CD Review of the Day: Carlene Carter’s “Carter Girl”

March 3, 2014

CARLENE CARTER

Carter Girl (Rounder Records)

By Brian Arsenault

The connection between blues and rock has long been established and celebrated, bemoaned and argued about. Even the connection between blues and jazz has been recognized.

Seemingly less considered has been the close relationship of country and blues.

There are differences to overcome: white – black, rural – urban, poor poorer - poorest. Yet the sterling, true roots country represented by the Carters over three generations aligns with the blues in so many ways:

- Sad songs about sad situations to make you happy or at least help you cope.

Songs stripped down to the basics in melody and tempo.

- Guitar based instrumentation, originally acoustic and later electric.

- The plain language of plain spoken people.

Roots that run to gospel and other church music.

That connection struck me as Carlene Carter’s first solo album in a decade, Carter Girl, kicked off with a jumpy, bluesy version of “Little Black Train,” first recorded by the Carter Family in 1935. 1935!

The little black train of judgment or death or both may arrive tonight but that’s no reason not to dance to Carlene and the nifty little band assembled for the album. A. P. Carter wrote the tune and his compositions are all over the album, which will be released the first week in April.

Carlene Carter

This daughter of June Carter Cash and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter has a voice that’s come down the generations. She sings and fits right in (artistically) with some of the departed on the family’s classic “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” Step dad Johnny Cash can be heard there as well.

The heartstrings get pulled on “Troublesome Waters,” where Willie Nelson sings the opening bars of this wondrous duet with Carlene. Sounds like Willie’s acoustic guitar work in there too. The dark turbulent water the symbol for “life’s stormy seas.”

The strings get pulled again on the following song “Lonesome Valley 2003,” Carlene’s reworking of A.P.’s song of loss, in Carlene’s case her mom and sister and Cash.

Carlene Carter and Kris Kristofferson

Carlene Carter and Kris Kristofferson

The mood is lightened on Carlene’s duet with Kris Kristofferson, “Blackjack David,” where a pretty little girl who’ll “be 16 next Sunday” hooks up with a rascal. Might be illegal today but just like in Chuck Berry’s “Teenage Wedding” darned if they don’t last together. “Goes to show you never can tell.”

Carlene herself will be 59 next September but that just means she controls her considerable talent with dignity and stylish tribute, not imitation. Plus there’s a youthfulness to this album because good songs, and good singers, stay fresh.

Oh yeah, I mentioned the fine band but didn’t know till I read some publicity after listening that one of my favorite drummers of all time, Jim Keltner, is pounding just great on songs like “Blackie’s Gunman.”

Give Carlene the roses while she lives — a paraphrase of my favorite song on the album. “Give me the Roses while I live . . . “Don’t wait to death to speak kind words.” I’ve tried to provide a few. As the song says, they’re “useless after the soul has gone.”

I know, I know. I’m supposed to mention Americana music, roots music. All the rage in some circles right now. Suffice to say that this album is the real thing amidst so much that is good and so much more that is just slowed down pop songs played with acoustic instruments.

This would be a fine album even if Travolta was still dressing funny (not funny dresses) and cavorting to Bee Gees’ disco tunes.

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


Live Music: Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett at the Hollywood Bowl

August 11, 2013

By Don Heckman

An extraordinarily well-planned performance at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night opened with a delightful appearance by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.  Lovett’s far-ranging career has reached from acting to music, with a variety of stops in between.

Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett

But heard in a wide open, Hollywood Bowl setting, driven by the jazz  rhythms and crisp arrangements of his Large Band, the appealing essence of his music was crisp and clear.

Each of Lovett’s numerous musical characteristics — from his stellar songwriting to the settings he’s chosen, to the sardonic, between-songs remarks – were at the heart of his vividly alive performance. Listening to – and immensely enjoying – every moment of Lovett’s set triggered the desire to hear this too rarely heard artist in action again, at every opportunity.

The evening’s headliner, Willie Nelson, brought a similarly appealing program of songs to the Bowl.

Examples of well-established pop and rock artist turning to the pleasures of the Great American Songbook for new material for expression haven’t exactly been uncommon in recent  years.  (Think Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and others.)

But they were preceded as long ago as the late-‘70s by Nelson’s Stardust, a platinum album that hit the charts in genres reaching from country music to pop.

At the Bowl on Friday, a highly enthusiastic packed house audience had the singular opportunity to hear Nelson perform a program of songs from the entire album, assisted by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by David Campbell.

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson

It would be hard to ask for a better brief collection of classic songs than Nelson chose for the album – and for this performance.  Some had special meaning.  “Georgia On My Mind,” for example, is a song already favored by both country and r&b artists.  “September Song,” with its poetic references to the time between “May and December” was a perfect vehicle of expression for the 80 year old Nelson.

Other tunes – the poignant “Moonlight in Vermont,” followed by “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” provided lush orchestral settings for Nelson’s sometimes gravelly, always deeply interpretive vocals.

And when he concluded the Stardust part of the program, Nelson added another entertaining group of his own songs, including such familiar items as “Crazy” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”  And climaxing with a Nelson tune whimsically – but perhaps pointedly – titled “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Nelson sang in such a charming manner that the combination of his unique vocal timbres with a collection of such familiar, much-loved songs should have resulted in a memorable evening of music.  And to some extent, it did, largely because of the superb orchestral backing, arranged by Campbell.

