Thursday, September 20, 2018

Q Morrow's There Are Stars in Brooklyn

Listening to Q Morrow's new album, There Are Stars in Brooklyn, I'm immediately reminded that the acoustic guitar is woefully under-represented in contemporary jazz. I don't know why this is, since Morrow's playing fits in perfectly with most sub-genres of jazz--especially those with Latin and Caribbean roots. But even that's pigeon-holing this unique performer and underestimating how expansive his sound really is. Morrow, who obviously calls Brooklyn his home, is originally from the suburbs of Boise, Idaho. At 18 he left for California and studied music in Santa Cruz and later went to the University of North Texas, a place I now know pretty well due to my recent head-first dive into their legendary jazz studies program. From there he traveled to India to study Carnatic music with Jayanthi Kumaresh. As a result of his musical sojourn, he is well-versed in jazz, funk, pop, rock, classical, Cuban, Brazilian and of course Indian guitar styles.

If you listen casually to his style of playing, you might think of flamenco first, especially during the epic opening title track. As you move through these eight originals, his approach slowly morphs into Brazilian motifs. A-ha, you might exclaim. Isn't Brazilian jazz a sub-genre that uses acoustic guitars extensively? I would agree with you there, except that acoustic guitars are usually employed for their rhythms and textures, and that Brazilian music rarely uses this instrument as a lead instrument, much less one with a virtuoso presence such as this. So are we talking maybe Bola Sete? Yes, maybe that puts us in the right ball park, but that's starts us drifting into the realm of world music. And it's true that each of these songs evokes a different landscape and a different sensibility, all lovingly caressed by Morrow's magnificent guitar. "Pupusa Da Jamaica" doesn't stray too far from the Brazilian compositions, but it has a far livelier tempo that suggest flapping wings more than a steady float on an air current. The lovely and quiet "Inferno Astral" walks the southern edges of Spain like Morricone and Leone once did. The closer, "Loose Ends," has that classic free-wheeling and smart feel straight out of the NYC jazz scene, or at least the Brooklyn end.

What keeps There Are Stars in Brooklyn firmly planted in the world of jazz is Morrow's cohorts for this project--Will Vinson on sax, Evan Francis on sax and flute, Sam Bevan on bass and Raj Jayaweera on drums. These four keep Morrow's versatility not so much in check as somewhat grounded in tradition, his multitude of influences and aura of limitless possibilities tethered to a solid structure. This clean, spectacular recording is clearly about the man and his guitar, but the others know how to frame that exquisite talent in an explosive and exciting setting, and they also know how to step away as they do on "Inferno Astral" and let this daring musician produce almost hypnotic strains of pure beauty.

This is Q Morrow's second album. His first, All Around Dude, was released six years ago. I sampled some of it from his website, at, and it also showcases his amazing guitar skills but with significant tonal differences. I'm intrigued by this idea--so many of these reviews I've been doing feature musicians who wait five, ten, fifteen years or more between albums, something that's almost unheard of in the realm of pop and rock unless we're talking about one of those ubiquitous comeback tours. I think it's different in the world of jazz--artists go out and perform and live life and travel the world, like Morrow has, and those experiences seem to find their way into the music. It's more revealing to wait for these musicians to go through the next phase and deliver the goods once the differences are meaningful. Morrow certainly has arrived at the next level and has given us something full of imagination.

You can download this album at the Q Morrow website.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Marco Pignataro's Almas Antiguas

Another day, another jazz masterpiece from Zoho Records.

This one, from tenor and soprano saxophone player Marco Pignataro, focuses on one thing--melody. We're not just talking about pretty songs here, but rather an overall sound that is incredibly engaging and gorgeous and will make you sit up in your listening chair and say "Wow, this is truly beautiful jazz." Pignataro is based in Boston, but Almas Antiguas ("old souls") chronicles his Puerto Rican and Italian heritage to create a lush romantic sound that leans heavily on both Mediterranean and Latin rhythms. It's not easy to conjure up these influences with "just" a saxophone, but his playing is sensitive to these folk traditions and winds up being more than convincing.

On the opener, Teo Ciavarella and Flavio Piscopo's "Panarea," his evocative playing inserts a Middle Eastern sensibility that is both exotic and devoted to jazz traditions--just think, once again, of "Caravan" and how that classic opens up a whole new world to lovers of jazz. Can he accomplish all this with just a saxophone? Well, he has plenty of help with an adventurous quintet that includes drummer Adam Cruz, pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Eddie Gomez and tenor saxophonist George Garzone. Cruz, in particular, is kinetic and almost impossibly dynamic and acts as Pignataro's right-hand man through this mix of original compositions and standards such as "Alfonsina Y El Mar" and "Samba Em Preludio." Much of Zoho's current catalog digs deep into Brazilian jazz, but Almas Antiguas broadens those horizons considerably by adding both European and African touches.

"This CD is about roots from the Mediterranean, and how jazz can become this lens that absorbs all these different colors," Pignataro explains, "through which you can create a new sound and bring out your cultural identity." I've heard many of these jazz albums in the last couple of years, and usually that means you need a working knowledge of those cultural idiosyncracies to understand what is being put where, and why. Pignataro encapsulates this complex approach in something so breathtakingly lush that you can coast along without thinking. You're completely under his spell even as he shifts gears and plunges into a quieter and more dramatic sound, such as when Gomez pulls out his bow and works in harmony with the others, creating a seductive new layer to the voices here.

It's important to point out the wonderful chemistry in this quintet, the way they can closely follow Pignataro's personal visions for each song and make them come alive with meaning. Each member is regarded as a virtuoso, but this is the first time they've playing together as a unit. As usual, I have to throw in a mention of the sound quality here--Zoho always does a remarkable job of making everything sound lifelike, spontaneous and natural. Almas Antiguas becomes a first-among-equals in the Zoho catalog--it's a great starting point for anyone who wants to investigate this thrilling indie label and discover how they're keeping jazz from all over the world in front of deserving audiences.

Christine Hitt's Magical Kite

With all these female vocal recordings I have on hand, it's interesting to pick out each one and find out what makes it different. Really, I'm trying to figure what makes each singer distinct--some sound like Julie, some sound like Ella, some sound like themselves, which is always a good thing. In rare cases, it's the music that's unique. If it is, that's an interesting reflection on the singer since it's ultimately about her tastes, and what she feels comfortable singing. Christine Hitt's new album, Magical Kite, is very different than most of the jazz albums I've been listening to lately because it drifts away from the traditions of jazz so frequently. In many ways she's a pure pop singer, taking on whatever songs have meaning for her. This isn't about taking familiar songs such as "Don't You Worry About a Thing," "Shower the People" or "Shine On Harvest Moon" and turning them into jazz standards. It's about finding something true to each composition and showing respect.

Hitt, who lives in the frozen tundra of Northern Wisconsin, is a pop singer with a sensitivity to jazz traditions, perhaps in the same vein of audiophile favorites such as Anne Bisson. That means she has eclectic tastes--everything from bebop to gospel to standards. She came to Los Angeles to record Magical Kite at Capitol Studios and recorded with some the best jazz musicians out west including pianist John Beasley, drummers Gene Coye and Jeff Hamilton and alto sax player Bob Sheppard. That means she can hit the straight jazz on songs like "Wade in the Water" and "Yardbird Suite" with authenticity and passion. Then she'll throw in a gentle ballad such as "Believe in Me," replete with strings and a gentle lead from Leo Amuedo's acoustic guitar. The track listing is so balanced, with each song radically different from then last one, that it almost reminds me of listening to Queen albums back in my teens.

