CD Review of the Day: Teka’s “So Many Stars”

April 16, 2014

Teka

So Many Stars (Blue in Green Productions)

By Brian Arsenault

I think my biggest miss of 2013 may have been not hearing Teka’s marvelous bossa nova infused album So Many Stars. If you missed it too, here’s another chance. Especially for those of us in northern climes in this cold, cold endless winter.

Teka

Teka

Bossa nova almost always warms with its calls to romance and dance. In a harsh world it shows that the finer tender emotions are still possible. So there really is some place other than LA it’s warm this March. Really. And it may be the heart.

Good example, Teka and her teen daughter Luana Psaros provide two slightly different shades of sunlight on water in Aguas de Marco (Waters of March). Luana sounds like a younger skylark, not a lesser one, on this achingly alluring duet.

The album’s title song is also its message. So many stars, so many dreams. Taken as a whole, the album is rather dreamlike and it is a sweet dream.

For one reason, a different band member is featured in combination with Teka’s voice on nearly every song:
Randy Tico’s bass on “So Many Stars,” Doug Webb’s sax on “You Stepped Out of Dream” and “April Child”, Ruben Martinez bass flute on “April Child,” Ian Bernard’s piano on “Skylark.” More. All first rate.

Teka is a fine guitarist in her own right as amply demonstrated on “Bluesette.”

Teka

Teka

“Skylark” is one of the highlights of the album and one of the few non-bossa nova styled songs. Rather it is a wonderful slow jazz arrangement of the great Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael tune.

The Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful” closes the album with Teka teaming again with Luana for a light hearted take. Smiles all around. Chuckles at the end.   For most of the time, though, we are in the world of Mendes and Jobim and, as noted, it is a warm world of dancing in the dark and counting stars.

Teka has a summer evening breeze quality to her voice always. She is as smoooooooooooth as bossa nova can be and that is very smooth indeed.

Surprises on the album? Maybe one. Her choice to include Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” lyrics by Ogden Nash. The central lyric of the song, though, fits the mold: “Speak low when you speak of love” for fear it might disappear.

There is a longing in bossa nova as well as a sweetness.  Teka sings in both English and Portuguese on the album but it is the Portuguese that best brings us the poetry of the music. Even if you don’t speak the language.

The pacing is where American audiences have their biggest problem. Bossa nova after a burst of popularity in the States in the 60s has been largely relegated to secondary status except among aficionados and Brazilian and other Latin communities.

Part of its charm is a pace that is never fast, never hurried and Norteamericanos sometimes need things hot and fast, not warm and romantic.

Still, we are open to “so many dreams,” aren’t we?

Teka and her New Bossa Trio perform at The Gardenia in Hollywood on Wednesday Ap[ril 30.  The Gardenia is at 7066 Santa Monica Blvd.  The phone number is (323) 467-7444.

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


Record Rack: Lyn Stanley, Lisa Engelken

December 11, 2013

Of West Coast Girls

By Brian Arsenault

The Left Coast is not taken seriously enough by the New York centric jazz “world” as a producer of any jazz, but maybe particularly female jazz singers. Of course, Queen Bentyne is based there now but she’s late of Manhattan Transfer so the East Coast still claims her.

So here come two very different talents to turn our eyes and ears to the West. You know, LA, San Francisco. The places that mostly stay warm but are oh so cool.

 Lyn Stanley

Lost in Romance (A.T. Music)

Only a few tracks are required for the listener to be Lost in Romance with Lyn Stanley. I was there by “The Nearness of You.” By then, she has warmed the room with a series of classics from Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael.

The room is in a small club. Perhaps near the desert. Dim lighting. Bogie and Bacall unobtrusive in the back of the room. Dietrich’s set over, she stays to listen.

The room has a piano that accompanies her so well whenever Tamir Hendelman or Mike Lang sit in. Tenor sax (Bob Sheppard), trombone (Bob McChesney), flugelhorn (Gilbert Castellanos, also on trumpet) in the backing group which plays every note to complement her. Every single note.

And those notes are all full and rounded, almost never sharp and stinging. Perhaps vinyl was required for the richness throughout. I’d like to think so. (two 180 gram 45 rpm albums which I first tried to play as 33s. Slowwwwwwwww. Also available in CDs and downloads for the unromantic.)

The striking blond former ballroom dancer opens and closes the album with songs entwined with dance.

First: “Change Partners,” where she lingers over each note, each moment, seeking her chance.

Last, naturally: “The Last Dance,” where the partner has been found and the evening is regrettably ending but “keep holding me tight.”

In between, the bartender leans in to listen as she asks for “One More for My Baby.” Each word, each inflection so important as “You Go to My Head.”

Her phrasing is close, intimate, personal. Not like Sinatra’s phrasing but with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ requirement that you listen to the story, that you feel it might be sung directly to you.

I don’t think her talents are best suited for Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” but she shines on George Harrison’s “Something” which Sinatra called the only really good love song in eons.

On “Fever”, the warmth becomes heat. Peggy Lee may have been the first white girl singer so openly sexual but Lyn Stanley takes it a bit sultrier, plays with it a bit. A touch of how Marilyn would have sung it. Finger snaps as percussion.

Another strength of vinyl; each time you get to flip the album or put on the second disc (may I say record), you’ll be pleased there’s another side. You’ll wish you were at that imaginary club that night. But go ahead, careful not to smudge the grooves, put on the album and soon you will be.

