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.


Live Music: Queen Latifah and Roy Ayers at the Hollywood Bowl.

July 11, 2013

By Don Heckman

Maybe the drops of rain that were scattering across the seats at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night should have been a warning.  Not that we were going to be driven away by a rare July thunderstorm.  No.  Although a few sprinkles persisted, there was no significant rainfall.

But there was a program coming on stage under the heading of the Bowl’s first jazz event for the 2013 season.  And the featured artists – soul, funk and r & b vibraphonist Roy Ayers and pop, rap, film and television star Queen Latifah – seemed almost as unlikely on a jazz program as a sprinkling of rain at the Bowl.

Roy Ayers

Roy Ayers

That’s not to say one couldn’t make a case for Ayers as a jazz artist.  With a career reaching back to the early ‘70s, he established himself as a convincing post-bop improviser who was musically receptive to the many new ideas reaching from funk and rap to house music and acid jazz.

On his Wednesday night Bowl appearance, he touched on most of those areas, doing so with high spirits and a string of powerful rhythmic grooves.  His 40 minute set included such familiar Ayers tunes as “No Strangers To Love,” “Runnin’ Away” and “Evolution.”  In total, however, his presentation appropriately set the stage for Latifah with an entertaining musical attitude that came far closer to instrumental pop than it was to jazz.

Queen Latifah’s approach was musically broader, despite the almost complete emphasis upon her singing.  Early in her program, she identified her presence on a jazz program as another one of the “crazy things I’ve decided to try.”  But, to her credit, she chose not to emphasize her modest jazz skills, instead presenting a menu of songs embracing rap, blues, pop and more.

Queen Latifa

Queen Latifa

Latifah was at her best when she kept it simple, with familiar songs such as Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You,” Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man,”  Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Quiet Nights” (“Corcovado”), Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and Johnny Mercer’s “Travelin’ Light.”

And, interestingly, the most appealing moments in her set took place at its end, when she was joined by the delightfully enthusiastic backing of the Soul Children of Chicago in an energetic romp through “I Know Where I’ve Been” (from Hairspray).

Did the presence of Latifah and Ayers as the headliners on the Bowl’s opening jazz program make sense?  Only in the quest to fill as many of the Bowl’s seats as possible.  But the jazz world in general, and Los Angeles specifically, are overflowing with gifted jazz artists.  Including some who have the potential to sell as many tickets as Latifah and Ayers did.

And even if they don’t, one can only hope that the L.A. Phil’s future jazz programming decisions will aim to provide the same musical authenticity that is an essential aspect of the classical music programs.

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Photos by Faith Frenz. 


Record Rack: Robin Bessier, Eliane Elias (and a few words for Boones the Cat)

June 14, 2013

Two Songbirds and the American Songbook

 By Brian Arsenault

The so-called American Songbook doesn’t get old.  It gets better.  Because artists of the day keep reinterpreting and expanding it.  The branches of the tree grow gracefully and the songbirds perch higher.

Robin Bessier

other side of forever (Whispering River)

In  On the Road,  Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac in thin disguise) walks outside in the early evening at a small Mexican village and says he feels “the softest air” he ever felt. I think I just heard it.

I succumbed to that soft air on the second song on Robin Bessier’s album other side of forever. And actually heard what soft feels like when she sang Bobby McFerrin’s “Jubilee.”

The song alone is justification for the album with its alternating trumpet and soprano sax, both by Jay Thomas, I think (nice trick). There’s also a little Manhattan Transfer sound on the chorus.  But mostly, there is Bessier’s warm, enticing voice.

A delight.

And daring.  She does both “God Bless the Child” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”  We’re talking Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington here, folks, so the standard is very high.  Add to that the technical difficulties of “Prelude to a Kiss” wherein a singer can just get lost. But not Bessier.

Later, she heats it up on “Too Nice” by producer Barney McClure, then cools down to a “Whisper” on the next track. She swings the great 1930s jazz composition “The Very Thought of You.”  Really swings it.

Bessier takes us out of the album with the title song, also written by McClure and you might play it again so you won‘t have to let it go.

How to characterize this remarkable tune?  Think of the most beautiful song you have ever heard in a Broadway show; the one that ties it all together, that touches the heart, that causes a pause, a moment of pure silence before the thunderous applause.  I wouldn’t want to take away from your first hearing of it by saying more.

After a promising career start, Robin Bessier had to deal with some life stuff that perhaps held back recognition of her great gifts and limited her time for music.  But now she’s back and she sings about it on “Right Here, Right Now.” That’s right.  Here and now and very, very good.

Eliane Elias

 I Thought About You — A Tribute to Chet Baker (Concord Music Group)

So you are a leading Bossa Nova singer.  Can you also do all those jazz classics associated with Chet Baker?

If you are Eliane Elias, you can. With voice and piano.  So how and why does someone get to be a terrific jazz singer and top shelf piano player?  I don’t know.  I just listen and count myself lucky.

