Tuesday, July 17, 2018

David Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7's The Giver Now Live at Positive Feedback


My review of David Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7's The Giver, which is so far my favorite record release of the year, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Wayne Powers' If Love Were All


Wayne Powers, the second part of this two-fer, seems to walk the same rainy urban streets as Maurice Frank. The only problem with that observation is that Frank is a New Yorker while Powers plied his trade for years in Los Angeles, working with a band named Hoi Polloi. While Frank's album is his debut, Powers has recorded albums. His last one, however, was released in 1993. His story, therefore, is slightly different: "In the intervening quarter century, Powers' life has been full with both the poignant and the joyous--as all lives are." This seems to imply that life got in the way of Powers' singing career, and he has been working hard to get back to where he once belonged.

On the surface, this album sounds very similar to Mad Love and Romance. There's one subtle difference, of course, and that's Powers' equally amazing voice. Franks is upfront and genuine--he's just showing the world his gift and wants you to take him as he is. (I know, I said I wasn't going to compare the two.) Powers' voice, however, seems to be tinged with all of that experience he gained 25 years ago. He's more of a belter, and his voice is set back further from the front of the stage to accommodate that big delivery. There's a deeper resonance in his voice that sometimes sounds like he needs to distance himself from the emotions expressed in these love songs since they're still a bit too raw. There's something in his voice that suggests more of those poignant and joyous moments, and he may not be willing to let the audience see all of that pain.


Sinatra used to do that as well. Ol' Blue Eyes had a wry way of singing songs that revealed his strategy--sure that stuff happened to me, but years have gone by and I'm ready to move on even though it still hurts some. You'll also hear plenty of Sinatra in Powers' voice, the way he digs down deep and treats each lyric as if he's telling a story rather than talking solely about his feelings in front of strangers. Here and there you'll detect a catch in his voice, a moment where he starts to reveal something deep and personal and then changes his mind. Not every singer can add that much subtext to a love song. Sinatra could, and so can Powers.

Powers is backed by a relatively understated quartet--tenor sax player Ziad Rabie, pianist Keith Davis, bassist Ron Brendle and drummer Al Sergel--and they are there in service to that powerful voice. That's not to say the musicians are any less skilled than on "that other album"--they focus instead on creating a beautiful mood as a single, coherent unit. Another plus is that these performances were all captured live in the studio, so there's a spontaneous feeling afoot even if the solos aren't quite as dominant.

As I said, I won't tell you which of these two albums I preferred. There's a flow between them, but not one that feels like two separate albums from the same crew, captured at different times. The feelings, however, are still the same...a "personal yet universal saga of love lost and love found."

Maurice Frank's Mad Romance and Love


Today I'd like to tell the story of two jazz singers, Maurice Frank and Wayne Powers. Both of their CDs arrived in my mailbox on the same day, sent from the same publicist in the same padded envelope. Both men look physically similar, the proverbial grey foxes, and they've both set out to sing classics from the Great American Songbook. Both CDs have love in the title. Both men are surrounded by small ensembles that are absolutely fantastic. The natural course would be to compare them, to determine how well each man accomplishes this rather common (not sure if I like that word, since very few people can pull off this task) goal. But I don't like comparisons. They each possess singular strengths that will get you in the mood for love.

Maurice Frank is first, and he's remarkable since he's yet another singer who's been around forever but is just now getting around to releasing his first album. "Maurice Frank is a native New Yorker. He grew up listening to the great singers of the '50s and '60s and it left its mark on him." That implies Frank was one of those guys in the neighborhood. You know, the guy who had all of his friends and family saying "Have you ever heard Maurice sing jazz? He's amazing! The next time he's over, ask him to sing you something!" From looking at his photo on the cover, he seems to be one cool cat, well-dressed, wearing a beautiful suit open at the collar. He's a jazz guy, through and through.


From that countenance he seems gruff, a guy who's lived jazz close to the blacktop for many decades. His voice, however, is surprisingly light and agile, bordering on that classic croon of people like Bobby Vinton or even Bobby Darin. He's not into weird jazz affectations--his voice is clear and strong and classically beautiful, full of a warm and a longing embrace of every note. His voice has that familiar warmth to it, a feeling that he looks at every word he's singing and then determines the best way to include the right emotions. He's the kind of guy you might see singing at a club, and you might wonder why you haven't heard of him already. He's a charmer.

As I mentioned, his ensemble is as real and as talented as it gets. John DiMartino handles the arrangements and plays a subtle, understated piano that's matches Frank's warmth note for note. Two horn players, Eric Alexander and Aaron Heich, add plenty of excitement--they build on the energy Frank creates. Guitarist Paul Meyers, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Obed Calvaire and percussionist Samuel Torres are pros in the best sense of the word, occasionally showing what they're made of but providing the kind of smooth support that never outshines Frank's remarkable gifts.

If this sounds like the kind of music that would please you to no end, it is exactly that. This is music meant to be heard with your sweetheart, your true love. He's establishing a sublime mood, and there should be more singers like him.

Oh, wait...there is!

The Difference Between Talking About Music and Reviewing Music


I just received a comment from a reader in regards to one of my recent reviews. It's been quite a while since I've fielded this specific complaint, but there was a time, more or less when I started this blog more than eight years ago, where I received some criticism about the way I review music and audio. Evidently I talk a lot about myself when doing reviews, and my critics feel that this is unprofessional. Reviews are supposed to be straightforward. Is it good? Is it bad? How does it compare to the artist's prior work? What artists should I already like if I'm going to like this one? There is a specific reason to read a music review, and that's to know whether or not an album or an artist is worth your time and money. Right?

I've always had a set of ready answers for these critiques of my reviews, but I don't always get to reply in public. One of my most vocal critics is a very well-known writer and reviewer in the world of high-end audio, and I've heard him complain in print about this lousy new wave of "internet" writers who spend more time talking about themselves than the object they're reviewing. (I've mentioned this story before--I quickly read his latest magazine column and discovered he had used me, myself or I several times in the first few sentences. He also told a story in the same column about how someone had recognized him at a recent rock concert. Wow, how exciting for you!)

Anyway, I don't want to get all grumpy about this. I did write about this once before in the original Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever almost seven years. If you get me going, I'll wind up repeating everything I said back then. But you can read that column by clicking here.

Let me just give you a few quick reasons why my reviews read the way they do:

1. Music reviews are subjective. A product review can contain many facts and specific points. But when you review music, it touches something intangible deep within you, and that touch is going to feel different to every single person on the planet. I've seen reviews where the writer merely says whether the release is "good" or "bad" or if they "liked it" or "didn't Like it." (My favorite crappy review was from a former colleague who told everyone to play hooky from work the next day to wait in line for the new album from one of his favorite bands. That was the nadir of music criticism in the modern world, in my opinion.)

In other words, I doesn't matter if I like it or I don't like it, because you just might. I happen to think Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" is the worst song ever, mostly because of the incredibly inane lyrics. It might be your favorite song ever, however, because that song was playing on the radio the first time you met the love of your life. What I try to do is give you a little more detail and context about why I felt this music was good or bad based upon my own life experiences. If you can relate to why I liked something, you might have a better idea of why you might like it, too.


2. It's a blog, FFS. I'm not pretending that this is the leading resource for well-written music reviews on the internet. This is my blog, and blogs are the place where you share your feelings and your hopes and your dreams and whatever the else you want to talk about, including yourself. I do not get paid to write this blog--Google unplugged the money-making machine from this site once it got too popular. I could start a website and put ads on it, which to tell you the truth isn't a bad idea. But I don't make any money from this blog. I do it because I love to write, and writing every day is what keeps me sane.

