Monday, December 31, 2018

The Gil Evans Orchestra's Hidden Treasures Monday Nights Vol. 1

This is the second jazz review in a row of an album designed to be part of a series, but this Gil Evans Orchestra CD I have here is more of a landmark than the birth of a new talent. The GEO hasn't recorded a studio album in nearly 40 years, and Gil Evans passed away in 1988, even though sporadic recordings were released throughout the early '90s. Monday Nights is the first installation in a project of Evans' sons, Miles and Noah, to play the songs of the GEO just like they might have been played in the '70s and '80s--back when the ensemble played Monday nights at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village. Monday Nights, therefore, is the first of a trilogy of recordings to be released.

This release doesn't fit cleanly into one category of jazz. Gil Evans' signature was a more theatrical sound, so there's a cross between big band jazz and more of those jazzy film soundtrack orchestrations from the '70s and the '80s, the ones where the opening credits are shown against the backdrop of a big city at night--usually a copter shot. Add to that a dollop or two of '80s funk, the more polished stuff that only flirted with the down and dirty. What you're listening to is a sound that's dated, but it's also coming back in a big way. This might be the first wave of '90s jazz nostalgia, dance music from a sunnier, more flamboyant time.

That's the point, of course, recreating a weekly event that started in 1983 and ended in 1994. For what it's worth, the Evans sons have retained that authenticity they needed to pull off the project--many of the GEO members from that classic period are still here, still able to maintain those daunting energy levels. But an important choice was made, the right one I suspect, to bring the recording quality to a more natural and modern level. The super-bright digital was in full swing in those days, and I am not interested in kicking back and listening to a re-creation of that sound. The stunning sound quality, therefore, is a gift.

What's most intriguing about Monday Nights is where it heads when the gas pedal is pushed all the way down, and the big band jazz conventions start to fishtail all over the road. There are hidden treasures, indeed, in these compositions, times when you head around a corner and notice you're in a new neighborhood where the beat is a little faster and stiffer, where the synthesizers kick up an orchestral wave that reinforces the cinematic ambitions of Gil Evans. It sounds great, of course, mysterious in its willingness to explore, even when it's playing tribute to an exact point in time and space.

Jack Kilby and the Front Line's Love Is a Song Anyone Can Sing

Ask and ye shall receive. In this case it's jazz ensembles led by drummers, and there's been quite a few of these recordings in my mailbox over the last couple of months. I've mentioned many times that I love these ensembles for their innate drive and momentum and now, on the cusp of the new year, I might declare this as a new, wonderful thing. The story here is this particular drummer-leader, one Jack Kilby, is only 29 years old, and that he leads a group of gentlemen who represent multiple points in time within jazz history. Kilby comes out of the jazz program at the University of Virginia, and he possesses that confidence a young man like this must have in order to make it in this scene with all those vets looking on. That's the only way to debut, to come out swinging and sounding like you've been doing this for decades.

On Love Is a Song Anyone Can Sing, Kilby immediately sets down a beat that acts as a business card, one that says everything is going to be all right, you're in good hands. Kilby is so confident, in fact, that this work includes a Volume One, featuring Kilby's core sextet, and a Volume Two that features a series of guest artists who "take the band and music to new heights." This core sextet--tenor sax player Charles Owens, trumpeter John D'Earth, trombonist Elad Cohen, pianist Allyn Johnson and bassist Kris Monson--uses the title song as a jumping-off point and a frequent interlude to reinforce a theme of beauty and our ability to recognize it. It can be Micah Robinson's voice, or a muted trumpet level or a quiet moment of improv from Monson or even a string quartet that delivers the spare melody and uses it as a touchstone for a collection of originals as well as a unique selection of covers.

Notice that I didn't use the word standards. That title song, for example, sounds like a song you've heard a million times before, but it's an original tune from Owens. You get nods to Hank Mobley ("Hipsippy Blues") and a couple of Herbie Hancock tunes, but you also get a jazz version of Radiohead's "Life in a Glasshouse" and an unusually moving jazz version of "Jupiter" from Holst's The Planets. You get a few modern touches along the way, such as the ironic record surface noise in the intro and a few unexpected touches of percussion here and there, just enough to act as a reminder that Kilby is young and keen on innovation.

Even with this creative approach, Kilby is still an apt pupil when it comes to covering a lot of ground in the world of jazz. This six performers, along with their featured guests, have that instant rightness down pat, even when the sounds naturally expands in Volume Two and more performers inhabit the stage. For every new performer, there is an equally revelatory bit of history added to the mix, another context. Perhaps that's part of the meaning of the title, that love is a song that anyone can sing, and to prove it we're bringing in all these people who are full of love and can express it in a number of ways. That makes this ambitious debut from a young drummer and arranger even more impressive--it has the energy of a very basic idea going for it, and everyone involved understands it without a word.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Occasional's 2018 Buyers Guide

It's here! My first issue of The Occasional, the annual Buyers Guide, is now available on PDF. You can download it by visiting Part-Time Audiophile and clicking on the link that says "Get Your Copy Today!" or merely follow this link.
The staff at The Occasional are very proud and excited, and we hope you enjoy it!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Jack Mouse Group's Intimate Adversary

I'm becoming more convinced than ever that my drummer-as-leader theory is air-tight. A few weeks ago there were a few days where the CDs and LPs were flowing in at an alarming rate, ostensibly because the end of the year is approaching and everyone wants to get stuff done before the holidays. As I've mentioned before, I usually give new releases a cursory listen when they first arrive so I can categorize and schedule them for a deeper listening. Intimate Adversary from Jack Mouse Group snuck into the pile with its monochromatic and basic cover, and it quietly worked itself into the rotation. In other words, it was a wallflower until I played it and listened deeply.

