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Thursday, December 13, 2012

INTERVIEW: Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

Last month I got the chance to interview the brilliant John Pizzarelli, singer and seven-string jazz guitarist. He just wrote a memoir that is by turns hilarious and insightful.

Read the entire interview here: Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

A sample:

You embody some seeming contradictions: you are a relatively young guy playing the music of a previous generation; you are a really funny and entertaining guy who plays jazz; your present yourself as both very elegant—the suits, the vintage vibe—yet you embody the state of New Jersey. How did all that come together?

All the ingredients come from different places. I got interested early on in the idea of presenting my music a certain way. Around 1984-1986, I saw Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra all in New Jersey. Their presentations were so interesting. I loved all the stuff that happened between the songs. Billy Joel had incredible pacing: three quick songs, then he sat and talked, then he went off and did something else.

I had made my second record around that time, and I was trying to apply these ideas of presentation in playing duos with Bucky [Pizzarelli’s dad] and then even more as I got my trio together for touring. I didn’t know half of what Springsteen played, but it was a hell of a concert because I couldn’t wait to hear what was next. I thought, This is something that applies to any kind of music.

The suits came from the idea I had from way back that when you go to work you put on a jacket and tie. I still can’t stand the idea that somebody would go on television to report the news without a tie. If you’re going to tell me that somebody got blown up, what, you were too lazy to put on a tie? In my band, we wear a suit and tie. We want to express that we care about what we do. We take it seriously.

You wear suits, but you also tell a lot of jokes, you do voices, you kind of undercut any pretentiousness that might arise.

Maybe that’s confusing to some people. But I’ve never been afraid to say that if you’re going to come to my shows, you’re going to have a good time. The jazz is going to be at the highest level that we can put it at. But I also think we’re as entertaining as anybody. There are non-jazz listeners in the audience. Why get up there and say [pretentious and flat voice]: “And now a performance of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’.”

I was as much a fan of Bill Cosby and George Carlin and everyone I saw as a kid on Carson’s Tonight Show as I was of music. I got just as much of an education watching those guys as did watching Zoot Simms play. I just like the ingredients of all of that in one big soup. I enjoy doing it all and want to put it together.

READ MORE: Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

The Best Jazz of 2012

Jazz today remains the music that stays alive through a remarkable alchemy. The best work in the genre is a shape-shifting wonder. On this list, traditions that go back to the jazz roots co-exist with modern pop tunes, and the avant-garde edges of the music blend in fluid ease with tonal beauty.

This list again combats the somewhat stereotypical notion that there is a jazz battle between stuffy museum curators and wild-eyed experimentalists. On the recent season of HBO’s Treme, the battle is made New Orleans-specific as a main character tries to learn more about playing bebop after a career playing mostly traditional jazz and R&B styles. Either way, it’s an artificial conflict among the top players. The center of jazz bridges tradition and innovation so fluently that these players clearly grew up in the mix, not in camps.

There are a couple of trends that might be teased out of this list. Only one record (Mehldau’s Ode on Nonesuch) is on a “major label”. Even Blue Note and Verve have taken turns toward safer material. There is also not much to choose from in thrilling vocal jazz right now. Mainstream singers such as Diana Krall and Esperanza Spaulding (the latter’s Radio Music Society was a very good jazz record that merely sounded like a pop record) did fine work in 2012, but jazz singing remains weirdly handcuffed by “The American Songbook”. Cassandra Wilson released a record that got beyond it, but hardly her best, and the more-than-affable John Pizzarelli covered Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. But these records weren’t quite in my top ten.

On the most positive side, piano trios continue to innovate in amazing different ways—three very different ones are on this list. And great jazz seems now to come from leaders who night play any instrument in the band; this list has leaders on piano, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax. With the US presidential election still ringing in our ears, it’s also worth noting the continuing multicultural trend, with leaders coming in a huge variety of colors and cultures—and with two women in the top ten, neither of whom sings or plays piano (a number that perhaps ought to be larger but, given jazz’s history, this is progress).

Jazz, long ago banished from the pop charts, thrives. Here are some of the year’s riches, presented this year with my very-favorites first.

(Read the entire article here: The Best Jazz of 2012)

The List, Unadorned:

1. Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (ACT)
Accelerando is simply the best jazz record in recent memory. On this recording, this veteran piano trio—Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums—plays with an incredible degree of integration, sounding like it has fully worked out a series of ideas about how a band should deal with rhythm and dynamic interaction in today’s jazz.

2. Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still (Greenleaf)

If I ranked Accelerando above this crystalline beauty by the great trumpeter, then it is by a hair or less. Be Still is incomparably lovely: a blend of jazz quintet colors, a folk singer’s plaintive clarity, and hymns and other devotional material that has an emotional transparency that is rare in jazz.

3. Tim Berne: Snakeoil (ECM)
Tim Berne has been making uncompromising jazz beyond boundaries for an entire career, mostly on his own label. Snakeoil finds him on the esteemed ECM label with a new band, a quartet featuring his alto sax, pianist Matt Mitchell (also on the Dave Douglas record—playing very differently but no less well), clarinet work from Oscar Noriega, and drummer Ches Smith.

4. Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12)
Bending Bridges is the second beautiful and urgent recording from Mary Halvorson’s quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Jon Irabagon (again), bassist John Hébert and Ches Smith (again) on drums. The band plays with precision and fire on a series of Halvorson tunes that entertain and tell stories.

5. Rez Abbasi Trio: Continuous Beat (Enja)
Rez Abbasi has been so active and so productive in recent years that it seems like you almost have to pencil him into the top ten list in March, just in case he releases anything new in the coming year. And he always does. This debut by his loose and fun trio smacks of a truly fresh appeal—having not a little in common with the very first trio record of jazz star Pat Metheny.

6. The Bad Plus: Made Possible (Entertainment One)
The Bad Plus have been the poster boys for a certain kind of new jazz for about a decade. They covered “Smells Like a Teen Spirit” on their first major release, and they did it with a muscular seriousness that suggests both an interest in finding an audience and no room for watering down their sensibility. Made Possible continues to live up to that dual tradition.

7. Bill McHenry: La Peur du Vide (Sunnyside)
Bill McHenry is one of those 40 year-old guys who seems to have arrived all of a sudden, even thought that’s unfair. Certainly his new disc, La Peur du Vide is a perfect balance of modern tradition and daring adventure.

8. Brad Meldau: Ode (Nonesuch)
Ode is a more traditional jazz record than Day Is Done, the previous record by this working trio. It features concise themes and long improvisations, with brilliant rhythmic play running throughout the trio’s incredible dialogue.

9. Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts: An Attitude for Gratitude (Palmetto)
If there is one true “grower” on this list, it is An Attitude for Gratitude, a record that offers so much and with so little apparent effort that it was maybe easy to take for granted on first listen. Two brilliant standouts are a trio take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Gary Versace on piano, along with the leader’s loose drumming and bassist Martin Wind) and then a melancholy “Happy Days are Here Again”.

10. Linda Oh: Initial Here (Greenleaf)
Linda Oh is currently the bassist in Dave Douglas’s quintet, and her second solo album is one of the year’s treats.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kurt Elling: 1619 Broadway, The Brill Building Project

In sheer talent and bravado, there’s not a more remarkable jazz singer out there than Kurt Elling. His instrument, a baritone to tenor beast that is pliant, rich, and utterly athletic, has no peer in jazz. And he has been making a series of records of great imagination—collaborations with his long-time pianist Lawrence Hobgood that take on the jazz repertoire in interesting ways.

The latest is 1619 Broadway, a reference to the address of the famous “Brill Building” in Manhattan where a couple generations of great songwriters created a body of work that spanned the late period of “The Great American Songbook” and the first wave (or two) of rock ‘n’ roll. This new album, then, takes in an idiosyncratic swath of American songs, from Ellington (“Tutti for Cootie”) to doo-wop (“I Only Have Eyes For You”) to Bacharach/David (“A House Is Not a Home”) to ‘70s singer-songwriters (Carole King and Paul Simon).

And, because he is a very interesting interpreter, Elling gets at these tunes in singular ways. The opener, “On Broadway”, works from a delectable seven-note lick that underpins the whole tune in a hip and slightly menacing way. The lick (for bassist Clark Sommers and guitarist John McLean) weaves through a strange time signature, with a couple extra beats breaking up the groove every few bars, and it rides atop electric piano comping from Hobgood—not his usual axe. It’s a good reading of the tune, no doubt, even framed by a bunch of street sounds and voices (people telling Elling they don’t want to hire his ‘ooo-bop-a-doo’ vocal talent, ironically).