Because on this album, Elias isn’t just paying homage to Baker, she’s covering the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers and Hoagy Carmichael.  Among others.

The first five or six songs are like an American classic Master Class.

The title song, “There Will Never Be Another You,” “This Can’t Be Love,” “Embraceable You,” “That Old Feeling” . . . I’m almost out of breath and I’m just typing.  (You can still say “typing” can’t you?  “I’m word processing” sounds so wrong to my ear.)

Is there a lovelier song than the Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”?  If you have any doubts, you won’t be after you hear Elias’ version.

“There Will Never Be Another You” is so damn good because you can hear the bossa nova that is her as well as the jazz.  You hear them both and know that they are so closely related, cousins from different but attached hemispheres.  And when Randy Brecker’s trumpet comes in . . . just great.

The album never lets up and finishes with two of the album’s strongest:

* A quick-step paced “Just In Time” — usually done by a laid-back Sinatra at his most laid back pace — which features Elias’ husband Marc Johnson’s bass, her piano and her voice. Just the two of them in a kinda delightful musical quickie.

* Hoagy Carmichael’s plaintive, ironic “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”  I don’t know that it’s ever been treated better, almost whispered in places.  Like the best bossa nova songs and singers, there’s a depth of emotion here unrivaled elsewhere.  A heart can break in two.

Throughout the album, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s Elias on piano as well as singing so great.  That could be gender bias on my part, hard to shake that off completely in a single lifetime.  Or it could be the feeling that you just shouldn’t be so damn good at both.

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 Go Softly Into That Dark Earth

Boones the Cat left today.  We’ll bury her under a tree in the yard and be a little the less for it.  She was my surest barometer of a good album.  If she came in to listen, I knew the work was fine.  If my reviews aren’t quite so sharp from now on it’s because I’ve lost her.  She was 17 so we have no complaint.  Not that a complaint would make a damn bit of difference.

Bye, Boones

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


Live Music: Michael Feinstein at the Valley Performing Arts Center

May 13, 2013

By Don Heckman

Northridge, CA. One of the first times (and there were many) that I reviewed a Michael Feinstein performance was in 1991 for the Los Angeles Times. I described him then as a “reincarnation of a classic movie juvenile lead. Slicked-back Dick Powell hair, flashing Russ Columbo eyes, a smile that would charm the Sphinx.”

Twenty two years later, Feinstein – now 56 – could still come pretty close to that image of the movie juvenile lead. When he strolled on stage Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center, slender and full of vitality, his warm smile gleaming, he was still as dynamic and vital as he was two decades ago.

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

In the interim, of course, Feinstein has thoroughly established himself as one of the prime devoted caretakers of American popular song. His archivist’s dedication to preserving the classic works of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, Mercer and so many others has continued to grow over the years. And, equally important, he has personally taken on the challenge of keeping those works alive in performance.

Feinstein has always been a fine singer/pianist, the high quality of his abilities apparent even in his early, cabaret performances in the ’80s at the Cinegrill. But his appearance at VPAC was the work of a mature, masterful performing artist. Far more than simply singing the classics from the Great American Songbook, Feinstein was as informative as he was entertaining.

Each song was introduced with background information about the composer and/or lyricist, often with whimsical stories about the circumstances behind the creation of the song. Many of Feinstein’s comments traced to his personal associations with the songwriters. One example: his long term friendship with Ira Gershwin, tracing to a period when he worked as Gershwin’s personal assistant. That connection was the starting point for Feinstein’s recently published book, The Gershwins and Me (Simon & Schuster).

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

Celebrating his Gershwin linkage, he sang a superb medley of Gershwin songs – including “Of Thee I Sing,” “S’Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

The rest of the program was a banquet of musical goodies. Since it was May 11, Irving Berlin’s birthday, Feinstein did a marvelously hard-swinging “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” On “Hello, Dolly” he offered a loving simulation of Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice, recalling one of the song’s most unique interpretations. On “Fly Me To The Moon,” he referred to the desire of Bart Howard, the songwriter, to hear it in his original conception of it as a waltz, rather than the rhythmically upbeat version by Frank Sinatra. And Feinstein, with the aid of guitarist Jim Fox, found the deep, lyrical center of the tune. He chose to cast “The Way You Look Tonight” as a bossa nova, and recalled Sammy Davis, Jr. with an atmospheric rendering of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”

There was much more. Songs such as “Shall We Dance” (sung with the verse), “Put On A Happy Face,” “Just One Of Those Things” and “At Long Last Love,” among others.  All of it brilliantly arranged by pianist/music director Sam Kriger.

It was, in other words, a delightful musical evening on all counts. And it was topped off with the additional good news that Feinstein will be spending more performance time in the Southland in coming months. He has been appointed Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena POPS, replacing the late Marvin Hamlisch. Feinstein’s first program with the Pops takes place on June 1.

Get your tickets now. Click HERE for information.


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.  


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