Saturday, December 16, 2017

Phil DeGreg Trio's Queen City Blues

Those who can't, teach.

That old saying seems to be obsolete in the world of contemporary jazz. So many of these new jazz releases I've been reviewing are fronted by academics, usually musicians who head departments of Jazz Studies at major universities. I just received a pile of CDs from the University of North Texas, for example, and they are very serious about their jazz department. But before I get to those, I have this rather low-profile CD to review from the Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati, Phil DeGreg. I refer to this CD as having a low profile because I've had it in my possession for a few weeks now, and I haven't really given it much time until now. That was a mistake.

Pianist Phil DeGreg, along with bassist Aaron Jacobs and drummer John Taylor, have created a simple, compact jazz masterpiece with Queen City Blues. Sure, it's just a recording of a jazz trio. Sure, they're playing the usual mix of standards and originals. On the surface there's nothing extraordinary about this Cincinnati trio, but when you crawl inside you'll find plenty to celebrate.

First, the sound quality is spectacular. It's not hard to make a jazz trio recording sound great. But this is a redbook CD that's been self-released, which probably means with the help and direction and funding from the university. And sound-wise it's a reference disc. Jacob's bass is woody and dense and full of individual timbres that contribute to such a fleshed-out sound. Taylor's drum set shimmers and booms and is so dynamic, despite the fact that he has an understated style that emphasizes his deft work on the hi-hat and cymbals.

And then there's DeGreg. He's a great player, of course, steady and quick and genial. He's strong on melody, on being in service to the tune. But I'm hearing all those wonderful cues in space that signal a great recording reproduced on a great sound system--the way the notes emerge from different areas of the sound board, the way those same notes float out into the room and blossom in strength. I can almost imagine him playing this CD in the classroom, telling the students that this is the way to do it--if he does say so himself. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Gabriele Tranchina's Of Sailing Ships and the Stars in Your Eyes

Gabriele Tranchina's new CD, Of Sailing Ships and the Stars in Your Eyes, has a lot in common with the Veronneau album I reviewed yesterday. Both singers specialize in jazz, but they have unusual voices for the genre--Lynn Veronneau has a relaxed, folk-rock voice that reminds me somewhat of Carole King or Joni Mitchell, while Tranchina has a thinner and slightly more plaintive voice that makes me think of Astrud Gilberto. That's certainly not a knock, since Gilberto's voice was so charming that she's still a legend after singing one song 50 years ago. (Let's not forget that the others who performed on that album weren't exactly chopped liver.)

Another similarity between these two modern albums is that, like Veronneau, Tranchina has her talented husband nearby for musical support. That suggests a certain synergy between performers, also known as love, and it's presumed that should carry over into the music. Joe Vincent Tranchina provides layer after layer of keyboards throughout these twelve tracks, piano, Hammond B-3 and programming. That said, this is album heavy with percussion. That gives more than half of the album a distinct Latin feel.

On the other half of the album, Trnachina's voice is the star. I've suggested it isn't the richest or most sultry voice you'll hear in jazz, and I am hearing more processing in the recording than usual for a jazz album, but her voice does become more impressive once you scoot in for a closer listen. First of all, she sings in multiple languages on this album--French, Portuguese, German, Italian and of course English. On a beautiful Cormon/Carre arrangement of Bizet's "Je Crois Entendre Encore," the show-stopper of the album, you'll hear Tranchina at her most committed. Every syllable is like a long, soft kiss--I wish more of the album consisted of this kind of music since it's more suited to her.

Another slight knock? Perhaps. There are some missteps here, most notably some Middle Eastern scatting on "A Song for India" that veers a little close to nasally cliches. (Instrumentally, however, the song is more intriguing with its atypical layering of keyboards that almost reminds me of Dead Can Dance.) The title track is a skip-over--the melody makes her sound a little flat. I think another problem, as I've already suggested, is in the recording of Tranchina's voice. At times it's buried in the mix. That's unfortunate, since I do think she's an interesting singer, and perhaps a different approach might have made a bigger first impression.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Veronneau's Love & Surrender

Not all jazz/female vocal albums are created equally, although it does seem that most of them are aiming squarely at sultry, romantic and nostalgic. Some model themselves after Diana Krall and her album theme du jour, and others may go for the more purist approach, say Julie London (my preference). I hate to break it down to those two extremes, but whenever I hear a female vocal album these days it seems like they're targeting one or the other. Sure there are exceptions--Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions Vol. 2 is the obvious example of someone trying to do something truly new with the Great American Songbook. But over the last year, these standouts are becoming quite rare.

If you want to get my attention, in other words, you have to do something different. It's one thing to have a wonderful singing voice, but it's quite another to carve your own niche in a well-traveled genre. You don't have to be crazy or unorthodox, just distinctive. Just a few minutes into Veronneau's new CD, Love & Surrender, this jazz trio had my attention. I don't even want to call them a jazz trio--that pigeonholes them. This trio, which consists of singer Lynn Veronneau, and guitarists Ken Avis and David Rosenblatt, is different because they're "doing their own thing," meaning that they're covering a lot of interesting tunes, throwing in some originals, and really finding unique strengths in each melody.

What's most striking about Veronneau the band, obviously, is Veronneau the singer. Lynn Veronneau has a lovely, rich and expressive voice that, for lack of a better word, is genuine. She's putting herself into these songs without gimmicks, and without affectation. It sounds like a cliche to talk about "singing from the heart," but how many singers these days are hyper-aware of the uniqueness of their voice and how they have to sell themselves to audiences, record labels and the like? Veronneau (the singer) sings as if she has no idea anyone else is listening. It's almost like we "catch" her singing and she gets all embarrassed and apologizes and explains that she didn't know anyone else was around. She's singing because she loves to sing, because it's her natural state of being.

