Friday, September 28, 2018
Aimee Allen has an incredible voice, yes. It's rich and full and classically right for jazz. But what impresses me the most about her new album, Wings Uncaged, is that she has such obvious respect for the music she's singing, especially when it comes to the musicians who share the stage with her. That sounds a little vague, I know, but let elaborate. Back in the day (a phrase that a famous music scribe told me to avoid), you had a jazz singer, either male or female, someone like Ella (a personal favorite of Allen), and the record label knew that you needed more than just an incredible voice to stand out in the crowd. You needed those musicians behind you to be somebody as well, somebody known for the company they've kept and the records they have made. That's why they used to list the other musicians right on the front cover of the album whenever possible. Jazz aficionados love a singer who really shines, but they also want to know who's playing bass and drums and piano and whatever else.
Allen is, to use one of my favorite jazz words, generous. She understands that jazz is not only about your talent, and that it's important to step away from the microphone once in a while and bathe in the ideas that come from other parts of the stage. So many jazz singers have that "look at me" aura, of lifting the rest of their ensemble on their shoulders. But Allen has this remarkable way of belting out a few lines, smoothly and with such feeling and ease, and then she steps back and tells the audience "Oh, you like that? Wait until you hear this."
Wings Uncaged is one of my favorite recent albums featuring a female singer because it's so much of a collaboration. Let's get this out in the open--Allen's voice is special and deserves to be well in front. Without her amazing trio, she would still be a treasure and I would still like this album. A lot. She has a tremendous warmth in her powerful and clear voice. You want to listen to her, song after song, both her original compositions and standards such as "Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves," and you quickly realize that she's singing about herself. The original compositions are mighty in their fluency--these are real jazz songs, as real and honest as it gets. But bassist Francois Moutin, pianist Billy Test and drummer Kush Abadey stand out on their own, basking in the spotlight when required, but knowing how important it is to be a vital part of the whole.
Wings Uncaged, therefore, is a stunning meditation on the power of chemistry. Allen's been making records since 2006--her debut Dream featured her singing in English, French and Portuguese. She's played with a lot of big names, but it seems that these three are her spiritual home, the place where she feels comfortable and confident enough to deliver a set this impressive. At almost any point in the album you can simply focus on one of the four, and you'll be rewarded with pure, knowing excitement. It's that rightness, that feeling that no one else could do it any better. In a nutshell, these four performers need to stay together indefinitely and keep recording albums as wonderful as this. Wow.
Lush and tropical.
Everyone wants lush and tropical, right? Music that is lush and tropical is not only romantic, it's romantic in the sense that it takes you somewhere beautiful, a place where you can relax and be yourself and enjoy every moment. Jazz that is heavy in both Latin and Caribbean influences usually accomplishes those feelings and connections with ease. People who are fortunate to travel to such idyllic locations earn a splendid imprint on their psyches, a supreme feeling of contentment that this type of music instantly summons. Ken Wiley's new album, Cuerno Exotica, is such a vessel for that kind of happiness with its dense, modern structure and superb musical performances. It's a magical balm for your stressful existence in every conceivable way.
Wiley fronts this magnificent music with an unusual instrument--the French horn. (He also plays piano.) Despite the fact that one of my exes plays the instrument, I've always associated this brass instrument with a more civil tone, a reserved countenance that reminds me more of the English countryside than anything else. In this context, however, Wiley's horn is winsome and attractive. It reminds me of such words as "tradewinds," of traveling to places that can only be approached with a catamaran. Coupled with Mark Leggett's gorgeous acoustic guitar and Dan Higgins' wistful flute and piccolo, Wiley re-imagines a dream, a vacation from odd angles and jagged edges. He's smart enough to embrace plenty of percussion to solidify those Latin places and emotions, but there's no denying that he's created an innovative way to present his idea of world music in a way that's incredibly sure and hypnotic.
Cuerno Exotica starts off with a casual and seductive rendering of Ravel's Bolero. It's immediately identifiable, of course, but it's so languid in its method that you might wonder why it hasn't been offered in this way before. If you're convinced that this piece is an expression of love and lovemaking, you'll connect the dots rather quickly. But if you're like me, an avid lover of Ravel, you'll be equally compelled by the structure of the piece and how it was so revolutionary at the time of its debut. Wiley's version, however, does ooze with the visions of a forbidden tryst on a seductive beach, one where the participants are mesmerized equally by each other's eyes and the distant horizon where adventure awaits.
