Header Quote

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

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cannonball Adderley with Bill Evans: Know What I Mean?

The opening strains of this classic Riverside album are pure-pure delicacy that could only come from the fingers of Bill Evans. His chiming piano, playing the original “Waltz for Debby”, is something that brings to mind a particular kind of jazz—intimate, sweet, contemplative. Then, 1:07 in, Percy Heath’s bass burbles downward and Connie Kay’s brushes start working against a snare—and the ripe sound of Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax just pops into the tune. Yummmmm.

This tune alone—the most swinging of all the “Debby”s ever recorded and one that is my all-time favorite example of a waltz suddenly busting into swinging 4/4—makes Know What I Mean? a classic, must-have jazz album. Read my full review HERE.

Of course, Adderley and Evans played together in the classic Miles Davis band—the one that recorded Kind of Blue, no less—so they were familiar with this particular sweet-and-sour set up.  And this simpatico teamwork shows throughout this disc.  There are lovely ballads on which Adderley nevertheless finds a blues strain, and there are skipping swingers on which Evans is perfectly at home.

The modal tune "Know What I Mean?" is particularly intriguing, with Adderley at home while playing flutters against a set of scales, then a whispered piano solo in that mode. At the mid-point, however, Kay sets up a jagged Latin groove for Cannonball’s solo, shifting gears into straight 4/4 swing only to find Evans soloing over the bolder groove as well. The shift back to brushes and ballad tempo is sudden and dramatic.

It's great, then, to hear the alternate take of this tune included on this reissue. This unused take moves into the groove section much sooner and finds Adderley stretching out more expansively and then re-entering over the groove just as the rhythm section switches into a bit of double-time 12/8. Clearly the band was fooling around with this arrangement in the studio, and it’s great to hear part of the creative process here—with the unused take making more sense, I think, of this shape-shifting tune.

The whole disc contains a bounty of great music.  If you love jazz but don't know this album: stop reading.  Get it now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks

Back in the '70s when I was first getting into jazz, it was great to discover the Reprise debut of the singer and songwriter Michael Franks. The Art of Tea was hip and swinging and funny, which is to say that a bunch of the songs were sly winks full of clever wordplay. They were sexy but smart. Franks, as a singer, was subtle and barely there, but he was backed by a collection of cool musicians drawn mostly from the band the Jazz Crusaders. "Popsicle Toes" and "Eggplant" and "Sometime I Forget to Smile" were cookin' little swingers that I wished I was cool enough to sing myself.

Over time, Franks demonstrated that he was also heavily influenced by Antonio Carlos Jobim—he was a great writer and singer of sophisticated bossa novas, and his ballads were great too. But as the albums tumbled onward toward the 1980s, the mushy side of Franks emerged as well. He preceded but was, essentially, pre-made for the "smooth jazz" sound, and I stopped paying attention to him at some point in the next decade.

Now he is back with a new record, Time Together (read my review HERE), and it surely reminds of what I always loved about Franks. So I made a more complete profile of him into this month's column, JAZZ TODAY: The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks, clickable here.

In any case, looking back, I think it's fair to say that Franks has always been an amazing songwriter and—in fact—a fine jazz singer.  That he got gooped up in all that smooth jazz cotton candy doesn't change the fact that his songs are beautiful and well-written.  And maybe, with the smoove jazz haze finally parting these days, he's back to being cool again?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Madeleine Peyroux: Standing on the Rooftop

I recall clearly hearing Madeleine Peyroux's debut at a party 15 years ago. "Is that Billie Holiday? With an electric guitar?!?" I thought that someone had sampled a Billie vocal and built some kind of psudeo-jazz modern arrangement around it. But, nope, it was this American singer, 22 years old, who'd been singing on the streets of Paris for a while and now had made her debut album. And she just happens to sound exactly like Billie Holiday—every melodic tendency, the timbre, the rhythms, everything. Is that legal? I recall thinking.