Avis (Veronneau's husband, by the way) and Rosenblatt are fine company for her lovely voice--the dual guitar approach is delicate, beautiful and matches the singer's sense of spontaneity. There are also plenty of other guest musicians who provide a fuller and more satisfying feel to songs such as Serge Gainsbourg's "La Javanaise" and Jim Webb's "Moons a Harsh Mistress." Dave Kline, whose Shifting Borders I just reviewed, creates a strong presence through multiple tracks on his violin.

As different as Love & Surrender is, it's not revolutionary. It's sweet and relaxing--it's more Carole King and Joni Mitchell than Krall or London or anyone else out there. It's slight and sunny, but in a completely charming and unique way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Jeff Dingler's In Transit

In my review of bassist Reggie Young's Young Street, I mentioned that the wide variety of tracks were inspired by the sounds Young heard in the streets of New York City. Jeff Dingler, another bassist, was inspired by the same thing in his new album In Transit--the music he heard while walking around New York City. Dingler, however, spends equal time there and in Ethiopia, and those very different places set the mood for this collection of eight original tracks.

Middle Eastern and African influences are hardly new to the world of jazz, as anyone who has listened to "Caravan" knows. But Dingler is able to combine exotic themes with a profound sense of what it means to be home, especially when home can exist in two places on opposite ends of the planet. Dingler and his quartet (guitarist Brad Shepik, pianist Lou Rainone and drummer Gusten Rudolph) sound as skilled and accomplished as any contemporary jazz ensemble out there--as a group they play notably quick and clean and with oodles of energy--but when the Ethiopian influences emerge (often earmarked by guest appearances from percussionist Josh Bailey) the music suddenly becomes much more complex and intriguing.

I had to dig deep into this recording before I realized an old point of reference--Ethiopiques, a collection of Ethiopian jazz from 1965. If you've seen the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers, you know this album intimately. There's an awesome synergy at work between Ethiopian folk music and Western jazz genres, and you'll hear it on In Transit as well. Ethiopiques sounded primitive--it was a primitive recording, and many of the musicians playing could barely maintain control of their instruments. But that was the magic in the recording, that it all set into such a mysterious whole full of beauty. Dingler and his ensemble are precise where the Ethiopians in 1965 were sloppy, but that stunning mix of the familiar and the esoteric is still there, lurking just beneath the surface.

I've one more comparison, and it goes back to the Reggie Young CD. Young is a maestro when it comes to his electric bass, and the entire album centers around that. Dingler is a very solid and thoughtful double bass player, and he likes to stay in the background. His playing isn't flashy, but it will be appreciated by fellow bass players. The strength here is in the compositions, and they way the evoke two very different worlds. It's quite an accomplishment.

Reggie Young's Young Street

Bassist Reggie Young's new album, Young Street, is kind of odd. I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just that as you move through these 11 tracks, you'll start to wonder who Young is, and what kind of sound he's going for.

You can see his intentions--he's an incredible electric bass guitar player, and he's showing off how his unorthodox style can be applied to a number of jazz genres. There's certainly nothing odd about that, since many jazz musicians take that challenge. He starts off with a couple of tunes, "Young Street" and "Smash 'Em Up," that seem perfectly suited to his dynamic and funky aesthetic. From there he moves into "Brazilian Dreams," which of course shows off his taste in Brazilian jazz. He's still hanging in there, despite light and flippant backing vocals that border on stereotypical (ba-ba-ba-BAH!). Then comes a song called "Magic," which is hampered by sleepy, repetitive vocals and a lack of focus.

After that we get "Riding Low," which is more rock and roll than anything else--it definitely has momentum. From there we get Reggie Young's take on all sorts of genres, and for the most part they all sound great. I guess I'm wishing for more consistency in these tunes--I want "Young Street" as an album to feel more of a whole instead of a mere outlet for Young's virtuosity.

Young is far from a rookie--he's won a few Grammies, and he's played with Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder and Ruben Studdard. Fodera, a manufacturer of bass guitars, has released a Reggie Young Signature model. The sound of his bass guitar here is strong, distinctive and never trivial. Despite what I said before, he's not a show-off--he knows how to support his fellow musicians. Young Street was written to reflect the sounds Young hears walking through the streets of New York City, and perhaps that's why it's all over the place.

The liner notes state that "when you go hear him play live it's just remarkably entertaining." That's the album this should have been, focusing on this awesome bass player and how he interacts with his band. Instead, it feels like a greatest hits album that features tracks recorded in multiple decades, through multiple artistic periods. It's still quite good, but it is odd.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Justin Piper's Transcend

Here's another new release, like RK Dawkins' Journey, that seems to draw from so-called New Age music from twenty of thirty years ago to create a new pocket genre for contemporary jazz. The RK Dawkins album used jazz fusion and funk to draw the overall sound away from the ethereal synthesizer music from the '80s and '90s. Guitarist Justin Piper is more evocative of the Windham Hill style of music from the '80s--you can almost hear the late Michael Hedges nodding in approval.

Piper, who hails from the Boston area, uses the same layered approach to recording as Dawkins. Every sound on every track on Transcend is created by Piper--he starts with the guitar track and then adds texture through such instruments as a lap steel, bass, oud and banjo. He then uses programming instead of a mere synthesizer to create the dense backgrounds of sound. While he fancies his music as acid jazz, his classical guitar training is the first thing you'll notice. His acoustic guitars sound dense and fanciful, and his style is intricate and impressive. When I think of acid jazz, I think of something completely different than this.

The sound quality on Transcend merits discussion, and for the same reason as RK Dawkins' album. Twenty or thirty years ago, performers like this would add layer after layer of sound to recording in their efforts to be a true one-man band. In the old days, this meant adding track upon track, which also meant adding tape hiss, noise and other studio artifacts. While early digital recordings were supposed to address this, you could still hear those layers of haze piled on top of each other.

