Jazz With An Accent: A Conversation with Sammy Figueroa

October 23, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Miami, Florida       

Puerto Rican percussionist Sammy Figueroa is a versatile, resourceful player whose extraordinary career includes performing, recording and touring with a dizzying list of jazz, pop and rock stars and groups, including trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Sonny Rollins (his current employer) and the Brecker Brothers but also David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Ruben Blades, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.

Sammy Figueroa 2In 2001, Figueroa quietly settled in South Florida. He organized a band, when in town he played at places such the defunct Van Dyke on Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach and recorded three albums that garnered him two Grammy nominations. He now also has his own “The Sammy Figueroa Show” every Monday morning on Miami’s WDNA 88.9 FM.  Unassuming and with a puckish sense of humor, Figueroa is also an irrepressible storyteller. He doesn’t just answer questions, once he gets on a roll he playacts entire scenes, bringing to life characters and situations with the timing of a comedian.

Here is a (very) abridged version of a conversation at his Miami Beach place in which he discusses his beginnings in music as a salsa singer, Miles, Dali and his elephant and his latest project, Talisman, a set of original music recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser and a terrific band featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro, pianist Bianca Gismonti and young pandeiro phenom Bernando Aguiar.

Fernando Gonzalez: You have spoken about first hearing jazz when you were 15. What were the circumstances?

Sammy Figueroa: Very simple: I lived an isolated life, I didn’t go out, I didn’t play with other kids, I had a big afro, was very skinny and they used to kick my ass at school. So I stayed home — and discovered jazz. The first record was Clare Fischer and his big band, and I thought it was amazing. Then I heard Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock — and then I heard Miles and I thought “Oh yeah, I’m in.”
Any little money I made doing some horrible gig, I’d spend it on records. I was living with my mom, I wasn’t paying rent. So I locked myself in the room and listen to this stuff until three in the morning. My mother would bang on the door for me to go to bed. After listening to Clare Fischer, Herbie, Chick, all those guys, when The Beatles came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t that impressive.

FG: You were playing percussion at the time?

No, I wasn’t playing at all. I was singing with a quartet. I was doing gigs as a singer in hotels. And then Bobby Valentin, the great salsa bass player, heard me and said “ You sing pretty good. Do you ever sing salsa?’ “Nah, Not really.” “Why don’t you audition for me next week?” So I went home and listened to Joe Cuba and started imitating Cheo Feliciano and went back to Bobby and told him “ OK, I got it.” So he auditioned me. So the band starts playing, I start improvising and he goes “Damn, you are really good!” “Really?” So I joined the band and for five years I was the lead singer for Bobby Valentin. I didn’t play percussion, I was a salsa singer.
The congas came later. While I was with Bobby, Fania [the Motown of salsa] offered me a contract — and my mother went completely crazy. She said “What!? You are not going to do what your father did and blah, blah, blah.” My father was a singer and had died an alcoholic. And I’m glad she did stop me because then I turned to percussion. Nobody would teach me so I started practicing with a broken conga that my neighbor had. I had to learn by myself, invent my own exercises. But I did a little gig with Perico Ortiz, the great trumpeter and arranger, and … I became Perico’s percussionist for four years. He got me into the instrumental thing.

FG: You’ve worked with so many people, pick three artists you liked to work with the most.

On the road I loved working with the Brecker Brothers. I liked working with Miles. It was so much fun. It was so unpredictable. He was out of his mind — but that was what made it interesting to me, and we became very close friends. And, of course, I love Sonny Rollins. He’s unpredictable. I should also mention David Bowie and [Brazilian pianist]Tania Maria. Tania took me places that never, in my wildest dreams I thought I would go.

FG: Can you share a story with Miles Davis?

