Highlight of the Mid-Week in L.A.: Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill at the Gardenia

March 31, 2015

by Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA. No April Foolin’ around on this April 1st at the Gardenia, Hollywood’s musically rich cabaret room. The arrival of Bay area singer Wesla Whitfield and her pianist/husband Mike Greensill is a guarantee that Wednesday night will showcase a memorable evening of classics from the Great American Songbook.

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill

I first wrote about Wesla in a Los Angeles Times 1988 Review, describing her “as a singer who not only tells a story with the dramatic sensitivity of a superb actress, but who has evolved into a marvelously subtle, jazz-based interpreter.” In the intervening decades I heard Wesla many times and wrote more reviews. And in each, I had to stretch my vocabulary of praise in an effort to describe the growing expressiveness and musicality of her art.

Wesla and Mike are based in the Bay area, performing in major venues across the U.S. and beyond. But her appearances in the Los Angeles area are rare, making Wednesday’s performance at the Gardenia – a room with the intimacy to see and hear Wesla up close and personal – an opportunity not to be missed.

The Gardenia is at 7066 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood. (323) 467-7444.


CD Reviews: Anat Cohen’s “Luminosa” and Eliane Elias’ “Made In Brazil”

March 29, 2015

By Don Heckman

It would be hard to find two better examples of some of the changes that have taken place in jazz during the new century than the presence and the playing of Anat Cohen and Eliane Elias. Tel Aviv-born Cohen and Sao Paulo-born Elias have convincingly established themselves as significant instrumentalists. And, in the case of Elias, as a significant instrumentalist/vocalist. In one fell swoop, these two gifted artists have played prominent roles among the generation of gifted female musicians who have lately been cracking open the glass ceiling signifying the gender bias that has been present in jazz for most of its long history. And they’ve done it as international performers.

All of which may be intriguing as sociology, but what really matters is what’s in the music. And these two new releases are eminently listenable programs of 21st century jazz at its finest. Add to that the further linkage between them in the sense that the music on both albums is deeply rooted in the long love affair between jazz and the music of Brazil.

Anat Cohen

Luminosa (Anzic Records)

In listening to Luminosa, one is frequently drawn to thinking of it as “Anat’s Brazil album,” especially understandable, perhaps because her affection for the choro genre, with its buoyant rhythms and improvisational aspects, is very much present on Luminosa.

As a former clarinetist, I’ve watched Anat’s growing mastery of the instrument, which was paralleled by an equally extraordinary growth as an improviser. And her playing on Luminosa takes her to yet another step higher.

I hesitate, however, to emphasize individual tracks. After several listens, I began to view Luminosa as a contemporary jazz suite, enriched by many aspects of Brazilian music. Like most effective suites — in jazz, classical and beyond – it demands a complete hearing. Once one begins to be enthralled by the opening “Lilia,” the embrace of the tunes continues, touching a far reaching range of emotions before winding up in the climactic “Wein Machine,” in which Anat offers some quick, convincing doubling on tenor saxophone.

Call Luminosa a musical experience not to be missed – by former clarinetists as well as every other lover of captivating improvisational music at its finest. Let’s hope the Grammy voters will agree.

* * * * * * * *

Eliane Elias

Made In Brazil (Concord Records)

I first wrote about Eliane Elias in a review for the Los Angeles Times in the late ’80s. (We were very young at the time – well, she was.) Among other complimentary remarks, I described her playing as “state of the art contemporary jazz.”

It’s a description I wouldn’t hesitate to use now in reference to both her piano playing and her vocals on this evocative new CD. Add to that the fact that it was recorded in Brazil with all the rich musical resonance that the location and the players could provide, and – as with Anat Cohen’s Luminosa – the result is an album that demands nomination for the next Grammy Awards.

Eliane Elias hand on hipIt’s also a homecoming for Eliane, the first recording she’s made in Brazil since she came to the U.S. in 1981. And she’s made the most of it, adding a full cast of Brazilian players, among them Roberto Menescal and Ed Motta, as well as her talented daughter Amanda Brecker, the superb orchestrating skills of Rob Mathes and the incomparable vocal textures of Take 6.

That list alone speaks for itself. But I can’t neglect the repertoire, as well – which includes Eliane’s originals, along with classics from Menescal, Ary Barroso, and a pair of memorable Antonio Carlos Jobim standards.