From Bolero we are treated to more exacting arrangements of those lush and tropical themes--McCoy Tyner's fabulous "Sama Layuca" and Cal Tjader's "Black Orchid" are far more logical in their interpretations. What elevates this music from being a mere "Bali Hai" travelogue is that denseness I described, how the music flows easily while offering an almost infinite range of details. The rhythm section is subdued and yet vital, producing a momentum that expands upon the obvious vision of Ravel. This album rewards deep listening, but it's also magical in its role as the soundtrack for the vacation of a lifetime, spent on a veranda with a soft sound of waves crashing on the sand.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Pure improvisation is a tricky thing when it comes to musical composition. Few people can do it consistently while simultaneously engaging the audience--pianists Keith Jarrett and Jan Gunner Hoff immediately come to mind. It's one thing to "explore" the instrument you are playing, toying with scales, coming up with spontaneous burst of melody that may eventually evolve into a finalized idea. It's quite another to have a gift of pure improvisation and create a sound that already feels finalized. One of the great joys of pure musical improvisation is when the listener is surprised that it's improvisational, that they're listening to something that hasn't been carefully composed.
Can you imagine what happens when two musicians attempt the same thing on the same stage?
Pianist Carol Liebowitz and tenor sax player Birgitta Flick haven taken this idea to a new level with their new album Malita-Malika. I have listened to many improvisational duets over the last few years and I find that they can be fascinating and yet inconsistent. There's always a diverging and converging of ideas, when the two performers lock in step and create something magical out of thin air, when they inspire each other with counterpoint, and when each one is fumbling in the dark. Liebowitz and Flick, however, have inserted an unusual structure for their divergent and convergent patterns by mixing original compositions and standards with their improvisation.
That creates a mood where the difficult and challenging passages throw out random ideas, the original compositions gather those ideas into little piles, and songs from the Great American Songbook such as "Marionette," "September in the Rain" and "You Don't Know What Love Is" provide beautiful little music boxes for storage of those ideas. The title track, which comes after three dark and brooding improvisations, is the lone original composition by Flick--it acts as the shifting focus between two very different modes. As Flick and Liebowitz explain on the liner notes, "To us it's all one: we're guided by the spirit and the intuition of the very moment the music comes into being."
The difficult passages are indeed difficult, with plenty of discord and turmoil tossed back and forth between the instruments. But when that focus kicks in the result can be perfectly lovely, especially as Liebowitz's piano starts churning out the gorgeous surf and Flick's saxophone dances on top of the waves like seabirds. Liebowitz's voice, featured on two of the standards, also acts as a lovely anchor for all those ideas. Malita-Malika features such a wide range of emotions and structures that it can be described as "not for everyone," but as an expression of musical spontaneity it is quite impressive.
I'm honored to join the Part-Time Audiophile team on a regular basis as Managing Editor of The Occasional, their lifestyle publication. You can read the press release here for more details. We'll be attempting something unique with The Occasional--instead of being yet another high-end audio website, we'll be focused on things audiophiles also enjoy. We're painting on a much bigger canvas here--fine wine, fashion, cigars, watches, automobiles and, hopefully, a lot more about the music.
I'll be returning to the equipment reviewing game as well, something that I've missed greatly during the last seven years. I'll be covering high-end audio shows as well, starting with the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest which is right around the corner, October 3-5.
As for this blog, I'll continue posting as time permits. I will also continue posting music reviews for Positive Feedback, since they partner with Part-Time Audiophile in posting content. I receive so much music from artists, record labels and publicists that I'm not sure how to cover it in a quarterly publication. So we'll let everything evolve naturally.
Suffice it to say that I'm extremely happy with this sudden and unexpected turn of events--I've always thought of myself as a writer more than anything else, and now I get to live that dream! Thanks to everyone who has encouraged me over the last few years...I appreciate it.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
My latest music review for Positive Feedback, Sarah Reich's New Change, in now live. This is an exciting and innovative release since Reich is a tap dancer, and is employing her talented feet as a lead instrument! You can read it here. Enjoy!
Thursday, September 20, 2018
Listening to Q Morrow's new album, There Are Stars in Brooklyn, I'm immediately reminded that the acoustic guitar is woefully under-represented in contemporary jazz. I don't know why this is, since Morrow's playing fits in perfectly with most sub-genres of jazz--especially those with Latin and Caribbean roots. But even that's pigeon-holing this unique performer and underestimating how expansive his sound really is. Morrow, who obviously calls Brooklyn his home, is originally from the suburbs of Boise, Idaho. At 18 he left for California and studied music in Santa Cruz and later went to the University of North Texas, a place I now know pretty well due to my recent head-first dive into their legendary jazz studies program. From there he traveled to India to study Carnatic music with Jayanthi Kumaresh. As a result of his musical sojourn, he is well-versed in jazz, funk, pop, rock, classical, Cuban, Brazilian and of course Indian guitar styles.
