Irish Tales I: “Alive Alive-O”

April 22, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

There she stands with her cart, sweet Molly Malone, just below the intense shopping of Dublin’s Grafton Street. She’s selling cockles (whatever they are) and mussels and she is delightfully well endowed. Perhaps that’s why the locals sometimes call her “the tart with a cart” and her bosoms have been polished to a whole different sheen than the rest of the statue — by what?

Molly Malone

Molly Malone

Oh well, one shouldn’t think bad thoughts. I think there’s an Italian saying to that effect.

Immortalized in song Molly is. Yet many of us miss that last verse where she dies “of a fever and no one could save her.” It was a cholera epidemic, the sadness of Molly’s life in a country where sadness seems so much a part of its history. Perhaps that’s why ’tis so easy to find a smile and a kind word there. Don’t cost nothin’. Be grateful for a good day.

Lots of Irish songs are sad. Chesterton wrote that “all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.” Neither side of that equation is completely true but it makes a point about Ireland and the Irish.
And Irish songs on the whole tell a story. Often an historical one, frequently a hysterical one. Ever hear the one about the value of a rooster in getting hens to lay?

Feeding the swans in St. Stephens Green

So you have this musical/poetry tradition but what do you get on Irish radio? Uh, Whitney Houston and Tony Bennett and here come the Eagles. Musical drones blasting away the native habitat. It seems like a kind of cultural imperialism — a reason to not exactly hate us Yanks but maybe resent the hell out of us. Yet the Irish are so welcoming and they do seem to like our music. American pop is worldwide.

Maybe it’s why the Stones can draw huge crowds to a show in Abu Dhabi or Tokyo. I know, I know the Stones are Brit by birth, so stay calm and carry on but don’t most of them live in the States by now? And where do those blues tunes come from?

River Liffey flows to the sea.

So you get used to Irish radio stations that sound like American oldies broadcasts.

It’s television that’s the real horror. It’s bad enough that “Two and a Half Men” plays endlessly. The Sheen episodes are occasionally funny and the show has the redeeming quality of ceaseless crudity and bad taste.

But “King of Queens”!!! Never funny, never and endless promotion of the American male as emasculated twerp.

Then throw in the episodes of “Law & Order” that are so old that the lead detective has passed away. CSI and other letter shows to boot.

It’s enough to make you apologize to every Irishman you meet. Except I think they might watch the stuff.

Two differences though.

In Irish pubs from Dublin to the West at least a couple nights a week you can go hear the music of the country, old and new, played by talented local musicians and gifted singers. Kath and I were just usually too tired after a day of trying to walk across Dublin without passing a pub — Bloom doubted it could be done — to do much after dinner but read a bit and nod off.

Second difference: we were in two Irish homes during our stay and in neither one was the telly turned on.

Ah, it’s like the Irish to wage guerilla war against an oppressor.

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Photos by Kathy Arsenault.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.






Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes:”50″ “They Just Keep Coming” “Time Keeps Passing” and “Crazy”

March 9, 2014

By Brian Arsenault


I try to do 50 every morning. Two sets of 25.

They call them push-ups but they are really push backs. Push backs against time. Against sagging flesh, loosening skin. A loser’s game but so what. Time always wins.

Sometimes I wish my name was Ferlinghetti, a poem in and of itself. Nobody reads the beat poets any more. Beatnik is just a slur, a joke. But those poets — Larry and Corso and Snyder. Poets for all.

Not like those guys in The New Yorker today where obscurity is valued as “true art.” Oh you didn’t get it. Too bad. It wasn’t for a slob like you.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

You didn’t need a short sighted professor peering at the page through thick glasses to understand Shelly, did you? Ginsberg is the one beat still remembered widely but more as “character,” not an artist.

But Ferlinghetti and his Dog. Dogs don’t run free anymore (hey Dylan) so we don’t get to see through their eyes and fire hydrants are cleaner. I guess. Best damn poem I ever read.

The dog trots freely in the street

And sees reality. . .

Past puddles and babies

Cats and cigars

Poolrooms and policemen

But we need to protect dogs now don’t we, so we imprison them. No one gets bit or run over in the streets. I was bitten as a kid and I saw my dog run over once. I lived. Both times.

Hey, life is a risk and if you followed a dog like Ferlinghetti did you might learn something. What’s big and what’s small. About cops and politicians and what should be peed on. About waiting for an announcement of truth.

Still waiting.

Cock your head now.

They Just Keep Coming

When I started this gig I used to look forward to the mail for the first time in a long time. Amidst the bills and sales pitches there was often a little brown envelope with a treasured CD. Time to review.