"This sounds like another drummer-led ensemble," I thought, and sure enough it is. There's an energy and focus to these drummer/composer/arrangers that's unmistakable. Intimate Adversary is "post-bop" jazz, played by a superb quintet consisting of tenor sax player Scott Robinson, horn player Art Davis, guitarist John McLean and bassist Bob Bowman. Each member gets a chance to show off his considerable talent, but it's drummer Jack Mouse who supplies the inspiration--everything from the complex and varied drumming style to the humor in the arrangements and even song titles. (The album starts off "Barney's Fife," prompting Mouse to exclaim that "Yep! I'm a huge Andy Griffith Show fan!"

This is a contemporary jazz release that seems perfectly considered and delivered at the right point in time--there's a groove here that suggest these five musicians have explored every nook and cranny of Mouse's original compositions and arrangements. It's a combination of confidence and a willingness to dig deep into every note, that the quintet has been playing these tunes for a very long time but each performance is still vastly different from the last. The title tune, for example, is a moody ballad that seems both deliberate and barely in control of the underlying emotions. Mouse's drumming is slow and exquisite, and you can almost hear him nodding to the others and encouraging them to feel rather than just play.

I've been looking forward to reviewing this CD simply because it's so easy to listen to this kind of jazz, which of course is entirely different than "easy listening jazz." The recording sounds absolutely great, allowing each musician to exist cleanly in his own space. The entire span of Intimate Adversary is so expertly told, and in such a classic way, that you'll feel you're in the most capable of hands and you can finally relax and enjoy the flow.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Jorge Nila's Tenor Time

It's been some time since I've received anything from Zoho Records, a few months perhaps, but now three or four titles have arrived just in the last week or two. Jorge Nila's Tenor Time doesn't have the usual connections to South America as other releases from this superb label--Nila is from Omaha, Nebraska and has been a musician here since 1965. But guitarist Dave Stryker, another Zoho mainstay, does have a huge role in this tribute to the great tenor saxophonists of the jazz world. Stryker and Nila have known each other since the '70s, ever since they starting playing together in New York City. Stryker's guitar is a huge part of this recording, taking turns with Nila's sax on lead. It's like watching two old friends have the most interesting of discussions about their adventures in the jazz scene over the last few decades.

Tenor Time is obviously devoted to the great tenor sax masters of the past, but it's more specifically about Lester Young and the other performers he influenced along the way such as Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Joe Henderson and Harold Vick. Nila and Stryker have made an interesting choice by choosing an organ quartet as an ensemble--they're joined by Mitch Towne on the B-3 and veteran Dana Murray on the drums. The result is a very relaxed and open set, filled with easy renditions of such classics as "Fried Bananas," "Soul Station", "The Everywhere Calypso" and even Stevie Wonder's "Rocket Love."

This ease is somewhat surprising in a tribute to the tenor sax greats, but it's fitting because Nila's style is anything but brash. His sax has a lingering and introspective sound that concentrates on unfolding each phrase in a very deliberate way. Stryker is sensitive to this--I've heard a number of his records by now and he can shred when he wants, but he's taking his cues from his old friend and doubling the sentiment. Towne's B-3 is also measured and gentle and seems to reinforce the dreaminess of the tunes, especially softer arrangements such as Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes." Murray's style reflects the other three, of course--a sharp enough whack on a drum head might wake everyone up from this dream, so he keeps it reserved as well.

Does this sound like a snooze? It isn't. There's a careful calibration at work here that is not devoid of energy and excitement. It does result in sound that makes your shoulders drop, but the wise approach of these veterans also gives you plenty to chew on, plenty of touches that should remind you of all those great musicians from the past. That's the purpose of a tribute album, of course, but what's masterful about Tenor Time is the way Nila reconstructs everything into such a pleasing and mellifluous whole. This is gentle jazz, but not "light" or "cool." It has deep emotion at its center, and a stunning history lesson about the tenor sax if you're willing to sit at your desk and be still.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Les Paul and His Trio's After You've Gone

You've probably noticed that I've been very enthusiastic about these new LP releases from ORG Music. These pressings have been as clean as can be, and they sound great thanks to the work at both Infrasonic Mastering and the Pallas Group in Germany. Last week I was able to visit the Furnace records pressing plant in Alexandria, Virginia. Furnace actually owns five of the LP presses at Pallas and just moved to larger facilities to share more in the actual pressing chores. I received an in-depth tour of Furnace, and I will be writing a feature for my first issue of The Occasional. The pressings are first rate and the sound quality is stellar--I know the reasons why now--but I haven't talked about the third leg of the tripod. That, of course, would be ORG's fabulous taste in music, exemplified by this new mono remastering of Les Paul's After You've Gone.

This is a generous chunk of classic music from this master guitarist, 28 songs spread out over two LPs that have been meticulously pressed and packaged with love. These tracks were recorded with his trio, which includes bassist Nicki Parrot and pianist John Colianni, from 1944-45. It's hard to say this was during his peak since the only time he really wasn't at his peak was when he accidentally electrocuted himself in 1941 and when he broke his arm when he and Mary Ford got into a car accident in 1948. Both events required a couple of years of recovery but preceded an unusually productive time for Paul--and these performances were captured right in between.

I don't have to tell you about Les Paul, of course. I just want to talk about the music on this album, which is simply fantastic. For years I've wanted that perfect Les Paul recording, the one where I can learn more about who he was and what he did. I've had a few LPs over the years, and they capturing those magical flying fingers and that one-of-a-kind style, but few have really moved me like this one. This is such a beautiful and quiet recording and gets to the heart of that legendary sound. It's all in mono, obviously, but that means you aren't focused as much on the space around the instruments as you are the tone, that pure tone of a master. If you're one of those people who still balk at mono recordings as a means to experiencing fidelity, I'll refer you to an old Vinyl Anachronist column I did back in 2002 called "Adventures in Mono."

Quite simply, this is the perfect album to play when you just want to sink into cushions and think about how things used to be. There's such a vibrancy to Les Paul's guitar and you're reminded every second that this is the sound of an extraordinary human who was a master of his craft. It's a hell of a lot of fun, too, and another momentous success from ORG Music.