If you listen casually to his style of playing, you might think of flamenco first, especially during the epic opening title track. As you move through these eight originals, his approach slowly morphs into Brazilian motifs. A-ha, you might exclaim. Isn't Brazilian jazz a sub-genre that uses acoustic guitars extensively? I would agree with you there, except that acoustic guitars are usually employed for their rhythms and textures, and that Brazilian music rarely uses this instrument as a lead instrument, much less one with a virtuoso presence such as this. So are we talking maybe Bola Sete? Yes, maybe that puts us in the right ball park, but that's starts us drifting into the realm of world music. And it's true that each of these songs evokes a different landscape and a different sensibility, all lovingly caressed by Morrow's magnificent guitar. "Pupusa Da Jamaica" doesn't stray too far from the Brazilian compositions, but it has a far livelier tempo that suggest flapping wings more than a steady float on an air current. The lovely and quiet "Inferno Astral" walks the southern edges of Spain like Morricone and Leone once did. The closer, "Loose Ends," has that classic free-wheeling and smart feel straight out of the NYC jazz scene, or at least the Brooklyn end.
What keeps There Are Stars in Brooklyn firmly planted in the world of jazz is Morrow's cohorts for this project--Will Vinson on sax, Evan Francis on sax and flute, Sam Bevan on bass and Raj Jayaweera on drums. These four keep Morrow's versatility not so much in check as somewhat grounded in tradition, his multitude of influences and aura of limitless possibilities tethered to a solid structure. This clean, spectacular recording is clearly about the man and his guitar, but the others know how to frame that exquisite talent in an explosive and exciting setting, and they also know how to step away as they do on "Inferno Astral" and let this daring musician produce almost hypnotic strains of pure beauty.
This is Q Morrow's second album. His first, All Around Dude, was released six years ago. I sampled some of it from his website, at http://www.qmorrow.net/, and it also showcases his amazing guitar skills but with significant tonal differences. I'm intrigued by this idea--so many of these reviews I've been doing feature musicians who wait five, ten, fifteen years or more between albums, something that's almost unheard of in the realm of pop and rock unless we're talking about one of those ubiquitous comeback tours. I think it's different in the world of jazz--artists go out and perform and live life and travel the world, like Morrow has, and those experiences seem to find their way into the music. It's more revealing to wait for these musicians to go through the next phase and deliver the goods once the differences are meaningful. Morrow certainly has arrived at the next level and has given us something full of imagination.
You can download this album at the Q Morrow website.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Another day, another jazz masterpiece from Zoho Records.
This one, from tenor and soprano saxophone player Marco Pignataro, focuses on one thing--melody. We're not just talking about pretty songs here, but rather an overall sound that is incredibly engaging and gorgeous and will make you sit up in your listening chair and say "Wow, this is truly beautiful jazz." Pignataro is based in Boston, but Almas Antiguas ("old souls") chronicles his Puerto Rican and Italian heritage to create a lush romantic sound that leans heavily on both Mediterranean and Latin rhythms. It's not easy to conjure up these influences with "just" a saxophone, but his playing is sensitive to these folk traditions and winds up being more than convincing.
On the opener, Teo Ciavarella and Flavio Piscopo's "Panarea," his evocative playing inserts a Middle Eastern sensibility that is both exotic and devoted to jazz traditions--just think, once again, of "Caravan" and how that classic opens up a whole new world to lovers of jazz. Can he accomplish all this with just a saxophone? Well, he has plenty of help with an adventurous quintet that includes drummer Adam Cruz, pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Eddie Gomez and tenor saxophonist George Garzone. Cruz, in particular, is kinetic and almost impossibly dynamic and acts as Pignataro's right-hand man through this mix of original compositions and standards such as "Alfonsina Y El Mar" and "Samba Em Preludio." Much of Zoho's current catalog digs deep into Brazilian jazz, but Almas Antiguas broadens those horizons considerably by adding both European and African touches.
"This CD is about roots from the Mediterranean, and how jazz can become this lens that absorbs all these different colors," Pignataro explains, "through which you can create a new sound and bring out your cultural identity." I've heard many of these jazz albums in the last couple of years, and usually that means you need a working knowledge of those cultural idiosyncracies to understand what is being put where, and why. Pignataro encapsulates this complex approach in something so breathtakingly lush that you can coast along without thinking. You're completely under his spell even as he shifts gears and plunges into a quieter and more dramatic sound, such as when Gomez pulls out his bow and works in harmony with the others, creating a seductive new layer to the voices here.
It's important to point out the wonderful chemistry in this quintet, the way they can closely follow Pignataro's personal visions for each song and make them come alive with meaning. Each member is regarded as a virtuoso, but this is the first time they've playing together as a unit. As usual, I have to throw in a mention of the sound quality here--Zoho always does a remarkable job of making everything sound lifelike, spontaneous and natural. Almas Antiguas becomes a first-among-equals in the Zoho catalog--it's a great starting point for anyone who wants to investigate this thrilling indie label and discover how they're keeping jazz from all over the world in front of deserving audiences.