But with Journey and now Transcend, a lone musician can walk into a studio and create a multi-layered recording and still make it sound like it was recorded live and in one take. I'll freely admit that I don't know the particulars of how this is accomplished, or how long these technologies have been available in the recording studio. All I'm saying is that I'm really noticing this clean, pure sound...I almost said "for the first time," but I'm not sure if that's true. What I am saying is this might be the trademark of whatever genre this turns out to be, where one person can walk into a studio and create something that's, well...synergistic with one's self.

Friday, December 8, 2017

RK Dawkins' Journey

Do you like New Age music?

In 2017, the term "New Age Music" is about as nebulous as "New Wave Music." Both terms have becoming meaningless, except in terms of nostalgia, in the last couple of decades. Back in the '90s I went through a New Age phase or, more specifically, I loved ethereal synthesizer music that was called "space music." You know the stuff--it started back in the '70s with Klaus Schulze and Popul Vuh and a few others and then by the '90s everyone started adding beats and the "New Age" split up into dozens of new musical genres--ambient, dubstep, trip hop, you name it.

I'm bringing this up because I've received quite a few new releases that feel, for want of a more specific label, like the New Age music I was listening to twenty-five years ago. The only difference is that instead of wearing hip-hop influences on its sleeve, I'm hearing more jazz and funk. The synthesizers are still out in front, as are the drum machines, but this new genre seems focus on themes and improvisations in the same way as classic jazz. On the surface, it feels like New Age. But there's a different level underneath it all, something based more on old traditions. RK Dawkins' Journey is the first of many CDs I've recently received that seem to be fixated on creating a new hybrid subgenre. There's probably already a name for it.

Dawkins has even adopted the New Age approach of people such as Robert Rich and others by playing all of the instruments on Journey. He's primarily a jazz guitarist who counts Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington Jr. and Earth, Wind and Fire as his primary influences. He started off each compositions by focusing on a strong bass line and guitar lines saturated with effects, and then builds up layer after layer. That way he can focus on the "flavor" each instrument brings to the song. That's why each composition will remind you of so many different types of music at the same time--jazz, funk, Middle Eastern music, pop, techno, whatever you can think of.

While the one-man band approach to composition can occasionally lack both variety and a sense of synergy, Dawkins takes a different approach by thinking of each layer of music as a "contribution" from a musician with unique experiences and influences. As you listen to Journey, it sounds like it was performed by a group of musicians who love playing together. This wasn't always the case back in the New Age Era. Perhaps it's because today's studio technologies can provide a more seamless feel between the layers, but a lot of it has to do with Dawkin's ability to make this sound like a great jazz-funk-techno band all by himself. While Journeys doesn't quite sound revolutionary or even evolutionary from a perfunctory glance at its gleaming surfaces, it might just signal the arrival something very new.

Steve Slagle's Dedication

If you read last week's review of Dave Stryker's Strykin' Ahead in Positive Feedback, which you can read here, I make the subtle suggestion that Stryker is everywhere in the world of contemporary jazz, perhaps one of its biggest stars in 2017. So I wasn't the least surprised to see him as a featured guest on saxophonist Steve Slagle's new album Tribute. For the record, this is not Slagle's tribute to the semi-ubiquitous Stryker--each of these nine tracks is dedicated to a particular performer who inspired the recording such as Sonny Rollins, Steve Swallow, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter and so on.

Slagle even dedicates some of these songs to ideas--"Major In Come" is dedicated to the concept of "swing" in jazz and "Triste Beleza" is dedicated to the "great spirit of the music of Brazil." Dave Stryker, as uniquely talented as he is, even takes a step back from the edge of the stage to allow Slagle to pay each of these tributes--it is the saxophone that carries the heart and soul of this album forward.

Slagle isn't a stranger to me either. I reviewed his last album, Alto Manhattan, earlier this year. I focused on the fact that AM was wild around edges and full of measured chaos, which I loved. "[It] impressed me with its breathlessness, its furor," I wrote. This observation was relative, of course--I was reacting to the fact that my review pile at the time was rich with journeymen performers who were competent and capable and dedicated but perhaps lacked a bit of spark. On Dedication, Slagle is still using the same core of musicians (drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Scott Colley and pianist Lawrence Fields), and has added Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz. So is this a continuation of the same wild spirit of Alto Manhattan?

I'm going to say it's somewhere in between. Dedication is certainly as inspired as anything else Slagle has done. It's just a little more clear-headed than usual. Each performer has perhaps a bit more focus and restraint than the last time out, and while this new attitude makes Dedication more calm and reflective, it doesn't rob the music of its primal energy and brilliance. Imagine Alto Manhattan as a performance you want to hear at the beginning of the evening to get you all pumped up, and Dedication as the late night session that eases you into a night of vivid dreaming. Even with Stryker, one of jazz's most exciting guitarists, Slagle's ensemble is magical yet precise. Highly recommended.

Bob Ferrel's Jazztopian Dream

I have enormous respect for the trombone. Why? I'm not much of a musician, but I have tried to learn quite a few instruments over the years--drums, guitar, piano, saxophone, clarinet, ukelele and a few others. The trombone was the one instrument that would not allow me to create a single solitary note, not even by accident. So when I hear the sound of the trombone in a particular recording I think oh, there you are you obstinate bastard. Are you mocking me again?

It's all said in jest, of course, but this is the reason why I get a thrill from listening to great trombonist ply their craft. I know how difficult it is to play this seemingly simple brass instrument (by simple, I mean no valves), so I marvel when it's done beautifully. Bob Ferrel is one of those rare humans who have mastered the trombone and have made it sound beautiful, complex and full of emotion. Ferrel has been performing for over forty years with such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He's also played with Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Stevie Ray Vaughn. You want a great trombonist? Here's a legend.

