Friday, February 20, 2015

Music Review: Josh Nelson - "Exploring Mars"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Pianist, composer Josh Nelson’s follow-up to his 2011 science fiction inspired album Discoveries, Exploring Mars, delivers everything you would expect from an album with that title. Taking inspiration from actual science as well as science fiction, Nelson takes the listener along on a journey of musical exploration of variations on his Martian theme. There are tracks devoted to the exploratory rovers. There are tracks devoted to Martian geography.  There are tracks devoted to earlier imaginative explorations in music and literature.

He opens the 10-track set with “Bradbury’s Spirit,” a composition that in a real sense bridges the scientific and the imaginative. Over an understated evocative waltz, Nelson reads a passage from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a passage that describes a mystifying musical performance and its effects. It is a quite effective prelude to the album’s programmatic concept combining Spirit and Bradbury.

“Sojourner” follows featuring guitarist Larry Koonse and Nelson on piano as it like its namesake takes its exploratory journey. Koonse and his solo guitar handle the first of the geographically inspired pieces, “Memnonia Quadrangle,” leading to a haunting ballad, “How You Loved Me On Mars” with a pure and sensitive vocal interpretation from Kathleen Grace. Larry Goldings adds B3 accompaniment.

“Opportunity” is an otherworldly up-tempo piece which gets some exotically strange sounds from Nelson on the Nord Electro 3. Drummer Dan Schnelle takes over for a percussive rhapsody in “Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars.” This leads to “Mars, The Bringer of War,” the one piece on the album not composed by Nelson. Instead it is his adaptation of the first movement of Gustave Holst’s The Planets for the piano creating what he calls an arrangement “sort of like a Bill Evans Conversations with Myself approach to overdubbing.” Interestingly, Larry Goldings in the liner notes uses the phrase “converse with himself” to describe Nelson’s work on “Opportunity” trading solos on the piano and synthesizer as well.

“Curiosity” and “Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea” highlight the EVI (the Electro Valve Instrument), which like the Nord gives the pieces that spacey other worldly sound. For those of you like me unfamiliar with the EVI an interesting explanation of how the instrument is played and its range is available from John Swana on YouTube. The set closes with a reprisal of “Spirit,” this time without the spoken word passage, focusing attention on the music where indeed it belongs.

For the timid souls among us unlikely to be exploring anything at all, let alone Mars, Josh Nelson’s Exploring Mars offers a welcome taste of what we’re missing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Music Review: Branford Marsalis - "In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

A solo saxophone recital may not be the typical jazz lover’s idea of a good time, but if it is Branford Marsalis playing that saxophone, minds may well need to be changed. In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral, the album released last October, has the virtuoso taking center stage at the venerable scene of the famed Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts for his debut as a solo artist.

Certainly one expects technical perfection, and Marsalis delivers. But technical perfection alone may not be all that satisfying. Technical perfection is often mechanical and uninspired. Playing a lot of notes at warp speed will not always cut it. There must be more; there must be creativity in the moment. There must be an emotional investment by the artist. Marsalis understands what he needs to do and clearly he is up to the task.

Creativity in the moment is featured in four improvisations, the third of which has the artist working with a siren that happens by during the performance. Each of the four gives Marsalis a chance to show his different sides—melodic, meditative and technically proficient. He can evoke laughter in the audience with a witty programmatic moment in his own composition, “The Moment I Recall Your Face;” he can turn to a more abstract construct in his translation of the first movement of C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for Oboe Solo to the tenor sax. He can even take the abstraction up a level with his version of Ryo Noda’s “MAI. Op. 7.”

In many respects, for me at least, he is at his best with his “Blues For One,” a rousing blues that concludes the concert, before he comes back for an unplanned encore, which, hard to believe, is the theme from the old Carol Burnet TV show, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” a theme he ends with a squawk and a whimper. Other highlights are the set opener, a soprano sax take on sax master Steve Lacy’s “Who Needs It,” and an exciting version of the classic “Stardust.”

