Saturday, August 26, 2017

Free Radicals' Outside the Comfort Zone on CD


I've been sitting on this release for a few weeks now. I received it during a time when I was reviewing a lot of free jazz, and I needed a break from the measured chaos. I saw the name "Free Radicals" and thought oh, that's just a catchy name for a jazz ensemble that handles lot of free jazz. The title of this CD, Outside the Comfort Zone seemed to confirm this--this was going to be another sonic and intellectual challenge. It's hard work analyzing free jazz and mapping out its structure. So I set it aside.

Boy, was I wrong about this CD.

Back in the '80s, when I used to hang out in places like Madame Wong's West and the Hollywood Paladium, we'd call Free Radicals a party band. That meant they were lively, energetic genre-crossers that made music to energize an eclectic and knowing crowd. This particular nine-piece ensemble has been marketed rather loosely under jazz, but you'll hear just about everything else in the mix--ska, '70s funk, '60s TV show themes, Delta blues, acid rock, New Orleans jazz, arena rock and perhaps a soupcon of straightforward jazz. Along with at least a dozen guest stars, Free Radicals create unique songs that plant themselves firmly on their own unique planets, and each tune will remind you of something you've heard before, something from the past that was really, really cool. 22 of the 23 tracks included on Outside the Comfort Zone are original compositions/improvisations from the group regulars, and the final track is a very loose adaptation from Sun Ra.

You can sit back and listen to this music, your toes tappin', and you might even get up and dance. But there's another hidden layer to explore--the group is trying to make socially conscious music that scrutinizes such issues as the Iraq War, white supremacy and border walls. They're playing instrumentals, so you have to dig a little into such titles as "Ambush ICE," "Audacity of Drones" and "Freedom of Consumption." Or you can see the collective perform live, where they'll be more active guides.

Free Radicals started off in a Houston pawn shop about twenty years ago, and since then they've put out a handful of albums while performing "in clubs, street protests, punk rock house parties, art openings, weddings, funerals and breakdance competitions. This album shares that same grassroots attitude into its production values--this isn't an audiophile disc so to speak, but that certainly doesn't matter when you're having this much fun.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Oscar Feldman's Gol on CD

This one has the looks, the vibe and the attitude of a great jazz reissue, and that's why it stands out from the flood of contemporary jazz releases I have in for review. Saxophonist Oscar Feldman comes from Argentina, where he plays for big and appreciative crowds. That's why Gol, his latest release, sounds both polished and revolutionary--this guy plays in entirely his own space and sounds like no one else and he's known for that. His bandmates--drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist John Benitez, keyboard player Leo Genovese and vocalist Guillermo Klein--are all old friends of Feldman, and they have that masterful aura of a quintet that has flourished through most of its long and storied career.

Gol, humorously enough, is named for a soccer victory, as in "GOOOOL!" It's no secret that soccer and music are a huge part of Argentinian culture, and this collection of standards and originals is celebratory in a vaguely football sort of way. You'll get a free-form yet supremely musical version of Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" that is held together with Feldman's outspokenly melodic sax, and you'll get a rambunctious version of the Beatles' "I Feel Fine' that resembles a drunken post-game party with plenty of Quilmes. You'll get Beck's "Nobody's Fault But My Own," which will not remind you of Beck at all until you look at the track listing and realize that yes, this is a Beck song.

Feldman's lone composition, "Viva Belgrano"--Guillermo Klein is responsible for the other two originals--is the thematic centerpiece of the album. This is where Feldman rhapsodizes about his hometown football team and the goal that propelled them to stardom, all marked by a climactic GOOOOOL. You get the crowd noise, the commentary and all of the excitement in a unique jazz song that manages to elevate the originality of all eight tracks as a whole. Gol flows with this athletic and fanatical energy; it never stops to catch its breath.

The sound quality, by the way, is exceptional. This is another release from Zoho Records, and their releases have been uniformly excellent when it comes to creating magic in the studio. There's only one thing that could make Gol even greater, and that's a release on vinyl. The music, the artwork and the quality of these performances deserve the best.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

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

A collection of 20th century violin and piano duets can be heady, troubling work, especially when these pieces come from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Witold Lutoslawski and Fartein Valen. Yet there's something incredibly lyrical about Interactions, the latest hi-rez recoding from Norway's 2L Recordings. Featuring Bard Monsen on violin and Gunnar Flagstad on piano, this recording isn't quite as lush as a mint Shaded Dog of Clair de Lune, but under those expected sharp edges you'll find plenty of real emotion and beauty.