But some of the gimmicky-ness of this track drags down 1619 Broadway in other places. The Brill Building was home to plenty of classic songwriting, but Elling doesn’t avoid some of the novelty content that came out of Brill.

On the other hand, there are a four of five performances here that are as wonderful as anything Elling has ever done. And that means that they are timeless vocal jazz that busts down barriers. The funk feel that McLean puts beneath “You Send Me” is a great butt-shaking counterpoint to Elling’s simple take on the vocal line. This is a classic oil-vinegar kind of idea, with the tight drumming (Kendrick Scott) and minimal piano work just setting up the vocal for success. The band grooves really hard, and then Elling doesn’t have to overwork it, just twisting his voice a bit here and there to draw the juice out of the simple melody. The layers of background vocals (Elling, overdubbing nicely) are beautiful, and everything fits.

There are two other tracks here that are so good that I can’t stop listening to them in endless repetition. First, Elling has recorded here the very best version of “A House Is Not a Home” I’ve ever heard. This track contains no tricks or transformations. Rather, this is a brilliant singer taking on a great song with the support of a sympathetic band. The quartet (McLean with the trio) is all pastel colors and subtle support, and Elling brings his most even and lovely sound to the lyrics. Elling can do just about anything, so it is his restraint here that is admirable. The arrangement is very specific in places, with certain key words (“ends—in—teaaaaaaars”) being placed carefully along with the band, but in other places everything is open and Elling moves the notes to suit a whispered mood. Hobgood also plays a crystalline solo that is just right.

The highlight of the collection, however, is a duo for just Elling and Hobgood on Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”. This is one of those classic songs that exists somewhat under the radar and in the shadow of so many other great Simon songs. But here Elling rescues the song, for me at least, making me wonder why it hasn’t been covered by a million other artists in the last 30 years. Hobgood doesn’t significantly rework the song’s harmonies. He doesn’t have to. Rather, he reads the gospel chords with sensitivity and patience. Elling states the first line of the melody a cappella (“Many is the time I’ve been mistaken and many times confused”) before the piano joins, quietly. As Elling sings the refrain, “But I’m alright, I’m alright”, his vulnerability is said with no extra strain or effort. It is the perfect sound for this sentiment. When they get to the song’s bridge, Elling finally reaches up for some power, and it shatters you: “And I dreamed I was flying / And from high above I could see / The Statue of Liberty sailing out to sea.” By the end of this performance, I felt that I had never heard the song before and, truly, I hadn’t. (Plus, uh, I was crying.) Elling and Hobgood now own “An American Tune” as surely as Sinatra owned “Come Fly with Me”.

Read my entire PopMatters review here: Kurt Elling: 1619 Broadway, The Brill Building Project

My Goodbye to Dave: Taking Five with the Late Dave Brubeck

When pianist Dave Brubeck died last week, many jazz fans lost the man who first taught them how to love the music—and to learn to love the possibilities of passion and adulthood.

* * *

The death of jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck on 5 December 2012, one day short of his 92nd birthday, was a day of mourning for many jazz fans. So many of us came to jazz through Brubeck—his strange and stunning music had a way of hooking the ear of jazz novices.

Critics found it easy to dismiss Brubeck over the years, unfairly. The truth, as I wrote in a career retrospective back in 2008 (“Looking Back at Brubeck” (21 August 2008), is that he was a compelling and swinging player and leader. Innovative, too.

But upon his death, my reaction is less as a critic than as a grateful fan. For me and many others, his was the first music that opened my ears. But it was more than that: he sometimes lacked subtlety, but Brubeck taught many of us to love the whole idea of passion and abandon in our lives.

In 1974 I was just a kid in 8th grade who’d been hearing some cool and otherworldly music on a New York radio station that seeped through my clock radio when I had my bedroom doors closed. I’d barely heard the word “jazz” and certainly didn’t know who Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie were. But certain tunes the DJs played more often than others got into my head like a pretty girl’s smile, and I heard the DJs say, “The Dave Brubeck Quartet”.

Soon enough I’d bought the record, a two-LP set on Columbia of this guy’s All-Time Greatest Hits. It had a big gatefold opening with illustrations of the players on the outside and a long set of notes by Mort Goode that went through what these guys were up to. And a couple hip friends and I spent the better part of the next year listening to those songs over and over again, as if contained the secrets of growing up.

“Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”. “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “The Duke”. We bobbed our heads and tapped our feet and we set our hands out in front of us and pretended we were playing the piano or the alto sax, fingering the notes of these ingenious made-up solos from memory and instinct.

Of course, this music did contain the secrets of growing up. For us. This was the music that allowed us become ourselves, to set ourselves apart from the pack and start experiencing the possibility that the world—and our hearts—were bigger than “Stairway to Heaven” and Three Dog Night (as fun as that all was). Brubeck’s music was somehow an utterly pure expression of that freedom while also an easy pleasure: strong melody and insistent rhythm.

Mostly, like so many other folks, we loved “Take Five”.

The version on All-Time Greatest Hits was the one that’s been played on the radio (and since, in TV ads and everywhere else) a million times. The tune’s composer, Paul Desmond, plays his airy alto sax, while Brubeck plays the famous bouncing figure in 5/4 time that is the signature of the song. The winding but spikey melody on the first part of the song was tricky to scat along to at first, but then it came quickly to your ear—played over a simple pair of chords that never changed. Then the bridge had a set of suddenly moving harmonies over which Desmond floated a melody of amazing symmetry and ease.

Best, though, was the improvising. I’m not sure we even knew what that word meant when we were 14. But there was this saxophone player, with Brubeck bouncing that figure beneath him (mm-bump, mm-bummmm, boom-boom, mm-bump mm-bummmm, boom-boom, on and onward) unspooling a set of notes that were spontaneous but perfect—notes that are so logical and right that I can sing every one of them right now from memory.

“Take Five”, my friend Bobby says, “is the essential American musical performance of the third quarter of the 20th century.” And he may be right. Its rhythm momentum and harmonic simplicity arguably exploited part of what was making rock such a powerful force around that time (the take I’m discussing was recorded in 1959), and it prefigured Contrane’s more critically lauded experiments in recording over a static harmonic pattern that would a come a year later (My Favorite Things, 1960). Also that solo, while brief, was a completely open “jam” over no particular chordal pattern. In its freedom but simplicity, it was the shape of jazz (and rock) to come.

More thrilling than that record to us, however, was a live version of “Take Five” that we found in Bobby’s father’s record collection, a version with Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax taking Desmond’s place. Last Set at Newport (1971) contained a “Take Five” that was faster, and it was more aggressive. Mulligan dug into the melody with a deft brawniness, low in his register. The drummer is now Alan Dawson, who is punching the 5/4 figure like mad with accents and snare clicks. And as Mulligan begins his solo, he is taking no prisoners right from the start. Very soon, Brubecks’ punching chords get weirder, less regular, and Dawson is essentially playing his own improvised solo beneath the baritone solo. Brubeck’s solo is only tangentially related to the chords of the song in a whole bunch of places, and his rhythmic play gets adventurous very quickly. Is it too much to say that this performance is essentially avant-garde? Probably, but not by much.

Listening to this second version of “Take Five”, climaxed by a flamboyant drum solo that has a reckless quality, sticks flying every possible way, which Brubeck then joins back into in his high register so that becomes a mad duet before quieting down into a subtle lesson in how simple patterns become more interesting as they are repeated across a polyrhythm. Brubeck jumps back in with abandon, becoming a virtual pianist machine-gun. The theme returns and the crowd goes fabulous nuts. So too did we, as 14-year-old boys.

That performance, by a 50 year-old pianist in the ripe center of his storied career, changed us. Sitting on Bobby’s bed, listening to the sounds leap off the vinyl, initiated us into all the things that would soon come to matter: abandon and sex, ecstasy and intelligence, serious ideas and sensual pleasure in one package. For me at least, jazz still stands for all those pleasures to this day.

“Take Five” and Dave Brubeck opened the door, and I would soon pass through to get enveloped in Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sonny Sharrock, Louis Armstrong and Cecil Taylor. My Brubeck albums would go unlistened-to for long stretches.

But this week, with the man himself gone, I can replay them in my head without so much as dropping the needle onto wax. I remember and love every note.

Taking Five with the Late Dave Brubeck

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rez Abbasi Trio: Continuous Beat

In past outings, jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi has created challenging bands that mixed and matched voices in ways that fostered cultural cross-pollination and dressed up his strong compositions. Continuous Beat is a different kind of collection, and it may just be the leader’s best. Certainly it is his most joyful and pure: a trio record that really makes us appreciate Abbasi as a guitar player, as an interpreter, and as a writer of irresistible tunes.