Hitt is not purely defined by this variety, however--her voice is unusually warm and comforting, sweet and affectionate and powerful when it needs to be. She's the glue that holds these genres together, possessing a tonal consistency that keeps you focused on her talent instead of the way she darts around these swings in style. In the long run these shifts aren't as startling as they sound, especially if you imagine Hitt as the opposite of a pop singer who wants to take a crack at a jazz song, which is far more common. Call her a jazz singer who is also a music lover, one who wants to sing it all if given the chance.

Magical Kite is produced and arranged by pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer, who gives this album a rich, professional feeling with the impression that the budget was large and that all the best people were involved. It's his skill as arranger that makes this album so fluid despite the constantly changing scenery. He's almost an unsung yet equal partner with Hitt, which is perhaps why they share the spotlight on the final track, "Around the World." It's just Hitt's voice backed by Keezer's piano, and he takes one hell of a victory lap with a stunning performance. It's a lovely, quiet way to end this charming album.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Judith Lorick's The Second Time Around

Judith Lorick is the type of jazz singer where you hear her voice and say, oh yes, I've been listening to Judith Lorick for years...she's fabulous! She's so relaxed and confident in the way she stretches out every word, and it's obvious she's mastered her craft. There's a subtle perfection to her voice that comes from a lifetime of performing jazz. "Judith Lorick is a vocalist we should have heard from long before now," the press kit exclaims, and I actually agree with this description wholeheartedly. She should be famous.

I know, that sounds like a lot of shameless hyperbole, and we reviewers are supposed to avoid that. I'm not saying that Lorick is the finest singer I've heard, because that is hyperbole. But you will listen to her masterful takes on these ballads and wonder why she isn't a household name. There's a story behind that, which is why her new album is titled The Second Time Around. First, these ballads celebrate "several life events for Judith, most notably the reunion with her long lost love Artie." Secondly, this album also celebrates her reunion with pianist Eric Reed. She met Reed back in 1995, and the chemistry between them was obvious. She spent almost thirty years in France, but when she returned in 2004 she reconnected. Hence, this album is the second time around in more way than one.

Naturally there is plenty of emotional significance to the making of this album. The subject matter is familiar--""If You Could See Me Now," "He Needs Me," "When I Look in Your Eyes" and "Why Did I Choose You?" all must have a very personal meaning to her. The idea behind this album is that Lorick has chosen songs that are reflected in her recent fortune, and she and Reed are arranging them in a way that's if Artie is sitting in the first row of her performance and they can't take their eyes off each other. The highlight of the album, for me anyway, is her rendition of "Wild Is the Wind." I first heard this, of course, when I bought Bowie's Station to Station back in 1976, and I've never heard another version of it. She transforms this already deeply romantic song into something more earthly and real and, most importantly, tender.

Lorick and Reed are both supremely talented, but the rest of her ensemble is downright brilliant: trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, drummer McClenty Hunter, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and tenor sax player Chris Lewis. It's hard to stand out as a musician when you're playing ballads, especially ones that are being sung by such a powerful and direct singer, but everyone has a chance to shine. We're not talking improvisational solos that show off someone's talent--we're talking about each musician, particularly Pelt and Lewis, sharing their own story, talking about the second chances they've experienced in their lives. There's a magical sense of dedication in The Second Time Around, that each performer shares in Lorick's joy and is genuinely happy for her. It's rare when everything clicks together this well. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Johnaye Kendrick's Flying

An embarrassment of riches, indeed.

I've mentioned that I have numerous releases to review right now, as usual, and a significant percentage of albums in the pile are spectacular releases from gifted female jazz singers. Vocalist and composer Johnaye Kendrick is yet another stand out--which begs the question that if everyone stands out, are they still standing out?--but I gravitated toward the loveliness of her voice and the way it reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald without sounding too much like Ella, much in the same way Kate Reid sounds like Julie London while still retaining a modicum of originality. Kendrick studied and graduated from Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute and has worked with Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others, which is why she has a grand sense of the classic traditions. But she also casts this mix of original compositions and standards in a light that is clearly modern--just like Kate Reid does. As a result, her new album Flying doesn't sound like a classic Ella, but an Ella who is still alive in 2018 and who enters the studio to show her enduring relevance.

"I was relatively shy about performing my music while in the program," Kendrick explains, "because it was so personal." Once you hear those words, you sense the same shyness in the music--there's a beautiful yet tentative quality about her velvety voice that suggests she might a little nervous about revealing so much about herself. It's not quite vulnerability, which can be a very desirable trait in a singer's voice, since she does sing as if she's confident about her talent. Flying, however, has the feeling of a stolen deep breath before walking out on stage, of saying "Here we go" and knowing that a lot is riding on this. Not only is she throwing that magical voice out there and hoping you'll love it, but her arrangements have that same compelling sense of risk. Fortunately she understands the deep emotions a beautiful melody can summon, and her big move turns out to be the right one.

Kendrick adds one addition element to her songs that sets her apart--she's topical. The opener, an original song titled "Never You Mind," tackles BLM and informs the listener that "You come from a legacy of warriors and though there's fear/Know that fear's what fueled the fire of courage that led us here." She invests so much of herself into these lyrics; she describes the songwriting process as "performing journal entries, as the pieces were always so honest and literally based on my experiences." She even infuses the standards such as "It Could Happen to You" and "The Very Thought of You" with that same spirit of adaptation. If you need proof of this, listen to her stunning arrangement of "I've Got No Strings"--you might forget about the source.

Flying is a brave album, augmented by sensitive musicians such as keyboardist Dawn Clement, bassist Chris Symer and drummer D'Vonne Lewis, along with a few guest artists. Kendrick even plays the harmonium with that same personalized touch--you can hear her longing, regret and hope through its notes. Kendrick may use Ella as a jumping off point, but by the end of the album she has gone off on a trajectory that is purely this woman and no one else. She's a warm and emotional singer, a gifted arranger and an artist who knows that the past is prologue, so there's plenty of room to be like no one else.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Sergio Pereira's Nu Brasil

Have you read my article in Part-Time Audiophile yet, the one about Zoho Records? As soon as that article went live, I received a couple of releases from Zoho that should have been included since they're so fantastic; they capture the essence of this unique label that tends to focus on South American jazz musicians. This release right here, from Brazilian guitarist Sergio Pereira, doesn't quite have the complex and innovative approach of the other releases mentioned in that article. Rather, it captures that essence of Brazilian jazz, that smooth and lush feel that marks the best of that specific and popular genre.

That's not a bad thing, of course. If you've fallen in love with something obvious, say Getz/Gilberto, you'll feel right at home with Nu Brasil. That title alone suggests a new direction, but it's more of a precise summary of what makes this type of jazz so popular. (Actually, nu in Portuguese means "naked," which is a more accurate description of these ten original compositions.) We're talking, of course, about beauty and a breezy motif that implies that life in Brazil is full of celebration, love and yes, just a hint of unbridled sex appeal. "There's a certain something inherent in the music of Brazil," the liner notes explain, "that goes well beyond the notes and speaks more of the soul of a culture." That description is deliciously apt and indicates, as usual, that the folks at Zoho know and feel and understand the music they are releasing. They seem to understand this more than just about any other contemporary jazz label.

