CD Review: Denise Donatelli’s “Find A Heart” (Savant)

September 22, 2015


Brian Arsenalt

Brian Arsenalt

By Brian Arsenault

The first cut, “Big Noise, New York” storms in like a Saturday night in Manhattan and I go, “Great! powerhouse jazz served smoking.” But that’s not the whole of Denise Donatelli’s Find a Heart, not by a long shot.

New York brassiness is followed by Paris Rain so soft, soft as a touch, no, not simply a touch, a caress. Touch, skin on skin, has a lot to do with this album but so does contrast.

The poet turned essayist Donald Hall writes that “Contradiction is the cellular structure of life.” On this album it also seems the cellular structure of music.

Back and forth we go from bold jazz to sly romance. There’s yearning despite skepticism of the likely outcome. Lovers are beckoned and pushed away, longed for and scorned.

The music equally contrasting. Tempo flares up then ripples softly.

The album soars on the title track, Leonardo Amuedo’s slashing guitar chasing Denise’s vocal of passion — “make it work by touching skin.” Then the same Amuedo on the very next track providing solo soft and sensual acoustic support for her heartachingly sung “Not Like This.” Actually, exactly like that.

The songs on this album by a variety of composers and lyricists seem a conversation with each other, a back and forth of style and sensibility. One hesitates to use the word sophisticated since it’s rather loaded and off putting for some. But take it as sophisticated in the sense of artistically mature, relationships for grownups, William Holden films don’t ya know.

Denise’s voice is a polished instrument. It (she) moves up and down scales, octaves, emotions with seeming ease, the mark of true artistry. It never seemed like Sinatra was working at it, did it.

Geoffrey Keezer, who Denise calls her musical partner, gets credit as the album’s producer and arranger but you’ll probably be most grateful for his piano work all over the album. And speaking of all over, Marvin “Smutty” Smith who was the Tonight Show drummer through most of Jay Leno’s tenure, dazzles often especially on the album’s up tempo jazz tunes such as the title song. Master bassist Carlitos Del Puerto is the other half of the stellar rhythm section.

Terrific guests add depth and color. Superb trumpeter Chris Botti adds just the right touch on “Practical Arrangement,” making you wish he could have stayed longer at the studio. And cellist Giovanna Clayton adds resonance wonderfully here and there. Isn’t it great that the cello has been increasingly freed from string quartet only.

If I haven’t given enough attention to individual songs in this review — “Troubled Child.” “In This Moment” and “Practical Arrangement” should and probably will become “standards,” sung by many others and deservedly so — it’s because the album hangs together so well as a complete piece.

Concept album is too trite a phrase to describe Find A Heart, but twenty-first century songbook perhaps isn’t. (I might have stolen that insight from Neil Tesser’s liner notes but so what, he had it right.)

* * * * * * * *

On Thursday, September 24, Denise Donatelli will celebrate the release of Find A Heart  with a gala performance and party at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood. (323) 466-2210.

* * * * * * * *

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

CD Review: Carol Welsman’s “Alone Together”

September 17, 2015
Brian Arsenalt

Brian Arsenalt

by Brian Arsenault

As a cool September breeze pushes the mists of summer down the bay, ushering in a new season, Carol Welsman’s Alone Together — to be released Friday, Sept. 18 — freshens some old songs you know and some you may not have ever heard. And how good is that?

Good enough that Sammy Cahn is featured twice, opening the album with the classic “Day By Day,” with Wallace Roney’s trumpet floating under and around Carol’s vocal, and later with “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” music by McCoy Tyner. Carol would win on great taste if nothing else.

"Alone Together"But there’s a lot else. Throughout Carol sings lead with both her vocal crystal clarity and her interwoven piano work. On another classic, “It Might as Well by Spring,” her stylish singing and piano share a love affair with a song. Balanced by the delicate strength of Jay Azzolina’s guitar solo.

Then here comes a song I didn’t know, “Sand in My Shoes,” a timely ode to Havana’s lure. Yeah, I don’t like the Castros but I’d sure like to see what’s left of Hemingway’s Boat.