This band—with John Hebert on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums—plays as one but in a state on continual conversation. Hebert’s lines are strong and independent, ripe in low tone and interesting all on their own. Takeishi plays such that he is constantly creating a poly-rhythmic dance, pushing and pulling the groove without overwhelming the rest of the band. And with a leader who is as melodic as Abbasi, the total package is a joy to listen to in every measure.

While this is no “smooth jazz” outing, the spirit about Continuous Beat is as appealing and easy on the ears as a Pat Metheny record. Indeed, the inevitable comparison is to Metheny’s first trio record, Bright Size Life from 1975. As on that sparkling debut, this band achieves a perfect balance between consonance and departure. This is jazz that plays straight to what audiences love—melody and infectious rhythm—without sacrificing group conversation and adventure.

As the title implies, this new record is rich in a pulsating groove. “Divided Attention” uses a tricky time signature but doesn’t skimp of propulsion, with the guitar and drums rapping out a syncopated groove that becomes the melody itself. Abbasi’s ability to pluck a killer melody starts in his statements using a “clean” sound on the head, then it shifts to a more distorted sound for the true solo, with the lines of improvisation starting to get faster and harder over time. “Back Skin”, another original, works a memorable melody through both the bass line and the guitar lead (played here on a guitar-synth that uses a sound less grating than Metheny’s), leading to a strong solo that flows naturally like a river over the same hooky groove until the band increases the tempo and takes things forward with rushing momentum, twice shifting tempo. It’s a perfect example of how Continuous Beat refuses to play it too safe.

Read my entire PopMatters review here:  Rez Abbasi Trio: Continuous Beat

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: The Many Voices of Trumpeter and Composer Dave Douglas

The most moving music of 2012 for me has surely been the collection Be Still, by trumpeter Dave Douglas. A serene and shimmering marriage between jazz and devotional hymns, Be Still was inspired by the death of Douglas’s mother—and it extinguished any notion that jazz is all cerebellum and no heart.

That this great work should come from Douglas in 2012 is hardly a surprise. Douglas has been a critical voice—and recently a critical mentor to younger players—in jazz for 20 years. And that it should mean that much to me is also not surprise. Douglas and I grew up in the same place and the same time, and—as he reflects the loss of his parents in his music—has many of my own concerns in his heart.

His music is personal. Putting aside Be Still, that may seem odd, as he is mainly a voice in today’s post-modern jazz, a realm of much abstraction not usually given to autobiography or confession. But Douglas’s work is personal because its incredible range and diversity, taken as a whole, is a portrait of a brilliant and complete man.

The last year shows this with perfect clarity. You can forget the broad swath of his work from previous years: his music for silent movie soundtracks, his use of turntables and electronics, his immersion in Balkan music and his album of Joni Mitchell covers. Douglas’s released music in the last 12 months is enough to suggest that he is the most interesting and heartfelt jazz musician in recent times.

Greenleaf Records and “The Portable Series”

Since 2005, Douglas has been releasing his music—and increasingly that of others—on his own label, Greenleaf Music. Not that Douglas had previously seemed constrained in his artistic choices, but now he truly does what he wants when he wants. And so the full breadth of his artistic identity flies free.

At the end of 2011, Greenleaf made available three different records by Douglas reflecting three different angles on his remarkable trumpet voice. Called “The Portable Series”, these recordings were initially available by download only but were eventually pressed onto compact disc by demand. Each one, remarkable. Together, a revelation.

Read the entire column, including review of the latest by Linda Oh and Donny McCaslin at PopMatters at The Many Voices of Trumpeter and Composer Dave Douglas

Monday, November 19, 2012

Guillermo Klein: Carrera

Pianist and composer Guillermo Klein is a “jazz” musician because jazz is the only category that might comfortably hold his singular, fascinating music in its grip. Sure, Klein studied at Berklee in the 1990s, and there’s no doubt that his bands consist of trumpets and saxophones—played by jazz musicians. His large band had a residency at Small’s (a jazz club) in New York for a long time.

But his music ought to have it’s own name, somehow. It is that unique and intriguing.

Klein’s recent work, including the new Carrera, is with a mid-sized band (10 or 11 pieces) called “Los Gauchos”. This is a band that plays cool, intriguingly schemed-out music. The compositions and arrangements often have a puzzle-like quality, with many interlocking parts that wrap around and through each other. Klein gets the maximum number of colors from his group even as he specializes is a chill kind of impressionism.

Klein uses vocals (often in harmony) as well as horns, muted effects, interesting combinations of sound, and combining acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano. The result is music that is occasionally Ellingtonian, occasionally classical, and always beautiful. But it is a subtle beauty. There is little to Los Gauchos’ sound that has a sense of jazz swing or dynamic insistence. It is enigmatic music, perhaps. To its great credit.

“Globo” is a fine and astonishing example. This ballad sets up an austere vocal by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, usually shadowed by Klein’s baritone harmony an octave lower. The range of instrumental colors Klein accesses here has a gauzy beauty, from Ben Monder’s subtle guitar figures, to piercing muted brass, to buzzing low saxophones that barely register in the usual way. “AnteSano” embodies revelatory arrangement too, but in a different direction. Klein conjures fascinating sonorities by combining Rhodes and flute, handclaps and other percussion, Bill McHenry’s almost mathematical tenor sax solo with a set of written parts for other horns. This is music with the playfulness, say, of Chick Corea’s work, but it’s freighted with other unique flavors—kept close to the ground, for example, but a strong part for baritone sax. Wonderful.

Read the entire PopMatters review here: Guillermo Klein: Carrera

Shelby Lynne: Revelation Road (Deluxe Edition)

In 2001 when Shelby Lynne won the “Best New Artist” Grammy for the previous year’s I Am Shelby Lynne, she become a classic example of Grammy cluelessness—Lynne had been a professional singer and musician for over a decade at the time, having recorded a duet with no less a light that George Jones in 1988.

So that “new” thing was ridiculous, but the “best” part wasn’t. I Am Shelby Lynne was a ripe and wonderful record that reinvented Lynne as a country artist with unusual range and depth. With that recording, Lynne seemed not only “alternative” in that she sounded more like Lucinda Williams than like Faith Hill but also genuinely original—mixing rock and soul into her country sound with a bold clarity that contained bracing, confessional lyrics. The recordings that followed were not quite as stunning as I Am, . . . until the fall of 2011.

Revelation Road was released in October 2011, and it is Lynne’s finest recording. It’s also her most personal and most poetic. Lynne is the only songwriter here—but also the only musician. Released on her own label, this disc comes off as the most complete expression of Shelby Lynne there could be. Critics properly loved it.

A year later, Lynne is releasing a “Deluxe Edition” that includes five additional acoustic tracks of Revelation tunes or other exclusives, adding a sweet additional layer to this masterful record. If it seems too soon for Lynne to be re-selling what she released only a year ago, well . . ., maybe it’s never too early to celebrate something this good. Plus, the first disc comes in a collection with Lynne’s first live record, recorded earlier this year in Santa Monica, as well as two DVDs—another live show and a “making of” documentary about the 2011 record.

The climax of the disc is the devastating “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road”, which seems to tell the story that can’t help but insist on itself in Lynne’s biography: the day that her father shot her mother and then himself, leaving Lynne and her younger sister (who happens to be the wonderful singer-songwriter Allison Moorer) as orphans. The brilliant stroke is that Lynne tells the story from the husband/father’s point of view, conjuring the pathos of a man who is doing a terrible thing and knows it beforehand, powerless to stop himself for tragic reasons. That Revelation Road provides one last tune, the sadly warm and generous “I Won’t Leave You” (“Oh, I can see the time / Has come for you to cry / Oh my, can’t say goodbye / Loving you’s the reason”) is just further proof of its emotional generosity.

The new music here will keep a listener happily busy for days or more. “Between the Rows” is the only new song among these bonus tracks. Like so many Lynne songs, it has uses strong and simple language to suggest a story of pain and downfall, laced with religious imagery and the landscape of her childhood home in the American south. The stabs of electric guitar and the gutty vibe of her voice more than make up for the simple acoustic backing. All of these songs combine the tough and the tender.

