who know Redd Kross. When I do meet someone, they're always a huge fan. Maybe they were a SoCal sort of band, or maybe their overall sound is a little too bubble-gum to be taken seriously by some people. That's sort of missing the point. Despite the fact that they alienated some fans when they switched from punk to this guitar-driven pop music, there's a bit of irony in the delivery. The brothers and Hecker, who does an amazing impersonation of Paul Stanley on "1976," offer a believable and enthusiastic take on this style of rock, and they're also serious musicians. You want great hooks, furious drumming and kick-ass guitar solos? You got them right here. It's amazing how good this album still sounds 28 years later.
A lot of that can be traced to this new pressing, which was released for Record Story Day earlier this year. Well, sort of, since the release was delayed and didn't make it into stores on time, which is why I have it now. It comes in green vinyl and includes a new insert with the lyrics. It was remastered on vinyl by Infrasonic Mastering in Los Angeles, and it sounds unusually clean and the pressing is first-rate. Part of the thrill of having this album available is because it was out of print for many years. Maybe that's why they've faded from memory, despite releasing the well-received album Researching the Blues in 2012. Honestly, Redd Kross is the kind of group that deserves a major comeback in 2018, and maybe this exciting reissue will accomplish that.
Thursday, July 19, 2018
Just after I complained about the lack of band info on a couple of other indie-rock reviews this week, I received this very mysterious disc in for review. You can see the cover above, and that's pretty much all I had to go on. There are no credits on the back, no musician line-up, not even a list of tracks. I threw it in the CD player not knowing what to expect, and my God this stuff is fantastic. After a bit of research I found some info on social media, mainly on the group's Facebook page. Trees Speak defines themselves as experimental rock, which implies underground, which implies that this is uncommon music that's not being marketed in the traditional sense. "An exploration in expression!" the Facebook page also declares, and that seems again to imply that this is free-form music, It's definitely hard to describe, but I'll take a shot.
Imagine if the legendary and innovative Krautrock band Can, back during their '70s peak of creativity, decided to cover Brian Eno's Music From Films. That gets you close to what's going on here, I think. This eponymous first album is a collection of fifteen instrumental mood pieces, most of them only a couple of minutes along (there is an epic suite toward the end that lasts a little over twenty minutes), that are strangely devoid of traditional melody. There are two distinct sides to this music, however--they're blended together but still at odds with each other. The first half consists of some good old-fashioned acid rock, drums and bass and guitars, while the second half is more modern with lots of electronic touches and sounds and beats. Additional guitar work soaked in effects and distortion acts as the go-between. This music isn't modern in the sense that it's full of samples and such--everything sounds like it was recorded live with synthesizers and the random pummeling of percussive objects and machines with a lot of knobs.
This sounds extremely adventurous and weird, but I loved every minute of it. Despite the lack of a final element that might hold this music together and propel it into something more mainstream--vocals, a lead instrument or the aforementioned paucity of melody--it's still a fascinating and verdant soundscape. The drums and bass, as basic as they are, deliver plenty of momentum within the depths of these compositions so that you're feeling like this is indeed rock, perhaps a new offshoot of visionary jam band aesthetics. They do cite Can and Miles Davis as influences and go on to describe their approach as transcending "mainstream influences by incorporating elements of Avant-garde, neo-psychedelic and Minimalism."
That effectively covers it in a satisfying way, but you'll still be surprised at this music when you hear it for the first time. It's quite original, but not so weird that you won't "get it," especially if you do have a taste for the psychedelic. What's so enthralling about Trees Speak is the way they've brought those old trippy vibes into 2018 with a clean and well-recorded sound, and with touches of pseudo-electronica that may or may not actually be there. This album is such an eye-opener that I can't help but think this is part of a larger genre music, one I need to discover immediately.
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Composer and pianist Antonio Adolfo usually writes for smaller jazz ensembles. It's been a little over a year since I reviewed his last album, Hybrido: From Wayne Shorter to Rio--I started off that review with "I have to admit, I'm kinda sweet on this one." I loved the fact that he's firmly planted in the world of Brazilian jazz, and yet he doesn't necessarily subscribe to that trademark sound. His Brazilian influences are always subtle, placed carefully within layer after layer of sheer piano beauty.
His new album, Encontros Orquestra Atlantica, is Adolfo's fire foray into big band composition, with arrangements provided by Jesse Sadoc and Marcelo Martins. He's always wanted to do it, but he was always looking for the ensemble that could help him achieve his goal of creating vibrant Brazilian big band jazz. After seeing the Orquestra Atlantica perform in Rio, he knew his search was over. Adolfo has selected nine of his compositions, plus Miles Davis' "Milestones," to create one of the smoothest and sexiest big band recordings I've heard over the last couple of years.