Lisa Engelken

little warrior (CD Baby)

If Lyn Stanley is the epitome of classic romance and the classic American songbook, Lisa Engelken is the postmodernist purveyor of pain and alienation.

. . . for there must be a god to exist such a godless man. . .”

If Lyn Stanley rounds each note and lingers for its full effect, Lisa Engelken frequently blows through lyrics with staccato phrasing. Everything at times is a single chopped note since she must move on and not linger.

send me keys

send me jets

send me trains . . .

and don’t forget instructions as to what to do with your remains”

Don’t get me wrong. Lisa’s range of emotions, as well as octaves, is extensive. The album includes the reflective “little warrior” title song and Chick Corea’s gently rolling “sea journey.”

But pain is near at all times. It’s integral to her art.

blue valentines” is Tom Wait via Billie Holiday (can’t beat that for melancholy) through Lisa. The band gets it. Bill Cantos’ piano chords keep a somber pace. Sam Bevan’s bass descends with her voice. Sadness keeps a grip impervious to whiskey.

She moves with Joni Mitchell’s “cold blue steel & sweet fire” to some very personal hell vision of “. . . vicious gnawing in the veins. . .” This seven minutes, a dark trip, is orchestral, at times symphonic — Lisa says she wants to sing it with the San Francisco Symphony — but some of the musicians may have hooves and tails, maybe even horns.

Even in the supposedly upbeat “viva la felicita,” an alleged ode to happiness, the chorus in Italian is “eh poi, eh poi?” what else, what else is there? Can’t get more post modernist than that. Like an Italo Calvino short story.

For this album to end on the sweetness of “All I Do Is Dream of You” is either ironic or an inside joke. This is a singer pushing some boundaries and a long way from romance. But we know the World needs more than one vision.

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


CD Review: George Benson “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole”

May 21, 2013

Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole (Concord Records)

By Brian Arsenault

Two versions of “Mona Lisa,” perhaps Nat King Cole’s most famous song, frame Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.

The first, opening the album, was recorded by “Lil” George Benson in 1951 after he won a singing contest at the age of 8.  It seems a prophetic recording now that six decades later he has issued this remarkable tribute album, closing it out with an uncannily Nat-like version of the tune.

George Benson

George Benson

Benson’s phrasing at the start of “new” version of “Mona Lisa” can’t be an accident.  It’s the highest tribute he could give to King Cole.  But there’s brilliance everywhere on the album.

Start with the big band sound of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra crashing us into Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.” Wow factor very high.

Follow on with Wynton Marsalis leading us into “Unforgettable” wherein Benson accompanies his remarkable vocal with his equally distinctive guitar work.

And oh yeah, the late Nelson Riddle’s arrangements are all over this album.  Somewhere Ol’ Blue Eyes is smiling.

Want more?  Idina Menzel of Rent and Wicked fame joins Benson for an outstanding duet on “When I Fall in Love” and we’re only five songs into the album. This is the heart breaker/ tear jerker of the CD and Benson’s guitar is just right, as good as his harmonizing with Menzel.

Later, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” may also bring a tear and Till Bronner’s trumpet is as perfect as Marsalis’ on “Unforgettable.” After tears, there’s a smile waiting on the album’s version of Cole’s own “Straighten Up and Fly Right” with its wry swing era arrangement.  Benson has his longest guitar solo here and I wouldn’t have minded more of that throughout but there’s nothing really to complain about.

Nat King Cole, like Louis Armstrong, understood that in the 1950s and ‘60s a black artist had to be absolutely non-threatening to fully appeal to white audiences.  But neither sacrificed artistry on that altar.  They just gave a smile and made America love ‘em.

And why not.  The version here of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” has the orchestra playing just so good behind Benson’s smooth, smooth vocal. If it doesn’t bring a smile, you are probably terminally depressed. Benson’s gentle and accomplished approach makes him the perfect guy to do a tribute to Cole.

Riddle’s arrangements are perfect for the orchestra. The soloists like Marsalis and Bronner absolutely get it and fit like a well tailored suit.

There’s an ironic similarity between the career of Cole and Benson.  Cole first came to prominence as a jazz pianist and Benson as a jazz guitarist.  Their stunning vocal skills were hidden for a while but then the world received even greater gifts.

Any song not mentioned in this review is just as good as those that are.  The album’s as close to perfect as humans get.

Still, what I’ll carry with me forever is “Lil” George Benson singing his heart out it 1951.  Thank the musical gods the recording survived.  And that Benson stayed on the planet to give us this as he hit 70.

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Here’s an added  wrinkle:  Benson will be on QVC this evening (Tuesday, May 21)  at 10 p.m. (ET) to introduce the album and make a special offer.

Benson photo by Nanni Zedda courtesy of George Benson.


Record Rack: Spin Doctors, Bracher Brown and Quattro

April 26, 2013

            Sometimes a Reviewer’s Just Lucky

            Three Very Different Albums Connected Only by Their Excellence

 By Brian Arsenault

 Spin Doctors

If the River Was Whiskey (Rufus Records)

DIf you’re a ‘90’s kid, chances are you can still remember the words to Spin Doctors’ “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” and that favorite guy anthem to the hated former girl friend/bitch, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.”  I mean was there ever a nastier tune on hit radio and was a band bigger than Spin Doctors in the era?

