Record Rack: Halie Loren and Will Lee

September 2, 2013

Of One I Expected to Simply Love

And One I Didn’t Expect to Like So Much

By Brian Arsenault

Halie Loren

Simply Love (Just In Time Records)

On the opening classic tune on Simply Love, “For Sentimental Reasons,” Halie Loren sings the line about “giving you my heart.” It seems to me she always does that for her audience.

An artist giving her heart to her fans can be dangerous, as Judy Garland was to learn. But hey, she’s young and strong and we can use the warmth.

The warmth and the freshness are there no matter the age of the song Halie’s singing. “L-O-V-E” is right in her wheelhouse as is 1931’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” sung largely in French where her phrasing is as impeccable as she is en Anglais. Her take on these and other greats from the American Songbook is just right. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” you’ll smile, really, you will. “My Funny Valentine” touches the heart. Halie goes to the very heart of the song about having to look deeper for the good stuff. Like always.

She can’t save “Moon River”, it’s just too sappy, but hey it’s the only real imperfection on the album.

She’s just as good moving up the decades:

You might wonder could anyone else do Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move?” With all due respect to the great Carole, Halie’s is more sensual, dare I say sexier, more evocative. The earth does move.

As it does on “I’ve Got To See You Again,” a tango version which knows what the tango is really about — dangerous attraction.

And somehow Halie makes the Turtles teen pop tune “Happy Together” into a fine little jazz tune. Drummer Brian West really shines here.

Mentioning West’s solid contribution brings me to some thoughts about Halie’s longtime band. They are always fine but sometimes I think Halie Loren could maybe be a bit edgier and working with some other musicians as the core group might help. Having said that, Mark Treder’s piano almost always balances her vocals perfectly, as on “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “L-O-V-E.” Treder also arranges the strings heard in places on the album. I’m not always a big fan of strings with jazz singers but the cello work by Dale Bradley on three songs is very satisfying.

The PR sheet which came with the album quotes Jazz Times as writing that Halie is “. . . the next big thing among jazz vocalists.” How can an artist based in Eugene, Oregon, not LA or New York, be “the next big thing?” That would be like the most popular writer in the world being based in Bangor, Maine. Oh wait. . .

Will Lee

Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions (Sinning Saint Ltd)

There’s depth to this guy Will Lee. There’s range too. Oh yeah, and a great collection of musicians from his manic musical life. (A bit about that later.)

I don’t want to get away from the music, though, because Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions is a great blending of rock to pop to jazz to a closing with a bass guitar version of Chaplin’s “Smile.” Surprised? It works. It all works.

I mean early on bring in Billy Gibbons from ZZ to sing duo and play lead guitar to Lee’s vocal and bass on the Allen Toussaint nasty dump the girl anthem, “Get Out of My Life Woman.” Oh yeah, Toussaint plays too.

Give us a rocking anti-war song, “Shahara,” that rings true, legit, because this time it’s told from the perspective of the soldier who finally says, screw it, this doesn’t work. Embellish it appropriately with rhythms of the Middle East, toss in some Sting-like changes and call down some angels (one at least,, Tabitha Fair).

Provide a remarkable remake of mid-60s pop hit “1, 2, 3” and sing a charming duet with Akiko Yano. Are you old enough to remember this song? If not or even if you are, this version is better.

Surprise with a neat jazzy tune with just a touch of Todd Rundgren, “Fooled Him,” about love’s ability to make a fool on both sides. Chuck Loeb’s guitar work adds to the jazz feel here and elsewhere.

Play the poetry of Miss Understanding wherein the lady central to the song has for luggage:

“Old issues and a trunk full of pain,

One suitcase loaded with shame.

One carry-on was carrying hurt

The smallest little pocket held hope.

Users and losers vie for dominance.”

Give us a melodic bass lead on the instrumental “Papounet’s Ride” with Narada Michael Walden going nuts on drums. Maybe this is the place for a word about the drumming on this album. It’s insane.

A different drummer on nearly every track — all terrific, all in tune with Lee’s sterling bass playing. Zach Danziger perhaps leads the way with his work on “Shahara” but there’s not a weak percussion moment throughout.

Still, the drumming is no more manic than Lee’s role in the world of American music. He’s the house bass player for David Letterman, has been for three decades at two different networks. (Paul Shaffer is on the album’s first song.)

He also tours with the Beatles tribute band Fab Faux. The album was “Recorded mostly at The Beatles Museum NYC.” Add to that recording credits with a list of luminaries longer than this review and you get the picture.

