Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Vinyl Anachronist #120 Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. In this installment, I discuss my love and admiration for the affordable and legendary Denon DL-103 phono cartridge. You can enjoy it here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Big Band Side of Andrew Neu--Catwalk

What, more big band releases?

Yes, more big band releases, this one being the third of four in a row. I've noticed that over the last year I've been getting jazz releases in genre groups--female vocals, free jazz, the Hammond B-3 organ trios. I could break them up and juxtapose the genres, but I do try to write reviews in a timely manner, which means that I'd like to tell you about each album before the release date if I can manage. And I just happened to get four big band releases in the space of just a couple of days. Am I complaining? Not on your life. If anything, diving head first into certain genres gives you a better perspective when it comes to comparisons.

Speaking of comparisons, tenor saxophone player and composer Andrew Neu's debut big band album does have a unique feel that separates it from The Jazz Diva Orchestra and Ira B. Liss's Big Band Jazz Machine. The DJO was about precision and impact, IBLBBJM was about having a lot of fun with old friends. Catwalk, on the other hand, is all about style. It's about walking down an urban street back when the tall buildings were still in black and white. It's about cool and it's about hip. I've imagined so many of these big band orchestras as well-oiled machines, but Neu's group of pros are different. They're honey badgers, if you know what I mean.

Neu has already released four CDs, and they feature smaller and more intimate ensembles. He's been working with LA studio musicians for so many years and he really wanted to gather them up and make a big band recording. "I feel that this is my most honest recording to date!" Neu exclaims on his liner notes, and you can feel it in this mix of eight originals and a scattering of covers. (Ennio Morricone's theme for Cinema Paradiso is a fun tangent, for example.) This band features such LA vets as Randy Brecker, Wayne Bergeron, Eric Marienthal, Rick Braun, Gordon Goodwin and Bob Mintzer, who is such an integral part of the Ira B. Liss release from yesterday. These musicians know one thing, and that's how to hang loose while playing tight. They hit their marks like most other big bands, but their sound seems to imply that those marks are going to be hit no matter what happens.

So yes, Catwalk has the excitement and punch of the other two ensembles, but they have plenty of swagger. I've been mentioning swagger a lot lately, and I think it's an essential component to playing great jazz. No one wants to hear a soloist who's not confident or who is overly nervous. We want our jazz performers to stand out on the edge of the stage and dare us to criticize what they're doing. As Janelle Monae once said, "You don't know nuthin'!" That's sort of the point. Trust these men and women and they'll take you to the same hangouts where Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Maynard Ferguson used to play.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine's Tasty Tunes

Perhaps there's a reason why I'm getting all these big band recordings while struggling to complete the University of North Texas project. Yesterday's review of the Diva Jazz Orchestra prompted me to think of these professional recordings as comparisons to the student output at UNT, and how everything should measure up. I went into the UNT project and its 11 CDs of tunes with a great first impression--"these kids can play." But when I listen to recordings from DJO and now the Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine, I'm hearing something that I'm not hearing on the UNT releases--confidence. The UNT students are obviously talented, but what they lack is that last bit of swing, that undeniable swagger that's so essential to jazz. The students aren't falling short, they're just in need of some life experiences to toughen up their sound with a bit of context.

The IBLBBJM (wow!) has been part of the Southern California jazz scene for nearly 40 years, and they sound like it. There is no floundering, only unbridled confidence and precision that I mentioned in the DJO review. When you think about big band ensembles and how that rigidity is portrayed to the public in films such as Whiplash or in those scary real life accounts of abusive bandleaders such as Buddy Rich, you start to think that perfection is the hallmark of this genre. In many ways this is the opposite of be-bop and free jazz and the other forms I've loved over the years where it's all about improvisation and exploration and not the notes and squiggly lines on the page in front of you. In big band jazz, there are plenty of opportunities for the killer solo, but they are often contained within the whole in a much more structured way.

Tasty Tunes is the fifth CD from this well-oiled machine and features such guests as composer/saxophonist Bob Mintzer (Yellowjackets), composer/flutist Holly Hofmann (Brecker Brothers) and a few others. As you can tell from the title, there are no complex themes here--Ira B. Liss just wanted to have fun with his band. There's a wide range of styles represented here, everything from Rodgers & Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" to Dave Grusin's "Mountain Dance." Mintzer, who plays the role of the Very Special Guest Star, contributes one of his own compositions, "When the Lady Dances." While these tunes do arrive with diverse backgrounds, they are delivered in mostly the same way--with fast tempos and oodles of swing. Once in a while the band takes it down a notch, most notably with their version of "Nature Boy" that features lovely and heartfelt vocals from Janet Hammer. (Is it me, or is this song being covered by everyone this year?) For the most of the way, it's full speed ahead.