Perhaps the depth of Marsalis’s emotional investment in measured in an anecdote relayed in Rafi Zabor’s liner notes. Originally Marsalis had planned to play two classics—“Stardust” and “Body and Soul.” It was only when he heard recording of the concert played back, that he realized that instead of the “Body and Soul,” he had played the Hoagy Carmichael piece twice. We only get it once on the album, and we can only lament the loss of his “Body and Soul.”

Monday, December 29, 2014

Jimmy Greene - "Beautiful Life" Reviewed

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Back in 1833, British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson dealing with the untimely death of his great friend Arthur Henry Hallam, wrote one of greatest poems in the English language—In Memoriam. Faced with the idea that critics might find the idea of writing poetry when one was grief stricken off putting to say the least, he considered their criticism. He understood their objection, and he had an explanation. In practicing his art, the thing he was best at, working his work as it was given to him, there was a relief:

. . . for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

There may be nothing so tragic as the loss of a child. And if in dealing with tragedy a poet turns to his poetry, it is no shock that in like circumstances, a musician would turn to his music. Like the poet, he sings because he must. Saxophonist Jimmy Greene lost his daughter Ana on December 14, 2012 in the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. His album, Beautiful Life released in November is his In Memoriam. It celebrates the life of his daughter and honors those who died with her. It is a musical expression of the artist’s faith in the healing power of music.

Greene has put together a ten song set that moves from instrumental jazz to show tunes, from spirituals to faith based Christian music. He is backed by a top flight rhythm section featuring pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash, plus a flock of guest artists on individual tracks.

Guitarist Pat Metheny joins in on the initial number “Saludos/Come Thou Almighty King” which opens and closes with some heartbreaking recordings of daughter Ana singing. Other vocalists on the project include Javier Colon singing Greene’s lyric for “When I Come Home,” Latanya Farrell working on “Prayer,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer which also includes pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and Kurt Elling singing “Ana’s Way” along with the Linden Christian Early Years Choir which includes classmates of Ana.

The basic quartet works out a pensive “Last Summer” and “Seventh Candle,” and he and pianist Kenny Barron get together for “Where is Love” from Oliver and “Maybe” from Annie. The album concludes with a spoken word performance of Greene’s “Little Voices.”
Beautiful Life is an emotionally charged musical celebration of a life too soon lost. It is the kind of album you can’t help but appreciate, while you can’t help praying there will never need to be another like it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Red Molly - The Red Album: Review

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, The Red Album released back in May is your first acquaintance with Red Molly, a vocal trio that has been around for a decade, we have missed a lot, but at least there is one consolation. We have ten years’ worth of what promises to be excellent music, a half dozen albums, waiting for us.
Red Molly—Laurie MacAllister, Abbie Gardner, and Molly Venter—is an acoustic band that lives on the border of country and western and folk music. The ladies, often praised for their supple vocal harmonies, play a variety of instruments and write more than their share of impressive music. While five of the songs on The Red Album are covers, the rest of the 13 track set are originals by one of the Mollies. They clearly, each and every one of them, have a fine tuned sense of the kind of musical soundscape best suited to their aesthetic.

A tune like “Willow Tree,” written by Venter and Eben Pariser, could well have been a traditional piece handed down from generation to generation, it has both a musical and poetic authenticity. Venter takes the lead vocal and the others the harmony; Gardner plays dobro. On the other hand, a tune like Mark Erelli’s “Pretend” gives the trio an opportunity to show off their feel for the swinging Dixie vibe. MacAllister takes the lead on this one and trombonist Herb Gardner—Pops—makes a cameo. Gardner takes the lead on her gospel rocker “Lay Down Your Burden.” The ladies make sure to share the lead vocals.

They do an interesting arrangement of the Simon and Garfunkel hit, “Homeward Bound,” but it is their treatment of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” that is the highlight of album’s covers. And I guess that should be expected, after all as the liner notes point out, it is from this song which Gardner first heard  in Del McCoury’s version at a Berkshire bluegrass festival as a child that the trio  takes its name. Fittingly, each of the ladies takes the lead on one of the tune’s three verses.