We could spend days on Miles — he lived in my apartment for almost a year and also almost burned it down cooking, but let me just tell you how we met.
I didn’t know Miles. I only knew him by his records. By the time I joined Miles [in 1980] I was a household name in New York. I had already done 50-something records and I was a well-known studio guy.
So I was in my little apartment in New York, with my then wife, I was already in bed, I had came back from a session late and my phone rings at about 2:15 in the morning. I pick it up and I hear (imitating Miles’s rasp) “Hey man, what’s happenin’ motherf#@^&*” and I go “Click” and hang up. Who calls at that time? I thought he was [trumpeter] Lew Soloff my closest friend. He would be the one to do a stupid thing like that. Then the phone rings again. “Thank you for hanging up mother%$#” and I go “Who is this?!” “It’s Miles Davis” And I say , “Oh yeah, sure, Miles Davis,” and hung up. And then the phone rings again and I hear this other voice [formal] “Is this Sammy Figueroa? This is [Miles’ producer] Teo Macero.” Now my eyes are wide open … “You just hang up on Miles — twice. I’ll take care of him. But if you want the gig get your ass over here. Now!” … So I took a cab to the old Columbia Records studios and I walked in and saw this really black guy, I mean blacker than coal. He’s seating in a chair just looking at me, and I say “Miles, I’m so sorry I didn’t know” and without saying a word, he got up and punched me in the stomach! He punched me so hard that I fell on the floor. I couldn’t breathe. And I’m thinking “I got up at 2:30 in the morning to get punched in the stomach??” So I just reacted and I hit him. I hit him so hard he fell over the piano and I broke his lip. I saw this little thing falling, going over the piano like a crow. And Teo comes out the booth: “What the fuck happened here??!!” I’m looking at Miles and apologizing “I’m sorry Miles,” and he looks at the blood from his lip and says “”Damn, that’s a good right hook mother#@^%” And that was that.

FG: And then there is wah wah pedal incident …

Oh yes, the wah wha pedal. He was going ‘wah wah wah’ with the trumpet and I hated it.  Then Miles has to leave the room and I’m looking at the thing, looking and looking, and Marcus [Miller] looks at me and says “Leave it alone Sammy.” But I was sick of it so I pulled it out to unplug it and because it was so old it broke and the springs came out — so I hid it, I threw it awy. So Miles comes back after 20 minutes and asks “Where’s the wah wah pedal?” and immediately looks at me ”Sammy!” “What are you looking at me for?” And he says “Who else would do such a crazy thing like that. These mother f@#% are nice. You are crazy.” And this is all happening in that first night.
He picked the trumpet and started playing. He didn’t sound good. It wasn’t until 5 in the morning that we kept one track where he sounded really good. That was ‘Man With The Horn.’ The rest of the album we did it over the next four days.

FG: Did you eventually establish a good relationship with Miles?

The best . He called me at my house 15, 20 times a day. Teo [Macero, his producer] would say “Hey I took care of him for 30 years, now it’s your turn. Bam.”
He became a dear friend. He lived in my apartment for about a year.

FG: Any one particular moment you recall?

There was this time when Miles was talking on the phone at the house and he goes “Yeah …yeah … yeah … yeah,” and I’m looking at him like “Who is that?” And he looks at me and shrugs so after 20 minute she hangs up. “Who the fuck was that?” He goes “It’s that mother#@^ Salvador Dali. He calls me every day and I don’t know what he’s saying.” And I go “Wait, that was Salvador Dali?.” That was life with Miles.
Miles painted and Salvador loved him and called him every day. Salvador was crazier than Miles. Crazier. A few weeks later we played Barcelona and he came to the show. … He ended up inviting me to his house and I ended up staying there for the day. The following day he had the opening of an exhibit and [his wife] Gala spent the whole time looking for an elephant, calling every zoo, the circus. And I´m seated there watching all this and thinking “These guys are nuts.’”
They did find the elephant, by the way. So for the opening Dali arrived riding the elephant. He made an incredible entrance. He was the king of self-promoters.

FG: You became a bandleader late in your career. What did you take from the different bandleaders you have worked with?

When I moved to Miami, actually [producer, friend and long time collaborator] Rachel Faro, jazz booker Don Wilner and [jazz producer] Ron Weber put a band together for me and I did my very first gig ever as a leader at the Hollywood Jazz Festival.
Rachel Faro: “It was funny because I had to force him to put his congas center stage,” she says.
Sammy Figueroa: It wasn’t fear, I was used to being onstage it’s just that I was so used to be in the background.
As for leading a group, my way out has always been joking around and having fun. I make them laugh, I make them comfortable  they don’t want to go anywhere. But when you deal with difficult guys, I wasn’t really a leader I was too scared, really. A leader is strong and will fire you in a minute. Like Miles. I didn’t have that.