Can big band jazz be sexy? In the Hybrido review I mentioned that "I believe his success and his accessibility is due to his understanding of the parallels between jazz and Brazilian tradition. He treats them differently and doesn't try to melt them into a whole--you can see the dual sensibilities weaving in and out of each other. Does that sound sexy? It is." I had the same immediate response to Encontros, that it featured such an easy, open feel for a big band recording, While there are certainly lively passages, which seems like a natural choice for Adolfo to make since he wanted to expand his compositions for more musicians, these compositions are imbued with a smooth demeanor that creates enormous amounts of air between the musicians. (The excellent sound quality helps in this respect.)
I also mentioned in my review of Hybrido that I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Brazilian jazz--it's sleek and beautiful but too much of it and the fatigue starts to set in. Adolfo's music is different because it requires a modicum of skill and musical knowledge to unearth those Brazilian jazz themes, and there are many other things to consume your attention than connecting those dots. The Orquestra Atlantica is indeed a great muse for Adolfo's expansion into this realm, but the greatest gift continues to be this man and his piano. He's quietly become one of my favorite jazz pianists on the contemporary scene, and you should take the time to introduce yourself to him.
Dang it, if the band is named Vinyl Hampdin I should have received it on vinyl, right? I received it on CD, and of course it sounds great, but while checking out the Vinyl Hampdin website I found so much promotional material on the vinyl release of their new album, Red, that I felt kind of left out. Red, released on red vinyl, is available on CD Baby for just $15. So if I really want it...well, I should stop complaining now.
Who is Vinyl Hampdin? By checking out the website and other promotional materials, I feel like they're just another popular musical act that's flown over my thick noggin, but Red is their debut album so I can relax. They classify themselves as "Rocked Out Seriously Funky Jaw Dropping Ear Candy!"--the exclamation mark is not mine--and my first impression of this album was "let's put on a big show, but a really BIG ONE." This is big music indeed, full of pyrotechnics and theatrics that seem rare outside of Vegas or Broadway. Vinyl Hampdin is founded by trombonist/arranger Steve Wiest, and his idea was to combine a funky big band sound that's a cross between Tower of Power and Chicago before Terry Katz passed away. He's added four horns to a drums-bass-guitar-keyboards funk rock quartet and given them one task, to play the hell out of these songs.
The album is divided between Wiest's original compositions and a unusual cross-section of covers. He and the band starts off with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," which shouldn't be much of a stretch for a funk-rock-soul outfit, but the arrangement is so unique in the way it amplifies the scope and pumps up the volume. Wiest adds this grand scale to just about everything, from Bonnie Raitt's "The Road's My Middle Name" to Bill Withers' "Use Me" to even Paul and Linda McCartney's "My Love." According to the liner notes, Wiest employs the Charles Mingus strategy that "if you want a band that sounds big, bring in musicians with big sounds." The cherry on top, so to speak, is singer Lisa Dodd. She has perhaps the biggest sound of all, her strong and sexy voice inspiring everyone else on stage to put a little more elbow grease into it and keep up. (She's also written the lyrics for two of the Wiest compositions, "Pay For it" and "Billions," so she's invested in every word.)
I can't overstate that this is big, exciting and ambitious music. There's a lot to enjoy here, but the real star is Wiest's arrangements, referred to as "re-imaginations," and how he keeps adding the gasoline to an already raging fire. There's no doubt that he intends to make a strong first impression as the leader of this group. Red is the closest thing to sheer spectacle that I've seen in the world of contemporary jazz. It's not intended as a soundtrack for a quiet evening at home. But for a big night on the town, this might be the recipe for getting the party started.
Here's another no-frills indie release, much in the same vein as the Machine review I wrote a few days ago--just a simple cover, song listing and credits on a single square of paper. Inside is something quite different from the goth aesthetic of Madeline Mahrie, a purist punk/pop that immediately reminds me a lot of the Ramones. The rhythm section--drummer James Carman and bassist Zache Davis, who's also one of the two singers--have that same "one speed fits all" approach to these ten songs, and you can almost hear Dee Dee counting off onetwothreefour at the start of each track. Most songs contain less than a handful of chords, albeit interesting ones. The guitar attack is heavy and congealed, although Justin Maurer and Andrew Zappin do assume the rhythm-lead hierarchy more than Johnny ever did on his own. The only thing missing is Joey's distinctive contribution--Maurer and Davis tend to sing it straight.
While there are a lot of bands that sound like this, I think it's a compliment to make comparisons to the boys from Forest Hills. That legendary band was all about energy and consistency, at least through the first three or four albums. (I may or may not continue to champion the more commercial Road to Ruin, but it was my introduction to the band.) Maniac sustains that same sense of exuberance, that garage band joy of figuring everything out and playing until your fingers are bleeding.
Maniac's from Los Angeles, and perhaps that sense of geography distinguishes them from that East Coast band. Sometimes the guitars suggest just a tiny scoop of '60s surf rock, and there's also a brightness and sunniness to the music that implies wide open spaces more than a claustrophobic garage in Queens. That's not to say they're a happy power pop ensemble--there's plenty of ragged edges in this music, confirmed by the recent video for "City Lights" which includes archival footage from LAPD crime scenes. But that's the essence of being punk in the 21st century, that you can't be afraid to tell the ugly side of your story.
