Header Quote

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

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