Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Sextet: The Storyteller

2010 was big for pianist and composer Randy Weston. He published his illuminating and riveting autobiography, and he continued playing like a vital musician—continuing to play his fresh compositions. Weston's story is legitimately different than that of any other jazz musician because he has no peer when it comes to integrating the music of Africa into contemporary jazz.

Weston recorded a live set at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with his working group, the African Rhythms, and it's as good a place as any to remind yourself that you probably haven't listen to Weston as much as you should. With TK Blue on saxiphone and (the late and missed) Benny Powell on trombone, Weston has a distinctive and deep front line to put across his material. The rhythm section is percolating with polyrhythms between bassist Alex Blake and hand percussionist Neil Clarke. For this gig, Weston also added drummer Lewis Nash. A solid band got more solid.

Ready my full review here: Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Sextet: The Storyteller.

The set features several of Weston's finest compositions. His "African Cookbook Suite" comes in three parts and is magisterial. "Chano Pozo," of course, is a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie's great percussionist and the grand-daddy of Afro-Cuban jazz. And the classic "Hi Fly" is also here, but taken at a slow tempo with a merely implied melody—Weston then plays "Fly Hi", which is a kind of inversion of the original taken at a quick pace.

In short, The Storyteller is a vital recording from a musician who is now 85 years old. If we haven't already, it's well time to start paying close attention to his innovations.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Keren Ann: 101

Keren Ann is different than most of the female vocalists being put out there by Blue Note Records. She isn't a jazz singer, nope, though her previous work has been a mixture of cabaret and chanteuse-ery. Her latest album, 101, is a full program of whispered indie-pop, an up-to-the-minute record of songs that set up little movies in your head. My full review is up at PopMatters, HERE.

A good chunk of 101 suggests gentle folk music, with finger-picked guitars and big, open piano chords. And because Keren Ann (born Keren Ann Zeidel and a child in Israel, Holland, and Paris) sings with a limited, breathy instrument with a limited range, the whole enterprise feels even more like a kind of folk music. But plenty of songs here use synth bass, drum loops, repetitive electric keyboards and—more importantly—intelligent layers of sound that make clear that this is a different kind of project. Horns and strings are in play, but not in the way that you would hear them on a jazz or adult contemporary disc. Instead, Keren Ann deploys these sounds as subtle pads of sound that build up throbbing atmosphere.

The New York Times, in a recent magazine profile on Keren Ann, called this music "Gansta Folk", but I think they got it wrong on both counts. Sure, there is a song here that imagines the performer on stage pulling out a gun and shooting up the whole music hall. (And, of course, note the album's cover.) But other songs are as likely to detail a distant marriage or some other novelistic topic.

101 is a healthy piece of intelligent indie-pop. It brings to mind The Flaming Lips or The Decemberists much more than it suggests a hip hop poseur. It doesn't need a catchy new moniker. Blue Note put out a good piece of fresh pop music rather than jazz, and it works.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Kurt Elling: THE GATE

When it comes to guys singing jazz in 2011, Kurt Elling is King.  Since his 1995 debut, Close Your Eyes (Blue Note), to 2009's Dedicated to You (Concord), he has been daring, solid, and utterly identifiable.  Brimming with technique that draws equally on Sinatra and Mark Murphy, the guy is a jazz singing superstar, and yet he has also been quirky and off-beat.  You could hardly ask for more.

Elling's latest, The Gate, keep the streak alive.  Check out my full PopMatters review here.

The Gate mixes "new standards" by the Beatles, King Crimson, Stevie Wonder, and others with jazz classics by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.  But with the vogue for this kind of Jazz Singer Does Rock! long past, this is no gimmick.  Along with super--producer Don Was and longtime accompanist Lawrence Hobgood, Elling finds all sorts of elastic swing or syncopated funk in these pop songs, and he delivers them with soaring, daring power.

Even the most familiar songs take on a delicious new flavor.  "Norwegian Wood" gets a whole new rhythmic feeling.  Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" sounds much like the original, but Elling flats one note of the melody to sour things wonderfully, then he deconstructs the songs like Picasso after a key change.  And best of all, many of the arrangements are flavored by flashes of overdubbed harmony that jar the listener out of what we usually expect from a jazz singer.  Hancock's "Come Running to Me," for example, sounds like a fully new direction for Elling because of the way the vocals are layered into a sinuous texture.

Throughout, Hobgood's solos sparkle.  Bob Mintzer contributes some color on saxophone, and the occassional guitar solo is distorted rather than clean.  But the main attraction remains Kurt Elling's dramatic baritone moving confidently through songs of real quality, finding the nuance or the beauty in them, and opening up new vistas.  The Gate seems as good as gets in jazz singing these days.

Monday, March 7, 2011

JAZZ TODAY: The Blessing and the Curse of the Grammys

Jazz gets its 15 minutes of fame every couple of years, and it isn't always pretty. Last month, jazz was thrust into the headlines because angry 13 year-old girls had never heard of Esperanza Spalding.

Why should they heard of her? She's Joe Lovano's bass player.

But she's also an up-and-coming crossover star in jazz, a solo artist with sinuous tunes, an elastic voice, and a following among folks—including President Obama—who like soulfully smart jazz. And, after being nominated by the Recording Academy for "Best New Artist," she was the upset winner over Drake, Florence & the Machine, Mumford & Sons, and—oh, yeah—Justin Bieber. Hence the derision of a generation of girls named Brittany.

Read my reaction to this, which includes reflections on the treacle of Glee and the stunning Arcade Fire victory in the new Jazz Today column The Blessing and the Curse of the Grammys on PopMatters.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Buddy Miller: The Majestic Silver Strings

I don't review too many country albums, but then again there aren't many country albums that feature jazz guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell.  There also aren't many country artists as irresistible and stunning as Buddy Miller.

The Majestic Silver Strings (reviewed on PopMatters HERE) is a collection that allows Miller to transform a heap of classic country songs with the help of a veritable guitar army.  In addition of Frisell and Ribot, who both sound utterly like themselves here, Miller has session whiz Greg Leisz in the band as well.  And, amazingly, these four guitars (as Miller himself is a brilliant player) never get in each other's way.

In addition to the musicianship here, Miller has enlisted a stunning line-up of vocalists.  Shawn Colvin sounds clear and pure on Lefty Frizzell's  "Thats' the Way Love Goes," and Patty Griffin duets with Miller nicely on "I Want to Be with You Always."  Julie Miller (wife and frequent partner) sounds fine on "God's Wing'd Horse."  Even Ribot gets to singing, solo on two songs and in duet with the leader on "Why Baby Why."  Perhaps the best tune on the album is a feature for Chocolate Genius (Marc Anthony Thompson) on the grooving "Dang Me."

As always with Buddy Miller, the conventions of country fall away.  His work sounds like folk and rock and classic pop all at once, yet it does so without seeming generic or pretentiously "alt."  This album, while obviously not as focused as some of Miller's best discs, remains a study in hip attitude and eclectic taste.  That's Buddy Miller.