On his new album, Jazztopian Dream, Ferrel provides sort of an advanced primer on the trombone. This mixture of classics and originals shows just how varied this brass instrument can be--Ferrel engages in such techniques as triple-tonguing, multi-phonics and lots of "growl." He can soften the tones, he can blur them and he can even coax them into an astonishing level of purity and clarity. His large band is just as flexible--they can sound like a traditional big band, an Afro-Cuban ensemble or they can even pull the focus and sound like a tight be-bop quartet or quintet. Dwight West sings on a handful of tracks as well, sounding like Joe Henderson with a big clear delivery that seems to emphasize every syllable.

The album ends with a hoot--"Soul Bop" stretches the timbres of Ferrel's trombone into an almost guttural language. It's hard to decide if Ferrel is exploring new frontiers or if he's just having way too much fun. I lean toward the latter--just listen to everyone laugh at the end. (Someone says, "That's some fun stuff.") But you're missing something if you don't sit and listen carefully since Ferrel and his band have locked into a rare groove. I could listen to an entire album of this sort of hijinks. The rest is pretty special too--especially if you're a fan of the trombone.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Jane Ira Bloom's Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson

I was fairly surprised to see a new album from soprano sax player Jane Ira Bloom so soon after her monumental Early Americans, which I enthusiastically recommended in my Positive Feedback review last year. Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago, and I immediately thought "Wow, Jane is very prolific--this new one is even a 2-CD set." I started listening to it almost immediately. How could you go wrong with Jane's music mated with Emily Dickinson's poetry, read by actress Deborah Rush? What an ambitious project, I thought.

Then I started hearing it, familiar songs and passages from Early Americans, and that's when I started wondering about this project and what it was trying to accomplish. After careful listening I deduced that those familiar tracks from Early Americans were performed by a quartet this time, with pianist Dawn Clement joining bassist Mark Helias and drummer Previte. The arrangements are therefore slightly different, a little more complex this time out. Clement's piano work is rich and adds a fullness to the overall sound.

As I explored Wild Lines, I started realizing that this project was so much more than setting Emily Dickinson's poetry to jazz featured in an already extraordinary album. Then I discovered the true scope of the project. First, I started off thinking that this was only a single CD album--the other one had been hiding deep in the CD gatefold--and I had actually been listening to the second disc, which is the only one where Rush appears. The first disc is the music itself, without the poetry reading. So I went back and listened to the entire work in order, disc one first, and had to re-evaluate everything I had already heard.

Wild Lines is an expansion of Jane's themes that she explored in EA and elsewhere, matched to Dickinson's words. Jane explains in the liner notes that "I didn't always understand her but I always felt Emily's use of words mirrored the way a jazz musician uses notes." Taking lines from both Dickinson's collected works and the envelope poems "The Gorgeous Nothings," Jane has allowed her compositions to evolve into something deeper and more complete. If you're a fan of Emily Dickinson, it might be a revelation to hear her words take on those jazz rhythms and dance between your speakers. If you're a fan of Jane Ira Bloom, you get the privilege of hearing her dig deeper into a masterpiece and place it into a new context.

The relationship between the two discs--one instrumental and then one with Dickinson's words--is a bit more complex and may take more time for me to fully digest. Bloom could have taken the easier path and just released the second CD as the complete work, but by allowing you to hear the music both ways she's tempting you to apply the poetry in your mind, to hear it implicitly. Whether you're able to do that successful may depend upon how familiar you are with Emily Dickinson. I've read her poetry but I'm far from a scholar. But if you do love her poetry as Jane Ira Bloom does, this might be the most fascinating album you've heard in a very long time.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ken Wiley's Jazz Horn Redux

When you see a title like Jazz Horn Redux, you generally think of lots of blasting brass instruments all up in your face. Or perhaps you think of big horn sections backing up a big, bluesy Chicago or Detroit ensemble. I don't know what you think of, actually, but I do know that I approach these types of jazz albums with a fair amount of trepidation. I guess it goes back to that time I went to the Elephant Bar in Austin and sat up front, and the bell of the trumpet was no more than six feet from my face the whole time. I felt like my eyes were crossed for two weeks after that. I like a little more distance, thanks.

That's why Ken Wiley's new album is so surprising. He's a french horn player, which obviously sounds a lot more mellow than a trumpet or a flugelhorn or a sax or a trombone. Wiley is celebrating the contribution of horns in the jazz songbook, so we get smooth and textured renderings of such classics as Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower," Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," John Coltrane's "Equinox" and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo." You even get two faithful covers from Kind of Blue--"All Blues" and "Freddie Freeloader."

Surprisingly, this isn't Wiley's take on these classics, all performed on French horn. He's assembled a huge collection of L.A. jazz musicians to deliver these fairly straightforward yet beautifully captured performances. As band leader--and this is Wiley's fourth time doing this--he doesn't like to stray too far away from the original arrangements or come up with some crazy new way to do things. He's reverential in his approach, and a little bit of a perfectionist, and that means Jazz Horn Redux will sound like many legendary big band performances you might find from fifty or sixty years ago.

What Jazz Horn Redux also shares with those old recordings is beautiful sound quality. We're not talking about the simple late night impromptus that turned out to be magical, but a well-balanced and clean presentation that will reveal layer after layer of talent as well as a palpable whole that reveals how much these wonderful musicians know each other, and how much they enjoy playing on these types of ambitious projects.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Perfect Sound Forever's Planned Parenthood Benefit in NYC

Jason Gross, publisher of Perfect Sound Forever, is putting together a benefit concert for Planned Parenthood at The Bell House in Brooklyn this Wednesday, December 6. The evening will feature performances from Cindy Wilson of The B52's, Kaki King, Amy Rigby and more! Advance tickets are just $20 (they're $25 the day of the show), and you can also get special VIP tickets for $40--you'll get to meet Cindy!