One of the most interesting things about IBLBBJM is Mr. Liss himself. He's six feet, seven inches tall and he is said to tower over his band while he's leading them. It takes a big man to do big band jazz, it seems, and this album sounds BIG in every dimension. Along with the DJO 25th Anniversary Project, Tasty Tunes is a polished and perfect gem of an album for big band fans everywhere.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Diva Jazz Orchestra's 25th Anniversary Project

For the last few weeks--months, really--I've been working on that 2-part North Texas University Jazz article for Part-Time Audiophile. It's a fairly large undertaking, being that I have to review 11 CDs full of big band music than spans several decades. The music is absolutely fantastic, but I've been reluctant to review any other big band music at the same time because much of it's running together. In the meantime, I've received at least four other releases by big band ensembles, and I feel I need a break.

This particular album from The Diva Jazz Orchestra stood out, however. It's just so clean and punchy and, well, professional. I know that I'm supposed to mention that the remarkable thing about DJO is that it's comprised entirely of women, the eponymous divas, and that brings me back to the minor criticism I had when I reviewed the 3Divas release for Positive Feedback Online a few months ago. I find the term diva rather anachronistic these days, and that we shouldn't elevate a particular release just because it's performed by an all-female ensemble. It should just be considered by the music and not by any particular gender-based novelty. I wrote:

"It's part of the corporate branding, after all, the very name of the record label and all the people involved, so I don't think anything will change soon. But if these three women were in their twenties, they probably wouldn't be basking in their diva-ness. It's a conceit from a time that has passed. The days of Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators are long gone, right?"

Well, the diva moniker has persevered--this 25th anniversary release from DJO has something in common with the 3Divas, and that's music director and talented drummer Sherrie Maricle. So this album represents part of a greater whole, a powerful force in today's jazz. In its largest iteration, DJO has little to do with the fact that women can play jazz just as well as men. Of course they can!

The 25th Anniversary Project is, of course, an incredible summation of the skills of DJO. In the liner notes, it's mentioned that "DIVA performs all over the world playing contemporary, mainstream big band jazz composed and arranged to fit the individual personalities and styles of the players." That's exactly what you get here, an extraordinary collection of jazz musicians, individuals who all get to spend time in the spotlight and reveal their notable strengths. I mentioned the word "punchy" before, and that's what sets this ensemble apart. There is no loose, sloppy playing. The DJO exhibits an incredible precision in these performances, all the result of Maricle who reflects "deeply about the outstanding talent that has shaped the band and the writers." As with 3Divas, the glue that holds this gorgeous-sounding machine together is the exciting drum work by Maricle herself. She is a fascinating, adept drummer with notable athleticism.

All of the songs were composed by DJO members, which makes the project sound even more impressive. I've used this description many times before, but it's amazing when a contemporary jazz composer creates something new that sounds like a lost classic, and here you get ten wonderful examples of the craft. If you're a fan of big band jazz, this is obviously a stand-out in a crowded field, and it matter not one whit that the players and composers are women.

Now to get back to the University of North Texas.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Ingvild Koksvik's Songs From the Deepest Sea

There's a flurry of activity in Farsund, Norway these days. Just a couple of weeks after I blogged about Lark Jakob Rudjord's Pharos,a new single featured on all the streaming services, singer Ingvild Koksvik has released a new digital EP featuring three of her songs from her last album, sung this time in English. Lars confirmed this for me in an email exchange a couple of weeks ago, but I accidentally stumbled onto Songs From the Deepest Sea while browsing through Tidal this morning and reminded myself to check it out.

Og sangen kom der havet, Ingvild's last album, is a beautiful and hypnotic experience. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with it was hearing her sing these Norwegian lyrics with such emotion and conviction that I felt like I didn't need an English translation. As I mentioned in my review for Positive Feedback Online, Ingvild supplied translation in the liner notes of the album, but I avoided them because I loved the hint of mystery. And now we have the English versions...will that mystery vanish?