It comes down to how you feel about garage bands. I've always enjoyed them because of the purity and lack of pretention, and plus I spent a good part of my youth hanging out in garages and listening to my buddies try to get it together so they could become rock stars. Dead Dance Club is cut from that same cloth, a minimalist jolt that's meant to be enjoyed at face value. It's a method for waking up, getting angry and getting things done. It's also plenty of fun.
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
My review of David Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7's The Giver, which is so far my favorite record release of the year, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.
Monday, July 16, 2018
Wayne Powers, the second part of this two-fer, seems to walk the same rainy urban streets as Maurice Frank. The only problem with that observation is that Frank is a New Yorker while Powers plied his trade for years in Los Angeles, working with a band named Hoi Polloi. While Frank's album is his debut, Powers has recorded albums. His last one, however, was released in 1993. His story, therefore, is slightly different: "In the intervening quarter century, Powers' life has been full with both the poignant and the joyous--as all lives are." This seems to imply that life got in the way of Powers' singing career, and he has been working hard to get back to where he once belonged.
On the surface, this album sounds very similar to Mad Love and Romance. There's one subtle difference, of course, and that's Powers' equally amazing voice. Franks is upfront and genuine--he's just showing the world his gift and wants you to take him as he is. (I know, I said I wasn't going to compare the two.) Powers' voice, however, seems to be tinged with all of that experience he gained 25 years ago. He's more of a belter, and his voice is set back further from the front of the stage to accommodate that big delivery. There's a deeper resonance in his voice that sometimes sounds like he needs to distance himself from the emotions expressed in these love songs since they're still a bit too raw. There's something in his voice that suggests more of those poignant and joyous moments, and he may not be willing to let the audience see all of that pain.
Sinatra used to do that as well. Ol' Blue Eyes had a wry way of singing songs that revealed his strategy--sure that stuff happened to me, but years have gone by and I'm ready to move on even though it still hurts some. You'll also hear plenty of Sinatra in Powers' voice, the way he digs down deep and treats each lyric as if he's telling a story rather than talking solely about his feelings in front of strangers. Here and there you'll detect a catch in his voice, a moment where he starts to reveal something deep and personal and then changes his mind. Not every singer can add that much subtext to a love song. Sinatra could, and so can Powers.
Powers is backed by a relatively understated quartet--tenor sax player Ziad Rabie, pianist Keith Davis, bassist Ron Brendle and drummer Al Sergel--and they are there in service to that powerful voice. That's not to say the musicians are any less skilled than on "that other album"--they focus instead on creating a beautiful mood as a single, coherent unit. Another plus is that these performances were all captured live in the studio, so there's a spontaneous feeling afoot even if the solos aren't quite as dominant.
As I said, I won't tell you which of these two albums I preferred. There's a flow between them, but not one that feels like two separate albums from the same crew, captured at different times. The feelings, however, are still the same...a "personal yet universal saga of love lost and love found."
Today I'd like to tell the story of two jazz singers, Maurice Frank and Wayne Powers. Both of their CDs arrived in my mailbox on the same day, sent from the same publicist in the same padded envelope. Both men look physically similar, the proverbial grey foxes, and they've both set out to sing classics from the Great American Songbook. Both CDs have love in the title. Both men are surrounded by small ensembles that are absolutely fantastic. The natural course would be to compare them, to determine how well each man accomplishes this rather common (not sure if I like that word, since very few people can pull off this task) goal. But I don't like comparisons. They each possess singular strengths that will get you in the mood for love.
Maurice Frank is first, and he's remarkable since he's yet another singer who's been around forever but is just now getting around to releasing his first album. "Maurice Frank is a native New Yorker. He grew up listening to the great singers of the '50s and '60s and it left its mark on him." That implies Frank was one of those guys in the neighborhood. You know, the guy who had all of his friends and family saying "Have you ever heard Maurice sing jazz? He's amazing! The next time he's over, ask him to sing you something!" From looking at his photo on the cover, he seems to be one cool cat, well-dressed, wearing a beautiful suit open at the collar. He's a jazz guy, through and through.
From that countenance he seems gruff, a guy who's lived jazz close to the blacktop for many decades. His voice, however, is surprisingly light and agile, bordering on that classic croon of people like Bobby Vinton or even Bobby Darin. He's not into weird jazz affectations--his voice is clear and strong and classically beautiful, full of a warm and a longing embrace of every note. His voice has that familiar warmth to it, a feeling that he looks at every word he's singing and then determines the best way to include the right emotions. He's the kind of guy you might see singing at a club, and you might wonder why you haven't heard of him already. He's a charmer.
As I mentioned, his ensemble is as real and as talented as it gets. John DiMartino handles the arrangements and plays a subtle, understated piano that's matches Frank's warmth note for note. Two horn players, Eric Alexander and Aaron Heich, add plenty of excitement--they build on the energy Frank creates. Guitarist Paul Meyers, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Obed Calvaire and percussionist Samuel Torres are pros in the best sense of the word, occasionally showing what they're made of but providing the kind of smooth support that never outshines Frank's remarkable gifts.