For more information, check out The Bell House's website here.

Steve Hobbs' Tribute to Bobby

When I first started listening to jazz seriously, probably right after I left college and went to live in Virginia, my entry point was the vibraphone. More specifically, I really responded to Milt Jackson's vibes, and I set out on my jazz journey by purchasing several albums from the Modern Jazz Quartet. There's something about the vibraphone and the way the notes float and shimmer in space that really sends chills down my spine.

I also love the marimba, almost in the same way I love the vibes. My interest in the marimba predates my interest in jazz--I once fell in love with a very funky marimba that I found for sale in La Luz de Jesus, an art gallery/curio shop on Melrose in Hollywood. It was $700. I never quite saved enough to buy it, but I'll remember its glorious sound for the rest of my life.

Perhaps that's why I immediately responded so favorably to Steve Hobbs' Tribute to Bobby. Hobbs has been a true legend when it comes to jazz marimba and vibraphone--he has been recording for Challenge Records for 43 years. The "Bobby" in question is Bobby Hutcherson, who was Hobbs' mentor and dear friend who recently passed away. This tribute includes many Hobbs originals with just a couple of exceptions--Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and "Where or When" from Rodgers & Hart.

Hobbs enlists the help of the musicians who have played with him on his last three albums--sax player Adam Kolker, pianist Bill O'Connell, bassist Peter Washington and drummer John Riley. This quintet can move gracefully through all sorts of jazz genres such as calypso, Latin, funk and even a bit of gospel (on "The Road to Happy Destiny," which does sound like it belongs on a different album), but this recording's strongest asset is Hobbs, who can really dig out the sound of mallets hitting blocks and bars. For me this is the true thrill of so-called struck idiophones, the way the sound of the mallets against the bars can sound so immediate and present and normal--and by normal I mean familiar, as in a familiar sound that doesn't sound ethereal or impossible. Anyone can make that sound at least once, and so it registers as something comfortable in the back of the brain.

Of course the secret is stringing those notes together in a way that is not only musical but unique, especially in terms of the entire performance. Hobbs is quick and light, in the manner of most of his colleagues, but he is also very caring in terms of extracting the right tone from his instrument. In a way he is the David Gilmour of struck idiophones, where every note is carefully chosen and winds up being the perfect fit for the song.

The sound quality is indeed excellent, which is important when it comes to hearing the striking of the mallet, the note produced by the instrument and then how that note moves and fills the room. Perhaps that's why I'm so in love with the sound of these instruments--you can crawl inside of these sounds and explore. There's so much to feel here.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Vinyl Anachronist #118 Now Live at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one features my annual year-end wrap up including my favorite new LPs, reissues, phono cartridge and turntable. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Paul Moran's Smokin' B3--Vol. 2 Still Smokin'

Reviewing the Dave Askren and Jeff Benedict CD earlier today made me instantly think of Paul Moran's new CD, and how both recordings have so much in common. Both are mellow, smooth and cool. Both prominently feature the Hammond B3 organ. Both contain covers of The Beatles' "Come Together." If these two albums were films, they'd make a great double feature.

Paul Moran is known for being Van Morrison's musical director for many years and playing keyboards and brass on many of Morrison's albums. The liner notes hint at the idea of what kind of music Moran, or any other longtime professional musician, might make when left to his own devices. The answer is decidedly NOT Morrison-like. Moran, who is based in London, is the proverbial jazzman, someone who wants to pay tribute to a wide spectrum of influence that includes Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and even Rodgers & Hart.

Moran's B3 work is remarkable. He can coax those long notes into profound statements of love and desire, or his fingers can fly quickly up and down the keyboard and barely trigger those little puffs of air that can be so expressive on their own. He's the kind of performer who makes you sit up and say dammit, I love the B3 and the waves of nostalgia it summons with ease. He's also wise enough to surround himself with a game collection of fellow musicians such as guitarist Nigel Price, bassist Laurence Cottle, drummer Mez Clough and many others.

Compared to the Askren/Benedict disc, this has a bit more energy and a wider range of moods. The R&B classic "Have You Seen Her" is lush and romantic and almost sexy, despite a theme sunk deeply into having the blues. Moran's own "Scallywag" sounds like a lost hit from The Ventures with its slow, barely evolving melody and relaxed tempo. The band can also inject plenty of energy into these performances--I think Moran's version of "Come Together" has a little more zip than Askren and Benedict. If you have a free afternoon or evening, I strongly suggest listening to both CDs one after the other. It'll put you into that aforementioned "jazz mood," whatever that is.

Dave Askren & Jeff Benedict's Come Together on CD

A friend of mine recently brought up the idea of a "jazz mood." When I asked him what he meant, he replied something about cool, relaxed and mellow, something to be enjoyed while wearing dark sunglasses. Indoors. At night. He's not really a jazz fan, but I kind of understood what he meant--jazz is supposed to be cool and hip. I don't want to suggest that it's not, but over the last year I've been submerged in the stuff and I think it's not mellow at all. It's dynamic and punchy and exciting at times, but I don't experience many old-school jazz moods these days. Besides, cool and relaxed leads you directly into that palace of sin known as "lite jazz." Let's not be that "cool," okay?

Here's a surprise, however--guitarist Dave Askren and sax player Jeff Benedict, along with organ player Joe Bagg and drummer Paul Romain, have come up with a pure jazz album that is cool, relaxed and mellow in a completely undorky way. Come Together stands out from the crowd, and not because it's doing crazy things that have never been done before. This collection of standards, centered around the epic yet understated Beatles track in the title, exists in its own world where you can put on a pair of sunglasses at night and no one will say a word about it.