So 25 years down the road, what is a listener to expect? Maybe not expected, but one sizzling blues album is what you get.

Hey, you can’t be a teen band forever, but these guys can do this till they’ve been around a half century.

“If the River Was Whiskey, (you’d) have no trouble drowning me.”  Hell of a lyric, hell of a song.

Chris Barron’s voice is deeper than in the early days. Whiskey? Cigs? Or just the passage of time. It works.

And Eric Schenkman’s guitar can flash it like he’s playing for Billy Boy Arnold, or do the slow hand. The rhythm section of Aaron Comess on drums and Mark White on bass are tight as can be.

The whole band is.

There’s some Howlin’ Wolf (title song) here and some Allman Brothers feel (“Scotch and Water Blues”)  as well.  Yet the Spin Doctors are their own self.

On tunes like “What My Love?” it’s real hard to sit still. “Scotch and Water Blues” just builds and builds and “About a Train” has a nice Delta flavor suitable for roadhouses.

The album makes you ache a bit for smoky bars smelling of beer and less savory stuff.  But the playing is real clean.

Bracher Brown

Broken Glass and Railroad Tracks (Rock Ridge Music, digital only)

A tough old businessman of Irish heritage that I knew and valued until his death said that one of the worst prejudices was that a young person couldn’t do a good job, maybe better.

So here comes Bracher Brown who makes you think that if the Beatles had been born in America under 20 years ago, this is what they might have sounded like.  Intelligent lyrics about the start of love, the end of love, the desire for love. Rhythms that we used to call infectious.  Seductive guitar licks.

“Singing songs about what life was supposed to be.”

Young but not untested in the furnace of life.

 “Haven’t slept in days but I’m all right.”

Even acquainted with absence that may be death –

“living with your ghost.”

And a love song — “Loving You” — that rings true; a song about what he knows about life at 18 that’s not to be patronized.  After all, we may never know more, we may just shut down and call it experience.

He’s not shut down at all. Thank goodness.

Quattro

Poppzzical  (Quattro Sound)

Ok, so you know there are four of them on Poppzzical. Mixed gender (two of each), mixed ethnicity, mixed musical backgrounds.  So, of course, all American in all our splendid, confusing mishmash of cultures that often produces remarkable music.

There’s a violin, often gypsy-like (Lisa Dondlinger). She can play for Pavarotti or Dancing with the Stars.

There’s a cello, also an amazing Latin influenced voice (Giovanna Moraga Clayton). Uh, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, New West Symphony).

Are you starting to get the picture?  They can match the exuberance of their own crafted “Good Day” — “try to bring me down will be time wasted” — with some Vivaldi done as classical sound with jazz shifts.

There’s a guitar which can lead and support, strum and sing (Kay-Ta Matsuno) who can play for Baby Face or Natalie Cole and a whole bunch of other folks too numerous to name here.

Finally there’s percussion work born in Tijuana, Mexico (Jorge Villanueva) who’s played on movie scores, in Latino bands and co-owns a film and TV scoring company.

So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot going on in this album they’ve made.

“Silky” is happy and melancholy at the same time.  There’s a guitar solo that resembles a violin piece.  Or is that a violin with cello as bass. Or both.  Ha, I don’t care. It’s music that’s unique.  I can’t think of any assemblage that sounds like Quattro.

Their Spanish language soul and Latino dance music.  If I could samba I would have on “Mi Conguero.“  That may even be the wrong dance but it’s the right feeling.

The album closes with “Hana Bi” and the guitar and violin take flight together.  The cello soars after them.

And maybe that’s it: flying, soaring, breaking free of forms while paying homage to them. In a musical world of too much sameness, the individuality and creativity of this young group is not to be missed.

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


Brian Arsenault Takes On: A Guitar Tour of the World, the Phony Hipness of Country Muzak, the Tastelessness of Network News and Free Music from Moscow

April 9, 2013

By Brian Arsenault

Annalisa Ewald

Live at the factory underground (Dionysian Media)

Annalisa Ewald is a classical guitarist of significant reputation. But don’t let that stop you from her performance live at the factory underground recorded last year in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Even if you’re like me and equate great guitar with Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend you’ll find much to like as she brings us to Brazil and Argentina and Renaissance Europe; happy little tunes, melancholy melodies and tangos and gypsy flamencos.

She reminds us that these “classical” pieces sprang from the soil, the seamier parts of town and scandalous, sometimes illegal rhythms and dances.  Her brief comments throughout the album are good natured and inviting, sometimes self deprecating, and never pedantic.  And the playing seems faultless even though she can joke about jarring misplayed notes (by someone else).

And whatever your tastes in music you’ll occasionally hear snatches of “tunes” that you know from cultural experiences ranging from  movies to old Bugs Bunny cartoons. All in all, a delight.

Some of the proceeds from sales of the album, release date April 23, will be donated to the John DeCamp Fund “helping veterans heal through music and caring.”

The ACM Awards

The Grand Ol’ Opry was at least genuine. Genuine hillbilly and unhip maybe, but music that came down from the hill country and back roads.  What so-called country music has now become is a bunch of over-age prom queens and dorks in designer cowboy hats playing the kind of vapid pop crap that in one guise or another has been around for six decades or so.

The biggest news from the Academy of Country Music “awards” show seems to be that everyone’s ex, Taylor Twitt, didn’t win anything. So who cares?  Name me a significant artist who did win anything.  Nice dresses and hair though.

