Monday, January 25, 2016

Alyson Cambridge"s Crossover Album "Until Now"

This article was first published at Blogcritics"

Operatic soprano Alyson Cambridge’s Until Now released earlier this month has the powerful vocalist shifting gears from the classical repertoire to explore some of the more pop musical genres. In a 13-song album that could well serve as a supper club set, Cambridge, a singer who has graced the stages of opera houses like The Met and London’s Royal Albert Hall, makes clear that she has the range certainly to crossover to the Broadway stage and maybe even a smoky jazz room.

As she says in her liner notes: “My hope for the album has always been to give an eclectic and thoughtful representation of me, in a range of non-operatic musical tastes, influences and vocalism. It truly is a side of me and my voice that I have never shared until now.” For the most part she has chosen songs that have special meaning for her. And while most of them allow her to show her range effectively, there are a few, like “Fever” which opens the album, which are less well served by the beauty of her voice, songs which could use more grit and less perfection. “Bill” from Showboat, on the other hand shows Cambridge at the top of her game.

The album includes classics like “Night and Day,” “The Man I Love” (complete with verse), and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and pop pieces like the covers of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last,” which appropriately closes the album. There is a steamy version of “Too Darn Hot” and a very effective sultry blues take on “I Had Myself a True Love.” “Just Another Rhumba” and a catchy arrangement of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” provide some novelty relief, and she does a unique take on the old Elvis Presley hit, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

All in all, if, as Cambridge concludes her liner notes, the album “feels like just the beginning of a new musical and performance journey,” it is a journey worth taking—worth taking just so long as she doesn’t forget Puccini. Check out her “Vissi d’arte.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Book Review: "The Whites" by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The Whites, Richard Price’s 2015 novel written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt is scheduled for reissue as a trade paperback by Picador in February. Price, much lauded for novels like Clockers and Lush Life as well as his work on HBO’s The Wire, explains in interviews that he chose to write under a pseudonym because he intended the book to be a departure from what he normally wrote, much perhaps like J. K. Rowling choosing to write her adult mysteries as Robert Galbraith. Only then to discover that old saw about leopards and spots, and as far as Price enthusiasts certainly a good thing.

If The Whites is not Price at his best, it is not far off. What distinguishes him from the run of the mill thriller writer, is his ability to tell a compelling story that keeps pages turning while at the same time making serious comment on the human condition. He draws his characters honestly and in depth avoiding comic book heroes and villains. Good people have their flaws, evil their sympathetic moments. Right and wrong are not always immediately distinguishable, and ordinary human beings are forced to make difficult ethical choices. Moreover, he deals with these larger ideas in a prose style that crackles with a drama that often rises to elegance. Richard Price should never be brushed aside as a genre writer, Richard Price is a novelist of stature and deserves consideration.

This time out he is concerned, Melville-like, with characters obsessed with vengeance. The Whites of the is the term police officers use to refer to criminals they are certain are guilty, but whom they are unable to get the evidence necessary to convict. They are their modern day white whales.
Back in the day Billy Graves worked with a hot shot anti-crime squad in the Bronx, but after he accidently shoots a ten year old boy under questionable circumstances, he has been shunted out of the way and is now in charge of Manhattan Night Watch a crew that seems set up to mind the store at night until the big boys get on the job. The other members of his old squad have all gone their separate ways, but they have remained friends and meet together regularly. Each, it turns out has their own “white,” and when the “whites” begin turning up dead, Billy is faced with his moral dilemma. A dilemma made even more complicated by an unknown attacker threatening his family.

The Whites is a book you will not want to put down until you reach the final page. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Halie Loren sings "Butterfly Blue"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Photo by Bob Williams
Butterfly Blue, the June release from vocalist Halie Loren is on the 58th GRAMMY ballot for well-deserved consideration in the “Best Vocal Jazz Album” category. The dynamic album takes its title from two of its original songs, Loren’s own “Butterfly” and “Blue” from guitarist Daniel Gallo. Taken together they are intended as an indication of the album’s thematic connection which the singer suggests is the need to find a way through moments of pain and sadness to new and even more beautiful experiences—much the way a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. Whether you buy the metaphor or not needn’t affect your pleasure in the music. Halie Loren can sing with the best of them, and song after song, she makes that clear.