The only problem in the Nelson set was largely created by his own interpretive ambitions.  Presumably eager to approach the lyrics in a poetically expressive manner, he often jumped quickly to the end of a phrase.  Occasionally the technique produced the pointed lyric results he was seeking.  More often, however, it positioned a song’s melody in an inaccurate relationship to its harmonic progression.

That said, there’s no argument with Nelson’s overall performance, nor with the charismatic qualities he brought to his unique view of the Great American Songbook.


Books: Scott Yanow’s “The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide”

May 23, 2013

By Don Heckman

The jazz encyclopedist is at it again.  Scott Yanow, who must have reviewed every jazz recording released since 1975, when he turned 21, has published his eleventh jazz book. Not to mention the myriad of magazine and newspaper reviews, bios, press releases and more that he has written along the way.

Following in the pattern of  his previous books, The Great Jazz Guitarists:The Ultimate Guide is filled with detailed information.  But this tome is an even more remarkable accomplishment than such Yanow works as as his previous books on Swing, Bebop, Jazz Singers, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Trumpet Kings and Jazz on Film.

In it, Scott includes biographies, musical commentaries and comprehensive recording data about his subjects, managing to assemble an extraordinary amount of information about an equally extraordinary number of guitarists.

He opens with a thoughtful essay about the role of the guitar — and the banjo, as well — in the history of jazz.  Next up, he offers five far-reaching, all-inclusive guitar player segments:

- “The 342 Great Jazz Guitarists”

- “44 Other Historic Guitarists”

- “175 Other Jazz Guitarists on the Scene Today”

- “They Also Played Jazz Guitar” (including such multi-instrumentalists as Bobby Hackett and Bobby Sherword, and such genre-crossover players as Willie Nelson and Peter Frampton).

- “Jazz Guitarists On Film”

In total, it all adds up to just about everything one could ever want to know about the guitar in jazz — from its earliest role to the present, from the banjo to Pat Metheny’s Pikasso Guitar.  In short, like all of Scott Yanow’s previous books, The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide is a vital reference source, one that belongs in the library of every serious jazz fan.


Picks of the Week: Feb. 26 – Mar. 3

February 27, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson

- Feb. 27. (Wed.)  Willie Nelson & Family.  The inimitable Willie Nelson performs his memorable hits with the musical companionship of his talented family members. Click HERE to read an earlier iRoM review of Willie Nelson and his Family.  Valley Performing Arts Center.    (818) 677-3000.

= Feb. 27. (Wed.)  Shofar. The three Polish musicians in the group Shofar are questing after a “common denominator shared by Hasidic music and free jazz.”  Blue Whale.  (213) 620-0908.

- Feb. 27. (Wed.)  Sascha’s Bloc. An entertaining band of players, many from Russia, who bring new perspectives to a musical approach that blends traditional sounds and rhythms with far-ranging contemporary music. Click HERE to read an iRoM review of a recent Saschas’s Bloc performance.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel

- Feb. 28 – 3. . (Thurs. – Sun.)  Dudamel Conducts Stravinsky’s Firebird. The ever-dynamic Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an adventurous approach to one of the 20th century’s intrepid musical works. Disney Hall.   (323) 850-2000.

- Feb. 28 – Mar. 2.  (Thurs. – Sat.)  Oleta Adams.  Versatile singer Adams moves freely – and convincingly – across genres, from soul and gospel to rhythm & blues and jazz.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Anna Mjoll

Anna Mjoll

- Mar. 1. (Fri.)  Anna Mjoll.  Iceland’s gift to jazz applies her warm, embracing voice to everything from jazz classics to the Great American Songbook.  She performs with the Pat Senatore TrioVibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

- Mar. 1. (Fri.)  Juan de Marcos & the Afro-Cuban All-Stars.  The Grammy-nominated All-Stars cover a full range of Latin music, including bolero, cha-cha-cha, salsa, rumba, danzon, timba and beyond.  Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.    (562) 916-8501.

- Mar. 1 – 3.(Fri. – Sun.)  Oguri and Wadada Leo Smith.  Adventurous trumpeter Smith and his band interact creatively with Japanese dancer Oguri.  Electric Lodge, Venice.   (310) 306-1854.

- Mar. 2. (Sat.) Patricia Barber. One of the jazz vocal world’s most uniquely individual artists, Barber will sing selections from her new album, Smash.  To read the iRoM review of the album, click HERE.  She performs in a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast at the Musicians Institute Concert Center.   (310) 275-8961.

- Mar. 2. (Sat.)  An Evening With Rudresh Mahanthappa. Alto saxophonist/composer Mahanthappa works at synthesizing South Indian elements with a variety of other international musical genres. He does so here in the company of two ensembles – the Indo-Pak Coalition and Gamak. A  CAP-UCLA concert at Royce Hall.    (310) 825-2101.