Of course not! It's thrilling to hear her English vocals because they ground her voice--for an English-speaking fan like me, anyway. When I listen to Ingvild in her native Norwegian, she sounds like a beautiful, fleeting spirit. Hearing her sing "Song From the Deepest Sea," "Something Better" and "Mathilda's Lullaby" in English radically changes the mood of the music--a layer of meaning is both added and subtracted. It's almost like I'm hearing her voice for the first time, as if she's in the room with me. This might be a completely personal impression for one reason--Ingvild and Lars occasionally send me messages, and their English is perfect. (This is true, of course, of most Scandinavians.) And there's a slight disconnect between these perfectly normal conversations and the gorgeous, exotic Nordic music they make. Maybe I'm just a little starstruck by these two.

Now, Ingvild has supplied a bridge for me. The mystery has lessened, but the meaning is now more in focus. The music is still just as beautiful, but now I understand even more. Above all, I feel like I know her voice a little more because of this.

Ingvild and Lars pretty much take turns when it comes to releasing my favorite albums of the year, so hopefully these smaller projects are hinting at full albums to come. But now that I've flung myself into digital streaming, it's a genuine treat to be able to hear the in-between projects, the creativity and the direction these two are taking.

You can hear Songs from the Deepest Sea on Tidal and right here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Folketoner on 2L Recordings

Have I ever told you about my longtime friend Dan? Dan grew up with us back in Southern California, and while he appeared to be the archetype of a '70s barefoot hippie complete with the obligatory Jesus beard, he seemed to grow up a little faster than the rest of us did. He was the first to get married, settle down and raise kids. He was also much more mature and adventurous when it came to music--he was the first in our clique to explore jazz and classical music, and he always had intriguing opinions on the '70s classic rock we all enjoyed, opinions that made the rest of us think and re-evaluate our tastes.

Dan once told me something about his changing tastes in music. It was initially something I didn't agree with, but it stuck with me over the years and has made me think. Dan had given up on singers, and he was suddenly devoted to instrumentals--one of the biggest reasons he got into jazz and classical in the first place. (He also turned me onto the sheer magic of The Ventures, which now makes perfect sense.) He explained to me that "the human voice is such an imperfect instrument, especially compared to musical instruments." He enjoyed the purity of those tones and no longer wanted to listen to the overwrought rock singers of the day screaming their way through another power ballad.

I'm bringing up Dan because I wonder how he would have reacted to one of these choir performances from 2L Recordings. There's nothing imperfect about these oceans of voices, these rich sounds that are as textured and complex as any string orchestra.

It's kind of silly to say that 2L specializes in these recording of choirs--that would be ignoring the fact that they specialize in almost everything else including string quartets, horn and woodwind ensembles, chamber orchestras and piano recordings. But with these recordings, such as the new Folketoner, it's clear that producer Morten Lindberg knows the secrets of capturing the magic of massed singers. He records them in a big church. By now you know that most 2L Recordings are captured this way, and even I'm getting bored with mentioning it in every review. But the idea behind this is simple--where else would you want to listen to a choir? In an airport restroom? No! You want to hear these interweaving voices flutter and bounce off the big wooden ceiling beams of a beautiful old church. There is no other way.

Folketoner is performed by Det Norske Jentekor (Norwegian Girls Choir) and conducted by Anne Karin Sundal-Ask. These ensembles--there are four different choirs in the group--are quite famous and respected in Oslo because the organization has been around for so long and because so many of its singers have moved on to brilliant careers. Folketoner consist of the group's favorite Norwegian folk songs and hymns--the ones they actually love to sing, that is. That's why these performances seem to glow with love and appreciation. They're also quite beautiful--it seems that each 2L choir recording surpasses the last one in terms of sheer musicality. With Folketoner you will be swept up in gorgeous melodies sung with rare emotion and conviction. You'll have an instant view into another culture, one that's hypnotic and filled with soul and wonder.

