Friday, January 18, 2019
In my recent year-end Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever, as well as the VA column that will appear at the end of this month, I mention a couple of phono cartridge projects I want to finish in 2019. Both involve my current cartridges--the Transfiguration Axia and the Denon DL-103. The Axia needs a re-tip, and I'm going to investigate a few options. The Denon DL-103--a legendary cartridge that has been manufactured since 1962, the year I was born--has inspired a cottage industry for modifications for those who have discovered that once you replace the cheap plastic body and flimsy mounting hardware with more robust materials, you'll wind up with a "giant killer."
I've just started the first modification for the 103--the Denon Aluminum Body Cap. This is the easiest and least expensive Denon 103 modification that I know--this simple aluminum shell simply fits over the 103 and does not require any "surgery" to your cartridge. (Many of the other body replacements require that you remove the existing plastic shell with an X-acto knife.) The Cap, as it's called by the manufacturer, costs just $85.
I'll be reviewing this mod, the first chapter of Project 103, for an upcoming article for either Part-Time Audiophile or The Occasional.
Norman Johnson is a Jamaican-born guitarist who counts Earl Klugh and George Benson among his major influences. That implies his sound is of the "cool" or "smooth" variety, and it is, but on The Art of Life he's out to prove his versatility, his ability to handle all types of sub-genres with the same amount of ease and virtuosity. On this six-track EP, Johnson extracts six very different sounds from his guitar. He can play the blues, he can do that mellow jazz electric thang and he can pull out an acoustic guitar and dig deep into both ballads and Latin jazz.
This customized approach to each of these tracks--five originals and a cover of "It's You"--is designed to show off Johnson's prowess and his attention to melody. His style is consistently relaxing, even gentle, but it's also very tactile. You're constantly aware of his fingers--how they move, how they interact with the strings, and how his hands slide up and down the frets, all without creating a lot of gratuitous noise.
His movements, in other words, are exact, but not at the cost of sounding sterile or filtered. It's interesting that he also loves classical guitar, and that some of his technique is also inspired by Segovia. You can hear that in a subdued and yet tangible way.
The Art of Life is mostly about Johnson's guitar, but he has plenty of other talents. He sings, and he plays both bass and piano. He surrounds himself with with a beefy horn section, plenty of other vocalists and an able rhythm section to tackle any chore that comes along, and that's part of the reason why this EP sounds so varied on each song. It's the guitar, of course, that holds everything together. He's a chameleon, sure, but Norman Johnson is also one of those guys who's been around for a long time, playing with everyone from Dave Brubeck to Steve Gadd. Those sort of associations only happen when you've developed a unique style, and when you can adapt that style to play anything. Johnson has obvious accomplished both.
My latest Deep End column for Part-Time Audiophile is now live. This one features the Haruomi Hosono Archival Series from Light in the Attic Records. You can read it here.Enjoy!
Monday, January 14, 2019
When it comes to the massive care package I received from ORG Music a couple of months ago, I saved the best for last. When I first listened to Tav Falco's Cabaret of Daggers, I had a lot of questions: Who is Tav Falco? What kind of music is this? Is this a reissue, or is this a current release? This album doesn't include the copious liner notes that most ORG Music releases have, but from the credits I deduced that Tav Falco is the guitarist and singer for an Italian retro-cabaret-rock ensemble. Cabaret of Daggers was recorded in Rome, but mastered in Memphis. From the cover photos, these five musicians aren't young kids trying to get their big break by performing American--they look like they've been around for a long time. (That's not meant to be a diss, by the way--I'll discuss this in a bit.)
So I wound up Wiki-ing Tav and his band, and it turns out he's an American-born musician who's been performing with a band named Panther Burns since 1979. He was born in Philly but moved to Arkansas and then Memphis, where he picked up his musical tastes. His Wiki page is pretty long and detailed, which indicates I should be ashamed for not knowing who he is. But that doesn't matter--we're here now, in 2019, and this album is fantastic.
Cabaret of Daggers is indeed a new release, one recorded with a group of Italian musicians that he previously used for 2015's Command Performance--guitarist Mario Monterosso, keyboardist Francesco D'Agnolo, bassist Giuseppi Sangirardi and drummer Riccardo Colasante. I'd have to go back into the Panther Burns catalog to see how different this album is from the work he did in 1979, but this is my interpretation of this gloriously off-key LP: it's weary, but by design. That's right, these guys sound like Lily Von Shtupp, and they're just as charming. Falco's vocals are drenched in reverb, which accentuates his oh-so-tired demeanor that sounds like this was the final performance of a tour that lasted thirty years. He's flat, out of key much of the time, and yet he has that same underlying musical genius you'd find in someone like Jonathan Richman.
The genius, of course, is that this is the type of music that sounds like one thing on the surface, but another thing once you take a step or two closer. It's funny, of course--the lyrics are wry and delivered with exhausted conviction. The entire package is somewhat calculated, but it takes someone with decades of experience as a professional musician to bring this sort of sustained attitude to the mix and make it totally believable--or perhaps maybe Falco really is this tired. Then you'll hear something from the band, a beautiful, inspired solo, or even something from Falco's splendid and bluesy old Hofner, that gives up the game. It doesn't matter, though--whether or not this is all an act is beside the point. The concept is sound, the delivery is impeccable and Cabaret of Daggers is both serious music and a whole lot of fun.