Askren is the de facto leader here--he's one of those jazz guitarists who's been around forever and has what they call an "impeccable pedigree." (He's the guy who once recorded a fabulous tribute to Bill Evans--on guitar.) Benedict, despite the nature of his instrument, is the quiet core of the group. His sax performances are solid and understated and keep the quartet firmly grounded--a good idea since there is no bass player per se. That's where Joe Bagg's earthy and gritty Hammond B-3 comes in, supplying the lower foundation while almost single-handedly providing layer after layer of cool. Paul Romain's drumming is also fantastic in that same subtle way. He's not flying all over the place with macrodynamic flamboyance, but creating new depths of rhythm and shine.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the sound quality of Come Together is uniformly excellent, but it has a dash of that live feel as if the audience was present but had their hands tied behind their backs. The immediacy of the performances and the chemistry within the quartet are fleshy and vibrant. But because the music is so calm, so confident, you might not recognize the greatness. It's there, however, sitting in the corner, wearing a pair of Wayfarers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

2L Recordings' Minor Major on Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD Hybrid

The theme of this particular 2L release is quite simple. Beethoven's Quartet no. 11 in F minor is indeed in a minor key, but as a fairly short piece it is often overlooked as one of his most important works. Schubert's Quartet no. 15 in G major is in a major key, and it is also considered to be a major work, one of imposing length and substantial impact. The idea here is to boldly place these two works on the same album and let the listener come up with an answer to the question "What is truly minor and what is truly major when it comes to music?"

Both pieces are played by the Oslo String Quartet, a 2L mainstay. Violinists Geir Inge Lotsberg and Liv Hilde Klokk, violist Are Sandbakken and cellist Oystein Sonstad take a purist approach to this music, playing it with precision and yet with all of the appropriate emotions intact. They understand, for instance, that one of the most intriguing characteristics of the Beethoven quartet is that despite the minor key it is not a sad or sorrowful work. Think about that for a second, because I certainly had to wrap my head around it. Back in college, my Music 101 professor told us that minor keys expressed sadness, regret, danger, anger...all the negative emotions. In about twenty-two blissful minutes, he is proven wrong.

The Schubert quartet does not prompt the same sort of musical revelation and re-evaluation; it is merely ambitious and grand. The Oslo String Quartet is up to what must have been a physically challenging performance for them--there is so much furious energy here, and you can definitely hear the musicians breathing hard and pushing their bodies to the limits in order to deliver a flawless performance. As usual this is where 2L excels, at reminding the listener of the intimate relationship between musician and instrument (something I obsess over every time I get one of these spectacular Norwegian recordings), and how mere humans have to push themselves to the brink to commit to perfection.

Finally, I want to throw out an idea--string quartets are a perfect match with 2-way speakers. 2L Recordings' Morten Lindberg might disagree with this since he's a pioneer when it comes to using such technologies as 9.1 Dolby Atmos and 9.1 Auro 3D 96 khz and MQA for even a "simple" quartet recording. (It's obvious that these surround-sound technologies come in handy when it comes to placing a small quartet in a large Norwegian church.) But I use several high-quality 2-way loudspeakers as a reference in my two channel set-ups, and for me this is the ultimate in realism. I've heard plenty of bigger speakers enlarge the size of small ensembles to the point where each musician is ten feet tall. Excellent two-way monitors really prove their worth when it comes to this kind of music, which is why I could spend my golden years listening to recordings like this--quite simply, it approaches sonic perfection.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Harold Little's Akoben on CD

I've been a little grouchy over some of this '80s jazz-funk-r&b stuff I've been getting lately. Twinkly keyboards, plonky bass lines, mindless danceability--it's just not my thing. It's dated, and back in the day I didn't like it, either. It's not holding up well. Stop it.

Then, of course, something comes in to change my mind. Trumpet and flugelhorn player Harold Little has just released Akoben, a funky blast of '80s fun that rises above the genre through his superb horn work. He captures the best of the era--hot, sultry playing that boasts hidden depths, sort of like Miles Davis' strange yet pioneering Tutu and Amandla. Little's supporting band is a little less enigmatic than Miles' crew, however--this is mainstream jazz that is far more entertaining than challenging. But it's a lot more interesting than most of the lite/cool jazz I've been evaluating.

Little's been around for a while, playing with contemporary jazz greats such Chuck Brown, Butch Warren and Calvin Jones. He definitely inhabits a specific place and a time with this music, playing it straight and without irony. Normally I would wince at a jazz/funk cover of "Step," something that just isn't necessary under most circumstances, but Little's version slowly evolves into something vital and different. On "We Need Love," which features gorgeous vocals from Karen Linette and a slew of backup singers, Little's sudden and dynamic horn blasts will remind you of Hugh Masakela.

Look at it this way--this album won't single handedly change my mind about this sub-genre of music. But I've already mentioned two of my favorite horn players, Miles Davis and Hugh Masakela, so it's clear that there's a serious and intriguing undercurrent in this music that gives it an added layer of meaning. Plus, and I've mentioned this once or twice before in the last month, the sound quality here is absolutely pure and gorgeous. It lacks the digital glaze that would coat Akoben if it had come out in 1988 or so. Perhaps that's what elevates the recording, but I'm really fond of the way Little plays as well.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 2 on LP and CD/SACD

My review of Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 2 is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.

If you want to read my blog review of the first volume of The Moonlight Sessions, you can find that here.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Chris Parker's Moving Forward Now on CD

Chris Parker is only 20 years old!

I'm not sure if that should be your lead-in. The protagonist in Whiplash was about that age, right? He was a jazz drummer. The Beatles were teenagers when they started their campaign of world domination. Mozart was an old grizzled vet by the time he started his third decade on this planet. Child prodigies are nothing new in the world of music.