It’s been 20 years since Lee scraped together enough time to do his own album as the leader of the band. Hope it won’t be another 20 before the next one.

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


Q&A: Gregory Porter at the Playboy Jazz Festival

June 6, 2013

By Devon Wendell

On Saturday, June 15, Gregory Porter will be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl. The trailblazing jazz vocalist and songwriter has become one of the most important male jazz singers to come along in decades since the release of his debut album Water (Motema) in 2010, which was nominated for best jazz vocal album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards.  His sophomore album Be Good (Motema) (released in 2012) earned him a Grammy nomination for best traditional R&B performance last year.

We recently discussed Porter’s rapidly growing career.

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 Devon Wendell: Tell me how it feels to be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year?

Gregory Porter: Very exciting, I’m honored.  I went to see Joao Gilberto at The Hollywood Bowl many years ago and I thought, “Wow, this place is big with such a grand stage!” I remember wondering if I’d ever make it to a place like this one day.  And now I’m going to be there at the Playboy Festival!

DW: That’s really something.  And in addition to that, you were recently signed to Blue Note Records, one of the great historical jazz labels. How does that feel?

GP:  Pretty amazing. I got more congratulations from my friends on Facebook than I did for my Grammy nominations. (laughter) The importance of that record label to black American music history is incredible. The documentation, style, and record cover design. And the most encouraging thing about Blue Note is that they told me to stay doing what I’m doing.

DW: Let me congratulate you as well.

GP: Thank you.

DW:  Who are some of the jazz musicians who inspired you when you were growing up and what was your first introduction to the world of jazz?

GP: Well the first artist who spoke to me in an emotional way was Nat “King” Cole.  The music was extraordinary and my mother used to say “Boy you sound like Nat ‘King’ Cole!” (Laughter)  Plus Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s recording together, Joe Williams, Leon Thomas, Andy Bey, Carmen McRae. But I’ve been inspired by so many artists, jazz and not: Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, A lot of soul and gospel because that’s what was around a lot when I was a kid in both L.A. and Bakersfield and my mother was a minister.  The preachers I grew up around really impacted me.  Minister Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly and Pastor Richardson sang like Sam Cooke.  Elder Duffy had an almost James Brown style (Laughter) Growing up in Bakersfield, Black people moved there from The South because of the agriculture, working in the fields and so on. That generation had songs that they brought with them so when we convened in church, we sang this old music, country, gospel, blues. It was not sophisticated, not new, not mass choir, just hands clapping and (Singing) Bless that wonderful name of Jesus.  The gospel blues.

DW: Did you appreciate what it was all about then?

GP: No. I didn’t appreciate that sound at the time because I thought, “Oh, I’m around these old people singing these old songs,” and “It’s hot in church, I’d rather be out playing with my friends.”  But at the same time, it’s the basis of where I come from when I go to that spiritual place in things like “Work Song,” and “1960 What?” I blur the lines between gospel, soul, and jazz. It’s all given me license to have a more soulful expression in jazz.

DW: You’re such a powerful and imagistic songwriter. Tell me about your songwriting process. Let me ask you the old question: Do you come up with the lyrics or melody first?

GP:  The melody and the lyrics come together and the bass line and rhythm follow shortly. It may sound strange but maybe they’re working themselves out in my subconscious mind before they come to my full attention. When I wrote “Be Good,” (Singing) She said lions are made for cages to look at in delight. That just came to me just like I’m singing to you. I don’t spend a lot of time reworking something I’ve written initially based on something I felt. Sometimes it just comes to me and feels right.

DW: Musically and philosophically speaking, tell me about the differences between your debut album Water and the latest album, Be Good.

GP: I think they’re extensions of each other. Be Good is as much about love, protest and songs about culture and family as Water is with its mentioning of Harlem and “Real Good Hands.” There’s more family and love stories in Be Good.  If I look at both as self analysis, the themes reappear, the vulnerability. The man that’s singing “Illusions” is also the person who is singing “Hey Laura.” But the protest in Be Good is more subtle. It’s a conversation that comes out of neighborhoods that feel squeezed by gentrification, the people that were there unable to afford the rent now because it’s the new hot property.  Love is really what I’m trying to get across in the music in all of its forms. I’m trying to talk about the full spectrum of the human experience.

DW: You grew up in California but currently live in Brooklyn. How has the energy in New York influenced your songwriting in comparison to California?