"My name is Chuck Dukowski and I'm a bass player. In the late 1970's my friends and I started a band called Black Flag, but Black Flag would have never happened if I hadn't started Wurm."
Growing up in LA during the 1970s and 1980s, I knew all about Chuck Dukowski and Black Flag. In my college days I was obsessed with SST Records, the label that put out Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du and others. My hardcore friends loved Chuck, and they hated Henry Rollins--for them, Rollins caused Black Flag to jump the shark when he joined. Chuck was pure, a punk god, a part of the original big bang that forced punk out of its womb. I didn't know much about Wurm, unfortunately, although I believe those same old friends of mine were big fans. Needless to say, I wouldn't be able to identify Wurm's music in a lineup. That's why this ORG Music release, another title that debuted on Record Store Day 2018, is such a revelation.
Exhumed contains most of Wurm's legacy--the I'm Dead EP from 1982, a couple of compilation tracks from 1983 and the complete Feast album, their only LP, which was released in 1985. Most importantly, Exhumed contains previously unreleased practice tapes from 1977. Wurm, I should note, first formed back in 1973, when punk was still a twinkle in rock and roll's eye. While many still debate the origins of punk--Ramones, New York Dolls, MC5--Wurm has a pretty strong claim to the title of first hardcore punk band, and those practice tapes help to confirm this--on the West Coast, at least.
All of this material has been remastered. This is hardcore punk, however, recorded with a strict punk aesthetic in mind, and that means it doesn't sound like your UHQR pressing of Tea for the Tillerman. That aesthetic is anti-establishment, of course, that it was all done on the cheap in the heat of the moment. What ORG has done, however, is capture that original energy with a clean pressing. Everything on the original tapes is presented as is, the massive anger, the brilliant street-wise humor, the feeling that every performance is unique and deserving of preservation.
I still love listening to classic Black Flag, even with Henry, because it's so stripped down and brutal...yet somehow smart. Wurm is a slightly different experience because it was so raw and in search of firm footing. By listening to both the 1977 rehearsals and the 1985 swan song, however, you're able to view the creative peak of hardcore punk going backwards and forwards. Since this is a two-LP set, there's plenty to study from a historical standpoint. Most importantly, I'm amazed that some of this music is over 40 years old, but it doesn't sound that dated. (Imagine how music from the Great Depression would sound in the context of 1977.) Perhaps that's because there are still musicians making this sort of music in 2019, and not because they're paying tribute to it. They're carrying on that punk aesthetic and declaring it immortal. That's why Exhumed is still a vital listen for the people who were there.
Sunday, January 13, 2019
In this miscellaneous vinyl pile I've been attacking over the last couple of days, there are 12" 33rpm LPs, and 12" 33rpm EPs, and 12" 45rpm LPs, and 7" 45rpm singles and 7" 45rpm EPs. Not all of these are clearly marked, so I've been listening to a lot of music at the wrong speeds. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it takes a few moments--usually the epiphany occurs when the singer comes to the mic. If you're a vinyl lover, you know what I'm talking about.
This little 7" yellow-orange disc is from my friend Ean Hernandez at Top Drawer Records, and it has the distinction of being the only 7" record I've heard that is recorded at 33 rpm, at least as far as I can recall. Lisa Marr and the Tranzmitors contains a total of four songs, which qualifies as an EP, I guess. These four songs are brief and exuberant post-punk pop songs, however, probably two minutes long for each one, and yet...33 rpm. I'm laboring the point, I know, but I'm thrilled with the variety of vinyl I have in right now. These records are the very definition of variety--all colored brightly in one way or another, recorded at different speeds and formats. The sky's the limit.
Lisa Marr, formerly from Cub, is a singer/songwriter from the Pacific Northwest. The Tranzmitors are also from the PNW and were formerly known as both the New Town Animals and the Smugglers. The idea of this EP is for these five to cover the songs they sang in their old groups, with a new perspective. (The last song, "Salvation," is an original.) That may sound heady and ambitious, but what you really have here are post-pop, guitar driven songs that use early Bangles and Go-Gos as a leaping-off point for creating a pure, sweet brand of garage rock. Ean calls it cuddle-core.
The sweetness comes from Marr's voice--she's sort of a workingwoman's version of Belinda Carlisle, straightforward and unadorned yet extremely likeable. Her band--Jeff, Nick, Mike and Bryce--play it hard and fast, "as fast as you like it," Ean says on the liner notes. For some reason their energy summoned visions of Road to Ruin-era Ramones, still blistering yet clean. Best of all, the profits from this record will go to the Girls Rock Bandcamp Vancouver, which "builds self-esteem in female youth through music creation and performance."
You can buy this record for just $6 by visiting Lisa Marr's bandcamp page, and you can buy a digital download for the same price.
Friday, January 11, 2019
This little 7" single started off as somewhat of a mystery. I had no idea where it came from or how long I've had it. It was just there, in the pile, with all the other vinyl. I gave it a spin, both sides, taking up about four or five minutes of my time. It was good, really good. The first side featured a song called "Nuts," and it felt like it had been plucked out of the post-punk era. Quirky vocals, a stripped down rock aesthetic, kinda grungy, and there's a flute playing all through it.