Brian Arsenault

Brian Arsenault

Now they arrive in batches. Still in brown envelopes like they used to send porn. CD after CD after CD by folks looking for just a little attention in the world of Katy Perry and John Mayer. Those two just broke up so here comes another hit.

There are singers who can really sing. Sax players who’ve taken music lessons from Angels. Little Lonelys and jazz cellos. Every amazing combination you can think of and some you haven’t.

I can’t review them all. Hell, I can’t even listen to them all. My burden but better than many burdens. Just can’t help thinking I might miss the reincarnation of Duke Ellington.

Probably we all would.

Time Keeps Passing

I didn’t watch the Academy Awards. Pretended it was because of my contempt for that spectacle. It was actually because I hadn’t seen one of the damn movies.

Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey.

I like McConaughey. (Had to check that spelling three times and still may have it wrong. I never used to need to do such a thing. But time passes.) I like McConaughey but I know him for True Detective (have you seen that?!!) not Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Damn, I just read that McConaughey won’t be back for a second season of True Detective. That’s depressing but maybe such starkness must end.

Should I catch up with the Award winners On Demand. How forceful. Or Netflix where I can’t keep up with the technology. Actually, as regards the technology, “I prefer not to.’ No one talks about Melville any more either.

Oh well.


Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

It’s funny how some things get missed. Angela Merkel, who runs Germany as far as I can tell, said that when she talked to ol’ Vlad Putin she was distressed by the fact he seemed to be living in an alternate reality, a dream world of his own making.

I only saw a mention of that once but if Angela has it right even darker forces are at work than we feared. For a long time people tried to convince themselves that Hitler wasn’t crazy and that things could be worked out. Can’t you still see that old black and white newsreel with ol’ Neville Chamberlain waving a scrap of paper to announce that he had a “deal” with ol’ Adolph.

Kinda chills me to think of that. You can sometimes negotiate even with terrorists but you can’t change crazy.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CDs by Lunasa and Olivia Foschi

March 17, 2013

Of Music Beyond Ireland and Back to Italy

By Brian Arsenault


 Lúnasa with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Lúnasa Records)

Up the Irish. Up the rebels. I always used to like my cousin’s husband bellowing those calls to rising first thing in the morning.

To get your dose of real Irish instrumental music with St. Patrick’s day upon us, give a listen to Lúnasa (whistles, fiddle, pipes, etc.) with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Ireland’s national orchestra).

It’s all there: jaunty jigs, melancholy melodies, mad passion, soft beauty. A wall of sound created by traditional Irish acoustic instruments enhanced by the restrained but not understated playing of the orchestra. Phil Spector might dig it, if he digs anything these days.

There are wonderful moments on several selections when Lúnasa starts on its own for several bars and then the orchestra comes up behind in support. That very moment when the orchestra begins is just dazzling. Perfection.

The surprise of this album (for me at least) is the band taking listeners to Celtic regions beyond Ireland’s shore–Brittany in western France, the former kingdoms of Galicia and Asturias, still autonomous regions in northwest and northern Spain.

The “Breton Set” is one of the delights of the album.  It is akin to Irish music but somehow different, calling across centuries to one another.

But my favorite for spunk and joy is “Morning Nightcap”. That’s not an oxymoron, darlin,’ it’s Irish.

You can get this album on i-Tunes and such in time for St. Patrick’s Day but not till mid-April in CD form. Go figure.

And if you’re anywhere near Powell, Wyoming (is anything near Powell, Wyoming?) today, on the big day itself, you can see Lúnasa at Powell High School Auditorium. Try and figure.

Olivia Foschi

Perennial Dreamer (Olivia Foschi)

Olivia Foschi tells the listener to kick off shoes and pour a glass of wine. She wants the album “to take you to a comfortable, cozy place.” But I didn’t put the CD in the Bose to be comfortable and cozy. I’d like to be thrilled, dazzled, enchanted, maybe grabbed and shaken.

And at times, Olivia, you come close.

On “Bridge” you and the piano mastery of Miki Hayama chase each other and make a perfect match.

On “Legend of the Purple Valley,” you set the mood perfectly during the opening by singing notes only. We are among the violets.

In other places, even though you’re a match for the bevy of current female jazz singers in clarity, pitch and tone, real angel stuff, I think I’m hearing the self imposed limitations of extensive music schooling. Music school is great, I’m not against it, but have you noticed how many times they tell you what you can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t do?

I just don’t hear a complete singing style of your own yet.  As a songwriter, though, you’re hitting a nice stride.  “Disillusionment,” for example. And “Secrecy and Lies.”

