Friday, August 24, 2018

Vince Bell's Ojo

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

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

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

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

MIke Spinrad with Guido Fazio--Horns

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Alberto Pibili's Jazz Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 17, 2018

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

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

Mike Freeman ZonaVibe's Venetian Blinds

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sasha Mashin's Outsidethebox

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Max Moran & Neospectric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmela Rappazzo's Howlin' at the Moon

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

Vivian Lee's Let's Talk About Love

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

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

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

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

Allen Austin-Bishop's No One Is Alone

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2018

Rocket 3's What's the Frequency?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Carol Liebowitz and Bill Payne's Spiderwebmandala

Difficult and dissonant, Carol Liebowitz and Bill Payne's new album Spiderwebmandala is not the type of easy jazz you want to reserve for a rainy day. Liebowitz plays the piano and Payne plays the clarinet, and this series of duets was improvised on the fly during a live performance at the Output Performance Space in Albuquerque. Poet Mark Weber presided over the two-day event, and he punctuates these duets with his ethereal poetry. The overall effect provides many of the same challenges as much of free jazz, even when Liebowitz and Payne occasionally wander into somewhat recognizable melody structures that ease these songs into a more lyrical and softened state.

The simple fact that this is just a piano and a clarinet in a live, open space helps to avoid the cacophony that free jazz sometimes creates. The simplicity of this ensemble allows you to climb into the notes from each instrument, and you'll start to hear both the sophistication in Liebowitz's style and the unique jazz timbre in Payne's clarinet. It's intriguing how the clarinet, through a seemingly spare progression of notes, can establish jazz themes and provide a firm foundation for the rest of the improvisation--it almost serves as the rhythm section and establishes the musical structures while the churning piano provides all of the dense and troubled emotions.

The duo has been performing together since 2010, and their first release featured a trio ensemble that included violinist Eva Lindal--hence the eponymous title Payne Lindal Liebowitz. That 2015 release generated a lot of buzz for the three musicians and was actually voted one of the Top Ten Jazz CDs of the year in an NPR poll. This release is a tad more esoteric, perhaps because the violin might serve as a middle ground for the other two. Your appreciation for it might just depend on your personal relationship to the piano and the clarinet. In addition, both musicians are skilled at coaxing unique phrases that often mimic sounds in nature, and the rapid shifts in theme suggest animal behavior--which reminds me, of course, of Diane Moser's Birdsongs.

What makes a pure improvisation like this so special is the fact that it can't be replicated. It can't be taken out on tour. It is a fleeting, one-time occurrence that would have only been heard by the 150 people present in Albuquerque if it had not been recorded. I've been hearing more and more recordings like this lately, the flowing uncharted improvisations, the kind of music Keith Jarrett used to put out regularly. This type of music is daunting to novices, but the joy comes from deeply knowing the physical characteristics of these instruments and how musicians are inspired by them to produce something that's truly one-of-a-kind.

The South Florida Jazz Orchestra's The Music of Gary Lindsay: Are We Still Dreaming

If you've already read my big band jazz article in Part-Time Audiophile already, "Deep Into Jazz in Texas," this new release from The South Florida Jazz Orchestra is very evocative of the work being done at the University of North Texas. (On a side note, a few minutes ago I received the latest release from UNT's One O'Clock Band, so I'm not through with them yet.) The Music of Gary Lindsay: Are We Still Dreaming, isn't directly tethered to a university jazz program, although a similar spirit exists in this project. The SFJO "includes some of the best jazz and studio musicians, as well as jazz educators, in the southeastern part of the United States." The orchestra is directed by founder Chuck Bergeron, and the tracks here are composed and/or arranged, of course, by Gary Lindsay--it's noteworthy that the two are educators in the jazz studies programs associated with the University of Miami and their Frost School of Music.

There are subtle differences as well, stemming from the fact that this CD features performances from professionals instead of students. (They were all once students, right?) That's not meant to impugn the talent of those wonderful students in jazz programs all over the world, but there is a sense of a bigger budget at play. The sound quality of Are We Still Dreaming is just a notch above most of the UNT recordings, which are already said to be among the finest in the United States. In addition, we are treated to performances from vocalists Nicole Yarling and Julia Dollison--they possess beautiful and strong jazz voices that are quite dazzling. Again, I hate to sound like I'm drawing a line between jazz programs at universities and the rest of the jazz world. It's just that this album is a bit of a hybrid, borne from an outstanding academic program yet swirling around in the so-called professional realm with steady authenticity and just a bit of that splendid and seasoned jazz swagger.