Katia Moraes

Katia Moraes

- Mar. 3. (Sun.)  Katia Moraes.  Los Angeles is filled with musically diverse Brazilian artists.  And the dynamic Moraes, who invests her singing with the stimulating energies of her dancing, continues to be one of the best.  Click HERE to read an iRoM review of a recent performance by Moraes.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Mar. 3. (Sun.)  Patrick Tuzzolino Trio.  Singer/keyboardist Tuzzolino is an impressive talent who has not yet received the full acknowledgement he deserves.  Here’s a rare chance to hear him in action, performing with trombonist Bob McChesney and drummer Billy Paul Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

San Francisco

- Feb. 28 – Mar. 1 (Thurs & Fri.)  Ana Moura.  Fado is being revived by a gifted generation of young Portuguese singers.  And Ana Moura is one of the best.  An SFJAZZ event at Miner Auditorium.    (866) 920-5299.

Washington, D.C.

- Feb. 28 – Mar. 3. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Mike Stern and Dave Weckl.  Jazz fusion in all its many invigorating forms is at its best in the talented hands of guitarist Stern and drummer Weckl.  They’re ably supported by bassist Anthony Jackson and saxophonist Bob FranceschiniBlues Alley.    (202)337-4141.

New York

- Feb. 27 – Mar. 2. (Wed. – Sat.)  Gary Peacock, Marc Copland and Joey Baron.  It’s an all-star jazz trio, by any definition, with pianist Copland, bassist Peacock and drummer Baron triggering a continuing flow of imaginative improvisation.  Birdland.    (212) 581-3080.

Ravi Coltrane

Ravi Coltrane

- Feb. 27 – Mar. 3. (Wed. – Sun.)  Ravi Coltrane Quartet.  Saxophonist Coltrane, who makes the most of his genetic gifts as the son of John Coltrane, plays with the superb backing of Billy Childs, Fender Rhodes, Lonnie Plaxico, bass, Nikki Glaspie, drums.  Trumpeters Tim Hagans and Jason Palmer trade off on Thurs.(28) and Fri.(1).  The Jazz Standard.   (212) 576-2232.

London

- Feb. 27 – Mar. 3. (Wed. – Sun.)  Arturo Sandoval. Versatility doesn’t begin to describe trumpeter/pianist/percussionist/singer Sandoval’s remarkable talents.  Click HERE to read a recent iRoM review of a Sandoval performance.  Ronnie Scott’s.    +44 0(20) 7439 0747.

Paris

- Feb. 27. (Wed.)  The Robert Cray Band.  Five time Grammy award winner Cray has throroughly established himself as one of the most convincingly authentic contemporary blues artists.  Paris New Morning.    01 45 23 51 41.

Berlin

Jason Moran

- Mar. 3. (Sun.)  Jason Moran & the Bandwagon.  Pianist Moran, the winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, takes time away from his role as jazz advisor for the Kennedy Center to lead his gifted Bandwagon trio, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet WaitsA-Trane.    030/313 25 50.

Copenhagen

- Mar. 1 & 2. (Fri. & Sat.)  Bobo Moreno.  Highly praised Danish singer performs with pianist Ole Kock Hansen, bassist Bo Stief and American drummer Adam NussbaumJazzhus Montmartre.   (+45) 70 263 267.


Short Takes: New CDs featuring Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp

September 14, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp

 Dreams of the San Joaquin (Blix St. Records)

It seems to me that Dreams of the San Joaquin should be the birth of a band.  They are that good together, whatever their sterling individual credits and talents. And San Joaquin wouldn’t be a bad band name.

Throughout there are touches of Johnny Cash — Jack Routh penned several Cash songs; Linda Ronstadt, who has recorded the title song; even early Eagles.  As Ronstadt once said, there is (or was) a form of California Country music.  And Willie could record any number of songs here.  But the sound of this album is also uniquely attuned to the band’s members: the married Randy Sharp and Sharon Rays, daughter Maia  Sharp and family friend Routh.  They variously sing lead vocals and back up and harmonies and a sound emerges that has the sensitivity of C, S & N and the strength of  Willie and his Outlaws in their glory days.

Jack Routh, Maia Sharp, Sharon Rays, Randy Sharp

All have ties to the San Joaquin Valley which has seen Oakies and Arkies come, multi-generations of Mexican farm workers, and more surprising ethnicities including a substantial Portuguese population, the first Sikh place of worship in America and the only town in California, now gone, founded by African Americans.

Several of the eleven songs such as “Burn Day” and “Between the Ice and the Fire” (wish Cash was alive to cover this one) are about love lost or never realized. There are also echoes of Cash in “Beyond the Great Divide” which isn’t only about geography.

The separation brought on by poverty and the search for work and the too often hopeless dream of togetherness is brought to its highest artistic revelation in the title song:

I’m sending you some money — I wish it could be more

            But it’s harder than I thought to find the work I came here for.

The contradiction of a place so beautiful but lousy poor is aching and the longing to be together “in the life we dream about” even more so.  Randy Sharp’s understated yet touching vocals seem to have emerged from stoic men in the Dust Bowl era. And guest Louie Ortega beautifully singing the lyrics in Spanish as counterpoint to Sharp’s vocal on the final chorus makes more universal the experience of days, even years of want.

There’s a touch of Roy Orbison musically and lyrically on “New Way Out” wherein an exit from a relationship without pain is sought in vain.  And the cowboy harmonies remind you that there once was a form known as Country Western, some would argue it was the first form of Country music.

Maia Sharp has a distinctive quality to her voice that is featured on “A Home”.  More about that quality in the review of her own album below, but you’ll need to hear it for yourself if you never have before.

