Saturday, February 17, 2018

Other Animal on CD

Do you like alt prog jazz?

I know, I know. I didn't know what that was either. In fact, I didn't even notice the genre designation when I first listened to Other Animal's eponymous debut album. All I knew was these instrumental tracks were like nothing I've heard before--rhythms that were clearly derived from both indie rock and the unusual and ambitious time signatures from '70s prog rock, driven by saxophone melodies that were clearly taken from jazz traditions. Coat all this with ambient synthesizer sounds and you'll have a good idea what brothers Peter and Bernhard Meyer are trying to accomplish.

The Meyer Bros. are both composers who take turns building these unusual yet musical songs. Peter plays the guitar and creates the electronic sounds, while Bernhard sticks to the bass. They are joined by Wanja Slavin on sax, flute, clarinet and synthesizers and the adventurous Jim Black on drums. They create dense, moody pieces that might remind you a little of some of the compositions people such as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were creating in the studio a good twenty-five or thirty years ago. Black can push these walls of sound with his versatility--he can make a song sound like it was performed by The Police ("Mr Manga") or a free-jazz orgy ("E Dance") or anything else he wants. His drumming is that potent and up-front.

What anchors this unusual yet endearing mix to jazz traditions is Slavin's contributions. His steady work on the sax drives most of the first half of the album, with the others slowly building their support until those melodies solidify and take flight. When he switches to the clarinet on songs like "No Fruit," it adds an almost Eastern European tinge to the music, an exotic and playful counterpoint to the near drone of the rhythm section. It's the kind of music that can force your brain to set out in different directions, only to stop and take a breath and eventually figure out what's really going on.

The liner notes mention that the band's motto is "playing consciously and intuitively, leaving out the irrelevant and standing above vanity and self-display." That's easy to detect in their style--this music succeeds because each contributor adds equally to the whole, resulting in considerable momentum. That's a necessary quality since it might be difficult to summarize this music in your head at first. It's the singularity of the vision they have makes Other Animal such a fascinating discovery.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Hart, Scone & Albin's Leading the British Invasion

Here's a utterly charming idea that winds up even better than I had thought--take some of the hits from the British Invasion and turn them into jazz. Guitarist John Hart, Hammond B-3 player Adam Scone and drummer Rudy Albin Petschauer perform a small miracle by sounding so big in this effort, which is why it works so well. They even call themselves a "little big band." Petschauer explains that combining Hart's "adventurous" guitar and Scone's B-3 eliminates "musical boundaries and can seamlessly and convincingly cover all styles: Blues, jazz, rock, soul, bossa nova all fit like a glove with the right organ trio." That's the secret, indeed--each one of these classics is met with a completely different approach from the smoothest of jazz to blazing rock and roll.

Did I say classics? The trio actually broadens the definition of the British Invasion by including some recent arrivals. The opening and closing tracks are from Amy Winehouse ("Rehab" and "Back to Black"), while we also get tunes from Lorde ("Royals"), Joss Stone ("Don't Start Lyin to Me Now") and Sade ("Turning Tables"). Just before you accuse these talented musicians of cheating on the whole '60s vibe they create, they throw in a couple of Dusty Springfield hits ("The Look of Love" and "I Only Want to Be With You.") Despite the ping-ponging from decade to decade, the entire album does feel like it comes from the past, across the pond.

What's amazing about this organ blues trio is that it consists of equal partners. Scone describes the arrangement process as very collaborative: "John would create a harmony here, and Rudy would bring the undeniable beat that works best with the Hammond Organ group." The synergy of this trio is superb--they move together as one, with incredible pace and dynamics. This is the essence of a great organ trio, a persistent sense of fun and versatility. I've been hearing this singularly enjoyable theme with nearly all of the organ trios I've heard over the last few months.

This is yet another stellar release from the Zoho record label. Every single album I've reviewed from them excels in sound quality, an amazing blanket statement to make about redbook CD in 2018. I'm not sure if it's a wise strategy to select albums entirely on the basis of the record label, but Zoho is, in my opinion, is a sure thing when it comes to fun, adventurous and great-sounding contemporary jazz. Kudos to them.

Tina Margareta Nilssen's Appassionata on 2L Recordings

There are usually three distinct facets of any 2L Recording, three separate angles to discuss--the theme of the music, the performance and the sound quality. 2L's Morten Lindberg loves to include specific themes in his recordings, challenging and sometimes obscure facts that bind the program selection into a nice whole, such as having all the music relate to man's relationship with nature or that all of the compositions were inspired by a specific composer. The performances are usually spectacular, with 2L spotlighting Norwegian musicians who are extremely talented and somewhat daring in their approach. The sound quality is almost a given--using technology, unique recording approaches and carefully chosen venues--usually old churches--Lindberg's releases are glorious in their realism.

Tina Margareta Nilssen's new solo piano release, Appassionata, blurs those three subjects into an astounding whole...more so than usual. I've often discussed the concept of "listening with a clipboard," checking off boxes as you listen to a particular recording or audio component. Hmmm...nice soundstaging depth, tight bass, a little coloration in the upper midrange, all that stuff. You're checking off boxes instead of enjoying the music. The real magic happens when you fling that clipboard into the nearest wastebasket and allow yourself to be transported into an altered state of consciousness.