GP: In New York, the streets outside of the people’s homes are extensions of their living rooms. If I walk to my coffee shop, I’m saying “Hi” to 20 people who feel like they have some ownership in the neighborhood. The thought of family and neighborhood comes together between my house, the coffee shop, and the few blocks near where I live in New York. Watching people’s lives and their ups and downs has had a profound affect on my writing.  On the other hand, California’s great, the air’s fresh and sweet, there’s space between houses.  But there’s something about hearing somebody next door arguing about a check that bounced. (Laughter)

DW: Which compositions of yours best reflect your own life experiences and personality?

GP:  There’s a song on the upcoming album called “When Love Was King.”  Some of the lyrics are: “When love was king, he lifted up the underneath and all is well he did bequeath. To all those who toil without a gain so they would remember his reign. The hungry children first he think to pull their lives from the brink. Beside him stood his mighty queen of equal force, wise and keen.” In these themes, I mention feeding hungry children, gender equality, and eradicating poverty. The idea is not to write a political song to beat people over the head with, it’s to lay it down for them to agree with or not. There’s one song on my upcoming album that I don’t agree with. But I’m singing it.   “Water” is one that reflects me, the redeeming and regenerating qualities of it fascinate me. That theme comes up on all of my albums.

DW: Songs of yours, such as “1960 What?” and “On My Way To Harlem,” paint a clear and educational picture of African American history, culture and experience.  Was it your intention, when you were writing the songs, to educate listeners of other cultures?

GP:  Yes, If it’s a curiosity that wells up in me, then I assume that someone else may want to feel that energy too.  The whole world has been supplied by the art, writing, and political thought that’s come out of Harlem, so I felt a connection and ownership to it even when I was a little boy. Like films on The West Coast, or the great songwriting that comes out of Memphis or Nashville, Harlem is a special place. If we don’t preserve and protect the things that create energy, the world will be worse for it.

DW: Lyrically, you’re also one of the best storytellers to come along in music in a long time. Tell me about some lyricists and writers in general who have impacted you as a songwriter.

GP: I realized when I started to write that the more personally you write, the more universal it can be. We all have those direct stories that make us human, then more humans get it. (Laughter)  I was thinking of an album Jobim recorded where he’s singing with his grandchildren and he’s singing in the words that his grandchildren would sing. I read the beautiful lyrics of Milton Nascimento. And as far as the American book of standards is concerned, it’s just genius after genius.

DW: You’re labeled as being a “jazz vocalist.”  Are you content with that label or do you find it limits your ability to reach a broader audience?

GP: No. I’m a jazz singer for sure. I even felt like that when I was primarily singing gospel. I would always deviate from the melodies and look for other harmonies to play around with while I’m singing songs that had been in the canon of gospel music for a hundred years.  So I’m a jazz singer formed by gospel, blues, soul music, and anything else I want to add. That’s truly the tradition of the music.

DW: Can you mention some examples?

GP:  Sure. The purest of jazz vocals for me: Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, all extended the bounds to include other genres of music. And it’s not a slight to say that my style has also been influenced by classic ‘70s R&B. If you hear a piece of Donny Hathaway in me, good, God almighty!

DW: Sounds great.  Thank you so much Gregory, for your time and wisdom.  I’ll see you at The Bowl.

GP: Thank you, looking forward to it.

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


Brian Arsenault Takes On: The Melodic Caring Project

April 1, 2013

 And So Should You

By Brian Arsenault

An 8-year old is headed for her 29th surgery in a few days.  That’s 29th surgery, I said.  Eight years old. Doesn’t that just piss you off, make you want to throw something, yell and scream and wish you could do something for her and all the bald little kids on children’s wards hauling around their IV posts or lying in bed because they can’t do much else?

Well, you can, especially if you think music is about the best thing in the world next to healthy, laughing kids.

There’s this outfit in Seattle called the Melodic Caring Project (MCP) which works with some other angels to stream live concerts right into kids’ hospital rooms.  For free.  Personalized for them.  With side by messages from friends and relatives.

Imagine you’re nine with chemo scheduled for the morning but you and Mom and Dad can watch a live concert and hear your name called out by the band and several thousand people cheer. Think it might help? Damn right.

Musician Levi Ware and his wife Stephanie received a higher calling about two years ago and started MCP, and in concert with other organizations (read angels) — more about them later – they have streamed concerts to kids all over the country and all over the world.

Any band touring through Seattle can have its show streamed.  Soon there’ll be a second hub in Nashville and another in Los Angeles.  New York will follow.