If this sounds like the kind of music that would please you to no end, it is exactly that. This is music meant to be heard with your sweetheart, your true love. He's establishing a sublime mood, and there should be more singers like him.
Oh, wait...there is!
I just received a comment from a reader in regards to one of my recent reviews. It's been quite a while since I've fielded this specific complaint, but there was a time, more or less when I started this blog more than eight years ago, where I received some criticism about the way I review music and audio. Evidently I talk a lot about myself when doing reviews, and my critics feel that this is unprofessional. Reviews are supposed to be straightforward. Is it good? Is it bad? How does it compare to the artist's prior work? What artists should I already like if I'm going to like this one? There is a specific reason to read a music review, and that's to know whether or not an album or an artist is worth your time and money. Right?
I've always had a set of ready answers for these critiques of my reviews, but I don't always get to reply in public. One of my most vocal critics is a very well-known writer and reviewer in the world of high-end audio, and I've heard him complain in print about this lousy new wave of "internet" writers who spend more time talking about themselves than the object they're reviewing. (I've mentioned this story before--I quickly read his latest magazine column and discovered he had used me, myself or I several times in the first few sentences. He also told a story in the same column about how someone had recognized him at a recent rock concert. Wow, how exciting for you!)
Anyway, I don't want to get all grumpy about this. I did write about this once before in the original Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever almost seven years. If you get me going, I'll wind up repeating everything I said back then. But you can read that column by clicking here.
Let me just give you a few quick reasons why my reviews read the way they do:
1. Music reviews are subjective. A product review can contain many facts and specific points. But when you review music, it touches something intangible deep within you, and that touch is going to feel different to every single person on the planet. I've seen reviews where the writer merely says whether the release is "good" or "bad" or if they "liked it" or "didn't Like it." (My favorite crappy review was from a former colleague who told everyone to play hooky from work the next day to wait in line for the new album from one of his favorite bands. That was the nadir of music criticism in the modern world, in my opinion.)
In other words, I doesn't matter if I like it or I don't like it, because you just might. I happen to think Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" is the worst song ever, mostly because of the incredibly inane lyrics. It might be your favorite song ever, however, because that song was playing on the radio the first time you met the love of your life. What I try to do is give you a little more detail and context about why I felt this music was good or bad based upon my own life experiences. If you can relate to why I liked something, you might have a better idea of why you might like it, too.
2. It's a blog, FFS. I'm not pretending that this is the leading resource for well-written music reviews on the internet. This is my blog, and blogs are the place where you share your feelings and your hopes and your dreams and whatever the else you want to talk about, including yourself. I do not get paid to write this blog--Google unplugged the money-making machine from this site once it got too popular. I could start a website and put ads on it, which to tell you the truth isn't a bad idea. But I don't make any money from this blog. I do it because I love to write, and writing every day is what keeps me sane.
If someone wanted to hire me to write music reviews and they told me I had to stop talking about myself so much, of course I'd do it. I've written for many magazines and websites and I've worked with many editors and I've also been an editor. I know how this stuff works. In fact, I do get paid to write music reviews for other publications such as Perfect Sound Forever, Part-Time Audiophile and Positive Feedback. And so far, everyone's cool with the way I write. I think it's because they consider my articles to be features or editorials and not so much reviews. I'm cool with that.
3. People like me! They really, really like me! Eh, this is hard for me to say because in my everyday life I'm quiet and introverted and full of self-doubt. But for every person who complains about my writing, there are many, many people who seem to really enjoy it. Remember when I said that writing keeps me sane? People saying they really enjoy my writing makes me something better than sane--it makes me happy. So to the person above who told me I needed an editor to cut out all references to myself, I say to you...
...well, actually I'd love an editor. I'm always going back into this blog and fixing typos and removing commas.
It sounds like my feelings were hurt by this complaint, and maybe they were...just a little bit. But my reason for droning on and on about this is a little more complex. Reviews, quite frankly, are a dime a dozen. I rarely read them anymore, because my tastes have become so specialized that no one else's opinion matters to me anymore.
Oh, but to talk about music! To share really cool music with others! To remember music from the past, and talk about how some new band reminds you of one of your favorite old bands! To tell a funny story from your past that is somehow connected to music!
That's the stuff I want to read about. How about you?
Sunday, July 15, 2018
Tribu's El Matador is about as pure of a celebration of Latin jazz you can get, a tribute to performers such as Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader and Machito who brought these dense polyrhythms to the world over the last few decades. Led by pianist Steve McQuarry, who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Louie Bellson to Laurie Anderson, Tribu is a collection of some of the scene's contemporary greats, playing this lovely tropical splendor with equal measures of experience and love. If you're hosting a party with a Caribbean theme, this album should be playing loudly from its beginning to the wee hours.