Chris Parker is a hell of a jazz drummer, that's true. On his new album, Moving Forward Now, he's not flashy and precocious like you'd expect a 20-year-old drummer to be. He's steady, measured and has a light touch with his kit. He's generous with his fellow musicians and knows when to step out of the way to let them shine. In that respect alone he is an enormously mature performer.

As a composer, he's just as impressive. While he knows how to arrange music such as Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Rachmaninoff's Adaigio Sustenuto and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" into new jazz standards, half of this album contains Parker's original compositions. These new tunes blend seamlessly with the rest of the album--even a distinctive rendering of "Autumn Leaves." These choices reveal either an old soul or an apt pupil. Parker isn't trying to reinvent the wheel his first time out. He's proving one thing--he deserves to be out in front no matter his age, and he hopefully has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. And that's a gift to all of us.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Paul McCandless and the Paul Winter Consort's Morning Sun on CD

I went through a New Age phase about twenty years ago, a temporary enthusiasm that was prompted by a girlfriend at the time. I browse through my CD collection and I can still pick out all the titles from that era. A handful of them were genuinely interesting--Mychael Danna and Robert Rich, for example--but for the most part I think of them as dated, anchor-less precursors to the more highly structured genres of electronica that would soon appear on the musical horizon and capture my interest.

This new CD from oboe player Paul McCandless and the Paul Winter Consort, Morning Sun: Adventures with Oboe, reminds me of those twenty-year-old CDs. It's ambitious without being edgy, and it's full of beautiful melodies wrapped in an ethereal package rife with babbling brooks and other sounds of nature. It's an anachronism, albeit one performed with heart and skill.

McCandless has been playing with the Paul Winter Consort for 45 years, and this recording is a celebration of that partnership. He even formed Oregon with three of the consort's members, which now qualifies as the longest running jazz ensemble in the world. This familiarity creates a warm, relaxed and natural feel to this mixture of originals and covers. The trick, I suppose, is removing the temporal element of the music and enjoying it at face value--maybe you were really into this sound twenty or thirty years ago and you wish there was more of it. Maybe you'll dig the fact that the sound quality is far better than the stuff from the late '80s and early '90s--less of that digital glaze and more of that expansive and properly textured sound that's taken for granted these days.

So I don't want to come out and say that this CD isn't my thing. It's full of great ideas, strong melodies and exquisite performances. McCandless' oboe exudes an incredible amount of feeling during the slower passages, and this album clearly focuses on these impressive performances. This is, after all, a retrospective. If it was 1993, I'd probably be playing it a lot. But in 2017, I need a little more risk and a little less warm blanket freshly retrieved from a box in the attic.

Two from Laura Ainsworth...on LP and CD!

Audiophiles love the female voice. So much so, in fact, that my review pile is currently flooded with jazz releases from women singers. I'm not about to say this is a new thing, especially since I've been gorging myself on a steady diet of Ella, Judy and Billie for the last couple of years. But I'm meeting quite a few chanteuses over the last year--talented singers who have clearly been around for a while, even though I've never heard of them until now.

I just received a double shot of Laura Ainsworth in the mail--both an LP and a CD. What's unusual is that it isn't the same release--Top Shelf is on LP, and New Vintage is on CD. Both were released within a few days of each other last August. Why the distinction? Well, Top Shelf is sort of a greatest hits album for Ainsworth, who hails from Dallas. It's aimed squarely at audiophiles or, more accurately, the trade show circuit where audiophiles wander from room to room and ask to hear Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jennifer Warnes. New Vintage is merely her latest release.

Ainsworth has a playful, almost cheery delivery. You can almost see her smile as she sings. While the cover of Top Shelf is clearly a tribute to those wonderful old Julie London albums I love, I wouldn't call Ainsworth's voice sultry. It's enthusiastic, vivid and quick. She also gravitates toward lyrics that are meant to evoke knowing smiles and soft chuckles rather than longing and heartbreak. Both of these albums are fun and uplifting, which is not quite in the spirit of the traditional torch song. This isn't the blues. This is a celebration.

Ainsworth employs the same band for both albums--pianist Brian Piper, bassist John Adams, drummers Mike Drake and Steve Barnes, woodwind player Chris McGuire, trumpeter Rodney Booth, flutist Pete Brewer and vibraphone player Dana Sudborough--and they are a tight and skilled ensemble across the board. But I favor Top Shelf over New Vintage for a number of reasons. The sound quality on the latter is smoother and richer and adds a layer of seriousness that counters the liveliness of Ainsworth's voice. While "New Vintage" is cheerful and exciting, the LP is the one I'd bring to a trade show and show off to the attendees. It's more "classic" in its approach, which is what I want from my female voice audiophile recordings.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Dylan Hicks' Ad Out on CD

Have you ever been blind-sided by something that's quiet, gentle and disarmingly familiar? I have. It happened with this modest little CD from a guy named Dylan Hicks who is sort of an amalgam of '70s singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and a half-dozen other guys who possess an easygoing and subtle intelligence. Hicks, who hails from Minnesota, fancies himself as a "singer, songwriter, minor novelist, folk pianist, essayist and odd-jobber." His lyrics express simple pleasures of love and companionship, but they're also very literate in a direct way--this guy knows how to turn a phrase in a very precise way. His stories aren't vaguely poetic--they name people and places and times with alarming specificity.

That's right, he's one of those guys who's still a storyteller. Whether he's talking about bartenders named Amanda, your father's charcoal suit or a set of rumble strips where your girlfriend used to ride her bike, Hicks zeroes in on the little details in life that stick in your mind for a long time after the song is over. That's the novelist in him, adding important details--the Swiftian "two shoes, not mates." It's a relaxed sort of genius, one that might slip by unnoticed.