Pereira fits the typical profile of a Zoho artist. At 59, he's been playing Brazilian jazz for most of his life--even though he left Rio many years ago for the lights and the freedom of the New York City jazz scene. His guitar is soft yet intricate, full of so many flavors that instantly transport you to the Southern hemisphere. He surrounds himself with many of Brazil's most famous musicians, including a trio of vocalists (Paula Santoro, Sergio Santos and Viktoria Pilatovic) who know how to take that gentle ease of Astrud Gilberto and build on that appeal by making these songs less about the people of that country and more about the experiences you might have while living there.

Top that off with Zoho's welcome dedication to sound quality, and you have a release that redefines what it means to feel alive, and how music helps to accomplish that joy. Brazilian ensembles often create a rich and fluid sound through a large contingent of performers--it's far more intimate than a big band orchestra where every musician is adding a specific ingredient to the recipe. Pereira's compositions and arrangements lean toward the impressionistic, resulting in a sound that envelops you with warmth, vivaciousness and a miraculous gift of seduction.

The Drolls' on 7" 45RPM Single

Is anyone out there getting their vinyl fixes off 7" 45RPM singles? I'm sure the answer to that question is dependent upon how old you are. I suspect plenty of young people, not to mention people of all ages who still love indie rock from small indie labels, still grab the little 45s whenever they can. They're fun, they're relatively cheap and it's a great way to get a new band's music out there to the fans in a very specialized way--one that can't be replicated by digital streaming. I also believe there are plenty of people my age and older who started off their love for music with a stack of 45s and a little record player. This group may still be attracted to the novelty of the 7" single for purely nostalgic reasons.

I've noticed that my own collection of 45s is growing quicker now, in 2018, than during any other time in my life. I lot of this has to do with the connections I've made with the indie rock world over the last decade or so, going back to my days in Portland and up to and including the local Syracuse record labels such L.R.S. I've mentioned Ean Hernandez of Top Drawer Records before--he was my source for Date Night with Brian and the recent 14 Soda Punx LP. He sent me an email a few weeks ago about "a new 7" that I'm putting out for my old bandmates: Denny and Josh from Sicko." The new band is named The Drolls, and they actually provided one of the tracks on the Soda Punks album. They're joined with Julie from Guest Directors to form a true power pop trio.

In the past I've reviewed singles, and in recent years it seems as if the goal is to cram as much music as possible onto this little discs--at least two songs per side, accompanied by a nice dollop of inner-groove distortion by the time you get to the dead wax (which is minimal at this point). Ean keeps it old-fashioned and clean, however--just two brief songs, "Follow That Dinosaur" and "Alternate Timeline," one on each side. This single has the same minimalist indie production values as Soda Punx, but as I mentioned in that review it's sort of desirable for the punk and post-punk ethos. So you're not getting brilliant sound quality, but you are getting a purist approach to this kind of music which is essential to its enjoyment.

That said, if you loved Soda Punx, you'll love this. Ean and his friends at Top Drawer straddle that bridge between old-fashioned punk and power-pop from the '80s and '90s. (Ean officially calls it "pure power pop punk rock.") There's that same quickness, same grittiness (especially in the vocals and the Nirvana-esque chord progressions). There's also a distinctly happy feel to these two songs--Top Drawer isn't about gloom and doom and terror and sheer unbridled anger, but energy that invigorates. I don't know if I can dig that deeply into a two-song single, but I can tell you that you can check it out yourself without making a major investment, and maybe you'll browse through the Top Drawer catalog and re-discover how much fun this music truly is...especially on 45 singles!

You can order it here, complete with download card, for just $6.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Kate Reid's The Heart Already Knows

Julie London is the woman!

That doesn't quite sound right--it's not the same thing as saying that some guy you know is the MAN! I'm just trying to express my pleasure that Julie London, one of my very favorite female jazz singers, has become sort of a model for other contemporary singers over the last couple of years. When you dig into Julie's wonderful (and wonderfully well-recorded) catalog, you'll slowly remove the layers of the proverbial onion and realize there's so much to discover in a style that, for the most part, seems simple and straightforward. Sure, she was sultry and sexy and evocative, but she also had a sort of innocence about her that isn't discussed that much. When I listen to today's jazz singers try to channel her spirit, they often miss that subtle paradox.

Once again I've noticed that my review pile is full of recordings of female jazz singers. There was a time not so long ago when I'd be complaining about that, but this year's crop of "female vocals for audiophiles" is ripening into quite a stellar harvest. Kate Reid, who hails from the Great Lakes region, stands out from this current crowd because she's adopting London's minimalist presentation, one that keeps everything quiet and direct. That's smart, because Reid's alluring alto has plenty of nuances that shouldn't be hidden by an over-produced release. Her style is close enough to London's that you'll admire her taste in music--her new album, The Heart Already Knows, is a mix of standards and pop tunes--but she's doing so much more than paying homage to a legend. (This isn't even a tribute since these songs are not known as London songs, but there are many similarities in the approach.)

I should stop with the endless comparisons, since that isn't quite fair to the very talented Reid. It is fair to say that she affects me in the same way as London, which is basically wow, I love listening to this person sing these words in such an interesting and heartfelt manner. Reid's complex set of vocal inflections are the mark of someone who knows a classically-trained voice can't always convey a wealth of life experiences--either good or bad. That's why the skilled musicians who share the stage with Reid are so reticent. They're standing out of the way, letting you soak up that big, warm voice. In most cases she's accompanied by little more than a piano or a guitar, albeit from all-stars such as Paul Meyers, Larry Koonse and yes, the great Fred Hersch. It's interesting that Reid is also known as a talented pianist, but she chooses focus everything on her splendid vocal interpretations.

The Heart Already Knows, if you haven't figured it out yet, is a singer's album, one where most of your attention is continually drawn toward the woman in the black dress at the front of the stage. I suspect that accounted for so much of Julie London's charm, that she mastered the art of commanding attention from the audience. Inside that charm is that innocence I mentioned, and that makes this singer even more intriguing. Listening to Kate Reid gives me the identical impression of a singular spotlight, one that captures the essence in each syllable. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Miguel Zenon's Yo Soy La Tradicion--Available Soon

Way back in July I reviewed Miguel Zenon's intriguing new work for string quartet and saxophone, Yo Soy La Tradicion. The problem is, the release date wasn't until September 21. I got my copy way in advance. So I promised to remind everyone of the review as we got closer to the release date, so you can read the original review here

Miguel's publicist has also informed me that the single "Promesa" will be available as of today on Spotify, Tidal, Amazon and other digital platforms. Please check it out--it's really good.

Randy Brecker & Mats Holmquist's Together

Trumpeter Randy Brecker got his start back in the '70s, when he and his late saxophonist brother Michael teamed up as The Brecker Brothers. I bring this up first because Together, Brecker's big band collaboration with arranger Mats Holmquist and the Umo Jazz Orchestra, sounds like it's been plucked right out of that era. There's something kind of jazzy and funky in the vibe here, from the way the music sparkles and glistens like a Lalo Schifrin film score to touches of soul that nearly evoke James Brown and his measured, synchronized ensembles. Brecker is out front, however, his big trumpet sound leading this 18-piece orchestra straight out of Helsinki.