I do this every time I listen to Appassionata, which is unusual since I usually admire solo piano works more than I adore them. I can't decide which of those three distinct facets is responsible for this musical hypnosis.

In this case, the theme is simple. Nilssen has chosen three pieces that are passionate and full of intensity. As she explains in the liner notes, "I have chosen music that goes high and deep." She begins and ends with two fairly well-known works--Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 7 and Beethoven's Sonata No. 23 in F minor, which bracket a fairly unknown piece from female composer Signe Lund titled Cinq Morceaux, Op. 37. Lund's piece is more playful and bright compared to the storminess of the other two works, although the three pieces have an obviously flow to them that makes it a little difficult to pinpoint the program change--not because there isn't the prerequisite space, but because the resulting hypnosis is so potent. So while the "theme" is broadly defined, the music is fluid and unified and takes you on a long, uninterrupted journey that makes perfect sense.

Nilssen's performance must not be underestimated as it pertains to the whole. It is her exquisite and perfectly measured playing that produces such a sense of detached time and space. Her playing is effortless, masterful and lush. It's easy to get lost in the notes and forget all about the troubles in the world. Nothing matters when this level of beauty is so easily attained by a mere push of the start button on your digital transport. You won't discard your clipboard--you'll smash it to pieces and forget it ever existed.

Finally, there's the sound quality. What can I say that I haven't said before about the uniform excellence of 2L recordings? I will say this--I feel as if I'm sitting further back in the church than usual. That, of course, is not a bad thing because it allows the notes of the piano to leap out into the room and explore the ceiling beans of the now-familiar Sofienberg Church in Oslo with uncommon attention. I like this more distant perspective since it might be the reason why so much musical detail flows from my hi-fi system, embracing and mesmerizing me.

I think it should be obvious by now how I feel about Appassionata, and that is an essential piano recording. If you have yet to splurge on a 2L Recording, end the drought and start here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ori Dagan's Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole

Now here's a jazz singer.

Ori Dagan is a jazz singer who's not afraid to don familiar jazz affectations in the whimsical, wry and ready-to-scat style of Dave Lambert and Eddie Jefferson. He seems to check all of the boxes without trying, his distinctive baritone low-key until he needs a vocal exclamation for his phrasing, and his voice raises until he starts to sound like a voice actor working on the latest Pixar flick. (If you need an over-the-top example of this style, refer to Eric Idle's version of "The Penis Song" in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.) Plus, he's paying tribute to Nat King Cole on his new album, one of my absolute favorites. He's knocking it out of the park, right?

I'm not sure. The first time I listened to Nathaniel, I was torn. The opener, Wally Gold's "Lilette," is a little gem of a song, so perfectly suited to Dagan's unique style. This was so promising and distinctive and refreshing that I settled in for what I thought was going to be a small masterpiece. After a few songs, however, Dagan's voice became a romance gone sour--completely annoying, in other words. The endless affectations were like cake frosting--a perfect confection that becomes cloying once you decide to pop the lid and eat the entire container.

After a few weeks I came back to Dagan and discovered that I was, once again, too hard on this male jazz vocalist. I'm going out on a limb by saying your appreciation of his voice may depend upon your mood. That mood, of course, should be a fun and playful one. I'm sitting here now, listening to this album, and I'm totally enjoying it. First of all, the musicians behind Dagan (pianist Mark Kieswetter, guitarist Nathan Hiltz, bassist Ross MacIntyre, sax and flute player Jane Bunnett and drummer Mark Kelso, among others) are absolutely fantastic and a recorded with a great deal of care. This is a gorgeous, pristine recording that sounds live and real and immediate.

If you love the quick caprice of Parisian style jazz, you'll totally get this album. You'll dance in your kitchen while listening to it, and you'll use a wooden spoon for a microphone. You'll sing just like Ori Dagan. You'll copy all of his signature moves. But if it's a grey day and you want to feel sorry for yourself, it's only a matter of time before you hit the pause and eject button. Choose your mood wisely.

Angelo Divino's Love A to Z

I wasn't looking forward to reviewing an album called Love A to Z: Angelo Divino Sings the Many Facets of Love--unless, of course, it was released in 1960. But this is 2018, and I hope that whoever came up with this title was trying to be just a little ironic or nostalgic. Just look at this guy with his snazzy clothes and perfectly coiffed hair, walking along the beach and singing songs of love. Oh, brother.

But I was pleasantly surprised when I played this album for the first time. I know I was rough on Bob Mundy in the last review--I just think he's more pop than jazz. Angelo Divino, if that is his real name, sounds a lot like Bob Mundy but with one crucial difference--he does have a little bit of that edge I'm looking for when it comes to jazz. Despite the hair, he seems a little more mussed up, a little more seasoned. It sounds like he's been listening to Sinatra his entire life and understands how important inflection is, and how to sound more wry and wise than heartbroken.

Another plus is the sound quality here. I didn't mention this in the Bob Mundy album, which sounded really nice and clean, but I'm impressed with the sonics here--especially in the low frequency department. Adrian Rosen's bass is deep, full and ripe and really stands out. If you're trying to impress your audiophile buddies with the natural and full sound of a double bass, this is a great place to start. Keyboardist Rich Eames, drummer and harmonica player Michael Rosen and horn players Doug Webb and Jonathan Dane are all accomplished and perfect as well.

