CD Review: Lena Seikaly’s “Looking Back”

April 23, 2015

“A perfectly wonderful jazz vocal album”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

A classically trained mezzo-soprano who swings? Yes – and her name is Lena Seikaly. Although only 25, she is an established composer who has written many classical and jazz arrangements for small ensembles, choirs and full orchestra. She is also an educator, a successful teacher of jazz and classical voice.

But I wish to focus on that rich voice. Whatever your vocal criteria – quality of sound, intonation, phrasing, handling of time – Seikaly excels. She is a smart, sophisticated vocalist for grown ups.

Lena Seikaly

Lena Seikaly

 

If justice does exist, Looking Back, her third self-produced CD, should make the Washington D.C.-based Seikaly a star. Although it was released a year and a half ago, it is fresh on the national scene and worthy of more attention.  Seikaly has it all, a luxuriant rich voice with a melted-butter vibrato, a feeling for jazz, a deft sense of swing, effortless delivery, stunning presentation and a Rolls-Royce quartet providing her accompaniment. Just as importantly, she projects an unaffected honesty and joy.

Like many of the better singers, Seikaly also has an impeccable repertoire. Three ballads immediately grabbed my attention. Her easy patient way with “Baby, What Else Can I Do” is downright ecstatic. Is this seldom-heard Walter Hirsch-Gerald Marks collaboration truly a great song or is her sensuous delivery seducing my ear? Either way, the 5-minute cut alone is worth the price of the CD.

I have not heard a better rendition of Harold Arlen’s dramatic 1933 “I Cover the Waterfront.” Seikaly nicely includes his well-written but seldom heard verse and deftly handles the four octave jumps. The marvelous and sad “Supper Time” is certainly one of Irving Berlin’s greatest ballads particularly that long 16-measure bridge. Seikaly brings this cry of anguish to vibrant life.

She also swings delightfully and is even the scat’s meow. Mel Torme once said something like “a little scatting goes a long way.” It seems that every new jazz-influenced singer feels a need to scat, whether they have a facility for this vocal art form or not. Fortunately Seikaly’s scatting is subtle and as true as an oboe and she nicely uses this vocal technique judiciously. For example, on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and Duke Ellington’s “I Love You Madly” she is in lockstep with Zach Pride’s bass. Like an experienced lover, Siekaly initially takes her time with Benny Davis’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and then, with effective use of dynamics swings and scats the subsequent choruses. Drummer Lenny Robison displays his talents on this cut.

This is certainly Seikaly’s CD but she benefits immeasurably from the seamless interaction with her group. Pianist Chris Grasso, whether swinging or laying down tasty chords is superb. Bassist Zach Pride has a sound with depth and authenticity, something you want to reach out and touch. Guitarist Paul Pieper talents are very much evident on such cuts as Richard Whiting’s beloved standard “Guilty.” Speaking of this cut, you may notice that Seikaly’s Looking Back is somewhat a tribute to vocalists Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters.

Maybe it’s the water or the climate. Whatever the reason, the DC-Maryland area seems to have had more than it’s share of superior vocalists. Just to cite two examples, in the 1970s-80s there was the sublime Shirley Horn. In the ’90s – for too short a time – there was the genre-defying, captivating Eva Cassidy. Those two are stellar company and now we can add Lena Seikaly to this illustrious duo.

She has a natural, relaxed voice and was born to sing. Her warm timbre and uncomplicated phrasing are notable for their ease and expressiveness. You understand every word she sings and, given her selections on this CD, the lyrics deserve to be heard.  Looking Back is a perfect jazz vocal album. If that sounds too reverent, let me change the praise to “perfectly wonderful.” I’m already looking forward to her next release. For more information on background and recordings, click HERE to visit Seikaly’s website.

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To read more about Roger Crane, the Song Scout, click HERE.


CD Review: The Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann — “A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America”

April 2, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

In the largely forgotten film Eddie and the Cruisers, Eddie turns to his lyricist with index and middle fingers pressed together and overlapping and says: “Words and music, words and music” to express the interlinking of a song and its words. The film doesn’t really earn the line but this long titled album does.