With all these female vocal recordings I have on hand, it's interesting to pick out each one and find out what makes it different. Really, I'm trying to figure what makes each singer distinct--some sound like Julie, some sound like Ella, some sound like themselves, which is always a good thing. In rare cases, it's the music that's unique. If it is, that's an interesting reflection on the singer since it's ultimately about her tastes, and what she feels comfortable singing. Christine Hitt's new album, Magical Kite, is very different than most of the jazz albums I've been listening to lately because it drifts away from the traditions of jazz so frequently. In many ways she's a pure pop singer, taking on whatever songs have meaning for her. This isn't about taking familiar songs such as "Don't You Worry About a Thing," "Shower the People" or "Shine On Harvest Moon" and turning them into jazz standards. It's about finding something true to each composition and showing respect.
Hitt, who lives in the frozen tundra of Northern Wisconsin, is a pop singer with a sensitivity to jazz traditions, perhaps in the same vein of audiophile favorites such as Anne Bisson. That means she has eclectic tastes--everything from bebop to gospel to standards. She came to Los Angeles to record Magical Kite at Capitol Studios and recorded with some the best jazz musicians out west including pianist John Beasley, drummers Gene Coye and Jeff Hamilton and alto sax player Bob Sheppard. That means she can hit the straight jazz on songs like "Wade in the Water" and "Yardbird Suite" with authenticity and passion. Then she'll throw in a gentle ballad such as "Believe in Me," replete with strings and a gentle lead from Leo Amuedo's acoustic guitar. The track listing is so balanced, with each song radically different from then last one, that it almost reminds me of listening to Queen albums back in my teens.
Hitt is not purely defined by this variety, however--her voice is unusually warm and comforting, sweet and affectionate and powerful when it needs to be. She's the glue that holds these genres together, possessing a tonal consistency that keeps you focused on her talent instead of the way she darts around these swings in style. In the long run these shifts aren't as startling as they sound, especially if you imagine Hitt as the opposite of a pop singer who wants to take a crack at a jazz song, which is far more common. Call her a jazz singer who is also a music lover, one who wants to sing it all if given the chance.
Magical Kite is produced and arranged by pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer, who gives this album a rich, professional feeling with the impression that the budget was large and that all the best people were involved. It's his skill as arranger that makes this album so fluid despite the constantly changing scenery. He's almost an unsung yet equal partner with Hitt, which is perhaps why they share the spotlight on the final track, "Around the World." It's just Hitt's voice backed by Keezer's piano, and he takes one hell of a victory lap with a stunning performance. It's a lovely, quiet way to end this charming album.
Saturday, September 15, 2018
Judith Lorick is the type of jazz singer where you hear her voice and say, oh yes, I've been listening to Judith Lorick for years...she's fabulous! She's so relaxed and confident in the way she stretches out every word, and it's obvious she's mastered her craft. There's a subtle perfection to her voice that comes from a lifetime of performing jazz. "Judith Lorick is a vocalist we should have heard from long before now," the press kit exclaims, and I actually agree with this description wholeheartedly. She should be famous.
I know, that sounds like a lot of shameless hyperbole, and we reviewers are supposed to avoid that. I'm not saying that Lorick is the finest singer I've heard, because that is hyperbole. But you will listen to her masterful takes on these ballads and wonder why she isn't a household name. There's a story behind that, which is why her new album is titled The Second Time Around. First, these ballads celebrate "several life events for Judith, most notably the reunion with her long lost love Artie." Secondly, this album also celebrates her reunion with pianist Eric Reed. She met Reed back in 1995, and the chemistry between them was obvious. She spent almost thirty years in France, but when she returned in 2004 she reconnected. Hence, this album is the second time around in more way than one.
Naturally there is plenty of emotional significance to the making of this album. The subject matter is familiar--""If You Could See Me Now," "He Needs Me," "When I Look in Your Eyes" and "Why Did I Choose You?" all must have a very personal meaning to her. The idea behind this album is that Lorick has chosen songs that are reflected in her recent fortune, and she and Reed are arranging them in a way that's convincing...as if Artie is sitting in the first row of her performance and they can't take their eyes off each other. The highlight of the album, for me anyway, is her rendition of "Wild Is the Wind." I first heard this, of course, when I bought Bowie's Station to Station back in 1976, and I've never heard another version of it. She transforms this already deeply romantic song into something more earthly and real and, most importantly, tender.
Lorick and Reed are both supremely talented, but the rest of her ensemble is downright brilliant: trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, drummer McClenty Hunter, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and tenor sax player Chris Lewis. It's hard to stand out as a musician when you're playing ballads, especially ones that are being sung by such a powerful and direct singer, but everyone has a chance to shine. We're not talking improvisational solos that show off someone's talent--we're talking about each musician, particularly Pelt and Lewis, sharing their own story, talking about the second chances they've experienced in their lives. There's a magical sense of dedication in The Second Time Around, that each performer shares in Lorick's joy and is genuinely happy for her. It's rare when everything clicks together this well. Highly recommended.