Dan's still around. He's still the family man, and now he's surrounded by grandchildren. He still loves music. We're friends on Facebook, so I think I'll tag him so he sees this. It's been thirty-five years or more since we had that conversation about singers, and I'm sure his tastes have evolved just like everyone else's. But I'm curious to have him listen to Folketoner, if merely to challenge his old ideas about the perfection of the human voice.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sundae + Mr. Goessl's When You're Smiling

In this day and age, I feel I have to be cautious when choosing adjectives to describe female singers. For instance, when I'm listening to Kate Voss, aka Sundae, sing these old originals from the first half of the 20th century, the first two words I think of are coquettish and kittenish. In their defense, those two words are old-fashioned in the right context and not at all dismissive since Sundae + Mr. Goessl are anything but from "this day and age." Voss and guitarist Jason Goessl are a "vintage duo," a seemingly new name for a very old sound. You've heard it before, probably in other recordings that have been pigeonholed into the genre known as hot Parisian jazz. I've been hearing a lot of these recordings lately; it's a thing, and I'm happy about it.

I do have a word, I think, and it's adorable. Sundae's voice is equal parts Billie Holiday and Teresa Brewer, light and silly when it needs to be and tinged with an old soul's wry wit that pulls these vintage themes away from forced innocence into something more pure and knowing. She's a charmer. She casts an undeniable spell on you and she does it by staying honest and doing things that have been done before, just not for a long time. Once you hear her simple and loving takes on old songs like "Stardust," "Embraceable You," "The Best Is Yet to Come" and the title track, you might forget about everyone else's versions, at least for a while.

Ah, but Sundae is not singing acapella. None of this would work as well without Mr. Goessl's hot Parisian acoustic guitar, played with deft uke strums from the Django Reinhardt School of Casual Virtuosity. Just when you think you have a handle on his style and his instrument, he switches it up with a classic electric jazz guitar ("Caravan") or he turns up the reverb ("Bang Bang") or he throws in a little country twang (Patsy Cline's "Any Time"). Sundae often provides an amusing counterpoint with her little melodica, reinforcing the whole Parisian aspect, and both add a smattering of bells and chimes whenever punctuation is required. Percussionists Adrian Van Batenburg and Sam Esecson provide the beats and subtle rhythms when needed.

Most of the time, Sundae and Mr. Goessl give everything that's required in a pared down, almost pristine manner. It's a beautiful recording, enhanced by the compact simplicity of the accompaniment. You won't be digging through layers of texture and meaning here--this is a concise idea that's composed of a lovely voice and an exquisite guitar delivering familiar classics in a way you haven't heard in a very long time. Don't be surprised if the younger generations immediately pick up on When You're Smiling and turn it into a thing. Remember how everyone jumped onto the martini wagon twenty years ago and started listening to Sinatra and Tony Bennett? This album has that same combination of hipness and historical flair. Or, as one of these classic tunes declare, "S'wonderful."

Friday, March 16, 2018

OKB Trio's The Ing...

Jazz trios don't usually sound this full and open. I think about my favorite trio albums such as Sonny Rollins' Way Out West and how these albums always do such a superior job of isolating what each member of the trio is doing and how each contributes to the whole. Even so, there are a lot of empty spaces in jazz trios, which is certainly not a bad thing. It just is.

The OKB Trio sounds a little too full and warm at first, as if these three musicians--pianist Oscar Perez (the O), bassist Kuriko Tsugawa (the K) and drummer Brian Woodruff (the B)--aren't really a trio after all. They sound a lot bigger at first, and that's mostly because there is this fluid warmth that defines the way they play together, interlocking ideas that fill in the gaps. There's a point, obviously, where your mind is able to organize each musician's space and conclude that this is an unfettered trio with no tricks up anyone's sleeves. It's tough for a contemporary jazz trio to distinguish themselves so clearly from similar ensembles, but OKB manages to do it quite easily.

OKB was born in 2010, when Woodruff played a run at Blackbird's in Queens and was able to book different musicians each week. One June evening Tsugawa and Perez jumped on stage. By the end of the night, all three had a drink together to celebrate their extraordinary synergy. Tsugawa declared, "I always want to play with this trio." Listening to this mix of original and standards, it's easy to understand why. Again, this trio sound sounds incredibly fluid in an entirely intuitive way, and that comes from pure unadulterated chemistry. Whether they're playing from the GAS (Ahlert and Young's "I'm Going to Sit Right and Write Myself a Letter") or taking turns with their own compositions (each submit two), they get it down like no one else.

