Monday, October 12, 2015

Music Review: John Basile - "Penny Lane"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

When it comes to jazz covers of the Beatles, there have been some truly inventive treatments of the material and there have been some that relied on the melodic popularity of the music for safe interpretations. And while there is nothing particularly ground breaking about the 11 covers on guitarist John Basile’s August release Penny Lane, for those who like their jazz smooth there is much to admire. After all it would be strange if a talented guitarist, and Basile is a talent to be reckoned with, working with the Beatles’ music didn’t come up with a winning album.

Backing up his guitar with midi programming, Basile runs through the range of the Beatles song book, from earlier work like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” to later pieces like “The Fool on the Hill,” both here building on a Latin beat. Somehow, in spite of the fact that you might not expect it with this teeny bopper classic, he manages to take a lengthy look at “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and works it for all it’s worth.   He makes some dynamic harmonic choices for his cover of the title song, “Penny Lane” and his “Norwegian Wood” is one of the album’s more creative efforts.

His covers of “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day in the Life” are fine, but these are two tunes that have been coopted by Wes Montgomery, at least as far as I’m concerned. His avoids any of the obvious gentle weeping that might that might tempt a lesser guitarist covering George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” although mistakenly the album cover attributes the composition to Lennon and McCartney. “And I Love Her” features some of his most effective solo work. “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays with funky blues, while “Here There and Everywhere” gets a mite syrupy. A clean and simple version of “In My Life” concludes the album.

Basile is a fine guitarist. His work on the Beatles canon is both intelligent and emotionally satisfying, if not as adventurous as some. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Music Review: Brad Allen Williams - "Lamar"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

What distinguishes guitarist Brad Allen Williams’ August release Lamar from the ordinary jazz trio album is not so much its choice of material, not so much its instrumental make-up, and not so much its innovative playing. What distinguishes Lamar is its return to older recording techniques in an attempt to reproduce the human feel and vibe of an ensemble playing together, without any digital games.

As Williams’ liner notes point out: “”The vinyl release of this will have never touched a computer at all. It was recorded with the three of us in one great-sounding room together using the best analog tape machines and a great analog engineer.” Echoing an aesthetic idea that goes back at least to the 19th century, Williams goes on to explain that he believes that the humanity of a musical performance isn’t in mechanical perfection, but in the preservation of “the little hiccups; the little mistakes.” Blotting out the warts blots out the humanity.

Besides when you are fronting a tight trio where the musicians have played together over the years and know each other well, there may be “hiccups” and “mistakes,” but if there are, they will be few and far between. If the price for a powerful humane musical experience is a wart or two, it is a small price to pay. Williams on guitar working with Pat Bianchi on the Hammond organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums delivers a winner. “Hiccups?” I didn’t hear any.

The eight tune program features three Williams originals: a bluesy “201 Poplar” and a swinging “Euclid and Lamar,” while his “Culver Viaduct Rehabilitation Project” makes for some fine improvisation opportunities. The album opens with Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” a good indication of what’s to come. Added to these are a couple of pop pieces you wouldn’t expect on a jazz album “Galveston” and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” but work well Williams hands. There are two standards as well—a really dynamite arrangement of “Stairway to the Stars” and a solo guitar version of “More Than You Know.” This last could well have been extended.

Lamar is also available on CD and download at one extra mechanical remove from the vinyl. 

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.