Whether the dark “Clinch River Blues” which opens the album, the  lullaby “Sing to Me” Molly sings with a tear in her voice, or the jumping “My Baby Loves Me,” The Red Album shows off the band’s variety. And for effect, they close with a beautifully harmonized a cappella version of “Copper Ponies.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Cynthia Felton Sings Nancy Wilson

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Dr. Cynthia Felton is the founder and artistic director of the Ethnomusicology Library of American Heritage, an educator, a producer and an arranger—and to complete the package, this is one lady who can sing. Check out her website and listen to what she does with just a sample of “Time Out,” or better still listen to her latest album Save Your Love For Me:  Cynthia Felton Sings the Nancy Wilson Classics. Following up on previous tribute albums to Oscar Brown, Jr. and Duke Ellington, she has gathered a dynamite list of musical talent to work with her on ten of her favorite songs culled from five Wilson albums recorded in the sixties, and she does the singer proud.

She opens the album with a short, evanescent a cappella version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” serving as an invocation, before getting down to the business at hand. “The Old Country” begins with a piano intro from Donald Brown, and although a Nat Adderley, Curtis Lewis composition, in her arrangement there is no saxophone. There’s some sweet trumpet work from Wallace Roney, but no saxophone. She includes four more from Wilson’s album collaboration with Cannonball: “Save Your Love For Me,” “A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Never Will I Marry,” and “The Masquerade is Over.” Clearly, like the artist she is, her versions are not imitations—she honors Wilson by building on what she has done. Compare her version of the title song with Wilson’s and you can hear the emotional difference, and this time she does have a saxophonist, Jeff Clayton. 

“Dearly Beloved,” is an up tempo gambol which features some fine scatting from Felton and has pianist Cyrus Chestnut and bassist Robert Hurst working their magic. Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues,” which follows the ballad “Only the Young,” offers a change of emotional pace, besides a jazz singer absolutely needs to sing the blues. “Guess Who I Saw Today” is a masterful interpretation of the tune’s misdirection. “I Wish You Love” concludes the set on a high note.

A note to Cynthia Felton—Ethnomusicology is certainly important, but keep the albums coming.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Venice"--Hip-hop at The Public Theater Now on CD

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The original cast recording of The Public Theater’s production of Venice, the combo hip-hop, rock musical with a book by Eric Rosen, music by Matt Sax and lyrics by both which opened in the spring of 2013 is now available on line and comes to stores in December. Although the dystopian tale of military occupation, terrorism and revolution could well have been set in quite a few cities in the here and now, the creators opted for a fictional Venice in the future as offering more freedom for stylistic innovation and allowing for more inventive symbolic content. In a sense it is an attempt to universalize the shows themes.

The fairly complex plot of the show is summarized in a booklet that accompanies the CD. Suffice it to say if you haven’t seen the show, the summary here isn’t likely to mean very much to you. But since it also includes the complete lyrics, you can toggle back and forth between the two and get a reasonable approximation of the relation between the music and the plot. Of course, some may feel that if you haven’t seen the play, there’s little reason to buy the album. Not so, this is a musical with an innovative soundscape building on the foundations of the rock operas that have become a staple of the popular theater. It has a score you may want to hear and savor.

The cast features composer Sax as Clown MC, kind of the rapping genius behind the action. He opens the show with “Citizens of Venice” and runs in and out through most of the play. Jennifer Damiano, the play’s romantic center, gets most of the more conventional musical numbers, “Willow,” “Sunrise,” and “If Only.” These are some sweet melodies, although as some have complained their lyrics can sometimes lapse into the banal. Haaz Sleiman her romantic counterpart joins her for an early rock duet, “Waited All These Years,” does a bit of rapping on “Put Out the Light” and provides some contrast to the rapping Clown in songs like “Wings.”

Angela Polk adds some rapping on the song named for her character, “Hailey Daisy,” and joins with Sax and the ensemble on “Liberation (Pull Up the People)” the dynamic first act closer. Uzo Aduba, Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black) plays a ghost and does a little singing in “Anna” when she is introduced and later at the end of the play. 

Clearly not traditional musical theater, Venice is an interesting example of how modern creators are trying to build and perfect new directions. They are not always successful, but they bring with them a creative vitality that promises much for the future.