That's sort of it in a nutshell, but El Matador isn't design to forge new directions as much as show how this music should be performed properly. It's light and infectious and skillful and sometimes that's all you need. That's part of the spectrum of contemporary jazz these days, where you have preservation of old traditions at one end and breaking down and discarding of those same ideas at the other. McQuarry set out to deliver the best, so he enlisted David Casini on vibes and percussion, the great Ruben Salcido on sax and flute, Marcus Lopez on bass and Mario Solomon and Jesus Gonzalez on more percussion. McQuarry does mix it up on keyboards with tasteful tangents on Hammond B-3, electric piano and even a synthesizer, but you'll walk away remembering his rich time on the ivories.
There's an incredible balance to the music here, however, with different musicians capturing your attention at various times. I'm not talking so much about improvisation, because that's a bit obvious in the realm of jazz, but there's so many different ways to lock on to this music and enjoy the ride. I've hinted at the fact that I'm a huge fan of the vibraphone, and the main reason is because of the soft decay and presence of those struck notes. Dave Casini's been playing vibes for over 40 years, so he understands how those unusual timbres can color the entire spectrum of sound. He's a supporting player much of the way, adding shimmer and echo where needed, but I can't help but obsess over the mood he contributes. The same could be said about the complex percussion--it never stops driving this mix of classics and originals. If you love discovering new details in your music every time you hear it, you can simply bathe in the sound of all the drums, timbales and other percussion and let all the different sounds sweep over you.
Tribu is focused on "bringing Latin Jazz traditions...into the 21st century." While McQuarry occasionally inserts some of that modernism into the mix, he does so in a quiet way that never distracts from the juicy, exuberant whole. El Matador isn't truly innovative, nor does it need to be--it's perfect and precise in its approach as a sure thing.
Saturday, July 14, 2018
There's a band named Machine, and they released a new album called Crazy. The cover art on the CD is ornate and dark, and the back cover contains little more than the song sequence. I tried to find out more online, but you type in the words machine and crazy and see if you can find out more about this music. I couldn't. The frustrating part is that the music here is so friggin' good, an exciting mix of goth and vaudeville and solid indie rock, and I'd like to tell people more about it so they can run out and get it--or download it or whatever. Fortunately I stumbled onto their Facebook fan page and was able to glean more info about this duo, Madeline Mahrie and Peter Thomas. (They also have a website at www.machine-band.com, which I also discovered after many futile searches.)
Machine is Mahrie's baby--she's a singer-songwriter who started out looping piano tracks to her singing and adding the drums later. She met Thomas at a gig and soon he joined as the drummer. I can't really compare the early stuff without him, but he is an energetic drummer who adds a lively countenance to the rather dark and intense sound. Mahrie, however, is at the center of this music, her husky and daunting voice way out front. She's the second singer in the last week who reminds me of Siouxsie Sue (the first was Sound of the Hunter's Natalie Bayne), but she also has that same strength and defiant presence as Florence Welch--another machine reference. You walk away from this album thinking almost solely of her voice, its richness and its growl.
Listening to this album, you might be surprised that Machine's structure is so simple and streamlined. This duo has created a stunning and baroque landscape, powered by Mahrie's thundering piano chords and embellished with plenty of string arrangements and other fascinating details. (Bass guitar is supplied by recording engineer Adam Pike, who co-produced Crazy with Thomas.) While the songs here are dominated by Mahrie's fierceness, they are thankfully varied. The album's opener, "Mad Tom of Bedlam," is framed in one of those sing-song gospel tunes that can easily shift gears into an evil chant. From there she digs deep into her influences which include Prince, Bowie, Portishead, Fiona Apple and, of course, Siouxsie and the Banshees. (If this sudden resurgence of the latter band is the next big thing, I'm all for it.) I even hear plenty of Queen in those vaudevillian exercises, especially since Mahrie's showmanship is placed so forward in the mix.
As far as the somewhat enigmatic promotion of this album goes, I hope it gets clarified. It reminds me of those first Infiniti albums back before the vehicles actually arrived on the market. Everyone was watching those mysterious commercials and those stark billboards, wondering what the actual product was going to be. Machine is such an unusual band, distinctive and, most importantly, good, that I hope it gets easier for people to discover them and start the word of mouth. Madeline Mahrie is quite a discovery, and she deserves to be well-known.
Friday, July 13, 2018
I promised more Hendrik Meurkens in my review of the Roger Davidson Quartet, and here he is. In that review In hinted that I was far more enamored with his vibraphone work than his harmonica work, and here we have just his harmonica--accompanied, of course by Bill Cunliffe's piano. This might be cause for a little disappointment, just because I normally feel that a soulful, expressive harmonica is not entirely suited for jazz. Perhaps because this is a simple duo album, sans rhythm section, I can crawl inside and explore a little deeper and appreciate why Meurkens is considered the finest jazz harmonica player in the world today.