If someone wanted to hire me to write music reviews and they told me I had to stop talking about myself so much, of course I'd do it. I've written for many magazines and websites and I've worked with many editors and I've also been an editor. I know how this stuff works. In fact, I do get paid to write music reviews for other publications such as Perfect Sound Forever, Part-Time Audiophile and Positive Feedback. And so far, everyone's cool with the way I write. I think it's because they consider my articles to be features or editorials and not so much reviews. I'm cool with that.

3. People like me! They really, really like me! Eh, this is hard for me to say because in my everyday life I'm quiet and introverted and full of self-doubt. But for every person who complains about my writing, there are many, many people who seem to really enjoy it. Remember when I said that writing keeps me sane? People saying they really enjoy my writing makes me something better than sane--it makes me happy. So to the person above who told me I needed an editor to cut out all references to myself, I say to you...

...well, actually I'd love an editor. I'm always going back into this blog and fixing typos and removing commas.

It sounds like my feelings were hurt by this complaint, and maybe they were...just a little bit. But my reason for droning on and on about this is a little more complex. Reviews, quite frankly, are a dime a dozen. I rarely read them anymore, because my tastes have become so specialized that no one else's opinion matters to me anymore.

Oh, but to talk about music! To share really cool music with others! To remember music from the past, and talk about how some new band reminds you of one of your favorite old bands! To tell a funny story from your past that is somehow connected to music!

That's the stuff I want to read about. How about you?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Tribu's El Matador


Tribu's El Matador is about as pure of a celebration of Latin jazz you can get, a tribute to performers such as Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader and Machito who brought these dense polyrhythms to the world over the last few decades. Led by pianist Steve McQuarry, who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Louie Bellson to Laurie Anderson, Tribu is a collection of some of the scene's contemporary greats, playing this lovely tropical splendor with equal measures of experience and love. If you're hosting a party with a Caribbean theme, this album should be playing loudly from its beginning to the wee hours.

That's sort of it in a nutshell, but El Matador isn't design to forge new directions as much as show how this music should be performed properly. It's light and infectious and skillful and sometimes that's all you need. That's part of the spectrum of contemporary jazz these days, where you have preservation of old traditions at one end and breaking down and discarding of those same ideas at the other. McQuarry set out to deliver the best, so he enlisted David Casini on vibes and percussion, the great Ruben Salcido on sax and flute, Marcus Lopez on bass and Mario Solomon and Jesus Gonzalez on more percussion. McQuarry does mix it up on keyboards with tasteful tangents on Hammond B-3, electric piano and even a synthesizer, but you'll walk away remembering his rich time on the ivories.


There's an incredible balance to the music here, however, with different musicians capturing your attention at various times. I'm not talking so much about improvisation, because that's a bit obvious in the realm of jazz, but there's so many different ways to lock on to this music and enjoy the ride. I've hinted at the fact that I'm a huge fan of the vibraphone, and the main reason is because of the soft decay and presence of those struck notes. Dave Casini's been playing vibes for over 40 years, so he understands how those unusual timbres can color the entire spectrum of sound. He's a supporting player much of the way, adding shimmer and echo where needed, but I can't help but obsess over the mood he contributes. The same could be said about the complex percussion--it never stops driving this mix of classics and originals. If you love discovering new details in your music every time you hear it, you can simply bathe in the sound of all the drums, timbales and other percussion and let all the different sounds sweep over you.

Tribu is focused on "bringing Latin Jazz traditions...into the 21st century." While McQuarry occasionally inserts some of that modernism into the mix, he does so in a quiet way that never distracts from the juicy, exuberant whole. El Matador isn't truly innovative, nor does it need to be--it's perfect and precise in its approach as a sure thing.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Machine's Crazy


There's a band named Machine, and they released a new album called Crazy. The cover art on the CD is ornate and dark, and the back cover contains little more than the song sequence. I tried to find out more online, but you type in the words machine and crazy and see if you can find out more about this music. I couldn't. The frustrating part is that the music here is so friggin' good, an exciting mix of goth and vaudeville and solid indie rock, and I'd like to tell people more about it so they can run out and get it--or download it or whatever. Fortunately I stumbled onto their Facebook fan page and was able to glean more info about this duo, Madeline Mahrie and Peter Thomas. (They also have a website at www.machine-band.com, which I also discovered after many futile searches.)

Machine is Mahrie's baby--she's a singer-songwriter who started out looping piano tracks to her singing and adding the drums later. She met Thomas at a gig and soon he joined as the drummer. I can't really compare the early stuff without him, but he is an energetic drummer who adds a lively countenance to the rather dark and intense sound. Mahrie, however, is at the center of this music, her husky and daunting voice way out front. She's the second singer in the last week who reminds me of Siouxsie Sue (the first was Sound of the Hunter's Natalie Bayne), but she also has that same strength and defiant presence as Florence Welch--another machine reference. You walk away from this album thinking almost solely of her voice, its richness and its growl.


Listening to this album, you might be surprised that Machine's structure is so simple and streamlined. This duo has created a stunning and baroque landscape, powered by Mahrie's thundering piano chords and embellished with plenty of string arrangements and other fascinating details. (Bass guitar is supplied by recording engineer Adam Pike, who co-produced Crazy with Thomas.) While the songs here are dominated by Mahrie's fierceness, they are thankfully varied. The album's opener, "Mad Tom of Bedlam," is framed in one of those sing-song gospel tunes that can easily shift gears into an evil chant. From there she digs deep into her influences which include Prince, Bowie, Portishead, Fiona Apple and, of course, Siouxsie and the Banshees. (If this sudden resurgence of the latter band is the next big thing, I'm all for it.) I even hear plenty of Queen in those vaudevillian exercises, especially since Mahrie's showmanship is placed so forward in the mix.

As far as the somewhat enigmatic promotion of this album goes, I hope it gets clarified. It reminds me of those first Infiniti albums back before the vehicles actually arrived on the market. Everyone was watching those mysterious commercials and those stark billboards, wondering what the actual product was going to be. Machine is such an unusual band, distinctive and, most importantly, good, that I hope it gets easier for people to discover them and start the word of mouth. Madeline Mahrie is quite a discovery, and she deserves to be well-known.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Hendrik Meurkens and Bill Cunliffe's Cabin in the Sky


I promised more Hendrik Meurkens in my review of the Roger Davidson Quartet, and here he is. In that review In hinted that I was far more enamored with his vibraphone work than his harmonica work, and here we have just his harmonica--accompanied, of course by Bill Cunliffe's piano. This might be cause for a little disappointment, just because I normally feel that a soulful, expressive harmonica is not entirely suited for jazz. Perhaps because this is a simple duo album, sans rhythm section, I can crawl inside and explore a little deeper and appreciate why Meurkens is considered the finest jazz harmonica player in the world today.

This showcase is more impressive for Meurkens' talent because, in part, this album is patterned after the great piano and harmonica performances recorded by Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans. (Mention Bill Evans to me and I'm all ears, so to speak.) The song selection here is also impressive, ranging from classics such as the title tune, Wayne Shorter's "Miyako" and even Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," to several originals from Meurkens himself. While I compared the sound of Roger Davidson's big, fluid piano to Evans, Cunliffe's touch is a bit lighter and more playful, and that matches the harmonic with a little more ease. So far all of those reasons, I'm going to talk about more than just my personal preferences concerning the mouth harp.


The prize here is, again, the intimacy of this duo, and the recording's ability to bring out all the elements in the two instruments besides mere tone. Piano cues in such recordings are already so obvious, because we're talking about a rather complex box made up of many small parts that makes a lot of noise by merely being as large as it is. The harmonica is different. It's small, and the musician playing it doesn't have to move a lot in order to extract those notes. What you're left with is breath, and Meurkens is a virtuoso because he's able to focus on the notes in an economical way. Let's face it, we've all heard harmonica players who grunt and puff and bring far too much of their physical being into the music. Those cues need to be there to remind us of the human side of making music, but they need to be subtle so that they're not distracting. Meurkens lets the music through and dispenses with the elbow grease needed to produce that passion in his music.