The second side, featuring a song called "Tiny Pyramids," obviously featured the same group of musicians, but this time it was an instrumental that barely touched the edge of jazz--the flute's still there, but it's now joined by a saxophone. Further research revealed that this is the very same "Tiny Pyramids" from Sun Ra. Again, fun, and I gave both sides another play and thought about what to do with this intriguing little black disc.
Well, I'm supposed to be a reviewer, so I'm supposed to dig in a little. The first thing I noticed was this pressed by ORG Music. That makes three ORG vinyl releases for the day, and the second one specifically released for Record Store Day last year. The second thing I noticed is that this little 45 was mixed and produced by none other than Mike Watt, the legendary bassist for the Minutemen. Remember how I said I loved John Doe earlier in the day, and what his music has meant to me? Same goes for Mike Watt. Minutemen were always buried deep into my heart all through my college years and ever since, as were many other SST bands from the early '80s. Mike Watt has had a long and storied career in the LA music scene, and he's never stopped being creative. Heck, I think we're even Facebook friends.
Turns out that Tone Scientists is one of those side projects where everyone is from another band--guitarist/vocalist Bucky Pope is from Tar Babies, drummer John Herndon is from Tortoise and Vince Meghrouni, who supplies the awesome flute and sax, is from Bazooka. And yeah, I know all three of those bands, so there. But here's the problem: I want more. I want an album from these gentleman because these two brief tracks are just so unbelievably cool. This is a virtual trip back to the early '80s when I was in college and my friends and I would travel to Hollywood and Santa Monica and the Valley to see all those amazing bands.
So get crackin', Mr. Mike Watt. Tone Scientists are THAT good, sir.
"There's a piece of real estate where all the hippies congregate..."
So begins "On the Corner," the first track on the Ad Libs' 1965 debut Presenting the Ad Libs. That opening sentence provides a considerable amount of context for this LP reissue from ORG Music, a beautiful purple pressing from the Pallas Group in Germany. The Ad Libs were a classic doo-wop group from Bayonne, New Jersey, and this album came out at a time when doo-wop was waning in popularity. The Ad Libs jumped right out and proved they were no ordinary doo-wop group--they were among the few groups with a female singing lead, and their lyrics were unusually relevant and sophisticated. In a time when Motown was taking over the R&B charts with such acts as The Supremes and the British Invasion was in full force, the Ad Libs made a minor but significant impact on pop music.
The Ad Libs only had one big hit--"The Boy From New York City," which appears here. You know the one..."Oo ah oo ah oo oo, Kitty, tell us 'bout the boy from New York City." Yet they performed together well into the '80s and experienced a comeback of sorts when the Manhattan Transfer had a hit with "The Boy From New York City" in 1981. Despite their partnership with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, they never really had any sales and were dropped from Red Bird Records after three non-performing albums. That, of course, is a shame, because there's a lot of talent here.
As I mentioned, the Ad Libs were notable because they flipped the normal doo-wop conventions when Mary Ann Thomas stepped to the front of the stage, leaving founders Danny and Austin and Hugh Harris, along with baritone Norman Donegan and bass vocalist David Allen Watt to supply the four-part harmonies. This strategy could have been implemented to stand out from the crowd, but I prefer to think of a less calculated reason--Thomas' appealing vocals. She's distinctive, soulful and yet innocent, a young woman who's still trying to figure out the complexities of love. Why didn't she become a big star on her own?
The sound quality on this album is clean and vibrant. There's a minimalism in the studio that keeps the recording small and distant, but that's okay since this was music that was meant to be played on small radios. Presenting the Ad Libs, therefore, is a document of a fun group that should have gone on to bigger things. It's not an audiophile release, but it is something authentic, something that can shake up a party and get everyone dancing. Afterwards everyone will ask, "who was that?" And you'll be able to tell them the story.
Yay, it's vinyl day!
Well, every day is vinyl day, but after completing a couple of major projects and getting the CD pile down to a manageable height, I've discovered that I have quite a few miscellaneous LPs and EPs to review. Most of these came from ORG Music and their pressing plant at the Pallas Group in Germany, and a couple more were actually sent by up and coming bands. Most of the ORG titles were pressed, by the way, for the last Record Store Day--they are now available through the ORG Music site. This first one, Particle Kid and John Doe's Lucky Wheel, turned out to be quite the treasure, one I left sitting at the bottom of the pile, unheard, because I didn't notice what it was at first. From the cover, it looked like somebody named Kid Doc came out with an album named Lucky Wheel. ORG has this officially listed as Kid Doe's Lucky Wheel.
Nope, this is a 45 rpm EP, with Side A featuring Kid Particle covering two songs from John Doe and folk hero Michael Hurley, and Side B featuring John Doe covering songs from Kid Particle and the Carter Family. Despite the beautiful art on the cover and the gorgeous "smoky" color of the vinyl, this 12" EP reminded me of one of those limited run albums put out by a local band in an effort to get exposure, but it's not. First of all, this slab of vinyl was mastered at 45rpm by Dave Gardner at Infrasonic Mastering, so the pressing is clean and the sound quality top-notch. Second of all, I like Particle Kid, but I love John Doe. As a longtime fan of X, a fan who has seen them perform live four different times over the course of 25 years, I feel like John's two songs here are a brief but welcome visit from a very old friend.