They trotted out Stevie Wonder for some incomprehensible reason.  Who’s advising him these days anyway?

They did do a nice little tribute to Dick Clark which the equally vapid Grammys couldn’t manage.  So I guess we should be grateful for that, though I can’t imagine anyone watching long enough to catch it. Dick brought kids all over America a taste of real rock at times but he could never distinguish it from the slop pop that he also promoted with equal enthusiasm.

The same holds true here.

The Foulness of Network “Entertainment” News

Annette Funicello

Annette Funicello

One of the first child stars of television, Annette Funicello, passed away on Monday, April 8.  She was the Mouseketeer that eleven year old boys first squirmed at watching her begin to fill out her modest sweater. And of course she sang and danced. All the Mousketeers did.

She went on to make those dreadful beach blanket movies with Frankie Avalon crooning to her against the California surf. Still, she has always seemed a kind presence, even while suffering from the debilitating Multiple Sclerosis that forced her to retire from public life fifteen years ago.

Her husband and caretaker, Glen Holt, authorized a video of Annettte in her current condition, supporting research in Multiple Sclerosis treatment via the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases.  In the video, we get the obligatory shots from the Mickey Mouse Club, the beach movies and her getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, accompanied by Mickey of course.  But the slimy TV programmers who bring us their own slants on “news” couldn’t restrain from emphasizing the photos of her late in life that were unfortunate and won’t be described here.  If he were around today, Dante would put those shapers of popular culture in the lowest circle of Hell.

Gregg Robins

 Snowing in April

As someone who lives where it sometimes snows in April, how could I pass up Greg Robins downloadable album of Demos — Snowing in April.  And I’m glad I didn’t.

Let me go right to the last song which truly touches the heart.  “Believe”  sings of a father’s advice to his oldest daughter and what makes it so striking is that Robins sings it with his then 15 year old Casey.

Casey’s voice will never again be exactly as it was when she sang on this recording.  She will never again be exactly the same.  That is the bittersweetness of growing children and grandchildren.  They can’t wait for the next age and parents want to hold on to the current one just a little longer.

“Believe in your dreams. They can always come true.”

The passage of time pops up a number of times on this warm album from a New Yorker now living in cold Moscow. (Moscow!!?) “The Middle of the Show” isn’t about a stage show.

“Middle age is all the rage.”

In “Where Were You?” where Robins is joined on vocal by Remy Sepetoski, at 35 “I knew where I was, where were you?”

But the album’s not maudlin about fleeting time. It just urges us to not miss “How Lucky” we are just to be here. Robins is sometimes a bit off-key singing but he hits mostly right notes writing neat songs.

You can listen to the album at Robins” website for free.  Must be the old Soviet socialist share the wealth spirit at work, if it ever was.

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


Record Rack: Tine Bruhn & Johnny O’Neal, Jackie Ryan and Karen Souza

March 20, 2013

Three Queens, All Aces

By Brian Arsenault

This is a time of remarkable female jazz singers.  So many who are so good. Undoubtedly changes in social mores have increased the pool of women willing to run the risks of being a jazz singer and the industry‘s willingness to accept them. But I think there’s more than a sociology treatise here. I think there’s magic involved, as there was with the surge in bop jazz musicians in the late 40s and great rock in the second half of the sixties. Leave it to others to explain. We get to enjoy.

 Tine Bruhn & Johnny O’Neal:

 nearness (Burner Records)

Think of a time when a singer simply stood next to the piano.  She sings, he plays and, oh yeah, there’s a great tenor sax on some songs. Now’s the time and Tine Bruhn makes the most of it with the marvelous jazz pianist Johnny O’Neal and young sax player, Stacy Dillard. She’s deep into the American songbook of Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and others and she has the remarkable ability to make each song hers by the end.  “The Nearness of You,” from which the album title is drawn, is simply seven and a half minutes of bliss.  If an album can glow with light, this one does.

Jackie Ryan with John Clayton & Friends:

 Listen Here (Open Art Productions)

Jackie Ryan, I think, could sing just about anything and on this album she just about does. Jazzy, bluesy, in English and in Spanish, old classics and new compositions. Her “I Loves You Porgy” is nearly overwhelming. Hell, it is overwhelmingly beautiful. So is band mate John Clayton’s “Before We Fall In Love,” lyrics by the great Bergmans to touch the soul. Sidemen? You want sidemen: Gerald Clayton on piano, Graham Dechter on guitar, Gilbert Castellanos on a trumpet born in Mexico and journeyed to American jazz. More. I’m not even sure this is a jazz album. Not completely.  Jackie kind of defies categories.  She’s music.

 Karen Souza:

Hotel Souza (Music Brokers)

We begin in a Paris hotel with an affair, “prisoners of desire” wondering “how did it get this far.” It goes on like that. For the whole album. Sexuality in song. Longing, desire, surrender. This hotel where “I’ve Got it Bad” for “Delectable You” even if you’ll “Break My Heart.” Her version of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” is 110 degrees in the shade. Phew, well Marvin was about heat after all.  Yet underneath all the physical attraction and consummation there is a sadness at the impermanence of affairs and attraction. In the end, you have to “Lie to Me.”