A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America by the Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann singing is a brave attempt to match the words of poets and authors from Bertold Brecht to Walt Whitman, from Maxwell Anderson to Ogden Nash and, perhaps most delightfully, the poet Langston Hughes to music mostly by Kurt Weill.

Theo Bleckmann and Julia Hulsmann

Some is already classic and part of the American jazz/pop songbook and is well handled here:

“Mack the Knife” is of course present, though the lyrics used herein are even more gruesome than most of what Bobby Darin sang.

We Americans have a cultural memory of monotone sentimentalist Jimmy Durante’s version of “September Song” with all its poignancy.

“Speak Low” may be less familiar, but the Nash lyrics touch deep:

         Speak low when you speak love

Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon

Those last two love songs actually written about mature people, even older people, certainly no longer in the first blush of youth. Rare that, at least before some of Sinatra’s best work.

These are among the successes of the album — words and music blending seamlessly, pleasingly. In other places, though the music seems overwhelmed by the words. Halting, dragging, squeezed uncomfortably into place.

The band’s work on three Walt Whitman poems comes to mind in this regard. These aren’t Kurt Weill songs after all and they’re not quite up to it.

Ira Gershwin’s “This is New” is, though. Gershwin listened to Brecht’s lyrics no doubt, “I’m through with a shadowy past.” Is love confusion; if so also bliss.

An underrealized aspect of the album is Theo Bleckmann’s singing. He has the pipes but almost everywhere he is so understated, his singing at times almost bordering on a narration of the poetry rather than a sung interpretation.

That’s not the case on the album’s last song “Great Big Sky,” the marvelous Langston Hughes affirmation of what it is to be a man, to be human. Bleckmann seems to let himself go here, where so often he is so restrained on the album; and the result is a soaring success.

          It’s a great big sky
         And there’s room enough for all,
         Underneath the great big sky
        Where the earth’s a little ball
        And a man ain’t much
        And yet a man is all
        That stands up tall
        Between the earth and God, beneath the great big sky

The redoubtable Manfred Eicher produced the album, which is replete with his silences between notes. Pianist Julia Hulsmann is so sensitive to Weill’s nuances and so precise. Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Tom Arthurs supports the vocals almost like another singer. The rhythm section of Marc Muellbaurer and Heinrich Kobberling is excellent as well, though as with other European jazz bands I sometimes think the drummer is truly moving to his own beat.

As I said at the start, this is a brave work. Words and music, words and music.

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Julia Hulsmann and Theo Bleckmann discuss — in German — the making of “A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America” and perform a few samples from the album

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Julia Hülsmann is bringing her group,  (without Tom Arthurs) to the U.S. to plaand playing release concerts with Theo Bleckmann:

           –  April 16-17 – New York, NY at Neue Gallerie Kurt Weill,

           –  April 18 – Baltimore, MD at An Die Musik Live!

And the Hülsmann Trio will return for Festival concerts in June:

             – June 23 – Rochester, NY at Rochester Jazz Festival

             – June 24 – Ottawa, Ont at Ottawa Jazz Festival

             -June 27 – Vancouver, BC at Vancouver Jazz Festival   

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

 

 


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.

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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: 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 Jazz: Tierney Sutton at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts

March 17, 2015

By Kathy Schwarz

Brookville, New York. Tierney Sutton has frequently received accolades such as “a singer’s singer” and a “musician’s singer.” But she’s also a listener’s singer, and all three of those descriptions were on full display in her Friday night performance in the TiIles Center for the Performing Arts.

She was backed by the superb playing of guitarist Serge Merlaud, who was also with her on Tierney’s Grammy-nominated Paris Sessions album. As well as cellist Mark Summer, a founding member of the Turtle Island Quartet.

And it was a remarkable combination, one that would reveal its unique qualities from the moment they walked on stage, greeted by gentle but enthusiastic audience applause.

Seated at stage center between her two musical companions, Tierney asked Serge for a key and the evening began – an hour and a half in which her listeners, with this writer included, would be mesmerized by Tierney’s exquisite vocal artistry.

Throughout the evening there was a beautiful blend of songs from Tierney’s After Blue: The Joni Mitchell Album and Paris Sessions album, as well as some jazz standards.