The Particle Kid side is fun--in a dark, dreamy way. "Lucky Penny" is one of those grimy, slightly drugged-out alt-country numbers that I enjoy so well, a throwback to the Velvet Underground as well as No Depression movement. PK, also known in the ordinary world as Micah Nelson, is a young man with an old soul--which is why he's such a perfect match with John Doe, who will turn 66 next month (!). "Captain Kid" reinforces that idea of the distant past with a old-fashioned folk tune from Hurley that is recorded simply, in mono, for maximum effect.
John Doe's turn on the second side makes me feel a little sad inside, and not because it's bad. It sounds great, in fact, and so familiar that I had a lump in my throat the second I heard John's distinctive croon. For a just a few minutes I thought about John, Exene, DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom, plus the Knitters, and just how big of a part of my life they've all been. "Wheels" is a very typical John Doe song from his solo career, mostly old-time country with just a shot of that driven-hard-and-put-up-wet momentum from his punk days. "Hello Stranger" is a duet with Amy Nelson, who sounds a lot like Iris DeMent here. Amy is none other than the daughter of Willie Nelson, and she current performs in a ukelele duo with Cathy Guthrie, daughter of Arlo. I like her voice, and I may have to check them out.
Four songs, unfortunately, is not enough from these two. I want to go back and scoop up all the John Doe solo albums I've missed over the years. This is a very special release, one that possesses almost too much emotional resonance for me. Quite honestly I'm surprised how much I was moved by Lucky Wheel.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
What's the name of Donald Kaufman's screenplay in the film Adaptation? Is it The 3? That's all I keep thinking about when I look at the cover of this CD. The 14. Sounds ominous, right? The 14 are here to tell you that the future ain't what it used to be.
The 14, of course, is a jazz orchestra--that's right, this is big band jazz and not another askew vision from Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze. The 14 are all alumni from the University of Miami, led by arranger Dan Bonsanti. Their previous album was titled Nothing Hard Is Ever Easy, so there's a playfulness at hand. But what else separates this big band ensemble from all the others? In a word, I'd have to say tightness.
That's the first thing I noticed about this album--there's a perfection afoot, an almost preternatural gleam to the way these musicians perform. Big band jazz is always about precision, of having every single person on stage doing what they're supposed to do. Mistakes and tangents get amplified by the others if you aren't careful, and even the improvisations are carefully measured before they are poured into the mix. I've heard sloppy big band jazz in the last year, and sometimes it's downright enjoyable in terms of sheer personality, but serious fans will frown at you if you get all Keith Moon on them. That's why there's a certain modicum of respect toward ensembles that get this much absolutely right.
That's okay, of course. Sloppy is good with a trio or a quartet and often sounds like cacophony beyond that. Bonsanti and his skilled group of performers have that aura about them, the drive to be the best in their field, which may be cultivated from the competitive world of big band programs at American universities, something I've discussed often. Bonsanti himself has come from a very interesting background, arranging and playing sax for such leaders as Doc Severinsen (who's still around) and Stan Kenton. He's most famous for his work with Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth Orchestra. That's a lot of flavor right there.
It sounds like I'm complaining about something being too good, and I'm not. This is a tight band, but not one unwilling to take a chance or two. Just listen to The 14 take on that classic "16 Tons," a wild excursion that takes risk after risk and comes off as one hell of a party tune--one that is played, again, with utter precision. There's a vague feeling, in fact, that the band loosens up somewhat as the album goes on--they're just warming up, perhaps? You hear a little more variety in the instrumentation here and there, a few more genre swaps. The Future Ain't What It Used to Be is ultimately about one thing though, and that's beating the competition, but not at the cost of composition.
The last few months have been heavy on Latin jazz, with much of it devoted to childhood memories or forgotten performers. It's also common to add just a bit of Latin jazz to another sub-genre of jazz such as big band or even organ trios as an "influence" or a hybridization. What isn't common is taking Latin jazz into new directions, possibly because the form is so hewed to traditions. This is what makes Magela Herrera's new album, Explicaciones, so fascinating from first listen--this Cuban-born flute virtuoso and vocalist is dead-set on making a memorable first impression with her debut as a bandleader and composer by putting so much of herself into these song arrangements, and veering off in exciting new directions.
Herrera was a member of Mezcla, a fusion jazz group from Cuba, for six years. Perhaps this is what informs her adventurous side, her ability to step away from normal Caribbean rhythms and styles and devote herself to a completely new approach. Her arrangements avoid the well-traveled roads of Latin jazz and establish a novel, sometimes thorny approach that sounds like she's re-inventing the form, even with familiar compositions as "Besame Mucho" and "My One and Only Love." (Most of this album contains her original compositions, but they blend seamlessly with the covers.)
Herrera has surrounded herself with some of the best Latin jazz performers in Miami for Explicaciones, and that helps to ground her and remind her of the musical foundations she needs to protect. Her willingness to stray and explore, however, must come from studying at the Norwegian Academy of Music, where she earned two degrees in Jazz Performance. "They didn't force us to follow rules, "Herrera explains in the liner notes. "I found it more comfortable to write music outside a strict pattern, to create whatever was in my head." This new chapter in her life gave her the confidence to start composing and arranging on her own, culminating in this, her first solo album.