If I have a bone to pick, it might be with some of the song selections. The opener "Hey Life," with its constant affirmations of "Yeah, life!" is a little too happy-go-lucky to be taken seriously, and the sci-fi synthesizer conceits in "Flying Saucers" are totally out of place and goofy AF. (This is perhaps the one way where I prefer Bob Mundy's relative seriousness.) But there are plenty of moments where singer and band come together perfectly and swing like they mean it.

Bob Mundy's Love to Me

Lately I've been wrestling with my bias against today's male jazz vocalists. I just don't seem to respond to them in the same way I respond to female vocalists--maybe there's a connection to that whole audiophile female voice thing. I love Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme and many other jazz legends, but they all had swagger, style and attitude. Today's male jazz singers seem too nice in comparison, too earnest and lovestruck to be interesting to me. I've reviewed a few of these contemporary guys over the last few months and I want to encourage them--especially if they have perfectly wonderful voices. But I also want to tell them to hit the road and sleep in bus stations for a couple of years and maybe start chain-smoking Newports. They need to be roughed up by life so that I'll believe what they're singing. Perhaps they need to open for Robert Sarazin Blake for a few months and take up residence on his filthy couch between gigs. That'll give them the edge I desire.

I have three new CDs from jazz male vocalists in front of me, and I'm going to attempt to review all three in one day since they're all very similar. First up is Bob Mundy, the kind of guy who puts a pull quote from Betty Buckley on his publicity sheet that says "Bob, I love your voice!" There's nothing wrong with that, of course, because there's absolutely nothing wrong with Betty Buckley. But this does point out why I hesitate to embrace these singers so readily--they're more Broadway than Birdland. Bob does have a perfectly lovely voice, a classic crooner's voice, and to his credit he doesn't try to gum that up with phony jazz singer affectations. He sings it straight, and I appreciate that.

Fortunately, Mundy surrounds himself with incredible talent that includes pianist Dan Kaufman, bassist Peter Slavov, drummer Mark Ferber, guitarists Lage Lund and Sean Harkness and many others. You could remove the vocals and I'd still really enjoy this album, and that's not intended to be a slap at Mundy. In fact, I'm grateful that Mundy is so generous with the interludes and really lets his cohorts show off their chops. He doesn't step all over them--he's a team player.

I'll even go as far as to say this is one of the most enjoyable male jazz singers I've heard in quite a while. I think the only real issue here is that Mundy's not really a jazz singer. He's a pop singer, more Manilow than Sinatra. He'd do well playing Marius Pontmercy. He sings with considerable feeling and sincerity. But if he wants to sing jazz, he needs to start sleeping in a few doorways.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Takaaki's New Kid in Town Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of Takaaki's New Kid in Town is now live at Positive Feedback. If you're a fan of the original Three Blind Mice recordings from the '70s, you'll dig this! You can read it here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Billy Lester Trio's Italy 2016

Italy 2016 sounds like the title of a live jazz album. Pianist Billy Lester's new album isn't live, but the liner notes suggest that he's aiming for "the vibrant feel of live performances." I'd have to agree--at the end of each track I halfway expect to hear applause. The idea behind this album, however, is that Billy is joined by two esteemed jazz musicians from Italy--bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri. This trio first met in 2014 and built up such a natural rapport as a trio that they decided to record this album in Italy in...well, you know when.

Billy Lester has built up quite a cult following, which is unusual since he's recorded only seven albums in the last 20 years. He definitely has a distinct style, employing quick and adjacent keywork that rolls steadily back and forth across the board. It sounds as if he's playing with his hands and fingers closed in, fast and repetitive over the same geography. He's adventurous in the way he goes off on improvisational tangents as well--he's not afraid to veer into dissonance, but he does return quickly and precisely. He's a jazz pianist's pianist.

His Italian cohorts match his small, quick journeys with equal subtlety. Stranieri, for instance, plays softly and doesn't draw undue attention to himself but his momentum is essential to the drive of these six original tracks. (These sojourns run between seven and twelve minutes each.) Testa matches Lester with an almost fraternal sense of rhythm. It's easy to see why Lester bonded with these two gentlemen--there's a drive to this trio that seems carefully calibrated, even when the improvisations go off the map.

Sound quality is also strong--as I mentioned, the musicians were able to capture the sound of a live performance in the studio, and that's not easy to do. While the overall feel of this album is introspective, without wide sweeps of emotion or dynamics, this is the type of "interior" jazz that pulls you in and dares you to consider the placement of each note. Perhaps this synergy will convince these three men to come to the US and play for American audiences--people who know there jazz and are willing to pay close attention.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Carl Filipiak and the Jimi Jazz Band's What Now

I'm pretty sure this isn't jazz. It's not even jazz-rock, whatever that might be. This is rock that's pretty straightforward, thinking man's rock, the kind of stuff Bill Frisell puts out once in a while. It might be informed by jazz in the way intricate themes are explored, but tell me this--when you listen to jazz, any jazz, are you compelled to crank up the volume and rock out? I didn't think so.

Carl Filipiak has been referred to as "a dynamic jazz guitarist," part of a genre referred to as "new fusion," but when you listen to his new album, What Now, you think of one thing: rock and roll. With his Jimi Jazz Band consisting of drummer Frank Young, sax player Paul Hannah and bassist Matt Everhart, Filipiak creates the kind of rock and roll you might hear from very seasoned session musicians. (I have to admit that Young reminds me of Jim Keltner in a big way, solid and precise without being flashy.) These guys sound like they're the best in the business, and they all got together to play one day just for fun. They're not as cohesive and connected to a singular vision as most rock bands, but they are skilled. They're professional. They play their asses off.