Ultimately I enjoyed this album, and not in spite of the harmonica. This album is actually light on the jazz side of things, even though some very famous jazz tunes are being played. The piano and harmonica aren't plugged into a genre as much as they're joined together to make a unique musical experience. There's that, and there's also learning a little respect for someone who has perfected their craft. Meurken's harmonica becomes one of those musician-instrument interfaces that becomes easily recognizable, and that's the mark of greatness.

2L Recordings' Polarity from the Hoff Ensemble


It seems like I've divided my musical world into at least two distinct realms of late--contemporary jazz and those amazing recordings from Norway's 2L Recordings. I dust this blog with a scattering of indie rock just to keep in touch with my roots, but the truth is that my time is currently dominated by jazz, with occasional sojourns into the challenging and exciting world presented by 2L's main bottle-washer, Morten Lindberg. Since 2L spends its time interpreting classical pieces and the avant-garde, it's rare when the two worlds collide. And yet we have this new jazz release from 2L, Polarity, performed by the stalwarts of the highly-regarded Hoff Ensemble.

The idea of a jazz album from 2L is immediately intriguing, and for several reasons. First of all, you can feel confident that whatever jazz is recorded, it will sound utterly fantastic due to Lindberg's adept balance between technology (MQA, DXD, Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D surround) and innovative recording techniques (the location of the recording venue, usually old churches that produce an incredibly spacious and warm sound). The idea of a simple jazz trio--Jan Gunnar Hoff's piano, Anders Jormin's bass and Audun Kleive's drums--recorded in the unique 2L manner seems like a no-brainer. Jazz trios usually excel in the establishing of space, both the isolation of each instrument and the blending of the whole when it comes to the resonances created by the performers and their instruments. It's all about relationships in time and space, and how they move and develop. It's clear that 2L understands these relationships, even if they're looking for new ways to explore those environments at the same time.


It all comes down to Jan Gunner Hoff's affinity for jazz and his ability to honor the traditions while forging his own way. His piano work has always been lovely and flowing, tethered to an acute appreciation of beauty. He's also a master at improvisation--he's the kind of pianist, like Keith Jarrett, who can sit down at a piano and start playing off the top of his head and the result is something that should be recorded and immediately released. He enlisted two of his favorite Scandinavian jazz musicians, Jormin and Kleive, to provide both knowledge and flexibility to place these original compositions into a jazz setting. "My main goal is to create a specific identity for each album I make," Hoff explains. He goes on to state the importance of the acoustic setting as a fourth member of the ensemble, and how it is active in the rendering of these improvisations.

Of course he succeeds. Hoff is a lover of melody, and the ability of that melody to be vivid and accessible. In a way he's always reminded me of Lars Jakob Rudjord--both of these Norwegian keyboardist/composers have a fascinating way of delivering a beautiful song that is easily absorbed but still quite distinctive in mood. If you think you're just getting piano, bass and drums in a spacious church, however, you're in for a surprise. Hoff has a few tricks up his sleeve, such as programming a Prophet 6 synthesizer so that it "can merge naturally with the trio without disturbing the acoustic sound picture." The synthesizer slips in at the most unexpected moments, usually with the rising tide of emotion in each piece. It works because the synthesizer is releasing its output into the same church space, so it sounds like yet another acoustic participant.

If you're a fan of Hoff's work, you'll be surprised when familiar tunes from his catalog appear. Hoff explains that these themes take on a new life in the jazz trio format, so it might be worth the slog to dig into your collection and make comparisons. He's also not a novice when it comes to jazz, since he's composed for many jazz quartets over the years. He's wanted to perform this specific experiment for many years, and the result is something that moves stealthily between genres, always focusing on how gorgeous it all sounds. This is not surprising in the least, but it does beg the question of whether or not he will continue these meaningful forays into jazz. I'll be waiting eagerly.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Roger Davidson Quartet's Music From the Heart


Roger Davidson is a pretty old-fashioned guy, as far as contemporary jazz goes. His arrangements are light, fun and filled with sort of a capricious jet-set feel from the 1960s. On his new album, Music From the Heart, he takes on an unusual challenge--he comes up with no less than 15 new "Brazilian" compositions, songs that sound like they've already been classics since baby boomers were babies. This is romantic stuff, sambas, bossa novas, chorinhos and more, all designed to feel like a wonderful night on the town in Rio. There are no jagged edges in this music. It's all about enjoying beauty, adventure and a bit of mischief, the kind of qualities that were cherished when your parents were young and on the prowl.

Davidson is masterful on the piano in that same lush and tropical tradition that spawned "Bali Hai" and "Lujon," albeit on a much more intimate scale--there's no huge string orchestra in the background. Instead, Davidson is accompanied by Hendrik Meurkens who has become quite a familiar name to me over the last few months. I reviewed Roger Davidson's last album with Meurkens, Prayer for Tomorrow, just a year ago. Hendrik, who is considered one of contemporary jazz's finest harmonica and vibraphone players, is also featured on a couple of upcoming discs I have in the review pile. I have to be honest and say that the harmonica is not my favorite musical instrument for jazz since it makes everything sound too folksy and less urbane. (I made a similar comment in the older review.) But I friggin' love the vibraphone and the marimba and every other struck idiophone you can roll in front of me. That's a purely subjective observation, so don't take me word for it, so let's just say that Meurkens' vibes send me to the moon.


As I also mentioned in the review for Prayer for Tomorrow, Davidson was originally set to be a classical pianist. Once he started playing jazz, there was no going back. That's why his keyboard style has the aforementioned lushness to it, that emotional sprint that floats atop wave after wave of sentiment. Without Meurkens acting as co-star, Davidson's basically playing as a tight trio with drummer Adriano Santos and bassist Eduardo Belo (which explains why Prayer for Tomorrow was performed by the Roger Davidson Trio). It's apparent the change came from Meurkens becoming a permanent addition to the ensemble, but it still doesn't obscure the fact that as a trio, this ensemble creates a rich panorama of sound. That's Davidson at the piano making that happen. As I said, he has a big sound that defines everything he does.

Prayer for Tomorrow had outstanding sound quality, and Music From the Heart might surpass that. Jazz trios and quartets usually do a great job of fleshing out all the musicians' physical positions on the stage or in the studio, but with both the piano and vibraphone playing there's always those delicate blooming notes bouncing off each other and remaining intact and distinct. Only an excellent recording can keep these two from blending into a single wave of decaying tones, and that happens here. In a way, that's old-fashioned as well since so much jazz in the '60s still sounds fantastic. I think you'll need to be a little old-fashioned in order to really dig this music and place it in its proper context, since it might not appeal to jazz fans who are searching for the next breakthrough, but I'm someone who like music to transport me to a different time and place. This one gets it done with an incredible amount of class.

Danny Newcomb and the Sugarmakers' All the Way


I used to hear a lot of music like this back in the college days, fairly hard-rocking bands with a singer who is intelligent and thoughtful and doesn't have to scream to get the point across. It sounds like I'm describing emo, I know, but I'm going back further to guys like Greg Kihn or maybe even Tom Petty himself. These guys focus on taking familiar songcraft techniques and elevating it with smart lyrics and smooth, likeable melodies. The challenge here, of course, is making this music stand out from the rest--Fountains of Wayne maybe but even more so.