The Ing... is special in another way. It is the very first performance recorded at Big Orange Sheep, a new studio that was built by many in the Queens jazz community including Woodruff, Perez and Tsugawa's husband. The warmth I describe is partially due to this space, which was built as a true labor of love. Woodruff produced the album, and Chris Benham, the owner of Big Orange Sheep, recorded and mixed and mastered the album. So there's something quite special about this inaugural offering, a combination of community love and support and getting everything right by doing it yourself. It shows in every note of this excellent album.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Andrew Gould's First Things First

Remember that 1982 song by Fear titled "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"? I do, and whenever I hear about a sax player and his relationship with NYC I immediately think about Lee Ving and his crew talking about being pushed in front of subways, dealing with drunks in their doorway and freezing to death on the street. That certainly described the city back in 1982, but I've been to New York plenty of times over the last few years and I now see it as something vibrant and exciting and relatively safe, if not quite sparkly clean.

Saxophone player Andrew Gould has a very specific relationship with New York, which is why his debut album is dedicated to the experiences he has had living and working there. First Things First captures that pure, bristling energy with an exciting and extremely dynamic brand of jazz that simply jumps out at you by describing the heartbeats that drive the town. He doesn't paint broad panoramas in an effort to encapsulate his theme; he touches on his personal connections such as his jazz influences which include Coltrane, Joe Henderson and others. He also writes compositions based on the simpler pleasures of life--"7am" is named for the time when he finished composing it and captures the morning rush of the subway, and "Song for Millie" relates to a week he spent dog-sitting and how impressed he was with the animal's kind gentle nature.

Gould's cohorts are standing right by his side, boisterous and clear-headed. Pianist Steven Feifke is a steady, driving force who connects Gould to his rhythm section (bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Jake Goldbas, who shine and work well together). Together this quartet is explosive and sometimes teeters on the edge of free jazz, although Gould will pull them back from the edge of the precipice in time to introduce a lovely new Coltrane-esque theme. Only once does the quartet settle down and smooth out, and that's when singer Ioana Vintu takes the lead on "On a Darker Moon." (Her voice is charming, by the way, and Gould's lyrics are sweet and intelligent.)

What I find fascinating about First Things First is just how confident this quartet is on their debut album. I've been hearing this a lot lately, debuts that just fly out into the air and come alive. Gould has been playing in NYC for many years, and perhaps that's the reason--these jazz guys tend to pay their dues before the record labels come-a-callin'. He has plenty of presence and is destined to make his mark in saxophone-friendly NYC.

Diving Into RTR with Lyn Stanley Now Live at Positive Feedback

My latest article for Positive Feedback is now online. I discuss my continuing adventures with reel-to-reel tape, and Lyn Stanley's new Signature Series Tape releases. You can read it right here. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hughes Smith Quintet's Motion

"The HSQ is a Detroit-based jazz quintet that performs original music with purpose."

This is the opening sentence on the press kit, and my first reaction was "Purpose?" What does this mean? Is the purpose to advance contemporary jazz into new frontiers? To showcase the performers? To get some money in the bank? I know this is cynical, but that's exactly what I was thinking until I started listening to this new album from Hughes Smith Quintet. My first impression was straightforward and pure. This isn't groundbreaking jazz, it's just performed with an impeccable instinct for the genre. If you can imagine what jazz is, in your mind, for just a few seconds, it would sound a lot like this. So maybe purpose is the right word after all.

HSQ isn't led by a guy named Hughes Smith, it's led by sax player James Hughes and trumpeter Jimmy Smith. Their base in Detroit figures heavily into their sound--when I think of Motor City I tend to think of big horn sections way out front. Indeed, most of these original compositions focus on the Hughes-Smith tandem leading the way, driving the melody, creating all the big excitement. That's not to diminish the rest of the quintet, which includes Phil Kelly on keyboards, Takashi Iio on bass and Nate Winn on drums. Kelly, in particular, serves as yet another soloist on occasion. His Fender Rhodes electric piano takes are exquisite and further reinforce that Detroit feel of late nights at the club, the booze flowing and the air thick with smoke.

This is the kind of jazz quintet that sounds like it's been together for decades, but HSQ has only been around since 2013. The band put out an album then called From Here On Out and another one two years later called Ever Up and Onward that AllMusic selected as "Favorite Jazz Album" for 2015. I haven't heard either album, but I am impressed with the confidence on display in Motion, especially how it affects the level of the performances. If this had been an album of standards, I might say the HSQ's only flaw, a relatively minor one, is that they leave nothing to chance. Knowing these are all originals, I have to yank that observation off the table. It's difficult to make original compositions sound so classic, as if you've heard them all before. And if you haven't, where have you been, man?