Take more chances.  Have you spent enough time in the clubs?  You were born and raised in the States but had the fortitude to serve an orphanage in Katmandu, gain a European education and study music in Rome.   Surely you don’t just want us to only get all cozy.

Just keep going and don’t get too comfortable.

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CD Reviews of Luis Munoz, The Sweet Remains and Chris Potter

March 2, 2013

Of the Allure of Light, Harmony and Sirens (the dangerously beautiful ones)

By Brian Arsenault

Luis Munoz

Luz  (Pelin Music)

If she won’t kiss you while this plays and the lights are down, things just aren’t going to work out.

Percussionist, composer and arranger Luis Munoz in Luz (Light) brings us beautiful instrumentation, often in unique combinations, and two Latin singers to run away with if the girl above just won’t warm.

Laura Hackstein‘s violin, that sometimes sounds like an accordion (honest) plays duet with the round notes of Jonathan Dane’s trumpet on “Amarilis,”  Teka Peterniche holds notes so long and perfectly on “Al Silencio” that her voice morphs into a muted cornet. (There’s one of those on the album as well.)

Strengths come in twos a couple times on this album.  Magos Herrera is the other fine vocalist featured. She brings so much warmth to “Testamento/Mass Alla,” Munoz’s tribute to wife Holly Ann. This is where you should get at least one kiss.

On Vals De La Luz, one pianist takes the first solo and a different pianist the second.  How often have you heard that on a jazz album?

I’m resisting the perhaps not inaccurate description Latin jazz, because while Munoz was born in Costa Rica and certainly brings a Latin sensibility to his work, I always feel that such terms put music in a box.  OK, that’s Latin jazz and that’s African pop, and so on, is so inadequate in an age when musicians are affected by so many cross currents. I mean there’s a pedal steel guitar on this album.

And tell me, do Hackstein, Friedenthal and Judge sound like Latin names to you? Methinks Munoz picks his musicians for their depth, not their point of national origin.

The Sweet Remains

North & Prospect (Sweet Remains Inc.)

Sweet is the right name for this sorta folky rocky trio and their three part harmonies on North & Prospect.  Think sunny summer afternoon in your favorite park and some band somewhere between C,S&N and America (or acoustic Eagles) just seems to go right.

You hear all kinds of familiar touches with these guys.  A bit of Jackson Browne, a dash of Dicky Betts, a sprinkle of Hall & Oates.  But part way through it struck me that you hear bits of so many others because there just isn’t anything that distinctive going down.

A little edginess would also be welcome.

There are some fine tunes here, though. “1000 Little Pieces” is the closest thing to a true rocker and more of such on the album would have been welcome. C,S&N could cover this one to great effect.

“Sweet Love” is not saccharine, it’s longing. And they push the harmonic combinations more than on most of the tunes.  More of that also, please.

There’s also something curiously out of time about Sweet Remains.  Early 70s, yeah that’s it. Maybe they were born later than planned.

But the biggest miss on the album is their rendition of the Beatles/Lennon tune “Come Together.” I’d have thought they’d have chosen something more like “Blackbird.” They funk up “Come Together” a little bit but I was disinterested by the end as they seem to miss its psychedelic derelict edge.

As they say, “Don’t look too close because the cracks appear.” Still, I can feel that summer day and breathe in the air and the fine harmonies together and be pleased.

Chris Potter

The Sirens (ECM Records)

Well, how brave is it to take on Homer and his Odyssey in a modern jazz interpretation?  Pretty damn courageous, I’d say.

Of course with Ulysses’ journey one has to start with the sea, in this case the “Wine Dark Sea” that appears only right before or right after a storm. Wayfinder Hermes points the way to other ports in and out of the storm.

It’s the females of the Odyssey who get the most attention here.  The Sirens call, as does Penelope.  But for different reasons.

Kalypso uses her wiles to keep Ulysses on her island, some say for a year. others say for several. But bigger gods intervene and she must let him go.

And the more demure and reflective Nausikka, daughter of a king, admires brave Ulysses but knows he has to journey home, finally, to butcher the suitors and be reunited to the faithful Penelope.

Potter’s saxophone, as ably supported as Ulysses by his crew, tells all these stories and more.

A very serious recording but a richly beautiful one as well. And are there more of the books of the Odyssey ahead?

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE

DVD Review: “Ferlinghetti A Rebirth of Wonder”

February 6, 2013

Christopher Felver’s Documentary (First Run Features)

By Brian Arsenault

Of all the poems in all the world my favorite is “Dog” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and unbeknownst to me till now there is actual footage of the dog in “Dog” and it’s in Christopher Felver’s film. I am extremely grateful.

