Friday, May 22, 2015

Ghost Train Orchestra - "Hot Town"

This article was first published at Blogcritics:

Hot Town, Ghost Train Orchestra’s third album, follows in the very large footsteps the ensemble created for itself with its 2011 debut Hothouse Stomp, an album that made it on to the NPR top ten jazz releases of the year, and its equally fine sophomore effort, Book of Rhapsodies (2013). Like its predecessors, the album specializes in band music from the early decades of the last century, not the big names spotlighted over the years, but lesser known outfits—indeed, names long forgotten if ever known even to the most avid jazz fans. Nonetheless it is fun music, and in the hands of the Ghost Train Orchestra’s musical director and arranger trumpeter Brian Carpenter, it is music that sparkles.

According to Carpenter’s liner notes, the new album features unreleased arrangements omitted from the debut disc along with some new pieces. The music is culled from Chicago and New York based bands like Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra, Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys, Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, and Tiny Parham and His Musicians. This is not a sentimental nostalgia trip. It’s hard to be nostalgic for the music of a quartet of bands you’ve never heard of. The Ghost Train Orchestra takes this music and fits it out for a new day. It is music that has been nursed, rehearsed and pushed through a horn giving birth to the blues with a modern touch and a something more as well.

Ghost Train opens with the album’s title song which has an almost otherworldly quality at the beginning before it moves into a train imitation and blasts into the hot town. They end the set with the jumping “Charleston is the Best Dance After All.” In between there are forgotten gems like the quirky “Mo’lasses,” a happy romp through “Skag-A-Lag,” a low down “Harlem Drag” and “Bright Boy Blues.” There are vocals by violinist Mazz Stewart on “You Ain’t the One” and “You Can’t Go Wrong.”

Hot Town is music you’ve more than likely never heard before, but more than likely it is music you’ll want to hear again. . .and again; it’s that infectious.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Music Review: Harold Mabern - "Afro Blue"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Harold Mabern, veritable titan of the piano whose vibrant disc, Right on Time, launched Smoke Sessions Records critically acclaimed jazz series is back with another winning album, Afro Blue. This time he is working both with his basic quartet—tenor sax man Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth—and an impressive roster of guest performers highlighted by five top jazz  vocalists, Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling and Alexis Cole plus instrumentalists Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone) and Peter Bernstein (guitar). It is a disc crowded, but never as is sometimes the case in these star studded compilations, over crowded, with talent and fine music.

Although the 14-tune set begins with an instrumental, Mabern’s salute to John Coltrane “The Chief” and ends with a trio of instrumentals including some sweet guitar work from Bernstein on the Steely Dan classic “Do It Again,” the emphasis on this album is support for the vocalists. As Mabern says in his dialogue with Damon Smith that makes up the album’s liner notes: “I love to play for singers because that’s really how you learn to play the piano jazz-wise. . . .It’s a tremendous challenge to play for a vocalist. You’ve got to orchestrate when you play for them.” His work with the vocalists on Afro Blue makes clear that his reputation as one of the finest of accompanists is not exaggerated. He supports the singer with assurance and never tries to steal the spotlight.

Of all the performances, I found Kurt Elling’s dramatically passionate reading of “You Needed Me” most compelling. Not that there is anything wrong with any of the others, but there was an intensity here that made the track something special.  He also does yeoman work on “Portrait of Jennie” and his “Billie’s Bounce” is characteristic Elling vocalese at its swinging best. Jane Monheit, after a sensitive reading of “My One and Only Love,” takes a sprightly turn on “I’ll Take Romance,” while Mabern playfully captures the meaning of the cliché, “tickle the ivories.” Norah Jones, dueting with Mabern’s solo piano, hits all the emotional beats in Gordon Parks’ “Don’t Misunderstand” and her “Fools Rush In” with Pelt and Turre added to the quartet is enticing. Gregory Porter opens the vocals with the album’s title tune, and a laid back reading of Mabern’s “The Man from Hyde Park.” Alexis Cole closes out the vocals with a robust version of Mabern’s “Such is Life.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wes Montgomery - "In The Beginning" - Jazz Review

This article was first published at Blogcritics

While it is a truism worth remembering that the early work of a great artist is unlikely to equal the work of his maturity, it is also true that any work produced by a genius demands attention. At the very least it gives an insight into the artist’s development; at its best, it reveals an artist whose talent shown through from earliest days. The discovery of previously unreleased material from such an artist is never without interest.

So when Resonance Recordings comes out with a deluxe two-disc set of early tracks from one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the last century, Wes Montgomery, attention must be paid. The album, In The Beginning contains 26 tracks from the years 1949 through 1958. It includes club dates, recording sessions, and jams from the Mongomery-Johnson Quintette which featured the three Montgomery brothers, pianist Buddy, bassist Monk along with Wes and tenor sax man Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson and drummer Sonny Johnson, a set of five Quintette tracks produced by the young Quincy Jones for Epic Records in 1955 only one of which, “Love for Sale” was ever released and an assortment of other pieces.