Hicks band is interesting as well, with lots of banjos and pedal steel guitars dancing around a basic mid-temp rock ensemble that centers mostly around his friendly, likeable voice and his piano. His songs adhere to a certain pop economy, but he can also shift into Steely Dan jazz-rock with a sudden appearance of a big horn section. He does country-rock especially well--the twang is used sparingly yet effectively. There's a consistency to the core of his songs so that he can dabble with different arrangements and still sound like Dylan Hicks, singer-songwriter.

The sound quality of this album is surprisingly good for what is basically a small label release. It feels live and genuine. These songs feel borne from the bars and the small clubs and the taverns. Hicks has created a small gem here, and it deserves notice.

Nestor Torres' Jazz Flute Traditions on CD

It sounds really juvenile, I know, but my attitude toward jazz flute has been ruthlessly compromised by Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story. I suppose the jokes hit upon some ancient nerve, the one that suggest that a certain musical instrument might be unsuitable for a certain musical genre because it sounds a little too carefree, lightweight and capricious. I tend to agree with that, especially when I see a jazz release that prominently features someone on the flute.

I felt that twinge when I grabbed this CD and put it into the CD transport. My preconceptions were immediately kicked to the curb. Nestor Torres released this live album as a tribute to flutists such as Frank Wess and Moe Koffman who "were playing the instrument when it was still showing up in the 'miscellaneous' categories of major categories of major 1950s polls." (He's also focusing on more modern flute players such as Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws and Yuself Lateef.) These eleven standards, performed live, are bolder and more substantive than I could have imagined. While there is a rare moment or two that borders on cliche, this is a bold and rich release that redefines the instrument and shows it can be capable of gravitas and an infinite range of expression.

Torres and his band--pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Jamie Ousley, drummers Michael Piolet and Marcus Grant, percussionists Jose Gregorio Hernandez and Miguel Russell and alto saxophonist Ian Munoz--deliver these tracks in a sultry manner, one heavy with earthy and romantic themes. As you can see from the line-up, the focus is heavy on rhythm. But Torres' serious and passionate flute floats above the Latin percussion with an almost contradictory sense of freedom.

Sound quality is strong, even with the rather small audience sounding isolated and contained to the side. The sonic colors are warm and inviting--they ooze with a honest sexiness that can't be trivialized. Veronica Corningstone be damned...I like this one a lot.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dial & Oatts, Rich DeRosa and the WDR Big Band--Rediscovered Ellington

Like most jazz lovers, I have a ton of Duke Ellington recordings in my collection. That includes original live and studio recordings, of course, but also a lot of tributes from other artists. Once you start becoming an Ellington completist, there's seemingly no end to the recordings you can find. So when I see a new CD that is subtitled "New Takes on Duke's Rare and Unheard Music," I instantly think that I've still probably heard it all before--just not in this particular package.

This new CD, Rediscovered Ellington, from arrangers Garry Dial, Dick Oatts and Rich DeRosa, is meant to pay tribute to the lesser known Ellington songs by offering them with totally new arrangements. Dial, Oattes and DeRosa are purists somewhat, and their goal was to preserve the essence of what made Ellington such an original. In other words, they aren't revisionists--it's almost as if they're adding an extra ingredient to the recipe in order to elevate these nine tracks into something more whole. These songs, as a result, as perfectly rendered as Ellington tunes and even casual fans should recognize them as such. You've just never heard them before...unless you're one of those crazy completists.

The result is highly polished and precise, of course. Oatts, who was in charge of arranging these tunes for the WDR Big Band, paid special attention to selecting soloists whose style matched the tone of each passage. When you hear a particular solo improvisation, it sounds relaxed and natural as if the musician was famous for playing that specific song in his own unique way. And when you have three arrangers working together on a big project like this, you bet the pieces all fit together perfectly.

My only reservation is the sound quality, which is merely good. This album is from the Zoho label, which has released some sonic gems over the last year. Rediscovered Ellington is a little bright, a little flat and it just doesn't open up like a big band recording should with a sense of almost unlimited dynamics. But if you're an Ellington fan, you won't mind. Seeing these "lesser" tunes get their chance in the spotlight is very exciting, which is certainly the point.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Brian Hudson's Next Level on CD

Lately I've been scratching my head at the preponderance of '80s-style fusion jazz that's being released these days. To paraphrase John Oliver's show on HBO, I'm wondering why this is still a thing. To me it sounds dated. I'm not talking about the compositions or the execution, but the instrumentation--twinkly electric pianos, funky bass runs, sax solos straight out of Lethal Weapon and most of all glassy, slick production values that comes straight out of digital's early years. When it comes to jazz, preservation of classic styles is often paramount--but I'm still questioning the necessity of preserving this stuff. It's all about preferences, I know, and I'm being kind of a pig about it. But sometimes I kind of go, "Ew."

Then I get proven wrong by fusion jazz that balances the old and the new. Drummer Brian Hudson's new album, Next Level, is a case in point. This is funky fusion jazz that does sound thirty years old, but in a good way. This collection of originals from Hudson and keyboard player Randy Hoexter is bristling with pure energy and excitement, and the whole album is executed with such precision that you'll understand why these two gentlemen are so dedicated to this genre.

What sets this album apart from some of the others I've heard recently is that Hudson has gathered a collection of fusion all-stars who have played with such legends as Larry Carlton, Earl Klugh, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and many more. They're all ringers, in other words. Hudson is no wallflower, either--his drumming is up front and center, always full of complex rhythms and textures. From an audiophile point of view, his work is a tutorial on dynamic contrast. The overall sound quality of this CD is stunning in its superb sense of flow and balance. It doesn't sound glassy and bright in that woefully cheery '80s style--it's warm and full and engaging, which is probably why I like the album so much.

So am I warming up to this genre? It's hard to say. I could go back and re-evaluate some of those CDs I dissed over the last year and determine whether or not I needed a valid entry point. But what I really believe is that this is a smooth, professional, expertly played CD that makes me realize that fusion can still be as intriguing now as it was in 1986.