This showcase is more impressive for Meurkens' talent because, in part, this album is patterned after the great piano and harmonica performances recorded by Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans. (Mention Bill Evans to me and I'm all ears, so to speak.) The song selection here is also impressive, ranging from classics such as the title tune, Wayne Shorter's "Miyako" and even Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," to several originals from Meurkens himself. While I compared the sound of Roger Davidson's big, fluid piano to Evans, Cunliffe's touch is a bit lighter and more playful, and that matches the harmonic with a little more ease. So far all of those reasons, I'm going to talk about more than just my personal preferences concerning the mouth harp.
The prize here is, again, the intimacy of this duo, and the recording's ability to bring out all the elements in the two instruments besides mere tone. Piano cues in such recordings are already so obvious, because we're talking about a rather complex box made up of many small parts that makes a lot of noise by merely being as large as it is. The harmonica is different. It's small, and the musician playing it doesn't have to move a lot in order to extract those notes. What you're left with is breath, and Meurkens is a virtuoso because he's able to focus on the notes in an economical way. Let's face it, we've all heard harmonica players who grunt and puff and bring far too much of their physical being into the music. Those cues need to be there to remind us of the human side of making music, but they need to be subtle so that they're not distracting. Meurkens lets the music through and dispenses with the elbow grease needed to produce that passion in his music.
Ultimately I enjoyed this album, and not in spite of the harmonica. This album is actually light on the jazz side of things, even though some very famous jazz tunes are being played. The piano and harmonica aren't plugged into a genre as much as they're joined together to make a unique musical experience. There's that, and there's also learning a little respect for someone who has perfected their craft. Meurken's harmonica becomes one of those musician-instrument interfaces that becomes easily recognizable, and that's the mark of greatness.
It seems like I've divided my musical world into at least two distinct realms of late--contemporary jazz and those amazing recordings from Norway's 2L Recordings. I dust this blog with a scattering of indie rock just to keep in touch with my roots, but the truth is that my time is currently dominated by jazz, with occasional sojourns into the challenging and exciting world presented by 2L's main bottle-washer, Morten Lindberg. Since 2L spends its time interpreting classical pieces and the avant-garde, it's rare when the two worlds collide. And yet we have this new jazz release from 2L, Polarity, performed by the stalwarts of the highly-regarded Hoff Ensemble.
The idea of a jazz album from 2L is immediately intriguing, and for several reasons. First of all, you can feel confident that whatever jazz is recorded, it will sound utterly fantastic due to Lindberg's adept balance between technology (MQA, DXD, Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D surround) and innovative recording techniques (the location of the recording venue, usually old churches that produce an incredibly spacious and warm sound). The idea of a simple jazz trio--Jan Gunnar Hoff's piano, Anders Jormin's bass and Audun Kleive's drums--recorded in the unique 2L manner seems like a no-brainer. Jazz trios usually excel in the establishing of space, both the isolation of each instrument and the blending of the whole when it comes to the resonances created by the performers and their instruments. It's all about relationships in time and space, and how they move and develop. It's clear that 2L understands these relationships, even if they're looking for new ways to explore those environments at the same time.
It all comes down to Jan Gunner Hoff's affinity for jazz and his ability to honor the traditions while forging his own way. His piano work has always been lovely and flowing, tethered to an acute appreciation of beauty. He's also a master at improvisation--he's the kind of pianist, like Keith Jarrett, who can sit down at a piano and start playing off the top of his head and the result is something that should be recorded and immediately released. He enlisted two of his favorite Scandinavian jazz musicians, Jormin and Kleive, to provide both knowledge and flexibility to place these original compositions into a jazz setting. "My main goal is to create a specific identity for each album I make," Hoff explains. He goes on to state the importance of the acoustic setting as a fourth member of the ensemble, and how it is active in the rendering of these improvisations.
Of course he succeeds. Hoff is a lover of melody, and the ability of that melody to be vivid and accessible. In a way he's always reminded me of Lars Jakob Rudjord--both of these Norwegian keyboardist/composers have a fascinating way of delivering a beautiful song that is easily absorbed but still quite distinctive in mood. If you think you're just getting piano, bass and drums in a spacious church, however, you're in for a surprise. Hoff has a few tricks up his sleeve, such as programming a Prophet 6 synthesizer so that it "can merge naturally with the trio without disturbing the acoustic sound picture." The synthesizer slips in at the most unexpected moments, usually with the rising tide of emotion in each piece. It works because the synthesizer is releasing its output into the same church space, so it sounds like yet another acoustic participant.
If you're a fan of Hoff's work, you'll be surprised when familiar tunes from his catalog appear. Hoff explains that these themes take on a new life in the jazz trio format, so it might be worth the slog to dig into your collection and make comparisons. He's also not a novice when it comes to jazz, since he's composed for many jazz quartets over the years. He's wanted to perform this specific experiment for many years, and the result is something that moves stealthily between genres, always focusing on how gorgeous it all sounds. This is not surprising in the least, but it does beg the question of whether or not he will continue these meaningful forays into jazz. I'll be waiting eagerly.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Roger Davidson is a pretty old-fashioned guy, as far as contemporary jazz goes. His arrangements are light, fun and filled with sort of a capricious jet-set feel from the 1960s. On his new album, Music From the Heart, he takes on an unusual challenge--he comes up with no less than 15 new "Brazilian" compositions, songs that sound like they've already been classics since baby boomers were babies. This is romantic stuff, sambas, bossa novas, chorinhos and more, all designed to feel like a wonderful night on the town in Rio. There are no jagged edges in this music. It's all about enjoying beauty, adventure and a bit of mischief, the kind of qualities that were cherished when your parents were young and on the prowl.