FG: How did you approach your work in Talisman? This is not a straight up Brazilian record. The grooves are Brazilian, obviously, but one can also hear Puerto Rican bomba, Afro-Uruguayan candombe, mambo rhythms even African grooves. What was the plan?

What I played in Talisman is part Brazilian and part Latin because I didn’t want to interfere with what they guys were doing . We had with us [pandeiro player] Bernardo Aguiar and he’s wonderful. So I wanted the guys to play the authentic stuff and I’d play bomba and plena or a really fast mambos for example — and it worked perfectly. If I had played Brazilian conga, which now I know how to play, it would’ve been too Brazilian. Then it wouldn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do which was to bring the two approaches together. When you are mixing different styles you have to know where and when to put them. Is like a chef. If you put too much condiment you overpower the natural flavor of the food. You need to put the right amount and keep it simple.

EPK Sammy Figueroa and Glaucia Nasser

 


Jazz With An Accent: Drummin’ Back Out Into the World — CDs by Arturo O’Farrill and Ginger Baker

August 6, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra

The Offense of the Drum (Motema)

Maestro Mario Bauzá — trumpeter, saxophonist and music director of Machito and His Afro- Cubans, direct link between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo and a key figure in blending jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms — scoffed at the label Latin Jazz.

“What they call Latin jazz is not Latin jazz. That’s Afro-Cuban jazz,” he would say in his inimitable growl. It wasn’t just that “Latin jazz” blurred the Afro-Cuban contribution. It was also that, for him, Latin jazz suggested a different, more varied mix — incorporating Argentine tangos, Colombian cumbias, Venezuelan joropos or Puerto Rican bomba y plena.  He would then name artists such as Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri or Jorge Dalto as worthy
practitioners.

It was the 1980s and it was a short roll call.  Today, he would’ve had a much longer and broader list.

But Bauzá would have been specially proud of the work of pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, the son of his friend and collaborator, the great Cuban arranger and bandleader Chico O ́Farrill.

For 12 years, sometimes seemingly hidden in plain view, Arturo O ́Farrill has carried on an extraordinary effort, not only organizing and keeping alive an 18-piece big band but doing so while also expanding the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban jazz into a truly Pan-Latin Latin jazz.  By now, the book of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) includes not only some of the great standards of Afro-Cuban jazz but also pieces blending in tangos, choros and Peruvian festejos.  In The Offense of The Drum, O ́Farrill both takes it further out and brings it all home.  With the drums as the foundational center of the music, the ALJO connects diverse traditions  creatively but also rather organically.

So a tribute to the shared spirits and grooves in Havana and New Orleans, a musical dialogue  in “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” flows into a sly Colombian porro groove and  allusions to Colombian papayera band (a type of brass street band) on “Mercado en Domingo.”  But exploring the groove doesn’t preclude a reflective “Gonossiene 3 (Tientos),” which  explodes Erik Satie’s music Arabic elements with a flamenco perspective.

And O’Farrill is neither afraid of collaborations — such as those with pianist Vijay Iyer (the odd  metered “The Mad Hatter”) and DJ Logic (“They Came” which also explores spoken poetry)  — nor having a good time, as with the eminently danceable salsa track, “Alma Vacía,” or the  classic “Iko Iko” – featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, a Big Chief Mardi Gras Indian –  reinvented here as a joyous, bouncing Cuban/New Orleans party groove.

Throughout, the arranging is imaginative, exploring the character of the music and the  instrumental possibilities of the band, while the soloing (especially by O’Farrill and Iyer on  piano, Rafi Malkiel, euphonium and Harrison on sax) is consistently smart and purposeful.  Creative, swinging and open to the world, The Offense of The Drum is Latin jazz at its best.