If this big band recording is remarkable for one thing, it's the ease in which the scope of the music expands and contracts. Many of the songs, such as the opening "Moment in Time" and Pat Metheny's "Better Days Ahead," open with a solo instrument so lovingly presented and so intimate that it's almost a shock when the rest of the band suddenly joins in. This is a dynamic program, as most big band recordings are, but those quieter moments are presented in a very original manner, something that's a bit of a novelty in big band circles. Usually these types of bands occupy large stages in large venues and a solo performer can get lost in all that space. It's a testament to Bergeron and Lindsay's production skills that they can still make a smaller ensemble sound small, even if it's a part of something much bigger.

The focus of this album is, of course, Lindsay's original compositions as well as his arrangements of such standards as "Spring Is Here," "'Round Midnight" and Billy Strayhorn's "UMMG." Lindsay, who also plays the alto sax, has been described as easy and accessible in his approach to arrangements. So much of this music represents that dedication to smooth, fertile beauty. Lindsay isn't consumed with expressing the power of his big band and most of the prerequisite dynamics occur in waves rather than sudden peaks and valleys. Bergeron shares the credit for that sense of gentle flow, obviously, but it's the sheer audacity of quiet moments in a big band setting, engineered by Lindsay, that makes this recording so unique.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

James Austin Jr.'s Songs in the Key of Wonder

I was all set to begin this review with a discussion of the novelty of jazz covers of Stevie Wonder songs. But after a cursory Google search, I discovered that many, many performers have come up with jazz arrangements for Mr. Wonder, everything from organ trios to big bands and everything in between. It shouldn't be a surprise that Wonder's songs lend themselves so easily to straightforward jazz genres, considering the original renditions were filled with jazz, funk, fusion, R&B and rock influences. It also helps that most of Stevie Wonder's biggest hits were marked by their one-of-a-kind melodies, the kind of melodies that are instantly recognizable no matter the context of the genre. Record a grindcore version of "My Cherie Amour" or "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and chances are most people will figure it out by the first chorus.

James Austin Jr., a jazz keyboard player from Chicago, hasn't come up with any wild angles on Wonder's biggest hits. He simply approaches them with the same sense of reverence as anything from the Great American Songbook, which is where they probably belong in the first place. His ensemble is smallish yet heavy with Latin jazz accents, so the playing is tight and controlled but varied enough to keep things interesting. He's the type of bandleader who has probably figured this out many years ago--Wonder's melodies are so strong, we merely have to trust our own instincts and play our way. Songs such as "Isn't She Lovely," "Part-Time Lover" and "Golden Lady" already have great bones, to butcher a real estate term, and the roadmap is quite simple when it comes to improvisation.

That's not to say music like this is easy. Each one of Austin's cohorts--sax player Jarrard Harris, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, bassist Ben Rubens, drummer Kobie Watkins, percussionist Samuel Torres and guests guitarist Bobby Broom and bassist David Williams are all consummate pros, polished and professional when they need to be and also able to take off when the spotlight hits. Austin maintains such an easy, friendly tone in his band and he seems to guide them all equally with his economical piano playing, which is gentle and precise and anchored to those incredible melodies.

What comes through on this debut album most clearly is Austin's love and respect for Stevie Wonder, something that I share as well. "James regards Stevie Wonder as one of the greatest composers of our time," it says on the liner notes, and it's hard to dispute that. I came to Stevie Wonder relatively late in life, around the same time I also discovered my love for Marvin Gaye. As I said in the Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne review from earlier today, I was a Southern California rock and roll kid and it took many years to break free and discover new, wonderful things like the Stevie Wonder songbook. Austin seems like the kind of man who was already there from an early age, knowing these special melodies that were probably passed down to him by family. This music lives deep in his soul, and his respect for this material is beyond reproach.

Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne's Eastern Standard Time

The first time I heard The Manhattan Transfer, I was so young that I had no idea what kind of music it was. Maybe it was an early appearance on Saturday Night Live, or maybe it had to be before that since SNL started in 1975, when I was in the eighth grade. I certainly had to know this kind of jazz already, right? But I was raised in Southern California in the '60s and '70s--my 56th birthday was yesterday, by the way--and I grew up on a steady diet of rock and roll and the ultra-tame stuff my parents liked, everything from Eddy Arnold to Johnny Mathis. The Manhattan Transfer was so different, I didn't know how to process it. Now I understand and appreciate this type of dazzling urbane jazz, and after all these years it seems surprising that Cheryl Bentyne, one of the long-time members of TMT, is still out there making the same music--and doing it well.

Maybe I was initially surprised because she still looks great, and her voice is just as strong and beautiful as ever. But she's not one of the original members. This singing ensemble first appeared in 1969, which made me expect someone much older after doing the math. Cheryl didn't join until 1979 (which means she wasn't one of the four singers I witnessed back when I was young), but she's still an active member of that group and she's also released a dozen solo albums over the years. As it turns out, she's only a little older than me, which is why she sounds so vibrant--because she, we are. For the last eight years, however, she's been performing with singer/lyricist/producer Mark Winkler, and as the promotional material states they go together like "champagne and caviar." That statement alone foreshadows what you'll hear on their new album, Eastern Standard Time. It's the kind of music you might hear at an event that might be referred to as "black tie." This is jazz that lives and breathes the island of Manhattan.