Maia’s Mom, Sharon Bays, lets us know that a bit of drink can make us merry, at least for a while, in “For Old Time’s Sake”. Old times and old timey music are represented on “Or So the Heart Remembers”:

Love just fell apart

            Or so the heart remembers.

In the end, though, however fine so many of the songs on this album, there’s a cumulative effect that satisfies at an even deeper level.  Though most have that as a goal, there are few albums that emerge as an entity, as a fully realized work of art. This one does.

Keep the band together.

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Maia Sharp

Change the Ending (Blix St. Records)

I agree with the title but let me start at the beginning:

Maia Sharp just has this really pleasing voice; smooth, clear, alluring, deep and throaty. The kind of voice you wish an early girlfriend had when you mostly talked on the phone.

So when she starts off with two keep-time-bouncing songs, “Me After You” and “The Middle,” I settled in like putting on the first comfortable old sweater of autumn and said ‘I’m really gonna like this.’ And I did. For the most part.

Maia Sharp

Musically and vocally Maia’s somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Carole King.  But this is a better more rounded voice than either.  She writes about broken love, lost love, yearned for love, even rising above love.  Nothing wrong with that and she makes it all so believable.

Maybe therein lies the trouble. When the songs sound like they are all about your own (dreaded word coming) relationships, the (dreaded word) relationships have to be pretty damn interesting.  It’s hard to get outside yourself and by the end I was just a teeny bit bored, even though the lyrics are always intelligent, thoughtful even.

Only on one song does she seem to reach beyond herself and speak to the larger human condition.  “Standing Out In A Crowd” touches, with Janis Ian pathos, the problem of self consciousness and fear of not fitting in. Too bad in a way, since Maia wrote it, that the song’s already been someone else’s hit.

But I haven’t said enough good about this album.  It’s real good. Maia’s singing throughout is terrific and the band supports her in fine fashion. Guitarist Linda Taylor is a stand out.  And for the first half dozen songs this is a great love song album.

It’s just that it saves the dreary, rather self pity songs and an odd little instrumental remix of one of the album’s strongest songs, “Buy My Love,” for the second half.  And made me want to… change the ending.

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


Live Jazz: Bonnie Bowden at Vitello’s

May 8, 2012

By Norton Wright

It was such a class act, it reminded me of those sophisticated nights long ago at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where the ballroom shows were graced by the likes of Lena Horne and Peggy Lee.

So it was no surprise that jazz songstress Bonnie Bowden’s date on Sunday afternoon at Vitello’s was sold out a week in advance and the waiting list went on forever.  Elegant, sexy, and engaging, Bowden dished up a clinic on how to present a musically delicious show. Here were some of the ingredients:

How to achieve a compelling start?  Enlist a great quartet like Llew Matthews (piano and arranger), Ricky Woodard (tenor sax), Luther Hughes (acoustic bass), and Ralph Penland (drums) and then turn them loose all by themselves to hot up the audience with an opening seven-minute, up-tempo take on the standard “Day By Day.”  And have Ricky Woodard do some great and serious blowing so all in the jam-packed room know it’s time to stop lunching and talking and do some serious listening. This opener was so good, we thought we could have just listened to the band for the rest of the afternoon. I mean, could things get any better? YOU BET!

The star’s entrance:  Quickly and from the very back of the house so everyone in an instant caught the flash of her dramatic crimson blouse, black slacks, and blonde hair pulled back into a diamond clip, Bowden made her way through the audience, up onto the stage, and into her first number. The lyrics told the audience exactly what the ebullient Ms. Bowden wanted them to know, “I Love Being Here With You!”

What’s the show about? Bowden’s easygoing intros to her songs are brief and tell her listeners something about the composers and lyricists and why the songs are special to her. We’re amazed that she’s self-taught in a broad range of music from coloratura opera to country to Broadway, but she loves jazz best, and we’re going to be treated this afternoon to The Great American – and sometimes Great Brazilian — Songbook  by composer/lyricist icons like Jimmy McHugh, Frank Loesser, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gus Kahn, Hal David/Burt Bachrach, Edu Lobo, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, and the list was to go beautifully on and on as the afternoon progressed.

Variety: Bowden has the rare capacity to convincingly turn her song renditions on an emotional dime, and so she paces the running order of her tunes so the moods do change quickly and with lots of surprises. “You Are So Beautiful” by Billy Preston & Bruce Fisher was given a soulful jazz treatment, and the audience figured Bowden was talking directly to them. Her take on “Ain’t We Got Fun” was humorous and satiric, the lyric, ‘The rich get rich and the poor get children’ as biting today as it was when penned by Gus Kahn back in 1922. And in a hot, hip-swivelin’, honkey-tonkin’ surprise, the lissome Ms. Bowden laid a jazz take on Willie Nelson’s country tune, “Crazy,” and risked prompting all the males in the audience to immediately lust after her — and this on a Sunday afternoon!

What can a singer do during the instrumental breaks in the songs she’s singing? Sometimes singers today seem to forget they’re still on stage, and during their band’s instrumental breaks they often search for something to do — like reaching down for a water bottle, publicly gurgling the H20, and then awkwardly regarding their surroundings until it’s time to resume singing… Bonnie Bowden answers the problem by turning to listen intently to each member of her band, genuinely enjoying them and in doing so, becoming at one with her audience. There’s something outright communal in a group of listeners sharing their appreciation of a band’s grooving, and Bowden doesn’t hide the fact that she digs listening to her guys.