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


Jazz CD Review: Emy Tseng’s “Sonho”

January 23, 2013

Emy Tseng

 Sonho (Self Produced)

 By Brian Arsenault

If the reality of burgeoning world music can be encapsulated in a single individual, I submit in nomination Emy Tseng.  Taiwanese born, raised in the American Midwest, Ivy League educated (she appears to have overcome it) singing Brazilian jazz, in Portuguese of course, with a couple of American jazz standards thrown in for good measure. (More about that later.)

Her debut album Sonho, Portuguese for Dream, is just that in places.  Dreamlike. There’s the very first tune, “Aquelas Coisas Todas” (“All Those Things”); Brazilian dreams: beaches, beauties, beverages, bistros, bossa nova.  Brazil has a myth, a legend, a romantic sense of passion and languor that Tseng acquired in Greenwich Village and honed in the Washington D.C. Brazilian music scene.

Emy Tseng

Emy Tseng

Don‘t sneer. The legend, the essence, is often sensed most strongly by those who know first  only the myth. But Emy Tseng is real. A remarkably clear voice. An adept student working hard at her craft. More than that, a gifted artist starting on a long path.

You don’t have to know the language to hear the allure in “Berimbau” with her sultry voice playing off Andy Connell’s soprano sax. (More about this guy later.) And if “Berimbau” flirts, Caetano Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo” seduces. Again a dream: It’s deep dusk and a few dancers move smoothly on the floor. Andy Connell’s clarinet doesn’t accompany, it sings with her.

You see, I don’t know Portuguese. Like a lot of gringo Americans I have a passing acquaintance with English, some street slang, and little else. So I have to respond to the music and her voice as instrument.

Except in a few places.  “California Dreamin’” is a surprise – yes, the Mamas and Papas song — but it fits because she does it as melancholy and mournful and gives it a greater depth than a cold, broke hippy. Another dream.  Matvei Sigalov, an acoustic guitarist, plays wonderfully here and elsewhere on the album.

There’s her marvelous closing rendition of the classic jazz standard, “Close Your Eyes,” where she is accompanied only by David Jernigan’s wondrous acoustic bass. What’s created are spaces, silences between the notes of the two that would please even those discerning guys at ECM. Did I close my eyes? Yeah, for a moment, to hear those most comforting words  “I’ll be here by your side” in pure tones. Delicious.

On another standard that has become a jazz classic, “I Thought About You,” I thought about Emy doing a big piece of the Great American Songbook on a future album. Johnny Mercer songs, Cole Porter songs, Gershwin maybe.  It wouldn’t be better than her Brazilian jazz but, I think it might be very good indeed.

Still, she needn’t stray far from Brazil.  “Na Beira do Rio” shows how that distinctive Brazilian style of rhythm and melody can heighten emotional content with a singer who feels it. Sigalov again helps entrance us.

But the guy who really knocks me out on the album is the previously mentioned Andy Connell, who puts in two distinctive performances on clarinet and two more on soprano sax.

The clarinet is such a terrific instrument to listen to, but it’s often pushed aside, it seems, by our obsession with brass.  I have it too.  It’s, well, it’s brassy, commanding attention. But the clarinet floats on high and rides the wind when played by a guy this good. Similarly, the soprano sax seems often neglected for its larger siblings but is equally evocative.

Tseng, in the best jazz tradition, lets Connell and the others be showcased strongly, often as equals on songs.

If you’re like me, you tend to like your music “from the street” and to be a little suspicious about too much of an academic music background for rock or jazz. Hell, Tseng’s academic credentials even include a degree in Math. Yet the mistrust of learning and over-reliance on “street cred” can be distinctly anti-intellectual. A formal quality education in music also has the potential to expand creativity, not diminish it.

Emy Tseng will prove that, I think.

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


A Twist Of Doc: Devon “Doc” Wendell’s Musical Highlights of 2012

January 3, 2013

By Devon Wendell

Now I must push through those big barriers that keep a thinking/nerdy musician like myself stagnant and trapped in one or two musical eras or genres, far from today and far from this exact moment in history. I must dissolve the bitterness and the frustration, and the notion that it’s all nothing more than blurry, recycled fragments of musical shades and rudiments created so long ago. The nothing new today but newly done old music is so easy to live in, to cocoon myself in the warmth of familiarity and sentimentality.  2012 was a concrete year like all others behind us with its own unique fingerprint in time, so I look back at some of my favorite moments in the music of 2012.

 Blues

Let’s start where it all begins: the blues. This past year Shemekia Copeland released one of the most powerful and poignant blues albums I’ve ever heard. Copeland’s 33 1/3 (Telarc) not only displayed Copeland’s confident tenor blues vocals, and stellar arrangements — which combine not only blues, but also country, funk, gospel, and rock –  it also showed she is a true blues poet. The lyrics on 33 1/3 deal with such topics as poverty on the loud and angry “Lemon Pie” and domestic violence on the chilling “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” (Which features slashing blues guitar leads by Buddy Guy.)

The blues began as a poetic art form as heard in the early country blues of Bukka White, Skip James, and Blind Willie McTell, but those elements got lost for the most part in modern blues, so it’s a refreshing sign to hear an artist as popular as Copeland help bring it all back.  33 1/3 has received a Grammy nomination for best blues album of 2012.