Monday, December 17, 2018

John Fedchock Quartet's Reminiscence

If I asked you to imagine the sound of a trombone, especially in the context of the leading instrument in a jazz quartet, what would it be? I'd probably think of your traditional trombone sound, something out of New Orleans perhaps, slightly jovial and definitely outgoing. There's a looseness about the timbre of a trombone, possibly due to the sonic effects of the slide. That's the stereotypical sound of a trombone. I've heard a number of trombonists in the world of both jazz and classical, and there's more than one way to play the instrument. With John Fedchock, however, I feel as if I've heard a new sort of trombone, a more reticent and thoughtful instrument, one that can project an amazing range of emotion.

Fedchock's new live CD, Reminiscence, is a bit of a revelation. His horn has a distinctly different tone than most, a cautious, vulnerable and introspective sound that pulls you in toward the bell. Captured in 2015 at a Virginia Beach nightclub called Havana Nights, one that no longer exists, Reminiscence was culled from the same set of recordings that made up his last album, Fluidity. (I've also recently heard him as part of Ayn Inserto's Down the Rabbit Hole.) Havana Nights was known for its great acoustics, and I can see why Fedchock went back to the well. He probably knew he'd never play there again, and he'd never be able to get that exact same sound again.

It is a special sound, and a great recording. The rest of his quartet--pianist John Toomey, bassist Jimmy masters and drummer Dave Ratajczak--are in rare form, as they say. While the stellar space allows you to reach deeply and hear what's so unique about Fedchock's style, you might be equally drawn to the other three. The rhythm section is just as steady and cautious as Fedchock, but they are incredibly tight and focused. That allows Toomey to add a bit of splash to the performances; perhaps his easy and lyrical manner would come in conflict with another horn player, one more dedicated to sounding like most other horn players.

To put it succinctly, this is a horn-led quartet that's much softer and more fluid than you would expect. Reminiscence is faithful to its theme, about being lost in thought while mentally flipping through a stack of your finest memories. It's about a special place that no longer exists, and Fedchock's trombone is the perfect means for bringing those memories to life.

Ofege's Try and Love

I had no idea what to expect when the needle hit the groove. Several moments later, I was still unsure of what I was hearing. Try and Love from Ofege sounded like a lot of the African pop and rock I used to listen to back in my college days--I loved both King Sunny Ade and Mick Fleetwood's The Visitor. I'm also in love with Ethiopiques, that mid-60s collection of Ethiopian jazz that was featured so prominently in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. The sound, the beat and even the feel of the studio reminds me of all those recordings and more, but the music itself, well, it's really different. It's almost otherworldly.

Ofege was a funk-pop-rock group "formed in the early 1970s by a bunch a teenagers at the St. Gregory's in Lagos Nigeria," according to the obi. Ofege went on to be one of the most celebrated pop groups in Nigeria's history, and that's probably because they sounded so different from everyone else in Africa. That doesn't mean you haven't heard the components of their sound before, you just haven't heard this blend before. The group was inspired by psychedelic rock, especially the guitar-driven music played by Santana, Jimmy Page and of course Hendrix, but the scorching solos here are also informed by African artists such as The Funkees, Ofo the Black Company and BLO. Try and Love was Ofege's 1973 debut, and it was released while most of the members were still in high school. When you listen to this album, that last comment is probably the most amazing since this is such a confident and audacious album.

As I've mentioned, Ofege sounds alien but in all the right ways. You've heard the both the fuzzy distorted electric guitars from the West, and the twangy, distant soul/funk/R&B guitars of West Africa, but together they create a sound that makes you smile because, well, because it rocks pretty hard. Melvin Ukachi, the lead vocalist and lyricist, sings mostly in English, and his light tone reveals his young age but in an innocent yet accomplished way that reminds me of Jackson 5 era MJ. The drumming, from M-lke Meme, is what squares the music off into its African origins--even when he backs into a standard pop-rock beat, the complex polyrhythms bleed through and give the songs an extra ounce of pure adrenaline.

This all sounds charming and interesting, which it is. All of these influences hit you at once, and while your brain is busy trying to categorize everything, your feet are tapping and your head is bobbing. Music with a story this fascinating can only come from one place--Light in the Attic Records. If LITA excels in just one thing, it's capturing those windows in time, that feeling like you're hearing a lost piece of history that was mummified and restored to its former luster. It's the kind of recording where you think about the world in which it was recorded, and how different it is from now.

I'm a little bummed--just a few days before I listened to Try and Love the first time, I had already submitted my Top 20 list to several publications. I would have included this near the top, perhaps right next to that Lee Hazlewood surf-rock album, which was also released and curated by LITA. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

James and the Transmission's technicolor vol. Giallo

When I listen to raging indie rock like this, it's not the sherbet between the courses. It's a return to my roots. After listening and reviewing a couple of Christmas albums yesterday I feel like I need to cleanse myself with something gritty. James and the Transmission is a hard rock outfit based in Los Angeles, my old home, and they have that pure power trio thing going in a big way, a little Foo Fighters on the surface but something darker and more psychedelic underneath. I like them because this new EP, Giallo, is both DIY and ambitious in scope.

That's hard to accomplish in just five songs, but Giallo is actually the second part of a project that started with Rojo, which was released earlier this year. Giovanni James and his brother Nico Miles and Antonio Argenis were kids growing up in the Inland Empire, one of my least favorite places on Earth, and much of the darkness in these songs comes from what they refer to as their hardscrabble upbringing. These aren't songs about the meaning of life, but rather details from their youth--especially about the boredom and complacency of the place we used to call "The 909." ("The 951" is the proper pejorative now, since the area code split.)