That's right, the Umo Jazz Orchestra is from Finland and Holmquist, for those who already know, is Swedish. That might lead you to search for Scandinavian influences in this vibrant album, but I've tried and I can't hear any. I've always thought that musicians in Scandinavian countries, Sweden in particular, are quite adept at taking American musical genres and playing them in a way that's nearly subterfuge. I'm thinking of everyone from the stunning Swedish metal bands to hip-hop/pop singer Robyn, and how you can listen to them without ever saying "Wow, and they're Scandinavian!"--unless, of course, you start digging into the liner notes. The Umo Jazz Orchestra sounds exactly like any American big band ensemble from the '70s and '80s. They way they evoke those specific impressions is masterful, something you'd expect from an ensemble that has been playing steadily since 1975.

Together is also notable because it's not loaded with old standards like many big band recordings these days. Holmquist is not just a fine arranger, but his original compositions such as "One Million Circumstances" and "All My Things" blend in perfectly with three compositions from Chick Corea--"Crystal Silence," "Humpty Dumpty" and "Windows." (The album also includes a striking arrangement of Evans & Livingston's "Never Let Me Go.") There's a lively and consistent feel through these nine tracks, summarized by Brecker's comment on the liner notes that "there are absolutely no dull moments, you are going to be taken on the ride of a lifetime."

What I find most intriguing in this recording is that sense of expansion and contraction, something I've recently mentioned in other reviews of big band ensembles. It's easy for a big band to go non-stop through the course of an album since they possess all that firepower, but it's an exhilarating feel when they can transition into a quieter passage with precision and ease. It's a remarkable feeling when you shift those gears and go from 18 performers to just a handful, and that adds to the excitement of these big band recordings. That's the very definition of dynamic contrast, of course, and a leading cause of the "goosebump effect." With Brecker's mighty horn at the lead, you should experience this phenomenon over and over during this album.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Greg Diaz and the Art of Imagination Orchestra's Begin the Agora

Greg Diaz's large jazz ensemble, The Art of the Imagination Jazz Orchestra, sounds quite a bit different than most big bands. At first I thought it was because they were slightly smaller than most jazz big bands, but 17 musicians--including tenor sax player and composer Diaz--are listed in the credits. You have five sax players, four trumpeters and four trombones, so you can anticipate a big sound that usually comes from such a meaty horn section. But at the core of The Art of Imagination Orchestra is a tight, focused rhythm section that includes keyboard player Eero Turunen, guitarist Chrsitian davis, bassist James McCoy and drummer Matt Calderin. These four don't play like they're in a big band jazz ensemble. They play like they're in a really hot funk-rock band, and that's the difference.

This is Greg Diaz's "long overdue debut" album, which means he's one of those guys who has been around for years and has played with just about everyone--we're talking Tito Puente, The Letterman, The Temptations, Ben E. King, Phil Woods and more. From that line-up, the funky core of his orchestra makes perfect sense. Through his arrangements of hits from Kevin Eubanks ("The Navigator"), a New Orleans medley that fuses "Brother John" and "Iko Iko" with an original composition and a few more original stand-alones, Diaz is a bridge of sorts between two bands. One on side he has one of those dazzling, powerful horn sections that always seems like it's on the verge of exploding on stage, and on the other side that killer rhythm section does more than ground the orchestra--it jumps behind the wheel and stomps on the gas pedal.

Diaz is also one of those jazz musicians who has a side job in the faculty of a jazz department in a college--in this case, Miami Dade Community College. Surprisingly, he is a Professor of Jazz Voice there. Despite the fact that he can play tenor sax, clarinet and flute, and that he composes and arranges this album, he does get a chance to sing during the New Orleans medley, and it's a big and appropriately joyous voice he possesses. Despite this versatility, he champions numerous solos from both sides of his orchestra. That gives Begin the Agora a vibe that is constantly evolving while maintaining a major chord energy that always sounds like a celebration.

I have a few more big band recordings on deck. They tend to arrive in clusters. The key to enjoying each recording is to pick out the signature, the angle that makes each one unique. That's important, since most big band recordings focus on standards and bringing something new to the mix--which is harder than it sounds. Diaz and his orchestra have found their own signature, that rich and funky momentum that's borne from that killer rhythm section and is given flight by that powerhouse of a horn section. But most of all there's a man standing in the middle, a sax player who keeps the two halves together through his multitude of talents.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A Beaches Tale

The following is a true story. I wish it wasn't, but it is.

My first marriage lasted just three years, from 1987 to 1990. During that time, my ex-wife bought exactly one LP to add to "our" collection--the soundtrack for the film Beaches, the one with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, the one with the monster hit "The Wind Beneath My Wings." I never listened to this album. I think I instructed my first wife to only play the record when I was not around and I'm pretty sure she complied. (We had a reciprocal deal with my Led Zeppelin LPs.) When we parted ways, I packed up my record collection and left Virginia so that I could return to Southern California. When I set up my system and filed all my records, I found that I still had the copy of Beaches. Ugh. I offered to send it back to Virginia, but I never heard back.

For years this LP sat in my collection, unplayed. Whenever someone would browse through the collection, they would invariably spot this particular LP, pull it out, and ask me why in the world I had it. I can't remember if I had a stock answer or not, but eventually I'd just say something like "Long story." I often joked about throwing it in the trash, or playing frisbee with it in a supermarket parking lot, but deep down it's against my nature to destroy an LP, any LP. So it remained.

By 1998 I had remarried, and my second wife and I wound up moving next door to her mother in beautiful Tujunga, California. During that time I once again found this record in my collection and I had to explain the story. My second wife's mother, as it turned out, was a huge fan of Bette Midler and loved the film as well. She also had a turntable. So I gave it to her and told her to enjoy it and never play it when I was around. Once again, there was compliance. Unfortunately she passed away in 2003, and all of her records wind up coming back to me, the only person around who still listened to vinyl. Once again, Beaches was in my record collection.

When my second wife and I split in 2005, we also split the record collection. Wife #2 already had a decent record collection when we met, and in our twelve years of marriage she bought quite a bit of music for herself. I had to give up plenty of favorites--all the Elliot Smith and Liz Phair went to her, much to my regret. But yes, for some reason Beaches remained with me. I just couldn't get rid of it.

Many years later, when Colleen and I moved from Colorado to New York (this would be 2015), we had a huge garage sale to condense our belongings for the move. I sold off many of my "worthless" LPs, and finally I had a pile that I simply marked "FREE." Someone grabbed that pile, and Beaches was in it. "At last," I thought," that album is gone." For good.

Flash forward to this past weekend, when Colleen and I visited her aunt in Massachusetts. "I have a bunch of old records in the basement," she told us. "Do you think anyone would want them? Otherwise I'm just going to give them away or throw them out." Of course I decided to take them. When we brought up two cardboard boxes full of records, about 100 in all, I searched through them. Usually I expect the bottom-of-the-barrel LPs when I find a stash like this, full of the usual Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Herb Alpert records, the ones you always find at the tiniest and saddest thrift stores. To my surprise, these albums were mostly good, everything from The Beatles to Bob Dylan to Neil Young and more. We grabbed the boxes, put them in our trunk and headed home.

I'm going through them now, and what do I find? You guessed it, Beaches. FFS.

I went back to my record collection and looked through the Bs, because the only way this story would get stranger is if I still had that first copy. That would have made a much better ending, I know. But it's obvious that I was meant to own this album for the rest of my life. So I'll keep it because, frankly, it amuses the hell out of me. Maybe I'll play it. Maybe I'll like it.