The live record from McCabe’s Guitar Shop is even more worth having. Lynne’s tells stories out front of several of these simple performances, putting the tunes even more in context and making them even more personal. Before singing “I’ll Hold Your Head”, she explains that she, her mom and her little sister (Moorer) learned to sing three-part harmony while driving to school each morning in rural southern Alabama. The performance of the tune is absolutely masterful—a vocal delivery that swoops and swings, rich in tone and conversational just when it has to be. When she sings “C’mon, Sissy, let’s close the door / Don’t want to hear the noise no more”, it’s plain that she is singing about the alcohol behind her parents’ tragic marriage, and the song’s title makes even more sense than when you first heard it.

Read the entire review on PopMatters at Shelby Lynne: Revelation Road (Deluxe Edition)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: A Tale of Two (Too Unsung) Tenors

October brings two very different and very wonderful releases by tenor saxophonists in their 40s who are both extremely accomplished and too little known. Bill McHenry and Michael Blake are not anonymous to serious fans, but don’t hold your breath until they get signed to Blue Note.

This is common in jazz, a discipline in which the highest degree of creativity is often met with some indifference. Few jazz musicians become stars, and idiosyncratic playing isn’t the golden ticket. But it’s to be cherished, nonetheless. And McHenry’s La Peur du Vide and Blake’s In the Grand Scheme of Things are collections worth celebrating.
cover art
Jazz middle age is a glorious time—a time when a player is rich with ideas and mature enough to know his or her real identity. McHenry and Blake are using the middle of their careers to make bracing personal statements that stake a claim to greatness. They are reminders to keep our ears open every day.

Bill McHenry and La Peur du Vide

McHenry was born in 1972 and moved to New York in 1992, where he got work with legends and contemporaries alike: Paul Motian, John O’Neill, and Guillermo Klein, but also Ben Monder and Reid Anderson. He was booked as a leader at the Village Vanguard in 2003, and he was recording for Fresh Sound even before that in 1998. Just making it as a jazz player in New York means you are cream of the crop, but it’s also scary how easy it has been not to single McHenry out of a scene rife with Chris Potter and Joe Lovano and James Carter, to name just a few.

But McHenry’s latest, La Peur du Vide seems likely to change all that. La Peur is a perfect balance of modern tradition and daring adventure—a live date from the Village Vanguard that features an ideally balanced quartet and showcases a tenor talent who fuses technique, tone, and captivating quirk.

Michael Blake and In the Grand Scheme of Things

Blake is a completely different player than McHenry, but he’s equally worth discovering. And the case that he should be “big” is even more compelling.

cover artBlake was born in Montreal in 1964 and ultimately grew up in Vancouver, where an eclectic jazz scene is beautifully entrenched. But he had made it to New York by the late ‘80s, where he started playing with John Lurie’s band The Lounge Lizards. And Blake’s sensibility fits that eclectic downtown vibe. His dozen recordings as a leader include electric guitar, contributions from jazz wildcard Steve Bernstein as well as the group known as the Jazz Composers Collective (such as bassist Ben Allison), and plenty of mad eclecticism. Blake’s first recording as a leader was produced by no less a figure than Teo Macero, Miles Davis’s famed producer—and Kingdom of Champa seemed like the first volley from a future jazz star, featuring Vietnamese-flavored themes composed by Blake for a mad ensemble of vibes, flute, slide trumpet, distorted guitar, tuba, and of course his own tenor saxophone, which can move from feathered breathiness to ripe pungency.

Photo from Michael Blake.net
Blake never became well known, but he never settled down, either. His latest, In the Grand Scheme of Things, is on the Vancouver-based Songlines Recordings, and it features a hometown band of Chris Gestrin on keyboards (including a brilliantly-played mini-Moog bass), Dylan van der Schyff on drums, and JP Carter on trumpet. Grand Scheme keeps the band small but its range very wide. “Road to Lusaka” starts things with an atmospheric nod to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, but there is also the swinging boppishness of “Cybermonk”, with its walking synth-bass line and long tenor solo that demonstrates how good Blake is at making himself at home in the jazz tradition, even if it is with a wink.

Read the entire column here: A Tale of Two (Too Unsung) Tenor

Monday, October 15, 2012

Diana Krall: Glad Rag Doll

Success is to be devoutly hoped for in life. And if you are a jazz musician, achieving Diana Krall-level success is like winning the lottery or striking gold – a rare coming together of spectacular sales and not a little critical acclaim.

But that kind of success in art is going to be a prison more often than not. It certainly was for Krall.

Diana Krall is very good at singing jazz standards in a smoky and sexy voice, accompanied by her own deft piano and often a swinging trio or a lush orchestration. Her audience seemed to want more of that, please. She made six such records (as well as a crisp live record of the same standard material) in the decade following her 1993 debut. Then she tried something different: 2004’s The Girl in the Other Room, a collection of rock-era songs and original material that sounded only a little like jazz and nothing like her prior work. The market spoke loud and clear. She went back to jazz standards and bossa nova after that for three more discs.

Except that Diana Krall turns out to be an interesting and searching artist. Her smoothest material was always rich in rhythm and hip phrasing, and her piano work was confident and melodic – way more than merely competent. And it turns out that she was not content to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

Glad Rag Doll is a riveting leap forward and backward at once. It leaps forward because it allows Krall to sound much more contemporary, embracing and owning for the first time a directness of expression that includes distorted rock guitars and thumping drums. But it leaps backward as well to songs from the 1920s and 1930s that include vaudeville, blues, and roots material, as well as jazz era pop songs. Glad Rag Doll is old and new, but mainly it’s fresh and bracing. It does not reinvent Diana Krall – she sounds utterly like herself here. But it makes you realize that her talent is broader than you previously realized.

Glad Rag Doll was produced by T-Bone Burnett, and it has his distinctive mark, including boasting his house rhythm section of guitarist Mark Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch, and drummer Jay Bellarose. The groove here swings plenty when it wants to, but it also whumps and rocks and even crackles. This is not “Diana Krall Rocks!” In fact, most of these songs are decades older than Krall’s usual repertoire. But Burnett embraces the roughness and directness of that older music, and so the effect is that of Krall’s diamond-like voice being affixed to a craggy setting. And it makes her shine that much brighter.

The Betty James rockabilly tune, “I’m a Little Mixed Up”, is a perfect bit of joy. The guitars are distorted and rootsy – twangy and rocking at once – with the rhythm section playing a slap-happy backbeat that inspires Krall to play barrelhouse piano that is as lean and clutch as any Allen Toussaint performance. But there is the smooth alto of Krall’s voice, bending the melody and the lyrics too, and sounding great: close to the elemental emotion of the tune.

Or check out Doc Pomus’s “Lonely Avenue”, which has got to be the grittiest recording in Krall’s canon, with a guitar squall that storms behind her pouty voice as if Neil Young had been mischievously let loose in a Manhattan nightclub. Burnett brilliantly mixes Ribot’s banjo with feedback and thunderous left hand crashes on piano – with the whole mix getting positively atonal in a collective improvisation that takes place after the second vocal section. It is ripping good fun, but haunting too, with the leader’s vocal getting at legit blues feeling.

Read the entire review, HERE: Diana Krall: Glad Rag Doll

Friday, October 5, 2012

Bill Evans Trio: Moonbeams

Jazz pianist Bill Evans was famously introspective: a junkie and an innovator, reserved by all accounts and tortured too. It’s a great story. You hear his impressionist jazz, his gossamer touch on ballads and his refined ability to swing, and the sense of the man drips through to your ears.

But no one is that simple or unified. In fact, Evans was also a football star—leading his college team to a championship. Did he play light and high on the piano at times? You bet. He went off to college on a flute scholarship, though. Maybe the psychological explanation is not always the thing.

Moonbeams was the first recording that Evans made after the tragic early death of his brilliant bass player, Scott LaFaro. By all accounts, Evans (and the trio’s drummer, Paul Motian too) was devastated by the loss. No surprise then that Moonbeams was a collection of ballads. A sad record, a tender piece of art.

But there is some of the quarterback present in this record too. Evans may have suffered a blow, but his game comes back strong and clear in this recording. Made in the studio and possessing a much clearer sound balance than the more famous “Live at the Village Vanguard” records with LaFaro, Moonbeams is an 80-yeard touchdown pass. It is one of best piano trio records in the history of the music. It’s a classic, a template for the future, a slice of pure genius.

This reissue comes on the 50th birthday of this record. But every listen is like the first time: delicious.

Read the entire review here: Bill Evans Trio: Moonbeams on PopMatters.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: Is Innovation Required In Jazz Today?