The lyrics are filled, of course, with angst of Generation Z, but lucid moments do pop out--such as when James points out "We're just the same as our parents/Just trying to manage our appearance" (in "Goodland") and "Why do you always seem to drink so much?/Why do I always seem to think you're gonna stop?" (in "Projectors"). When he sings "I didn't want to move here anyway," I can't help thinking about all those parents who moved their kids out of the city into places like the 909, only to drag those same problems in the trunks of their cars. (Ever see the film Next Friday? It's a goofy comedy, but it hits on those same issues that plague the outlying areas of LA.)

It's hard to get a clear picture from just five angry songs--it's actually just four, with a clean version of "Projectors" offered for airplay--which makes me believe that Rojo is required listening for the proper context. But James and the Transmission is a diamond in the rough, one that should probably avoid being plucked from the earth and gussied up--if they continue to explore these themes in future recordings and really talk about what's happening in the suburbs to these kids, they'll have performed an important service.

You can check out Giallo at their website.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Laura Dickinson 17's Auld Lang Syne

With a name like Auld Lang Syne, I assumed that this going to be an album for the afterparty and not the main event. But Laura Dickinson's holiday album is firm in its commitment to Christmas and this album's focus is on the more modern holiday repertoire performed in a big-budget extravaganza style. Dickinson is a music producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and a vocal contractor--a term I'm not familiar with--so this project makes her seem like the Alan Parsons of big band jazz. Unlike Parsons, however, Dickinson's voice is front and center through these 11 songs, each one arranged by a different music industry professional.

The idea behind Auld Lang Syne, therefore, is complex. Dickinson's voice is a bit of a commodity in the entertainment world since her talents have been heard in films, TV shows and even video games. Her singing voice is unique, a light, sweet and ethereal entity that projects a lot of warmth. It's a bit delicate, something that comes through when she tries to really belt out a note and her appealing vulnerability seeps through. She can hit those impossibly high notes when necessarily, which at first sounds strange because so many of her jazz contemporaries are adamant about adding a little more heft and texture, a bit more growl. She, in contrast, is floating on the breeze.

As you move through these tracks, however, something might occur to you--what started off as a big band jazz Christmas album turns into something else, an omnibus of different approaches to holiday music. The title track, which concludes the album, borrows from Scottish folk music, as it probably should, and many of the other tracks are more aligned with musical theater than big band jazz. It's that first track, a medley of "Happy Holiday and "The Holiday Season," that tricks you with its nods to the Andrew Sisters and those rollicking TV Christmas specials from big stars that were so common just a few decades ago.

Auld Lang Syne is set on making a big impact, so this is another exciting holiday recording that will rev up the energy level at your family get-together. It is polished, slick and produced to the hilt, which may or may not complement your holiday theme, but it will make a big impression on your guests.

Jake Ehrenreich's A Treasury of Jewish Christmas Songs

I'm determined not to make the same mistake I made last year concerning Christmas releases. I had three holiday recordings sent to me last year, and through a series of mishaps they didn't appear in Part-Time Audiophile until a couple of days before Christmas. So the whole idea of buying these three CDs in time for the holidays was kind of shot. This year, however, I have exactly two holiday recordings for review. I received them a long time ago and quickly put them at the bottom of the pile--I thought wow, the holidays are a long way off. Today is December 14, and I need to get both reviews posted, so here we go.

The first holiday recording is Jake Ehrenreich's A Treasury of Jewish Christmas Songs, and if you know anything about the Great American Songbook you'll know that plenty of our most celebrated songwriters were indeed of the Jewish faith. In other words, this isn't a collection of songs that Jewish people sing on Christmas Day, because as far as I know there is no such thing. Ehrenreich, who is well-known for his Broadway performances, has teamed with Grammy-winning pianist and arranger Roger Kellaway to sing these well-known Christmas songs that were written, incidentally, by Jewish songwriters. (On a side note, Kellaway was nominated for an Oscar for the score of A Star Is Born--the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand.)

That means you get pretty straightforward, jazzy renditions of such tunes as "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (Johnny Marks), "Winter Wonderland" (Felix Bernard) and of course "White Christmas," which was written by Irving Berlin. Ehrenreich is accompanied by a simple, stripped down jazz trio consisting of Kellaway on piano, Dan Lutz on bass and Bruce Forman on guitar. (Kevin Winard supplies percussion on a few tracks.) This is a talented ensemble, however, and if you're a jazz fan looking for some musical respite while preserving the spirit of the occasion, I think this will be an enormous treat for you.

I like Ehrenreich's voice a lot--it's a tad gruff around the edges, so you aren't getting one of those dull crooners who try to evoke the gentlest of memories that will bore you into a long winter's nap. There's something in his delivery that reminds me of Burl Ives, an outgoing personality that fleshes out the emotions in these songs. He's obviously not as avuncular as Burl--this is a guy who can sing love songs and be quite convincing. But there's a warmth to his voice that is comforting without being bland.

If you're looking for something new to play on Christmas, this is a great choice. And remember that I'm a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to these recordings, so if I sound a little too objective here it's purely because I can't wait for December 26 to arrive. This is a first-class recording for you and your loved ones to enjoy.

The Deep End: Newvelle Records at Part-Time Audiophile

My latest Deep End music column for Part-Time Audiophile is now live. This one is about the stunning LP pressings from Newvelle Records in France, and how they are reviving subscription-based music services in 2018. You can read it here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Somesh Mathur's Time Stood Still Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of Somesh Mathur's amazing Time Stood Still is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here!

The BBB Featuring Bernie Dresel's Bern Bern Bern

I think I've figured something out about big band jazz: I tend to really like performances that are led by the drummer. I can say the same thing, and often do, about smaller ensembles, but there's something about a drummer leading a big band that just seems so dynamic and exciting. These drummers are leading by their rhythms, so I think they have to be extra expressive in the way they play. If you love drummers like I love drummers, you'll probably have a very favorable reaction to these types of performances.