Ferlinghetti A Rebirth of Wonder will open on Friday at New York’s Quad Cinema.

Of course, the poem isn’t really about the dog, it’s about us and our world and what’s good about it and what isn’t.  And that’s the best summary I can make of Ferlinghetti’s work as he reaches his mid-90s.

It seems to me that’s the point of this documentary made about a child of Italian immigrants: raised in his early years in France; taken in by a rich family who sent him to reform boarding school for his thievery; educated by southern “ivy” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because Thomas Wolfe went there; Navy ensign on a converted yacht during World War II; trying to work his way up at Time Magazine before leaving in disgust for Paris and his friend George Whitman who opened the second Shakespeare and Company book store; finally finding his way “home” to San Francisco, the City Lights Bookstore, poetry and painting.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The film takes us on that physical journey and the artistic/spiritual journey of an artist who has said “fuck art, let’s dance” but thinks artists would be ok “if they would put more mustard on it.” He says in the film that he never was a “beat poet” but elsewhere refers to himself as a “beat” in the company of Allen Ginsberg and others.

Of his other art, painting, Ferlinghetti says that “reality painting is just another form of fiction.”  He seeks light, always light, in painting and poetry.  That’s better than “realism.”

All these treasures and more are in the film.

On the political side — and of course there is one with the “natural born nonviolent enemy of the state” that he is — it’s a delight to see Ferlinghetti define himself as an anarchist wishing for nothing more than the “withering away of all government.”  Think of America’s so-called left looking for nothing but larger and larger government.

He was a champion of free speech who risked jail by publishing Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Yet when I clicked on my laptop to do this review, the first story up was about an Alabama teacher being removed from his post for saying Michelle Obama has “a fat ass.”  Battles to be won every generation.

A curious omission of this film is the link between the second Shakespeare and Company — named in tribute to the first that was shut down by the Nazis — and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. The first was a bookstore frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that gang in the 1920s and was, under the remarkable Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Fearing lawsuits because Joyce had a nasty habit of putting real people in his stories, Irish publishers wouldn’t touch it.

The connection is that Ulysses, like Howl, was deemed obscene by the authorities. Not until a court case decided the question in the 1930s could Ulysses be published in the United States. Battles to be won every generation.

This documentary makes it sound like Ginsberg’s book of poems, published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, was the start of free literary speech in America.  Important as it was, the Howl case was won on the same grounds as the Ulysses case; that the work had redeeming social value.

But enough of that.  The film overcomes such a hole via a series of interviews with other writers and artists of the era and great footage of Ferlinghetti with Ginsberg, McClure, Corso, Kerouac, even Dylan.

The filmmaker also has a wonderful narrative sense and takes us through Ferlinghetti’s life till now like Kerouac taking us on the road. The film just flows along and time gets lost.

There are wonderful Ferlinghetti nuggets throughout:

- His parents met at Coney Island.  Coney Island of the Mind anyone?

Ÿ- At the height of a San Francisco “be in” with Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Timothy Leary onstage and Jefferson Airplane on the bill, Ginsberg turns to him and says “What if we’re all wrong?”

Ÿ- “There isn’t any away any more,” the world wandering poet warns. “There’s a Hilton in Tahiti. What can Gauguin do about that?”.

Ÿ- “Never trust the government,” the socialist poet warns. “It wants to destroy the subjective in each of us.”

Ÿ- Ferling was not the real family name he eventually finds out.  Many Italian immigrant families, including my mother’s, found that a few less vowels helped with acceptance and employment in the US of A.

- ŸAccepting grants from the National Endowment of the Arts is collaboration with a repressive government and poets and artists should never be collaborators.  Ha!

Ferlinghetti near the end of the film says that the world’s political, economic and environmental problems will never be solved until we achieve population control.  I don’t know about that. Who’s to say when the next Ferlinghetti might come along?

So see this film if you can, if it’s shown outside of a few big cities if you don’t live in one. Or hope for a DVD release. Like Twain, like Hemingway, Ferlinghetti is an American original.

So I must close with a bit of “Dog” that he wonderfully recites in the film:

“a real live barking democratic dog . . .

with something to say about reality and how to see it and how to hear it

with his head cocked sideways at street corners as if he is just about to have his picture taken . . .

and looking like a living question mark into the great gramophone of puzzling existence. . .”