I haven't mentioned the rhythm section until now, but I should. Winn plays the traps with a high-energy style that sounds like he's really into old Lalo Schifrin movie soundtracks from the '60s and '70s. He's a dramatic drummer, one who focuses on his big exclamation marks, and he brings enormous and tangible energy to the quintet. Takashi Iio underlines the trend of Japanese musicians finally receiving plenty of respect in American jazz circles--the days of criticizing the streamlined TBM sound are long over. Iio's bass is tricky, light and always searching for new phrases. He's a gem.

This is another jazz release that's just on the mark. It sounds right. I shouldn't be going on and on about this and that--just listen to Motion for a few minutes and you'll understand its purpose.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Fernando Garcia's Guasabara Puerto Rico

This is a case where I can judge a book by the cover. Based on a specific font on the cover, as well as the general graphic design, I don't even have to see the little Zoho logo in the upper right hand corner to know this is going to be exciting contemporary jazz. Zoho is a jazz label that puts out consistently good product, jazz releases that are heavy on vision and theme and always break some sort of new ground. From Gil Spitzer's Falando Docemente to Oscar Feldman's Gol to many others, Zoho is consistently excellent in terms of sound quality and performances.

I'm excited by drummer Fernando Garcia's latest release since he's the type of drummer who can also compose and conduct. This means he knows music as well as rhythm, and he understands how to integrate unusual time signatures into melodic pieces. He also explores Puerto Rican traditions of polyrhythms and employs, with Victor Pablo, such fascinating percussion as clave, congas, barril and even the cowbell. He's one of those drummers who is constantly moving and shifting, covering lots of physical ground during a performance while keeping his sextet chugging along in unison.

Did I mention his time signatures? This mix of originals and a pair of traditional Puerto Rican folk songs uses many--12/8 (abakua style), 5/4 (cuembe style), 7/4 (seis corrido style) and even 5/4 and 7/4 being played simultaneously by two different drums. In other words, this is a superb album if you're a fan of drumming, percussion and Latin jazz in general. The playing is absolutely breathtaking. The rest of Garcia's band floats in and out of this sophisticated beats with aplomb--pianist Gabriel Chakarji, guitarist Gabriel Vicens, bassist Dan Martinez and tenor sax player Jan Kus are all "hooked on bomba" and have been playing it for years--with considerable passion. Legendary alto sax player Miguel Zenon is also a featured special guest, and adds a sexy and sultry sound to all this rhythmic heat.

When it comes to folkloric Puerto Rican music, Garcia isn't necessarily a traditionalist. He blends these classic sounds with a more modern approach, especially with the harmonies and polyrhythms. If you're well-versed in this genre of jazz, you might detect these differences. But if you're not as familiar, you'll hear a beautiful whirlwind of sound, fast and exciting, the kind of music that's made to get your heart pumping, to get you out on the floor to dance the night away. You can't listen to Guasabara Puerto Rico passively. It's just too thrilling.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Diane Moser's Birdsongs

Every composer from Mozart to Kate Bush has been inspired by birdsong, so pianist Diane Moser isn't quite a revolutionary by releasing this, her new album. But Moser has spent most of her life doing exactly this--she was just five years old when she first wrote a song based upon the beautiful and varied sounds uttered by our feathered friends. "I love to listen to the sounds of nature," she says on her website. "All of it sounds like a big symphony to me, with master improvisers at work." During a 2008 residency, Moser would play her piano along with the birds outside her studio and she recorded the interactions. That started the whole Birdsong Project for her--over the years she has arranged these pieces for several types of ensembles and has performed them at all kinds of venues.

This particular recording focuses on a very simple yet beautiful trio--Moser on piano, Anton Denner on flute and piccolo and Ken Filiano on bass. As you can probably imagine, Moser is recreating the original conversations she had out in the woods, with Denner playing the part of the bird. Filiano provides just enough foundation and rhythm to place these compositions in the realm of jazz, although there are plenty of stretches where those genre anchors are cut and Birdsongs becomes singular in its observation of beauty in both nature and music.

There are plenty of moments where the sounds might seem a little too on-the-nose, especially if you don't know the origins of the project. Of course they are trying to replicate the sounds of birds with musical instruments, you might think. How hard is that with the piccolo? What makes this music succeed on a much deeper level, of course, is that it's based on real conversations Moser has had with her avian contemporaries. She sat and she listened and all of her musical instincts kicked in and that's what you are listening to, not some sentimental scribblings based on the idea that birdsong is nice and our lives are the better for it.