Friday, September 14, 2018
An embarrassment of riches, indeed.
I've mentioned that I have numerous releases to review right now, as usual, and a significant percentage of albums in the pile are spectacular releases from gifted female jazz singers. Vocalist and composer Johnaye Kendrick is yet another stand out--which begs the question that if everyone stands out, are they still standing out?--but I gravitated toward the loveliness of her voice and the way it reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald without sounding too much like Ella, much in the same way Kate Reid sounds like Julie London while still retaining a modicum of originality. Kendrick studied and graduated from Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute and has worked with Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others, which is why she has a grand sense of the classic traditions. But she also casts this mix of original compositions and standards in a light that is clearly modern--just like Kate Reid does. As a result, her new album Flying doesn't sound like a classic Ella, but an Ella who is still alive in 2018 and who enters the studio to show her enduring relevance.
"I was relatively shy about performing my music while in the program," Kendrick explains, "because it was so personal." Once you hear those words, you sense the same shyness in the music--there's a beautiful yet tentative quality about her velvety voice that suggests she might a little nervous about revealing so much about herself. It's not quite vulnerability, which can be a very desirable trait in a singer's voice, since she does sing as if she's confident about her talent. Flying, however, has the feeling of a stolen deep breath before walking out on stage, of saying "Here we go" and knowing that a lot is riding on this. Not only is she throwing that magical voice out there and hoping you'll love it, but her arrangements have that same compelling sense of risk. Fortunately she understands the deep emotions a beautiful melody can summon, and her big move turns out to be the right one.
Kendrick adds one addition element to her songs that sets her apart--she's topical. The opener, an original song titled "Never You Mind," tackles BLM and informs the listener that "You come from a legacy of warriors and though there's fear/Know that fear's what fueled the fire of courage that led us here." She invests so much of herself into these lyrics; she describes the songwriting process as "performing journal entries, as the pieces were always so honest and literally based on my experiences." She even infuses the standards such as "It Could Happen to You" and "The Very Thought of You" with that same spirit of adaptation. If you need proof of this, listen to her stunning arrangement of "I've Got No Strings"--you might forget about the source.
Flying is a brave album, augmented by sensitive musicians such as keyboardist Dawn Clement, bassist Chris Symer and drummer D'Vonne Lewis, along with a few guest artists. Kendrick even plays the harmonium with that same personalized touch--you can hear her longing, regret and hope through its notes. Kendrick may use Ella as a jumping off point, but by the end of the album she has gone off on a trajectory that is purely this woman and no one else. She's a warm and emotional singer, a gifted arranger and an artist who knows that the past is prologue, so there's plenty of room to be like no one else.
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Have you read my article in Part-Time Audiophile yet, the one about Zoho Records? As soon as that article went live, I received a couple of releases from Zoho that should have been included since they're so fantastic; they capture the essence of this unique label that tends to focus on South American jazz musicians. This release right here, from Brazilian guitarist Sergio Pereira, doesn't quite have the complex and innovative approach of the other releases mentioned in that article. Rather, it captures that essence of Brazilian jazz, that smooth and lush feel that marks the best of that specific and popular genre.
That's not a bad thing, of course. If you've fallen in love with something obvious, say Getz/Gilberto, you'll feel right at home with Nu Brasil. That title alone suggests a new direction, but it's more of a precise summary of what makes this type of jazz so popular. (Actually, nu in Portuguese means "naked," which is a more accurate description of these ten original compositions.) We're talking, of course, about beauty and a breezy motif that implies that life in Brazil is full of celebration, love and yes, just a hint of unbridled sex appeal. "There's a certain something inherent in the music of Brazil," the liner notes explain, "that goes well beyond the notes and speaks more of the soul of a culture." That description is deliciously apt and indicates, as usual, that the folks at Zoho know and feel and understand the music they are releasing. They seem to understand this more than just about any other contemporary jazz label.
Pereira fits the typical profile of a Zoho artist. At 59, he's been playing Brazilian jazz for most of his life--even though he left Rio many years ago for the lights and the freedom of the New York City jazz scene. His guitar is soft yet intricate, full of so many flavors that instantly transport you to the Southern hemisphere. He surrounds himself with many of Brazil's most famous musicians, including a trio of vocalists (Paula Santoro, Sergio Santos and Viktoria Pilatovic) who know how to take that gentle ease of Astrud Gilberto and build on that appeal by making these songs less about the people of that country and more about the experiences you might have while living there.