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Ferlinghetti photo by Christopher Felver

To read more posts, columns and reviews by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

CD Review: Eric Burdon’s “‘Til Your River Runs Dry”

February 2, 2013

Eric Burdon

 ‘Til Your River Runs Dry (ABKCO Music)

 By Brian Arsenault

Dear Eric,

When you just cut it loose, as on  Marc Cohn‘s “Medicine Man,” we get that Burdon power unencumbered by self conscious lyrics. You just belt it out and the voice is perfect. Now here comes some Animals-like organ.  Oh yeah. And when the guitar comes in it’s just as pure as it was nearly a half century ago and all I can say is . . .  Thank you.

Eric Burdon

Eric Burdon

Two songs later, when Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” closes out the album, the singing is so solid. And you let the guitar guy rip a mean solo. And there’s a neat trumpet piece over your shoulder. And I say this is who we are, Eric. This is who you are.  What the hell, man. It’s enough.

Still, regarding the album as a whole, J’accuse.

First, I gotta tell you that I notice a common thing in the previously mentioned two songs: Neither was written by you.

I think you get liberated in singing someone else’s songs all the way back to turning a folk tune about a girl fallen into prostitution into a driving blues song about a man’s fallen soul.

With your own songs, the lyrics sound too often like attempts to get instant play on FM classic rock radio.  It’s kind of like instant coffee, never as good as the real thing.

Yeah, I get the still angry rebel pose.  Not sure it translates into angry old guy that well. And socially conscious protest lyrics sung to indifferent music don’t make my heart sing.

Gotta say that the you’re-all-as-bad-as-me stuff — “Devil and Jesus” — is kinda tiresome, don’t you think?  Who was saying we aren’t as bad as you?  Why not be the best you can be. (Sorry for the militaristic allusion.)

To me, the album’s first three songs are all about the self indulgent, mirror gazing excesses of your worst traits, but on “Wait” you get more personal, less preachy and more satisfying.  There’s only a trace of the Animal rawness of your youth, but it’s okay. I often can’t find mine either and . . . “we’ll climb the stairs together” is a weary phrase you’ve earned.

“River is Rising” shows your ability to annoy and delight at the same time.  There are these painful narrations set amongst a gospel-like chorus with hints of Dixieland horns. This could almost be funk, but what means “He was nailed to the piano like pages from a yellow book.” Huh?

Compare that to, say, Cohn’s line “And he thinks that he can hear her calling in the wind.”

“Bo Diddley Special” is a nice little tribute song but the “black talk” is cringe inducing. Still, it’s not nearly as horrifying as the Amos and Andy shtick on “Invitation To The White House”.  Good Lord, Eric, what were you thinking!

Perhaps even more horrifying is the little ditty “27 Forever” wherein you imagine that you might have been better off with Jimi, Janis, Jim, Moony, etc. going to rock ‘n’ roll heaven and always being 27.  Oh please. If you could ask any of them, even Morrison, they’d have given anything for just a little more time.

For all that, I’m glad you’re still around so I can listen and smile when you are at your best and write about it when you’re not.



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To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

CD Review: The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra

January 20, 2013

 Bloom  (Nineteen Eight Records)

 By Brian Arsenault

In the wake of the pre-Christmas horror in Connecticut that I shall not name, I needed to be reassured that all beauty has not left the world.  Wonderfully, shortly after the holiday the pre-release copy of Bloom arrived.  Music to sooth the savage beast that so often afflicts the modern world and all the world in any era.

An assemblage of 18 first rate jazz musicians guided by composer, arranger and conductor Asuka Kakitani, this is sound poetry for all.  The album’s press release piece accurately describes the orchestra as supple. Yeah, supple. Also subtle, delicate, balanced, discriminating, lyrical.

Beams of light shimmer and shine while notes take flight.

Asuka Kakitani

Asuka Kakitani

The playing of each instrument is accomplished in its own right but connected to all the others.  The very definition of ensemble as the opening title song remarkably demonstrates.  The two solos on the title track “Bloom” — John Bailey’s trumpet and Jason Rigby’s tenor saxophone — are marvelously enhanced by the full orchestra’s work under them, intermingled with them, a part of them.

On “Electric Images” there’s a place where the horns come up like a sunrise and then dissolve like butterflies leaving. I swear you’ll hold your breath for an instant.

Dave Ambrosio’s bass playing is but one strength among so many, as is Mike Ecroth’s Rhodes piano playing.  A Rhodes is a kind of electric piano that has gone in an out of style since its invention in the 1950s.  (I know because I looked it up.)

My personal favorite piece is “Bumblebee Garden,” which Asuka says she was inspired to write while sitting in a coneflower garden with a cat, watching bumblebees at their eternal work. Matt MacDonald’s solo shows what a fluid instrument the trombone can be when played by a master.