The result is an utterly captivating musical program reaching across a wide spectrum of music. There are too many highlights to mention them all. But they begin with Barroso’s anthemic “Aquarela do Brassil,” move on to Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco” and a medley of his “Este Seu Olhar and Promessas,” Menescal’s “Voce” and “Rio.” Topping it off, Eliane reveals yet another aspect of her eclectic creativity with a pair of her own well-crafted songs, “Some Enchanted Place” and the lyrical “Searching.”

Also like Anat Cohen’s Luminosa, Eliane Eliase’s Made In Brazil is more than a collection of songs. It’s a rich, full-bodied, suite-like assemblage of irresistibly appealing music. And the more you hear it, the more it reaches out to reward its listeners with the fullest range of emotional riches.

Let’s hope that some thoughtful record company has the good judgement to record these two gifted women performing together.  (And if an experienced, empathic producer is required, give me a call.)


CD Review: Van Morrison’s “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue”

March 28, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

I started getting happy listening to Van Morrison’s Duets:Re-Working the Catalog” (RCA) about the time George Benson was singing as smooth as he always is on “Higher Than The World” and I was downright grinning through Van and Georgie Fame’s “Get On With The Show.” Pure 50s jukebox. Drifters, Coasters, gratuitous but funny “cha cha cha” at the end. Just shoulda kept it to two minute twenty second hit single radio time of the era.

You can while away a weekend morning with the album and feel better about things. Be advised, though, you will take a chunk out of that morning. There are 16 tracks. None are bad but some work better than others.

On “Streets of Arklow,” Mick Hucknall (Simply Red anyone) and Van are a perfect matched set of singers on one of the album’s moodiest songs. “Souls are clear. . .”   Mark Knopfler’s voice was made for “Irish Heartbeat” nearly as much as Van’s own. As with Hucknall, their voices flow over each other seamlessly.  Perhaps a bit more Knopfler guitar.

And Van’s good not just with the boys but with the girls too.

Raspy Mavis Staples is the perfect offset to Morrison’s own sharp edges on “If I Ever Needed Someone.”

Daughter Shana Morrison achieves with Dad a hymn of the Church of Music, the only church left to so many, on “Rough God Goes Riding.”

The musicianship throughout is never just background. Of special note are the Whites, Chris on tenor sax and Alistair on trombone. As far as I know, they are not related except by excellence. One example, on “The Eternal Kansas City,” the Whites are at the center of a neat little Kansas City bebop instrumental break.

You can almost hear Neal Cassady yelling, “that’s it, that’s it” on a stop On The Road.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

When I was disappointed it was only a matter of personal taste, not artistry by Morrison and the incredible talent he assembled.

On “Carrying A Torch”, Clare Teal’s voice is literally like the tealing of the purest bell ever cast. I don’t want Van joining in because I don’t want anything to dilute Clare’s singing. But, hey, it’s his album.

More often, though, you may be struck by the fact that you like the original version of songs better. As Kath said, she likes Van so much she wasn’t sure she always likes him sharing favorite songs. But, hey, it’s his album.

I also found that the album slogged along a bit with ballad after ballad before “Get On With The Show” and the late injection of faster pace with Van and Michael Buble on “Real Real Gone.” I may not quite get Buble but the man can sing and who doesn’t love a song with references to Sam Cooke, Wicked Wilson Pickett and James Brown.

Which brings me to Taj, closing the album with Van on “How Can A Poor Boy?” Taj Mahal is so true to the purity of the blues that he seems to step out from an earlier time. I wondered if Van in closing the album with such a blues rendition of one of his signature songs was telling us that under it all, there is always the blues.

Rings true.

* * * * * * * *

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

 


CD Review: Dave Stryker’s “Messin’ With Mister T”

March 25, 2015

By Devon Wendell

What could be better than guitarist Dave Stryker and his famed organ trio (Jared Gold: Hammond B3 organ, and McClenty Hunter: drums with Mayra Casales guesting on Percussion) paying tribute to Stryker’s ex-employee and mentor, the legendary tenor sax giant Stanley Turrentine? On Messin’ With Mister T (Strikezone), Stryker has assembled an all-star lineup of some of the finest tenor sax players in jazz to do just that.

And the results are marvelous. Although Turrentine passed away 15 years ago; his spirit is felt throughout this loving homage.