It’s inelegant and silly for arts critics to pick fights with each other. And goodness, it’s hard to imagine a dust-up between jazz scribes making much difference in the world.

cover artSo, although I’m going to use the PopMatters review of the new recording by the Branford Marsalis Quartet as my straw man here (sorry, Max Feldman, brother—it ain’t personal), my point is not to take issue with a tepid and curious review of a recording that I very much like. Rather, the question I’m interested in is whether art—and specifically jazz—becomes irrelevant if it isn’t evolving or stepping into innovative ground.

Put another way, does a jazz musician become pointless, is each individual jazz performance or recording lesser, if it is not in the vanguard?

A Premium on Novelty?

Feldman seems to think so. His review of Branford Marsalis’s new Four MFers Playin’ Tunes is cheekily dismissive. Not because the recording stinks. “It’s not a bad record by any means,” he writes. The problem, rather, is that the music contains “not very much to set [it] apart from everything else that’s just like it that you’ve probably heard before.”

Feldman’s review makes this point over and over again. “It’s the same old studious conservatism that we know and loathe—it stands its ground and doesn’t look outside of the sadly deforested jazz jungle for inspiration.”
Read the entire column here:  Is Innovation Required In Jazz Today?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still

Jazz isn’t afraid to mix it up with other kinds of music, and certainly an artist as bold as trumpeter Dave Douglas isn’t going to shy away from stylistic collision. Douglas’s earlier work mixed jazz with Balkan music, film music, brass band elements, electronics—so what’s the big deal in taking on a set of hymns or many elements of folk music?

But it’s rare that the particular elements that mix on Be Still, the latest from Douglas’s shimmering jazz quintet, fuse so convincingly and effortlessly. This recording, inspired by the passing of the leader’s mother and a list of hymns and spiritual folk songs that she chose for her own service, is majestic. Douglas uses his quintet in new ways to work with a different kind of source material. And the jazz group is supplemented brilliantly by Aoife O’Donovan, a young singer with a clarion but gentle gravity to her voice.

Be Still is a triumph, a beauty, a revelation. It’s as a good a jazz record as 2012 is likely to produce—and maybe it’s not quite a jazz record at all.

First, this is a record of crystalline quiet. O’Donovan sings gently, with a soft and often breathy approach. She’s no stranger to this kind of artistic fusion, having sung with the Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser’s trailblazing mixture of jazz, bluegrass and klezmer, and being the main voice of Crooked Still, a hip “newgrass” outfit. Douglas’s arrangements in support of her are full of space and gentle care. On “Barbara Allen”, for example, Douglas starts by deploying O’Donovan’s voice as a wordless instrument in a chorale written out for trumpet, saxophone, piano, bowed bass, and voice. The lyrics are then supported by a very spare set of statements by the horns only, then horns and piano. O’Donovan is given lengths of as much as eight slow bars to sing without accompaniment, making the reentry to the quiet instrumental work that much more dramatic.

Not that drummer Rudy Royston has no role here. His tuneful cymbal work on “Be Still My Soul” is essential to balancing the performance. But his role on this tune is hardly that of a typical jazz drummer. Mainly, he performs as colorist, filling the atmosphere around the carefully phrased melody with a series of pings and shimmers, flinging sparks around the grounding provided by bassist Linda Oh and the transparent piano work of Matt Mitchell. Later, as Douglas takes the disc’s first improvised solo, Royston begins playing loose time, which builds to be even more dramatic under the tenor saxophone solo by Jon Irabagon. This track is arguably a masterpiece, and Royston is a critical reason for that.

But Douglas uses the band different ways on different tracks. “High on the Mountain” is essentially a bluegrass tune, and he uses a horn arrangement on the chorus that sets up the kind of drone that a different band would get out of a fiddle. Royston plays a highly syncopated train beat under the verse while the leader plays a flowing jazz counterpoint to the vocal melody. On “God Be With You”, however, the trumpet takes the first reading of the melody, loosely, setting up the stately hymn as a kind of jazz ballad. After O’Donovan’s statement of the melody, the horns come in together with a wholly separate melody that launches Irabagon into a short but surging improvisation. Each of the approaches seems just right for its tune.

Read the full review for this amazing album here: Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tedeschi Trucks Band: Everybody's Talkin

You want some powerful real music, the kind of music that shamelessly moves at you with emotion and soul? Is this just the tonic for you, what the doctor ordered, the sort of juice that might put hair on your chest or perhaps a skip in your step?

Well, let me recommend something in a husky yet pliant singing voice, good with a ballad like “Midnight in Harlem” but also game and glorious on an Elmore James blues like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. Let me suggest that such a voice—owned and used with authority by the lovely Susan Tedeschi—is just the ticket to getting your temperature rising. It growls and shouts as necessary but is equally capable of a caress. And this quality, of being multifaceted in a world that prefers pigeonholed pop stars who sing the same song over and over again, it’s too rare lately. It’s great.

I might also suggest that you try on something in a stunning electric guitar player. Not just a guitar that is fast or loud or flashy, though Mr. Derek Trucks is all those things when he chooses to be. But rather, I suggest you look into the kind of guitar that speaks—that sings—like an actual human voice. A slide guitar that moans and bends tones and a blues guitar that lives between diatonic notes and a jazz guitar even that moves in surprising harmonic twists when surprise or coloration makes sense.

Is that a big mess of description? Then just tune in to “Nobody’s Free”, a ten-minute stretch of live music that lets a guitar do just about anything that a guitar could want to do. It could want to start with a screaming set of jacked-up chords that rip and roar, then move into gentle finger-picking that accompanies the soothing-to-gutbucket vocal. And it could play a greasy figure behind the horns in ripping unison. And it could then let the rhythm section get out of the way, be very very quiet, and begin a sculpture of a solo that starts from a few squiggled notes, moves into dramatic blues figures mirrored in near duet by electric bass, and then trades a daring figures with the drummer before ending in a set of jazz-drenched twists and turns. And what if I then told you that the guitar playing underneath the subsequent flute solo was, if anything, even more subtle and astonishing: the kind of hip and detailed rhythm playing that is so good that it almost constitutes a “solo” unto itself—a jittery, complex, riveting set of scratches and chops and thrums that frames the horn perfectly?

Yup, that Derek Trucks can play.

Read the entire review here: Tedeschi Trucks Band: Everybody's Talkin

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Twenty Dozen

When the Dirty Dozen Brass Band got started 35 years ago, there wasn’t much popular call for such bands. By the early 1980s, the Dirty Dozen had not only revolutionized the genre, but they had also brought it back to a level of fascination. Appearing at parties for The Rolling Stones, at major festivals in New York and Europe, and then releasing an original debut disc in 1984, The Dirty Dozen brought the New Orleans brass band tradition to a fresh new audience.

And other brass bands followed. But 35 years later, it is also apparent that no band is quite them. The Dozen created a crisp and hip brass band sound for a new generation, no doubt, but they also fused the tradition with funk and modern jazz, managing to create a sound both more sophisticated and more earthy.

The band’s 20th album features just about everything that folks love about the Dirty Dozen. There are hip original tunes, traditional workouts, dashes of international flavor too, but also a heap of funk and soul amidst the rough-and-tumble New Orleans syncopation. It’s not the best of the Dirty Dozen — it’s maybe a little too clean in a few spots, tamer than it might be, but still a good-time groove for sure, a New Orleans party but more, a delight.

If you haven’t been following Dirty Dozen since their early years, then you need to know that they moved, a while ago, away from the purer place where they started. I remember dancing around my 1980s living room to their version of “Li’l Liza Jane”, just brass and parade drums and shouted out vocals — New Orleans Bliss with just enough bebop mixed in to please my modern jazz soul. They were always doing bop amidst the killer brass band textures (just check out their “Moose the Mooche” or “Oop Pop A Dah” from 1989’s Voodoo), but in the 1990s, they added a more modern rhythm section to their groove — a real drum kit, electric bass on occasion, guitar and organ — and they were ready to mix traditional tunes and forays into more modern sound.

The Dozen’s last album was 2006’s chilling and wonderful song-by-song, post-Katrina cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, a stunner and minor masterpiece that mixed in contributions from Chuck D, G Love, Bettye LaVette, and Guru. If politics and social justice don’t play a big part in pop music these days, then it’s not something to hang on the Dirty Dozen. Their What’s Goin’ On was the best record of the band’s career.

Twenty Dozen is not nearly that ambitious or excellent, but it still represents considerable range and enjoyment. The headline, certainly, will be the cover of Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music”, which seems just about perfectly made for the brass band form, including the hip “sampling” of that great lick from Michael Jackson “Wanna Be Starting Something” — all brass punch and sputter. It’s great, with guitarist Jake Eckert playing a figure that almost sounds South African, while the whole thing shakes and jiggles with more dance cred that the original. The tenor solo, which climaxes on a couple of overblown high notes, is by Kevin Harris.

