Sun, 23 August 2009
Blue Note made a business decision a few years back that seems to be reaping dividends for the label and it's fans. By signing non-jazz artists like Van Morrison and Al Green, the august jazz label increased it's exposure to rock and soul fans, added some much-needed cash flow, and in the process, created some pretty darn good music. Morrison's What's Wrong With this Picture was one of his jazziest releases, with a killer versions of "Saint James Infirmary" and the jump-blues of "Stop Drinking".
Willie Nelson joins that label for American Classic, a sequel of sorts to his 1978 release, Stardust. Backed with a top-notch band of Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Joe Sample (piano), Christian McBride (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums), the Red Headed Stranger tackles eleven songs from the Great American Songbook, plus a new take on his own hit "Always On My Mind". The result is almost always a treat.
At this point in his career, Willie's phrasing is nothing short of exemplary. He rarely drags notes out, and his direct and honest reading adds to the strong melodies. His gentle reading of "Fly Me to the Moon" reveals a sense of whistful wonder that gets lost in more bombastic versions, and "Because of You" and "The Nearness of You" are given faithful presentations.
His duet with Diana Krall on "If I Had You" is fine, but seems more likely an attempt at giving Willie "jazz cred". Another duet, with Norah Jones on the holiday season staple "Baby It's Cold Outside" fails not due to the recording, but rather to an unavoidable sense of creepiness. I simply couldn't get past a man in his late seventies singing songs of seduction with a female coutnerpart young enough to be his granddaughter
Category:general -- posted at: 10:34am EST
Tue, 18 August 2009
The University of South Florida Center for Jazz Compositionbegan a program to focus attention on the compositions of a great jazz artist while stimulating new works back in 2006. Saxophonist Michael Brecker came on board to assist with the project, but passed away in January 2007 before the project could come to fruition.
Brother Randy Brecker stepped in, and we now have The Comet's Tail, an inspiring large ensemble work presented by the CJC's director Chuck Owens. His group, the Jazz Surge, is aided by soloists like Brecker, guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonists Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. Brecker compositions receive new arrangements by his former collaborators Gil Goldstein and Vince Mendoza, and international contest winner Fred Stride arranged "Peep", a rousing number that opens the CD.
This is a modern big band sound, and it's always a pleasure to hear that venerable style made more modern. Owens' group shwos off a serious range, particularly on some of the more frenetic moments.
Brecker was an underrated composer, and this CD shows off some of his best material. He was also a killer tenor saxophone player, so it's only natural that some of the best tracks come from two sax legends. Liebman delivers a terriffic solo in "Sumo", a piece from Brecker's Steps Ahead period. Lovano takes center stage on two tracks, the bluesy "Take a Walk" and the dramatic closing piece "Everything Happens When You're Gone".
Category:general -- posted at: 5:42am EST
Sat, 15 August 2009
Strick Muzik is a family affair. Marcus Strickland, in collaboration with his twin brother E.J. found that after years of either recording for small labels or being passed over by larger labels afraid to take a chance on his talent, in order to make the music he wanted the way he wanted, he'd have to go the D.I.Y. approach and create his own label.
Enter Strick Muzik, which is featuring two formidable releases this month. Marcus, who has recorded two CDs under his own name in addition to working with Jeff "Tain" Watts, Dave Douglas, Roy Haynes and Will Calhoun, has assembled a trio album entiteld Idiosyncracies (although to read the title on the CD, it's "Id I O Syn Crasies"). Recording covers from the likes of Bjork, Stevie Wonder and Andre 3000 alongside his originals, Strickland has made a powerful recording, stripping the songs down to their basic elements.
E.J. Strickland's long overdue debut as a band leader is a solid quintet CD. All originals, the music has a strong spiritual sound, the band meshing on song after song, sometimes soaring, sometimes whispering. After years of working with Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, and Cassandra Wilson, it's good to see him stepping out on his own.
Podcast 158 is a conversation with Marcus Strickland, discussing the "indie scene" in jazz recordings, why he thinks the soprano sax might get a bad rap, and what's next for the brothers and their label. Featured are two tracks form each of their new CDs, including:
Marcus Strickland - "Middle Man" from Idiosynracies. A Marcus original features his powerful sax style, working hand in hand with drummer/brother E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams.