His singular bee is joined by the other horns to tell us we are near the hive. Sara Serpa’s queen bee calls to them without words, only beautifully sung notes. And a glorious summer day fades to sunset.

“Open Opened” is interpreted from a Japanese children’s song.  Asuka’s childhood was spent near Osaka before she headed to the USA as a very young woman in her pursuit of jazz and the sound of a big band.

Universality used to be a treasured quality in literature, music, art.  Maybe not any more, but it should be, especially as musical forms from around the world bounce off each other and, more importantly, intermingle, even mate.

Kenny Berger’s baritone saxophone in “Open Opened” rises up from the traditional tune and greets the listener like a warm embrace from a five year old.  All caring, all sincerity.

Once again I am struck by the orchestra’s unerring support for each solo. Credit Asuka’s compositions and arrangements for much of that.  And her conducting.  A classical music background surely grounds her creativity.

In “Dragonfly’s Glasses,” Asuka manages to stay in touch with a child’s feelings and sensations and give them to the rest of us, whatever we may have forgotten or lost. That is very special and is often the gift grandchildren provide.

Finally, I am pre-disposed to like Asuka and her terrific big band because she likes Hemingway. She seems to know instinctively that his bravado in the face of a raging sea or revolutions in Spain was balanced by the depth of feeling demonstrated in the heart wrenching close of “A Farewell to Arms” and a letter Ernest wrote to friends to try to console them after the death of a child.

Hemingway was many things besides the finest American writer of his or any other time to date but he was that most of all. Time will tell, but Asuka may well be the finest big band composer and conductor of our time.  Thanks to her and her big band for helping us discover that Size Matters. Sometimes.

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Short Takes: Between the Silences of ECM Records

January 9, 2013

 A Consideration of Mercurial Balm and On the Dance Floor

 By Brian Arsenault

What, then, to make of these envelopes of ECM released CDs which keep appearing in my mailbox?

Oh, the envelopes are plain enough. Unadorned brown wrappers as if the contents might be Viagra from India or girly magazines shipped discreetly from 1960.  Instead, CDs cluster inside from bands with unlikely names such as Food and album titles as curious as Resume and Ronin.

Jazz for the most part, I guess. Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava performs On the Dance Floor with the PM Jazz Lab after all. But I often struggle to wrap my American rock ’n roll, bluesy head around ECM fare much more than what I’ve grown up with as American Jazz.  The difference seems as great as that between a Hemingway novel and any of Dostoevsky’s works.


It’s true that I named Nik Bartsch’s Ronin one of my favorite albums of 2012 but that was because I found it so mesmerizing, not because I hummed along or tapped my foot.  The sound poetry of the album seemed accessible if abstract, mysterious yet somehow familiar.

There seems to be such seriousness of purpose in these ECM recordings. So serious in fact that, as with the novels of Thomas Mann, I wonder if we aren’t dealing with art that is a little cold and remote, however accomplished.  The sounds produced by, say, Food, an ever changing group of musicians centered by saxophonist Iain Bellamy and drummer Thomas Stronen.

I want to yell, “Hey, I’ll take my music a little muddier as in earthier, thanks.”  Less cerebral.  It’s no sin to dance and feel good. Well, maybe if you’re a Baptist . . . And how about some laughter or at least a little lightness of spirit.

 Still, there’ll be an achingly beautiful sax riff or a trumpet burst as glorious as a soaring cathedral in Food‘s Mercurial Balm.  Not for long, though.  Here come the electronics that on the surface don’t much appeal to a dinosaur listener like me.  Yet those electronic percussion sounds will emerge from a seeming cacophony to a surprisingly melodic passage.

Is this where jazz is going?  Or music itself? Have we explored all the passages of conventional instruments, harmony, even symphonics?  Must we now move on to instruments I can’t pronounce, or to absolutely new uses of commonplace instruments like the slide guitar. Listen to Prakash Sontakke’s steel guitar taken to Mars on the title tune of  Mercurial Balm, for example.

Are they reaching for “the twinkling of the stars” or making a music of the beeps and boops and other quickly becoming familiar sounds of the computer age?  Or are those two things the same?  I’m not sure.

Then along comes “On the Dance Floor” and I go “Here’s something that will connect” because it’s Rava’s interpretation of the music of Michael Jackson.  Now I’ve never been a huge Jackson fan (Rava admits he wasn’t either for a long time) but you can’t be alive in America and not have heard a lot of Jackson music over three or four decades. At least I’ll recognize most of it.