Calling all bands: all you have to do is let MCP know you’d make a show available. They’ll do the rest. That’s where the music industry comes in.

Where regular folks like you and me come in is that we can send a donation.  If you’d like to do that, just go to Melodic Caring Project.  If you’d like a concert streamed to a kid you love, go to the same place and fill out a patient submission form. Or call (425) 346-4246 to get started.

As previously noted, there are other angels involved.  Melodic Caring Project has partnered with Starlight Children’s Foundation to send live music to their global network of hospitals and kids. They have also partnered with Seattle Living Room Shows who book shows that make the kids feel right at home, and with Seattle Theatre Group who own and operate the three major theaters in town (Paramount, Moore and Neptune). Upstream provides the streaming platform for the kids to tune in.

The key founders and organizations may be Seattle or northwest based but their reach is global.

“There are no limits to this except the resources available,” Levi says. “We are reaching kids all over the place and want to reach more.”

Each show is streamed to the hospital room of a maximum of nine kids so they can be kept personalized for each child. So that each kid can feel special. Because each kid is special.

Levi says his own music performances have been “back burnered” because of the needs of MCP.  If he could give up some career, maybe you could give up a little cash or time or help spread the world. I’m hoping that music writers all over the place will give this a ton of visibility.  You got anything more important to do?  I don’t.

On June 14, MCP will be hosting its first annual fund raising gala with top notch Seattle area up and coming bands.  Tracks from the artists will be available on a compilation MCP will release to extend the concert’s fund raising potential.    I’ll let you know when you can buy one.  How hard is that? I just know you want to help. But you don’t have to wait until then.

As we leave behind Easter weekend and Passover week and as we see the first signs of Spring, think about the kids in all those children’s hospital wings.  I don’t have the courage it takes to work there.  Most of us don’t.  Very, very special nurses, doctors and others do.

Still, we can make a little difference. We lovers of music know its power, its strength, its curative value.  Really look at the photos.  Watch the video here and the one on the site. Then do what you can.

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


An Appreciation: Hugh McCracken — A Fond Remembrance

March 29, 2013

By Devon Wendell

I was saddened when I learned that Hugh McCracken passed away of leukemia yesterday – March 28th, 2013 – in New York City.

While working at Donald Fagen’s recording studio in New York in the 90s, I was constantly surrounded by the top session musicians of the world on a constant basis, especially during a Steely Dan recording project. Some of these titans included: Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Paul Griffin, The Brecker Brothers, and Hugh McCracken. I was absolutely terrified and intimidated by just about all of them with the exception of McCracken. He didn’t have the ultra-cool, funky, macho boastfulness that Purdie and some of the others had that could make a wannabe, geeky musician and engineer like myself feel like the most un-hip person in the world.

Hugh McCracken

McCracken was very approachable and generous with his musical abilities. I wanted to meet him the most because I was not only a budding guitarist, but also a blues fanatic and I knew that McCracken played the original guitar rhythm track on B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” which is one of the most original and tasteful guitar parts ever recorded.

During down time, I’d be in the live room of the studio rapping cable or taking down microphones while McCracken would be laying down some sweet bluesy licks and chords, alone on a chair in the corner. He had a relaxed, pensive look on his face.

I was very young and played in an overly, flashy manner, not trusting in the economical power of the blues. Larry Carlton had donated a Gibson semi-hollobody guitar to the studio that I used to play all the time. On a few occasions, I’d talk to McCracken and show him some fast blues runs that I had learned. He’d look at me without judgment and say, “Well, try it this way,” while cutting everything I had shown him into a half or more. It made what I was playing sound sloppy and rushed. He knew exactly how to get right to the point with a few perfectly placed notes and with the right tone.

He taught me that you couldn’t always play like Godzilla behind a good singer or in a larger orchestral sound. All I thought about before then was the guitar solo and putting my stamp on everything too loud and too fast. Can you imagine if McCracken had tried to play like Buddy Guy or Hendrix on Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen?”

McCracken also changed my perception of playing the guitar with other artists in the studio. He made it work throughout his entire career with everyone from The Funatics in his youth in New Jersey, to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, James Taylor, John Lennon, The Four Seasons, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Aretha Franklin, and countless others as a primarily New York based player.

So many guitarists today could learn from MCracken’s example of not tossing out your entire technique within the first four bars and really complimenting a song in a extremely imaginative and funky fashion. I wouldn’t be a session player without having heard McCracken’s timeless guitar playing. He will be deeply missed.