Another distinction is that these eight tracks--six originals, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Sunny"--are instrumentals, and I think that omission might tempt the average listener to say yeah, I guess it might be jazz. A typical rock singer in the Lou Gramm-Paul Rodgers mold would completely push this into rock territory. There are other details that support the jazz label--there are a couple of spots where Jimi Jazz as a whole dips momentarily into a more jazzy feel, almost as a tease. There's even a spot or two where the band feels like they're channeling Santana and wandering into the world of Latin jazz. But for the most part, this is great rock and roll that's been recorded with care--as if they were an intimate jazz ensemble. This is a clean, clean recording.

It's so clean, in fact, that you can really turn up the volume and it still sounds great, unlike most of today's victims of the Loudness Wars and all that compression. The label, Geometric Records, may have stumbled onto something: record rock and roll as if it was jazz. Works for me.

Jeff Rupert with Veronica Swift--Let's Sail Away

Man, Veronica Swift sounds a lot like Ella Fitzgerald. I'm not saying this in a oh-she's-copying-Ella kind of way, but in a wow-at-last-someone-contemporary-knows-how-to-scat-without-making-me-wince sort of way. It's clear Ella is an influence--Swift has that same girlish innocence mated to a supreme and confident sense of swing. At just 23 years old, Swift has that ease that usually comes from years of performing. She's a little more delicate than Ella, a tiny bit more fragile, but I could listen to her all day.

Alas, Ms. Swift is just one piece of the puzzle in this excellent album from saxophone player Jeff Rupert. With a title like "Let's Sail Away," you might think this is a breezy and light "escapade" of an album, something you might hear at yacht club dinner. In fact, this album starts off sounding exactly like that, a fun and capricious gig at a fancy shindig with lots of rich people. But then a couple of things happen. First, you fall in love with Swift's voice. After that happens, Rupert's band really takes off and starts playing with fever and vision.

As a sax player, Rupert is suitably sultry. He's played with people such as Mel Torme, Maynard Ferguson and Benny Carter's Harlem Renaissance, so he has the smooth and romantic delivery thing down pat. His core band--pianist Richard Drexler, drummer Marty Morell and bassist Charlie Silva--are game for anything. They can sound as if they're playing entirely in the service of the music, even when Rupert's arrangements start to explore new possibilities. A ten minute take on Rhapsody in Blue, for instance, both condenses the original composition and allows it to wander through new ideas. Placed roughly midway through the album, this Gershwin piece becomes the cue for everyone to truly sail away into sheer inspiration.

The sound quality is, of course, the cherry on top. It's warm, expansive and completely natural. This is another case of me judging an album by its cover--I didn't expect a whole lot from this album by its somewhat pedestrian nautical theme, but repeated listening has won me over completely. If you enjoy Ella Fitzgerald, George Gershwin and a band that sounds like it can play anything you want and anyway you like it, this album is for you.

Taking the Reel-to-Reel Dip with Lyn Stanley

I've discussed the comeback of reel-to-reel as a reference analog source for some time now, both here and in my original Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. In a nutshell, reel-to-reel recordings can easily surpass the fidelity of vinyl, especially when sourced from the original master tapes--vinyl is pressed from these masters in most cases.

I've had this TEAC X-1000R reel-to-reel deck at my disposal for the last year or so, but I haven't had any quality software to use with it. This machine was restored and serviced by a local guy in Syracuse, and he included a reel of stuff he recorded from other sources. While it's fun to play that reel, the sound quality does not hint at the sonic nirvana that's routinely produced by tape sourced from the masters. The problem is that most of these excellent pre-recorded tapes retail for $250 to $750 or more...PER TITLE. Machines like this TEAC are relatively affordable--I'd sell this TEAC for $1000. That's probably the cost of two tapes.

Fortunately, singer Lyn Stanley came to the rescue! I've recently reviewed both volumes of The Moonlight Sessions--vol. 1 has reviewed here on my blog while Vol. 2 was reviewed at Positive Feedback Online. In both reviews I hinted that I'd love to hear the very rare and very pricey R2R versions of these releases, and she sent me this copy which has been making the rounds. (Lee Scoggins, a fellow scribe at Part-Time Audiophile, had it right before me.)

So I'll be listening to this on a very nice system over the next week or so and will offer my opinions! Thanks, Lyn!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Benji Kaplan's Chorando Sete Cores

Remember Van Dyke Parks' work with Joanna Newsom and Inara George about a decade ago? Parks' works for small orchestra at the time were so light-footed and whimsical, so extracted from a world that didn't exist any longer. Listening to Benji Kaplan's new album, Chorando Sete Cores (which translates to "Cries of the Seven-Colored Tanager"), I'm reminded of that same world--delicate, possibly borne from some forgotten corners of La Belle Epoque. It's the type of music you hear in old movies, outside of the classical canon so to speak yet still expressive in the way it allows specific instruments to reach their potential.