Surprise. No, I can’t figure out what Rava is doing with “Thriller,” can’t even hear it at times. But Rava can produce these wonderful round trumpet notes and the playing of the whole band is often beautiful.  Wait, was that a tuba solo just there?  No, no tuba in the band.

And is the gap between European classicism and American pop just too great?  Again, I’m not sure.

With ECM recordings, I feel at times I’ve become a vanquished listener.  Europeans are supposed to be more sophisticated than us Americans, right? And maybe so. There’s a kind of German technical perfection at its best in the quality of ECM recordings.  That’s no small thing if you’ve ever driven their cars.

There’s something important going on at ECM.  I’m just not always getting it. But it’s worth the effort.  For now, though, I think I’ll go listen to Jimi do Bob Dylan.  That’s a view from the watchtower that I do get, even though it couldn‘t have been imagined until Jimi just did it.

To read more posts, reviews and column s by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Short Takes: Of My Favorites in Twenty-Twelve

December 29, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

I really don’t feel comfortable calling a column like this “The Best of 2012.”  It’s not that I’m not opinionated enough to do so, it’s that integrity would require me to have listened to a whole lot more during the year.  Wouldn’t one have to hear just about everything to do an honest “Best of 2012”?  Oh well, let others worry about that.

If  I absolutely had to select an album of the year it would be Dreams of the San Joaquin (Blix Street).  Maia Sharp combines with her parents, Randy Sharp and Sharon Bays, and Johnny Cash songwriter Jack Wesley Routh to give us a piece of America and thus a better sense of all of America.  It’s a Steinbeck novel, an early Capra movie, a train whistle in the night.

Here are my other favorites from the year drawing to a close:


- Halie Loren’s Heart First (Justin Time). How can this singer of grace and style not be near the top of everyone’s list? Great phrasing, emotions that resonate not nauseate, humor, wit. I truly don’t think there’s anyone better.

ave CD- Cheryl Bentyne’s Let’s Misbehave: The Cole Porter Songbook (Summit Records). This is a master class in jazz singing, in Cole Porter, in the American songbook. Cheryl Bentyne can make magic with Manhattan Transfer and on her own. Special magic here.

- Graham Dechter’s Takin’ It There (Capri). Jazz electric guitar virtuoso. You’ve heard that before but this guy will take you there. And beyond. You feel the music imbedded so deep in the DNA.  In this case, by nature and nurture.

- Jesse Cook’s The Blue Guitar Sessions (Entertainment One Music). I know, two guitarists. But this is something completely different.  Softly stated, yes, but more accurately, lyrically stated. A world of its own inviting you to enter.

- Nik Bartsch’s Ronin (ECM).  In medieval Japan, Ronin were Samurai without masters.  That works here.  Smoothly flowing jazz funks to a frenetic pace. To quiet piano bars. There are spaces, gaps, silences. And wondrous sound.


- Rickie Lee JonesThe Devil You Know (Concord Records).  A long time. A lot of pain. A lot of courage. A lot of living. Not covers but reinterpretations that in several cases are more articulate, more profound, more evocative than the originals.

- All Purpose Blues Band’s Cornbread and Cadillacs (Catbone Music) because the traditions of Otis Redding, Sam Cook, all the Delta bluesmen, funk, soul, Neville Brothers, and Bourbon Street must continue to be there to renew and enrich our souls.

s CD- Rolling Stones’ reissue of Some Girls Live in Texas 1978. (Eagle Rock Entertainment) Mick and the boys at the height of their powers. If you’re not sure you are comfortable with today’s geezers in concert, you will be reassured by this remarkable live album.

- Various artists, hell, many artists, on Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan.. This album of Bob Dylan songs was done for Amnesty International, and such collaborative efforts seldom get a lot of recognition. Well, it’s not actually a full blown work of art, critics sniff dismissively. But it you miss this, you miss some magnificent interpretations of Dylan’s work. Disc 2 alone is worth the price of admission.

- Mary Black’s Song from the Steeples (Blix Street) both in its own right and as a representative of a great year of music from Irish female singers.  Not sure what’s going on but it seems like a virtual renaissance of Irish singers. Of course, they’re always there, aren’t they. We just aren’t always listening.

- Martha’s Trouble’s A Little Heart Like You (Aisling).  There are new babies in our family, both arrived and on the way.  If there are newcomers in yours, this album of artfully done lullabies will please both babe and parents. Not sing-songy sweet to send you screaming from the room on a third play, but genuinely good music.