The title song has an a cappella intro which makes me wonder how terrific it would be if she sang the whole song that way but, hey, who could object to her piano here with the terrific rhythm section of Rufus Reid on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. They’re good everywhere on the album.

Everything’s good here. Wallace Roney’s trumpet solo on “Disappointed” is even better than his solo on  “My Ship.”

“My Ship” is my favorite cut on the album, if anyone wants to know. I know. I have a weakness for Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin but we all have our prejudices. Carol’s control of Weill’s so yearning self doubting lyrics is right on point. Pinpoint control in all places is one of the most notable qualities of her singing and piano playing throughout the album.

It’s a great strength but as an old merchant I knew once said: “What makes you strong can be your weakness sometimes.” The whole album seems so controlled, so measured, so skillfully managed, that I sometimes wish for a ragged edge, a few moments of abandon, a little feeling of improvisation.

This is essentially a jazz album after all.

Perhaps it’s Carol’s classical background that requires her to measure each note, each chord, each turn of phrase. European jazz often has that feel and just once in a while wouldn’t you like the conductor to leave the stage and just let the guys play?

But her strength is precise playing, sound arrangements, perfect song selection and, in the end, poignant emotion.

“Killing Time” brings an absolutely aching conclusion to the album. If you could hear tears, you would hear them in the spaces between the notes.

* * * * * * * *

On Sunday night, September 20, Carol Welsman will celebrate the release of Alone Together  with a gala performance and party at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood. (323) 466-2210.

* * * * * * * *

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

Notes From Otherground

June 2, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

Fyodor Dostoyevsky



Freeport, Maine.  (With apologies to Dostoyevsky, but you’re long winded anyway. Sorry to everyone else for the gratuitous remark about D.)


OK, I’m done. Finito. Kaput.

Brian Arsenault

Brian Arsenault


I will not be monitoring my time in the sun this summer. It’s a natural place to be. I may not even use sunscreen. Do you know how few warm sunny days we get in the north country? I am afraid of the cold that never ended this winter. Not the sun.

I am also not afraid of my gas grille exploding, sharks biting off my leg (Why not a shark hunting season, they hunt us), drones over the house, lyme disease, mosquito-borne nasty stuff, and distracted drivers. I will not be afraid to walk across the yard or through the woods though I may hate to drive at times in case my airbag shreds me with shrapnel after being hit head on by someone avoiding a bicyclist.

(Note to self: do not swerve to avoid a bicyclist out in the car lane going one tenth my speed; I don’t like riders’ fashion sense anyway.)

When Christmas rolls around I will not be afraid of my tree being engulfed in flames, poisonous gases from wrappings thrown in the fireplace, tainted eggnog or worn strings of light zapping me.

In other words, I’m done.

A favorite band of mine, Gladshot, sings about the cultural control combination of dumb entertainment with scare mongering. For proof, watch a couple days of Good Morning America.

Cute puppies alternate with deadly diseases, even deadly diseases from cute puppies. I swear if I ever get a dog again I will pick the ugliest pooch in the pound.

Summer vacation destinations juxtaposed with the latest Asian air disaster. There’s even implied cultural superiority to those “Asians” dropping planes like ducks during hunting season.

I am also going to eat eggs, bacon, sausage, all kinds of fatty meats and fried things. Are onion rings not the greatest contribution to the American diet? Bet they were invented at a state fair where people are happy, or used to be. Also on my list of desired foodstuffs: white pasta, bread and potatoes, cookies and all things chocolate.

And don’t tell me how many (meaning few) glasses of wine are acceptable on a given day. I’ll drink the whole bottle if I want. Reds are good for the heart – at least in the latest study — so more red must be more good.

Look folks, we aren’t here for eternity. A favorite old guy of mine — when I could call someone else an old guy — said that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” And son of a gun, much to my disappointment, he didn’t turn out to be immortal. It’s only a question of what’s gonna get you in the end. Speaking of ends, my doctor says that any guy who lives long enough will get prostate cancer. Life will try to take away everything before it takes you. Count on it.