Besides, if I got rid of this one, another would come along. Right?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

My Thoughts on the Furutech NCF Boosters at Positive Feedback

Positive Feedback Online has just published my first equipment review in quite a while--the Furutech NCF Boosters. I've been using these in my system for the last few months, and felt I needed to get the word out on these very interesting audio devices. You can read the article here.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Vince Bell's Ojo

I tend to get a whiplash, pun intended, when one of my jazz contacts sends me something that isn't quite jazz. Vince Bell's Ojo is a perfect example of this, although I should have expected this much from Mulatta Records, Dave Soldier's label. Soldier's music, as well as his projects with others, tends to be out there, on the fringes, mining completely new sounds and ideas that can be either hypnotic or incredibly challenging. This new album from singer-songwriter-guitarist Bell isn't quite either--but this intriguing mix of spoken word poetry and folk/Americana music makes you tap the brakes. What is this music? What is Bell talking about?

Bell has a strong and gruff voice, not too different from men like Leonard Cohen and Robbie Robertson, but he can shift effortlessly into singing in a more conventional way if necessary. In fact, he has a very pleasing way of singing, passionate and heartfelt, that reminds me of New Zealand's Dave Dobbyns. It's his storytelling that's the draw here, which puts him into the same wry and twisted world of Tom Waits, a world full of extraordinary tension among ordinary people. Soldier, who produces the album, describes Ojo as “A cowboy walks into a bar with a rabbi, a minister, and the band from the first Star Wars movie, and this is what happened."

As eclectic and strange as this all sounds, it really isn't. Bell's tales are hauntingly clever, but told in an avuncular way that recalls that old man in your town who's been sitting on the same step, telling the same stories about the way things used to be and they way they ought to be. You're comfortable and familiar with the idea of having this man in your everyday life, but occasionally he says something that sticks with you more than you'd like. In a way he's a slightly more urbane version of Utah Phillips, to make yet another comparison, except that Bell is diving more deeply into folklore and philosophy--such as his pondering of the meaning music has in our lives.

Musically this is a rich and varied album, populated by Pedro Cortes' flamenco guitar, Robert Dick's flute, David Mansfield's banjo and dobro, Renaud-Gabriel Pion's clarinet and piano, Rob Schwimmer's continuum, Ratzo B. Harris' bass and Dave Soldier's violin, as well as vocal contributions from Laura Cantrell. There's also a heavy complement of swirling, jangling percussion from Patrick Derivaz, Valerie Dee Naranjo and Satoshi Takaeshi, which elevates the folk and Americana into something more global. I feel like that's Soldier's touch since his recordings always highlight the mystical sound of percussion instruments and their ability to stand guard at the gate of the cosmos. But it's Bell's weathered growl of a voice that keeps Ojo earthbound and essential.

MIke Spinrad with Guido Fazio--Horns

When you see a contemporary jazz album with a title like Horns, you might reasonably assume it features a horn player. In this case, however, Horns is a "showcase" for drummer Mike Spinrad. Huh? Well, it's simple. First of all, this goes back to my insistence that drummers make great bandleaders, as well as composers and arrangers. This goes against the stereotype of a drummer being more of an athlete and possibly a mathematician than a musician, and if you're a jazz fan you know that idea is absurd. Secondly, I find ensembles led by drummers are unusually dynamic and full of the right kind of energy. Is this because the drummer is directing through momentum? The next time I talk to a jazz drummer/composer, I'll ask that question first.

Spinrad took this particular direction with his new album because he was inspired by his good friend Guido Fazio, who arranges the horn section here and plays tenor sax and flute. It all goes back to Spinrad's first album as leader, It's Morning, which was recorded back in 2001. That album featured a simple piano trio. Spinrad wanted to expand his sound so he added a three-piece horn section (Fazio augmented by horn player Richard Conway and sax player Larry Stewart) as well as an organ (Don Turney, who also recorded, mixed and mastered this album), so the title must refer to the inspiration and freedom he discovered in his compositions when he added those brass muses.

These eight originals, composed mostly by Spinrad, are played in several distinct styles and tempos. He wanted a different sound for each track, and he knew Fazio could supply the emotional context with his arrangements. "It's great to listen to someone with incredible technique," Spinrad explains, "but technique alone doesn't move me. Guido has great technique and plays with an incredible amount of heart and soul." It must be true, because each of these tracks have a life and an energy that are infectious in constantly evolving ways--even with the ballads. That goes back to what I said about drummers leading the band. While there are plenty of solos in Horns, ones indeed full of emotion, it's Spinrad's lithe drumming style that injects a steady stream of joy into this music. These songs move.

Here's an interesting tidbit about Spinrad--he started off playing in rock and roll bands and slowly switched over to jazz in high school and college. I've heard this before, rock drummers who move on to jazz, ostensibly to challenge and refine their talent. (Charlie Watts and Ginger baker both come to mind.) When I hear a drummer with this kind of background, I always attempt to hear those cues in their music. Spinrad reveals this once, in "Manny," which emerges as part of his "every song is different" scheme. What Spinrad proves in Horns is that he's extremely versatile, that he can do anything he wants to when he's behind his kit. Let's hope he doesn't wait another 17 years before he shows off his talent as a leader and composer again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

One O'Clock Lab Band's Lab 2018: The Rhythm of the Road

If you've already read my recent article for Part-Time Audiophile, "Deep Into Jazz In Texas," you're probably already familiar with the University of North Texas and their amazing Jazz Studies Program. The One O'Clock Lab band is their "varsity" team, so to speak, and every year they release an album that chronicles the performances for that year. It's only been a couple of months since I've finished that project, and already the 2018 album is out, under the tutelage of new director Alan Baylock.

This year, the standouts were the lead trumpeter, Nick Oswik and the drummer, John Sturino. Sturino also had a hand with arranging some of these tracks--I don't recall reading about arrangement from the students in the previous outings, but to tell the truth there's a lot of information to digest (a 168-page booklet was provided) and I may have overlooked it. I do think it's interesting from the standpoint of drummer-as-arranger, which always results in a program of incredible dynamic swings. While it's been a few months since I dove in head-first into the decades of performance for the PTA article, I do have to say that this year's lab pumps up the crispness considerably. That could be Sturino, but we should give Baylock a little more credit. Is it his style to give the students more power to build these arrangements, or is his style more subtle and identifiable elsewhere?

I will, of course, comment on the sound quality here. "I listened to an audio program that shows the waveform, which indicates the dynamics, and the spectrogram, which shows the pitch and gives a sense of the timbre," says John Murphy, the Chair of the Division of Jazz Studies at UNT. Sounds like someone who cares about audio quality, right? I mentioned in the PTA article that the UNT recordings started off in the '80s with rather mediocre recording quality, but as the program and its budget expanded, the sound quality in this recordings improved. "These tools helped me listen for details that I hope all will enjoy." He then goes on to discuss rhythm section support, rhythmic consistency and "the emotional power of the variety of brass timbres, pitch bends and shakes produced on the blues feature by the soloist and the sections." It's obvious that this attention to detail is why UNT is perhaps the finest university jazz program in the country.