Read the entire review here: Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Twenty Dozen

Monday, August 20, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: Luciana Souza's Multi-Directional Approach to Jazz Singing

cover artLuciana Souza is arguably the most impressive jazz singer working today. Four of her solo recordings have been nominated for Grammy awards, and she has managed to forge an instantly identifiable individual sound while still working across several disparate musical styles. Late August brings the release of two new recordings—her first in three years—that feature jazz standards on the one hand and classic Brazilian bossa nova on the other.

The operative question with Souza, in many respects, is what makes her a “jazz” singer rather than a singer in the Brazilian tradition. Ultimately, she is neither and both—just a very, very fine musician, of course—but her perspective and approach make answering this question entertaining, indeed.

I spoke to Souza in July about this question, about her perspective on these musical traditions, and about her new music. From the first moment of the conversation, she was bursting with history and humor, opinion and good-natured sass—a mile-a-minute talker who is both incredibly humble and sharply intelligent.

cover artSouza was born and raised in Sao Paolo, Brazil, by parents who were musicians and composers. Literally exposed from birth to the initial flowering of the Brazilian bossa nova spirit, she came to the US at 18, attended Berklee for her BA and then earned a Masters in “jazz studies” at the New England Conservatory. She is authentically Brazilian and utterly jazz, utterly American at the same time.

Read my interview with Luciana Souza and the entire JAZZ TODAY column here:

Luciana Souza's Multi-Directional Approach to Jazz Singing

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Derek Trucks on the Tedeschi Trucks Band: A Working Mans Band

Derek Trucks is the kind of guitar player who spins other guitar players around in circles, getting them dizzy with jealousy and amazement. He started his own band when he was still a kid, played with the Allman Brothers Band when he was even younger, and ultimately became an official member of that band at 20.

Rolling Stone currently ranks him 16th on their list of all-time greatest guitarists. But if you’re at a concert where he’s playing, he always sounds like number ONE.

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Last year Trucks joined forces with his wife, the singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, to form the Tedeschi Trucks Band. After being married for a decade, with two children and two separate bands, the couple decided it was time to write, record, and tour together. The band’s debut, Revelator won the Grammy for Best Blues Album, and the band toured incessantly in support. In May, the band released Everybody’s Talkin’, a two-disc live recording from the tour.

Trucks is an incredibly sweet, humble guy—the very farthest thing from a “rock god” or inflated star. He talks about the bands he loves, such as Sly and the Family Stone, just the way any music fan talks about his favorites. And he talks about his own bands with maximum respect for his bandmates and no sense of ego. His enthusiasm for music and his musical heroes—and his open, warm affect—is refreshing.

Trucks made time to talk with us this summer about the band, these recordings, songwriting with his wife, and simply trying to make it as an artist in a world where even a monster band like his is likely never to have a hit single. Read my interview here: Derek Trucks on the Tedeschi Trucks Band: A Working Mans Band

Monday, August 13, 2012

Cassandra Wilson: Still a Jazz Singer As She Roams Far Afield

There isn’t a more unique voice in American music than the one belonging to Cassandra Wilson. Her dusky contralto can move, within a phase from meditative to angry, romantic to jazzily precise, blues-drenched to delicate. No matter the mood that drenches her delivery, Wilson is immediately herself—perhaps the most distinctive and expressive singer of the last two decades.

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Wilson’s new record, Another Country, is another exemplar of these two critical characteristics. From the start and throughout, Another Country is plainly Cassandra Wilson, yet it also represents a surprising variety and sense of change. Here is that distinctive voice, that one-of-a-kind sound, yet it is up to new and varied tricks.

Talking about the new recording, her first in almost 20 years away from Blue Note Records, Wilson agreed that she become more herself the more different directions she goes in. “Yes! I feel more confident because I’ve placed myself in so many different contexts. That fuels your belief in yourself. It helps you dig deep.”

For example, Wilson taking on an aria? Yes. Yet she still sounds utterly like Cassandra Wilson.

To read all of my interview with Cassandra Wilson, go go to PopMatters, here: Cassandra Wilson: Still a Jazz Singer As She Roams Far Afield

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

John Pizzarelli: Double Exposure

Double Exposure is, in a sense, the ultimate John Pizzarelli collection. On the one hand, it cheekily uses as source material from the time of Pizzarelli’s own youth: tunes by Billy Joel, Neil Young, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, The Allmann Brothers, even Seals and Crofts. On the other hand, Pizzarelli renders them either in tandem with cleverly-interlocking jazz tunes or in a style (swing, bossa nova, jump) that comes from his life playing jazz. “Double Exposure” suggests that Pizzarelli is presenting you in some cases with two songs fused into one—such as Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Tom Waits’ “Drunk on the Moon” in a single, fused performance. In other cases he simply repackages a newer song in an idiosyncratically older style, creating a similar effect.

This trick, when it works, it is semi-miraculous. In a many cases, the fit is not perfect, but the songs are so strong that hearing them in a throwback style is charming. And in a few cases…the whole thing seems like an experiment gone wrong.

No doubt: opinions will vary widely on this disc, depending perhaps on each listener’s deference to or respect for the utter sanctity of the original recordings. But for me, this collection of potential mistakes is mostly wonderful. This is less because of the ingeniousness with which Pizzarelli has arranged these songs than because of the sheer charm with which he sells them. In short, Pizzarelli loves these songs and also deeply loves swing-style jazz—so usually he makes it all work together.

In a couple of cases, however, the pure idea of the combination is terrific. Maybe the best thing on Double Exposure is the recasting of Costello’s “Allison” as a swaying bossa nova, floating on a new set of chords and shot through with a poignant muted trumpet solo. The original song was heard by a million kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a straight love song when, in fact, it was a twisted tale of revenge. Here, Pizzarelli sings the lyrics clearly so you can’t miss them, yet they are rendered so gently that the irony is, if anything, greater than in the original. Brilliant.

Plenty of folks won’t tolerate any fiddling about with Beatles songs, so anointed are the originals, but Pizzarelli’s notion to marry Lee Morgan’s funky “The Sidewinder” with “I Feel Fine” is smile-worthy most certainly. The grooving backbeat hits of the jazz tune hop up the Beatles into hip toe-tapping and don’t seem forced at all. The tunes fit together so neatly that the band is able to splice elements of the instrumental tune into the midst of the Beatle lyrics. Tasty.

A few tunes here seem fine but maybe obvious. Both “Ruby Baby” and “Walk Between the Raindrops” come via Donald Fagen’s wonderful Nightfly album (though “Ruby” is an old pop-rocker from an earlier era), and they get straight swing arrangement that are essentially where they started to begin with. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is reworked with a snappy string-swing feeling, with a cleverly written bass line for brother Martin Pizzarelli to fold into the whole thing.

What doesn’t work? Putting Miles Davis’s “So What” as the frame around Seals and Croft’s “Diamond Girl” seems forced, particularly because that kind of modal jazz is not really Pizzarelli’s thing to begin with. James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam” is remade as a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocalese feature along with the Joe Henderson tune, “The Kicker”. The singing and lyrics (with references to Samuel Beckett and Sartre among many other things) are terrific and feature Pizzarelli’s talented singing wife, Jessica Molasky, but all the jazz business wipes out the original tune utterly.

Read my complete PopMatters review at: John Pizzarelli: Double Exposure

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pat Metheny: Unity Band

Guitarist Pat Metheny is, arguably, the biggest “star” in jazz since 1980. He has led popular bands that, by jazz standards, have sold many records. He has won Grammys. He has pioneered the use of a guitar-synth. He was signed to major labels and he has played in all-star groups and at festivals.

cover artBut Metheny is still a jazz player even if he’s a star, and he’s never shied away from being “serious” like a jazz musician should be: recording standards, collaborating with other heavy-hitter jazz players, making more sober records, and even stretching himself considerably by playing more avant-garde music, as well as classical music. In a real sense, Metheny has tried to be the EveryJazzMan—becoming a little bit of everything to every listener. And, darn it, the guy is very good, so it works more often than not.

The latest from Metheny is an all-star group called the Unity Ban. And one suspects that this name comes partly from the leader’s own desire to unify the various sides of his musical personality. Rather than release another album that plays to one of his many (and somewhat disparate) musical personalities, Metheny has gathered a band that can play in several different bags on different tracks. It’s a great band—Chris Potter on reeds, Ben Williams on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums—and so it’s more than capable. But the recording itself is, not surprisingly, all over the place, a Whitman’s sampler of Metheny himself.