I have lived to see comic books become movies; with less intelligence. I have lived to see disc jockeys in front of big lit screens give “concerts.” I have lived to see the Duggars and Kardashians become stars (sorry, that’s a cheap shot, they aren’t any worse than How I Married My Mother or whatever that show was.) I have lived to see junk email, which I may start reading sometime.

Given such and so many more horrors of the digital (could anything be less human than “digital”) age, would you really want to see what’s coming in another half century?  Millenials might even be recognized as individuals.

That’s another thing: sick of the labels – boomers, gens x and y (sounds like Dr. Seuss), white this, black that. Just give me a few wondrous people across my path now and again. The rest is stupid.
And no, I don’t want to pay with my smartphone. Oh, I already did. Without even taking it out of my pocket.

Well, you can’t fight progress. You can, though, subvert it at times and confront it always with a bad attitude.

* * * * * * * *

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

CD Review: Vanilla Fudge “Spirit of ’67”

February 18, 2015

by Brian Arsenault

(Done as a letter to my college roommate.)

Dear Flashman,
You remember in 1967 when we were living in that basement room and the two lunatics in the room above us had those three foot high speakers so hip at the time and they played only two songs? The one they played the most of course was “In A Gadda Da Vida” but that’s another story. The other one was Vanilla Fudge’s overpowered remake of the Supreme’s hit “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Who woulda thunk it but somehow it worked, works.

So a half century goes flashing by (nice way I worked “flash” in, huh) and here’s Vanilla Fudge, or three quarters of the original anyway, back with Spirit of ’67 (Cleopatra), a whole bunch of songs from that year . Do I remember it wrong or did we spend most of our time listening to music then? It was time well spent.

I remember for sure that we weren’t sure about Vanilla Fudge, who kinda symbolized when the beer crowd took over loud rock from the acid eaters. It was bound to happen in the Land of Budweiser but unsettling nonetheless.

Started the inevitable march toward great songs by The Who becoming theme music for shitty detective shows and such.

On this album, though, brave is the word I keep coming around to. Brave to take signature songs of the era and make music of your own with them. I mean there’s millions of us boomer minds that can still hear the deep Hollywood jungle drumbeat of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and have “miles and miles and miles” echoing somewhere in the recesses. How could you improve on that Townshend song?

Well, you can’t and for me it might be one of the least successful songs on the album. Still it’s very good with a Fudge pounding drums (Carmine Appice is a seminal American rock drummer, n’est pas?) quality that’s all over the album. You’re not surprised, I know.
And it gets better.

Vanilla Fudge: Carmine Appice, Vince Martell and Mark Stein with Pete Bremy on bass/vocals.

Early on in the album the Fudge are showing that after all these years they are a very solid, tight band. They’ve heard Cocker’s version of “The Letter” which turned a bland pop record into a screaming aching for love ode. Fudge’s version shifts from a piano rich bluesy tone to a Mad Dogs and Englishmen frantic pace.

And it gets better.

The guitar based soul of the Smokey Robinson classic “Tracks of My Tears” is for me the surprise success of the album. The yearning, broken-hearted mood of the song comes through and they pull off the harmonies and everything. Just terrific.

The Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” starts as a lounge song, a good lounge song, like when everybody stops talking over drinks all at once to listen, as if on cue. But soon they need to pound those drums and lean heavy on the organ and guitar riffs. Heck, it’s who they are. But after each chorus they sneakily take you back to the lounge.

Really, you probably don’t buy CD’s any more and listen to Pandora (I thought that was jewelry) or get individual tracks from one of those services. Whatever and however, get “Ruby Tuesday.” It’s special.

The track on the album that sounds most like their long ago megahit “Hangin’ On” is their version of “I’m a Believer.” Big orchestral intro, big, big sound throughout which makes you almost forget it was a Monkees hit. Almost. The Monkees were the only band I wanted to kill in that era, remember? Three Dog Night came later.