I'm still receiving plenty of commercial big band recordings for review, so I do have a constant basis for comparison. I suggested in the PTA article that I could tell some differences between the students and professionals, especially when it comes to confidence and "swagger." In the 2018 edition of the One O'Clock Band, those differences have become much smaller--or perhaps non-existent. You know the department has a goal of getting better every single year, something that's more easily attainable than with one of UNT's sports teams, for example. The Lab 2018 album featured students that performed 28 concerts in 12 cities and four states. "On more than one occasion I was told by fans and former One O'Clock members that this is the best One O'Clock Lab Band they've ever heard," Baylock says. "One fan had been listening to the ensemble since the mid-'60s!" I've listened to everything since the '80s now, and I might have to agree. This program is evolving into something truly incredible.

Alberto Pibili's Jazz Legacy

From the opening bars, Alberto Pibili's piano sounds old-fashioned--at least in the contemporary jazz sense. Perhaps that's why he calls his new album Jazz Legacy, because he's one of those jazz pianists who is firmly planted in tradition. But that's glossing over the main point, which is that this Italian-born and raised musician absolutely adores Oscar Peterson. The liner notes declare that Pibiri can "duplicate" Peterson's playing note for note, but pure mimicry is certainly no way to build a reputation in the world of contemporary jazz. What Pibiri has done in Jazz Legacy is create mostly original compositions that have evolved into more than a mere tribute--he plays these songs as if Oscar had decided to record them himself, and did.

That means these tracks are strong on the use of melody during improvisation, and there's just a hint of old boogey-woogey as well. Peterson was measured, careful and yet still lyrical in the understated way he played. He was also technically brilliant, through and through. Pibiri captures each one of these cornerstones with these new songs, which brings up quite a challenge--it's difficult to compare Pibili's style to Peterson's since these are entirely new songs that Peterson never played. The listener is first required to know Peterson, and then recognize how Peterson employed his trademark sound while performing. That can be tough for the novice since Peterson was so precise in his melodic interpretations that his "style" can be difficult to put into words. It's more of a feel, a perfection.

If you're an Oscar Peterson fan, in other words, this will be a true test of your devotion. If you're not, don't worry. This is a lovely album, full of brilliant playing by both Pibili and his quartet--bassist Paul Gill, drummer Paul Wells and sax and clarinet player Adrian Cunningham. We also get the amazing and ubiquitous Dave Stryker on guitar on Miriam Waks' "Oh Yeah!" and a trio of singers on a handful of tracks--Waks, Shelia Jordan and Jay Clayton. Overall, there's a theme of gentility throughout, a feeling that's part of a hazy memory that always manages to induce a smile.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the feel of this album is decidedly old-fashioned. That means we're treated to original compositions that are, by design, arranged to sound like they are at least fifty years old. That might be the most impressive part of this album, that young Pibiri can both play and compose just like his idol without having been alive during Peterson's peak years. Jazz Legacy sounds like the type of tribute written by an old friend, someone who shared the stage with Peterson for many years and knew what it was like to feel that energy first-hand. That's pretty amazing when you think about it that way.

Peter Nelson's Ash, Dust, and the Chalkboard Cinema

Ash, Dust, and the Chalkboard Cinema is one of those albums that feels like a little fairy dust has been sprinkled along its edges--not because it is fey or whimsical in mood, but because there's something magical in the way it's lit up from within. For five years, trombonist Peter Nelson struggled with a a series of debilitating physical ailments and thought his career as a musician was over. After the usual misdiagnoses, Nelson finally found a doctor who identified focal dystonia, chronic hyperventilation and Chvostek sign--yes, I'll have to look these up as well--and he was successfully treated and able to play once again. This album, his first since getting healthy, is infused with a light of appreciation. It's beautiful and it shimmers with the power of healing in a way you don't often hear in contemporary jazz.

Nelson also possesses a distinct style on his horn that goes against the crowd. It's clearly a trombone, of course, but the way Nelson approaches it is unique, a series a sharp, staccato blasts that are ultimately understated. I'm not trying to pull out the hyperbole here, but that understatement reminds me of Miles Davis and his trumpet, the way he's able to evoke so much feeling in just a few notes. His notes, like Davis' notes, are somewhat plaintive and simple as well, so unlike other trombonists who are standing on stage to make an impact--usually with two or three of their friends. Nelson isn't afraid to stand at the front edge of the stage and dig in deeply to further his cause.

That unusual light he carries in his horn is shared by his ensembles. Yes, that's plural--he switches between a spooky, dreamy trio that includes vibraphonist Nikara Warren and vocalist Alexa Barchini; a quartet that includes bassist Raviv Markovitz, drummer Itay Morchi and pianist Willerm Delisfort; and finally a septet that adds alto sax player Hailey Niswanger, trumpet player Josh Lawrence and bass clarinet player Yuma Uesaka to the quartet. These varied ensembles give the album a unique sound that can expand and contract effortlessly according to the mood. There's something utterly hypnotic about the trio, however, something that probably settles in on my love for the vibes. But the combination of Nelson's thoughtful trombone and Barchini's mystical vocal stylings works incredibly well. After all, how many trombone-vibraphone-vocal trio recordings are there? It's a great idea, and I wouldn't mind an entire album from this type of ensemble.

The heart of this album, of course, is Nelson's ten original compositions. They chart his malady from the beginning ("It Starts Slowly (first in your heart)" and course through a variety of setbacks and, ultimately, triumphs--that lonely nightmare, in the void, slipping through your fingers...release and relax. Even the title is a puzzle to be solved, but it suggests both collapse and rebirth, all accompanied by the arc of a musician's training. This is an exciting and unusual contemporary jazz album, one with many layers of meaning, and definitely one you should discover.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Lee Hazlewood's Woodchucks--Cruisin' for Surf Bunnies Now Live at Positive Feedback

My latest review for Positive Feedback Online is now live! This one is about Lee Hazlewood's lost surf rock recordings from 1964, now lovingly restored from the original master tapes by Light in the Attic Records. You can read it here.

Mike Freeman ZonaVibe's Venetian Blinds

Maybe vibes will become the next big thing in jazz, just like organ trios and big band have been over the last year. I say that because I love the vibraphone. The first jazz music I truly loved came from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Milt Jackson's mallets were the point of entry. I have a fever, and the only cure is, get it. So my ears prick up when I slap a CD into the player and I immediately hear the vibes (or the marimba, which also gets my attention). If you're an audiophile like me, vibes are one of those instruments that can sound so alive on a real sound system. Like the drums, the vibraphone has a distinct set of tones that emerge with every note--the striking of the mallet on the key, the note itself and the way that note travels out into the room. There's that heady sound of wood in the mix, unique and exotic. It's wonderful.

When I first saw this CD in my mailbox, I thought that Mike Freeman was a vibe player that was so into the sound of his instrument that he legally changed his last name to ZonaVibe. No, it's just Mike Freeman and his group is known as the Mike Freeman ZonaVibe, just like the George Baker Selection. Freeman is considered to be one of the most exciting vibraphone players in contemporary jazz, and he specializes in albums that pay tribute to jazz legends--his last album Blue Tjade was of course a tribute to Cal Tjader. On his new album Venetian Blinds, Freeman pays tribute to Tito Puente and Bobby Hutcherson.

That means, of course, that this album has a Latin flavor and the vibes are right at home. The spirit here is light and fun, something that's in the same ball park as Rolfe Kent's amazing soundtrack for Sideways, and the main theme for Sex and the City--but with a lot more heart and style, at least compared to the latter. The point is, this is music that constantly celebrates life. It should inspire you to dance the night away with its overflow of energy. Freeman's vibes create flurries of seemingly impossible notes, such is his speed. It's not frantic playing, just fluid and lush as it should be. He creates an ocean of sound that creates a natural buoyancy for the other players (bassist Ian Stewart, drummer Joel Mateo, trumpet player Guido Gonzalez and conga player Roberto Quintero). The former two are well-known in the New York Latin jazz scene, while the rhythm section features two up-and-comers. There are, however, no seams showing anywhere in this glorious music machine.