Bernie Dresel has been doing this for a long time, and he's pretty well-known within the Los Angeles music scene, and not just in jazz. Bernie was the drummer for the Brian Setzer Orchestra for fourteen years, which means I've seen him perform live at least a couple of times. He's been the leader of The BBB, which stands for Bernin' Big Band, for the last couple of years. (That's right, the full title of this album is The Bernin' Big Band Featuring Bernie Dresel's Bern Bern Bern.) Perhaps that's also the reason why I responded so favorably to this album after just a few minutes of listening--Dresel has a classic rock and roll soul that carries over into these 14 tracks.

As I just mentioned in my Kenny Carr review yesterday, the intersection between rock and jazz can be very subtle. While Carr's excellent album uses this cross-referencing as a foundation, it's icing on the cake for The BBB. Bern Bern Bern is 95% big band jazz, played with confidence and swagger. That remaining 5% is overt such as the addition of a distorted electric guitar solo from Andrew Synowiec or a very steady rock beat from Dresel. Synowiec even gets to evoke Setzer on a couple of tracks, a homage to Dresel's roots perhaps--it's so satisfying to hear a rockabilly twang in the middle of a big band performance.

It's obvious this album is focused on one thing, and that's Bern. He's a magnificent drummer, fluid and blindingly fast when he needs to be. When I would see the Brian Setzer Orchestra perform, my initial reaction would always be this: "Man, I forget just how great Brian is on guitar." With this album, I feel the same way about Dresel's drumming. It's front and center, and it leads like a whirlwind.

Jason Kao Hwang and Burning Bridge's Blood

"Driving down on an unlit highway, my headlights flashed upon the bleeding carcass of a deer."

So begins the liner notes of Jason Kao Hwang's new album, Blood. Whenever I see Hwang's name attached to a musical project, I know it's going to be a challenge, I know it's going to be out there. Hwang, an avant-garde violinist, has crossed my path before with Sing House, which prompted me to conclude that "I'm still working on it. One day I may work it out in my mind, or I might just go back to my Dean Martin, Julie London and Harry Belafonte albums." He also performed on Michael Moss' Heli, a free jazz fever dream that I called "a daunting task, especially when you consider that most mainstream jazz fans might night make it through to the end."

Blood, performed with the Burning Bridge ensemble, starts off just as jagged, a series of sonic blasts and noises created by an interesting cross-section of instrumentation including cornet, flugelhorn, pipa, erhu, trombone, drums, bass and tuba. As you might imagine, this can be a fascinating cacophony. But it's also surprising in the way it eventually irons itself out and starts a cohesive narrative. Hwang's tale of roadkill is a starting point--the sudden and shocking image of that deer triggers something deeper in his soul and reminds him of his mother's "harrowing experiences in China during World War II." Hwang explains the connection like this: "Through Blood the violence of deeply held memories are not relived but transposed into our sound."

This is a heady idea, yes, but once we pass through the angry free jazz of "Breath Within the Bomb," the 12-minute opener, Hwang combines a classic jazz sound, equal parts free and be-bop, with the Chinese instrumentation. Here he shows that connection between the two worlds, the carcass of the present and the horrors of the past, all happening across vast chasms of time and space. These middle passages are taut and musical--the liner notes suggest a cinematic approach that can be easily digested by the listener.

Despite your reservations about exploring yet another free jazz nightmare, you could find Blood to be utterly absorbing--especially in the way it paints such vivid pictures. Hwang's story is sophisticated and expansive, the tale of his mother surviving a bomb blast in a pharmacy is juxtaposed with his sadness for two fellow jazz musicians, Americans who fought in Vietnam where "the magnitude of pain and sorrow that they endured is unimaginable." Blood, as the title implies, is as far from lighthearted as it gets. But it is fascinating in its cerebral approach, which is wrapped in a thoroughly accessible veneer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Kenny Carr's Departure

Everybody here's heard of hard rock, but I there such a thing as hard jazz? I'm not talking about a hard rock/jazz hybrid--I'm talking about jazz played with same power, the same sense of scale and drama of your typical hard rock band. I'm talking about tight song structures fortified with a Spector-esque wall of sound, you know, a slow build and an explosive climax. I wondered this, almost aloud, the first time I heard guitarist Kenny Carr's Departure. This is jazz through and through, but the way he and his band rip through these original compositions, you might think they all started a rock band decades ago and then suddenly decided that jazz was more worthy of their efforts and this was Day One.

Carr did start off in a different guitar genre, but it was classical music. He's been known for his distinctive blend of jazz, blues and fusion for many years--this is his sixth album--but I can't hear a lick of classical guitar anywhere. Carr has rock in his blood, it seems; it's in the way he stretches out notes during his solos and the way he carefully sets the mood with his riffs. You hear it when his quartet--which also includes bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Kenny Wollesen and sax player Donny McCaslin--really starts to push the dense momentum toward the ends of songs. It doesn't even have to be loud or thunderous, since the quiet moments are as plentiful as the maelstroms. There's just a sensibility here, one that may appeal to you if you're a bigger fan or rock than jazz.

Let me clarify: this doesn't sound just like rock and roll. That's not what I'm saying. But there are structures underneath it all, an energy that really isn't that common in jazz. Rock was so controversial during its infancy because the rhythms were almost sexual--it certainly reminded too many of its critics of that, anyway. That same tension floats in Carr's music, that tightness that binds the music into a more manageable whole. Jazz is so often about being loose, about having the space to explore. While Departure contains a wealth of jazz solos--McCaslin's are stunning in the way he angrily manipulates his mouthpiece--it's just so propulsive. Perhaps this is why Carr gave this album the title that he did.

When I look at what I've just written, I can almost hear the voices in my head asking me if I'm merely describing fusion jazz in its purest form. That might be the case, objectively, but that's not what I'm feeling. This is either a rock band exploring jazz or it's a jazz ensemble exploring rock, albeit in a very subtle way. The more you listen to Departure, the more you feel it. This is jazz that will make you "rock out."