Marcus Strickland - "Scatterheart" from Idiosynracies. Marcus spoke about taking this Bjork tune, which was highly produced as her original, and stripping it down to "the bare essentials" for his trio. Mission accomplished.
E.J. Strickland - "Abandoned Discovery" from In This Day. The Quintet brother E.J. put together takes on a whole different sound that Marcus' CD. Jaleel Shaw is on alton, Marcus on tenor, Luis Perdomo on piano and Hans Glawischnig on bass. Ravi Coltrane, with whom E.J. often plays, is the producer for the sessions.
E.J. Strickland - "Eternal (intro)/Eternal" from In This Day. Several of E.J.'s compositions feature spoken or vocal introductions. Here the band is joined by Cheray O'Neal's spoken voice reading the poem she co-write with E.J. and Charenee Wade on vocals.
Thu, 13 August 2009
Imagine a nightclub in New York fifty years ago, where Billie Holiday, sadly past her prime at the age of 44, is performing in what will become her last public concert. The award-wining Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, Connecticut is bringing us just that, mounting a production of Reenie Upchurch's play "Yesterdays - An Evening with Billie Holiday". Jazz singer Vanessa Rubin is cast in the title lead role, backed by a jazz trio of Levi Barcourt (piano), Bernard Davis (vocalist/drums), and David Jackson (bass).
Born and raised in Cleveland, Miss Rubin's first public brush with Billie Holiday's oeuvre came while competing in the Miss Black Central Ohio Contest. She received a standing ovation for her performance of “God Bless the Child”, which convinced her that her true calling was to sing in the jazz tradition. From her early dates with Pharoah Sanders and Barry Harris to her headlining performances, she has shown herself to be a singer of great depth and variety.
By taking on the challenging role of Lady Day herself in the "Yesterdays - An Evening with Billie Holiday", Ms. Rubin also shows she has acting chops. She is called upon to play a foul-mouthed, slowly burning out singer, and to tell stories of her upbringing, loves and musical influences, while sprinkling in a steady stream of Holiday classics. Dressed in a long, white halter dress with the trademark gardenia in her hair, Miss Rubin succeeds admirably in bringing the legend to life, using her talents not to mimic Billie Holiday, but rather to bring across her spirit, through the turn of a phrase, the trill of a note, or a subtle turn of the head while clutching the microphone. She nails "Strange Fruit" near the show's close, wringing angst and sorrow from every note.
I got the chance to speak with Miss Rubin about the challenges of the role and other aspects of the show this week, so please enjoy the interview as this week's Podcast. I celebrate Vanessa Rubin and the cast of "Yesterdays" and Billie Holiday with songs performed in the show and other tunes, including:
Billie Holiday - "Deep Song" from The Complete Commodore Recordings. Since Billie's cataloge from Decca and Columbia get the most attention, many singers (including Ms. Rubin) were unfamiliar with her version of this plaintive ballad.
Kenny Burrell -"Raincheck" from Pieces Of Blue And The Blues. Bassist David Jackson from the Hartford Stage production anchors the rhythmn section for this live session with drummer Kenny Washington. Burrell joins two other guitarists, Rodney Jones and Bobby Broom for a three-headed monster.
Vanessa Rubin - "I Only Have Eyes for You" from Pastiche. Vanessa has recorded several songs that Billie Holiday recorded, although noen of the tunes Lady Day was best known for, including this standard. This bass heavy version includes Tarik Shah on bass, Aaron Walker on drums, Aaron Graves on piano and a horn section that includes Steve Turre on trombone and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet.
Vanessa Rubin - "Our Love Is Here To Stay" from Vanessa Rubin Sings. The Gershwins' classic gets a romping rendition backed by an all-star group, including Robert Hurst on bass, Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums, Kevin Eubanks on guitar and Turre on trombone and conch shell.
Vanessa Rubin - "But Not for Me" from Girl Talk. Two fun-filled duets with the late Etta Jones were highlights of this 2001 Telarc release. These were the last sessions Ms. Jones would record before succumbing to cancer, and Vanessa points out in our interview that few singers captured the quality of Billie Holiday's voice as well as Miss Jones did. Cedar Walton is on piano, Steve Davis on trombone, Javon Jackson on saxophone, David Williams on bass and Lewish Nash on drums.