Herrera does alternate freely between flute and vocals, and she's equally adept. Her singing voice is rich, direct and full of warmth, and I'm tempted to say the same thing about her flute. Herrera's approach to the flute is more direct than most--her notes focus on the power of the melody as opposed to dancing around the edges, and that creates an accessibility that will guide you through the more ambitious passages, such as in the intriguing opener, "Two Sidewalks." While the rest of the album takes a step back and eases up the tension, "Two Sidewalks" is a mighty impressive opening statement from Herrera, one that lays down all the rules, or lack thereof. This is the album to listen to when you think you've heard enough Latin jazz and you're clamoring for something new, but you still want to soak in that infectious energy. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
It seems like a long time since I've had a new solo piano recording to enjoy, and I'm sure the last one (or three) came from Norway. Solo piano recordings in the world of jazz are becoming relatively rare, especially when the contemporary trends are leaning so heavily on big band jazz. There's always the easy-to-find singer/piano combo, made up of either one of two individuals, but that's different than just basking in spaces between the keys without the narration. There's a lot that can be said about music when a piano's doing the talking, and Alan Pasqua wants to prove it to you.
You've probably heard of Pasqua before. He's one of those pianists who's been around a long time and has played in both the pop and jazz worlds. To give you an idea of the breadth of his experience, he's worked with both Joe Williams and Bob Dylan. Jack DeJohnette and John Fogerty. Joe Henderson and Carlos Santana. Sheila Jordan and Starship. Solilioquy is his opportunity to step out on a stage, alone, and show the world what an Alan Pasqua arrangement sounds like when it's played by Alan Pasqua. That goes whether he's playing "In a Sentimental Mood" or a wonderful cover of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country."
In a very superficial way this is the type of piano music you'd hear being played in a very swanky restaurant, lush and rich and flowing and romantic. That's a dismissive comparison, of course, because if you were actually sitting in said restaurant listening to this pianist play these tunes, you'd probably stop clanking your fork on the rim of your dinner plate and you'd tell everyone at your table to pipe down and listen. Pasqua is far beyond Billy Joel's "Hey what are you doing here" kind of guy. He creates pinpoint references to specific emotions while you're floating on top of the notes, something Bill Evans used to do with ease. That's when you realize that Pasqua is not a journeyman in a bar, but a master.
Soliloquy also sounds fantastic. It was recorded in Pasqua's studio in Santa Monica, on his very own Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano. I've already used the adjectives rich and lush and romantic in this review, and that's your reason right there. Even though I'm the great-grandson of the Vice President of Wurlitzer Piano Company of Cincinnati Ohio, I can't necessarily pick out piano brands by sound alone. With a beautiful, purist recording like this, I feel like I now have a baseline for Steinway. That's the essence of this album, after all--a talented pianist is playing beautiful music on an extraordinary piano, and he's giving you his all. If that's all you need to be happy, then here you go.
Monday, January 7, 2019
It seems like 2018 was the "Year of Re-discovering Fred Hersch." I reviewed two of his albums during the year including the superb Live in Europe for Positive Feedback. As I've mentioned before, pianist Fred Hersch was someone I discovered back in the '90s--he and his trio were treasured by the audiophile crowd. I bought a couple of his CDs from that period and then promptly forgot about him for many years. Despite some health issues over the years, Hersch has steadily recorded, and I just haven't been an ideal fan. So it's a pleasant surprise that 2019 is starting out with yet another classic live album.
Fred Hersch Trio '97 @ The Village Vanguard is special for a number of reasons. First of all, Hersch was well-known for his association with the Village Vanguard, and his performances there helped to establish him as a modern jazz master. His first performance dates back to 1979, when he was working under bandleaders Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz and Ron Carter. This recording from 1997 is also Hersch's first at the Village Vanguard--as a bandleader. They played three Friday night sets, and all were recorded "for posterity." 21 years later, Hersch went back and chose his favorite moments from those shows which are included here.
In '97, the Fred Hersch Trio included Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. By this time the trio had been playing together for about five years, but they had never been recorded live. That's another reason why this recording is special--all others were captured in the studio. While five years really isn't that long to be together--look at the Modern Jazz Quartet--these performances are electric, filled with an energy that comes from knowing everyone else on stage is at least as good as you are. Hersch, in particular, has such a unique style full on unexpected twists, but those same risks always pay off when the other two jump in and underline what he has done.
It's not the first jazz trio to hum along like this, and it won't be the last, but if you need a textbook example of three young cats making their mark on the world you can start here. It also helps that it's a Fred Hersch album, which means it's going to have spectacular sound quality. Hersch knows his audience, and it isn't just typical audiophiles. Hersch's performances approach the legendary, and no one sounds like he does. Plus you have the Village Vanguard, which is a pretty good place to capture a live performance. If you're one of those jazz fans who think Fred Hersch at the top of his field, and I do, then hearing the performances that helped to create the legend should be mandatory.
Friday, January 4, 2019
If you look at those first three words, concerto for guitar, you might start thinking about something from Rodrigo or Vivaldi. At least I did. Then I noticed the word "jazz" twice on the cover and instantly thought of big band jazz. Then I noticed John Daversa's name and I remembered his release from earlier in the year, American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom which right now is nominated for a Grammy. Finally, I considered the phrase jazz orchestra and how that sometimes means something else, something that occupies the space between jazz and classical. Think George Gershwin.