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


Live Jazz: Michael Feinberg at The Blue Whale

January 22, 2013

By Cathy Segal-Garcia

Los Angeles. Michal Feinberg, writes All About Jazz,  “is a vibrant young bassist/composer whose voice conveys a distinct musical vision, (he) continues to bring fresh ideas to life with music that incorporates jazz, hip hop, and rock, as well as influences from his Middle Eastern and Eastern European heritage.”

At this time Michael is 25 years old, living on the east coast.  Already having played for years with such fine jazz musicians as Slide Hampton, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lee Ritenour, Kenny Werner and many others, he is making his way via recording, touring, teaching, garnering attention from magazines and receiving awards.

Michael Feinberg

Michael Feinberg

Last Friday, in Michael’s second visit from New York to perform at L.A.’s Blue Whale, the Feinberg band’s first set found him playing with Louis Cole on drums, Miro Sprague on piano and Phillip Dizack on trumpet.  Guitarist Brent Canter (new on the L.A. scene, but already making inroads) was invited to come up to play at the end of the set.

They opened with a Branford Marsalis song — “Black Widow Blues.”  Having not heard the piece before, I’m not sure how it sounds when Branford does it, but this version was fun.  Louis Cole was playing the sort of intriguing beat that is right up his alley — funky but with a straight 16th notes feeling, and so creative.  Michael on (electric) bass, laid down a groove that drove the music on, with energetic matching and counter-rhythms.  And the theme was played between solos from everyone, with lots of shifting dynamics and full-on volume when they were building excitement.

Each player played well in this format, never crowding each other or the music, but playing full out.

Miro Sprague

Miro Sprague

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Pianist Sprague, currently at the Thelonius Monk Institute, has numerous impressive accomplishments in his resume, touring/teaching/recording with some fine artists.  And no wonder.  This young man’s touch on the piano has sensitivity, space, and interesting harmonic perspectives.

Phillip Dizack

Phillip Dizack

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Trumpeter Dizack has received sparkling reviews, filled with comments such as “potent,” “guts” and “grand vision.”  And he was indeed amazing to listen to — clear minded, with beautiful technique and great ideas.

Louis Cole

Louis Cole

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Drummer Cole attended USC, and grew up in a musical family.  I’ve seen/heard him several times, always intrigued by his combination of pop styles with jazz rhythms. Much of the music now played by younger jazz-oriented musicians such as Cole is great for fans of newer styles, and especially for younger listeners. It’s edgy at times, the volume is often louder, and it’s intense.  But it sustains the basic improvisational nature of jazz, while being completely in the here and now.

The Blue Whale is only three years old, but has already proven itself in many substantial ways.  The owner, Joon Lee, has been featured on NPR.  On New Year’s Eve 2011/2012 NPR did a broadcast from the club featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater.  And the highest quality musicians, from literally all over the world, are seeking out the Blue Whale as a desirable place to play. The environment is creative, and the room feels warm and intimate, great for acoustic playing and close listening.  There is no stage, with bands usually setting up at the end of the room.  Seating is mostly ottomans, with some chairs if a body needs one.  There’s good lighting and excellent sound.

On the angled ceiling, several Rumi quotes speak to the higher callings of ourselves, regarding music…

“I should sell my tongue and buy a thousand ears when that one steps near and begins to speak.”

To read more about Cathy Segal-Garcia on her own website, click HERE.


Short Takes: Of Poetry and Mortality and Angel Pirates

August 18, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

OK, OK, I know this first take isn’t really short but Long deserves some attention:

Losing My Brotherhood: A collection of poems by Bobby Long  (Music Publishing LTD)

Bobby Long

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I don’t know singer-songwriter Bobby Long’s music so I come to his poetry fresh. Fresh like the poetry itself in Losing My Brotherhood, crisp as fall mornings, snapping like a brisk breeze in the trees.

The images range from the stark from “On a Bad Day“:

          “I’m a lone diner, a friend without friends . . .”

To the softly romantic as in “On a Good Day“:

          “A flowered dress can never lead to unhappiness. . .”

Still, perhaps one should first ask the question as to whether there can be poetry at all in the age of witless tweets and e-mail catch phrases and abbreviations.  OMG, we all know them by heart by now so I won’t list more of them here.  Do we have time and tolerance for carefully crafted images?

Pray that we do. Long gives us some hope.  At least he knows how to break a contemporary rule or two. Consider also from “On a Good Day“:

             “Coffee and cigarettes lead me to happiness. . .”