So, for example, folks who enjoy the more serious/sensitive Metheny will love “This Belongs To You”, a relatively tempoless rhapsody on which the leader’s acoustic guitar blends melodically with Potter’s tenor on the flowing, searching melody. Metheny gets a stinging beauty from his acoustic on a lovely solo, with Sanchez coloring it all with great care. But the very next tune, “Leaving Town”, will delight pop-loving fans of the semi-smooth Pat Metheny Band because of the heaping dose of twisting melody it serves up over a grooving pulse. Here, Metheny is playing his familiar electric guitar in a pleasing style, only to set up a Potter solo that other Metheny fans will find reminiscent of the playing of Michael Brecker on the early 80/81 album.

The variety goes on. “Roofdogs” revives Metheny’s robot-voiced guitar-synth on both the melody statement and a long, expressive solo that purposefully sounds similar to what Potter plays on soprano saxophone. Then “Come and See” gives Metheny the chance to play his harp-like “Picasso” guitar while Potter gets moody on bass clarinet. And in the biggest departure of all, “Signals” combines the band with Metheny’s work with his Orchestrion gizmo in which he is able to program a series of bells and percussion and other sounds to interact with his playing, creating a unique music box sound that comes from the most distinct of his recent albums.

Amidst all this, of course, there is great playing. “New Year” pulses with a Latin groove that fits beautifully with acoustic guitar and lifts Potter to lovely heights. And the closer, “Breakdealer”, seems like a perfect vehicle for a band that just needs some tricky material to test its chops and give it something on which to really blow.

But great playing does not necessarily make a great record. And Unity Band is not a great record in large part because it moves about with such restlessness.

Inside this disc, however, there is a great record quietly pushing its way out. “Then and Now”, for example, is a tender theme that ought not to have been shoved aside so easily by all that orchestrion-ing and guitar-synth-yelling. It lopes along with beauty and subtlety, letting in a singing bass solo by Williams that the record could stand to have more room for. And there is “Interval Waltz”, which sets up Potter’s tenor in the perfect part of his range and then asks him to play a melody based (of course) on several tricky intervals. The shape of the tune builds to a calm climax to launch Metheny’s most magical solo of the set.

Read the entire PopMatters review here: Pat Metheny: Unity Band

JAZZ TODAY: Three Ive Ignored, Shame on Me: Elliot Sharp, Mike Reed & Joe McPhee

There is so much music out there, even a music journalist can’t keep up. Even a music journalist who largely focuses on jazz, which ought to be a small corner of the music scene, finds himself overwhelmed.

That’s why there are certain artists I’ve taken a pass on over the years. Not because they are in any way unworthy, but merely because you can’t eat everything at the buffet, right? So, with unfair arbitrariness, I happen to have never listened to music by the prolific composer Elliot Sharp, by Mike Reed’s band People, Places & Things, or by free-improvising veteran Joe McPhee.

And this month new releases by all these artists came knocking on my door once again. Like future friends who keep inviting you to parties even though you’ve never even RSVPed in the past, these artists have a benevolent persistence. Really, it’s about time I gave them the time of day.

Here, then, I get my first taste of three strong jazz voices, each one now making my life a bit richer.

Press photo of Elliott Sharp by © Andreas Starzing from Elliott Sharp.com

Elliot Sharp—Aggregat

Elliot Sharp is the ultimate ignored artist on my list. His discography is huge and wildly diverse. A quick hop over to allmusic.com shows 66 albums under this name, and I know for a fact that undercounts by dozens. And while I’ve certainly heard some Sharp over the years, I have mostly systematically avoided him.

But no more. Here, on the wonderful Clean Feed Records, is a new disc recorded by Sharp’s trio in Brooklyn last year, the band filled out by Brad Jones on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Aggregat delivers a rich slice of Sharp’s sensibility—searing electric guitar as well as nuclear saxophone—but does so with a propulsive sense of fun. Take, just to start, the 3:44 of “The Grip”, which swings in a straight 4/4 jazz sense: walking acoustic bass and drums as fleet and straight as something from Elvin Jones.

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Atop that traditional sound, however, is Sharp’s multi-directional electric guitar, improvising in ten directions at once. The playing is not so much beyond traditional harmony as it is daring: using the tone of metal and a non-linear melodic sense to explode musical ideas with true surprise. But each idea is interesting and followable, if not traditionally “pretty”. More importantly it’s fun and thrilling—the work of a musical mind that wants to create adventure.

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things—Clean on the Corner

Mike Reed is a drummer based out of Chicago who has been performing, presenting music, and recording for the last 15 years. He has managed to show up just about everywhere in that context, and my resistance to listening to him—particularly his acclaimed band “People, Places & Things”, which has taken on the task of channeling the vibe of late-‘50s and early-‘60s jazz from the Chicago area—can only be described as silly and self-defeating.

cover artThis is music that sits on that delicious cliff’s edge between post-bebop tonality and adventurous freedom, jazz that is loosed from the moorings of harmonic constriction. Six of the eight tunes on Clean on the Corner are by Reed, with one zipping bopper by Chicagoan John Jenkins and a loping blues variation by Chicagoan Roscoe Mitchell. But all of them share a sensibility of gracious melody and momentum, combined with the open plain of freedom that allows the primary soloists to play whatever their heart requires in the moment.

So, dig the scurrying phrases of tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman on Mitchell’s “Old”, which solo plays out over a martial beat set up by Reed as bassist Jason Roebke plays a very staccato kind of walking quarter note. Mostly, this is a piano-less quartet, and so the solo is also accompanied by interjections from Greg Ward’s alto sax, setting up blues signposts along the way. The tune exudes a gleeful relaxation.

Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten—Brooklyn DNA

The final in my trio of foolishly neglected artists is Joe McPhee, the multi-instrumentalist who has been a part of the “free jazz” or improvised music scene since the late ‘60s. McPhee is another player whose sheer body of work is intimidating for its size and breadth. For many of us, nevertheless, his presence on the US scene was limited, with his most prominent work released on European labels (most notable hat Hut, which was founded to feature his work) and some of his best work coming in collaboration with younger artists (such as Ken Vandermark) in the ‘90s and since.

Press photo of by ©  Peter Gannushkin from Joe McPhee.comI’d been meaning to dig into those classic albums for a while when I caught McPhee live at a midnight show at the Blue Note in 2011 (which show I wrote about here, “An Infectious Case of Jazz Fanaticism”) when Clean Feed (again: thank you Clean Feed Records for releasing the music that so many of us need to hear) sent me a duet record by McPhee and Haker Flaten, how could I leave it on my table, unspun?

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And in this latest work from McPhee there is everything that made him compelling in person—but it’s concentrated because of the lovely duet format with an obviously sympathetic partner. McPhee is the most sonorous and (one is tempted to say) “classical” of free jazz players. While he will honk or squeal or distort his sound if that is called for, McPhee is mostly a player possessed of a truly lovely tone. So, on “CBJC”, McPhee moves his alto sax in counterpoint with the bass, shifting tone from moment to moment, constantly capable of a rich sound or a more strident one—achieving fluid flurries of sound, long held tones, and even (very nearly at the track’s end) a seemingly impossible slide upward over an interval of a full third without losing tone.

Read the entire column here: Three Ive Ignored, Shame on Me: Elliot Sharp, Mike Reed & Joe McPhee

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

NRBQ: We Travel the Spaceways

NRBQ is a little band, a band many folks have heard of (or even heard in concert) but with not one hit song and not even really a defining album. Instead, this is a band defined by brilliant, eclectic live shows, but ones built not on self-indulgent jamming but on tasty morsels of great songs and a stylistic range that takes your breath away.

In 2012, NRBQ’s line-up contains only one member of the pre-2004 band—the singer, songwriter and Clavinet master Terry Adams—but its spirit lives on clearly. We Travel the Spaceways is from a 2011 live show in Bearsville, NY, and it catches the group in its madly varied glory. The title track is a famous tune by the jazz fantasist and avant-garde figure Sun Ra. The group also assays “Bye-Ya” by Thelonious Monk over a tub-thumping groove, and it even covers the old Claude Thornhill theme song “Snowfall”. But no jazz record this, as unique and fine as these jazz adaptations may be.