Top that off with Zoho's welcome dedication to sound quality, and you have a release that redefines what it means to feel alive, and how music helps to accomplish that joy. Brazilian ensembles often create a rich and fluid sound through a large contingent of performers--it's far more intimate than a big band orchestra where every musician is adding a specific ingredient to the recipe. Pereira's compositions and arrangements lean toward the impressionistic, resulting in a sound that envelops you with warmth, vivaciousness and a miraculous gift of seduction.
Is anyone out there getting their vinyl fixes off 7" 45RPM singles? I'm sure the answer to that question is dependent upon how old you are. I suspect plenty of young people, not to mention people of all ages who still love indie rock from small indie labels, still grab the little 45s whenever they can. They're fun, they're relatively cheap and it's a great way to get a new band's music out there to the fans in a very specialized way--one that can't be replicated by digital streaming. I also believe there are plenty of people my age and older who started off their love for music with a stack of 45s and a little record player. This group may still be attracted to the novelty of the 7" single for purely nostalgic reasons.
I've noticed that my own collection of 45s is growing quicker now, in 2018, than during any other time in my life. I lot of this has to do with the connections I've made with the indie rock world over the last decade or so, going back to my days in Portland and up to and including the local Syracuse record labels such L.R.S. I've mentioned Ean Hernandez of Top Drawer Records before--he was my source for Date Night with Brian and the recent 14 Soda Punx LP. He sent me an email a few weeks ago about "a new 7" that I'm putting out for my old bandmates: Denny and Josh from Sicko." The new band is named The Drolls, and they actually provided one of the tracks on the Soda Punks album. They're joined with Julie from Guest Directors to form a true power pop trio.
In the past I've reviewed singles, and in recent years it seems as if the goal is to cram as much music as possible onto this little discs--at least two songs per side, accompanied by a nice dollop of inner-groove distortion by the time you get to the dead wax (which is minimal at this point). Ean keeps it old-fashioned and clean, however--just two brief songs, "Follow That Dinosaur" and "Alternate Timeline," one on each side. This single has the same minimalist indie production values as Soda Punx, but as I mentioned in that review it's sort of desirable for the punk and post-punk ethos. So you're not getting brilliant sound quality, but you are getting a purist approach to this kind of music which is essential to its enjoyment.
That said, if you loved Soda Punx, you'll love this. Ean and his friends at Top Drawer straddle that bridge between old-fashioned punk and power-pop from the '80s and '90s. (Ean officially calls it "pure power pop punk rock.") There's that same quickness, same grittiness (especially in the vocals and the Nirvana-esque chord progressions). There's also a distinctly happy feel to these two songs--Top Drawer isn't about gloom and doom and terror and sheer unbridled anger, but energy that invigorates. I don't know if I can dig that deeply into a two-song single, but I can tell you that you can check it out yourself without making a major investment, and maybe you'll browse through the Top Drawer catalog and re-discover how much fun this music truly is...especially on 45 singles!
You can order it here, complete with download card, for just $6.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Julie London is the woman!
That doesn't quite sound right--it's not the same thing as saying that some guy you know is the MAN! I'm just trying to express my pleasure that Julie London, one of my very favorite female jazz singers, has become sort of a model for other contemporary singers over the last couple of years. When you dig into Julie's wonderful (and wonderfully well-recorded) catalog, you'll slowly remove the layers of the proverbial onion and realize there's so much to discover in a style that, for the most part, seems simple and straightforward. Sure, she was sultry and sexy and evocative, but she also had a sort of innocence about her that isn't discussed that much. When I listen to today's jazz singers try to channel her spirit, they often miss that subtle paradox.
Once again I've noticed that my review pile is full of recordings of female jazz singers. There was a time not so long ago when I'd be complaining about that, but this year's crop of "female vocals for audiophiles" is ripening into quite a stellar harvest. Kate Reid, who hails from the Great Lakes region, stands out from this current crowd because she's adopting London's minimalist presentation, one that keeps everything quiet and direct. That's smart, because Reid's alluring alto has plenty of nuances that shouldn't be hidden by an over-produced release. Her style is close enough to London's that you'll admire her taste in music--her new album, The Heart Already Knows, is a mix of standards and pop tunes--but she's doing so much more than paying homage to a legend. (This isn't even a tribute since these songs are not known as London songs, but there are many similarities in the approach.)
I should stop with the endless comparisons, since that isn't quite fair to the very talented Reid. It is fair to say that she affects me in the same way as London, which is basically wow, I love listening to this person sing these words in such an interesting and heartfelt manner. Reid's complex set of vocal inflections are the mark of someone who knows a classically-trained voice can't always convey a wealth of life experiences--either good or bad. That's why the skilled musicians who share the stage with Reid are so reticent. They're standing out of the way, letting you soak up that big, warm voice. In most cases she's accompanied by little more than a piano or a guitar, albeit from all-stars such as Paul Meyers, Larry Koonse and yes, the great Fred Hersch. It's interesting that Reid is also known as a talented pianist, but she chooses focus everything on her splendid vocal interpretations.