These three pieces--Sonate from Valen, Duo Concertant from Stravinsky and Partita from Lutoslawski--were extracted from the cusp of certain classical periods, where each composer was inspired by the distant past to venture into the unknown. That means you'll hear traditional Bach counterpoints in Valen's late Romantic work, and occasional Baroque flourishes from Lutoslawski. (As a college student I once attended a Lutoslawski concert at the Dorothy Chandler in LA--with the composer himself conducting. It was an ear-opening experience.) Stravinsky stretches back even farther into the past by employing Virgil's antique verse forms.

Okay, okay...I'll stop reading from the liner notes now. As usual, 2L releases contain cerebral themes that are far from obvious to casual listeners, and the generous booklet contains the keys to enjoying these pieces on a deeper level.

What makes this recording so special, and I've discussed this before, is that Morten Lindberg of 2L is a master of capturing duos, trios and other intimate ensembles in a way that makes them sound spacious. We're not talking about preternatural spaciousness--I've heard my share of recordings where singers stand fifteen feet tall and the piano soundboard stretches for miles. No, this expansive feel is due to the venue, yet another Norwegian church, and Morten's talent for mating the acoustics of that space with the sounds of the musical instruments.

That means you get the usual warmth and decay that you'll find in most 2L Recordings, if not all. In a way this almost feels like a cop-out, a variation on "if you like 2L Recordings, you'll love this!" But here's the thing--maybe Morten's adventurous recording style keeps improving with age. Maybe he's been discovering more ways to take advantage of the various technologies at his disposal--Dolby Atmos, 2.0 LPCM, 9.1 Auro-3D 96 kHz. Maybe he's done this so many times that every set-up is arranged by instinct. Maybe Morten has the answer. There's just something about the way he captures the essence of a piano, a violin and a church that excites the synapses in my brain so that I feel that this is the way a piano and a violin and a church would sound if I was there in the Sofienberg Church in Norway, sitting in on the performance.

It's a simple idea, but isn't that what it's all about? By supplying that sort of clarity and logic, Morten makes it easier to dig into the inspired performances of Monsen and Flagstad and to appreciate those didactic yet playful themes.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Roger Davidson Trio with Hendrik Meurkens--Prayer for Tomorrow (Oracao Para Amanha) on CD

Roger Davidson embarked on a long journey to get where he is today. He grew up in both Paris and New York and was originally a trained classical pianist. He fell in love with jazz in the '90s and began a successful recording career in that genre. Oracao Para Amanha, his latest CD, is the result of more change--his love for Brazilian jazz has blossomed considerably in recent years, and he decided to form a new trio with bassist Eduardo Belo and drummer Adriano Santos. The three started playing the hot spots in NYC, and jazz lovers started showing up in droves.

This CD was recorded live over several nights in the Zinc Bar in NYC, a place famous for featuring Brazilian jazz musicians. (The applause is unusually muted and distant in this particular recording, which seems a little odd at first.) The trio was joined by Hendrik Meurkens, considered a modern virtuoso for both harmonica and vibraphone. The result is a crisp, electric set that jumps out and engages you immediately.

To show how committed Davidson is to Brazilian jazz, he composed all twelve of these tracks--an amazing feat when you consider how rich and distinct each song sounds. After the first couple of listens, I just assumed that Davidson and his ensemble were playing Brazilian standards. Despite the fact that much of the tracks are devoted to improvised solos, especially when it comes to Meurkens' unusually folksy harmonica, melody is king here.

While most of these contemporary jazz releases I've been reviewing have good to excellent sound quality, I will mention the excellence of Prayer for Tomorrow. Percussion sounds tight and punchy--you feel it in your gut. Other than the distant feel of the audience, this CD captures a lot of that energy and spontaneity that's only found in well-recorded live albums. Highly recommended.

MJ Territo's Ladies Day on CD

"Life can be crappy, but you can be happy..."

Whew. Eric Idle references aside, that's a rough way to begin an album. When I first listened to MJ Territo's new album, Ladies Day, I thought that I had wandered into the same lyrical steppe as with Jeannie Tanner's latest album, where every line is a little too on-the-nose. Fortunately that first song, written by Territo herself, is short--and everything that comes after it is much, much better.