 Jazz

In the jazz category, innovative pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal returned to the studio with a bright new quartet (Reginald Veal: bass, Herlin Riley: drums, and 22 year old percussionist Jamal “Conguero” Manolo Badrena) on Blue Moon (Jazz Village).  The quartet on Blue Moon has that tightness, focus and groove demonstrated by Jamal’s trio (Jamal: piano, Israel Crosby: bass, and Vernell Fournier on drums) on his classic album Ahmad Jamal: But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing Lounge, 1958 (Originally issued on Argo).  Jamal’s sense of dynamics, discipline, harmony and space (which transformed jazz forever in the late to mid 50s, influencing everyone from Miles Davis and Red Garland to Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock) is more prevalent now than ever before.

He and his quartet enhance the one-of-a-kind Jamal sound with new twists to such classics as Johnny Mercer’s “Laura,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’ N You” (which Jamal had recorded on the But Not For Me album 54 years ago), as well as some originals: “This Is The Life” and “Invitation.” Jamal’s wonderfully transformative adaptation of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” like a Thelonious Monk cover, shows how this jazz master can take a standard and make it his own with the use of syncopation, strong pedal points, and altered harmonies, which alone makes the album worth purchasing. The track earned Jamal a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental.

 Rock ‘n’ Roll

In Rock ‘n’ Roll, Bob Dylan’s Tempest (Columbia) deals with violence, rage, mortality, and lost love. Although these universal themes have been used time and time again by Dylan since the beginning of his career, he always makes his misery and anger feel fresh to the masses. This is certainly the case on Tempest. It is also important to note that his band swings hard.  From the jump blues of “Duquesne Whistle,” the Delta blues of The Mississippi Sheik’s “Narrow Way,” and the Celtic rhythms of “Tempest,” Dylan’s band (Tony Garnier: bass, Donnie Herron: steel guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, David Hidalgo: guitar, accordion, violin, Stu Kimball: guitar, George G. Receli: drums, and Charlie Sexton: guitar) proves that they can follow the man anywhere he wanders while adding strong melodic texturing to every phrase and song.  This may not be a musical romp through the park but it’s pure Dylan, attitude and all.

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The release of Carole King’s Legendary Demos (Hear Music/Concord Music Group) was the most shocking hidden treasure to surface this past year.   This collection consists of demos recorded in New York City’s Brill building both with her ex-writing partner and ex- husband Gerry Goffin in the early to mid 60s, all the way through her infamous Tapestry sessions in 1970. King was writing hits for such artists as the Monkees, The Turtles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Vee, the Righteous Brothers, Gene Pitney, and dozens of others.

There’s a mournful intimacy to the sound of King, both alone with her piano and with studio session players. This is especially true on the demos for Tapestry. King has every phrase and nuance figured out for the multitude of artists who will be recording her songs. But the power of King’s warm vocals and her gospel-fueled piano playing makes classics like “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “So Goes Love,” “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and “Yours Until Tomorrow” feel as if they should only have been recorded by King, which most of us would not have expected. Before hearing the demos, it was hard for me to even imagine her singing these songs at all. There’s none of the schmaltz on King’s demos that many of the 60s pop bands would later add to her songs.  This compilation gives an insight to King’s genius as a writer, arranger, and most of all, as a brilliant musician in her own right.

* * * * *

Another highlight in the category of rock is Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos (Reprise) and I say this not because I once worked for the man, but because Fagen’s fusing of hip/sly lyrics with slick funk and jazz harmonies has an irresistible groove throughout the entire album. There’s a more dissonant sonic quality to this album than Fagen’s work with Steely Dan and this sounds nothing like Fagen’s three previous solo recordings.

Steely Dan trumpeter Michael Leonhart co-produced the album with Fagen as well as playing drums (under the alias of Earl Cook Jr.) plus adding keys and even contributing to the crisp engineering.  And Kurt Rosenwinkel’s guitar solo on “Planet D’Rhonda” sounds like Kenny Burrell on acid, which every guitar player must check out.

 Live Performance

I’ve include one exhilarating live performance on my list of highlights: Eddie Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra At The Hollywood Bowl on August 17th.  Although Palmieri’s set was painfully short (under 45 minutes), in order to give way for the more pop oriented Ruben Blades, this master of Latin jazz got cooking from the second he took the Bowl stage. Palmieri and his Orchestra performed such classics as “La Liberta Logica,” “Pa La Ocha Tamba,” and his biggest hit, “Azucar Pa Ti.” Palmieri was joined by the stellar jazz trumpeter Brian Lynch, whose frenetic style was the perfect counterpoint to Palmieri’s sparse, percussive, and syncopated piano playing – a style that has earned him the title; “The Latin Thelonious Monk.”

Palmieri lit a fire under the band on this hot August night. On his first solo during “La Liberta Logica,” he played very few notes but they were more brilliantly executed than a thousand notes could ever be played by anyone else. The energy from this solo spread to the percussionists (Joes Clauselle: timbales, Little Johnny Rivero: congas, Joseph Gonzalez: maracas, and Orlando Vega on bongos) who generated a tidal wave of polyrhythms and Afro-Cuban hooks that felt as if they had always been a part of my entire being.  This was a performance not only to remember in 2012, but for a lifetime.

