Thursday, September 3, 2015

Short Review:"The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas

At times fawning, at times snarky attempt to explain the enduring popularity of Holmes and Watkins in all their many manifestations over the years. His conclusions are not very satisfying and don't justify almost 300 pages of text. In the end it is his compulsive fandom and that of all the others he talks about in the text that supply the book's real interest.

From Goodreads:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Music Review: Rob Reddy - "Bechet: Our Contemporary"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Composer and saxophonist Rob Reddy’s Bechet: Our Contemporary is one of the more interesting tribute albums released recently. True to its title, the album honors the pioneering soprano saxophonist not by mere regurgitation like some, but by using his music for creative inspiration. It is as though he is presenting a musical vision of what Bechet’s music might be, was he playing today.

Reddy makes clear what he feels the album is after in the liner notes: “The idea of entering into a conversation with an iconic body of work as a means of engaging my own questions and those of the time and culture in which I live was at the heart of what I wanted to do with the compositions of Sidney Bechet.” If success is defined as fulfilled intention, Bechet: Our Contemporary is an unqualified success. Perhaps even more importantly, if success is defined as great listening, that success is equally unqualified.

Reddy sets up his dialogue by alternating the album’s eight song program between his own original compositions and those of Bechet. He opens with his own “Up – South.” A clear indication from the very start of where he is going as he takes the New Orleans traditions associated with Bechet and translates them into an inventive modern idiom. It is much like a contemporary deconstruction of the tradition. New Orleans and its vibe are always there, sometimes up front, often in the shadows.

This even more evident in the treatment of the Bechet songbook. The atmospheric classic “Petite Fleur” and the lengthy exploration of Mid-Eastern exoticism in his work on “Song of Medina” give Reddy and his ensemble the opportunity to stretch, and they take it with gusto. The other Bechet pieces on the set are “Chant in the Night” which has Lisa Parrott guesting on the baritone sax and a lively “Broken Windmill,” which has Oscar Noriega guesting on clarinet.

Reddy’s soprano sax is complimented throughout by John Carlson on trumpet and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. They are joined by Charles Burnham on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, Marvin Sewell on guitars, Dom Richards on double bass and Pheeroan Aklaff on drums. Reddy’s arrangements give each and every one of them plenty of time to shine, and they make sure to take advantage of their opportunities.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"Orange is the New Black's" Lea DeLaria Sings David Bowie

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, the only thing you know about Lea DeLaria, is her fine-tuned portrayal of Big Boo, the butch lesbian in Orange is the New Black, you’ve got a surprise coming. Turns out DeLaria is one stylish jazz singer with a voice belied by her television image. This lady can sing. The proof is in her recently released album, House of David, a collection of a dozen David Bowie compositions. These are not ordinary run of the mill covers. Joined by a varying ensemble of swinging musicians, DeLaria transforms the songs, takes them and makes them her own.

As she explains in a short liner note, she fell in love with Bowie’s music back in 1972 when, hanging out in a boyfriend’s basement, she first heard the strains of “Starman.”  It was a love she defines in superlatives: “David Bowie, God of Rock. . . . David Bowie, to me, the defining singer-songwriter of the latter part of the 20th century.” Even without her praise, her passion for the music is clear in her performance.

From the very first song, “Fame,” her arrangement lets you know she is not interested in mere pop copies. Her vocals are crisply inventive and her band is tight. It is only a taste of the goodies to come. She follows with excellent versions of “Space Oddity,” “Golden Years,” and “Suffragette City” before getting to her own take on “Starman.” Here she spotlights her rich voice by paring down the ensemble to a quartet featuring sweet solo work from Kevin Hays on piano and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

Other highlights are the even more greatly pared down “Let’s Dance” where she works with Hays and Tony Scherr on acoustic bass, and “Boys Keep Swinging” with some swinging tenor sax from Seamus Blake. “Life on Mars?” is a dark torch song that builds to a dynamic emotional climax, while “The Jean Genie” has a funky vibe. The set ends with Bowie classics “Modern Love” and “Young Americans.” By the time you get to the end of the album if you don’t feel that Bowie is a god, you may well feel that Lea DeLaria is a goddess. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Music Review: "Te Extraño Buenos Aires"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Perhaps it’s my imagination, perhaps my ignorance, perhaps both, but it seems to me that of all the Latin American dance genres—the bossa nova, the rhumba, the samba—the tango has never really captured the attention of jazz artists with quite the same zeal. Of course even if true there are exceptions, and certainly one important exception is the pianist/composer Roger Davidson. With three albums of tango music under his belt, now comes Te Extraño Buenos Aires a collection of 15 of his original tangos, and the first of his recordings on which he is not playing.

Pointing out that composers want their music to be played by as many hands as possible, for this new album recorded in Buenos Aires, his music was entrusted to the cream of local musicians who clearly knew what to do with it. The 15 songs were divided between three Argentinian pianist/arrangers: Andrés Linetzky, Abel Rogantini and José “Pepe” Motta. Violinist Ramiro Gallo, bandoneonist Nicolás Enrich and bassist Pablo Aslan, the album’s producer, complete the ensemble. Each of the pianists was given the opportunity to take the music in his own direction while remaining close to Davidson’s tune. In effect Davidson’s lyrical music is given three different voices on the one album.