Danny Newcomb has this formula down pat, although it isn't really a formula. It's an anti-formula in a way, of just singing with earnestness and conviction and remembering that there are plenty of people out there who really miss regular rock-and-roll, something that isn't immediately filed into one of hundreds of sub-genres. Newcomb and his band, the Sugarmakers, know how to mate a superbly clean production with the prerequisite catchy melodies and hooks. It's not about hearing something you haven't heard before, but hearing something you used to really like a long, long time ago.


The line-up here is even a bit of a throwback--Newcomb, as leader, obviously plays the guitar and sings, while Rick Friel plays the bass and Eric Eagle plays the drums. Here's the fun part: Faith Stankevich takes on the Davy Jones/Tracy Partridge role of back-up singer and tambourine player. She adds another layer of interest here, however, since her percussion adds to that driving sound and her vocals coat everything like a Hammond B-3 organ. She's not eye candy, someone who just wanted to get up on stage--she's an important contributor to this very likeable sound. You also get that thrilling guest star on one song--in this case it's Mike McCready, lead guitarist of Pearl Jam, appearing on "King of Nothing."

The real focus here is on Newcomb, of course, the voice that will reminds you of a dozen other nice-guy singers back in the days when New Wave meant anything that wasn't bloated, dreary dinosaur rock. That's not a diss at all--he's a singer you can identify with as opposed to merely admiring from afar. His guitar work is also steady and creative, since he sounds as if he's playing both lead and rhythm here. (I'm sure he is, in the studio anyways.) If you're going to be a frontman, you have to earn it, and Newcomb has written and arranged all the songs and produced the album. And he sings. And he plays the guitar. He's got it all down pat, so let's see where he goes from here.

Sam Bevan's Emergence


When bassists lead a band, the overall sound of the ensemble tends to be full and rich. I've hinted at this several times over the last few weeks, most recently in the Troy Roberts Nu-Jive Perspective review just below. I'm not sure if this a real thing or if anyone agrees with me or even if this is a well-known fact and I'm being Captain Obvious. I just sense this Mingus-ness, that the bass player/bandleader is creating everything from his own space around his instrument, and everyone else tends to follow those instincts. In Sam Bevan's new CD, Emergence, I picked this up just a few notes into the opener, "H & A." I tend to overuse the terms full and rich and textured when describing jazz, but so much of the overall sound rides on these concepts. In the audiophile world, these three terms often add up to warmth, a very desirable quality. Bevan and his intimate ensemble have this in spades, a clarity where themes are exciting without being jarring.

There's a beauty to this sound, and this recording, that is as elusive as the meaning of jazz itself. Bevan and his rhythm section partner, drummer Eric Garland, have an ease and accessibility to their approach that doesn't mean simple or mainstream. There are dozens and dozens of original themes introduced here, along with unexpected chord changes and singular melodies, so the ideas aren't necessarily easy, they're just delivered in an easy way. The rest of Bevan's core ensemble, which includes alto sax player Kasey Knudsen, clarinet player Cory Wright and trumpeters Ian Carey and Henry Hung, focus on that same ease, which is notable for a horn section. They possess a smoothness that alternates between intermingling and playing in unison, an intriguing practice that sometimes resembles a camera pulling in and out of focus. They're not afraid to blast a few notes, or let out an angular solo, but there's a suppleness to these notes that keep you focused on the beautiful tone of each instrument.


Bevan was a fixture on the San Francisco jazz scene for many years before arriving in New York City. Emergence transports the rest of his quintet, also from Northern California, to the big city and--along with a few guest stars--they delve right into the NYC scene with aplomb. Jazz that celebrated the deep vibrations of that city aren't hard to come by, although they may be difficult to define. There is that illusion of sound bouncing through the streets that I've talked about, that feeling of music in the air that needs to be located. Bevan and his crew find that sound deftly, and make these nine originals sound like they were culled from a wee-morning-hours session at Columbia in the early sixties.

Emergence is what I like to call real jazz. These aren't musicians who just know the notes and play them. These are gentlemen who feel the music flow through them and add what they can to the whirlwind through their own experiences. There isn't a moment of this album that is calculated or self-reverential--it's genuine and intuitive and, well, right on the money. If you love jazz, you'll know exactly what I mean and you'll listen to this as soon as possible.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Troy Roberts' Nu-Jive Perspective


Fresh on the heel's of yesterday's Fusiolicious, Oytun Ersan's epic "big band" fusion release, we have sax player Troy Roberts' meaty new quintet sounding nearly as big and just as exciting. Roberts has gathered this "configuration of five best friends around the world" for the third time to create a big and focused sound, a melding of funk, soul and jazz that is just as unbridled as Ersan's release, but unbelievably consistent in its dedication to a supreme groove. This is more jazz than fusion, yet Nu-Jive is very electric in its approach. With Tim Jago's electric guitar, Silvano Monasterios' funky electric piano work and Eric England's slap-happy electric bass, the original compositions dig out more from rock and funk traditions. Only drummer Dave Chiverton, with his thundering rolls and challenging time signatures, brings an element of fusion jazz to the mix. Oh, and Roberts' sax is unusually full and melodic and again introduces more mainstream jazz ideas to the forefront. But this quintet, quite frankly, rocks hard.

This isn't close to jazz/rock, if that's what you're thinking. It's just that Roberts and his crew have such a punchy approach to the music. I've already used the adjectives meaty and full, quite intentionally, because this music is very forward. The best way I can describe it is "this is jazz meant to be played loud." I did play it loud every time I slipped the CD into my digital player, and I think I pissed off the neighbors. I couldn't possibly take the same approach to Kind of Blue or Way Out West--that would be absurd since that type of jazz has its own natural level. But remember the adjective electric? That's the key.


I also mentioned that the quintet consists of best friends from around the world. Roberts is actually from Australia, but he's been living and playing in New York City for some time. I've mentioned the unique relationship NYC has with its sax players, and you hear the same relationship at work here. Roberts' saxophone has that big city voice in play, one that's meant to bounce between the tall buildings and echo through the alleys. It has that urbane feel, that knowing-ness and distinctive edge. His sax is out front most of the way, carrying most of the melodies, and he has a smooth yet firm way of gliding through the notes that walks the edge between those melodies and improvisation.

This quintet, however, works as a singular machine in the way it builds momentum--even in the quieter passages. (Yes, there are a few of those, but they maintain their own level of rambunctiousness.) Individuals do step out according to jazz traditions, but at the same time they're crossing those familiar boundaries. Jago's guitar is the most obvious nomad--some of his solos are very rock-like, even Santana-esque. That's one of the joys of this album, however. As I've mentioned, there's incredible focus here, but the car is being driven really fast and there's quite a few things you'll see out the window if you're paying attention.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Oytun Ersan's Fusiolicious


I think I can sum this album up with a single genre label: big band fusion jazz. From there you can probably get a fairly clear idea of what the jazz bassist Oytun Ersan's new album is all about. Of course that's selling it short. First of all, there's the drummer. Have you ever heard of Dave Weckl? If you know Dave, your ears just pricked up. I have a good friend, a guy I've known for at least twenty years, and he's a rock drummer. He's not famous, but he's good, and he's played with a lot of famous guys--he once even auditioned for Guns 'N' Roses. He once spent a few thousand dollars on a single crash cymbal, so if he's not good he's at least serious. Anyway, I once asked him who his favorite drummer was, and he replied "Dave Weckl." From the look on my face he knew I had never heard the name, So he proceeded to lecture me on the greatness of Weckl, and how my friend had taken several courses taught by Weckl. When I asked him what was so special about the guy, he muttered something about mind-bending time signatures, but eventually he collapsed into a steaming pile of protoplasm trying to put this guy's skills into mere words.