This concerto heads off on another spur, however, a sound that's far more lush and sultry than garden variety big band jazz. Composer Justin Morell keeps the arrangement centered on fluid, slowly evolving short cuts from one genre to the other, with themes tight enough so you won't notice the shifts until they've been locked in place for a minute or so. This gentle swell of music is an effective background for Adam Rogers' guitar, which is precise and sometimes difficult but never in a way that doesn't serve the melody. He sits forward, much closer to the listener, and it's clear that he's the focus--which obviously makes perfect sense for a concerto.
As we learned from American Dreamers, Daversa has a way of gliding between ideas in a modern approach to the arrangements. Here he is directing the Frost Concert Jazz Band from Morell's own arrangements, and suddenly you hear it, something you've heard before. Was that a little Mozart there? Maybe some Haydn? Wait just a minute--that's Beethoven. Then you notice that the concerto is set up exactly like a concerto, with three movements. That shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but it was. That's when you realize you have to stick the two halves together, all that guitar bouncing off yet another beefy horn section and sounding like big band jazz in every conceivable way, and then suddenly you hear the themes and see the structures and now you're nowhere near big band jazz.
Or, you can just read the liner notes which detail how this concerto was brought to life. Morell, in addition to being an Assistant Professor of Music at Lebanon Valley College, has already recorded six albums. He kept coming back to this idea of using classical concerto "language" in a jazz composition. This is daunting enough, but Morell also dipped into his past and implemented Brazilian rhythms and backbeat grooves to push the concerto even further into the spotlight. If this sounds like heady, cerebral stuff that only seasoned musicians will understand, it's not. Remember that I started off with the words sultry and lush to describe this album. It's a complex sound that will appeal to different people for different reasons, and that's why it's so good.
Michael Vestbo, a guitarist from Denmark, contacted me a few months ago about his upcoming album called Gentlemen... He sent me a digital download of one track as a tease, and I liked what I heard--a simple trio recording that also includes Eddy Jarl on drums and Jesper Smalbro on stand-up bass. Vestbo prefers to call his gentle, deeply felt music "instrumental" as opposed to carelessly placing these compositions into a genre that doesn't quite fit--like jazz. From this initial taste I felt that the trio settled deep into that same uncluttered yet comforting region where you might find Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell. It's almost a Midwestern feeling, a simplicity that comes from those big, open skies. (Denmark, I've heard, is also pretty flat, and I bet their skies are gorgeous as well.) That's just the impression from one track, of course, heard months ago when the weather was still warm.
Vestbo initially asked me to hold up on the review until we got closer to the release date, which is in a few days (January 11, to be precise). Of course I forgot all about it--man, those months just flew by! Now I have the complete recording and I'm even more impressed, mostly because it's obvious that the Vestbo Trio has many ideas to present, many different modes of travel. The softness prevails throughout these ten tracks--this is not an album of peaks and valleys, but rather insightful views into very different neighborhoods observed through non-judgmental eyes. Vestbo mixes up his guitars, electric and acoustic, and that choice often sets the mood for the other two, but there is a serene consistency from beginning to end--even when the band turns up the volume somewhat and adds a Hammond B-3 on "Tip of the Hat," a tribute to Mark Knopfler.
Frankly, the recording quality is stunning. This trio is one of those intuitive ensembles that revels in the silences and spaces around the instruments so that each note can be embraced by the listener. And speaking of Mark Knopfler, the Vestbo Trio recorded this album in his British Grove Studio in London, and Bob Katz mastered the whole thing back in Florida. That's the pedigree. That's why everything sounds so wonderful, surprisingly so. Vestbo and his trio have been around for quite a while, and they've already recorded three LPs, two EPs and a live album. They're established and comfortable in what they are doing. So it's humbling for someone like Michael Vestbo to approach me for a review, especially when I wasn't aware of who he was and what he's done. That's one of the reasons why I was blindsided by this, a completely magnificent recording.
If I had to say just one more thing about Gentleman..., it's that it reminds me of one of the Newvelle recordings I recently talked about in my Deep End column for Part-Time Audiophile. I don't like to compare recordings to each other due to their subjective nature, but the Vestbo Trio would fit right into that label's aesthetic of intimate jazz ensembles creating beautiful, thoughtful music with sound quality that goes to the moon and back. (I downloaded this album on FLAC, by the way, which I suppose is my preferred digital file format these days--convince me I'm wrong.) Best of all, the download is available for just $10 when you pre-order it at the Vestbo Trio website. The LP is available for $30, and the CD is available for $20, by the way--I almost wish I waited for the vinyl but my digital capabilities are growing exponentially with all sorts of network players, DACs and other devices that are currently visiting me at home. Then again, you get the download codes when you buy this on LP or CD.
For a mere $10, you can experience this amazing performance, all captured in a 24-bit/96 kHz digital master. That's good news for a new year, right?