This is their second album together. Their first, West Coast Cool, was released in 2013 and recaptured the classic '50s "West Coast sound" represented by tunes such as "Talk of the Town" and "Route 66." This follow-up obviously takes place on the other coast, expanding beyond the watery borders of Manhattan, and features music that reflects Bentyne's adventurous past with the Transfer, everything from "The Best Is Yet to Come," "The Gentleman Is a Dope" and even "Walk on the Wild Side"--even though the duo censors themselves on that famous line about Candy. While the magic is centered on the two and how they interact as a team--they do have an undeniable chemistry on every track--this album also boasts some of the greatest jazz musicians on the scene such as drummer Dave Tull, pianist Rich Eames, bassist Gabe Davis, sax player Bob Sheppard, percussionist Kevin Winard and guitarist Grant Geissman. (Guest stars include cellist Stephanie Fife and guitarist Pat Kelley.) In other words, every aspect of this album oozes class.

Circling back to that chemistry between Winkler and Bentyne, it's clear that they really like each other--they've reportedly become great friends over the last few years. You can hear that in the music, their delivery, the way they sing as if they're having a real conversation and just not taking turns at singing. Bentyne's voice is perfectly calibrated and coated with honey, while Winkler is more playful and whimsical. Every word they sing is a projection of their vivacious personalities, and by the end of the album you'll feel like you've made a couple of new friends. If you're already a fan on TMT, this album will provide you with everything you crave. You already know this music, and now it's time to dig in.

Tom Hook's 62 Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of Tom Hook's 62, an exceptionally fun and lively jazz revue, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Samuel Martinelli's Crossing Paths

This new release from drummer Samuel Martinelli touches on two phenomena in contemporary jazz that I personally enjoy. First, as I've mentioned repeatedly, I love it when a drummer leads a band and can use rhythm in order to inspire his fellow performers when it comes to taking up the melody that's on the page. In this case it's Martinelli's debut recording, so it's doubly exciting that he can take the reins and guide this exciting and talented quartet through a recording that contains mostly his original compositions. (The lone standard is Dizzy Gillespie's "Birk's Works.") Second, I've been discussing how Brazilian jazz often follows exact rules, and it's fascinating when someone ventures past the boundaries and offers something that's only tangentially a part of that genre. Martinelli is actually from Brazil, so he has that unique perspective that is borne from a lifetime in the midst of these distinctive rhythms and how to place them in a greater context for the rest of the world.

This is, therefore, Brazilian jazz performed by a straightforward quartet--Martinelli has chosen veteran horn player Claudio Roditi, bassist Marcus McLaurine and pianist Tomoko Ohno to accompany him on this ride. First impressions are of a straightforward quartet playing fabulous jazz, not necessarily brimming with the prerequisite polyrhythms and angelic voices but with a warm simplicity that immediately plugs in the right connections. Each one of these four musicians have that razor-sharp feel for their instruments and how the percussive sounds they create can somehow lock horns with the drummer, who also happens to be the boss. McLaurine is particularly adept at this with his expressive bass runs, which is no surprise since he's played with both Count Basie and was Clark Terry's bassist for more than a couple of decades.

Martinelli, however, has such a comprehensive knowledge about jazz drumming that the Brazilian influences are just one small part of his signature. He's committed to educating the public about Brazilian music since he has created a music school, Brazilian Clef, which serves that exact purpose. The jazz here is so straight, so universal, that it takes someone very familiar with South American innovations to spot them. Crossing Paths doesn't have an overriding theme like so many contemporary jazz releases. This is a calling card, and the fine print suggests that whatever you throw at Martinelli, he can through it back at you and make you nod approvingly. The icing on the cake, of course, is that he composed and arranged seven out of eight tracks. So it's not so much about arranging and interpreting as it's merely showing you what he possesses in his heart. It's real and genuine.

That all goes back to the first point, that drummer-bandleaders are usually fascinating when it comes to arrangements. Contemporary jazz has long eschewed the Buddy Rich-Gene Krupa model of having an amazing drummer show off and then dare the others on stage to keep up. Like many of his contemporaries, he is unusually kind to the others here. Maybe that's because he's surrounded by three incredible musicians with a daunting ledger of experience, and he doesn't want to step on anyone's toes. I think that's a cop out--jazz quartets are all about synergy, and these four musicians give the listener so much to think on. If there's one obviously Brazilian point to all of this, it's the beauty in which they play as a group.