Can you still write that? Isn’t cigarette smoking effectively illegal in New York (Long’s a transplanted Londoner) along with big sodas?  Won’t coffee soon be a banned substance along with the white sugar some still use in it?

Oh the horror. Oh the humanity.  Oh well, as Long notes later:

“Manhattan and Berlin are both slowly falling.”

Humanity, humanness is the essence of Long’s poetry.  With poetry, it always should be.

From “A Man for the People‘:

“Maybe I need my father and the whim of a pretty girl’s hair

as it’s all misty and bitter today,

out in the world”

A pretty girl’s hair and other lyricism aside, Long is certainly dark enough for modern times but his mostly free verse isn’t above some occasional internal rhyming and pleasing rhythm.  He is a song writer and a singer after all.

From “You’re No Anne Boleyn“:

“the subdued enclosure of your famous disclosure

has me covering up the bits that you forgot

the fanatical reprieve of all the people you deceive

the rumor’s hit the road

the rumor’s hit the road”

Long’s poems are mostly short.  Crisp, as I said at the start.  A couple of images, fleeting moments quickly over, quirky considerations.

“When the time is right I’ll write for him

Like Salieri did for Mozart

Without the trek of deceit and jealousy”

That’s from “If I Saw Leonard Cohen.“  I like that poem very much.  Lou Reed appears in another poem.  Bobby has good taste in music.

By the way, there are some drawings by Ben Edge interspersed throughout the book that kind of depress me although they are very good.  They’re a lot like drawings in kids’ books that I read long ago. They depressed me too. But Long’s poetry doesn’t.

I haven’t yet read all the poems in Losing My Brotherhood. I’m glad about that.  Not just because I like Long’s work and I’m not anxious to be done with it.  Also, as with short stories, one wants each of them to stand on its own and not be amalgamated with all the rest.

There’s a bit of Brautigan in Long’s work, succinct, right to the heart of the matter.  Does anyone remember Richard any more.? In my youth, he was for a time all the rage.  Then again, sorry DK, so was Shelley once.  I haven’t seen a young girl with a book of Shelley’s poems in her hand for a long time. Pity.

Death Clarifies

I saw Amy Winehouse  performing somewhere on some cable station last night with a great band and superb backup singers.  She was in a word, GREAT.  When Jimi died it stopped all the foolish arguing about who was the greatest rock guitarist.  He was. We knew. When Amy died it should have ended all the talk about who the best singer of her generation was. She was. And we know it.

She wasn’t like Sinatra at all and yet she was. Like Frank, she just stood there and the music flowed out of her like it was easy, natural, why she was here. Wish she could have stayed longer but she may have been needed elsewhere in eternity.

Your Next Assignment

RJ of RJ and The Assignment may look like a scary pirate on the cover of his last CD but his playing is heaven sent.  I mean this guy makes wonderful tunes out of the M*A*S*H theme and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Really. Deceiving Eyes (the title) there may be, but your ears will ring true.

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


Live Music: Liza Minnelli at the Hollywood Bowl

August 12, 2012

By Don Heckman

Call it an odd event at the Hollywood Bowl last night.  Even though it didn’t exactly start out that way.

Any appearance by Liza Minnelli is usually a big draw.  And this one was no exception — the Bowl jammed with her devoted followers and cries of “We love you, Liza!” echoing through the night.

But that was after the program started, which didn’t happen until 40 minutes past the scheduled 8 p.m. curtain.  The cause, according to the L. A. Phil’s Public Relations office was “Unforeseen technical difficulties.”  And the net result was a performance without an intermission, and minus a few originally scheduled songs.

Liza Minnelli

None of which seemed to bother Minnelli, who first contacted her audience via a backstage microphone, apologizing for the delay and expressing her eagerness to be on stage. When she finally arrived, greeted by a roar of enthusiastic applause, she was her familiar, high voltage self.  Kicking off the program (as well as her shoes) with a jaunty romp through “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” she then dug into the substance of her show.  Sub-titled “Confessions,” it was a musical odyssey through Minnelli’s life and times – much of it celebrating her relationship with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, as well as her sadness over the recent passing of close friend and creative associate Marvin Hamlisch.

Once Minnelli was fully launched into her program via tunes such as “Here I’ll Stay” and “Liza With A ‘Z’,” however, her performance recalled an appearance at the Pantages in 1997.  Reviewing that program for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote, “Liza Minnelli’s voice wasn’t exactly her best friend…at the Pantages….”   Later I added that “…she instead emphasized her acting skills, her body language and her story telling powers.”