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Chris Pasin's Ornettiquette

The idea of paying tribute to Ornette Coleman, as well as his collaborator Don Cherry, might seem like a thorny enterprise to some. Coleman invented such a new language for jazz in his heyday, one that would eventually be known as free jazz, but the simple fact is that Coleman's compositions often straddled that chasm and afforded a proper entry point into the form. Trumpeter Chris Pasin understands this, and his new album Ornettiquette is surprisingly accessible and even delightful at times. Pasin, through his spiritual kinship with fellow trumpeter Cherry, guides his band toward the pure joy of Coleman, the energy and the mystery that has challenged and yet intrigued jazz fans for decades.

Much of the cheery attitude in the CD can be traced to Karl Berger's work on vibes. That distinctive shimmer puts a spotlight on the playfulness in the compositions in a way that can quite be conveyed by other instruments. Pasin and alto sax player Adam Siegel do bring lightness into the mix with their bright, energetic horns--they often provide an effective counterpoint--but Berger is the one who truly swings here. He is not the most extroverted of vibraphone players, nor does he need to be, but he does supply that aforementioned mystery to the set, that feeling that everyone might get into a bit of trouble later on that night.

Pasin may keep a low profile through much of Ornettiquette, but he provides some meaty innovations if you pay close attention. His steady cries during "Ghost" become vaguely animalistic, like a wolf howling to its mate across a wintry field. Vocalist Ingrid Sertso might just play the role of that mate, the way she whispers back with the slightest touch of a growl. All of this tension is pushed into the foreground by a splendid rhythm section of drummer Harvey Sorgen and bassist Michael Bisio--they never seem to stop, and that smooths out the edges.

I know people who are reluctant when it comes to enjoying Ornette Coleman--they know plenty of fans but they fear the music is far too difficult to dig on a purely musical level. This is the album to start that journey. If Pasin and his cohorts have succeeded in any one aspect, it's making Coleman's music fun and energetic and free (pun not intended) of chaos. Coleman might have helped found the movement--he coined the phrase--but he was a bridge, and he, along with Don Cherry, knew how to play a tune. So does Pasin.

CAF 2018: MoFi, Tenacious Sound and a Whole Lotta Real Estate

Here's the penultimate show report from the 2018 Capital Audiofest--this one covers the room of my buddy Shayne Tenace at Tenacious Sound. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.

Friday, December 7, 2018

CAF 2018: Paradigm, Anthem and Staying the Heck Out of the Way

Here's another show report from the 2018 Capital Audiofest--this one is about a very simple system from Paradigm and Anthem that still managed to be very impressive. You can read it here at Part-Time Audiophile.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Michael C. Lewis' Intimate Journey

This new album from trumpeter Michael C. Lewis sounds like a throwback, but not a throwback in typical jazz terms. We're not talking about be-bop and big band or any of that, but a more recent past where the sound is brighter and glassier and more, well, digital. I'm talking about '80s jazz, which has sort of this Patrick Nagel sheen covering it, with lots of electric keyboards and electric basses and smooth horn sections. We're getting uncomfortably close to terms like "lite jazz" or "smooth jazz," which is not my thing. But Michael C. Lewis and his horn start doing something else in Intimate Journey, something almost subversive.

When so-called smooth jazz started popping up about thirty years ago, it tried to do just one thing--it tried to update the traditional jazz forms into something that would appeal to larger pop-oriented audiences. You've heard of the old adage of trying to please everyone and therefore pleasing no one? That's what smooth jazz did in the '80s. But let's face it, lots of people did like it, and they still do. What Lewis is doing is taking that sound as a jumping-off point and adding all of the things we've heard since, especially when it comes to hip-hop production and even electronica. I'm not saying that Intimate Journey sounds anything like hip-hop, but you will hear those modern approaches in the synthesizers and percussion, steady and truncated beats that simply weren't around thirty years ago.

Lewis the man is quite talented--he also sings with a rich and deep voice that is made for old-fashioned love songs in the classic R&B style. And he plays the trumpet and the flugelhorn in that distant, shimmering and dipped-in-sugar way that was big in the '80s. This side of the music will sound familiar to you. But dig deeply into songs like "Miles to Go," with his muted horn obviously paying homage to a certain trumpeter, and you'll hear the new, the trip-hop expansions and the beats that are real but almost sound programmed.

When Lewis dives into the funk later in the album, he's definitely at his creative peak. Those are the elements that lift him into relevance, as opposed to being a confection for all those people who are still addicted to cool, smooth jazz. He's stretching across this bridge, almost slyly, bringing these two disparate crowds of fans together under one beat. You'll hear this as Intimate Journey moves along from track to track, getting ever more adventurous. You'll be caught up by the end once you learn there's another layer hiding deep in the mix, waiting to see if you notice.

ORG Reissue of Hank Jones' Arigato

I need to get hoppin' on these new LP reissues from ORG Music--a big box arrived yesterday with a load of new titles from many different genres, everything from classic R&B to hardcore punk to something really bizarre from a guy named Tav Falco. (I mean bizarre in a really nice way, because it's very unique and fun.) In my new role as managing editor of The Occasional, I've been very busy covering trade shows and running to the west coast for events and even receiving and organizing a pile of audio equipment to review, all while my mailbox is still filled almost daily with new music. Last month I made 41 blog entries, a record for The Vinyl Anachronist, but less than half were actual music reviews. I've had Hank Jones' Arigato waiting patiently for far too long, and that's a shame because it's really good.

Hank Jones is one of those jazz pianists who is considered among the greats, but I feel like I rarely hear about him. He's the gentleman who plays piano on Cannonball Adderley's legendary Somethin' Else, and he's also the pianist who accompanied Marilyn Monroe when she sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK. (As a side note, his full name is Henry Jones Jr., which makes me wonder if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were quietly paying tribute to him.) He's recorded 60 albums as a leader/front man, and I don't own any of them. Younger brothers Thad Jones and Elvin Jones, yes. Hank Jones, no. That's my bad.