Billie Holiday - "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)" from The Complete Decca Recordings. One of the highlights of the Hartford Stage production comes when Vanesa as Billie tells the story of her devotion for Bessie Smith and her frustrating encounter with the blues legend in a nightclub early in her career. A rousing finale to the podcast.
Wed, 12 August 2009
Red Garland was taking it a bit easier than in the past in 1959. The 36 year old pianist had come off one of the busiest years in jazz history, having participated in sessions for John Coltrane and Donald Byrd; Miles Davis with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly; "Jazz From Carnegie Hall" with J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Lee Konitz, and Zoot Sims; as well as sessions for a trio and quartet under his own name.
No wonder it wasn't until August that Garland entered Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack, New Jersey to wrotk with the elgendary Coleman Hawkins and a new trio. Doug Watkins was on bass and Charles "Specs" Wright was the new drummer. They recorded five tracks for what was released as Coleman Hawkins with the Red Garland Trio, and then cut six more as a trio. Those tracks ended up ebign scattered on albums from Prestige and Fantasy Records like Satin Doll, Stretching Out, Soul Burnin' and the compilations Rediscovering Masters.
Click here to listen to the "A Little Bit of Basie" from those sessions. Garland lays down a boogie-woogie entry before heading off on one long solo that attempts to capture the spirit and fire of the one and only Count Basie. His cohorts Watkins and Wright barely have time to do anythign else but keep the beat, although Wright caps things off with some crashing drums.
Category:general -- posted at: 5:23am EST
Mon, 10 August 2009
As I pointed out in my podcast last month, the Hammond B-3 organ is no longer the exclusive plaything of American jazz artists. From Japan to Europe, men and woman are picking up the mantle of the great players of the past and working out on the venerable B-3.
Another candidate for Hammond Hero has come from Germany. Jermaine Landsberger's North American debut Gettin' Blazed shows he has the chops, and is not afraid to try some things differently.
While the classic Hammond lineup is organ-guitar-drums, Landsberger has assembled a full band, adding Andreas Oberg on guitar, James Genus on bass, and session veteran Harvey Mason on drums. Gary Meek's sax and flute add additional color, and are particularly funky on Horce Silver's classic "Filthy McNasty".
The real coup here is Landsberger's landing of guitar player Pat Martino. A veteran of Hammond sessions himnself, Martino's "Three Base Hit" is a thrilling duet, as the pair push one another through exciting solo after solo. Martino also lends spice to "Sno' Peas" and the terrific "Brazilian People".
Landsberger shows himself to be a formidable player, and his originals hold up well against other tunes, particularly "Valse Manouche" which showcases Oberg's guitar. The cover of Stevie Wonder's "Another Star" gives him a top-notch solo. At the age of 36, Landsberger has proven he is ready to be crowned a Hammond Hero.
Category:general -- posted at: 3:23am EST
Sun, 9 August 2009
Listening to Kyle Eastwood's latest CD, Metropolitan, is like listenign to your iPod on shuffle - you're just not sure what's going to come up next. You're pretty sure it will be pretty good, since you put it there in the first place. But whether it will be loud, soft, fast, slow, modern, classic - well, you're not sure at all.
The title track is a slick piece of contemporary jazz with shimmering piano by Eric Legnini and wordless vocals by Camille. But if you're expecting that to be the norm, then you'd be mistaken. Guest trumpeter Till Bronner brings a nice ballad in "Bold Changes" and "Song for You" is also enjoyable, but "Hot Box" is a relatively listless Stanley Clarke-like workout and "Live for Life" is run of the mill jazz-funk. "Rue Perdue" tries for tension and atmosphere and fails.
What's missing here is any kind of cohesive sound, which is surprising given that for the rhythm section of Eastwood on bass, Legnini onpiano and organ and Franck Aguhon on drums is a constant. Perhaps its the guest appearances by Bronner or the vocals, but "Metropolitan" feels put uneven and missing a unifying sound and signature.
