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