Stryker and the band kick things off with a stellar take on Turrentine’s “La Place Street” with Houston Person blowing for “Mr. T.” At times, Person’s fat, warm, bluesy tone and phrasing are very similar to Turrentine’s style. Stryker’s fluid and melodic arpeggios weave in and out of the melody with elegance and soul. Gold’s B3 playing is reminiscent of Jack Mcduff and Groove Holmes in that it is rhythmic yet subtle and funky.

Let’s check out the action on all the other tracks.

Mike Lee is the featured tenor player on Michel Legrand’s mid-tempo ballad; “Pieces Of Dreams.” Lee’s playing is sweet and economical. Stryker is the shinning star on this number, with some thoughtful, understated, and swinging guitar phrasing.

Don Braden plays it cool without venturing too far from the melody line on the album’s title track, which is a straight blues.

An absolute album highlight is hearing Jimmy Heath blowing his soul out on Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” Heath and Stryker never play a note or phrase that doesn’t belong exactly where these men have so masterfully placed them.

urrentine, Freddie Hubbard and others.

Dave Stryker with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and others in New York City in June 1987.

Chris Potter seams to get better and better every time he picks up his horn. His playing on John Coltrane’s “Impressions” is daring, original, and hard swinging.
Hunter’s drumming drives the band and goes into strong be-bop mode.

But a rendition of Freddie Hubbard’s “Gibraltar” is an unusual choice for a Turrentine tribute. Although Bob Mintzer plays some strong tenor lines, this arrangement goes a little too far into smooth jazz turf for my liking.

Like Chris Potter, Eric Alexander is always on the move and constantly developing his style. His playing on Milton Nascimento’s “Salt Song” is no exception. Stryker’s guitar lines dance and swing with the Brazilian percussion rhythms laid down by Mayra Casales.

Javon Jackson and the band stay true to that jazz-soul sound on Turrentine’s “Sugar.” You can feel Jackson reeling himself in so as not to over-blow, which would not fit this particular piece, which is more about groove than hard-bop acrobatics.

That groove feel continues on “Sidesteppin” featuring Steve Slagle, who really lays back with the band on this funky Stryker original.

Completing the album is a brilliant reading of Turrentine’s “Let It Go.” Tivon Pennicott’s tenor explorations are the most adventurous on the whole album. Pennicott’s bop playing pushes the band to greater heights and soon everyone is cooking like they should. Stryker’s guitar attack is more percussive and daring.

Messin’ With Mister T (the album will be released by Strikezone Records on April 7th) is a soulful, well thought out tribute album to one of the greats. Stanley Turrentine would surely be proud of Stryker and all of the truly dedicated musicians who gave their all on this delightful project.

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


Live Music: Sasha’s Bloc at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc

March 25, 2015

By James DeFrances

Bel Air, CA. Last Thursday evening at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Jazz Grill…etc. Sasha’s Bloc launched their new album – Heart On Fire – with a send off party in style.

Alex Gershman’s jazz super group pulled out the stoppers during the second night of festivities for their release party bash. Complete with limousines, red carpet, photographers, a custom interior set design and an all star cast, this was indeed Mr. Gershman’s Opus.

Sasha’s Bloc with guest star Jane Monheit

To commemorate the Heart on Fire album release, celebrity guest vocalists Jane Monheit, Alvin Chea, Nora Rothman and Tony Galla joined bandleader and bassist Gershman on stage and each performed a short set.

Sashas Bloc man and woman Seth

Sasha’s Bloc Guest Stars Alvin Chea and Glynis Leflore

The 8-piece small group which is Sasha’s Bloc sounded nothing short of amazing as they dazzled the capacity level VIP crowd. Songs like “Feels Like Jazz” and “Breakfast” were guest favorites, along with the sweet and melodic duet “Black and Blue.” Speaking of the songs, they are Gershman originals. And from my perspective, his writing is right up there with some of the classic songsmiths of the first part of the 20th century.

Alex Gershman

Alexander Gershman is not a jack of all trades; rather he is a master. He wears many hats and wears them all well: physician, surgeon, philanthropist, bandleader, songwriter and bassist to name a few.

My weather forecasts for the days ahead of Sasha’s Bloc look bright and sunny with no cloud cover. The band is a musical tour de force and has definitely turned the right heads. Look for Hearts of Fire,  currently available on iTunes music, and experience what I and so many others have already concluded: That Alex Gershman and Sasha’s Bloc are on a fast track to making musical history.