Spontaneity: Finally, if the opportunity is there, go for it! Bowden’s affection for Brazilian jazz springs from her singing with Sergio Mendes’ Brazil ’77, and at Vitello’s by mid-set she got into an Ipanema groove singing Edu Lobo’s haunting ballad “Adeus” (“To Say Goodbye”) in perfect Portuguese and then in English. Maybe it was time then to return to the American Songbook, but spotting in the audience the legendary percussionists Paulinho Da Costa from Brazil and Mexican-American Pete Escovedo, she invited them to join with her on stage for composer Jorge Ben’s high-energy, bossa nova song, “Mais Que Nada.” The result was a gas! These two gents can play at least 200 different percussive instruments but with only shakers in Escovedo’s hands and a tambourine in those of Da Costa, they tagged Bowden’s song with such a feast of polyrhythmic accents that she and the audience just loved the fun and surprise of it. Good guys, Bowden gave them kisses, and her band and the audience gave them a great big hand.

Closing out the show were the love songs: “Why Did I Choose You” during which Bowden found a warm and beautifully textured timbre almost indistinguishable from that of Doris Day.  Then a quick change of pace to Jimmy McHugh & Harold Adamson’s  “I Just Found Out About Love”  which Bowden ended on a stratospheric note toward the top of her amazing four-octave range.  And for a finale, Jerome Kern &  Otto Harbach’s  “Yesterdays” in an unconventional and swinging tempo that gave the audience something happy to end on and propelled them to their feet. To see a crowd of 120 people of all ages spontaneously erupt into a standing and joyous ovation was enough to make you believe that Dionysus lives!

Given that competing with Bowden’s show for afternoon attention were the NBA playoffs, various Cinco de Mayo weekend celebrations, a host of tentpole movies, and a Dodger home game, Vitello’s jazz entrepreneur April Williams deserves plaudits for courageously expanding her jazz programs into daytime hours.  And on this particular Sunday afternoon, the sunshine outside Vitello’s was niftily matched inside by the bright glow of Bonnie Bowden, a jazz artist and consummate entertainer whom we’ll be seeing a lot more of.

Congratulations to both Bowden and Williams for trying something new and succeeding. Encore, encore!

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Photos by Bob Barry.

To read more reviews and posts by Norton Wright click HERE.


Live Jazz: Carol Welsman at Vitello’s

April 15, 2012

By Don Heckman

On the road. It’s the one experience that is common to every musician – jazz, country, classical, rock, rap, you name it. It’s almost impossible to have a career making music without having to pack a suitcase and climb into a car, a bus, a train, a boat or a plane.

That was one of the motivations behind singer/pianist Carol Welsman’s new album, Journey. But there were others, as well. The fundamental view of life and love as a journey was one. Plus the very practical fact that the Great American Songbook is bursting with songs inspired by travel.

On Thursday night at Vitello,’s Welsman celebrated the release of Journey with a mesmerizing performance of select songs from the album. Along with a few equally compelling numbers – a high spirited romp through a vocalese rendering of “Cottontail” was one – that had nothing whatever to do with travel.

Carol Welsman

But the centerpiece of the program was a collection of songs rich with the romance and the poignancy, the pleasures and the unpredictables of the journey.

To mention a few of the highlights: Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” was re-imagined with gentle, bossa nova-tinged rhythms. On Bob Russell and John Benson Brooks’ too-rarely heard “You Came A Long Way From St. Louis” Welsman’s blues-inflected interpretation perfectly captured the tune’s sardonic whimsy. Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” another blues-driven tune, emerged as an upbeat swinger.

There was an exquisite rendering of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” sung by Welsman primarily with her own piano accompaniment, delivered in an intimate narrative fashion that found the inner heart of the song. And Henry Mancini’s “Two For The Road,” a tune he described as his own favorite of his many songs, was combined with “Moon River” for yet another affecting view of love’s journey.

And there was more. A lovely pair of travel songs, both dealing with loss in their own unique fashion: the Mercer/Van Heusen classic, “And I Thought About You,” and Peggy Lee and Victor Young’s affecting “Where Can I Go Without You.’ And two blues-driven numbers: B.B. King’s cautionary tale, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon” and Herb Ellis and Johnny Frigo’s metaphoric “Detour Ahead” added another slant.

This far-reaching collection, a compelling overview of the many musical manifestations of journeying, was delivered in memorable fashion by Welsman, with the superlative aid of guitarist Dan Sawyer, bassist Rene Camacho and drummer Jimmy Branley. Singing this kind of material, in a felicitous musical setting, Welsman revealed her remarkable, far reaching range – from her swinging, supportive piano to the warm-toned, richly expressive qualities of her voice. Add to that her gift for musical story-telling, and there’s no wonder why this was such an enchanting evening.

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(Full Disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for Welsman’s “Journey” album. But it’s easy to maintain critical objectivity with someone as talented as Carol.)