Davidson is masterful on the piano in that same lush and tropical tradition that spawned "Bali Hai" and "Lujon," albeit on a much more intimate scale--there's no huge string orchestra in the background. Instead, Davidson is accompanied by Hendrik Meurkens who has become quite a familiar name to me over the last few months. I reviewed Roger Davidson's last album with Meurkens, Prayer for Tomorrow, just a year ago. Hendrik, who is considered one of contemporary jazz's finest harmonica and vibraphone players, is also featured on a couple of upcoming discs I have in the review pile. I have to be honest and say that the harmonica is not my favorite musical instrument for jazz since it makes everything sound too folksy and less urbane. (I made a similar comment in the older review.) But I friggin' love the vibraphone and the marimba and every other struck idiophone you can roll in front of me. That's a purely subjective observation, so don't take me word for it, so let's just say that Meurkens' vibes send me to the moon.
As I also mentioned in the review for Prayer for Tomorrow, Davidson was originally set to be a classical pianist. Once he started playing jazz, there was no going back. That's why his keyboard style has the aforementioned lushness to it, that emotional sprint that floats atop wave after wave of sentiment. Without Meurkens acting as co-star, Davidson's basically playing as a tight trio with drummer Adriano Santos and bassist Eduardo Belo (which explains why Prayer for Tomorrow was performed by the Roger Davidson Trio). It's apparent the change came from Meurkens becoming a permanent addition to the ensemble, but it still doesn't obscure the fact that as a trio, this ensemble creates a rich panorama of sound. That's Davidson at the piano making that happen. As I said, he has a big sound that defines everything he does.
Prayer for Tomorrow had outstanding sound quality, and Music From the Heart might surpass that. Jazz trios and quartets usually do a great job of fleshing out all the musicians' physical positions on the stage or in the studio, but with both the piano and vibraphone playing there's always those delicate blooming notes bouncing off each other and remaining intact and distinct. Only an excellent recording can keep these two from blending into a single wave of decaying tones, and that happens here. In a way, that's old-fashioned as well since so much jazz in the '60s still sounds fantastic. I think you'll need to be a little old-fashioned in order to really dig this music and place it in its proper context, since it might not appeal to jazz fans who are searching for the next breakthrough, but I'm someone who like music to transport me to a different time and place. This one gets it done with an incredible amount of class.
I used to hear a lot of music like this back in the college days, fairly hard-rocking bands with a singer who is intelligent and thoughtful and doesn't have to scream to get the point across. It sounds like I'm describing emo, I know, but I'm going back further to guys like Greg Kihn or maybe even Tom Petty himself. These guys focus on taking familiar songcraft techniques and elevating it with smart lyrics and smooth, likeable melodies. The challenge here, of course, is making this music stand out from the rest--Fountains of Wayne maybe but even more so.
Danny Newcomb has this formula down pat, although it isn't really a formula. It's an anti-formula in a way, of just singing with earnestness and conviction and remembering that there are plenty of people out there who really miss regular rock-and-roll, something that isn't immediately filed into one of hundreds of sub-genres. Newcomb and his band, the Sugarmakers, know how to mate a superbly clean production with the prerequisite catchy melodies and hooks. It's not about hearing something you haven't heard before, but hearing something you used to really like a long, long time ago.
The line-up here is even a bit of a throwback--Newcomb, as leader, obviously plays the guitar and sings, while Rick Friel plays the bass and Eric Eagle plays the drums. Here's the fun part: Faith Stankevich takes on the Davy Jones/Tracy Partridge role of back-up singer and tambourine player. She adds another layer of interest here, however, since her percussion adds to that driving sound and her vocals coat everything like a Hammond B-3 organ. She's not eye candy, someone who just wanted to get up on stage--she's an important contributor to this very likeable sound. You also get that thrilling guest star on one song--in this case it's Mike McCready, lead guitarist of Pearl Jam, appearing on "King of Nothing."
The real focus here is on Newcomb, of course, the voice that will reminds you of a dozen other nice-guy singers back in the days when New Wave meant anything that wasn't bloated, dreary dinosaur rock. That's not a diss at all--he's a singer you can identify with as opposed to merely admiring from afar. His guitar work is also steady and creative, since he sounds as if he's playing both lead and rhythm here. (I'm sure he is, in the studio anyways.) If you're going to be a frontman, you have to earn it, and Newcomb has written and arranged all the songs and produced the album. And he sings. And he plays the guitar. He's got it all down pat, so let's see where he goes from here.