Guitarist Kaplan has written this, his fourth album, for a wind quintet with just four performers including himself. How does one do that? Well, through the use of musicians who are adept at swapping instruments during the course of the song. Anne Drummond, for instance, plays two flutes--alto and C. Remy Lebouef plays the clarinet and the impressive and memorable bass clarinet, which acts as the lone low-frequency anchor on the album. David Byrd-Marrow sticks with the French horn, and Kaplan sticks with his nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. This type of ensemble allows Kaplan's arrangements to thrive on endless counterpoints while maintaining a small, intimate feel.

In a nutshell, this is fanciful music that hasn't an unkind thought or a menacing note. The mood is positive and encouraging, which leaves the listener free to explore the relationships of the constant call-and-answer of the instruments and how they take turns telling the same story. This type of aural storytelling is so at odds with the music we hear every day. While most of the tracks are self-contained tales such as "A Joyful Stroll" (which is brisk since the walk takes place in New York) and "Leaves in the Wind" (self-explanatory), this is not an album about ideas and narratives. It's about feelings and textures and the celebration of beauty.

As you listen to all 13 tracks, you'll find a flow and a unity as well. It's unusual easy to keep track of that flow since the recording quality is so fantastic and clean. That allows you to consider every note, every trill, and how it contributes to a beautiful whole. Chorando Sete Cores may sound trivial if you're not truly committed to it, but if you take the time to hear these four (or five?) musicians have an enthralling conversation, you'll want to sit in.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Vinyl Anachronist #119 Now Live at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest installment of my original Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. #119 is about the state of vinyl cleaning in 2018 and why you shouldn't just use the Discwasher system you had back in the '70s. You can enjoy it here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Scott Ramminger's Alive & Ornery

Compared to the Jay Willie Blues Band release I just reviewed, this 2-CD live set from sax player Scott Ramminger is more typical of today's blue scene--it's a live recording so it has plenty of interaction and counterpoint between the performers and the audience. In five albums since his 2011 debut Crawstickers, Ramminger has gained a reputation for composing original blues tunes that are both meaty and funny, with slightly bawdy lyrics that capture the sexual undercurrents that help define the blues. (On "Rebecca, Rebecca," he tells his lady love to get her "big legs" on him ASAP.) That means his performances are punctuated by knowing laughs from the crowd--it's all about everyone getting just a little naughty and having a good time.

Ramminger understands this. In the liner notes he states "I love to write, and dig the production aspect of making studio records. But I also really like getting out and playing live, particularly with a good band in small or medium-sized clubs." That's exactly what we have here, a series of performances in Washington DC captured last summer in very small clubs where you can here the enthusiastic responses of individuals in the crowd rather than the sterile sound of mass applause in a large hall. These are the kind of performances where you can hear Ramminger saying "Thank you sir for demonstrating the tip jar" during the fade out.

As I mentioned in the Jay Willie review, the blues as a genre is tough to explore because there is a strict formula for doing it right. It's basic music with a basic structure and the quality of any particular performance is based upon what is laid on top of that structure without diluting the whole. Ramminger's band--drummer Pete Ragusa, bassist Chris brown, trumpeter Vince McCool and a variety of guest guitarists and keyboard players--are solid and professional and daring enough to include nasty guitar lick or a seductive growl of yet more Hammond B-3s. The added layers, therefore, consist of lots of humor and swagger.

Isn't that what the blues are all about? Attitude is what makes this type of music special, and Ramminger's floating in a big heated swimming pool full of attitude. Like most blues singers, he knows that the secret to the blues is to act like a ladies' man who knows nothing about ladies and that's why he's so funny. Alive & Ornery is funny and consistently so across two discs of music. I think those qualities increase exponentially, however, when you get out and hear his band live.

Jay Willie Blues Band's Jay Walkin'

I've been a little rough on the blues over the last few years. It's not that I don't like blues music, it's just that I think the definition of the genre is so narrow that any innovative approach places it outside of the genre into one of many sub-genres--blue rock, R&B, funk-blues, whatever you got. Once you've heard Muddy Waters' Folk Singer, the Howlin' Wolf catalog and a few titles from Chad Kassem's sessions at Blue Heaven Studio in Kansas, you have a pretty good survey of the art form. The magic, I feel, is in live performances and how the performer connects with the audience. That's something you can't get sitting alone in the dark with your hi-fi.

I've received a couple of straightforward blues albums to review--this one from Jay Willie and another from Scott Ramminger--and my first question is well, what have you got? Are you gonna show off some blistering guitar riffs? Are you gonna put a new spin on some old blues classics? How are you going to catch my attention? The Jay Willie Blues Band digs deep into history in their approach, bringing blues music primarily from the '50s and '60s into the 21st century. This band hails from the rock and roll wing of the blues, which means their approach is based on dirty, edgy guitar work and a steady beat.

While there's strong vocal work from several contributors--guitarist and frontman Jay Willie, multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Paul Opalach, guitarist Bob Callahan and drummer Bobby T. Torello, the ace in the hole is two songs featuring Malorie Leogrande. Her voice is so immediately likeable and expressive that I find myself wishing for a "Malorie Leogrande featuring the Jay Willies Blues Band" album. One of those songs, "The Other Side," was written by Willie and Opalach and Leogrande and goes far beyond the parameters of the blues into pop-rock and is, quite frankly, a stand-out. It's not the blues, obviously, but I'd love to hear Leogrande explore this sound in a future solo release.