While this is certainly Freeman's show, you might get pulled away once or twice by Quintero. In the liner notes he is referred to as a "conga master," and boy does he have the mad skills. His conga is propulsive and deft--he is Freeman's equal in tempo and spirit. As I said, I'm a huge fan of the vibes but I've actually messed around for a while on the congas (old girlfriend story) and it's easy to be immersed in all the subtle variations in sound that a slap can make. Quintero's conga is an encyclopedia of those sounds, and it's a pleasure to focus in on him and discover what he's doing. Then again, the same thing can be said for Freeman. This is a recording that rewards your concentration, despite its breezy and casual demeanor.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sasha Mashin's Outsidethebox

How do you feel about Russian jazz? Yes, I don't know much about it either, although I have no doubt that it not only exists but on a rather large scale. I tend to think of Russia as the motherlode of great classical music, and I have many outstanding classical records from Russia. It's not a coincidence that some of my favorite classical composers are Russian--Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky--and I tend to classify most of this music according to its nationalistic traits. I'm talking mostly sad and somber, borne from a tough land where nothing is easy. But Russian jazz? Lay it on me.

Sasha Mashin is a Russian jazz drummer, born in St. Petersburg in 1976. Through the '90s he studied and played with everyone in Russia, it seems, and he eventually settled into the Moscow jazz scene and played with all the big names--in Moscow, of course. In 2005 he joined the Open World USA Program in New York and wound up playing with other greats, more Western-friendly names such as Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Barron. He was even a fixture at the Blue Note Jazz Club for a while. Since then, he invites many of his colleagues from all over the world to play in Russia and discover how vital the jazz scene has become. Outsidethebox, his first album as leader, comes from those global collaborations.

Working with a simple ensemble consisting of trumpet player Alex Sipiagin, alto sax player Rosario Giuliani, keyboard player Alexey Ivannikov, bassist Makar Novikov and vocalist Hiske Oosterwijk, Mashin sets out to reveal Russian forms of jazz as something far more universal. Oosterwijk's voice, in particular, will remind you of Brazilian jazz the way it flutters and skips on top of the notes. Giuliani's sax is also earthy and sexy in a way that naturally evokes New York City during the summer, that storied grittiness. As for Mashin's drumming, it's quick and light and hardly echoes the seriousness of his classical counterparts. The music, especially in the melodies, does have a plaintive quality that reminds me of wide open spaces, but these are spaces that aren't too far from the similar fields frequented by Pat Metheny and Bill Laswell.

Outsidethebox is, for all intents and purposes, different and unique. But it's not distinctive because it's Russian jazz per se, something alien and never heard before. It is, instead, a summary of a vast amount of musical knowledge, how musicians bring their own experiences to the stage and the leader's job is to make it all fit without changing too much of those instincts. Mashin is so resolute when it comes to preserving this energy that he often calls these collaborations mashups, and it's more that a play on his name. It's the idea that two musicians, from different parts of the world, can come together and play jazz and make it sound absolutely terrific.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Max Moran & Neospectric

Max Moran is the man, a 28-year-old bassist and composer, and Neospectric is his concept, a hard-driving funk band that uses legendary bands such as The Meters, Kool & the Gang and of course Parliament/Funkadelic as a jumping-off point--

Wait, did you hear that? The drumming! Are you listening to this?

...uh yeah, a jumping-off for a 21st century version of--

Man, listen to how fast he's drumming! Listen to those time signatures! Man, this is amazing drumming. Who is this?

It's hard to focus on the writing of this review, because I keep hearing that magnificent drumming, that mind-blowing rhythm. The first time I listened to Max Moran & Neospectric, I wrote myself a little note that simply said "incredible drumming." I saved the reveal for today, the day I decided to write the review--I didn't even want to know the name of the drummer until I was ready to dive deeper into this extraordinary funk. By the time I started reading the liner notes, I was thoroughly confused since there were several drummers credited. They're all awesome. But the one who really blew my mind was Alfred Jordan. Write that name down.

Max Moran is the bassist, so you'd imagine this album be more about him, and in a way it is. But he envisions himself as more of an architect, and his compositions use the bass primarily for the melodies. He starts off with the bass line, in other words, and builds the song from there. Neospectric was a longtime vision of his, to create a funk band made up of his close friends who knew how to jam and improvise along with him. Moran was looking for "Like-minded musicians who can just relish in the joy of simply playing music, lingering inside the grooves, and encouraging listeners to join them for the audible ride."

This album, however, doesn't come off as one of those interminable jam records where everyone doodles for half and hour per turn. It's ambitious, structured and varied. It's precise in the way it shifts gears. It's the best kind of jam music, the kind that holds amazing surprises for you around every corner. It reminds me of Thurston Moore's great album from last year, Rock and Roll Consciousness, and how every moment of those epic-length songs were exciting and interesting due to the constant change-ups. While the music here is wild and unpredictable, it's performed by musicians who are extremely disciplined and talented, people who aren't flying by the seat of their pants. Moran's bass, in particular, isn't quite as prominent as most funk bands because he loves to stay low, building that foundation. When he does kick it up a few notches, he's supremely musical and doing so much more than holding down the groove. In his own way, he's the lead--when he can avoid that freight train named Jordan.

I'm always looking for great modern funk, stuff from the '70s that's just down the block from R&B and jazz but still driving its own car to the downtown clubs on the weekends. I'm often disappointed with something small, an over-reliance on electronica, the lack of a distinctive rhythm section...something. Not here. If you're looking for a spark, the next big thing in funk, this might be it. Between Jordan's drumming, Moran's adventurous compositions and surprise after surprise after surprise, the future is right here. Highly recommended.

Carmela Rappazzo's Howlin' at the Moon

Carmela Rappazzo's a little different than most contemporary jazz singers. First of all, she writes most of her own material. Her lyrics have that quick yet conversational tone that sometimes borders on something you might hear in a Sondheim musical, a rush of words that cuts through the melody and provides you with an additional dense plot to consider. In Howlin' at the Moon, her sixth album, Rappazzo uses her storytelling skills to document her recent move to New Orleans as well as her friendship with actress Margaret Whitton (who passed away in 2016). Her voice has plenty of Broadway in it, that playfully clear way of advancing the story that comes naturally from being a seasoned stage actress.

This album isn't the same type of grand production presented in Tom Hook's amazing 62; the stage is much smaller and intimate. Rappazzo deals mostly with a piano trio (drummer Gerald T. Watkins Jr., bassist Jasen Weaver and pianist Oscar Rossignoli), accented with a few horn players--including Steve Glenn's tuba--to give it that "marchin' down Bourbon Street" feel. While there are nine distinct tracks here, including one cover of "Lullaby of the Leaves," the music flows continuously and often features recurring themes--especially in regards to Rappazzo's phrasing.

This unity gives Howlin' at the Moon the feel of a stage musical, or more specifically a one-woman show. Rappazzo is generous with the amount of time she offers to her ensemble--Rossignoli's piano fully supports the drama she introduces, while Watkins' percussion supplies the exclamation points. On her explicit tribute to Whitton, "State of Grace," Rappazzo enlists lutar player Mahmoud Chouki to provide that perfect touch of the esoteric, suggesting the mystery and sophistication of her friend. It's the most interesting track on the album.