When bassists lead a band, the overall sound of the ensemble tends to be full and rich. I've hinted at this several times over the last few weeks, most recently in the Troy Roberts Nu-Jive Perspective review just below. I'm not sure if this a real thing or if anyone agrees with me or even if this is a well-known fact and I'm being Captain Obvious. I just sense this Mingus-ness, that the bass player/bandleader is creating everything from his own space around his instrument, and everyone else tends to follow those instincts. In Sam Bevan's new CD, Emergence, I picked this up just a few notes into the opener, "H & A." I tend to overuse the terms full and rich and textured when describing jazz, but so much of the overall sound rides on these concepts. In the audiophile world, these three terms often add up to warmth, a very desirable quality. Bevan and his intimate ensemble have this in spades, a clarity where themes are exciting without being jarring.
There's a beauty to this sound, and this recording, that is as elusive as the meaning of jazz itself. Bevan and his rhythm section partner, drummer Eric Garland, have an ease and accessibility to their approach that doesn't mean simple or mainstream. There are dozens and dozens of original themes introduced here, along with unexpected chord changes and singular melodies, so the ideas aren't necessarily easy, they're just delivered in an easy way. The rest of Bevan's core ensemble, which includes alto sax player Kasey Knudsen, clarinet player Cory Wright and trumpeters Ian Carey and Henry Hung, focus on that same ease, which is notable for a horn section. They possess a smoothness that alternates between intermingling and playing in unison, an intriguing practice that sometimes resembles a camera pulling in and out of focus. They're not afraid to blast a few notes, or let out an angular solo, but there's a suppleness to these notes that keep you focused on the beautiful tone of each instrument.
Bevan was a fixture on the San Francisco jazz scene for many years before arriving in New York City. Emergence transports the rest of his quintet, also from Northern California, to the big city and--along with a few guest stars--they delve right into the NYC scene with aplomb. Jazz that celebrated the deep vibrations of that city aren't hard to come by, although they may be difficult to define. There is that illusion of sound bouncing through the streets that I've talked about, that feeling of music in the air that needs to be located. Bevan and his crew find that sound deftly, and make these nine originals sound like they were culled from a wee-morning-hours session at Columbia in the early sixties.
Emergence is what I like to call real jazz. These aren't musicians who just know the notes and play them. These are gentlemen who feel the music flow through them and add what they can to the whirlwind through their own experiences. There isn't a moment of this album that is calculated or self-reverential--it's genuine and intuitive and, well, right on the money. If you love jazz, you'll know exactly what I mean and you'll listen to this as soon as possible.
Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Fresh on the heel's of yesterday's Fusiolicious, Oytun Ersan's epic "big band" fusion release, we have sax player Troy Roberts' meaty new quintet sounding nearly as big and just as exciting. Roberts has gathered this "configuration of five best friends around the world" for the third time to create a big and focused sound, a melding of funk, soul and jazz that is just as unbridled as Ersan's release, but unbelievably consistent in its dedication to a supreme groove. This is more jazz than fusion, yet Nu-Jive is very electric in its approach. With Tim Jago's electric guitar, Silvano Monasterios' funky electric piano work and Eric England's slap-happy electric bass, the original compositions dig out more from rock and funk traditions. Only drummer Dave Chiverton, with his thundering rolls and challenging time signatures, brings an element of fusion jazz to the mix. Oh, and Roberts' sax is unusually full and melodic and again introduces more mainstream jazz ideas to the forefront. But this quintet, quite frankly, rocks hard.
This isn't close to jazz/rock, if that's what you're thinking. It's just that Roberts and his crew have such a punchy approach to the music. I've already used the adjectives meaty and full, quite intentionally, because this music is very forward. The best way I can describe it is "this is jazz meant to be played loud." I did play it loud every time I slipped the CD into my digital player, and I think I pissed off the neighbors. I couldn't possibly take the same approach to Kind of Blue or Way Out West--that would be absurd since that type of jazz has its own natural level. But remember the adjective electric? That's the key.
I also mentioned that the quintet consists of best friends from around the world. Roberts is actually from Australia, but he's been living and playing in New York City for some time. I've mentioned the unique relationship NYC has with its sax players, and you hear the same relationship at work here. Roberts' saxophone has that big city voice in play, one that's meant to bounce between the tall buildings and echo through the alleys. It has that urbane feel, that knowing-ness and distinctive edge. His sax is out front most of the way, carrying most of the melodies, and he has a smooth yet firm way of gliding through the notes that walks the edge between those melodies and improvisation.
This quintet, however, works as a singular machine in the way it builds momentum--even in the quieter passages. (Yes, there are a few of those, but they maintain their own level of rambunctiousness.) Individuals do step out according to jazz traditions, but at the same time they're crossing those familiar boundaries. Jago's guitar is the most obvious nomad--some of his solos are very rock-like, even Santana-esque. That's one of the joys of this album, however. As I've mentioned, there's incredible focus here, but the car is being driven really fast and there's quite a few things you'll see out the window if you're paying attention.