CDs: January Canaries — Claassen, Desare, Eastman, Elias, Henderson

January 4, 2009

By Don Heckman

Fay Claassen

“Red,  Hot and Blue” (Challenge Records Int.)

Dutch-born singer Fay Claassen has already recorded with such world class jazz artists as Toots Thielemans, Mike Stern, Kenny Werner and Joe Locke.  But she still hasn’t received anything like the widespread attention her singing deserves.  On this, her fourth CD, she ventures into the treasure trove of material in the Cole Porter songbook, with arrangements by pianist Mike Abene.

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Fay Claassen

Claassen is an impressive vocal artist.  In fact, it’s worth checking a couple of her performances on YouTube -  her balladry on “My Funny Valentine” at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YhRmYafaC4 and her remarkable instrumental-like improvising on “Poinciana” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLvowlzMGHw&feature=related — to get a real sense of how she performs in action.  I say that because in this collection the unevenness of Abene’s charts sometimes tends to confine her free-flying imagination in too-narrow spaces.  “I Get A Kick Out of You,” for example, is hampered by heavy piano chording paralleling her vocal line.  When her singing roves more freely – as in the slow groove of “Love For Sale” and the scatting on “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” — her skills have a better chance to fully surface.   Curiously, the most liberated track is the bonus addition, on which Claassen sings “So In Love” superbly with only the accompaniment of Abene’s piano.  It’s a convincing example of the creative depth within the art of this impressive European jazz artist.

Tony Desare

“Radio Show” (Telarc)

At first glance, singer-pianist Tony Desare, with his tousled black hair, easygoing good looks and engaging smile, appears to be the latest in the line of Frank Sinatra wannabes.  And the image has been further underscored by his starring role in the long-running Off Broadway musical, “Our Sinatra.”  But what surfaces in this well-planned concept album is a talent which – despite its obvious affection for the Sinatra style – is beginning to move forward in a unique and fascinating career path.

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Tony Desare

The plan here was to present an album structured like a musical variety radio show from the ’40s, with Joe Piscopo providing between-songs commentary redolent of the era.  And it works, as such.  Far more intriguing, however, is Desare’s capacity to move comfortably across genres – from Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” to the standards “Get Happy” and “All Or Nothing At All.”  Toss in Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changing’” and Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover” and Desare’s eclectic goals are apparent.  Not only does he achieve them, he casts them in new perspectives, finding the dark undertone of Dylan’s classic, bringing jazz-driven energy to Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll groundbreaker, and further displaying his growing potential by including several of his own  Great American Songbook-styled songs.

Madeline Eastman

“Can You Hear Me Now?” (Mad-Kat Records)

The San Francisco Bay area has been a continual source of impressive jazz vocal talent.  Madeline Eastman is one of the best, and Mad-Kat, the company she founded with singer Kitty Margolis twenty years ago, has been a model for jazz artists eager to have full control over their recording careers.

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Madeline Eastman

Eastman’s style is articulate and upfront, never more so than in live performances such as this, backed by pianist Randy porter, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Matt Wilson.  Tunes with rhythmic lift – “Show Me,” “Gone With the Wind” (done as a duet with Reid) and, surprisingly, “I Love You” – are delivered with the assertive assurance of a jazz horn player.  And on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” (with Eastman’s quirky lyrics) and a quick-paced scat romp through Sonny Rollins’ “Pent Up House,” she thoroughly establishes her credentials.

But the aspects of Eastman’s style that surface in slower tunes, especially “Haunted House” and “Don’t Look Back,” may be even more compelling examples of the subtleties of her art – of her ability to find the story and the music and the emotion at the heart of a song.

Eliane Elias

“Bossa Nova Stories” (Blue Note)

There’s nothing like going to the source when it comes to musical genres.  And Sao Paulo-born pianist/singer Eliane Elias was performing with bossa nova legend Vinicius de Moraes while she was still a teen-ager.  Since then, of course, she’s established herself internationally – first as a superb jazz pianist, later adding her atmospheric vocals to an already fascinating musical mix.