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These are my musical highlights of 2012. I know what many of you are asking after reading this or anything else I’ve written for The International Review Of Music: “No Justin Bieber, No Chris Brown or Katie Perry?” “What’s Up Doc?!” Well, don’t hold your breath, and there’s always 2013, so stay tuned folks.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Jazz with an Accent: New CDs from e.s.t., Tania Maria and Eddie Gomez, Alfredo Rodriguez, Diego Schissi, and Christian Escoude

May 23, 2012

By Fernando Gonzalez

The music business might be not much of a business these days, but the quantity, variety and quality of the music being released is quite astonishing. No, not every recording is great or even merely necessary. Few would argue against democratizing the production and delivery process in music – but on the other hand, not everybody who can make a recording should. That said, trying to stay up to date with worthy new releases has become a frustrating proposition. Rather than “Jazz with an Accent” these notes might soon be titled “Running after the Bus.”

Here are some notable new releases.

 e.s.t.

301 (ACT)

Just about as it was gaining recognition as one of the most promising groups in 21st century jazz the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, or e.s.t., came to a brutally abrupt, tragic end when its pianist and leader died in a scuba diving accident in June, 2008.  The sound of the trio, which included drummer Magnus Öström and bassist Dan Berglund, was an intriguing mix. It could play as cooly lyrical jazz one moment, informed by European classical music and Nordic sensibilities, and blow up as drum’n’bass, with bits of noise and electronics and a ferocious rock energy the next.

Culled from the material developed in two days of jamming in a studio in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 in the off days of an Asia and Australia tour, 301 plays as a terrific summation of the group’s power and music. It is actually the second posthumous recording from those sessions. According to the promotional information, Svensson had edited the material from those sessions down to two albums. Only one was released — Leucocyte (ACT 2008). Edited by Öström, Berglund and the band’s regular sound engineer Ake Linton, 301 (the name refers to Sydney’s Studio 301 where it was recorded) shows a mature, confident group working as a unit, listening hard, paying attention to dynamics and generally pushing and chasing each other down unexpected rabbit holes.  It’s tempting, But pointless, to hear 301 and wonder what might have been. What it is, is remarkable.

* * * * * *

Tania Maria with Eddie Gomez

Tempo (Naïve)

France-based Brazilian pianist and vocalist Tania Maria’s first album of new music in nearly six years is a surprising, small pleasure. A capable pianist who also was once nominated for a Grammy as a jazz vocalist (at one point in time her label promoted her as sounding  “sometimes” like a “Brazilian Aretha Franklin”), Tania Maria gained an international following as a fiery, high-energy performer. But in Tempo, a duet recording featuring bassist Eddie Gomez, her approach, while still full of verve, is pared down to essentials — and made better for it.

Tania Maria’s originals are all instrumentals, none particularly memorable but all well constructed. She draws from Brazilian music, blues and jazz and frames the mix with a pop sensibility.  She sings here, very effectively, in both Italian (“Estate,” an Italian pop hit since turned standard by artists as disparate as Joao Gilberto and Shirley Horn), and Portuguese (“Sentado A Beira Do Camino,” “A Chuva Caiu,” and “Bronzes e Cristais”).

Gomez is an invaluable partner throughout, laying down a solid foundation with a percussive edge, smartly letting the music breathe but also forceful and active when needed. And, no news here, Gomez is an effective soloist,  including  a beautifully bowed performance in Tania Maria’s “Senso Unico.”

* * * * * *

 In short …

 Alfredo Rodriguez: Sounds of Space (Mack Avenue)

The debut recording of LA-based Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez plays like a sampler  –  all original pieces in a variety of styles, both traditional and his own, showcasing his technical breadth and depth.  Consider the opening “Qbafrica,” with its baroque Hermeto Pascoal references, leading into the elegant bolero “Sueño de Paseo,” and back up again to the burner “Silence.” Rodriguez is featured here leading two ensembles, one from Cuba, the other one based on the United States.

 Diego Schissi Quinteto: Tongos (Sunnyside)

Argentine pianist and composer calls his music “not tango, but close.” In fact, his post-Piazzolla tango features a similar instrumentation to that of the maestro’s (violin, guitar, bandoneón, bass and piano) and shares references (Bartok and Stravinsky as well as tango tradition) before going its own way. Not much improvisation here, but smart writing, beautifully shaded, and paced playing and a path to the tango for the 21st century – or something close to it.

Christian Escoudé Plays Brassens (Sunnyside)

How much you may enjoy this release by French guitarist Christian Escoudé does not depends on how much you know about the great poet and songwriter George Brassens. Originally mostly voice-and-guitar songs, Escoudé treats them as standards and arranges them for various sextets. If you know these songs, you´ll appreciate the humor and affection in Escoudé´s versions. But even if you don´t, the pleasures in these well-constructed songs and the unhurried swing and modestly displayed virtuosity of Escoudé and his ensemble (which includes guitarist Birelli Lagrene on one track) need no translation. A delight.

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To read more posts from Fernando Gonzalez and “Jazz With An Accent” click HERE.


Jazz With An Accent: New CDs from Vince Mendoza, David Murray Cuban Ensemble and Sammy Figueroa

October 15, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

Vince Mendoza

Nights of Earth (Horizontal)

Set to a generous, wide-angled perspective, and paced by smart, observant details, Nights on Earth plays like The World According to Vince.

In some ways, it suggests a personal summation of his career thus far: a deep knowledge of American music vernacular and European classical music, with a refined craftsmanship as a composer and arranger to match, now permeated by his encounters with a world of music styles.

And yet for all its stylistic variety Nights on Earth never feels like a sort of musical Whitman’s Sampler. The mix of references, styles and instrumental colors, at times eyebrow-raising, feels organic, one man’s invitation to open our ears to the possibilities.