The show opened with a mix of “April in Paris/Free Man in Paris” from her Mitchell album. Tierney’s vocals were the third instrument on the stage. Pure and effortless, she sang to perfection. It was as if I were listening to these songs for the first time. Though I have heard Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” many, many times, Tierney’s version and arrangement were definitely her own.

The evening hit an especially memorable highlight when the trio — Serge, Tierney and Mark — played “Court and Spark.” The arrangement was brilliant and Tierney’s sultry jazz vocals gave this classic a whole new meaning for me.

One of the standards was “I Remember You,” done as a duo with Serge on guitar. Tierney’s range on the Johnny Mercer classic was unbelievable. This was the performance that really brought to light the proof that her voice is indeed a musical instrument. Her vocals are effortless and she plays her voice like an instrument, never pushing, just letting it resonate with beauty.

I feel very privileged to have experienced this performance. Being relatively unfamiliar with Tierney’s artistry, I was grateful and I truly felt my musical horizons had been widened. Her gentle and laid back way with every song made it especially enjoyable for me.

At the end of the evening she paid tribute to her fellow musicians and it was evident that there was tremendous mutual respect among the three artists.

And with good reason. Tierney Sutton is an exquisite performer with a beauty that lies deep beyond her voice, touching the soul of who she is.

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To read more reviews by Kathy Schwarz click HERE.


Brian Arsenault Takes On GLADSHOT’s CD, “Maxwell’s Cool Demon”

March 7, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

So Kath and I had to go all the way to St. Martin and back in time to find a New York band of distinction, GLADSHOT. We were walking into the hotel and Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill, the band’s two principals, were walking out of their room. In that friendlier way people are on vacation, we all said hello. That eventually led to us becoming vacation pals and their mailing us Maxwell’s Cool Demon, released least summer.

I missed the album then. I miss a lot early on because there’s so much new stuff and I’m too lazy to listen to it all but that’s no reason for you to go on missing this magically melodic album if you have so far.

There are terrific harmonies, hints of the Beatles, and rhythms, a bit of Stones, throughout. Yet it’s the melodic patterns, sometimes CSN and sometimes early Zombies but always their own, that take you deep into the album. That is never more apparent than on my favorite “Dog On A Skylight.”

Debbie leads off vocally and Mike harmonizes and then leads and more harmony and the warm melody swirls around you like the Caribbean Sea even as the lyrics bite on the nature of perception and despair mingled with hope.

Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill

Despair mingles with hope more directly and sardonically on “We Live in America.” “Build me a dream with no trace of fear” sings Mike. How appropriate to our times when I’m not sure what to be afraid of: North Korean missiles, Russian aggression in the Ukraine, ISIS insanity spreading everywhere, or pop charts topped by Beyonce and boy bands.

Pop music phobia gets treatment in “Corp Safe” where the music industry “manage(s) the filter.” In fact the corporate pop world as a whole provides a “delicate balance of distraction and fear.” Watched any “Housewives” of anywhere lately? Be afraid, be very afraid.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when it seemed the artists had managed to grab control of music and records and we wouldn’t have to suffer through industry created Bobby Vee “Rubber Ball” pop anymore. That was another ’60s-’70s dream of course. The empire struck back early and often to have us “Call Me Maybe.”

Still the rise of digital decried by many, including myself, created a world in which recordings can be made without the big labels. And sometimes still we get a GLADSHOT; although great bands can toil in relative obscurity without the “Good Morning America/People Magazine” hype machine where today we revel in Kim K becoming a blond.

Maxwell isn’t all anger, though, as the album is too poetic to lock into a single emotion. I like so much Mike and Debbie singing together on “Steady Light” as they each “wait for your steady light . . . (that) doesn’t ever fade away.”

And the blue and yellow “Star Tatoo” has a kind of “Strawberry Fields” imagery and Lennonesque irony. I am pretty sure this would have been Lennon’s favorite song on the album.

By the way, I notice they’ve been kicking The Walrus pretty hard lately. Can Lennon really have been great if he had human flaws, some of them pretty damn big, can he? Guess there have never been great artists who were something less than perfect people. Damn.

Anyway, GLADSHOT is a fine band and Maxwell’s Cool Demon will bring you in, sit you down, separate hot from cold and weave its spell. Who hasn’t wanted to have “Fun With Hydrangeas.”

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To read more posts, reviews 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,

Brian


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