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.