There is Beatle-rific pop-rock; lick-heavy groove tunes; odd, almost 12-tone-ish piano music; roots-rock shit-kicking songs; harmonically complex ballads; and even fairly simple blues rockers. Which is to say, this is an utterly typical set by NRBQ. Throw in some saxophone solos, leaven with loosey-goosey vocals—and don’t neglect either humor or sincerity.

The question for fans of the Q, if they haven’t seen the band in a while, is whether this is still really NRBQ. After all, Terry Adams would seem to be the only “real” member these days, and he was basically touring with this band a while back without calling it “NRBQ”—so what is the actual product here? And if it’s true that Adams was in many ways the Q’s backbone, he was also always their backbone of eclectic weirdness—the guy bringing into the band songs like “We Travel the Spaceways”, for example. So, fans might wonder, is this album NRBQ set wildly loose?

The first track is a hummable lovely from 25 years ago, the catchy “The One and Only” from the pen of Adams, yes, but also the departed Joey Spaminato whose inimitable vocal delivery turns out to be . . . fairly imitable by one of the new members of the band. Of course, Adams’ Clavinet powers the whole delightful thing, and Scott Ligon’s guitar turns out to be a jazzy, round-toned treat on a brief solo. Spaceways sounds just like NRBQ from the start.

“Here I Am” is new song by Adams and Ligon that sounds like it could have been penned by Lennon-McCartney in 1965, including some charming “oooooh”s and a gentle near-surf beat, with the vocal reaching up to strain gently in the third verse. “Yes, Yes, Yes” is even better, an Adams tune that starts with a tricky solo piano passage, blossoms into a tender ballad, and then morphs on the bridge into something knottier, leading to a strange and even disturbing synth solo that—by dint of sheer peculiarity—turns out to be perfect. Because when NRBQ gets tender it just about breaks your heart (“Ooh, I want you to know how I feel . . . Ask me do I love you? Do I? Yes, yes yes”) and then they throw in a smirk. It’s exactly why rabid fans love them so and, of course, exactly why they’ve never really made it big.

To round out the proceedings, there are other treats and random acts of musical fun.  Read my full review on PopMatters here: NRBQ: We Travel the Spaceways

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shawn Colvin: All Fall Down

The singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin is blessed with a wondrous voice – a clear but distinctive, confessional but ringing instrument that lends all her music a signature sound of hip intimacy. However, her best work is less about her performances than about the stories she tells and how she matches them to bracing, unique melodies. Her best record is still 1996’s A Few Small Repairs, which won Grammys and leveraged Colvin’s pop instincts such that she no longer seemed like a folk singer and more like the adult version of a star. That was certainly a grown-up hit record: an album about the bitterness and sadness of going through a divorce and maybe one of the best on that topic since Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

All Fall Down is another break-up album, but one softened and mediated by time. Colvin is in her mid-fifties, and her response to romantic failure now is less angry and invigorating than it is sad and resigned. Rather than kick her betrayer out of the house, as her narrator did in the rockin’ “Get Out of This House” from ’96, the opening/title track on All Fall Down simply finds the narrator shaking her head at the sad truth that, “The best of ’em wind up / Sweepin’ dirt off the street / And the worst of ’em end up / Right back up on their feet.” Not that “All Fall Down” doesn’t have punch, but it’s a slap that sounds like Colvin wants to give herself for being too naïve.

The blame also goes back to one of Colvin’s protagonists on “Knowing What I Know Now”, which features a soulful arrangement that takes perfect advantage of the production team. The guitarist and mastermind is the great Buddy Miller, who sings the killer low harmony part here. The rest of the core band is Victor Kraus on bass as well as jazz-Americana guitar hero Bill Frisell and the jazz drummer Brian Blade – with the whole shebang recorded down in Nashville. As Colvin sings, “Would I ask a seeing man to go blind? / Would I ask a sane man to lose his mind? / Could I expect you to come back somehow? / Knowing what I know now?”, a metallic-sounding Wurlitzer electric piano also fills the sad, painful space. It’s a brilliant track.

Read my my full PopMatters review here: Shawn Colvin: All Fall Down

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mindy Smith: Mindy Smith

Mindy Smith is country singer for you folks (you know who you are) who just don’t like country music. I guess that makes her “alt-country”, whatever that means. She is from Nashville these days, but her roots are on Long Island, NY, and her sound is mostly devoid of that distinctive country twang. Maybe that makes her more of a folk singer—like a Lucy Kaplansky or Shawn Colvin.

But Smith’s approach on her fifth recording, Mindy Smith, is bathed in the textures and flavors of country music, even if Smith continues to develop an identity that is eclectic in influence and approach. But because she is a storyteller as a songwriter, and because the instrumentation here favors pedal steel and acoustic textures, Smith remains that elusive thing: a rootsy country artist who can harness a non-country audience. Or, as Duke Ellington liked to say, she is “beyond category”. And glorious.

Mindy Smith is the artist’s first disc in three years and her first not on Vanguard Records. 2009’s Stupid Love put Smith’s bell-clear singing voice in front of a band with more of a pop-rock sound—some keyboard sounds, some tastefully fuzzed guitar, a more slap-happy backbeat on the drums—and made the case that Smith is a perfectly viable not-country singer. Which she is…except where her confident and rich style seemed slightly stodgy on tracks that might have done well with more vocal flash.

And so the new record is a heartfelt—and wise—return to her country sound. The band plays with bounce and ache rather than pop polish, and Smith responds by delivering a series of coolly soaring vocals on original songs that deserve the find performances. The powerful punch of her pop songs is still intact on many of these new tracks, but they don’t sound like they are striving for anything other than pure expression.

A tune like “Pretending the Stars” has everything a pop song could want—a propulsive groove, a story about cruising in a car looking for a sense of release, a sultry minor-mode guitar hook, and then a chorus that sounds like a good friend you want to see again and again. But the song is also bathed in the nuance of a great country song, particularly a lovely harmony part that no pop song would bother with in 2012. “Sober” works the same way—using the sound of a big-guitar rock song to underpin a classic country narrative: a story song of disaster that repeats the line, “I tried sober / But I can’t get you out of my head / It’s over / And I can’t get you out of my head”.

Read my entire POPMATTERS review here: Mindy Smith: Mindy Smith

Monday, June 18, 2012

Eri Yamamoto Trio: The Next Page

I like this trio, led by the lyrical pianist Eri Yamamoto. Here, she produces ten engaging melodies for improvising—often wheels that spin around in your head, hooking you. This is modern jazz playing of high quality—with improvising that tells stories, probing the harmonies and moving like a rush of momentum at the right moments.

The band has been together for just about forever in modern terms: with a decade-long standing gig at New York’s Arthur’s Tavern. Bassist David Ambrosio is soulful on every tune, and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi keeps time while still being playful about it. They are not an overwhelming unit like Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, not a fleet-footed outfit like Brad Mehldau’s trio, nor a band that is playing with modern pop forms like the trios of Vijay Iyer or Jason Moran. Rather, you can picture them on their home turf, keeping matters intimate but engaging.

That’s all great. But the group’s most recent recording, The Next Page is perhaps a bit too nice. Yamamoto’s great distinction on previous recordings may have been her ability to be both genial and somewhat avant-garde at once—a blend of refreshing freedom and down-home appeal. True to her history, she was a pianist both in love with a great mainstream influence (Tommy Flanagan) and the pianist in out-bassist William Parker’s freewheeling quartet. This kind of sweet-and-sour combination made recordings such as 2008’s Duologue among the best of the year.

The new record is congenial to a fault. It opens with a string of sweetheart songs—like, on the title alone, “Sparkle Song”—that leave plenty of open space around their mostly simple, diatonic melodies. “Whiskey River” has a melancholy sound, but is a blue kind of pleasure for sure: quiet and contemplative but also wound into circles of slow ecstasy. “Night Shadow” has a similar appeal, with a slinky, almost Pink Pantherish blues melody that leaves plenty of room for discussion while never really leaving the key center. There are snappier tunes as well, such as the hip, backbeat-heavy “Waver”, or the clattering “Swimming Song”, which uses a gospel groove to set up Takeuchi for plenty of busy accompaniment.

But what never seems to come along on The Next Page is a tune that leads Yamamoto or Ambrosio outside the expected. “Just Walking” uses just a repeated bass line as its melody, which would seem to invite a freer form of exploration, but the pianist keeps her harmonic choices relatively mainstream here, despite the open-ended possibilities. It’s an exciting performance, with plenty of daring without mainstream forms, but just a tad tame for a player with Yamamoto’s history and young pedigree.

Read my full review here: Eri Yamamoto Trio: The Next Page on PopMatters.