When it comes to the question of "what have you got?," the answer here is "all the prerequisites." Willie plays a mean, angry guitar that brings modern sensibilities into very old songs (two of the songs, Roosevelt Sykes' "44 Blues" and Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man," come from the Great Depression). Jason Ricci's harmonica is there to remind you that this is the blues, even when it's rocking mighty hard. To a hardcore lover of the blues this album may stray here and there, but it walks the tightrope when it comes to honoring old traditions and keeping it fresh and interesting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Brad Garton & Dave Soldier's The Brainwave Music Project

Every time I see Dave Soldier's name on the cover of a CD I feel like I first have to subscribe to Lumosity and exercise my brain a bit. Soldier is "out there" musically, in a fascinating way, and that precludes the act of casual listening. I've reviewed both The Eighth Hour of Amduat and Sonus Inenarrabilis over the last year or so, and both times I had the feeling that I was in over my head. Dave Soldier, in other words, is the musical equivalent of Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses.

The trick, I believe, is to let these strange sounds wash over you during several listening sessions and eventually the structure will emerge from the chaos. This is my same strategy for free jazz, but Soldier steps too far beyond those tricky boundaries as well. He creates music for the brain, not the heart, which is why his new album with composer and computer music expert Brad Garton is called The Brainwave Music Project. Actually, that's not the reason. Soldier, who is a neuroscientist, approached Garton with an idea to use EEG sensors that were sensitive enough to measure the electrical output of the brain to create data that could be transformed into music.

Perhaps that's why this strange, segmented music is so easy to absorb. Soldier specializes in creating odd sounds with odd structures that somehow adhere to what we consider music. It's challenging, to be sure, and requires an open mind. But the music here is far more pleasing despite its inherent chaos. It's truly weird by every imaginable definition, but the instruments used to translate the EEG waveforms is, at times, downright beautiful. Part of that is due to an inspired choice of instrumentation--Dan Trueman's hardanger fiddle, flutist Margaret Lancaster, mandolin player Terry Pender and percussionist William Hooker--that adds a distinctly humanistic angle to these scientific results.

Sound quality is vivid and pleasing and reminds me a little of Morten Lindberg's more esoteric recordings with 2L. This is definitely one of those recordings where the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves, and the superb three-dimensional soundstage provides plenty of physical space on the stage as well. Best of all, I walk away from this recording feeling that I understand its premise and that it won't take repeated listening over many years to figure it all out.

Friday, January 19, 2018

James Weidman's Spiritual Impressions

This jazz release is very similar to the Eric Byrd Trio album I reviewed just a few days ago. Keyboard player James Weidman has taken traditional spirituals and has transformed them into straightforward jazz pieces played by an outstanding ensemble. I really enjoyed the way Byrd pared his tunes down so that the music could come through--as you can tell, I'm not big on the message. But somehow that added to my enjoyment; after all, I think "Amazing Grace" is one of the most beautiful songs ever written from a purely musical standpoint. I'm intrigued by sacred music and how it summons the purest of inspirations from artists and performers.

Spiritual Impressions follows that template. No one expects songs such as "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "You Hear the Lamb A Cryin'" to swing as hard as they do here, which is what makes this recording so thrilling and alive. You start to see the musical beauty of each tune, the richness of the melodies and the emotional investment of all these performers.

Weidman has played for such legends as Abbey Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson and Steve Coleman, and he surrounds himself with such stellar performers as horn and woodwind master Anthony Nelson, bassist Harvie S and drummer Vince Ector. The master stroke, however, is the inclusion of Ruth Naomi Floyd as the vocalist. (I remember seeing Floyd perform at a music festival in Portland a few years ago, and while I wasn't in the mood for gospel at the time I was mightily impressed with her performance.) Weidman and Floyd have worked together before--Weidman was the producer and arranger on three of her albums. Floyd's voice has an earthy and genuine sweetness to it that supports her powerful range. The Eric Byrd album won me over once Byrd started singing--I really dig his voice--and I have the same reaction here.

Of course there's more to spirituals than the religious context--this is music that digs deep into slavery, forced labor, war and ultimately liberation. That's the hidden depth that I find attractive, and why I could listen to this album over and over. And I have. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Eric Byrd Trio's Saints Are Still Marching

The full title of this release is The Eric Byrd Trio Featuring Terell Stafford and Tim Warfield--Sacred Music Vol. 1: Saints Are Still Marching. I'm mentioning this once because it's clear there's a lot of talent contributing to this release, and everyone deserves credit. Still, the truncated version of the title is easier to remember, and yes, you will want to remember this album.

I didn't think it was going to be my thing at first--spirituals, hymns and gospels played by a straightforward jazz trio augmented by a trumpet player (Stafford) and a sax player (Warfield). It does sound like a good idea on paper, especially if you can maintain a pared-down approach to the music side of it so each track isn't overtly inspirational. The idea should involve culling the beautiful harmonies of standards such as "There's Just Something About That Name (Jesus)," "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," and giving it The Jazz Treatment. You know, exploring the themes and allowing each performer to improvise those themes.

Pianist Byrd and the rest of his trio--bassist Bahgwan Khalsa and drummer Alphonso Young Jr.--accomplish this as expected. They're a great, vibrant trio and they've played with many greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Byrd, Bob Berg and many more. These three gentleman are also known for teaming up with the Brother Ray Band for an 8-piece Ray Charles tribute. The liner notes refer to the trio as having a "rigorous, modern approach to standards," and I agree completely.