Offense of the Drum Electronic Press Kit

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Ginger Baker

Why? (Motema)

While lasting only two years, 1966 – 1968, the British trio Cream had an oversized impact in  modern popular music. At different times, Cream has been claimed as ancestor and inspiration  by rock musicians of nearly all stripes, from fusion to heavy metal.

But jazz has more than a fair claim to their legacy too. In fact, one doesn’t need to go back to  their epic version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” in the group’s final Goodbye, to connect the  dots between the jazz tradition and their instrumental virtuosity, their approach to improvisation  and open-ended treatment of the blues. Set aside the pop-rock imagery for a second and think of, say, a saxophone playing the guitar lines and you are closer to an avant-jazz trio than a rock band.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. The two guys working the engine room of Cream, bassist  Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, were educated in, and fans of, jazz. Guitarist Eric Clapton was a different story — and his post-Cream, MOR career is evidence enough. In his autobiography, Bruce seems to suggest that two-thirds of Cream thought of it as a jazz trio adding, jokingly one would hope, that they just wouldn’t tell Clapton about it.

With his new album Why?, his first in 16 years, Baker, 75, seems to be closing the circle, returning once again, in one gesture, to his old loves — jazz (including two appealing trio records in the 90s with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden), African music and, essentially, the trio format (replacing the guitar with a horn and in fact playing without a chordal instrument this time).

Baker’s band these days, Jazz Confusion, features Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Alec Dankworth, bass and Abass Dodoo, percussion, and offers the drummer a smart, strong, no-frills vehicle.  The repertoire in Why? also suggests a bringing-it-all-home feel.

It’s comprised mainly of Baker’s originals, including “Ain Temouchant,” recorded with Frisell and Haden on Going Back Home (1994); “Cyril Davis,” (sic) a tribute to the British harmonica blues player Cyril Davies, and trumpeter Ron Miles’ “Ginger Spice,” both first recorded on Baker’s Coward of the County (1998); and the title track, a meditation on his life and work including a tip of the hat to the late bandleader Graham Bond.

The set also includes “Aiko Biaye,” an update of a Nigerian song Baker recorded in 1970 with Air Force, his short-lived sui generis big band; Ellis’ “Twelve and More Blues,” and a couple of jazz standards, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and the irresistible “St. Thomas,” by Sonny Rollins.  Throughout, Ellis is an economic and tightly focused improviser, even as he takes flight on  tracks such as “St Thomas” and his own “Twelve and More,” remade here with a post-bop
swing. Dankworth is solid and fluid throughout, anchoring the group and providing measured, eloquent soloing.

Baker drives the music forward with his distinct drive and African-tinged tom-tom and hi-hat sound. There it might not be in his playing the relentless, maniacal intensity of his heyday (how could there be?) but Baker’s craftiness and musicality more than makes up for what he might lack at this point in energy. In Why? Baker embraces his past — but don’t expect a warm-and fuzzy nostalgia trip. To quote the title of the terrific Jay Bulger 2012 documentary about him, Beware of Mr. Baker. Yep. And that’s a good thing.

Beware of Mr. Baker

To read more posts, reviews and essays by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE


Jazz With An Accent: CDs by The Dino Saluzzi Group, Carlos Franzetti and Ruben Blades

July 8, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

The Dino Saluzzi Group

El Valle de la Infancia (ECM)

The bandoneón, a button squeezebox, might have been born in Germany as a poor man’s harmonium for religious services, but found its calling, and reached global recognition, in tango, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, half a world away. But bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi was born in a dusty small town in Salta, in Argentina’s Northwest, not the big city; and he first heard the bandoneón in folk music not tango. Naturally, and especially early in his career, in the late 60s’early 70s, Saluzzi brought the instrument to his folk music projects. And even as he later earned his tango credentials playing in classic tango orchestras in Buenos Aires, his approach to the bandoneón has always had a distinct, personal accent.

In his own music, Saluzzi has long since developed a style in which he has blurred the lines between European classical music and jazz — with a tango and folk tinge.

Dino Saluzzi CD InfancyOn El Valle de la Infancia (The Valley of My Childhood), Saluzzi, 79, comes full circle, taking stock on his musical history through the filter of the styles that have since marked him.