Arigato was recorded and released in 1976 during his second wind of recording in the studio. In the '50s and '60s he was everywhere, playing with everyone, and he found a solid gig as the "staff pianist" for CBS from 1959 to 1975. He experienced a renewal of interest in his work in the '70s due to his involvement in the musical Ain't Misbehavin', and Arigato comes from that period. This is a simple collection of standards, performed by a stellar trio that included bassist Richard Davis and drummer Ronnie Bedford. What you'll notice first about this album is the sheer energy--Jones has a quick, lyrical style that has been described as "impeccable," and his two cohorts are game to turn the key and start the engines. This is a fast jazz album in the sense that it just speeds by, and it leaves you wanting more.

I'm starting to wax rhapsodic about these ORG Music reissues in the same way I gush about 2L Recordings, but for a slightly different reason. ORG is doing a fantastic job of preserving those countless historic windows no matter the view. There are a few great-sounding jazz albums from late '70s--a couple from Chico Freeman come to mind--but there's a thin quality that often seeps in, a digital clarity that suggests the recording engineers were turning their backs on the pure and effective methods used in the '50s and '60s and looking to bring out more detail at the cost of warmth. I noticed this on the ORG reissue of Roland Hanna's Perugia. These ORG reissues from that period shine, however, because they're both faithful to the original recording and yet there's just a tad more warmth and humanity than in the original pressings.

That means Arigato sounds a little light on its feet, but at the same time you get to dig deep into what makes Hank Jones tick. For someone like me, who is being introduced to such a skilled and fascinating pianist, that's a gift.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rebecca Hass' Florescer

St. Paul, Minnesota, isn't known for being a hotbed of Brazilian music--or maybe it is since I know very little about the place--but pianist Rebecca Hass is doing something very special up there with the recording of her debut album, Florescer. Haas describes herself as "addicted to Brazilian rhythms" and she reached out to me after reading my review of Alexandra Jackson's new album a couple of weeks ago. At first she seems like someone new to the game, a young pianist and composer who's trying to get a foothold in the industry through Kickstarter, email blasts and whatever works in this day and age, but she's actually been performing for quite some time--she's been playing with the percussion group Batucada do Norte for a dozen years.

Florescer, which is Brazilian for bloom, instantly reveals those ties to percussion and South American rhythms. Hass originally conceived these compositions as solo piano works, but she enlisted the help of her friend Tim O'Keefe, who is an expert on all types of hand-drumming techniques. That's what you get with Florescer--Hass' piano, which is strong, steady and even a bit muscular, paired with O'Keefe's exotic drums. O'Keefe is just as steady--his style is measured and seems so coupled to Hass' dynamics that they chug along like a machine with two engines.

As a result, the music here is unusually focused--the first song, "Maracatu do Manitim," is angular in the way it takes modern Brazilian themes and sets them on their side, deconstructing the rhythms and laying them out so the listener can see how they're built. She's also fond of the lower registers of the piano in many of her songs, which gives the proceedings a certain weight that is not necessarily common to the genre. When she speeds up the momentum, such as "Baiao da Bicicleta," that's when the parts fit back together seamlessly. There's even a tango, "Naquele Tempo," which indeed uses a slightly slower tempo than usual to once again reveal some of the genre's secrets.

Florescer does have that "square one" feeling that comes from getting out there and taking a chance--I think Hass might benefit from a larger ensemble around her in future recordings, but that requires time and perhaps more hard work. This album shows that this pianist/composer has unusual ideas about Brazilian music, and she isn't content to just play it the same way as everyone else. This is a snapshot of an artist at the beginning of a long and exciting journey, and I'm happy that she reached out.

You can download Florescer at her website.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Christopher Hollyday's Telepathy

Classic bop. I like that label. It's the stuff that got me into jazz once I was in college, the stuff that's invented on the fly, music that soars and wails and has more pure momentum than any other genre in jazz. I cover a lot of jazz in this blog--big band, organ trios, women vocalists, Latin and Caribbean jazz--but the jazz that really excites me is this. Christopher Hollyday's new album, Telepathy, didn't seem to stand out when it invaded my review pile, or even when I played it on the big system for the first time. But here, now, on this fabulous new headphone rig, this is magic.

You know altor saxophonist Christopher Hollyday is the real thing when his bio notes that he's "back" after an extended hiatus, that he was huge in the '80s and '90s and is now ready "to start a new phase of his career." That can mean a lot of different things, none of which are revealed in the press kit, but from listening to these six standards, everything from Freddie Hubbard's "One of Another Kind" to "Autumn in New York," I think I know. I think Hollyday's been out there, living life, playing when he can.

Jazz, of course, is about experience. You don't have to be old to play jazz, but you need to have lived through some things for those meaningful emotions to come out in the notes that you play. They need to sound real and honest. Hollyday's alto sax is a swirling, dense messenger, with more weight than you'd imagine, and it recalls a lot of different horn players who might be playing even bigger instruments. Ultimately this is about an original soul who should have never stopped recording. In his wisdom, Hollyday has realized that it's not all about him, since trumpet player Gilbert Castellanos is right up at the edge of the stage, standing next to his friend. These two bounce off each other, not in counterpoint but in a distinct way that echoes while it diverges. They remind me at times of those great sax-trumpet tandems in the old days--I don't have to name names.

The remaining members of this quintet--pianist Joshua White, bassist Rob Thorson and drummer Tyler Kreutel--aren't wallflowers. They understand the endeavor, that they re-staking a claim. As you might have already guessed, this is as pure as jazz gets. It's equal parts melody and improvisation, and while it's grounded in the past it obviously wants to remind everyone of the power of "classic bop" and how it influenced everything that came afterward.

Monika Wall's Earth

Monika Wall is a delightful anachronism, a singer-songwriter who seems to have stepped out of the 1970s to deliver a gentle, mid-tempo folk rock that is from the same mold as Carole King and even Joni Mitchell. She's been traveling the world for inspiration, from "an African American gospel choir to majestic 1000 year old cathedrals, country churches and concert halls." I feel like I grew up with this sound, pulled from Southern California's mellow past, the birth of FM, the signature warmth that is dipped in love for nature, God, being at peace.