Moser becomes even more introspective in the final sections of this album, letting Denner and Filiano take a break while she focuses on using just her piano to communicate her ideas. This is where you start to marvel at how beautifully she plays--at her most playful she sounds a little like Bill Melendez, and at her most somber she seems to pull melodies together that sound simple and yet as exotic and original as any bird outside of your house, right now. The more you listen to Birdsongs, the more exotic and original it becomes, which is why it's such a special album.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Roch Lockyer's When Frank Met Django

I don't normally stoop to poking fun at people's names, but Roch Lockyer reminds me of a certain B-52s song. ("Oh yeah," Roch will say with an epic roll of the eyes, "I've never heard that one before.") But it's safe to say that Lockyer's music is the polar opposite of New Wave dance music. While his earlier work focused on both modern jazz and be-bop, this jazz guitarist has tackled a novel and thoroughly successful blending of two jazz sounds--or, as he suggests in his title, what if Frank Sinatra met Django Reinhardt and they cut an album together?

Just imagine Reinhardt's hot Parisian jazz guitar complementing great Sinatra standards as "Summer Wind," "Embraceable You" and "Just One of Those Things," and you'll have a fair idea of what this album is all about--except for one thing. Lockyer's singing voice is also nothing like Sinatra's. His voice is that of a crooner from the Great Depression, earnest and slightly fragile and head over heels in love. It's Lockyer's way of saying "I'm going to combine the stunning guitar sound of Django with famous Frank tunes, but I'm going to make them mine, all mine."

I have to tell you a little bit about my feelings toward "hot Parisian jazz." Down deep, I like it. I think Django is amazing, and I own a couple of original pressings that cost me a boatload of money. But if I hear too much of it, I start to feel like some guy sitting on his balcony off Central Park West, reading The Times while my law professor wife solves the crossword puzzle. We'd be playing either hot Parisian jazz or Mozart violin concertos, and we'd be drinking coffee that was shipped overnight straight from a plantation in Kona. Lockyer grounds this urbane, civilized tone with guitar playing that is downright stupendous. It's one thing to copy Reinhardt, and quite another to play as an imagined contemporary--which Lockyer does. Reinhardt was incredibly melodic but he was also lightning fast when he needed to be. Lockyer, in turn, imbues his playing with less technique and more feeling. He's on the nose in his tribute, of course, but he's also bringing something new to the table--himself.

For me, that's what makes this album stand out on its own. You can love Reinhardt or Sinatra of hot Parisian jazz, but it takes considerable finesse to to execute this type of novelty and have listeners walk away with one thought--"What a guitar player!" Lame B-52s jokes aside, that's the reason to love this album.

Vinny Raniolo's Air Guitar

The title of this album sounds like something Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen might have put out back in the late '80s, an album devoted to their biggest fans who can't help but play along. Instead, Vinny Raniolo's new album is a gentle electric jazz guitar album with only Elias Bailey's accompaniment on stand-up bass as support. As it turns out, Raniolo's two main passions in life are playing jazz guitar and flying, and he launched this album as a tribute to both, a synergistic coupling of the two things that make him happy. He's included all the classics from the Great American Songbook that apply to aviation such as "Come Fly with Me," "Leaving on a Jet Plane," "Flying Down to Rio" and "Test Pilot." He even stretches the criteria to include "Stardust," "Volare," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" and "Blue Skies."

You get the idea, I hope. This album isn't trying to cross new frontiers or develop new themes or visions for contemporary jazz. It is trying to entertain you, however, by offering a somewhat stripped down delivery of these classics in a fun way. It's breezy in the best way, yet more than a mere confection since Raniolo is a gifted player who has perfected his guitar sound. He often plays with fellow guitar masters such as Tommy Emmanuel, Bucky Pizzarelli, Leon Redbone, Dave Grisman, Mark Knopfler and others, and his performances have been included in Boardwalk Empire, Woody Allen's Cafe Society and Martin Scorsese's upcoming film The Irishman.

In other words, Raniolo is accomplished and polished--but not at the cost of expressing his own style and artistry. He's adept at conquering a jazz sound that is firmly set in a specific time and place. Maybe you'll think of Django Reinhardt, maybe you'll just settle into the sensibilities of the composers he covers--Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter and Jimmy Van Heusen. What is surprising, however, is that Bailey is very much an equal partner in this collaboration. His bass work is lively and succinct, with tons of slapping and plucking and other sounds that depart from the notes and offer that tactile meeting of human and musical instrument, something I automatically respond to as a music lover.