Thursday, January 3, 2019
With women jazz singers, it's not always about the voice. Sometimes it's about the story behind the voice, and how you should read that story first so everything will click later. Ada Bird Wolfe's story, like many good stories, is about redemption and rediscovering your purpose in life after living a significant part of your lifetime. Wolfe (I can almost hear her say "please, call me Birdie!") wanted to sing and act from an early age, and her parents supported her by enrolling her in music classes. By the time she earned a degree from University of Chicago (in Philosophical Psychology), she could play the piano, cello, guitar, sax and flute.
As they like to say at this point of the story, life got in the way. We all know that story, unless we're Mark Zuckerberg. Wolfe did focus on writing and made a career out of it, but in 2010 she decided to give singing one more shot and soon was performing in LA in such places as Hollywood Studio Bar & Grill, The Gardenia and the somewhat notorious Vitello's. She's also described as "a deeply thoughtful person with a spiritual inclination," which isn't unheard of in Los Angeles. Once you listen to her voice, however, you'll forget about most of her history because it only tells part of the tale.
Wolfe comes from that wry, world-weary and reflective camp of jazz singers, that same part of the block where Peggy Lee asked if that's all there is while Marlene Dietrich told Orson Welles to lay off the candy bars. She's fascinating because she's so down, so blue, just covered with layer after layer of heartbreak that won't scrub off. Sometimes her voice isn't even there any more, and yet you can still hear it, heavy in the air. Even on upbeat tunes like "Four," she sounds like she's headed off for a serious reconsideration of her life choices once she gets the hell of the stage. Part of me thinks there's a camp element to her delivery, but then I also envision this as a revival of her acting dreams--she's playing a role here, and she's really great at it.
She's surrounded by a first-class jazz ensemble, led by pianist/arranger Jamieson Trotter, who guide her through what she calls "Giant Shoulders"--entire shows devoted to jazz legends such as Davis, Mingus, Monk and Coltrane. The mix of originals and standards on Birdie also highlight the versatility of this singer and her band, since they can handle ballads, Latin jazz, blues and classic bebop. They're so good at what they do, and that reinforces the idea that Wolfe is all in and serious, too. But I can't help but think about all the new textures her voice adds to these tunes if she is playing that role, up on stage, and wondering what else is going to happen before the night is done.
New releases from Zoho Records tend to arrive in clusters, and this has been one of those weeks where I'm staring at a bunch of them--which, of course, is always a good thing. I even snuck one in yesterday, that swirling and exotic Gabriel Espinosa CD, and I didn't perform my usual genuflections about how great this label is in terms of performances and sound quality. It should be a given at this point, unless a bad-sounding one slips by. And that ain't happening today.
Ted Piltzeker's Brindica automatically score points with me because it features a vibraphone player. (Look back at every review I've done a review of a CD with vibes and at some time I probably told you, like now, how much I love the sound. Goes for marimbas, too.) So the math here is getting awesome--a Zoho release that features a struck idiophone? That sounds like I'm setting you up for a disappointment, and oh boy, I'm not. I would have been satisfied with something as simple as that, mostly because the vibraphone is such a primer on the subjects of reverb and decay. Instead, Piltzecker (I have to look very closely at that name at least a couple of times before I actually type it) has such an interesting background, and that adds so much to the performances captured here.
The first interesting factoid about Ted Piltzecker is that he started off playing the trumpet. He's also a superb general percussionist, as you'll hear on this album--he is very skillful with talking drums, marimbas and all sorts of keyboard instruments. And because he's just one guy, he's not playing them all at the same time, which prompted me to say, hey, I haven't heard a vibraphone in a while, Ted, and that's when you stop and listen to his approach on each different instrument. That is the peeling of the onion's first layer, and why Brindica digs a lot deeper than you'll think after just a single listen.
Brindica, by the way, is a portmanteau of "Brazil, India and Africa." Piltzecker and his not-quite big band have a quiet and intimate feel throughout these original compositions, probably because so many percussionists are involved, and they're all not playing at the same time. The ensembles, in other words, change frequently and that allows the songs to bounce between these three countries and their distinct musical cultures with considerable grace. Brazil seems to be the dominate form, but the other two locales are represented more heavily in the percussion and there's another layer gone. It's fun to dig them out, especially when the horn section is at fever pitch.
Like most Zoho releases, there's a lot going on here and repeated listens are mandatory--but extremely enjoyable.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
"I chose the title Nostalgias De Mi Vida in honor of my life in music."
I'm just going to assume that I don't have to translate the title to you. I don't even need to discuss the themes behind Gabriel Espinosa's new album on Zoho Records, since the beauty is in its simplicity. I do want to go off on a tangent here, because it might be a key to opening this music up. Many electric bass guitarists usually try to insert a modicum of funk whenever they are part of a jazz ensemble--that sounds like a dumb generalization, but I just don't hear a lot of plug-in bassists try to preserve the unique physical presence of a big double bass through any particular style. Does that make sense? It does, just a little, in the world of Latin jazz.
What I'm saying about Gabriel Espinosa is that he plays an electric bass, for the most part, like it's a stand-up bass. I'm not sure if that's important on any level, but I notice it a lot here. From a distance, or in the car, you might miss this detail. It's also tough to concentrate on Espinosa's beautifully regulated tones when singer Kim Nazarian is out front on about half the songs. Nostalgias De Mi Vida marks a creative partnership with Espinosa and Nazarian--she also composed "Tu Mirada," which floats off toward South America almost instantly. They're an inspired team, with collaborations that are filled with celebration and happy times.