Territo came up with the idea for this album while assembling a set list for one of her gigs. She noticed that many of her song choices were written by women, and the Ladies Day project was born. Her choices are very interesting and more varied than you would think--Dave Brubeck wrote "In Your Own Sweet Way" with his wife Iola, for instance. She also includes straightforward versions of such standards as "Everything Is Moving Too Fast," which was co-written by Peggy Lee, and Abbey Lincoln's "You Gotta Pay the Band." For a more modern take, she's even included a version of Patricia Barber's "I Could Eat Your Words."

This project would have lost some of its purity if Territo had chosen a bunch of session guys to back her in this recording. As a result, we have another all-woman band, just like the 3Divas CD I just reviewed earlier this week. While I criticized 3Divas for relying too much on the outdated "diva" themes, I'm impressed with the way it's handled here--we have a group of talented musicians (pianist Linda Presgrave, bassist Iris Ornig, drummer Barbara Merjan, flautist Andrea Brachfeld, sax player Virginia Mayhew and harpist Brandee Younger) who simply dig in and make beautiful music. No qualifiers are needed.

None of this would work if Territo's voice wasn't so strong and agile. She does come from the straight-on school of jazz singing, where everything note is delivered with clarity and emphasis, but she doesn't succumb to the plaintive. There's a loveliness in the way she holds onto notes as if she's caressing each one before releasing it out into the world. Ladies Day is, ultimately, a lively and cheerful collection of performances that are nicely realized and delivered with the sort of brio that comes with always looking at the bright side of life.

(See what I did there?)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Knast's Reckless Soul on CD

This one came in like a blast of fresh air, honest-to-goodness Britpop offered by a Seattle quartet that understands the exciting new vibe that was floating around a good twenty years ago. Maybe it's been all of the jazz of late, but I really need to rock out a little bit. (I am a child of the '70s, so I do enjoy rocking out more than I'm willing to admit.)

Britpop does rock out. It's clean, it has tremendous energy and you can turn your brain off and still enjoy it. When Blur and Pulp and Oasis were ruling the airwaves, I didn't jump on the bandwagon despite the fact that many of my friends and family were quite enthralled. Maybe it was an age thing--after falling for Manchester and grunge just a few years before, maybe I was tired of The Next Big Thing. Britpop came and went in my world, a faint blip on the radar. It's time to re-evaluate.

In case you also missed the first wave of Britpop, the Knast brings it back for an encore. I'm more into it now, mostly because it takes me back to so many periods of my life. That's the thing about this type of music--it borrows heavily from several types of rock and rearranges it into a likeable and polished package. It jumps with ringing guitars, harmonies that will remind you of early Beatles, with an occasional nod to the psychedelic. The Knast doesn't revise or update a thing; this is pure nostalgia, whole, with nary a knowing wink to the audience.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

3Divas on CD--Review Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of 3Divas on CD is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here!

Ignacio Berroa Trio's Straight Ahead from Havana on CD

Ignacio Berroa is a Cuban jazz drummer. In a way, he's the Keith Moon of Cuban jazz drummers because so much raw energy and excitement flies off his drum kit as he's playing. He's far more disciplined than Moon, however, so don't expect me to apply the word "sloppy" to his playing. Ignacio Berroa is Moon-like because of the explosive quality of his playing, especially when his impossibly dense fills come out of nowhere and leave you breathless.

Straight Ahead from Havana, his new album, has a very accurate and descriptive title. Berroa takes Cuban standards such as "Alma con Alma" and "Deja Que Sigla Solo" and arranges them into straightforward jazz tunes. This is an idea inspired by the great Dizzy Gillespie--Berroa worked with Dizzy many years ago--and it focuses on the idea of "cultural connections" and how different jazz genres can be viewed as equal while "respecting the differences." With pianist Martin Bejerano and bassists Josh Allen and Lowell Ringel, Berroa guides this trio through a collection of tunes that are equally warm and full of fireworks.

What's astonishing about Straight Ahead from Havana is how little it sounds "Cuban" to the uninitiated who only know about this kind of music from Buena Vista Social Club. This is where your knowledge of jazz will come in handy, how these melodies have been transformed into something leaner. You could search out more traditional performances of "La Tarde" and "Nuestras Vidas," which will undoubtedly put a huge smile on your face once you discover the extent of Berroa's hard work and dedication. But even from the most casual perspective, the performances captured here are obviously coming from musicians who play at a rarified level, musicians who do more than play. They make history as well as keep it.