Picks of the Week: Mar. 13 – 18

March 13, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Willie Nelson

- Mar. 13. (Tues.)  Willie Nelson and Family. Legendary is a word that actually has some veracity when applied to the music and the career of superstar Nelson.  He makes his first appearance at Disney Hall on a bill that also includes his family members, as well as a group led by his son, Lukas NelsonDisney Hall.   (323) 850-2000.

- Mar. 13. (Tues.)  John Pisano’s Guitar NightPat Kelley’s the guest guitarist, celebrating his birthday in Guitar Night’s loose and swinging format.  Bassist John Belzaguy and drummer Kendall Kay lay down the heat that will keep the music cooking.  Lucy’s 51. Toluca Lake.  (818) 763-5200.

Janicey Brar/Billie Holiday

- Mar. 13. (Tues.)  Janicey Brar. Tribute to Billie Holiday  “Tribute” performers – singers and musicians who take on the persona, the performing style and the image of famous artists – are far more rare in jazz than they are in popular music.  But Milwaukee’s Brar, who spent years impersonating Tina Turner, is one of the exceptions.  The simulation of Billie Holiday that she’s doing for this performance has been praised for its impressive musical and visual qualities.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

- Mar. 14. (Wed.)  Otmaro Ruiz.  Venezuelan-born pianist/composer Ruiz moves comfortably and authentically across stylistic and genre boundaries, playing straight ahead jazz, Latin jazz, pop, rock, salsa, fusion and beyond.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400. http://www.in-housemusic.com/calendar.html

- Mar. 15. (Thurs.) Julie Kelly and Stephanie Haynes. A pair of veteran jazz singers, each with her own unique style, get together for an evening of vocal jazz magic. Neither is heard in the Southland as often as they should be, so don’t miss this chance to check out their engaging skills.  LAX Jazz Club at the Crowne Plaza.  (310) 258-1333.

"Casablanca"

- Mar. 15. – 17. (Thurs. – Sat.)  Casablanca.  Here’s the formula for a truly fascinating evening.  Max Steiner’s memorable score for Casablanca performed by the Pacific Symphony under Richard Kaufman, live in sync with a big screen projection of the cinematic masterpiece.  Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.  (714) 556-2787.

- Mar. 16. (Fri.)  The T.S. Monk Sextet.  Drummer Monk, blessed with the genetic heritage of his father, Thelonious Monk, has established himself as a solid musical talent in his own right.  Carpenter Performing Arts Center.    (562) 985-7000.

- Mar. 16. (Fri.) Jose Rizo’s “Mongorama.” Jose Rizo’s knack for assembling solid musical aggregations continues with the nine-piece Mongorama’s exciting explorations of Mongo Santamaria’s charanga-jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

Frankie Valli

- Mar. 16. (Fri.)  Frankie Valli. The ‘60s teen heartthrob, lead voice of the Four Seasons, revisits some of the iconic group’s hits – “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” “Sherry,” and more. Segerstrom Hall.   (714) 556-2787.

- Mar. 16. (Fri.) Mingus Dynasty. More than 30 years after the passing of Charles Mingus, his music is still being kept vividly alive in the hands of the seven piece Mingus Dynasty Band.  Expect to hear such classics from the large Mingus catalog as “Better Git It In Your Soul, “ “Haitian Fight Song” and Pithecanthus Erectus.”  Royce Hall.  A UCLA Live concert.    (310) 825-2101.  To read Michael Katz’s Reflections on Charles Mingus click HERE.

- Mar. 16 – 18. (Fri. – Sun.)  Chuck Loeb Quartet. Guitarist Loeb celebrates the release of his CD, Plain and Simple, hewing to the title with a program of lively, hard swinging music, baked by the stellar ensemble of  Mitchel Forman, keyboards, Lionel Cordew, drums and Eric Marienthal, saxophones. Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Johnny Mandel

- Mar. 17. (Sat.) Johnny Mandel Big Band. One of the true treasures of contemporary American music – reaching from jazz to film to song and beyond – Mandel makes one of his too rare club appearance, leading a band of all-stars in a program that will be filled with familiar melody and irresistible rhythm.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Mar. 17. (Sat.)  Spectral Scriabin. Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton enliven composer Alexander Scriabin’s desire to blend the spectrum of colors with the full panorama of musical pitches.  The performance includes excerpts from Scriabin’s Poeme Languide in B Major and the Feuillet d’Album in F-sharp Major.  The Broad Stage.    (310) 434-3200.

San Francisco

Dave Grisman

- Mar. 16. (Fri.)  The Dave Grisman Quartet.  Mandolinist Grisman has been one of the primary shapers of contemporary acoustic music for decades. And he’s still finding new expressive methods – currently with a group that includes bassist Jim Kerwin, flutist Matt Eakle, percussionist George Marsh and guitarist Grant GordiYoshi’s San Francisco.    (415) 655-5600.

- Mar. 18. (Sun.)  The Uri Caine Trio. Mention an area of musical expression – from early classical to contemporary electronics to staright ahead jazz –  and pianist/composer  Caine has been there at one time or another.  His current interest focuses on his acoustic jazz piano trio, with John Hebert, bass and Ben Perowsky, drums.  The San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  An SFJAZZ 2012 Spring Season Event.     (866) 920-5299.

Washington D.C.