Click here to listen to "Song For You", my favorite track from the CD. A collaboration between Eastwood, guitarist Michael Stevens, pianist Andrew McCormack, electric pianist Legnini and Till Bronner on trumpet. A peaceful, lightly shifting composition, it possesses more of feeling and tension than most of the other tracks. One hopes that Eastwood will build his next album around his core band's considerable talents and create a solid listening experience.
Category:general -- posted at: 4:11am EST
Sat, 8 August 2009
Tribute CDs can be a dime a dozen. However, when an artist like Steve Kuhn decides to record Mostly Coltrane as a tribute to John Coltrane, we're advised to sit up and take notice.
Kuhn played with Coltrane at a pivotal moment in Trane's career. Preparing to leave the Miles Davis Quintet, Kuhn was the piano player the great saxophonist tabbed to fill out a band that included Steve Davis on bass and Pete LaRoca on drums. In a mostly successful effort to recall those days, Kuhn added the talents of Joe Lovano on tenor sax to the long-time trio of Kuhn on piano, David Finck on double-bass and a thundering Joey Baron on drums.
The song selection is stellar, as Kuhn wisely avoids cliched Coltrane covers like "My Favoirte Things" or "Naima" in favor of the songs he played with Coltrane ("Central Park West", "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes") and leser known tunes like "Configuration".
Lovano never tries to mimic Coltrane, nor is he so respectful that he misses the chance to put his imprint on the songs. He really shines on the avant-garde "Configuration", and takes a wonderfully mellow solo on "Central Park West". Kuhan is wonderfully understated, able to hold the group together with his playing, and take a solo that is memorable without the need for flashiness. He can slash and burn with the best of them ("Configuration") or take it down on the gentle "Trance".
My end of the year CD review includes a category for best tribute album of the year. I don't think I'm going to have to look too much further than Mostly Coltrane for this year's winner.
Category:general -- posted at: 11:37am EST
Fri, 7 August 2009
Trumpeter Rod McGaha isn't out to break any new ground on his latest CD, A Gentle Man. He'd rather take on some of the classic tunes of the past, and like Marcus Roberts on his latest work, think those sounds through via his contemporary viewpoint. The result is an enjoyable string-filled CD.
McGaha knows his sources well. He will channel Louis Armstrong on "Honeysuckle Rose", recall Clifford Brown's With Strings sessions on "I'm Confessin That I love You" and bring a Chet Baker sound to "When I Fall In Love". He's not afraid to show these influences; rather, he tips his cap to them, and plays on.
The arrangements by pianist Jeff Steinberg are not all faithful, however. He runs "Happy Together" through a string arrangement that recalls "Eleanor Rigby", and compliments that sound with Chris Wolters' organ. The title track is an original composition by Steinberg, and McGaha gives a sensitive reading to the ballad in a way that would make his old mentor, Clark Terry, smile.
Click here to listen to the "How Long Has This Been Going On" to hear a lovely string section set up McGaha for a plaintive rendition of the bluesy standard.
Category:general -- posted at: 3:59am EST
Wed, 5 August 2009
Deeply introspective and impressionistic, and yet willing to dance the night away when called upon, Mario Grigorov's latest CD, Paris to Cuba takes the listener on an imaginary trip from the City of Lights to the Caribbean. After the opening solo piano theme of "Ice Hotel" set the stage, "Cuban Soil, Cuban Sun" features sultry guitars and horns to let you know you're heading for some tropical heat. You're more than happy to tag along with this talented pianist and his collabroators.
Grigorov has worked with Brazilian master Oscar Castro-Neves before, so his sense of Latin music is filtered through that calmer sensibility, recalling the swaying sound of Rio rather than fire of Havana. Vocalist Melissa Newman's fine contributions to "I See" and "Every Little Movement" add to the sense of romance.
A big-beat version of "Ice Hotel" and the driven "Snake Eyes" let us know it's not all siesta time for Grigorov and his band, as Bob Dobrow's drums and Jeff Hill's bass lay the foundation for some dance tunes.
This is a CD for the late days of August, while enjoying a cold libation on the deck. In fact, I'm going to try that right now.
Category:general -- posted at: 3:38am EST