The opening “Otoño,”  draws obviously from his experiences with flamenco  (check Jazzpaña (ACT, 1993) or El Viento (ACT, 2009) with the Netherland’s Metropole Orchestra of which he is Music Director and Chief conductor), given an improbable twist with a B3 organ. “Ao Mar,” a song co-written with vocalist Luciana Souza, plays on the standard expectations of a bossa nova before unfolding in unpredictable ways. Or, as in “Addio” or “The Night We Met,” Mendoza takes advantage of the bittersweet melancholy of the bandoneón, the button squeezebox that is the quintessential instrument of tango, without ever drifting into any facile references.

Throughout, Mendoza sets singers and soloists with a jeweler’s hand. He’s working here with an exceptional cast, most of them long time friends and collaborators  – including Joe Lovano and Bob Mintzer, sax;  John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Nguyen Le on guitar, Alan Pasqua and Kenny Werner, piano – and knows how to frame them slightly East or West of their comfort zone to elicit a fresher response. And in “Shekere,” a song co-written with Malian kora player singer Tom Diakite, he works the dramatic tension by subtly pacing the call and response between vocalist and group, managing dynamics and orchestral colors.

Nights on Earth shows an artist at a peak of his craft and with a vision to match.

***

David Murray Cuban Ensemble

Plays Nat King Cole En Español (Mótema Music)

The work of singer and pianist Nat “King” Cole, and especially the work of Cole en español, might seem an unlikely subject for saxophonist David Murray. Then again, the one-time firebrand avant-gardist has been steadily evolving, sometimes seemingly in several directions at once, embracing a more classic approach on the horn, and growing, improbably, into a song stylist.   Thematically working on his own growing library of compositions while also exploring Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Gene Ammons and John Coltrane, but also The Grateful Dead, collaborations with master players of the gwo ka percussion and vocal traditions from Guadeloupe, and Latin music.

In David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole En Español, Murray revisits Cole Español (1958) and More Cole Español (1962), part of a trilogy of albums by Cole in Spanish and Portuguese. (The third one is A Mis Amigos, recorded in 1959.)

Featuring a 10 piece group comprised of Cuban musicians and a string ensemble (the Sinfonieta of Sines), and recorded in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Sines, Portugal, Plays Nat King Cole includes nine reinterpretations of covers and one original, “Black Nat,” dedicated to Cole. Rocker-turned-tango-singer Daniel Melingo, a sort of Tom Waits of avant tango and in many ways the vocal opposite of smooth and cool Nat King Cole, contributes in four tracks. Bandoneón master Juan José Mosalini appears in one.

At his best, Murray, in the style of the old masters, doesn´t simply play the melodies here, he sings them on his horn. And if you know the lyrics of these songs, you´ll appreciate some of his choices. In “No Me Platiques,” a bolero he plays to a tart string accompaniment, Murray is positively Websterian as he states the theme before launching into a measured, but questioning solo. He lets Melingo’s ragged reading of the lyrics set the tone in a Caribbean-ized tango “A Media Luz,” before entering on bass clarinet, with an eloquent and smooth response to the singer’s call.

But Murray can be playful, too, as in the up-tempo version of Bobby Capó´s classic “Piel Canela,” or Consuelo Velazquez’s “Cachito.”  Throughout, Murray peppers his playing with some of the vocabulary of his earlier day – bursts of notes in quick runs, wide leaps, and probing the melody from the outer reaches of the instrument.

Murray’s Cuban Ensemble not only contributes a knowing, solid foundation and an easy swing, but also strong soloing – alto saxophonist Roman Filiu on “Cachito,” and tenor Ariel Bringuez on Murray’s “Black Nat.”

David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole En Español is an idiosyncratic take on romance – restless, now tender, now tough, never quite easy, and never less than fascinating.

***

Sammy Figueroa

Urban Nature (Senator)

Sammy Figueroa’s Urban Nture is a substantial, beautifully constructed work that makes its points subtly.  It draws on the Afro-Caribbean Latin Jazz tradition – but adds to it by opening to more diverse sources and treading softly around well worn formulas.

Also, this is Figueroa’s third album as a leader and the second with the same band. He has been leading his own groups since 2002 – flutist Dave Valentin and former Irakere tenor man Carlos Averhoff were early guests.  But for the past five years he has been able to maintain a stable lineup — trumpeter Alex Pope Norris, saxophonist John Michalack, pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Gabriel Vivas and drummer Nomar Negroni. The effort is paying off.

It might strike as an odd compliment, but Urban Nature never sounds like Figueroa’s vehicle.  Here, the music is the story.

Featuring nine original pieces, seven of them by either Monasterios or Vivas, in Urban Nature, Figueroa gets to pay his respects to Mongo Santamaría (on Nicholas Martines’ “Cuco y Olga”) and fly around in the opening “Gulfillo.” But there’s more to this recording than that: pieces such as the updates of standard cha-cha-cha (“Cha Cha Pa’ Ti,” and the title track); the driving, Chick Corea flavored “7th Door to Your Left”; and Monasterio’s elegiac “Zuliana,” based on a Venezuelan folk rhythm.

Throughout, the playing here is at once muscular and nuanced, loose but focused and flavored with touches of humor.

Figueroa has long made a name for himself as a percussionist and sideman (most recently with Sonny Rollins).  Urban Nature might start establishing him as a leader.

To read more posts and columns by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE.


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