But wait, I was talking about Espinosa's bass. As I said, it's not easy to do that when so much is going on. This album isn't so much an ode to a childhood and the music that evokes those memories. It's a sweeping and fluid series of rhapsodies made of ideas so diverse that it would be unfair to pick it all apart. This is Latin jazz that has been filtered through a lifetime of experiences, and the new stuff tends to glom onto the older stuff and that's why our memories fade. And that is the reason why Espinosa's bass is so central to these arrangements. He's been playing that electric bass forever, and he can make it sound like anything he wants.
The Brazilian influences are not lost in all this--they're up front throughout most of these songs. That means this music isn't so challenging in its ideas that it's willing to sacrifice a gorgeous melody. If you're really into Brazilian jazz right now, and I think a lot of people are starting to rediscover it, you'll really enjoy this music as a sort of slight departure from the norm. But if you're interested, the ideas in Nostalgia De Mi Vida are very layered and complex, and there's another level to explore.
So many jazz albums I review can be condensed down into a single idea, of two cultures that have played a role in a performer's life and how that musician will pay tribute to the resulting collision of ideas. Carla Campopiano's new CD, Chicago/Buenos Aires Connections, does exactly that--it's even in the name of the album. What makes this hybrid so fascinating is flutist Campopiano's choice of a trio, since she is joined by a drummer (Gustavo Cortinas) and a guitarist (Angel Colacilli). That's not your ideal trio for conveying a cross between the tango and jazz, and that causes a blend between two genres that results in a double-fold of sorts, a new sound that becomes independent of its two parents.
Much of this transformation can be credited to Cortinas, who plays more from the jazz and blues songbook than its tango counterpart. It's intriguing to listen to the drums leading the acoustic guitar and the flute, creating the impression that the latter instruments can't help but venture away from the tango roots like a ball player getting ready to steal second. The further the flute dives into jazz, for instance, the more you get the feeling that a unique sub-genre of music has just been invented.
Hearing three un-amplified instruments wander so freely through the compositions wouldn't be nearly as rewarding if the sound quality wasn't clean and spacious, with the boundaries of the recording venue sharply drawn. The crispness of the guitars are gorgeous, with plenty of string-fret interaction clearly audible. This effect is heightened when Julian "El Piojo" Lopez joins in on a second guitar on Astor Piazzolla's "Zita," which through the mere increase in musicians creates a lusher, more complex arrangement.
I want to go back to "Zita" for just a second, because it's become one of those songs that is so full of happy goodness that I'm forced to play it over and over when it comes up, much like "Nectar" from Somesh Mathur's Time Stood Still. It just has an amazing amount of swagger considering the softer material that has come before it. It is quickly followed by another Piazzolla compositon, "Triunfal," that goes off in a completely different direction, jagged and minimalist in the way it says "you can have that, but you can also have this." Listening to these final two tracks makes an impressive, almost philosophical point, something that just doesn't happen every day in the world of jazz.
The coming and going of the new year added nothing to my quest to eliminate this pile of CDs and LPs. I spent much of the holidays in New England, which sounds very romantic, but for the first time in a long time we didn't have a White Christmas this year in the Big Bad North. We had snow on Halloween, single digits on Thanksgiving, but nothing when it counts the most. I did have plenty of jazz to keep me company when I returned, and I noticed how perfect this music is for this time of year, even if I'm looking at nothing but green lawns. Simone Kopmajer's new album, Spotlight on Jazz, stood out because it seemed Christmas-y without actually being about Christmas. It's a gentle, sweet kind of jazz, meant to be enjoyed in front of a big window, especially if you're secretly hoping for a blizzard.
Kopmajer is an interesting jazz singer for a couple of reasons. First, she's from Austria, which does not figure into her vocal delivery. You simply won't hear a little slip of an accent like you would listening to one of those amazing female voice recordings from Three Blind Mice, the ones where the Japanese singers perform a stunning rendition of songs like "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" in English but you can still kind of tell here and there. Second, her voice has enormous appeal. She comes from the dipped-in-honey school of jazz, where she sounds light and cheerful and yet always sexy--every word sounds like it's being delivered to someone she obviously loves.
That's not exactly a rare thing in the world of jazz, a female jazz singer who might be considered very attractive to a wide swath of folks, but Kopmajer isn't taking any short cuts. She has surrounded herself with one heck of a line-up, most notably tenor sax player Terry Myers who currently plays with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Guitarist Martin Spitzer has an unusually light touch--his delicate and exotic work on "Poinciana" is a highlight. Paul Urbanek's piano matches the guitar's soft tone, and the rhythm section of drummer Reinhardt Winkler and bassist Karl Sayer knows how to lay back and sustain a dreamlike tinge to the performance.
That's what I enjoy the most about Spotlight on Jazz--its ability to lay back and let the rhythms evolve naturally, even when the tempos are slowed down just a bit, more than usual. This is a motif that offers a synergy to Kopmajer's voice and lifts up the sweetness, helping her to project an innocence that is unusual for someone recording her thirteenth album as a leader. This results in a perfect winter jazz album, quiet and thoughtful, one that will definitely having you staring out a window and wondering when the weather's going to turn.