* * * * * * * *

To read more reviews by (and about) James DeFrances click HERE.

 


Picks of the Week in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, London, Copenhagen and Tokyo

March 23, 2015

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer

– Mar. 23 & 24 (Mon. & Tues.) Manhattan Transfer and Take 6.  The two most masterful vocal ensembles of the past few decades get together for the first time. No wonder it’s called “The Summit” as they perform at the start of a national tour. Catalina Bar & Grill .

(323) 466-2210.

Michael TIlson Thomas

Michael TIlson Thomas

– Mar. 24. (Tues.) The London Philharmonic conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas with pianist Yuja Wang. Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Bitten’s Four Sea Interludes. Disney Hall. (323) 850-2000.

– Mar. 26. (Thurs.) Sue Raney. She’s been receiving accolades for her singing sine she was a teen-ager, and Sue Raney is as dynamic and musically compelling as she was shen she first stepped on stage. Sue’s celebrating the release of her album, Late in Life.        Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

Bob Sheppard and Pat Senatore

Bob Sheppard and Pat Senatore

– Mar. 27 (Fri.) Bob Sheppard with the Pat Senatore Trio. A musical encounter not to be missed. Sheppard is one of the jazz world’s most versatile,saxophonists, and equally gifted on clarinet and flute. He’ll be backed by bassist Senatore’s equally adept rhythm section. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400

–  Mar. 27. (Fri.) George Benson. Hitmaker singer/guitarist Benson is always entertaining, always disovering new jazz territories. Expect to hear some familiar songs. Segerstrom Center for the Arts. (714) 556-2787.

Art Pepper

Art Pepper

– Mar. 27. (Fri.) An All Star Celebration of Art Pepper. With Richie Cole, Doug Webb, Don Shelton, Gaspare Pasini, the Art Pepper Quartet Reunion and more. Presented by Ken Poston’s West Coast Jazz Heritage Series. Hermosa Beach Community Theatre. Reservations: (562) 200-5477.

Seattle

– Mar. 26. (Thurs.) Great Guitars! Featuring Bucky Pizzarelli, John Pisano and Mundell Lowe. “Great Guitars” doesn’t begin to describe this encounter between such Olympian players. Don’t miss this one; it’s a true musical rarity. Jazz Alley. (206) 441-9729.

New York City

 

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater

– Mar. 24 – 29. (Tues. – Sun.) James Moody 90th Birthday. Saxophonist/singer Moody was a much loved and honored jazz artist. He was also a friend to almost everyone he met. So it’s no surprise that this tribute has attracted such stellar participants. Featured peformers include Dee Dee Bridgewater, James Carter, Antonio Hart, Russle Malone, Randy Brecker, Roberta Gambarini, Roy Hargrove, Janis Siegel and more. Call the club for schedules. The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.

London

– Mar. 24 – 26. (Tues. – Thurs.) The Bireli Lagrene Gypsy Project. Gypsy jazz at its best. Calling up memories of Django Reinhardt and the unque, swinging improvisational style he brought to the jazz world. Ronnie Scott’s. +44 20 7439 0747

Copenhagen

– Mar. 26 – 28. (Thurs. – Sat. Rosa Passos Quartet. Passos is one of the true blenders of jazz and Brazilian rhythms. She’s been doing it a long time, and she still does better than most. Jazzhus Montmartre. +45 31 72 34 94

Tokyo

Gerald Albright

Gerald Albright

 

– Mar. 24. (Tues.) Gerald Albright. Name a jazz genre and Gerald Albright can play it convincingly.  And he’s equally adept as an instrumentalist, moving easily from world class saxophone playing to bass, keyboards,, vocals and more.  Don’t miss him in action.  Blue Note Tokyo.  +81 3-5485-0088.


Opera: LA Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

March 23, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles.  Before there was Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, before Renoir’s Rules of the Game or Sturges’s The Lady Eve, there was Mozart and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. Through beautifully delineated characterizations, both musically and poetically, Mozart’s tender and often hilarious opera reminds us what it is to be human – to love, to rage, and to accept our weaknesses.

Though we may marvel at the machinations of the plot, which contains more confusion, deception, and disguises than an episode of I Love Lucy, like all heartfelt comedy, love and reason finally prevail: Figaro, Susanna, and Countess Almaviva foil the count’s attempted seduction of Susanna on the night of Figaro and Susanna’s wedding; the lustful Cherubino escapes punishment to love another day; and Rosina and the count reconcile.