Berroa, like Gillespie before him, brings intelligence and thoughtfulness to a form of music known for its spontaneity and passion. That conclusion almost completely destroys the earlier references to Keith Moon, a man not necessarily known for his aversion to excess. That paradox is what makes Berroa so unique--explosive energy and extraordinary discipline can co-exist, and on Straight Ahead from Havana you can listen to it for yourself.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The New Vision Sax Ensemble's Musical Journey Through Time on CD

Listening to four saxophones, and four saxophones alone, deliver a collection of jazz, ragtime and gospel standards, and you might think of the words "novel" or even "gimmicky." Listening to this new CD from The New Vision Sax Ensemble, Musical Journey Through Time, I thought the same thing. Many jazz recordings these days usually vie for some unique narrative, something to differentiate one recording from the pack of competent but fairly unadventurous releases out there.

Just a few minutes into Musical Journey Through Time, I had a very different reaction to what I was hearing. First of all, and I know that most of you realize this, but there are a lot of different types of saxophones out there, and each one can vary profoundly in tone and expressiveness. (The different musicians are, of course, a variable as well.) NVSE has taken advantage of this by including not only soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, you might hear a clarinet popping in from time to time. Diron Holloway, James Lockhart, Jason Hainsworth and Melton R. Mustafa also possess that hard-earned sense of unity that creates a unique dichotomy--they perform seamlessly as one, and yet each musician has a style that can be followed easily through each song.

Musical Journey Through Time is as advertised, with jazz standards such as "A Night in Tunisia" and "Round Midnight" leading backward through selections from Porgy and Bess and Scott Joplin. The ensemble finishes with a somber and eloquent version of "Amazing Grace" that will give you chills. What's fascinating about this program is how four saxes (and a clarinet) can vary wildly in their tone according to the song--the ragtime songs are pure and uplifting, and brief rendering of Leonard Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty" is perfectly whimsical, and "A Night in Tunisia" is played with just the right amount of the exotic and the sultry.

This CD manages to surprise, however, because it is so forward and crystal-clear. I own plenty of recordings from woodwind ensemble and brass ensembles and percussion ensembles and there's always at least a trace of that attitude of novelty, but this recording is exquisitely balanced. It makes sense on its own terms. It's bright and dynamic, even without a killer rhythm section.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Janet Lawson Quintet on CD

This eponymous new CD from the Janet Lawson Quintet is wild, crazy and quite a bit different than many of the jazz releases I've been reviewing of late. Billed as an antidote to the perception that contemporary jazz has become "artistically moribund," with a market that has "shrunk to something of a rump," it sounds like something straight out of the '70s. Is it politically correct to call something "hippie" jazz? You get Lawson's exuberant vocal improvisations that vary between Ella and Yma Sumac, occasional jazz flute flourishes, a big funky bass line and a steady diet of breakneck speed.

I'm a bit taken aback by the liner notes, which claim that this is "quite simply one of the finest jazz records of the last 35 years." That takes us back to 1982, certainly not a Golden Era for jazz, but still I'm amazed at this level of hyperbole for a purely subjective art form. That aside, I think your opinion of this album will rest on whether or not you love Lawson's voice. She can be "out there," which is a familiar neighborhood in the world of jazz, but she is also supremely talented and has an wonderful range. But she's also on the manic side, in love with the energy that blasts from the stage and out toward a possibly stunned audience.

As for her band, well, they have the chops all right. They also act as an anchor for her more esoteric tangents. Roger Rosenberg, who plays the flute and all the saxes, stands out in particular--Lawson is more than willing to stand back and let his evocative playing dictate the direction the song takes. The other musicians--Ratzo Harris and Mike Richmond taking turns on bass, Jimmy Madison and Billy Hart on drums and Bill O'Connell on piano--play as if they've been on the same stage for decades. The sound is tight and precise.

When it comes to the best jazz album of the last 35 years, well, I've heard a lot of great releases just over the last year or so. In fact, just today I received the new Jane Ira Bloom release and I have high expectations after last year's Early Americans. The Janet Lawson Quintet is certainly about excitement and energy and, most importantly, originality. It's good, really good. I'll leave the "Best of" awards to you.

Art Fristoe Trio's DoubleDown on CD

Bill Evans playing Nirvana songs?