Unless you've spent a good chunk of your life singing with the congregation on Sunday morning, you might not recognize many of these songs as spirituals or hymns. That is, you might not know until Eric Byrd starts singing--he doesn't start doing that until the second half of the album. You know what? I don't mind at all. Byrd's voice is so warm and likeable and perfect for singing gospel. He takes a rich, emotional approach to the lyrics without sounding mawkish or overly penitent. It's a voice of pure celebration and love--at times he will remind you of Stevie Wonder.

Byrd even has a sense of humor about it all. In "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me," he adds a piano riff that sounds a lot like "Freddie's Dead." There's probably no specific need to tie these two songs together other than the pure fun of it. That's what makes Saints Are Still Marching so enjoyable, even if you aren't into this type of music--it overflows with love, respect and talent.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Reggie Pittman/Loren Daniels Quartet's Smilessence

This new album from horn player Reggie Pittman and keyboardist Loren Daniels is as sunny and bright as its cover, a solid and straightforward jazz quartet sound that feels like it's been waiting in the shadows preparing to jump out as you pass by. Isn't it a great day? Do you need a little more beauty in your life? Man, I like that shirt you're wearing!

There's an exceptional clarity to this album that's downright exciting. The overall sound is so clearly delineated in three dimensions, so well-drawn and defined. Everything just pops. (Yeah, that's a cliche that needs to be retired soon.) It all goes back to my comment last week in that El Eco review: "I like this one because it's really nice." Perhaps we could substitute right for nice and you'll have a clearer idea of what I'm saying, that the difference between good jazz and great jazz is noticeable within the first few seconds. You either have four or five people playing music, with each one playing a certain role, or you have a combined whole that just swings and moves forward with considerable momentum. It sounds right, it makes sense. You have no choice but to hop on board.

Pittman and Daniels are, once again, a couple of old pros who have played with everyone including Aretha Franklin, Milt Jackson, Rufus Reid, the Temptations and even the Allman Brothers. This particular quartet, which also includes bassist Mike Richmond and drummer Jonathon Peretz, is one of those "working bands" that have been playing together for a long time and are therefore as tight as a drum. I'm particularly impressed with Peretz--his drumming is as exciting and as dynamic as it gets in jazz. I also enjoy the way that Daniels can completely change the tone of a song by alternating between piano, electric piano and the ubiquitous Hammond B-3. Pittman's horns are front and center most of the way--and he is a master of mood. I'm even bowled over by Richmond's bass--he's a great player and all, but I'm equally thrilled that he's recorded so clearly (can you sense a theme here?) that you can hear his mechanics, they way he leans into his instrument and pulls those notes out, kicking and screaming.

Every track is an adventure, full of distinct charms and unique perspectives. This quartet isn't satisfied with just playing a tune and seeing how it comes out. There's some thought involved, especially in the way these four performers switch up their styles and see how that adds to the whole. Not everyone out there is doing that. Smilessence is exactly that, a smile-inducing shot of jazz that captures the essence of who these four performers are, and where they have been.

Donna Singer's Feeling the Jazz

Are you feeling the jazz?

I realize I've been tough on contemporary jazz singers lately. But in their defense I think they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they stick to the classics, they're compared unfavorably to the original singers, either the songwriters or the ones who eventually made the tune famous. If they write and sing their own material, well, that's problematic as well because no one seems to be knocking it out of the park lately when it comes to great jazz lyrics. In addition, jazz singers are known for straying from the norm of a classically beautiful voice in order to sound distinctive. Sometimes a voice is naturally suited for jazz, but more often than not the singer adds affectations which aren't so cool.

I mention this because I have quite a few CDs in the review pile that fit this description. When you see them, you know I had to step outside of myself to deliver an objective review. As I've recently said, reviewers shouldn't say whether or not they like a recording. They should provide enough detail and useful comparisons to let the reader decide if the release will please them and their unique tastes. So what does this have to do with Donna Singer?

You probably think this is going to be a tough review for her, but it's not. Singer has a light and delicate voice, which isn't always ideal for jazz. But it's a beautiful voice nonetheless. I'm not sure if her voice is recorded correctly in Feeling the Jazz. It's murky and floats around in the back of the soundstage, disconnected from bassist Doug Richards, pianist Billy Alfred and drummer Mike Cervone. It also sounds heavily processed, the opposite of live and natural. That's too bad, because once you get through all of the vocal artifacts, she has a dreamy voice that's quite seductive. Her fellow musicians are also extraordinary and match her talents. This should be an excellent jazz vocal release, but I suspect that some of the knobs on the mixing board need recalibrating. Everything is drenched in cardboard.

Then there's the title. It's a title that should only be used ironically. I don't want to admit that the title influenced me when it came to evaluating the content, but "feeling the jazz" is one tiny step from "jazz hands." This is a good album, even a strong one, but it needs a little more time in the oven to correct the technical shortcomings.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Yuko Ito's Esperanca

If you're a fan of Three Blind Mice, a Japanese jazz label that made some of the best-sounding audiophile recordings ever, then you've probably developed a fondness for Japanese women singing jazz and pop standards. What I find most intriguing about these recordings is the possibility that these singers don't speak a word of English and that they're doing it all phonetically. I'm not sure if it's true, since I've heard from reliable sources that it's either true or a complete urban legend. But you can hear this slight disconnect in these stellar recordings, just a cue here and there, and this adds a surreal quality to otherwise predictable arrangements. For some reason, I find this convolution, for lack of a better word, exhilarating.