Stanley Jordan

- Mar. 15 – 18.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  Stanley Jordan.  Solo guitar.  The master of the tap-on style of jazz guitar playing Jordan is always at his best in a solo setting that allows his improvisational imagination to roam freely.  Blues Alley.   (202) 337-4141.

New York

- Mar. 13 – 18.  (Tues. – Sun.)  The Heath Brothers.  Jazz history comes alive when Jimmy Heath, saxophones, Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums get together to recall the high points of their decades of jazz prominence.  They’ll be backed by Jeb Patton, piano and David Wong, bass.  The Village Vanguard.   (212) 255-4037.

- Mar. 13 – 18. (Tues. – Sun.)  Eddie Palmieri.  The veteran pianist/composer/bandleader celebrates  his 75th birthday.  A musical pioneer virtually from the time of his appearance on the scene in the ‘50s, Palmieri has been one of the principal creative forces in the growth of Latin jazz.  The Blue Note.  (212) 475-8592.

Mira Awad and Noa (Achinoam Nini)

- Mar. 15. (Thurs. )  Noa and Mira.  Israeli singers Noa (Achinoam Nini) and Mira Awad are superb artists, dedicated to peaceful coexistence in their country.  Singing in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Israel’s top Jewish (Noa) and Arab (Mira) singer/songwriters perform together on behalf of the Abraham Fund.      The Rose Theatre at Lincoln Center. (212) 258-9800.

Boston

Mar. 17. (Sat.) Betty Buckley.  Tony Award winner (for her role in Cats), Buckley also has a resume listing performances reaching from Broadway musicals to film, television and recordings.  And she is especially compelling when she’s in an up close and personal night club setting, bringing utter believability to every musical story she tells.    The Regatta Bar.    (617) 661-5000.

London

Iain Mackenzie

Mar. 18. (Sun.)  Iain Mackenzie & Swing City.  Mackenzie, one of the U.K.’s favorite jazz singers uses his strong baritone and brisk sense of swing to carry the torch for the vocal tradition of Mel Torme, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra and more.  He’ll be backed by the solid drive of the eight piece Swing City band.  He’ll do a pair of matinee shows – at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Ronnie Scott’s.    020 7439 0747.

Milan

Mar. 15. (Thurs.)  Miroslav Vitous.  Czech-born Vitous was one of the ground breaking acoustic bassists of the ‘70s, often grouped with the likes of Scott Lafaro, Dave Holland and others. Emphasizing his compositional interests in recent years, he makes one of his rare club appearances.  He’ll perform with Robert Bonisolo, saxophone and Aydin Esen, piano.  Blue Note Milan.    02.69.01.68.88.

Tokyo

Mar. 14 – 16.  (Wed. – Fri.)  Billy Childs Quartet. Pianist/composer Childs takes a break from his Chamber Ensemble performances and his role in Chris Botti’s band to stretch out with the world class companionship of Steve Wilson, alto saxophone, Scott Colley, bass and Brian Blade, drums.  Blue Note Tokyo.  03-5484-0088.


Rock CD Review: Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Mean Old Man”

October 26, 2010

Jerry Lee Lewis

Mean Old Man (Verve Forecast)

By Mike Finkelstein

Often, when a host of stars gather together to record with one of their legendary influences, the results are rather ordinary.   Jerry Lee Lewis’ latest release, Mean Old Man, produced by Jim Keltner and Steve Bing, is a refreshing and tasteful departure from this syndrome.  The personnel on this album are indeed stellar, the performances are inspired, and most importantly, the choice of material is winsome.

Jerry Lee Lewis is probably best known as one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll musicians to have huge success, having lit the up the radio world more than 50 years ago with exhilarating and suggestive classics such as “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’On.”    Between his music and his controversial reputation for hard living, he has influenced the tastes and imaginations of generations of musicians. An elite group of these folks helped JLL make this album.  The personnel fills a true A-List and includes Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Tim McGraw, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Slash, Shelby Lynne, John Fogerty, Gillian Welch, Mavis Staples, Robbie Robertson and Nils Lofgren.

Mean Old Man allows Lewis to adapt his vocal and piano styles to material ranging from gospel to rock ‘n roll to several speeds of country. You can hear these folks stepping into the moment and making the songs sound special.   He rocks with guests like Kid Rock and Slash on “Rockin’ My Life Away,” and then with Ringo Starr and John Mayer on “Roll Over Beethoven.”

Lewis and Kid Rock’s approach to the same song are quite a contrast.  Lewis’ vocal sounds warm, poised and soulfully in control, while Kid Rock howls and growls his way through, perhaps giddy to actually be in the studio with the Killer, himself.   Still, what really propels the track is Lewis’ trademark rolling piano meshed with a streamlined boogie-woogie rhythm section.

After listening to Mean Old Man, one cannot help but be impressed by Lewis’ country sensibilities.  All of the tracks in this collection have a country bend in their arrangements, and this suits Lewis’ voice and piano.  Setting his style over steel guitars, skipping snare drums, and simple clean bass lines in the country tradition works like a charm.   He shines as he sings “Swinging Doors” with Merle Haggard and “Whiskey River” with Willie Nelson.   He sings beautiful duets with Gillian Welch on “Please Release Me,” and  “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” that deliver the heartache and lament in sparse, whining glory.  The latter, in particular, is a reminder of the huge value in a good song getting the right arrangement.