That's the first thing I thought of when I listened to Texan pianist Art Fristoe's new CD, DoubleDown. His trio, which includes bassist Daleton Lee and alternating drummers Richard Cholakian and Ilya Janos, starts off this 2-CD set with their version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and it's something to behold. These three skilled musicians have turned an angry grunge anthem into something lyrical and full of sadness, and they did so without needlessly deconstructing the rock classic. (You'll recognize the song just a few bars in.)

This rich, generous hunk of music adheres to that same commitment to unbridled emotion--"tenderness" is used in the liner notes and it's the right word to use. Fristoe specializes in taking familiar tunes and doing so much more than "putting a new spin" on them. As the trio tackles everything from "Caravan" to a couple of Beatles tunes ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Blackbird"), my first instinct is oh no, not this, and then you hear those feelings and marvel at just how honest and surprising these songs truly are.

Fristoe, who is the son of jazz bassist Joe Fristoe, is also remarkable for his mere presence. Touted as a "gentle giant," he is a massive man, 6' 6" tall, with supposedly enormous hands that cover the keys with a focused grace. He's known for his stunning knowledge of all types of music, and it shows in the outstanding choices he makes here. Even the aforementioned cover of "Caravan" is striking--I feel like I've heard two dozen different versions over the last year, but this is the one that sticks in my mind the most. Fristoe starts off purposely guarded and jumpy and stiff, and then the energy slowly unfolds into a mass burst of excitement, still terse but with a swiftness that is incredibly ornate for a mere trio.

I've never been a proponent of quantity over quality, but I really enjoy the large amount of music that wound up on this disc. For me, double albums often require more than one listening session in order to absorb everything, but DoubleDown is a CD where you push play and then forget about what you're going to do over the next couple of hours.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions, Volume One on CD/SACD Hybrid

This was unexpected, getting this particular title sent along with all the other contemporary jazz releases I've been receiving over the last few months. Lyn Stanley, for want of a better phrase, is an "audiophile-approved" female singer. That means her recordings are usually considered excellent on the basis of sound quality, which is valuable since many audiophiles use female vocals exclusively as a sonic reference for hi-fi systems. That puts her in a group that includes Jennifer Warnes, Patricia Barber, Anne Bisson, Eva Cassidy and, of course, Diana Krall. That may or may not sound flippant, so let me elaborate--in most cases this is a wonderful thing. I know I like to grumble about these singers, but only because audiophiles are so conditioned to listen to them as an evaluation tool. If I had a dollar for every time an audiophile walked into my room at a high-end audio show and asked me to swap out my carefully chosen recording for "female voice, please," I'd probably have enough to pay for the room and break even.

I've gotten that out of the way. Now let me talk about Lyn Stanley and this recording, which was actually released a few months ago. I started hearing her name in audiophile circles a few months ago. I heard a lot about her at AXPONA back in April because she was there and she was performing. I went down to the marketplace and saw The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 1, along her other recordings, being sold all over the place. Of course it was available on LP, and everyone said the sound quality was gobsmacking. Then Stanley had upped the ante by making her album available on reel-to-reel, taken right off the master.

In the land of audiophilia, that means Stanley is serious. The real thing. Respect.

That's why I'm a little disappointed to review The Moonlight Sessions in its hybrid CD/SACD form. This crappy attitude changed once I slapped the little silver disc into the CD transport and pressed play. Of course the sound quality is terrific, beautifully quiet in the right places, warm beyond belief but with plenty of detail and air. This collection of sultry, romantic standards has such a beautiful balance from top to bottom, and it's all anchored to Stanley's husky, deep and sensuous voice.

I'm also pleased to see Mike Garson as a featured pianist, along with Tamir Hendelman and Christian Jacob. Garson is also "audiophile-approved" and I own many of his incredible CDs and LPs from his Reference Recordings days. Whenever he's playing, I'm immediately attracted to that trademark lithe yet confident style.

If I had one teeny tiny complaint, it's that Stanley's expressive and powerful voice is perhaps too front and center. That's sort of a traditional way to spotlight a fascinating singer who's backed up by talented musicians--Julie London's amazing LPs feature that sort of balance, but for some reason I'm more forgiving because it allows a more interesting historical perspective on the recording. With The Moonlight Sessions it sounds as if you're about three or four rows back, and Stanley has climbed down into the crowd and is now singing at your table.

That's certainly not a bad thing, but I do notice it. Other than that, I think her voice is incredibly sexy and inviting. It's much closer to London than too-cool-for-school Krall and for that reason I'll be more than happy to bring this to all future trade shows. Unless, of course, I get a hold of one of those LPs.