- Ike & Tina On the Road 1971-72 (MVD Visual). Low quality video/audio in places can’t diminish the powerful birth of real superstar Tina Turner and innovator Ike Turner. A remarkable portrait of musical performing artists.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Short Takes: Of Christmas Music Four Ways

December 11, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

Tis the season, as they say, and there’s music aplenty for those who celebrate Christmas.  It’s just a matter of how you likes yours served.

Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship

Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey (Willis I Music)

Some of the greatest art of ages past and sometimes present has been faith based — much classical music, once nearly all painting and sculpture.  That sometimes makes us uncomfortable to discuss or even mention in this secular age but it’s true enough. There have also been more than a few great jazz artists who were strong in their faith.  That maybe also makes us just a little leery to say, but it’s true enough as well.

This wonderful jazz album seems strongly Christian in the best sense of love for humankind and gratefulness for life and salvation.  But it is no less accomplished jazz for that. From Will Scruggs’ sax work to Brian Hogan’s fine piano to the rhythm section of Tommy Sauter and Marlon Patton, this recording is as complex and pleasing as it is deeply felt.

The musicianship is superb. The Angel Gabriel arrives with a fanfare to shake the knees of all us sinners on “The Annunciation,” and the “Song of Mary” shows why she is the favorite of so many of the faithful, including a recent Pope or two.

But all is not imposing here. The album’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is as joyous as the title shout out. “Go Down Moses” rings of its African American origins and Dixieland playing. (Interestingly, here and elsewhere we are presented in the album’s booklet with the lyrics to all songs, but the recording is all instrumental.)

If you never thought “We Three Kings” was a fine jazz composition, you will change your mind.  And if you haven’t felt the elevated state of these musicians at their work before we get there, you can’t miss it on the closing “Joy to the World.”  Particularly when the terrific horn ensemble kicks in to fortify the core quintet.

As the story goes, God promised Simeon he would see the Savior before he died. I can only promise you really, really good jazz.

Jason Paul Curtis (with Swinglab and Swing Machine)

Lovers Holiday (Jason Paul Curtis)

If you prefer your Christmas music a bit more mainstream, but think we need a few new Christmas songs, Lovers Holiday” may be for you.

In fact, the true Christmas songs are largely Curtis compositions: “Our Time of Year,“ “Lovers Holiday,” “Good This Year.”

Some  of the standards on the album — “Let it Snow,” Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” are “winter” tunes but not truly Christmas songs. But they work.

Sometimes the sound is jazz quartet — Swinglab.  Other times it is big band backing a singer – Swing Machine.  Think Doc Severinson.

It is always upbeat.  It may remind you of your parents’ Christmas parties if you are over 40.  Definitely if you are over 50.

Great fun.

Drew Paralic

Wintertime Tunes of Drew Paralic (CDBY)

This little album came out a while ago but its winter theme and vaguely Christmas sensibility makes it worth citing.  Just six songs but an extremely tight bit of work.

Paralic plays piano but not here.  Instead, he wrote, arranged and produced the CD.  He says he prefers that because he started playing piano too late to be as masterful as Bill Evans.  To which I say, who is?

His arranging skills need no apology “(On the Occasion of) Wet Snow” is so melodic that I can see snow falling in the woods behind my house.  And I know something of snow.

Throughout the album, Mike McGinnis’ fine tenor sax (“Down in Soho”) and clarinet  intermingles flawlessly with the piano work of James Newman and David Pearl.  There are no loose ends or weak moments here.  Just wish it had been longer.

Various Artists

A Very Special Christmas – 25 Years (Big Machine Records for the Special Olympics)

Finally, for those who like their Christmas albums big and bold and country tinged there is a chance to help the Special Olympics with A Very Special Christmas — 25 Years.

Train kicks the album off with a “Joy to the World” that will awaken any Christmas morning sleepyhead.

Michael Buble provides a rendition of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” that might have been Binged or Franked.

The country lineup, largely in the middle of the album, includes Rascal Flatts, Vice Gill, Martina McBride and Amy Grant.  Some of us are thankful that there’s also a Cheap Trick reworking of “I Want You to Want Me” (“I Want You for Christmas”).  And Dave Matthews Band chips in a live version of its uniquely Christmasy “Christmas Song.”

I kind of dreaded the approach of the last song on the album, “Oh Holy Night” by Christina Aguilera.   Would she just murder it and make tenors throughout the world cry?  Instead, she almost pulls it off, but in the middle gratuitously interjects a narration of The Lord’s Prayer and then ends with a Madonna funk-out including a chorus.

Maybe she thought she couldn’t manage the range and drama of the closing notes, but she was almost there.  Oh well.

Merry Christmas to all.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


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