“Gimme Some Lovin'” Great when done by Spencer Davis. Great here and a little more r&b.
Can’t say much about “Break On Through.” I never could fully appreciate Morrison’s ‘Ain’t I sexy’ angst. “Whiter Shade of Pale” probably comes closest to being a true cover of the Procol Harum original.

“For What It’s Worth” pays tribute to Buffalo Springfield’s original with a neat military drum-beat opening. It’s more atmospheric, more threatening in a darker way, I think. But the times they may be a little darker.

The album closes with the only original song written by lead singer/organist/pianist Mark Stein — “Let’s Pray for Peace.” Peace was hard to find in 1967 but we believed in it.

Remember? Peace is still hard to find but I’m not sure many believe any more. Maybe we’re just tired.

Hope to see you again in this life.

Your friend,


2014 Remembered: “Lost Boys” Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, Jack Bruce

December 29, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

They were so different. Unalike. Distinctive. Is that what unique is? Seems like that was typical of the era. Hendrix, not Clapton. Beatles, not Stones. Airplane, not Beach Boys. Each showed us something different. A different pulse and pace. Perhaps why we miss them in today’s largely homogenized pop rock world and why they can never be replaced. That’s the worst of it. They’re not coming back.

Lou Reed

Lou Reed

Lou Reed

I’m always amused by the various attempts to explain him. He was really a good guy, better than he seemed, say some. No he wasn’t. He was a prick and he reveled in it, say others just as fervently. The anti-hippy; maybe the anti-Christ, even if he did know how to feel like Jesus’ son. Was he a good guy or wasn’t he? That’s an argument about our insecurities, not his.

No, he probably wouldn’t have been your friend. But what did that have to do with it? He was the dark voice that had to arise amidst all the feelgood, counter-culture bullshit, even the bs that was good and true.

Lou sneered and said if you dare look at this, take a walk on the wild side, know that “there are more things in heaven and earth (read hell), Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Does it scare you, make you nervous, do you want to look away? Don’t avert your eyes. You might learn something. You say you love humanity, then you have to love all of it.

A guy who couldn’t sing a note could create anthems, laments; mournful and defiant, lustful and repellant. It’s the art that matters, damn it, and his art was New York underside made universal. He was rock’s Dostoyevsky and the notes were from very deep underground.

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker

If the Stones didn’t upset your parents, Joe Cocker onstage was sure to.  The sweat, the dangling greasy locks, the impossible body positions, the erratic, spastic hands. And yet a gentle soul, just trying to give you everything in it, right down to the ground.

So many of his obits kept repeating that he was a blues singer. Please review his recordings, his performances and list the number of blues songs. That’s right, there are hardly any. An r&b singer, I’ll buy. Like the Royal Southern Brotherhood sings, rock is the son of rhythm and blues.

And rock was Joe Cocker. He took Beatles and Stones hits and made them his own. Made them better. Hell he made a song by the Box Tops, the freakin’ Box Tops, soar.
But I know the secret and so do you. We know where the blues nom came from. It’s not so wrong after all. He could bring a depth of meaning, of pain, of regret, of living, of how you feel right now that is seldom matched except by true blues singers.

“Once while traveling across the sky . . .”

Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce

I said an incorrect thing about Jack Bruce in my appreciation written after he passed. Not incorrect but inadequate. I wrote that Jack, along with The Who’s John Entwhistle, invented the bass lead in rock. That’s not necessarily wrong but the more important point is that he was central to the creation of the bass-lead guitar duet.

All of us forever mesmerized by the live version of “Crossroads” know what I mean. Bruce wasn’t just keeping up with the outrageous combination of Clapton’s speed and virtuosity, he was matching it, note for note, bar for bar, stanza for stanza. It’s incredible. I think bands and bassists could write out the notes, listen to it a thousand times, hone their skills to a high level and still not get it right nor understand the creative source from which it sprang.