The album is an intelligent mix of standards and original material, once in a while leaning to pop, more often creative, straight forward jazz. Songs like Gallo’s “After the Fall” and Loren’s “Danger in Loving You” have a real noir sound right out of a 1940’s black and white flick. Just listen to Rob Birdwell’s flugelhorn on the former and Joe Freuen’s trombone highlights on the latter. Loren’s vocals are on the money. On the other hand she opens the set with her own more pop oriented “Yellow Bird.” Still, even here punctuated with some sweet vocalise.

Her work on the classic material tends toward creative interpretation. And although her treatment of a tearful warhorse like “Stormy Weather” is a little too upbeat for my taste, she takes a tune like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and knocks it out of the park. “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” are winners. “I Wish You Love” with some of the original French lyrics thrown in is magical. She closes on a high with Horace Silver’s “Peace.”

With solid album after solid album, this has been a great year for vocal jazz. Butterfly Blue belongs on any long award list.     Bob Williams 


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Art Pepper Live

This article was first published at Blogcritics

2015 is a good year for Art Pepper fans. No it’s a good year for jazz lovers—hell, make that music lovers. Early in the year there was the digital release of three volumes of Neon Art recorded back in 1981, and now comes another savory gem from the alto sax master. Art Pepper Live At Fat Tuesday’s is a newly discovered previously unissued recording of an April 1981 gig at the famed New York jazz club remastered for CD.

While the recording comes near the untimely end of Pepper’s life, it captures him at the crest of his mature powers. He had returned to music and rediscovered his bliss after a prolonged period of silence as he struggled with addiction problems. He had gone through what was once called “the dark night of the soul,” and he had emerged with a renewed energy and a true maturity, a maturity that pervades his playing.

Pepper fronts a rhythm section featuring pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist George Mraz and drummer Al Foster. Together they work through a program of five extended explorations giving the quartet the opportunity to stretch their improvisatory muscle, an opportunity they take with gusto.
The set opens with a jazz classic, Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” a contrafact based on the chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Pepper’s lengthy solo moves from melodic moments to more discordant notes as the piece ends—perhaps an indication of where Pepper was early in his career and where he is in the eighties. His playing on the second track, the Cole Porter standard “What Is This Thing Called Love” follows the same duality, almost as if the artist has a split personality.

The Benny Goodman closing theme “Goodbye” sits oddly right in the middle of the set.  Here it gets the slow soulful treatment, and the gig ends with two of Pepper’s own compositions, “Make a List, Make a Wish,” coming in just short of 18 and a half jam packed minutes, and “Red Car,” a free flowing blues with something for each of the musicians to stretch with.

The disc comes with a packed 39 page booklet which includes a 1980 Pepper interview with jazz historian Brian Priestly, producer Zev Feldman’s interview with Laurie Pepper, Art’s widow, reminiscences by the great Stan Getz and producer John Koenig, as well as an essay by writer Stephane Ollivier.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Chucho Valdés Salutes Irakere

This article was first published at Blogcritics

For the past two months piano stalwart Chucho Valdés has been touring the United States with Irakere 40 a celebration of the famed Afro-Cuban ensemble he founded back in 1973, an ensemble which included musical greats the likes of Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. In conjunction with the tour, Jazz Village/harmonia mundi has released Tribute to Irakere: Live at Marciac, a collection of long form compositions culled from an earlier European tour stop, August 15 in Marciac, France.

Working with his current ensemble the Afro-Cuban Messengers supplemented with three trumpets and a couple of saxophones, Valdés is less interested in a nostalgic visit back to Irakere’s glory days than he is in building new wings on its foundation. Instead of looking to the original crew, now in his seventies, he has chosen to work with a younger set of musicians who have learned from what their elders have done and now can honor them by expanding horizons. It is music that honors both its African roots and its jazz explorations with a dynamic sound to be savored.

While the album begins with one of Irakere’s classic pieces, “Juana 1600,” there is also a focus on newer work like “Lorena’s Tango” and “Yansá.” The latter has the band working in a truly modern jazz idiom. There is a fine rendition of “Congadanza” as well as a brilliant extended version, almost double the length at nearly 18 minutes, of “Afro- Comanche,” a piece with native American themes, both previously recorded with the Messengers on the 2013 Border-Free album. Valdés may be in his seventies, but if his piano work on “Afro-Comanche” is any indication, the man still can deliver the goods.  “Afro-Funk” lives up to its title with a sound that plays to some of Irakere’s jazz and rock influences.

Irakere was a band with a big sound, a sound captured once more in this tribute. Let’s hope for some more tracks from the live performances.

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.