The rest of the album has that wild, rollicking feel you might expect for music dedicated to living in New Orleans--even if it functions as an elegy. Then again, we all know about funerals in the Big Easy. A very high level of energy is maintained throughout Howlin' at the Moon, right up to the closing ballad "Making My Way Back to You." So much of jazz is focused on supplying personal emotions to lyrics that hundreds have sung before, but in this case you have an expressive, intelligent singer who is also an expressive, intelligent songwriter who is telling you about her life in a truly unique way.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Vivian Lee's Let's Talk About Love

I feel like I've been on a wonderful lucky streak with female jazz singers lately. There's Jacqueline Tabor, Lucia Jackson and a few others over the last several weeks, women with appealing voices backed by incredible jazz musicians who always lend a huge dose of classiness to the affair. My bias against female voice recordings, mentioned many times over the last couple of years, has nothing to do with the genre but rather the slavish devotion to them afforded by audiophiles. I think this will be the last time that I mention that peccadillo because it has become moot, especially when I have another fantastic new recording right here.

Vivian Lee is incredibly appealing and sweet. I use the world sweet deliberately, because that's the primary quality I notice in her voice. So many singers, especially in jazz, have that much larger-than-life sound, something so big and impressive that you tend to forget these are mere mortals. Vivian Lee has an incredibly sweet voice, the kind of voice you want to curl up next to, the kind of a voice that makes you want to introduce yourself to her and get to know her better because, if you're lucky, she might decide to sing for you one day. Her lovely and somewhat quiet delivery is gentle and soothing and makes you float off into the ether. That's fortunate, because she's singing a collection of standards that are, as the title suggested, devoted to the subject of love. She has an extraordinary touch.

Lee hails from Sacramento, which isn't exactly a hotbed for jazz--at least I haven't heard about it yet, and I've been in that city plenty of times. None of that matters, because Lee is the type of jazz singer who holds such tunes as "Wives and Lovers," "Some Other Time" and "Waltz for Debby" close to her heart, so much so that you might be convinced that the songs were written for her. Her soft voice can sound a little understated at times, but it's forward enough in the mix so that you might be tricked into thinking her head is on her shoulder. (It sounds like I have a huge crush, and I might.) She surrounds herself with an equally simple and quiet ensemble, mostly a trio of pianist Brenden Lowe, bassist Buca Necak and drummer Jeff Minnieweather. They come off as the perfect piano trio, that kind that might be wandering from studio to studio fifty or sixty years ago.

That perfectly measured sound of the trio, taken from the vibrant past, also influences how Lee's voice comes off--she's deep in the past as well. She's playful when she needs to be, like Julie London in one of her lighter moods, and she often sounds like some undiscovered treasure from long ago. These days there's such a propensity to belt out the songs with all your might, to show off that talent so no one will hesitate to be impressed. Lee does something entirely different. She charms you over time, and she finds the way to your heart by just being herself. Needless to say, highly recommended.

Allen Austin-Bishop's No One Is Alone

With Allen Austin-Bishop, it's all about interpretation. He's known for having a warm, conversational tone, and he bend the notes into something unusual, something you haven't heard before. On his new album, No One Is Alone, he tackles some of the softer jazz ballads in the songbook in a way that will make you feel like he's in your living room, sitting next to you, putting that proverbial new spin on everything from "The Way We Were" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to "Amazing Grace," and he does it with the road-worn weariness of someone who's been out there for decades. He's doing nothing by the numbers, and it might challenge you if you're expecting someone more, well, forgettable.

This is a slow album, one that takes its time because it's about something--the interpretation. His back-up ensemble is minimalist, a trio consisting of pianist Alex Maydew, bassist Mao Yamada and drummer Rob Hervais-Adelman, and they understand the pace. They're also sensational in the way they set the mood behind Austin-Bishop, providing music in an unusually grounded manner. On the other hand, they understand the drama that is so essential to a big, warm voice in the middle of it all.

If I'm suggesting his voice is different, it is. Some people, as I've hinted, might not get the way he injects the tangible sadness into the discussion. The first time I listened to this album, in the background, I was struck by the fact that Austin-Bishop doesn't care about hitting those high-notes that can deliver the goosebumps. He sings with authority, and he also sings with plenty of ragged edges, the kind of edges that might throw off the listener during a cursory listening session. Focus on what he's doing, however, and you'll unearth something else, a naked honesty that comes from living a life marked by a singular vision. He doesn't bow to convention, and that might not appeal to everyone.

When you look at the whole picture, however, a different perspective emerges. Honesty, as I've already mentioned, is sometimes a rare commodity among jazz singers. He sin't afraid to toy with the tempo, or find another key that fits what he is feeling. It's different, as I've said. But it commands your attention in a way that's refreshing. There's a deep resonance in his voice, something that gets pulled deep from within this man, and it means something.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Rocket 3's What's the Frequency?

It's been a while since I heard from my longtime Facebook friend, Ramune Nagisetty--March of 2017 to be exact. That's when she sent me a digital copy of a new album of her side project, Avalanche Lily. In that review, I noted that "what Avalanche Lily does, thankfully, is transport me back to that same period of the early 1990s where so many pop genres blended together which resulted in a general broadening of young minds." It's been about four years since her last album from her main band, Rocket 3, which I found to remind me of half a dozen '90s girl-led bands such as Letters to Cleo, Clouds and Elastica. I found Avalanche Lily to possess a cleaner and more stripped-down sound than Rocket 3, although I loved both albums.

Now it's time for a new album from Rocket 3, which sort of takes the best parts of those two albums and combines them into a beautiful pop valentine. What's the Frequency is, as you might imagine, a nod to that famous REM song from Monster, but it's also a loving poke at new bassist Kenneth Foust, who joined the band in 2015. Ramune, of course, sings and plays lead guitar, and she has that fabulously breathy and innocent kind of voice that takes you once again to the '90s when indie bands like Belly were taking over college radio. Ramune's guitar has always taken her bands down a different road--it's clean and relatively lacking in effects, which brings an unusually present and alive sound to the mix. Drummer Andy Anymouse also returns--I've been always been a big fan of his energetic approach on his kit that matches so comfortably with Ramune's style. A fourth member, Gavin Duffy, contributes saxophone and keyboards that broaden the sound.

Like the other two albums, What's the Frequency catches you off guard with its friendly demeanor. I've used words such as "sunny" and "crisp" to describe Ramune's music. It's the kind of upbeat pop/indie rock that instantly puts you into a good mood. What I hear in this album, however, is the inevitable maturing that comes with recording, the playing around with the recipe until it tastes incredible. Ramune's lyrics are more bittersweet here, as they should be with anyone who's sharing the same time-space continuum as the rest of the world, but these nine songs are so consistent with that encouraging demeanor that makes you step back and wonder if we should all start listening to music as content as this.

Another thing I've always liked about Rocket 3 (and Avalanche Lily, of course) is the devotion to great sound quality. Since this is a basic, uncluttered ensemble, the music has always come off as unusually bright and clean--not audiophile bright, which is a bad thing, but crystalline. If you want to check out What's the Frequency right now, and you should, check out their website. If the world is gettin' ya down, this will fix you right up.