The result is a gorgeous blend of melody and rhythm, a blend in tunes like “No Importa,” which opens the set, “Si Lion de Toi” and “Tango Triste” likely to get even those with two left feet up on the dance floor. A song like “Perdida” has a definite jazz vibe; a song like “Alicia” is arranged in the classic tango style. Indeed most of the album seems to take that more classic approach to the genre, and that approach is not to be sneered at. 

While this musical approach is not particularly adventurous, while it is even music with a retro feel, it is lush and full blooded; it is music that excites.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Book Review: "90 Church: Inside America’s Notorious First Narcotics Squad" by Dean Unkefer

This article was first published at Blogcritics:

Before there was a DEA, America’s war on drugs was handled by an agency called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The New York office was headquartered at 90 Church, a retired post office in Lower Manhattan, hence the title of Federal Agent Dean Unkefer’s wildly violent memoir of his time with the Bureau, 90 Church: Inside America’s Notorious First Narcotics Squad. It is a story of a squad of agents bent on doing whatever it took to make cases against the drug hierarchy. They were uninterested in the small fish, unless they could be used to get to the bigger fish. They were not only firm believers in the idea that the ends justified the means, they also saw nothing wrong with using those means for their own benefit. It is an account of police authorities acting as badly as the criminals they seek, often worse.

Unkefer arrives with his family from the mid-west in 1964, a naif still wet behind the ears. He has all sorts of ideas about fighting for truth, justice and the American Way, a creed he learned as a child watching Superman, but it doesn’t take long for him to understand that at 90 Church things don’t quite work that way. His memoir is a collection of scams, shoot outs and double crosses, the kinds of stories you’d likely find in a James Elroy novel.

You meet agents like the wise cracking Dewey Paris and the master planner Michael Giovanni. You meet entrapped informants like the ad man Eliot Goldstein and the low level pusher Pepper. You meet organized crime big shots like Dominic Scarluci and the Medally Brothers. All drawn with the kind of realism that suggests that the narrator knows what he is talking about and no matter how hard to believe, what he is telling you is in fact what was going on.

Unkefer writes with conviction. Despite the fact that he has changed names, despite the fact that he invents conversations and dialogue, despite the fact that his account reads like a novel, the reader can’t help but wanting it all to be true, all to be just the way he describes it. Perhaps this is because he is as hard on himself and his own dishonorable behavior as he is on everyone else in the book. He never paints himself as a saint. He does drugs. He cheats on his wife. He uses junkies. He may feel bad about it at first, but he doesn’t stop. And if he’s willing to say these things about himself, what he says about others would have to be true. If this were a novel, Unkeefer would be the very model of the reliable narrator. He calls 90 Church a memoir, and I for one am willing to believe him.

And if the ‘good guys’ are sometimes just as bad as the ‘bad guys,’ indeed sometimes worse, that may well be a very accurate description of reality.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Music Review: Airelle Besson/Nelson Veras – ‘Prelude’

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Proving once again that musical preconceptions are worthless, comes Prelude, an album featuring an unlikely duo combining trumpet and guitar. Who would imagine that such a duo could hold an audience’s attention over the whole of an album? So perhaps it isn’t surprising that given that kind of preconception, it took me four months to give this January release a listen. The trouble is that when your duo combines a trumpeter as fine as Airelle Besson with a sensitive guitarist like Nelson Veras, preconceptions are meaningless, and in this case they unreasonably kept the album on the shelf gathering dust.

                                                           Photo credit:

Fine musical talent in almost any combination can be successful. You need to listen to the product to make any sort of adequate judgment, and listening to the dozen tracks laid down by Besson and Veras will very quickly demonstrate that truth. Prelude is filled with gorgeous music. Besson’s playing is often magical and Veras works hard to keep that magic front and center. These are artists that complement each other completely.

Whether they are reinvigorating a classic like “Body and Soul” or taking on an original composition like Veras’ “Vertiges,” they have an infectious passion for the strong melodic line. Theirs is music you want to listen to carefully as they develop and play with musical ideas. The atmospheric treatment of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “O Grande Amor” is a further case in point.

The lion’s share of the album, however, is made up of Besson originals. A fine composer, Besson’s compositions are as high in quality as her work on the trumpet. The duo opens the album with her “Ma Ion,”which she introduces with a haunting solo, and then moves on to the quirky Latin rhythms of “Pouki Pouki.” “Neige,” “Full Moon in K,” and “Lulea’s Sunset” are programmatic pieces with cleverly evocative themes. “Virgule” is an improvised piece for Besson, and “Birsay” and “Time to Say Goodbye” round out the album.

Prelude is very convincing proof that music doesn’t have to be the same old same old to make for some fine listening.

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.