Disc One has 14 Montgomery - Johnson tracks recorded in 1956 at the Turf Club in Indianapolis. They run through some driving takes of tunes like "After You’ve Gone,” “Four,” and “My Heart Stood Still.” There is an enticing take on the John Lewis composition, “Django” and a blues jam featuring an Andrews vocal. This may be young Montgomery, but it is fine Montgomery already showing his chops. The disc closes with a private recording of a jam which has Wes playing bass on “Ralph’s New Blues.” There are two vocal tracks from Debbie Andrews: “Going Down to Big Mary’s” and the standard “I Should Care.”

The second disc begins with quartet versions of “Soft Winds,” “Robbin’s Nest,” and “A Night in Tunisia” recorded in 1958 at the Missile Lounge in Indianapolis in 1958. It has Montgomery working with a variety of other musicians on individual tracks: Melvin Rhyne and Richard Crabtree on piano, Flip Stewart and brother Monk on bass and Paul Parker on drums. The Jones produced tunes include three Montgomery originals—“Leila,” “Blues,” and “Far Wes.” The disc ends with a set of three pieces recorded for Spire Records in 1949—“King Trotter,” “Carlena’s Blues,” and “Smooth Evening” with a vocals on the last two from Sonny Parker.

The set comes with a 55 page booklet complete with some vintage photographs and notes from producer Zev Feldman and authors Ashley Kahn and Bill Milkowski. There are excerpts from an unpublished book from Buddy Montgomery as told to Joseph Woodard, conversations with others and an appreciation from Pete Townshend.

The recording on some of the tracks leaves something to be desired, but the music gives a real taste of the great things to come. In The Beginning is not the mature Wes Montgomery at the top of his game, but early Montgomery is nothing to sneer at.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: "The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings" (Vinyl or CD)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Put two great artists in a recording studio and leave them to their own devices, and if those artists are Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, you’re likely to come up with something special. At least that’s what you’d expect. And while just how special the music from the duo’s 1975 and 1976 sessions which produced first The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and then its sequel Together Again is debatable. There is no debate but that the performances are exceptional, even, if at least for some listeners, not quite as exceptional as expected: once again suffering the curse of great expectations.

Now comes the release April 28, of a “deluxe” four-LP Box set of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings, and it is something of a mixed blessing. The set includes both original albums plus two discs made up of bonus tracks and alternate takes, as well as what they call a “collectible 12X12 photograph” of the duo  and a 12-page booklet with liner notes by Will Friedwald. But since the music itself is already available on a 2009 two-disc CD, the audience for the new release would seem to be the audiophile with a jones for vinyl and the most devoted of Bennett, Evans fans, the kind of obsessive collectors who must have everything.

Since I only had access to CD versions of the “Audio from the Forthcoming Vinyl Box Set,” which I presume is comparable to, if not actually the same as the 2009 release, I have no way of commenting on the sound quality of the new release. As far as the music itself, Bill Evans can’t make a mediocre album, and Tony Bennett in the seventies is at his best, so put me in the great expectations met camp. Their alternate takes would have been gems for other artists. And it is interesting to hear and try of compare rejected takes with those used on the album.

The songs for the album were chosen on the spot. Bennett and Evans worked out the arrangements “semi-spontaneously.” There are a number of stalwarts from the Great American Songbook: tunes like “Young and Foolish,” which opens the first album, “My Foolish Heart,” “Make Someone Happy,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” There are some less familiar pieces, songs like “When in Rome” and “You’re Nearer.” There is a version of the classic Evan’s instrumental, “Waltz for Debby” with lyrics by Gene Lees (although why you would want to burden that masterpiece with lyrics is beyond me).

I can’t speak for the vinyl set, but the two-CD album is a joy.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review- "Red Cavalry" by Isaac Babel

This article was first published at BlogcriticsWhile it is true that the more you know about Russia’s 1919-1920 war with Poland, the easier it is to understand all the nuances in Isaac Babel’s collection of short stories Red Cavalry, it is no less true that even without that knowledge the book is a treasure to be savored. Babel, who served as a correspondent during the war, published the stories first in a number of periodicals and then as a book in 1926. A final story, “Argamak,” was added as a postscript in 1933. All 35 stories are newly translated by Boris Dralyuk in this new edition from Pushkin Press.

Often acknowledged as the most significant of the Russian-Jewish authors writing in the Russian language, many of his best stories in Red Cavalry deal with the alienation he felt as both a Jew and an intellectual. Certainly the key example is perhaps the best known story from the collection, “My First Goose.” The narrator, presumably Lyutov who seems to be the narrative voice throughout the book, but is often unnamed in specific stories, describes his reception joining with the Sixth Division. The officers immediately see him as a problem and the Cossacks want no part of him.