The word hippie comes to mind, but Monika Wall is not that unless you're going to use it in the kindest way. In her new album Earth, Wall shows off a number of styles that slowly veer away from that template--by the time she gets to the fourth song on this EP, "One Step," she's right in the middle of jazz, and that's about as far from the classic '70s sound as it gets. But she returns to her home by the end with the Anne Bisson-esque "Season of Rain" and "We Will Rise," which is, of course, an anthem.

I have to be honest--I wasn't listening to this music even in the '70s. I was always a wild child in my musical tastes, preferring music that was loud, fast and threatening to the old folks. (My older brother constantly foisted the quieter music on me such as Loggins and Messina, Seals and Croft, etc., and I didn't bite.) As someone who seems to be flying through his fifties at a breakneck pace, however, I enjoy two specific things--the strong recording quality of Earth, much better than the music it evokes, and a sense of nostalgic that may not have been mine but still floated through the air when I was young. It's a common thing to gravitate toward the music of your youth, and I feel that Monika Wall might be doing that very same thing.

Elliot Deutsch's Make Big Band Great Again

Uh oh, I thought.

You got one of them red caps on the album cover, you start off with "America, the Beautiful" and you follow up with original compositions with titles such as "Fake News," "Repeal and Replace" and "The Great Wall"...what am I getting myself into here? Fortunately, Make Big Band Great Again is not what you think, or it's exactly what you think, depending upon your views. "It made no sense to me that Donald Trump aimed to dismantle the progress of the Obama era while simultaneously presenting himself as a man of the people," composer and arranger Elliot Deutsch explains.

This EP--outside of the patriotic intro, there are only four compositions here--is Deutsch's musical reaction to the 2016 election as someone who depends upon Obamacare and the NEA. He originally intended this album as a tribute to Los Angeles, which is why the final song is titled "Pink Sunset (Over Gray Skies)." You can listen to these four main pieces without attaching any message to them, since this is a bright, jazzy big band performance with a tight groove and solid melodies. If you dig deep into Deutsch's intentions, the music changes.

"Repeal and Replace," for instance, alternates between a tighter groove that represents Trump's vision for health care, and wild sections that describe the actual mess he created. A lone trumpet represents a single citizen trying to navigate the chasm. "The Great Wall" has an enthusiastic and celebratory feel to it which is meant to symbolize the idea of a "migrant-free utopia" while secretly presenting the idea that an easier path to immigration would be the wiser solution.

This is a brave album, just like John Daversa's American Dreamers--one has to think that a majority of big band jazz fans are older and possibly conservative in their views. That brings you back to the title, about making big band great again, and how that might occur in one of two ways--by enlightening the current fans or by bringing in the younger folks who are more in tune with this approach. Then again, music has always been an effective medium for those who cherish free speech. If that brings more people to big jazz, or if that makes some people re-evaluate their values, it's a good thing.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Part-Time Audiophile: YG Acoustics Sonja XV and Dan D'Agostino Relentless Monoblocks

Here's the reason why I went to San Diego a couple of weeks ago--to see the North American debut of the $265,900/system YG Acoustics loudspeakers and the $250,000/pair Dan D'Agostino monoblock amplifiers at Alma Audio! You can read all about it here.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Annie Chen Octet's Secret Treetop

I haven't mentioned this yet, but I have a new headphone rig in for review--an Inspire Dragon IHA-1 tubed amplifier from Dennis Had, and a pair of Focal Clear headphones. I have this hooked up to my Unison Research CDE CD player as well as my laptop where I have access to Tidal and Roon and now Qobuz. The only reason I'm bring this up now is Secret Treetop from the Annie Chen Octet is playing this evening. I've been listening to it on my main system in the living room before now, and I've been intrigued.

This new headphone rig is pretty special, by the way. It's revealing and yet easy on the ears.

Well, I just listened to Secret Treetop on this rig for the first time, and I literally jumped out of my chair during the first track, "Ozledim Seni." This track begins like an outtake from Peter Gabriel's Passion, filled with Middle Eastern themes and lots of unusual percussion. I'm not sure what percussion instrument startled me so--it sounded like some kind of wooden chimes--but it wasn't in the headphones. It was out in the room. I thought something had fallen behind me, to the left, all around. I thought something was going to land on my head. It was the music, this exotic hybrid of jazz and world music and, most significantly, Chinese poetry. And stuff was falling and crashing all around me.

So far this sounds more like a review of the hardware than the software, but I did want to illustrate just how unusual this album is and how there are multiple surprises around every corner. Annie Chen was born in Beijing and now lives in New York. She was trained to be a classical pianist but fell in love with jazz, as the story so often goes. She sings as well, and this exciting album, her second, is wonderfully eclectic and filled with so many fascinating ideas that come from both classical and jazz. Her poetry is the bridge between the media, mostly sung in Chinese (English lyrics are supplied), full of distinct imagery that is on a very different level than mere lyrics in an ordinary song. I've called this poetry, and it is:

I'll stay in bed, there might be a man next to me.
More often left, I'm just alone,
Just me and the express way, running right next to my room.

There is a profound richness to this project, and exciting attention to detail that consumes both the music and the vocals. Chen's voice is both personable and lovely--she's telling stories here but you are also lulled by the beauty of her voice. While much of the music performed by these eight musicians is based primarily within jazz motifs, there is a freedom to explore that will remind you of a small classical ensemble. It's the words, however, that will command your attention. Chen has even borrowed rhythmic structures from other cultures--Japan and Italy and Turkey are also influences--and there isn't a single idea expressed that is not a deliberate choice from someone who understands language just as much as music. Secret Treetop is intelligent and mysterious, and it sounds wonderful on headphones, too.