Caught in performance or in studio, the body of work approaches perfection. Of course, for me, that is Cream, close to perfection in its parts and in its whole. Bruce was central to the writing of most of their songs, combined with Ginger Baker to produce an ongoing war of a genius rhythm section. And his work with Clapton is unsurpassed.

Maybe that’s why neither of them ever really produced anything to match what they did in Cream.

It’s no knock on two great musicians down the decades. It just wasn’t possible.

* * * * * * * *

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

An Appreciation: Remembering Joe Cocker

December 23, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

The memories are so intact. The Grease Band singing crappy falsetto behind him at Woodstock. The kickass chorus on the best damn live album ever, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Belushi coming out to do Joe Cocker with Joe Cocker on SNL.
I know it’s that time of life when that generation, my generation, the greatest generation in rock ‘n roll, is gonna lose guys. Frequently. The ones who made it past 27 are getting to be old guys now and time is implacable in its demands. Still, it hurts. There was a time when he was rock life incarnate.

Joe Cocker Tie dye singing

Some Cocker fans will tell you that early stuff when he was pictured like a fat, greasy bar brawler was when it was best, pure, raw. They’re right.

Others, a smaller more mature crowd, will tell you that the later albums of soft and soulful stuff extended his range as an artist. They’re right.

But for some of us, the crowd that was just about mad ourselves in those days, there is, was, will never be anything comparable to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Oh those Leon Russell arrangements. Oh that incomparable backing band and chorus Russell put together.

I know Cocker and Russell despised each other by the end of the tour. That’s the legend anyway confirmed in more than one story and interview. Who cares? The music, damn, the music.

Who ever had two drummers going so frenetically? (Jim Keltner anyone?) The horn section just blasting. Leon pounding the keys. And the soaring chorus. (Rita Coolidge for one.) Sizzling.

Did you think that old torch song “Cry Me a River” could be done that way? Did anyone?

Could anyone else top the originals with covers like “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Honky Tonk Women.” With apologies to the Beatles and Stones of course. But they know. They know.

And I think crusty ol’ Leonard Cohen might have shed a tear when he heard Joe’s “Bird On a Wire.” If he didn’t he should have.

The energy that’s sustained on the album is just incredible. But that was Joe. Sweat dripping, arms flailing, back arching to seemingly impossible angles. A voice edged with whisky and cigarettes.

You half expected him to be Axl Rose surly. But no. He was the friendly guy standing drinks at the bar. A humble thank you after most songs.

That was Joe. Until maybe he got tired. And the gentle side came to the fore. Those sweet songs. “You Are So Beautiful” and so on. But that was always there. Mad Dogs and Englishmen also includes a lovely cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, though he should have done the whole song and not just in medley.

There’s Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and Dave Mason’s “Feelin Alright.” Song after song.

But at the core, the madman core, is that crazy version of “Cry Me A River.” That’ll do.

(Joe Cocker died Monday, December 20 at his home in Colorado after a battle with lung cancer. He was 70.)

* * * * * * * *

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


Here, There & Everywhere: the 2015 Grammy Jazz Nominations

December 8, 2014

By Don Heckman

It’s that time of year again, when the Grammy nominations are posted for members of the Recording Academy to vote for their favorite performances of the previous year.  After decades of membership, I’m no longer a member of the Academy.  But it’s always fascinating to check out the nominations.  And, although it’s interesting to see who wins the awards, it’s even more compelling to check out the surprises (or lack of same) in the choices for nominees in the various categories.

So here are the nominees in the five jazz categories.  And I suspect that most jazz listeners and observers would suggest that there are few surprising entries in the lists.  That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the choices.  Any of these nominees would be a worthy winner of the Grammy award in their category.  But, as with most annual lists of Grammy nominees there’s little to suggest real interest in encouraging the efforts of new, young talent.

That said, here’s a list of the choices (not forecasts) I would vote for in the five categories:

Best Improvised Jazz Solo: Always the most difficult category of all, given the question of how one judges the “Best” of a group of improvisations.  Anyhow, my choice would be Chick Corea, who never fails to surprise me in a solo, and he’s in fine shape in this one.  It’s also worth mentioning that his playing sounds even more impressive in the context of the stellar competition of three other superb pianists and the tenor saxophone styings of Joe Lovano.