No less than three Rolling Stones appear among the guest stars.  With the addition of a fine, swelling steel guitar track and Jerry Lee’s voice “Dead Flowers” transcends into the truly country song it was likely conceived to be.  It’s interesting to hear Mick Jagger singing backups on this very familiar track as it becomes apparent that the sentiments in this song are tailor-made for a voice like Lewis’.   Keith Richards joins Jerry Lee for a romp through “Sweet Virginia” that features a gem of a piano break by Lewis (and cleaner shoes for Virginia).   Ron Wood joins for the title track written by Kris Kristofferson and sung proudly, yet with restraint and resignation, by Lewis.

Time after time on Mean Old Man the songs become topical for Lewis.  Whether the song is about boozing, womanizing, rocking, remorse or redemption they all seem as though they could have been written with him in mind as the singer.  Thanks to Lewis, the star-filled line-up, the arrangements and the performances, this eminently listenable album succeeds in delivering the essence of the songs.


Live Country Music: Willie Nelson and Family at the Greek Theatre

September 28, 2010

By Mike Finkelstein

Last Friday night, Willie Nelson and Family delivered a quickly paced and very satisfying 90-minute set to a Greek Theatre nearly full of his devoted fans.   Performing below an appropriately huge Texas state flag, Nelson and his band held court to present the songs in his inimitably sparse style.   Perhaps it was the balmy weather or just the nature of his appeal, but the ladies in the audience seemed to also be sparsely dressed to impress on a breezy summer evening.   And the smell of burning medicinal herbs intermittently wafted through the air all evening long.

Each song was a carefully timed jaunt through the changes of the tune, allowing just enough time for the flavor of the piece to sink in — and for a bit of improvisation, too.    Nobody played through an amplifier much bigger than a microwave oven and Willie’s amp had a grill in the shape of Texas (of course).

Backing him were his sister Bobbie Lee on piano, long-time cohort Bee Spears on bass, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, his son Lukas on guitar, his son Micah on percussion, and brothers Paul and Billy English on drum (singular!) and percussion.   The band’s sound was subtle and distinctive, in large part because Paul English — mostly playing with brushes and a single snare drum — tickled and coaxed the music along for the whole evening. There was no full drum kit, and it was the lack of bottom heavy percussion that gave the sound so much room to breathe, with Micah playing an assortment of percussive accessories to add some flourishes to the mix.

For those of us who had never seen a Willie Nelson show before, it was gratifying to realize just how involved Willie’s guitar playing actually is and just how beautifully he weaves it together with his voice.  He would typically sing a line in his trademark style of doing the first part of the stanza melodically, but trailing off into a speaking voice at the end of the phrase.   Then, he would quickly counter the vocal line with a lyrical run on his guitar.  These sophisticated runs, short and sweet as they were, lent a remarkable sense of intimacy to the moment, as there was clearly a running dialogue between the two voices.

Nelson’s iconic instrument, Trigger (named after the famous horse), is a one-of-a-kind, weathered old Martin nylon string guitar, so permeated with sweat, smoke, autographs and good music that there is an always widening crevasse between the bridge and the sound hole.  He played Trigger with a pick and let his remaining three fingers sometimes tickle the chords’ upper registers.   This guitar sounds nothing short of magical in his hands and it should eventually wind up in a place like the Smithsonian.

The program Friday night covered a tremendous amount of musical ground and the quick pace of the show seemed born out of necessity.   From standards and chestnuts such as “Move It on Over” to “Shoeshine Man” to “City of New Orleans” to “Georgia on My Mind” and with many of his own hits in between, he offered something for just about every taste.   He had the crowd dancing and singing along with songs like “Crazy,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”   He took the mood into contemplative spaces with songs like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and boozier ones with “Whiskey River,” and “Bloody Mary Morning.”   A song like “On the Road Again,”  about being anxious to get back out on the road and make music with his friends, really does seem to paint a true image of himself.

At the age of 77 Nelson is both a national treasure and a veteran of the road and many of its excesses.   But it was inspiring to see that he was so at ease with the pace of it all onstage.   Absolutely adored by his audience, he spent several minutes shaking hands and signing autographs as the show ended.

Ryan Bingham

The evening was opened by Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses.   Bingham, a gritty rising star in the country field who co-wrote “The Weary Kind” for the Academy Award winning movie Crazy Heart , delivered a fine set and had the crowd with him and building steam towards the end.   Bingham sang songs from his new release, Junky Star, about maintaining his roots and staying true to his values in these difficult times with a rich yet dusty voice that you couldn’t help but be drawn to. Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, sat in for most of the Dead Horses set and, on ballads, played the chromatic harmonica beautifully without the typical blues nuances.

There were times when the Dead Horses had two cranked slide guitars playing in unison and even two harmonicas at one point.   It all worked like a charm.  In marked contrast to many opening acts, the Dead Horses were notable for the ease with which they commanded the stage and for the huge, but not too loud, sound they got out of small amplifiers.   Bingham thanked the crowd for “putting up with (them),” but that was far from the case, as the band’s set was hugely successful.

All in all, a show like this one would stimulate somebody new to country music, or just unconvinced by it, to take an interest in both of these fine artists.

To read more of Mike Finkelstein’s reviews click HERE.


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