As it probably couldn’t have been otherwise, El Valle de la Infancia is a family affair. His sextet includes his brother Félix on sax, his son José María on guitar and his nephew Matías on bass. (Nicolás “Colacho” Brizuela, guitar; and Quintino Cinalli, drums and percussion complete the group.)

Both as a composer and improviser, Saluzzi has a particular way of setting and telling his stories. He establishes the mood with a few bold strokes, and then, more often than not, lets the themes emerge, digressing unhurriedly, adding a point here, a change-of-pace detail there as the tale unfolds.

“La Polvareda” wanders off from a near religious mood into a festive folk tune and out again. “A Mi Padre y a Mi Hijo” turns unexpectedly into a modern tango that suggests a salute to Astor Piazzolla before dissolving and reappearing as an old-style milonga. The music is not necessarily thru-composed but, for the most part eschews the standard forms. In fact, except for four of the 16 tracks, Saluzzi sets the program as a collection of suites. The connecting thread might not always sound obvious at first listening. In “Pueblo” the three pieces are each from a different composer — and he is none of them. And Saluzzi not only invokes certain traditional folk rhythms (such as in “Charqui” which draws from the folk music of Argentina’s Northwest) but also includes songs by master folk composers such as Atahualpa Yupanqui and Ariel Ramirez.

El Valle de la Infancia suggests the work of a master in winter, still looking ahead as he glances back.

Carlos Franzetti

In The Key of Tango (Sunnyside)

Argentine-born pianist, composer and arranger Carlos Franzetti’s career defies easy labels. He has recorded jazz, tango and pop, has written chamber and symphonic music, operas and film scores, collaborated with jazz musicians, pop artists and rockers. Two recent projects, In The Key of Tango and Panamanian singer and songwriter Rubén Blades´Tangos, brings him back to his musical roots and the results are impressive.

Carlos Franzettk Key of TangoOn In The Key of Tango, a solo piano outing, Franzetti revisits a repertory of classics, including Carlos Gardel’s “Soledad,” Virgilio Expósito’s “Naranjo en Flor” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino,” as well as his own “Tango Fatal,” the title piece form his 2000 ballet.

It might sound like a simple, even natural task. But being bilingual means, inevitably, to lose some of the turns, nuances and accents of the original language. That, remarkably, is not the case here.

Old school jazz players talk about the need to know the lyrics to properly play and improvise over a song. On In The Key of Tango one can almost hear Franzetti singing along, coming to the precise pause, adding a baroque touch of flair, playing on the drama of certain phrase, speeding up and slowing down like a good club dancer. And he brings to his interpretations not only his substantial technique as a player but an arranger´s ear — now staying simple and direct, now being melodramatic, now suggesting orchestral accents (Orquesta típica accents) as needed.

In The Key of Tango is not only a terrific addition to Franzetti´s discography but it makes for a smart entry point to the classic tango repertoire.

Ruben Blades

Tangos (Sunnyside)

Ruben Bades TangosRecorded in Buenos Aires and New Jersey and featuring the great bandoneón master Leopoldo Federico and his orchestra, a United States-based sextet and The City of Prague Symphony Orchestra, Rubén Blades´ Tangos is a very different tango project.

Here the repertoire is comprised  by Blades´s salsa classics such as “Paula C,” “Pablo Pueblo,” and “Pedro Najava,” and the challenge, for both, singer and arranger, was to re-create them as tangos.

Set with a jeweler’s touch by Franzetti’s arranging, Blades’ singing, for the most part, works. No, he doesn’t have a tango voice nor the phrasing. But, bringing to bear his experience as an actor, Blades sings with flair, trusts the words (and why not? He is one of the prime storytellers in Afro-Caribbean music) and doles out the drama judiciously.

For the most part, Franzetti sets the songs in a neo traditional tango orchestra style and it works — and his re-imagining “Pedro Navaja” and “Adán García” as sui-generi milongas works particularly well.
Probably not for tango purists, but a contribution to the genre nonetheless.

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

 


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.


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