Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Music Review: John Daversa -"Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles}

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Since it often seems that musicians by the boatload are busily covering the Beatles Songbook—just Google jazz covers of the Beatles—it might also seem that another album filled with the songs from the Fab Four archive in danger of sinking the boat. Not necessarily. Indeed, not likely, if that album is trumpeter/composer John Daversa’s May release, Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles, recorded live at Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro, California.

Kaleidoscope Eyes is more than an attempt to take a tune and change a tempo or a harmony here and there, rather it is an attempt to reimagine the music, reimagine it in the context of a truly progressive big band. In his rather short liner notes for the CD, trumpet virtuoso Terence Blanchard says the album is “the definition of artistry and creativity.” This is the Beatles’ music like you haven’t ever heard it—at least on some of the nine tracks. “There are different colors and swirls,” Blanchard goes on, “where reality doesn’t seem real anymore. . . .an alternate universe where everything is different.”

Perhaps one good example is the band’s nine and a half minute exploration of “Here Comes the Sun.” Featuring Daversa himself on trumpet, Jeff Driskill on soprano sax, and Bob Carr on bass clarinet, the arrangement begins and ends with a simple statement of theme, but in between it builds an innovative sonic bridge with otherworldly solo work to connect them. This is not to say that “Here Comes the Sun” is an outlier; the album is filled with interesting and inventive interpretations.

The extra-large band, supplemented by strings and vocalists, begins with a dynamic version of “Good Day Sunshine” with beginning with a powerhouse tenor sax opening from Tom Peterson leading to a swinging vocal from Renee Olstead. Olstead returns with some equally impressive vocal work on a beautiful, laid back arrangement of “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” “I Saw Her Standing There” has some interplay between vocal lines from Daversa set into a rap tattoo from tenor sax man Katisse Buckingham. At just over 10 minutes, it is the longest piece on the album.

There are lovely, soft arrangements of “And I Love Her” and “Michelle” complete with some of those swirls that Blanchard talks about. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” begins with a quiet thematic statement on the piano from Tommy King, but is transformed quickly into a multi-instrumental blend, including a cello, a piccolo trumpet, an oboe, a bassoon, a couple of guitars and a trombone. 

The set concluded with “Kaleidoscope Eyes Medley.” “With a Little Help From My Friends” with Daversa on trumpet leads into a drum focused “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” featuring Gene Cove, and a sprightly vocal chorale singing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before ending with a chaotic, blasting “I Am the Walrus.” A reprise of “Good Day Sunshine” ends this very fine set.

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Bright Star" Original Cast Recording

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Were it not for all the hoopla surrounding the musical Hamilton, no doubt the star power of its creators Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, if nothing else, would have garnered the Broadway bluegrass musical Bright Star a greater share of the hype. Not that the production does not deserve it. It does. It has a fairy tale-like book following two stories separated by some 20 odd years—thwarted love in the 1920’s and a young man’s search for his bliss in the 1940’s. Both, of course, come together by the final curtain. It has a fine tuneful score more often Broadway tinged with bluegrass than it is bluegrass tinged with Broadway. Moreover it is filled with fine musical performances by an excellent though perhaps underrated cast, led by Tony nominated Carmen Cusack.

And on May 27, those performances will be available in CD format on Ghostlight Records’ original cast recording.

Cusack, it is true, has much the best material to work with, but also true is that she knocks every chance she gets out of the park. Beginning with a dynamic performance of the show’s opening number, the character defining “If You Knew My Story” through her bravura take on the anthemic ballad that leads to the finale, “At Long Last,” one of the tunes attributed solely to Brickell. The other is another blast for Cusack, the lovely, wistful ”Way Back in the Day.” She joins with Paul Alexander Nolan for a rousing take on “Whoa, Mama,” a tune that reminds me in parts of the classic “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Nolan also takes the lead on the duet “What Could be Better” and retires some on “I Can’t Wait.”  “Heartbreaker” is a melodramatic showpiece for him matching the ensemble piece in the first act, “Please, Don’t Take Him.”

“Bright Star,” the title song, is a pleasant centerpiece for A. J. Shively, who joins with Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett for the jazzy “Another Round.” “Asheville” is a country ballad for Hannah Elless who joins with Shively to do their best with the somewhat treacly “Always Will.”
Bright Star, as the cast recording makes clear, is Carmen Cusack’s show and she makes the most of it.

The album comes with a booklet that includes a synopsis of the story by Bill Rosenfield, complete lyrics, and notes from Brickell, Martin, Rosenfield and album producer and music supervisor Peter Asher.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Music Review: Jane Ira Bloom - "Early Americans"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Early Americans, due for release later this month, is soprano sax specialist Jane Ira Bloom’s follow-up to her 2014 album Sixteen Sunsets. While the earlier album was devoted entirely to ballads, the new disc has Bloom working with a variety of rhythms. While Sixteen Sunsets had a program fairly evenly divided between original compositions and standards, Early Americans consists almost entirely of original pieces. The one exception is Bloom’s solo version of the West Side Story ballad “Somewhere” which closes the 13-tune set. While Sunsets had bloom working with a quartet, here she is pared down to a trio—with Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums.