Since Air Guitar is so simple in its execution, the sound quality is striking as well. It's kind of hard to mess something like this up, but the folks at Trading 8s Recording Studio in Paramus, New Jersey know how to elevate the material by successfully preserving each musician's space on the stage, making them even more alive than usual. This CD is clean and quiet, of course, which makes me wish it was available on LP. I think that's something Raniolo should consider as long as he's making albums as pure and simple as this.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Luis Filipe Fortunato's Caminhos


Bartolomeo Nasta, my Italian brother from another mother who runs Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers with his family, was talking to me about some of the trends in European music at a recent trade show. I mentioned that I had just reviewed Luis Filipe Fortunato's Live and Pure for Positive Feedback Online, and I asked him if he was familiar with this traditional Portuguese genre, oh what is it's all love songs and it's based upon old songs that the sailors used to sing when they had to leave loved ones behind, and...uh, I think it's called FAY-doh. Bart stared at me blankly for a moment and then a light appeared behind his eyes. "FAH-do!" he replied. I could tell from the look on his face that he knew fado, he enjoyed fado and he had a tremendous amount of respect for it.

While reviewing Live and Pure, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for fado as well. On the surface it might remind you of a variety of musical genres from Spain, Mexico and Latin America--the instrumentation is heavy on strings from guitars, acoustic basses and the like. The vocals are delivered with enormous power and emotion from singers who excel in all the classic ways. Finally, most of the songs are indeed about love, although the love themes in fado are usually separated by great expanses of ocean.

Fado, ultimately, is different because it is so pure in its execution. As I mentioned in my review of Live and Pure, "It must be simple, with minimal accompaniment, and sung with conviction." Another important component of fado is audience participation, that the crowd is already familiar with these classic love songs and they often sing along when they aren't applauding knowingly. Live and Pure captured this magic perfectly, but Caminhos has a distinct disadvantage here--it was recorded in the studio. Does it matter? I don't think it does.

Enter Freddy Rodrigues of Dogma Musicae, the Portuguese record label that puts out these incredible releases from fadista Luis Fortunato. Freddy is as much of a purist as fado itself--he uses no compression, equalization or any other types of "destructive" types of processing in the studio. That's why his Dogma releases are so clear and clean and natural. This lack of compression is daring since Fortunato is such a powerful, dynamic singer, and he puts his heart and soul into every single note. That means the listener is hearing the same intense and emotional delivery that would be experienced at a small fado restaurant in Lisbon. It's not a relentless, in-your-face kind of delivery, but it will give you plenty of goosebumps each time Fortunato's flawless vibrato launches mournfully into the night air.

Fortunato's voice is amazing, but I'm also intrigued with his musical accompaniment which includes Ricardo Silva on Portuguese guitar, Fernando Nani on acoustic bass and Bernardo Saldanha on viola de fado. Each one of these instruments has an exotic timbre, a product of both construction and playing style, and my first reaction was "I don't know these instruments--and they are so beautiful! What are they?" Well, the Portuguese guitar is actually mandolin-shaped, which is why I thought it was a mandolin at first. The viola de fado is not a viola, but a classical guitar that uses steel strings and has a slightly different rosette than Spanish guitars. In fado, bass is often supplied by a four-string bass guitar, but I'll have to check with Freddy to see if this is what Nani is using. The lower registers seem too deep to come from something that is held in the lap.

(Edit: Freddy has conformed that it is indeed a four-string bass guitar, albeit one that was custom-made for Nani. You can see it in the video here. )

The combination of Fortunato's voice and the beautiful sound from these uncommon musical instruments provides a sound that is, well, flawless. Live and Pure amazed me with its accurate rendering of the inside of a fado restaurant--it made me feel like I was there. Caminhos is more focused on the performance, the essence of these incredibly talented musicians doing what they love, and doing what they do better than anyone else in the world.

FAH-doh. Remember the name. If you're an audiophile with a killer system, Caminhos will shine and steal your heart. Even on a less than stellar playback system, this album should still make you swoon. Trabalho bonito, Freddy!

You can purchase the hi-rez digital download of Caminhos right here.