Babel, as he often does in his stories, spotlights the precise detail to illustrate his point, in this case the alienation is clear from the reaction to the narrator’s glasses. It is the glasses that sets him apart from the others and they make him welcome by throwing his trunk over a gate and passing gas. It is only when he kills a peasant woman’s goose and orders her to prepare it for his diner that they are willing to accept him as one of their own. When a Rebbe’s son is seen smoking on the Sabbath in “The Rebbe” or the narrator is unable to ride a horse in the acceptable Cossack manner in “Argamak,” these are the kind of seemingly random details that tell the real story.

War is brutal and brutalizing. The language used to describe it may at times be poetic, but the poetry pales in context. A vicious soldier yearns for the warmth and beauty of Italy while persecuted Jews live in squalor. The content may verge on the comical. A woman pretends to be nursing a sack of salt swathed in cloth in order to get aboard a train. A renegade artist uses villagers as models for his religious icons.

If there is poetry, it is poetry painting over a hellish vision.  If there is comedy, it is comedy of the blackest sort. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Music Review: Annie Ross Salutes Billie Holiday in "To Lady With Love"

This article was first publishereired at Blogcritics

Near the beginning of her interview on the DVD that accompanies her tribute album to the great Billie Holiday, To Lady With Love, Annie Ross tells the story about how she first met Lady Day when she was called upon to stand-in for her at an Apollo Theater gig. She recalls her trepidation at filling in for a singer she had idolized since she was a teen, and she recalls Holiday’s supportive reaction to her performance as she fell into the star’s arms when it was over. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted through the rest of Holiday’s life.

Ross, now in her eighth decade and understanding her own voice is no longer what it was when she became famous as a member of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, rather than looking to work with material from when Holiday was at  the heights of her vocal powers, chooses to honor her by revisiting Holiday’s 1958 sunset recording, Lady In Satin, a recording made when Holiday too was reaching the end of her remarkable career. With the exception of a short into and an original concluding piece, “Music is Forever,” a kind of musical catalogue of the greats who have passed on, as well as an additional song or two, the bulk of the album is devoted to covers of songs from the Holiday album.

Whether she is covering classic tunes like “For All We Know” and “You’ve Changed” or less well known pieces like “Violets for Your Furs,” there is a heartfelt emotional honesty in the drama of her vocal stylings that makes up for the vocal limitations of age. Like Holiday back in the day, Ross knows what she can do with her instrument, and what she can’t. Ross is a pro. She reminds me of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the aged warrior refusing to “rust unburnish’d,” setting out to do something great again before the inevitable end. Ross gives a heroic performance.

Other tunes in the set include “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and “Travelin’ Light.”

She is accompanied brilliantly by the guitars of Bucky and John Pizzarelli.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Music Review: Lisa Hilton - "HORIZONS"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

HORIZONS, the latest album from Lisa Hilton, is simply more proof that when it comes to jazz piano, she ranks with the best of them. The creative intelligence of her original compositions combines with her sensitive craftsmanship to define the road ahead for post bop jazz. Her music, built upon classical and jazz influences, is both sensuously lyrical and improvisationally rich. It is the kind of music that rewards attention: the more you listen, the more there is to hear.

HORIZONS takes its inspiration from nature,” she writes in her blog. “Every day I see so much beauty, truth, and healing after difficulties in nature.  In our highly tech world, I believe we need nature and art more than ever, so we have tried to explore these ideas musically through sound, melody and improvisation to create a sense of expansiveness, depth, beauty and hope for today and our future.” It’s the kind of programmatic approach that has fueled much musical composition from Vivaldi to Ellington.

Leading a quintet featuring J. D. Allen on tenor sax, Sean Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn, Greg August on bass and Rudy Boyston on drums, Hilton runs through a 12-tune set made up of nine original pieces and three covers.  Her trio arrangement of the Duke’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” is suitably retro, while her take on the Black Keys “Gold on the Ceiling” is a rhythmic adventure fueled by bass and drums. She gets everyone involved in her evocative arrangement of the classic “Moon River,” with some especially soulful work on flugelhorn from Jones.

Her own “Vapors and Shadows” opens the album and sets the tone for what is to come. It is a melodic jewel. “Nocturnal,” which follows, is more upbeat than its title might suggest; it bounces with a Latin beat, and “Surfer Blues” takes the traditional blues up a notch.  She does a beautiful solo piano take on “When it Rains.” The opening of “Lazy Moon” puts the emphasis on evoking the “lazy” and working it ambitiously. “Dolphins” goes in a more playful direction, and “Currents” ends the set on an expansive note. 

Hopefully, Lisa Hilton’s HORIZONS, unlike that other Hilton’s horizon, once found will not be lost.