Madeleine Peyroux is still doing it. Standing on the Rooftop [read my full review on PopMatters HERE] is the singer's sixth recording, and it's a mess. It was produced by Craig Street, who did wonderful things for Cassandra Wilson when she started with Blue Note, and who gives things his signature moody touch. Songs were co-written with Bill Wyman and Jenny Sheinman (the jazz violinist). Alan Toussaint and M'shell N'degeocello play. There are covers of the Beatles, Robert Johnson, and Dylan. But the album wastes all this with an unfortunate aimlessness.

It is hardly original to note that Peyroux’s singing is eerily—queerly—reminiscent of Billie Holiday. But on her sixth record over 15 years, this persistent truth can’t be ignored. Peyroux applies an oddly “different” approach to many songs here, but she does it with a recycled sound that is, of course, a faded Xerox of the original. So, when Standing on the Rooftop starts out with “Martha, My Dear”, you’re glad that it does not sound like The Beatles—but were you expecting to hear “silly girl” come out of the throat of Lady Day? And it sounds like a kind of odd Holiday: Billie on Ambien, falling asleep in the middle of “when you find yourself in the thick of it”. It is intimate singing, I suppose, but I think it’s more accurate to call it weak and faltering.

Where does Peyroux sound more contemporary or more like “herself”? Ironically, “The Way of All Things” has a neat little swing rhythm but seems to liberate the singer from sounding so affected. It’s a cool tune that evokes her Parisian background to some extent. Even better is the tune co-written with Wyman, “The Kind You Can’t Afford”. Given a snakey little funk feeling, replete with snatches of wah-guitar, this tune is playful and funny. The lyrics compare the narrator’s low-rent tastes to those of a rich rival (“You got art collections, I got comic books /  You use plastic surgeons, I stay the way I look”) but she has “that real good lovin’—the kind you can’t afford”. Peyroux punches the lyrics and talks and sells it all with some natural zing—a huge relief from the vocal posing that dominates the record.

What could be variety comes off as grab-bag variation. “Meet Me in Rio” tosses in a bit of pseudo-bossa-nova strutting, while “Standing on the Rooftop” has a pulsing indie-rock plainness. Jazz, folk, country, a touch of funk: all wrapped up in that Billie Holiday imitation. It seems bewildering rather than variegated, aimless rather than genre-bending.

Madeleine Peyroux is an artist literally without her own voice. Borrowing from one source heavily and dabblingly from myriad sources, her Standing on the Rooftop is the sound of nothing so much as hip confusion

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

James Farm: James Farm

James Farm is a collective recording from four potent young jazz players that attempts—and utterly succeeds—at making instrumental jazz that is catchy and fun to hear while still offering serious pleasures in the originality of its compositions and the verve of its improvisations.

The band James Farm consists of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. Redman was a young phenom in the early 1990s and has since led a series of bands that have concerned themselves with making the “jazz tradition” relevant to and mixed with more contemporary sounds. Each member of the rhythm section is also a leader and recording artist, but it may be most useful to note that this trio was a heart of Parks’ brilliant 2008 debut on Blue Note, Invisible Cinema. That recording superbly generated a grooving vocabulary for the new century’s jazz, working elements of hip hop rhythm and rock expressionism into a precise and dazzling jazz hybrid

James Farm places Redman’s expressive tenor saxophone into this trio’s shimmering, exciting world. Using compositions from all four members of the group, James Farm sounds like another step—another leap—in the right direction. Each song establishes a scrambling, skittering rhythm that pushes and pulls in an exciting way. Harland almost never plays a “swing” beat, but he infuses the backbeats and sharp accents of modern rock and hip hop with a loose-limbed elasticity that is, nevertheless, pure jazz. Penman plays with economy and melody, and Parks continues his ascent: sounding just a little like Keith Jarrett at times, but more often playing with a jittery freedom that is all his own. His piano patterns dominate many of these tunes, and his sparse but dramatic use of a few other keyboards is smart and wise rather than cheesy.

Read my full review of James Farm HERE