Best Jazz Vocal album:  Why in the world does the Academy group all jazz vocal artists — male, female and ensembles — into one category.  I’m musically pleased by all these artists.  But I think Tierney Sutton’s remarkable tour de force with guitarist Serge Merlaud is a brilliant performance, as unique a vocal effort as I can recall since Sheila Jordan’s first recordings with solo bass accompaniment.


Best Jazz Instrumental Album: As with the Best Improvised Solo category it’s difficult to determine what standards of excellence to use in choosing a winner.  Note, as well, that both Chick Corea and Fred Hersch have nominations in both categories — a temptation for winners to split their ballot to vote for one or the other in one of the categories.  I, however, favor Jason Moran’s illuminating tribute to Fats Waller.


The Best Large Ensemble is overflowing with enough big jazz group sounds to delight those of us who will always be delighted by the big jazz ensemble in its many forms and sounds.  But I was especially pleased by the Clayton-Hamilton’s tribute to some of the memorable talent in the L.A. jazz world. Always — in the gifted writing and playing of John Clayton — a superb ensemble, they’re once again at their finest in this outing.  As an alternative, I could easily have chosen the briskly swinging performance by Gordon Goodwin’s always listenable Big Phat Band.

The Best Latin Jazz Album: As in the Large Ensemble category, I’ve found myself having to choose between two entries: Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Conrad Herwig’s The Latin Side of Joe Henderson.  Ultimately I couldn’t resist the presence of Joe Lovano playing Joe Henderson tunes.  But it was a tough call.


And here are all the jazz nominees.  Make your own choices.

* * * * * * * *

Best Improvised Jazz Solo

The Eye Of The Hurricane
Kenny Barron, soloist
Track from: Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio (Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio) (Whaling City Sound)

Chick Corea, soloist
Track from: Trilogy (Chick Corea Trio) (Concord Jazz)

You & the Night & the Music

Fred Hersch, soloist                                                                                                                           Track from “Floating” (Fred Hersch Trio) (Palmetto Records)

Recorda Me

Joe Lovano, soloist
Track from: The Latin Side Of Joe Henderson (Conrad Herwig Featuring Joe Lovano) (Half Note)

Sleeping Giant (Nonesuch)
Brad Mehldau, soloist
Track from: Mehliana: Taming The Dragon (Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana) (Nonesuch)

Best Jazz Vocal Album

Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Masterworks)
(Billy Childs & Various Artists)

I Wanna Be Evil (Motema Music)
René Marie

Live In NYC (Obliqsound)
Gretchen Parlato

Beautiful Life (Concord Records)
Dianne Reeves

Paris Sessions (BFM Jazz)
Tierney Sutton


Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Landmarks (Blue Note Records)
Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band

Trilogy (Concord Jazz)
Chick Corea Trio

Floating (Palmetto Records)
Fred Hersch Trio

Enjoy The View (Blue Note Records)
Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco Featuring Billy Hart

All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller (Blue Note Records)
Jason Moran


Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

The L.A. Treasures Project (Capri Records, Ltd.)
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra

Life In The Bubble (Telarc International)
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (Motema Music)
Rufus Reid

Live: I Hear The Sound  (Archie Ball)
Archie Shepp Attica Blues Orchestra

OverTime: Music Of Bob Brookmeyer (Planet Arts Recordings)
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra


Best Latin Jazz Album

The Latin Side Of Joe Henderson (Half Note)
Conrad Herwig Featuring Joe Lovano

The Pedrito Martinez Group (Motema Music)
The Pedrito Martinez Group

The Offense Of The Drum (Motema Music)
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

Second Half (Emilio Solla Music)
Emilio Solla Y La Inestable De Brooklyn

New Throned King (Label: 5Passion)
Yosvany Terry



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 255 other followers