To a considerable extent the same was true of last night’s Bowl program.  Minnelli’s voice responded poorly to her efforts to reproduce both the intimate, warm tones and the theatrical belting that have always been such vital elements in her singing style.  In a program reaching from such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to Minnelli classics  “Cabaret” and “New York, New York,” as well as “He’s a Tramp” from Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, it was her convincing dramatic abilities as well as her ever-dependable ability to tell a story, rather than her undependable vocalizing, that carried her through the show.

But Minnelli’s body language was something else.  In that 1997 review I described how she “uncoiled her arms and legs in every direction.”  Not so in this performance, in which she spent most of her time singing from a chair.

Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for sheer charisma, a quality Minnelli’s owned since she was a teen-ager.  And something to be said, too, for her ability to use the potent skills she still has to sell a song, rule a stage and endear an audience.  All of which she did last night with familiar Minnelli grace and style.


Live Jazz: Dave Frishberg in a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast

July 7, 2012

By Don Heckman

Dave Frishberg brought his one man show to L.A. last week for a nonstop performance of nearly two hours in a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast.  Seated at a darkly shining piano positioned in solitary splendor at the center of the vast, enveloping stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the balding, bespectacled Frishberg presented a far-reaching survey of his remarkable collection of songs.

I knew that I had to cover his performance for a lot of reasons.  One, because he’s a first rate jazz pianist, adept at every style reaching from stride to bebop.  And his rendering of his songs are always wrapped in precisely the right piano settings.  Two, of course, for his songs, which balance wit and whimsy with sardonic humor, subtle romanticism and beautifully poised rhyming.  No wonder that he’s often described as the Stephen Sondheim of jazz composers.

And third, because I wanted to hear him sing ‘Do You Miss New York?”  For someone who spent his early life in New York, and who now – after decades in Los Angeles – still sometimes feels in exile from his homeland, the song has an irresistible appeal.

For the most part, Frishberg didn’t disappoint.  He started out with the delightfully whimsical “Slappin’ the Cakes on Me,” continued with “Can’t Take You Nowhere,” based on a jazz line by Al Cohn and Tiny Kahn, and added a hilarious character sketch of “Jaws.”

And there was a lot more, over the course of a two hour set, with no intermission.  The diversity of Frishberg’s style, substance and sophistication was fully apparent in songs such as “Brenda Starr,” a tribute to the comic strip heroine, and “Eloise” and the richly sardonic “Will You Die” (aimed at Dorothy Parker) from Frishberg’s musical Vitriol and Violets.

His interest in sports surfaced with “Who Do You Think You Are? (Jack Dempsey?)” and a group of songs – including the tongue-twisting “Van Lingle Mongo” from his musical The Catbird Seat.  And, aiming his wit directly at the Southland audience, he included “Too Long In L.A.”

Impressive, all of it.  A stunning collection of utterly memorable songs.  Delivered with complete justification for Ruth Price’s opening assertion that “Dave would be one of my favorite piano players, even if he never sang another note.”  No argument there.

But there was something missing, as well.  A few items, in fact.  With a catalog as large and far-reaching as Frishberg’s, any given program inevitably omits individual listener favorites.  Even granting that, however, some classics shouldn’t have been overlooked — songs that Frishberg’s fans know and love such as “Peel Me A Grape,“ “You Are There,” “I’m Hip,” and “I’m Just A Bill” (from his songs for the television series Schoolhouse Rock).

And, for this listener, the most important omission — “Do You Miss New York?”  Has Frishberg been living in Portland, Oregon so long that he’s lost touch with the feelings that generated the song in the first place? C’mon, Dave.  There are still tons of us émigrés out here in La-La Land who still feel deeply connected with the Big Apple.

Despite my deep affection for Frishberg’s music is that the reason it took me a while to get around to writing this review?  Maybe.

Photos by Bob Barry


CD Review: David Basse’s “Uptown”

April 24, 2012

David Basse

Uptown (Cafe Pacific Records)

By Brian Arsenault

Uptown opens with another (yawn) jazz ode to Manhattan which is made more curious by the fact that David Basse is the acknowledged “leader” of the Kansas City jazz scene.  In fact, two of the first three tracks are New York-centric which would be a little bit tedious even by a New York based jazz singer. And a mention of stepping out in a top hat, really, in 2012?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful and I know that Mike Melvoin — who penned five tunes, including the New York songs, on the album and lends his considerable talents on piano — unfortunately passed away in February.  But I can’t help feeling I’ve heard this all before. Basse is compared by some critics and the album’s publicity to Mel Torme, Ray Charles and Dr. John (Dr. John, really?) but in truth he’s a lot closer to Harry Connick, Jr. without as much sparkle and wit.