So there's that. Oytun Ersan's new album, Fusilicious, has to be pretty amazing if Dave Weckl's on it, right? Well, for the first couple of listens I was more impressed by Ersan's funky bass lines than Weckl's stunning beats. I'm not dissing Weckl, but this is Ersan's album, so he's free to shine as brightly as he can. (After a couple more listens, I realized it was Wetzl and I started paying more attention to what he was doing.) Suffice it to say that this rhythm section is insane, just flying through these jams at the speed of sound. This is the kind of fusion jazz that never takes a breath, it just goes and goes. It's very intense, but in a fun way.


But here's another thing. I said this was big band jazz fusion, which means there's a lot more performers on stage than just Oytun and Dave. Ersan, who hails from the Turkish side of Cyprus, wanted to gather only fusion "giants" for his second album. We're talking people like sax player Eric Marienthal, keyboardists Gerry Etkins and Gary Husband, and a multitude of guitarists including Dean Brown, Mike Miller, Brett Garsed and Okan Ersan. Throw in a horn section that includes trombonist Gokay Goksen and trumpeter Utku Akyol, and you're all set. Just for a little more texture, Oytan includes a couple of vocalists (Simge Akdogu and Aytunc Akdogu), and even includes a soulful violinist named Karen Briggs. That's a lot of people on stage, playing as hard and as fast as they can. To say Fusiolicious is energetic is like saying the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a fairly dark and deep hole.

With all of this talent on board, I still tend to gravitate toward those aforementioned two in the rhythm section. Ersan is a wild and wonderful leader with his bass--you know his arrangements are focusing on those driving pulses that have settled deep into the foundation of the music. He is fast as can be. Weckl is a true soulmate, and this release could have been almost as thrilling with just the two of them. But if you haven't heard Weckl in a less academic setting, showing off the importance of percussion fundamentals, this is your chance to hear him cut loose. While there's plenty to love about Fusiolicious, Weckl is just god-like behind the kit. Treat yourself.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Sound of the Hunter's The Shadow The Light


From the first few seconds of Sound of the Hunter's new EP, you might get the idea that you're in for some heavy-dose-of-trauma tuneage--especially since most of the press defines this Seattle group as part of the daunting genre known as sadcore. You do get those big, thundering drone rhythms, with singer Natalie Bayne sounding a lot like Siouxie Sue, and it all sounds like a distant murmur of the past when you and your friends used to dress up in black and ventured out into the night. "What You Deserve," the first song on The Shadow The Light, definitely pumps up the Goth in a way that's far from off-putting since it seems to ignore much of what made the first wave of Goth so elusive--a truly muddy sound. I have some old SATB albums around here somewhere and I still like to listen to them once in a while, but I always tell myself that I would've been a much bigger fan if they just cleaned it up in the studio a bit. I understood the minimalism of the time, but damn.

"What You Deserve" is so fun, despite the somber mood, because it does sound so clean and appropriately cavernous. But just when you think you have a handle on this music, the band (which includes Rebecca Young on bass and Matt Badger on drums) has a few more tricks up their collective sleeves. While Bayne's rich and sad yet lovely voice seems intent on talking about the number one topic on the sadcore discussion groups--loneliness and isolation--the trio shifts plenty of gears during the brief duration of these seven songs. "Sirens," the second song, plows ahead in a majorly minor key, but Bayne's guitar work, rich with reverb and decay, is far more melodic and lively. The first time I listened to this song, I decided I liked this band a lot no matter what came after.


What does come after is intriguing, because it's obvious that the band won't be defined by that powerful drone approach on the first track. As the songs grow lighter and less woeful, Bayne's voice morphs from Siouxsie Sioux into Natalie Merchant, with that unusual throatiness and slight sense of emotional attachment. That slow shift over the course of the album might reflect a certain theme, that sense of a light at the end of the subway tunnel.

Sound of the Hunter, therefore, is an interesting study. EPs like this tend to be a calling card, a way of saying here we are, and this is what we're about. That sentiment is negotiable, of course, and the early output from some of our finest bands suggest a flexibility in exchange for success. What this EP suggests, however, is that Sound of the Hunter could go off in any direction and do it well. If they want to be a 21st century version of Siouxsie and the Banshees, they could, and they wouldn't have that much competition. It might be a welcomed thing since it feels like such a long time since anyone has made that kind of music sound this good. But with Bayne's distinctive vocals and the trio's exciting sound, it will be interesting to see which road they choose in the future.

Alain Mallet's Mutt Slang


Alain Mallet's one of those musicians who has been around and worked with the best. This French pianist and composer has played with the likes of Madeleine Peyroux, Phil Woods and Paul Simon, and his compositions have been recorded by everyone from Gary Burton to Paquito D'Rivera. His music constantly reflects many approaches at once and seems to beg that cliched question--what are your musical influences, Mr. Musician? That, of course, is a question that should no longer be asked by anyone who truly loves jazz--you should just know by listening unless the artist is eager to tell you. That's the only time the answer matters. In this case, Mallet grew up listening to Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson. His lush style on the keyboards tends to pay tribute to the former, but in Mutt Slang, his first solo album, he breathes it all in, his lifetime of experiences and emotions, and casts them out of his body in a generous 2-CD set of swirling and complex jazz.

Contemporary jazz tends to either celebrate the past or work toward something new, and Mallet seems to be doing both at once. His compositions have that relaxed European flair to them, mixed in with subtle Brazilian beats, a mood that's far more genuine friendly than fey. There's a lighthearted cinematic feel to the tunes here, a romantic caper or sophisticated comedy about international characters who speak several languages and always know the wittiest responses to any situation. It's quite a thrill to hear these cultural markers come at you out of the ether, sometimes two or more at a time, and for a moment or two your brain tries to sort it all out as if this music is a beautiful puzzle that doesn't have to be solved that quickly. This is my favorite type of music, full of new ideas that still allow you to clear your mind and appreciate the sound one layer at a time.


While Mallet's creativity and almost Zen-like approach to composition is the glue that holds this expansive work together, his large and varied ensemble helps to create that spirit of universal appeal. 14 musicians play more than 25 different instruments, which gives the music an effortless feel--effortless in the sense that any mood or rhythm can be achieved since the resources at hand are so plentiful. The Latin rhythms stick in my memory, of course, but there are also touches of eastern and African influences such as Layth Sidiq's souful violin solo in "Adama" or percussion instruments such as the xekere, pandeiro and congas. We also get a variety of beautiful vocalists such as Veronica Morscher, Song Ji Yeon, Tali Rubinstein and Mallet himself who vividly bring their own lives and experiences into the songs they sing.

Those constant international flavors and they way they mix is what makes Mutt Slang continually surprising. Mallet explains it as an "idea that so much of our music is the product of a unique mix of seemingly unconnected influences, when, in reality, they emanate from that untethered spiritual expanse that we all tap into." I generally agree with that old saying about music, writing and architectural dancing, but Mallet really hits the nail on the head with this single sentence. This is what you think the entire time you're listening. Mallet's music is consistent in its energy and flow, but it's almost startling in its role as a travelogue. Oh, the places you'll go when you hear this.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Miguel Zenon's Yo Soy La Tradicion


During the late '80s and early '90s, I made a concerted effort to expand my music horizons by exploring so-called modern music. By "modern," I'm talking about the contemporary classical music of the time, the stuff that thrived on the edges of the mainstream. While I gravitated toward the works of Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans and Arvo Part, among others, I found a great source for exposing myself to new and interesting musical ideas through the Kronos Quartet. I purchased every album they released and always found at least one piece that stretched my conceptions about what music could be, and how I could educate myself about all of the different genres and composers I would have otherwise missed. I owe a lot to that particular ensemble--especially when it still featured the lovely Joan Jeanrenaud on cello. (Some of my music loving friends at the time had a huge crush on her, as did I.)