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Eliane Elias

Synchronicity is all over this collection, with Elias turning fifty in reasonably close proximity to the half-century anniversary of the release of de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade,” generally recognized as the spark that ignited the bossa nova era.  Elias clearly has an empathic feeling for the phrasing, the rhythms, and the cultural foundations of the music. And her singing, especially in the tunes with a lift – “Chega de Saudade,” “Desafinado” and, especially, “Falsa Baiana,” Minha Saudade” and “A Ra (The Frog)” – fully embraces the intimate and essential connection between voice and rhythm that was so firmly established by Joao Gilberto.  The quintet of standards in the program – “The More I See You,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Day In, Day Out,” “Too Marvelous For Words” and “Day by Day” – make for pleasant listening, enhanced by Rob Mathes’ lush orchestral charts.

But it is the Brazilian material – including “The Girl From Ipanema” and Ivan Lins’ “I’m Not Alone (Who Loves You),” as well as the lovely Italian song, “Estate” – that combine perfectly with Elias’ singing and the too-brief segments of her gripping piano playing to bring the program fully to life.

Bill Henderson

“Beautiful Memory: Bill Henderson Live at The Vic” (Ahuh Productions)

Three days after his 81st birthday, in March 2007, the ever-listenable Bill Henderson offered convincing testimony to the values of longevity.  Recorded in performance at Santa Monica’s now sadly defunct jazz supper club, The Vic, this collection is far more than a “Beautiful Memory” and could easily have been titled “Still Swinging.”  The CD arrives 50 years after Henderson made his recording debut on “Senor Blues” with Horace Silver.  Since that time, he has devoted more of his career to working as an actor on television and in films – “The Jeffersons,” “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Silver Streak” etc.

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Bill Henderson

Henderson’s style is straight-forward – tell the story, sing the song.  Traces of Joe Williams’ blues inflections and Frank Sinatra’s phrasing appear from time to time, but at its roots, his singing is his own.  And his program here is filled with stunning examples of his capacity to take unexpected material – Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” Johnny Mandel’s “Living Without You,” the Ahlert/Leslie standard “The Moon Was Yellow” – and re-imagine it with consistently entertaining individuality.  Pianist Tateng Katindig, bassist Chris Conner and drummer Roy McCurdy provided solid backing.

Henderson’s acting has diminished in recent years.  “When the role started getting funny, I said I’d better go back to singing again,” he said.  And it’s great to have him back.  As Will Friedwald writes in the liner notes, “How many times do  you get a second chance to nab a Maltese Falcon?”


Live: Carla Zilbersmith

October 8, 2008

By Don Heckman

Well, I finally  heard Carla Zilbersmith sing in person last Friday night.  If you don’t know who she is, check my review of her album, “Extraordinary Renditions.”  If you don’t have time to do that, let me just say that she’s the jazz – and beyond – singer from the Bay area who has ALS.

In the first email I received from her - which arrived after I’d heard some of her work via the Internet — she identified herself as the “jazz singer with ALS.”  I wrote back, scolding her affectionately, saying that her singing – some of the most impressive work by a relatively unknown performer that I’d heard in years – stood on its own, without the ALS reference.

But we were both right.  As her performance at Steinway Hall in Los Angeles — a memorable combination of impressive musicality, imaginative writing and dark humor – made clear.  Because it was a performance by an artist who is obviously enduring advancing physical disabilities, but who nonetheless is functioning at a vital level of utterly engaging creativity.

Carla, whose mobility now is largely limited to wheelchair travel, was carried on stage by one of her musicians, and seated on a stool, where she remained for the entire set.  But, had someone entered the room after she was seated, they might never have known about her disability, other than the joking references to it in the black whimsy of her own remarks.  When she sang numbers such as “You Don’t Know Me,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and her own “Bluesy Wisdom” (with its witty insertion of lines from other songs), her superb interpretive skills were fully on display — the work of a terrific singer, period.

Before the program, Carla told me that the ALS effects had begun to diminish her vocal chops.  And her head tones did, indeed, seem a bit wobbly in spots – but probably noticeable only to listeners who were familiar with the rich, far-ranging singing of her earlier work.  Not that it mattered, in a performance that transcended irrelevant uncertainties of technique – especially in a new song, written during one of her 4 a.m. lonely moments, that offered a stunningly musical, poignantly insightful view into the heart of her difficult passage.

But what really became clear in this too-brief appearance was the extent of the imagination and creativity that Carla Zilbersmith still has to express.  And one can only pray that her journey still has many stops to make along the way.


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