Now, on the other hand, there is one thing this new project has in common with the older album, and that one thing is some truly great music from an artist who knows how to get the most out of her instrument. She makes her “straight horn” sing through the breadth of its sound palate. From the lightly filigreed to the densely rich, from the melodically mellow to the otherworldly exotic, she plumbs the soprano sax’s full range. The album is a tour de force. Were she a classical artist, one might be tempted to describe her album as a set of etudes for the soprano saxophone. On the other hand, great jazz played with stylish verve and technical expertise is no mean descriptor.

The original pieces run the gamut from the darkly ominous “Dangerous Times” to the Latin flavors of “Rhyme or Rhythm,” from the swinging “Cornets of Paradise” and “Big Bill” to the jumping bop of “Gateway to Progress.” At times subtle, at times direct, the ensemble interplay on tunes like “Hips and Sticks,” “Singing the Triangle,” and “Mind Gray River” is impressive, indeed it is impressive throughout the album. “Song Patrol,” “Nearly (For Kenny Wheeler),” “Other Eyes,” and “Say More” round out the album set list.

When it comes to truly creative work with the soprano sax today, Jane Ira Bloom is the name to remember.


Friday, April 29, 2016

"Providence:" Jazz from Charlie Ballantine

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Providence, the sophomore album from Indianapolis based guitarist Charlie Ballantine due for release on May 6th, is another clear indication that fine jazz isn’t limited only to the usual places. Ballantine, named Indianapolis' "Best Jazz Musician" of 2015 by NUVO Magazine, has put together a powerful set of music emphasizing the diversity of his artistic palate, but focused on this overriding belief in the spiritual nature of art.

On his Facebook page, Ballantine lists a quotation from the great Bill Evans as his favorite quote which could well stand as a motto for this new album: "My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise, a part of yourself you never knew existed." I mean he does call the album Providence for a reason. In a sense the nine-track set is an illustration of the guitarist’s faith in the Evans creed.

Ballantine is working with a quartet featuring saxophonist Amanda Gardier, organist Josh Espinoza, bassist Conner Green and drummer Josh Roberts.

Six of the album tracks are original compositions. There are blues based pieces like his rocking “Roads” and “Conundrum.” There is a more overtly spiritual piece like the gospel flavored “Hopeful Mind.”  There is some old style funk on the opening number, “Old Hammer.” “Eyes Closed” is a haunting, moody melody, while the title tune offers a brighter horizon.

The covers are a short version, a kind of folksy interlude perhaps, of Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Lena Clare,” a dark vision of Tom Waits’ “Temptation” and an elegant version of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah.” This last features some fine alto sax work from Gardier, who also adds some mean soprano sax to “Hopeful Mind.” There is a version of “Hallelujah”available on YouTube. 

Indianapolis, of course is no stranger to great guitarists. Following in the footsteps of an icon like Wes Montgomery, is a daunting prospect. Charlie Ballantine has bravely taken the first of those footsteps. One can only wish him well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Brazilian Jazz from Antonio Adolfo and Carol Saboya

This article was first published at Blogcritics,

Brilliant Brazilian pianist/composer/arranger Antonio Adolfo has been busy. Witness next month’s release of Tropical Infinito a new album that has him fronting an octet enhanced with a horn section, a musical lineup, he explains, he has not used for “a great deal of time.” Witness Carolina, the lovely new album from vocalist Carol Saboya, produced and arranged by Adolfo. And for fans of top flight Brazilian oriented jazz any time Adolfo is busy, that is one very good thing.

With the addition of trumpet/flugelhorn, tenor and soprano sax, and trombone the Tropical Infinito octet works its way through a nine-song set focusing on what could easily be called a Brazilian translation of a variety of jazz classics, plus a selection of Adolfo originals.

They open with two Benny Golson gems, a frenetic version of “Killer Joe” and a witty exploration of “Whisper Not.” The latter featuring a blast of a tenor solo from Marcelo Martins. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” has a noir feel with another fine tenor solo, as well as some wicked work from Leo Amuedo on electric guitar. This is followed by Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” featuring the trumpet of Jessé Sadoc and the trombone of Serginho—would you believe it—Trombone. There is also a quite interesting reinterpretation of the one selection from the Great American Songbook, “All the Things You Are.”

The four original pieces are “Cascavel (Rattle Snake),” “Partido Alto Samba (Light Partido Alto Samba),” “Luar Da Bahia (Moon Over Bahia)” a  kind of nocturne which closes the set, and an eloquent tribute to the composer’s mother “Yolanda, Yolanda.”