I'm reminded of those days when I listen to Miguel Zenon's new concert-length piece for saxophone and string quartet, Yo Soy la Tradicion. While Zenon's compositions rely upon his knowledge of Puerto Rican folk songs and jazz, the addition of the string quartet--here represented by the Spektral Quartet--touches on that same sense of esoterica, that feeling like we've wandered into a land where no one has walked before. Concentrate solely on Zenon's saxophone and you'll hear an emotive exploration of jazz figures, and a tone that bridges blues and the avant-garde. The music blossoms into a new realm, with the neatly calibrated counterpoint from the quartet propelling this journey more deeply into the heart of contemporary classical music, of gentle dissonance and exacting imagery that I haven't heard in a good 25 years.


Zenon established these themes earlier when he recorded Jibaro in 2005. There he rounded up some of the older folk music of his native land with a goal to "identify the elements that make each tradition unique." Yo Soy la Tradicion launches energetically from there, using the string quartet as a way to integrate his vision with something that leaps over those genre boundaries. He spent much time studying the western canon of string quartet music and found a way to meld the two into a lush and complex sound that ebbs and flows while digging deep into the past. The Spektral Quartet, which includes violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen, has a seemingly intuitive way of appraoching the score. That's because Zenon consulted with them extensively while composing the piece and therefore captured their individual strengths as musicians.

In a vein that employs contemporary in the best possible of ways, Yo Soy la Tradicion has a slightly ethereal feel, enhanced by the excellent production values. There is a seriousness to the music, a whole that seems guided by the life experiences of each member of the ensemble. Zenon's saxophone isn't necessary dominant--it is one well-defined part among his equals. Each member is able to shine at different moments throughout, which gives this performance uncommon depth. This music is challenging in the way it takes familiar elements from folklore and wraps them in a sound that's both lovely and thought-provoking. There's a delicacy here that makes me feel as I've heard something that's like nothing else out there, and that's always a source of supreme pleasure.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Bobby Sanabria and the Multiverse Big Band's West Side Story Reimagined


I'm not a big fan of musicals, on stage or on screen, but I do love West Side Story. Well, I love half of it, the musical half. I start rolling my eyes whenever I see the Jets and the Sharks prancing around with their switchblades, but Leonard Bernstein's songs and original score are, in my opinion, the apex of the genre. The music is just so expressive, so dynamic and so memorable. Every once in a while, a random section of "Maria" or "Somewhere" or "America" just pops into my head and stays there all day. In fact, one of my favorite classical CDs is Bernstein: Arias and Barcarolles performed by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra--it contains an incredibly exciting interpretation of WSS's score via "A Quiet Place Suite" and "West Side Story Symphonic Dances." (On a side note, my mom went to high school with George Chakiris, so there's that.)

The idea of West Side Story being "reimagined" as a suite for big band jazz, especially one that is so focused on various Latin jazz traditions, isn't quite as radical as the liner notes suggest. But it does feel absolutely welcome. Drummer Bobby Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band have release many critically acclaimed recordings over the last few years, and they specialize in presenting all of the distinct Latin variations on jazz, so much so that this 2-CD set contains a booklet that explains the different rhythms of each country. This performance, recorded live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in NYC, pumps up the Latin aspects of the already Latin-centric score from Bernstein and adds additional layers of those aforementioned rhythms. If you're a fan of either Latin jazz or West Side Story, this album is a feast of those flavors.


It's probably next to impossible to make this music sound sluggish or lethargic, so it's no surprise that Bobby's band is incredibly exciting. I also believe this has something to do with his role as drummer--I find that band leaders who are drummers are incredibly sensitive to maintaining high levels of energy and dynamics in their arrangements. It's also worth stating that Sanabria is a hell of a drummer and so supportive of his bandmates. With music that swings this hard, you'd expect him to be a wild man behind his kit. But he's also a confident ringleader who keeps every note tight and focused, and that's rare in a genre that prides itself on its loose and happy groove. Big bands need to be precise, Latin jazz needs to be passionate, and Sanabria finds the perfect mix of both.

There are two more reasons to grab this release. First, it's a 2-CD set with nearly one hour and twenty minutes of pure excitement, and it's only $21.99. I even saw it for less on Amazon. The second reason is that a part of the proceeds will be donated to the Jazz Foundation of America's Puerto Rico Relief Fund. After listening to this several times, I can honestly say that purchasing this CD is a no-brainer. You can buy it in a number of places, but check out Bobby Sanabria's website as well as that of Jazzhead (the record label).

Kjell Tore Innervik's Utopias


How do you feel about percussion recordings? I love them, personally. I've heard people say that percussion recordings are somehow incomplete since they are missing the biggest component of music--melody. I find plenty of melody in most percussion recordings because, of course, there are specific tones resulting from the striking of an object. While rhythm is the most salient character in these types of recordings, those complex structures of melody often present themselves when you allow yourself to float along with the so-called beats. I've mentioned this before, but many audiophiles will tell you that the female voice will provide you with everything you need to know about a sound system's fidelity. My friend Bob Clarke says it's the grand piano, and I don't disagree. But for me, I can find everything I need to know by listening to a simple drum kit, everything from the visceral impact of the bass drum to the highest shimmer of the cymbals and, most importantly, the way the sound of those impacts react to the recording space.

I'm so pleased that 2L Recordings has released Utopias, "Radical Interpretations of Iconic Works for Percussion." As I've repeated ad nauseum, 2L is at the vanguard of sound reproduction in today's world, combining both the latest technology and a keen instinct for providing the finest recording environments. The idea of a pure percussion recording from Morten Lindberg and his associates is almost a cause for celebration--from the moment I slipped this disc into my player I knew I was going to have a transcendent musical experience.


Utopias is Kjell Tore Innervik's interpretation of two percussion pieces--two separate variations of Iannis Xenakis' Psappha and one of Morton Feldman's The King of Denmark. Innervik performs these pieces solo, but he is literally all over the place--his assortment of drums, bells and other objects is varied and exciting. At the same time, photos of the recording sessions show the placement of these instruments and how Innervik is tightly surrounded by them. Since the recording was made in one of those big Norwegian churches for which 2L is famous, the resulting sound is huge, in stages. The proximity of the instruments to Innervik's body reduces the amount of movement for him, sounds that would be picked up. Normally that would be a desirable quality for me, the interaction between musician and instrument that I find so vital to realistic recordings, but in this case it would distract from the real thrill here, which is how those struck objects reverberate in the church. You want decay? Utopia is a virtual primer of the nature of decaying sound. So what you're getting here is a tight formation of the source of these sounds, and a seemingly infinite pattern of ripples from that source. It's mesmerizing.

If it feels like I'm focusing purely on sound and not the content, that's unfortunate. Innervik's approach to these pieces is unique and the extensive liner notes dig deep into his intentions. There's a fascinating explanation of why Innervik chose to record two different versions of Psappha--he wanted to create two separate perspectives, or "windows," into the piece by performing it twice at different points in time. So what we're getting isn't two distinctive variations of the piece as much as two very human performances and the natural variations that would normally occur. If you're listening to Utopias as background music, which you shouldn't, you may wonder why the two performances are offered back to back. Focus deeply on the piece, meditate, and you'll uncover the reasons. Hint: it has something to do with being human.