Listening to Yuko Ito's new album Esperanca reminds me a lot of the Three Blind Mice recordings. She does speak English--she's been studying jazz in New York City for almost 25 years. But here she does sing in Japanese. And English. And for the Brazilian jazz songs, Portuguese. I hear that same huskiness in her voice, confident and bold, that I hear in TBM. It's the sound of perfectionism, of getting it as right as you can. In the TBM recordings, it sometimes revealed the Japanese respect for artifice, for recreating what is found naturally. Ito's approach is more genuine and honest.

This all translates into to a very intriguing album, one that sounds familiar and strange all at once. If you're subsisting on a steady diet of jazz, Esperanca will sound somewhat esoteric. Ito's ensemble, which includes Helio Alves on piano, Edward Perez on bass, Alexander Kautz on drums and many others, does sound like an experienced and seasoned jazz ensemble. Ito's unusual inflections tend to push those traditions into interesting directions, and it becomes all about the context. When she's singing in Portuguese, you can hear the band settle into the somewhat familiar rhythms of that genre. In the Japanese songs, these same musicians start sounding like old TBM session players--precise, perfect and still standing at the edge of a new jazz frontier. That why these songs sound so different from everything else out there.

That's the key here. The contemporary jazz scene is equally divided between preserving the past and finding new nooks to explore, so it's a delight to hear something that straddles those two perspectives and sounds unique because of the talent and the artistry involved. Ito's vocals are that unique, so much so that it changes everything around her.

Gil Spitzer's Falando Docemente

"Falando docemente" translates into "speak sweet," and this is one sweet-sounding new album from saxophonist Gil Spitzer. Haven't heard of him? That's because this is Spitzer's debut album--at the age of 75! Or, as producer and bassist Nilson Matta puts it, "You don't have to be a certain age to play music. Anytime is about time."

Spitzer's influences are clear--Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond and especially Stan Getz. You can hear the Getz/Gilberto vibe running through these 12 tracks, both standards and originals. This entire album is sleek yet relaxed, and with sound quality that is inspired. (This is another release from the Zoho label--they really pay attention to sound quality.) Spitzer is surrounded by seasoned musicians such as guitarist Chico Pinheiro, drummer Mauricio Zottarelli and percussionist Fernando Saci, and when it comes to solid Brazilian jazz they're delivering plenty of the real thing.

Surprisingly, these pros aren't propping up the newcomer. They're standing out of the way and letting him shine.

In some ways Spitzer is the Miles Davis of the alto saxophone. He says a lot with just a few notes, and each of those notes is undoubtedly the right one. The best way to describe it, I suppose, is tasteful. He's not showing off, and he isn't trying to prove anything. Spitzer has the wisdom to know he has to be in service to the music, to make it as expressive as he can. If you don't believe me, just listen to his version of "Nature Boy." I've always loved the melody, but in the last few months I've heard this song butchered by a number of well-meaning contemporary arrangers. Spitzer's version, however, isn't gimmicky. It's straightforward and heartfelt, just like it's supposed to be.

What's most impressive about Falando Docemente is that it's informed by Brazilian jazz, but isn't an overtly part of that genre. Jobim's "Triste," for example, has plenty of percussion details that are distinctly South American, but it avoids acting as a Getz/Gilberto-style primer. You walk away from this gloriously melodic album thinking about one thing--Spitzer's horn and how it gets straight to the point.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Dimitar Liolev's Eastern Shadows

Middle eastern music tends to be flexible when it comes to melding with other genres. We can start with Tinarawen--whose album Elwan made my Top Five for 2017--and how they've mixed a solid Northern African sound with Mississippi delta blues. I can hear the same influences in everything from Tool to the umpteen covers of "Caravan" I've listened to this year. And while it is slightly ignorant of me to lump all Middle Eastern into one pigeonhole, it's easy to spot those influences in any piece of music, to identify it as such.

That was my first thought while listening to composer and saxophonist Dimitar Liolev's new album, Eastern Shadows. (Dang it, I keep typing "Eastern Promises.") You can hear those same broad influences from the opening seconds, even though Liolev is presenting this music from a basic jazz quartet--horn player Martin Tashev, bassist Massimiliano Rolff and drummer Dimitar Semov. From the title, I deduced that this is yet another jazz composer who's obsessed with the intersection between east and west, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just that I've heard this before, and recently.

As you move through these nine original compositions, you start to peel away the layers of the onion and discover this music has little to do with the Middle East per se--"Eastern" refers to "Eastern Europe." To be even more specific, Liolev is Bulgarian. His homeland is a place where east and west are already colliding. He borrows heavily from Balkan folk music to whip up these otherwise straightforward jazz improvisations and the result is closer on the spectrum to bebop than a tropanka. Lilev's sax is out front, usually playing off Tashev's trumpets and flugelhorns, with only occasional Balkan flourish to set the mood for what comes after.

It's a balancing act, one done with considerable finesse. Perhaps that's because the two genres blend so naturally with each other that you aren't completely aware of its hybrid nature. You can approach Eastern Shadows from an intellectual angle, uncovering those Balkan influences and determining how they take the music in a different direction, or you can just go with the flow and take it at face value--intriguing, well-played jazz with exotic touches right around the edges.