Bassist Jorge Helder, drummer Rafael Barata and percussionist André Siqueira round out, with Claudio Spiewak guesting on three tracks, the octet, the same group, with the exception of Trombone and Sadoc, which works behind Saboya.

Carolina is her first U. S. album release since her 2012 debut disc, Belezas – the Music of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento. A voice very like the poplar Astrud Gilberto, she sparkles in Adolfo’s arrangements of eight classic pieces from Brazilian composers. Of course there is Jobim: she begins with “Passarim (Little Bird) and adds “Olha, Maria (Hey, Maria).” There is also a gorgeous version of the famous “A Felicidade (Joy/Happiness)” from Black Orpheus.

“1 x 0,” the title reflecting a soccer score, gets a playful treatment and which includes her interesting vocalise duet with the flute of Martins. “Zanzibar,” which closes the album also features some energetic vocal gymnastics. There are two pop tunes, Lennon and McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye” and Sting’s “Fragile,” and they are pleasant enough, after all she has a beautiful voice, but my own preference is for her work on tunes like Djavan’s “Avião (Airplane) and “Faltando um Pedaço (Missing a Piece).”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review: "A Better Goodbye" by John Schulian

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

A Better Goodbye, the debut novel of sports writer John Schulian, has been compared to the work of a writer like Elmore Leonard, and while this initial effort may not have quite the polish of vintage Leonard, Schulian is painting with a similar palate, relying as much on the creation of absorbing major characters as he does on blood and mayhem.

Set in the gritty Los Angeles of massage parlors, second rate actors, and criminals, some vicious, some wannabees, Schulian focuses on Jenny Yee, a young Asian college student working as a massage girl and Nick Pafko an emotionally broken ex-boxer. Neither is an assembly line product. Yee is cute, not gorgeous. She is in the sex business, but she has strict limits. She reads the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and the novels of Stendahl. Pafko, once a promising fighter, lost his passion and his effectiveness when he accidently killed his opponent during a fight.

Now, down on his luck, he is working as security in a high end massage parlor, run by Scott Crandall, an over the hill actor looking to expand from pimping to other criminal activity. To that end he cultivates the friendship of Onus DuPree, a violent ex-con with a hair trigger temper. This is the quartet of central figures in the novel. And when Pafko and Yee begin to have feelings for each other, and then Pafko and DuPree get into a pissing contest, the scene is set for some inevitable fireworks. And fireworks is what Schulian provides, when DuPree decides first to enlist Crandall to rob one of Yee’s customers, and then double cross Crandall and rob the massage parlor.

The four major figures are surrounded by a supporting cast of less fully developed, indeed often stereotyped characters: a benevolent fatherly fight trainer, a shyster lawyer, a sports writer down on his luck, plus a variety of johns and an assortment of massage girls with made-up names like Sierra, Kianna, Twyla, Rikki and Ling, to name  just a few. These are the kinds of background characters—those that E. M. Forster called “flat characters”—that satisfyingly provide breadth and context, but don’t need to be fleshed out with a lot of detail.

Schulian tells a good story: A Better Goodbye will have you turning pages with anticipation as it builds to a crescendo and then rewards you with a smash bang finale.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Music Review: Darren English - "Imagine Nation"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Darren English, a young trumpeter from Cape Town, South Africa now living in Atlanta, makes his recording debut with the March release of Imagine Nation. Fronting a rhythm section featuring Kenny Banks, Jr. on piano, Billy Thornton on bass and Chris Burroughs on drums along with guest shots on selected tracks by vocalist Carmen Bradford, tenor sax player Greg Tardy and trumpeters Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden, he runs through a 10-piece set highlighted by an original three-part suite celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid.

The three tunes in the suite are the album’s opening title piece, the punning “Imagine Nation” and “Pledge for Peace” (which includes spoken word sections from Mandela) and “The Birth” which follow later in the set. Since he calls this a suite, I would normally expect the three elements to follow each other. Why, English chose to separate them, I have no idea. Indeed, they seem to play just as reasonably as separate pieces. There is one other original composition, a tribute to Russell Gunn leader of the Krunk Jazz Orkestra which English calls “Bullet in the Gunn.” English is a member of the Gunn orchestra and plays on their recent release The Sirius Mystery.

The rest of the album is made up of well-known standards giving the trumpeter the opportunity to showcase his own original steps down well-worn paths. So for example when he plays the opening melody of the venerable “Body and Soul” without his mouthpiece, he seems to be serving notice of something new in contrast to the lovely tones that follow with the reintroduction of the mouthpiece. Whether it works or not is open to question.

He does a super job on the other hand working with Gunn and Gransden on an exciting version of the old Charlie Barnet showpiece “Cherokee” and his take on the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Bebop” is a winner as well. Bradford does a fetching vocal on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do (To You)” and they work elegantly together on “Skylark.”

If his debut is any indication, both as composer and performer, Darren English is a force to be reckoned with.