While the overall effect of these performances reminds me of gamelan music with its intricate and often delicate textures, the music is exhilarating in its simplicity. This is, after all, one man creating an ocean of sound from a fixed point in space. The simple purity of tones here, of the essence of sound, is completely transformative. I have one of those Vietnamese singing bowls next to my bed, and its expansive tone has a powerful effect on my mood and well-being. Utopias has that same sense of cathartic power, of reaching deep into your mind and pulling out the most wonderful ideas and feelings. Highly recommended, and one of my favorite of all the amazing recordings from 2L.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Ingvild Koksvik's New Single "Sommerflukt" on Spotify


Lars Jakob Rudjord came out with a single just a couple of months ago, so it makes sense that Ingvild Koksvik would follow up with one of her own. This one's called "Summerflokt," and it has more of a pop feel than her recent work, but plenty of her beautiful, original voice. You can here it on Spotify by clicking here.

Jacqueline Tabor's The Lady in the Gown


Whenever it's time to review yet another female jazz singer who's covering the Great American Songbook, I feel some trepidation. I'm not going to continue to complain about the female voice recordings anymore, especially since I've heard so many stellar singers over the last few months--Lyn Stanley, Noa Fort, Rondi Marsh, Lynn Veronneau and a few others. But more often than not I find there's a flicker of something I don't like in the voice, an affectation that seems less than genuine, anything that makes me put on my Terry Fletcher mask and say "Not my singer." Am I that picky? No, not really, but I really want someone to check all the little boxes. I want a beautiful voice, yes, but one that still sounds like no one else. I want a voice that has lived the voice of jazz, that reflects the entire spectrum of the life of a jazz singer. I want a great band to back that voice, and I want excellent sound quality. I want to feel like the singer is in the room with me. Everyone wants that last one, I think.

I didn't know that Jacquelin Tabor's new album The Lady in the Gown was going to tick all those boxes. I tried to avoid judging the album by its cover--photo of a beautiful lady, title of the album, very little in the way of graphic design, kind of no-frills. Looking further, I saw that this is another GAS album full of songs like "On Green Dolphin Street," "Autumn Leaves," "Misty" and "Caravan." I settled in for what I thought was going to be a predictably pleasant journey and was immediately struck by several things at once:

1) Tabor's voice is perfect to me. It's husky and slightly weary and yet almost unlimited in range. She hits all the right notes.

2) The band, a simple trio of Cole Schuster's guitar, Greg Feingold's bass and Max Holmberg's drums, sounds like every great jazz guitar trio you've heard from the '50s and '60s. These three sound like the same three guys who backed Dean Martin on Dream with Dean.

3) What great sound quality! Tabor is so present and upfront, you can almost feel the air from the sweep of that gown when she turns to watch the musicians.


So the project is rather simple in its conception--a great singer backed by a swinging trio, recorded impeccably. But it seems to transcend those modest goals by the sheer perfection of the execution. I know this is a fairly personal thing, but there's something about Tabor's voice that is so exquisitely rendered and so subjectively flawless. I don't think she sings one single note that isn't the right note, with the perfect amount of sustained vibrato. Yet there's nothing about her voice that isn't deeply human and touched by the emotions contained in the lyrics.

I've have to be honest here. I've never heard of Jacqueline Tabor before playing this CD for the first time. I listen to a lot of these CDs, from male and female singers trying to present their individual takes on the jazz we all know and love, and it's been a while since I've heard someone handle the challenge with such purity and confidence. It's easy to get lost in a sea of a singers who all have the chops to make it big. Here's hoping Jacqueline Tabor does exactly that. Highly recommended.

Ezra Bell


I was raised on the idea that a classically beautiful voice was THE standard for excellence, but I kicked that idea to the curb as soon as I became a teenager and started listening to "my" music. I love the really distinctive and quirky vocalists out there, the ones that might make you flinch when you hear those first few syllables but then slowly charm you over time. Years later their voices become your best friends, familiar and comforting, a new standard for excellence. Think Neil Young, David Byrne, Isaak Brock...anyone who instantly makes you smile when you hear them. If I played these vocalists for my octogenarian parents, they wouldn't be impressed. But it's a different time for singers, and it's been that way for at least fifty years.

That was my first impression of Ezra Bell, a Portland band that's been releasing a series of intriguing EPs over the last few years. This is their first full-length LP, and it's a stunner. Out of the gate, the first thing you notice is Benjamin Wuamett's unusual voice. It's not so weird or so different that it takes time getting used to, nor is it something you haven't heard before. In fact, it reminds me of a combination of Young and Brock--perhaps that's why I mentioned those two by name. My parents would certainly exclaim, "He's different!" Being a boomer, however, I have a different reaction--here's a singer who's destined for something big. But this isn't about a great singer on the edge of the abyss known as Fame, but a breathtaking quintet of musicians who are creating something of high quality that deserves to be noticed.


Ezra Bell (yes, the name is out of the Jethro Tull School of No One in the Band Is Actually Named That) is a folk indie group, a nebulous term that combines Americana and folk strains with something a little more rocking. Aaron Mattison's horns and Jeremy Asay's piano also suggest a New Orleans sound, but perhaps that's because I just spent all day listening to the Matt Lemmler album. The songs here have that rollicking old-time sound that's made for the stage, and they're definitely borne from the past of rock and roll. What elevates this band is a superb sense of the past, an idea that we've covered some important ground over the decades and that we can always go back and rediscover forgotten ideas.

I have to admit that I'm surprised by this album and how much I instantly liked it. Indie rock has been a sore point with me lately--I feel like we're slowly parting ways because I'm not at home with the new trends. (If I hear "Feel It Still" one more time I may fling myself off a bridge.) I read another review of this album and the writer kept referring to the fact that this music is what excited him ten or twenty years ago. We don't get a lot of this honesty anymore. Distinctive and quirky are not in short supply these days, but real quality might be. Ezra Bell might get you excited about indie rock again.

Matt Lemmler's Love


Matt Lemmler's one of those great New Orleans jazz pianists who seems to deeply live and breathe that city's soul every minute of the day. His brand of jazz is different than the norm, whatever you believe that is, since it blends in liberal amounts of blues and rock and roll. On his new album, Love, he takes a dozen classics such as the Beatles' "In My Life," "Tara's Theme" and even "Gone with the Wind" and gives them that distinctive late night Orleans sound, a mid-tempo rock beat and approach that belongs in the same musical sphere as Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. There's one subtle difference, and that's Lemmler's piano. It plays those normal New Orleans rhythms and flourishes, but in a sweeping way that sounds like Bill Evans taking a one-night-only detour into Preservation Hall.

That big, almost theatrical style on the keys may come from Lemmler's four years touring with Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, but that's not really the point. Lemmler's connection to New Orleans has been filtered through many loves--Stevie Wonder, Scott Joplin, church hymns, '70s pop and even African folk music. There are also numerous tributes to the songwriters he loves such as Billy Joel, Lennon and McCartney and Lionel Richie. He tends to "Lemmler-ize" all types of songs, which is the common term for a common idea, which is making the music his, whatever the source. That means you get his classic soulful New Orleans voice combined with that strong piano current--all powered by what seems to be the biggest heart in the Big Easy.


Love is a very consistent album, with a level of energy that Lemmler maintains throughout, despite the mood. But the special surprise here is a bonus disc, titled Southern Songs and Sonatas, which was recorded live at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. This is where Lemmler switches it up and shows his range--he switches up the more rock-oriented band of Love for an ensemble that includes woodwinds, strings and a vibraphone. The set list here is more varied, but also gentler, with a mood that reminds me of Rolfe Kent's excellent score for the film Sideways. There's a light, carefree tone here that evolves into something deeper and even sadder when you least expect it.

That means you get two heaping helpings of New Orleans sound in Love, one that captures Lemmler in the place he is now, and one that captures everywhere he has been. While the two discs have a very different feeling to them, they are bound by a supreme musical sense, an approach that embraces the emotions and experiences of a vibrant city.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Smoking Flowers' Let's Die Together


"Well, I don't think that title's nice. It's not nice at all. Nope, I don't like it one bit!"