The cast of “Marriage of Figaro”

A gifted cast, assembled for LA Opera’s revival of an earlier production, was supported by the sublime colors and textures fashioned by James Conlon and his musicians. The evening was a true symbiosis of voice and orchestra.

Though the opera’s title bespeaks Figaro as the driving force behind the chicanery, it is really the two women, Susanna and Countess Almaviva, who unite to bring about the happy conclusion they so richly deserve.

Guanqun Yu as the Countess and Pretty Yende as Susanna.

Nowhere else in the opera is the class equality that Beaumarchais advocated so apparent as in the relationship of the two women. For all Figaro’s intelligence and interference, Almaviva still remains the master – Figaro and the household tiptoeing around him at every turn. However, between Susanna and the countess Rosina there is no power struggle but rather sisterhood. They deeply understand the workings of the human heart and it is their alliance that makes all things right.

Pretty Yende as Susanna.

In her debut as Susanna, Pretty Yende, first impressing LA audiences as Micaëla in Carmen in 2013, brought a warmth and richness to her singing, which underscored the humor and intelligence of her characterization. With her agile voice, she was particularly beguiling in her Act Four aria, “Deh, vieni, non tardar.”

Guanqun Yu, as Rosina, appeared here this season as the same character in Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Affecting in both operas, she was a lustrous presence capable of soaring top notes contrasting with the darker harmonies needed to express her pain over her husband’s philandering, so keenly illustrated in her second aria “Dove sono.” And together Yende and Yu melted hearts in the Act Three letter duet.

Renee Rapier as Cherubino and Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro.

A bass baritone working primarily in Europe, Roberto Tagliavini’s warm, shaded, and expressive instrument had the power to convey all of Figaro’s dynamics from smooth patter to simmering rage. His acting, however, could use some fine-tuning in a role where one expected wily grace and a bit of swagger.

Ryan McKinny, however, never falls short in the acting department (apparent also in his portrayal of Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire seen here in 2014). He is all the arrogant, entitled count – handsome, sensual, and duplicitous – which made his comic sequences all the funnier. Nor did his singing disappoint with his pleasing, lyrical baritone.

As Cherubino, Renee Rapier was appropriately lustful, bringing a goofy, awkward, adolescent quality to the role and was affecting in her Act Two canzone, “Voi che sapete.”

Setting the piece in the 1950’s neither detracted from nor added to the opera’s enjoyment, though one felt a slight uneasiness when Almaviva donned a military uniform. Was he a member of Franco’s regime? The circle skirted dresses of Rosina and Susanna, and the highly styled, extravagant ensembles of Marcellina were certainly a nod to the fifties and in keeping with their characters. The attractive interior sets of Act One, Two, and Three, gave way to the sparse outdoor set of Act Four. The lack of a lush garden was compensated for by the colorful fireworks display both vocal and pyrotechnic at the opera’s conclusion.

Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo.

As Marcellina, who is foiled in her attempt to wed Figaro when she discovers he is none other than her lost child, Lucy Schaufer (seen here as Berta in The Barber of Seville and as Susanna in The Ghosts of Versailles) proved again that she is a marvelous comedic actress and singer of considerable power and finesse. The rest of the cast, including Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo, Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, So Young Park as Barbarina, and Philip Cokorinos as Antonio, were delightful.

With The Marriage of Figaro LA Opera, under the superb direction of Maestro Conlon, has completed its Figaro trilogy, an enlightening and warmhearted gift to Los Angeles.

The LA Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro continues through April 12.

Cast:
Figaro: Roberto Tagliavini
Susanna: Pretty Yende
Count Almaviva: Ryan McKinny
Countess Almaviva: Guanqun Yu
Cherubino: Renée Rapier
Doctor Bartolo: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Marcellina: Lucy Schaufer
Don Basilio: Robert Brubaker
Don Curzio: Joel Sorensen
Barbarina: (3/21 – 4/4) So Young Park
Barbarina: (4/9 – 4/12) Vanessa Becerra
Antonio: Philip Cokorinos

Production:
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Ian Judge
Scenery Designer: Tim Goodchild
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Costume Designer: Deirdre Clancy
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Original Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Choreographer: Chad Everett Allen

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more opera, dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

 

 

 


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