The Heart Already Knows, if you haven't figured it out yet, is a singer's album, one where most of your attention is continually drawn toward the woman in the black dress at the front of the stage. I suspect that accounted for so much of Julie London's charm, that she mastered the art of commanding attention from the audience. Inside that charm is that innocence I mentioned, and that makes this singer even more intriguing. Listening to Kate Reid gives me the identical impression of a singular spotlight, one that captures the essence in each syllable. Highly recommended.
Friday, September 7, 2018
Way back in July I reviewed Miguel Zenon's intriguing new work for string quartet and saxophone, Yo Soy La Tradicion. The problem is, the release date wasn't until September 21. I got my copy way in advance. So I promised to remind everyone of the review as we got closer to the release date, so you can read the original review here
Miguel's publicist has also informed me that the single "Promesa" will be available as of today on Spotify, Tidal, Amazon and other digital platforms. Please check it out--it's really good.
Trumpeter Randy Brecker got his start back in the '70s, when he and his late saxophonist brother Michael teamed up as The Brecker Brothers. I bring this up first because Together, Brecker's big band collaboration with arranger Mats Holmquist and the Umo Jazz Orchestra, sounds like it's been plucked right out of that era. There's something kind of jazzy and funky in the vibe here, from the way the music sparkles and glistens like a Lalo Schifrin film score to touches of soul that nearly evoke James Brown and his measured, synchronized ensembles. Brecker is out front, however, his big trumpet sound leading this 18-piece orchestra straight out of Helsinki.
That's right, the Umo Jazz Orchestra is from Finland and Holmquist, for those who already know, is Swedish. That might lead you to search for Scandinavian influences in this vibrant album, but I've tried and I can't hear any. I've always thought that musicians in Scandinavian countries, Sweden in particular, are quite adept at taking American musical genres and playing them in a way that's nearly subterfuge. I'm thinking of everyone from the stunning Swedish metal bands to hip-hop/pop singer Robyn, and how you can listen to them without ever saying "Wow, and they're Scandinavian!"--unless, of course, you start digging into the liner notes. The Umo Jazz Orchestra sounds exactly like any American big band ensemble from the '70s and '80s. They way they evoke those specific impressions is masterful, something you'd expect from an ensemble that has been playing steadily since 1975.
Together is also notable because it's not loaded with old standards like many big band recordings these days. Holmquist is not just a fine arranger, but his original compositions such as "One Million Circumstances" and "All My Things" blend in perfectly with three compositions from Chick Corea--"Crystal Silence," "Humpty Dumpty" and "Windows." (The album also includes a striking arrangement of Evans & Livingston's "Never Let Me Go.") There's a lively and consistent feel through these nine tracks, summarized by Brecker's comment on the liner notes that "there are absolutely no dull moments, you are going to be taken on the ride of a lifetime."
What I find most intriguing in this recording is that sense of expansion and contraction, something I've recently mentioned in other reviews of big band ensembles. It's easy for a big band to go non-stop through the course of an album since they possess all that firepower, but it's an exhilarating feel when they can transition into a quieter passage with precision and ease. It's a remarkable feeling when you shift those gears and go from 18 performers to just a handful, and that adds to the excitement of these big band recordings. That's the very definition of dynamic contrast, of course, and a leading cause of the "goosebump effect." With Brecker's mighty horn at the lead, you should experience this phenomenon over and over during this album.
Wednesday, September 5, 2018
Greg Diaz's large jazz ensemble, The Art of the Imagination Jazz Orchestra, sounds quite a bit different than most big bands. At first I thought it was because they were slightly smaller than most jazz big bands, but 17 musicians--including tenor sax player and composer Diaz--are listed in the credits. You have five sax players, four trumpeters and four trombones, so you can anticipate a big sound that usually comes from such a meaty horn section. But at the core of The Art of Imagination Orchestra is a tight, focused rhythm section that includes keyboard player Eero Turunen, guitarist Chrsitian davis, bassist James McCoy and drummer Matt Calderin. These four don't play like they're in a big band jazz ensemble. They play like they're in a really hot funk-rock band, and that's the difference.
This is Greg Diaz's "long overdue debut" album, which means he's one of those guys who has been around for years and has played with just about everyone--we're talking Tito Puente, The Letterman, The Temptations, Ben E. King, Phil Woods and more. From that line-up, the funky core of his orchestra makes perfect sense. Through his arrangements of hits from Kevin Eubanks ("The Navigator"), a New Orleans medley that fuses "Brother John" and "Iko Iko" with an original composition and a few more original stand-alones, Diaz is a bridge of sorts between two bands. One on side he has one of those dazzling, powerful horn sections that always seems like it's on the verge of exploding on stage, and on the other side that killer rhythm section does more than ground the orchestra--it jumps behind the wheel and stomps on the gas pedal.