It's hard to believe it's been more than five years since I reviewed The Smoking Flowers' 2 Guns right here. I really liked that one, the way this married duo reminded me of an even more road-weary Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, a country pair absolutely able to pour on the heavy rock and roll in an utterly convincing way. One of the most interesting things about Scott and Kim Collins is that they're not kids. They've been singing together for twenty years, and there's that incredible feeling of having been through so much together, a feeling that saturates every note. As I mentioned in my review of 2 Guns, Kim had just recently won her battle against breast cancer, and that album was a celebration of that victory. That means a lot more to me now than it did five years ago--my significant other just won the same battle last year--and this album is even more impressive in the way it proudly declares that they're still here, and they're kicking more ass than ever before.

Compared to the 2013 album, Let's Die Together sounds much more accomplished. Instead of being just a talented singer-songwriter duo, they're now something more--true artists who have a confident sound and attitude that comes from years and years of putting everything into their music, flesh and blood and a river of tears that carries it all downstream. The album starts off with a couple of face-peeling rockers, "Young & Brave" and "Rip It Off," full of anthemic riffs and angry, defiant lyrics. These are the songs you might hear at a club, one where you can get relatively close to the stage and know there's simply no way this is going to be a disappointing night. After that you get "Here 4 U Now," the kind of big and sweeping rock epic that Springsteen used to sing back when I gave a damn. (Stop groaning. You know what I mean.) Then an interesting thing happens, something fairly standard among talented musicians setting out to make an excellent album--they mix it up and slow it down.


This is where the country side comes out, the Gram and Emmylou feel, the great songwriting about the uncommon experiences of a couple who has been on the road for decades and has come out the other side with an even stronger sense of dedication. This is also where Scott gets to show off his guitar chops, where style replaces volume. He feels comfortable in so many styles, bluesy when he needs to be and sweet and lyrical in the more acoustic moments. It's easy to get lost in Kim's big and bold voice, and it's also easy to love the way the two harmonize. But Scott's a hell of a guitarist, and it's time I said so.

That title. Let's Die Together. I love it. Despite the ominous image on the cover of a submerged woman and an accordion floating to the bottom of some body of water, it's obvious what it means. After everything they've been through, it's obvious that they'll survive as long as they're standing side by side. They've walked the walk. The quote above refers to people who take things literally and are easily offended by nonsense--in this case it reminds me of an old girlfriend who, in retrospect, was far too Jesus-y for me. I was trying to make her cooler than she was by introducing her to Wilco, a favorite at the time (and still is). She heard the lyrics "I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me" from "Via Chicago" and was immediately convinced that she was listening to something evil and satanic. It started to explain the different layers of meaning and how Jeff Tweedy was actually being poetic and I realized that I was wasting my time. You have to know the whole story before you can hear a few words and then think you have it all figured out.

Or you can just listen to Kim. "You are a hurricane, I am the beach. You aren't going to outlive me."

Jonathan Kreisberg and Nelson Veras' Kreisberg Meets Veras


Listening to guitar duos is so soothing and relaxing. For some strange reason, this is even more so when one of the guitars is electric and the other is acoustic. This applies specifically to the jazz style, of course, where the traditional electric guitar sound is smooth and mellow and generally unadorned with effects. It's already a soft sound, in other words, and adding an acoustic guitar to the stage softens that sound even more. You can really focus and concentrate on the differences between the two instruments--not just amplified versus non-amplified, but steel strings versus nylon. I have quite a few of these recordings in my collection, and they're the perfect representation of a late night album.

Kreisberg Meets Veras is a beautiful yet slightly adventurous entry in the jazz sub-genre. The dynamics are low-key and controlled throughout these eight tracks--a combination of originals and classics from Monk, Nascimento, Mingus, Shorter and Corea--so it's the perfect soundtrack for drifting away into the night. (Yes, I was prompted into a mid-day nap the first time I put this in the CD player.) On the other hand, close attention reveals that these two skilled guitarists are doing so much more than playing pretty music. Moments of subtle dissonance abound, and there's an edge to this gorgeous flow of sound that will capture your attention and keep you engaged.


Jonathan Kreisberg, who also produced, plays his electric guitar with a gentle speed--his sound is effortless even when his fingers are a blur. This silky tone is part of what makes this music simultaneously relaxing and challenging, and that's because he's adept at expressing so many different emotions without altering his trademark style. Nelson Veras, you can deduce, plays the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. You'll immediately identify that as equally smooth, and yet much of the flavor of this music comes from him, the Spanish and Middle Eastern touches, the playfulness. It's almost as if Veras is the singer, and Kreisberg is the rest of the band. One lays down the mood while the other puts images in your mind.

Sound quality has to be spectacular in a quiet recording such as this, and it is. You want to hear each of the two guitars existing in their own space, but you want to hear a physical interaction between the two especially since both are playing hollow-bodied instruments. You want to hear the wood resonate in the air and against the torsos of the musicians. It's important for those cues to exist, the sound of humans making music with instruments, fingers on fretboards, the occasional sigh or slight shift in space. That's what delivers the illusion of having these two gifted gentlemen in your home, and this recording is wonderfully convincing in that respect.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Hakon Skogstad's Two Hands to Tango


I'm not sure if this has ever been done before, or if it's even a fairly common thing, but it's incredible. On pianist Hakon Skogstad's new album Two Hands to Tango, he sets out to play some of the great tango songs of all time--on solo piano. There is no saucy string section, no Argentine rhythm section and--this is the amazing part--no bandoneon. This young Norwegian musician conveys the beautiful rhythms and feelings found in tango through a keen and precise sense of timing. He's so good at establishing the essence of this music that after just a few tracks that you'll no longer notice the absence of accompaniment.

Skogstad's decision to make this album was carefully considered. "As a performer of tango music I have always been fascinated by the unique sound of the bandoneon and how the instrument is used in solo arrangements and compositions," he explains. As someone who has worked extensively with bandoneon players in the past, he's uniquely qualified to adopt the mannerisms crucial to playing this instrument, which is "multilayered, flowing and improvisational." While he has plenty of experience with tango, it's with the piano parts. Playing the lead is clearly not the same thing, and it obviously took a lot of thought to transfer that style of performance to a very different instrument.


This approach is probably why the adaptation is so natural and believable. As I said, it's amazing that Skogstad is the first to think of this, or at least the first who turns his piano into bandoneon, not vice versa. That's not to say his playing style is odd--he's a brilliant pianist but his Steinway sounds like a Steinway--it's in the feeling. He's conveying the subtle techniques of the bandoneon in such a fluid manner, something that might not be apparent to someone who "likes" the tango but is not passionate about it. But if you know the difference between habanera and milonga, you can wrap your head around the magnitude of this effort.

Finally, I love the tango, and it's a real pleasure to hear songs other than "Por una Cabeza" when someone wants to show off the genre. (That song is pleasant enough, but it has become a cliche thanks to Hollywood.) We do get a couple examples of Astor Piazzolla's nuevo tango with "Tango del Angel" and ""Tistezas de un Dobles" which are Skogstad's tributes to an Argentinian master who has become notably popular in the last few decades. You also get "Sentimiento Tanguero," Skogstad's take on the music of Lucio Demare, and a unique arrangement of Leopoldo Federico's "El Marne." Whether it's one of Skogstad's original compositions or a homage, each of these ten tracks brim with originality and travel quite a ways from the original renderings--so much so that the "moments of realization" for true tango fans will be a singular delight. And if you're not quite up on your tango, this thoughtful and entertaining album might just prompt you to discover more of this wonderful music on your own.