Oh, Basse can sing all right. He’s sly on Mark Winkler’s “Like Jazz,” a tribute to some other jazz luminary. And he’s wry about the aftermath of a break up on the clever “Living Without You.”  There’s some welcome emotional depth on Melvoin’s “You Won’t Hear Me Say Goodbye,” but the song is still more tenderly sentimental than sharply insightful.

That’s the best stuff.  His version of “Slow Boat to China” is pretty much like every other treatment you’ve heard over how many decades.  By the obligatory Gershwin tune, “Bidin’ My Time,” I had pretty much emotionally checked out of the album.  You can do old stuff, standards as they say, but it’s a lot more satisfying when you bring something new to the depth or pacing or phrasing, like Halie Loren provides on her recent CD, Heart First.

Still, one of my favorite tracks on the album is Harold Arlen’s familiar “I’ve Got The World On A String” where some subtle piano work by Mr. Melvoin and Bill Goodwin’s precise drumming support Basse’s subtle vocal. The piano break is a little long on a four and a half minute studio version.  It would have worked better on a concert recording of eight to nine minutes, no doubt.

Or maybe I just wanted Basse to sing more, he’s so good here. How about a nine minute studio version?

Everyone associated with this album — including alto saxophonist/clarinetist Phil Woods and bassist Steve Gilmore — is top shelf in his own right.  For me, though, the album just doesn’t come together as tightly as it should. Seems like a collaborative effort where everyone was just being too nice to everyone else.  Here, you take a solo, then me, then him.

And I just couldn’t escape my initial reaction to the opening bars of the first tune, “Uptown,” which was “I wonder if this album would have sounded exactly the same if it was recorded in 1959, even the new stuff?” That, of course, would still be darn good if not uptown exciting.

A final word on Mike Melvoin, whose song writing and piano work contributed so much to this album:

I have an old vinyl record which I believe is Coleman Hawkins’ last studio album.  As such, for me it has a value well beyond gold or diamonds or critic’s comments. I expect that if this is Mike’s final studio work his many fans and admirers will feel the same about Uptown.


An Appreciation: Ross Barbour

August 27, 2011

 Ross Barbour, last original singer of the ionic jazz vocal ensemble, Four Freshmen, died last Saturday at 82, at his home in Simi Valley.  Mr. Barbour, who arranged and sang with the group, described his long, lush voicings as “purple chords.”

By Bill Eaton

I will raise a glass tonight for Ross Barbour. His passing is a heart-wrench. The one time I was in his presence, I was 25 and too addled to speak. The Freshmen meant more to me than any individual or entity in my swim upstream into jazz waters. I loved the Modernaires, admired the Hi-los and have been dazzled by Take 6. But I wanted to be IN the Freshmen, to sing just like that, to sound just like that, and to be a part of creating that feeling.

I never came close to that feeling with any other vocal group. Their magic came from the fact that they sounded like guys; guys laced with vulnerability and yearning. That was the secret of the Four Freshmen’s appeal: the Y chromosome festooned with tendrils of vulnerability; a yearning from a place so deep as to make tears the price of admission. A thing so true, so filled with the moist breath of real life, that Barbour never used nor needed embellishments to pull you in. You wanted in.

There is no more mysterious, fascinating and appealing vulnerability than that of the male animal. Females carry theirs in a clutch purse. It must always be available for their offspring, and embracing it makes them more powerful than their mates can ever be. Before men can dig theirs out the chasm in which it’s stored, they have to acknowledge its existence, and that acknowledgement always comes with a pain for which there is no epidural. Ferreting it out and embracing it is a lifelong rite of passage. Men who create great art are awash with it, but it remains a stone in the shoe.

100 years from now there may still be an edition of the Four Freshmen, still singing Ross Barbour’s arrangements of those wonderful songs, still sounding like guys with their hearts on their sleeves. Never the most brilliant, but always, the most irresistible.

 Bill Eaton is a respected New York arranger-conductor, composer of the jingle “Charlie,”  and well known for his work with Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Ralph MacDonald and many others.


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