Diaz is also one of those jazz musicians who has a side job in the faculty of a jazz department in a college--in this case, Miami Dade Community College. Surprisingly, he is a Professor of Jazz Voice there. Despite the fact that he can play tenor sax, clarinet and flute, and that he composes and arranges this album, he does get a chance to sing during the New Orleans medley, and it's a big and appropriately joyous voice he possesses. Despite this versatility, he champions numerous solos from both sides of his orchestra. That gives Begin the Agora a vibe that is constantly evolving while maintaining a major chord energy that always sounds like a celebration.
I have a few more big band recordings on deck. They tend to arrive in clusters. The key to enjoying each recording is to pick out the signature, the angle that makes each one unique. That's important, since most big band recordings focus on standards and bringing something new to the mix--which is harder than it sounds. Diaz and his orchestra have found their own signature, that rich and funky momentum that's borne from that killer rhythm section and is given flight by that powerhouse of a horn section. But most of all there's a man standing in the middle, a sax player who keeps the two halves together through his multitude of talents.
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
The following is a true story. I wish it wasn't, but it is.
My first marriage lasted just three years, from 1987 to 1990. During that time, my ex-wife bought exactly one LP to add to "our" collection--the soundtrack for the film Beaches, the one with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, the one with the monster hit "The Wind Beneath My Wings." I never listened to this album. I think I instructed my first wife to only play the record when I was not around and I'm pretty sure she complied. (We had a reciprocal deal with my Led Zeppelin LPs.) When we parted ways, I packed up my record collection and left Virginia so that I could return to Southern California. When I set up my system and filed all my records, I found that I still had the copy of Beaches. Ugh. I offered to send it back to Virginia, but I never heard back.
For years this LP sat in my collection, unplayed. Whenever someone would browse through the collection, they would invariably spot this particular LP, pull it out, and ask me why in the world I had it. I can't remember if I had a stock answer or not, but eventually I'd just say something like "Long story." I often joked about throwing it in the trash, or playing frisbee with it in a supermarket parking lot, but deep down it's against my nature to destroy an LP, any LP. So it remained.
By 1998 I had remarried, and my second wife and I wound up moving next door to her mother in beautiful Tujunga, California. During that time I once again found this record in my collection and I had to explain the story. My second wife's mother, as it turned out, was a huge fan of Bette Midler and loved the film as well. She also had a turntable. So I gave it to her and told her to enjoy it and never play it when I was around. Once again, there was compliance. Unfortunately she passed away in 2003, and all of her records wind up coming back to me, the only person around who still listened to vinyl. Once again, Beaches was in my record collection.
When my second wife and I split in 2005, we also split the record collection. Wife #2 already had a decent record collection when we met, and in our twelve years of marriage she bought quite a bit of music for herself. I had to give up plenty of favorites--all the Elliot Smith and Liz Phair went to her, much to my regret. But yes, for some reason Beaches remained with me. I just couldn't get rid of it.
Many years later, when Colleen and I moved from Colorado to New York (this would be 2015), we had a huge garage sale to condense our belongings for the move. I sold off many of my "worthless" LPs, and finally I had a pile that I simply marked "FREE." Someone grabbed that pile, and Beaches was in it. "At last," I thought," that album is gone." For good.
Flash forward to this past weekend, when Colleen and I visited her aunt in Massachusetts. "I have a bunch of old records in the basement," she told us. "Do you think anyone would want them? Otherwise I'm just going to give them away or throw them out." Of course I decided to take them. When we brought up two cardboard boxes full of records, about 100 in all, I searched through them. Usually I expect the bottom-of-the-barrel LPs when I find a stash like this, full of the usual Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Herb Alpert records, the ones you always find at the tiniest and saddest thrift stores. To my surprise, these albums were mostly good, everything from The Beatles to Bob Dylan to Neil Young and more. We grabbed the boxes, put them in our trunk and headed home.
I'm going through them now, and what do I find? You guessed it, Beaches. FFS.
I went back to my record collection and looked through the Bs, because the only way this story would get stranger is if I still had that first copy. That would have made a much better ending, I know. But it's obvious that I was meant to own this album for the rest of my life. So I'll keep it because, frankly, it amuses the hell out of me. Maybe I'll play it. Maybe I'll like it.
Besides, if I got rid of this one, another would come along. Right?
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Positive Feedback Online has just published my first equipment review in quite a while--the Furutech NCF Boosters. I've been using these in my system for the last few months, and felt I needed to get the word out on these very interesting audio devices. You can read the article here.