Friday, October 17, 2014

Music Review: Chris Walden Big Band - "Full On!"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It’s been seven years since the last big band album from composer/arranger Chris Walden, the Kurt Marti Suite for big band and choir—much too long. But if it takes waiting that long for an album as fine as the newly released Full-On!, how can you complain? Los Angeles based Walden has busied himself conducting and arranging for artists as diverse as Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall and Rihanna, and a raft of others, so many, in fact, that he has any time left to work on a big band recording is remarkable in and of itself. Full On! is worth the wait.

Gathering an impressive cast of studio musicians and guest vocalists, Walden leads them through a set of a dozen numbers showcasing tight ensemble work spiced with creative solos. At times the band’s sound is retro with a modern touch, at times modern with a retro touch. Walden talks about the influence of Neal Hefti on his work. It is an influence that comes through loud and clear, although he also credits Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer.

Walden’s “Bailout,” a Basie-esque original, is the album’s dynamic opening number. It is followed by “I Can Cook Too,” culled from Broadway’s On the Town, with a retro vocal from Melanie Taylor. Taylor shows up again later for a swinging arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” Courtney Fortune does a jazzy vocal on “Lost in the Memory,” a collaborative effort written with Walden. Other Walden originals include “Gatsby” which features the trombone work of Alex Wiles and the bass of Kenny Wild, “Bada Bamba,” a samba showcasing the bass-trombone of Bill Reichenbach, and “Arturo,” an exciting vehicle for guest Arturo Sandoval on the flugelhorn and Brandon Fields on tenor sax.

“If I Only Knew” is a distinctly modern sound for Dorian Holley, while the classic “Only the Lonely” gets a noir vibe from Tierney Sutton.  Carol Weisman does a perky version of “Hey Good Looking.” “Out of Town” is a wild romp  driven decisively by drummer Ray Brinker, with tenor sax solos from Fields and Rob Lockart. The album concludes with Siedah Garrett taking on the Christopher Cross hit, “Ride Like the Wind.”

An album to savor, one can only hope it won’t take another seven years for another.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Three New Albums From Smoke Sessions: Cyrus Chestnut, Orrin Evans, Eric Reed

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Joining the monthly parade of such previously proclaimed releases from Smoke Session Records as Louis Hayes’ Return of the Jazz Communicators and Jimmy Cobb’s The Original Mob are three new pianist led live albums.

Midnight Melodies, the first, out in July featured Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass and Victor Lewis on drums, and was recorded live at the Smoke Jazz Club in November, 2014. The trio takes its dynamic straight ahead approach to a collection of jazz classics—Milt Jackson’s “Bag’s Groove,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and a couple of Billy Strayhorn pieces, “U. M. M. G.” and “Chelsea Bridge.
They cover three from pianist composer John Hicks, opening with “Two Heartbeats” and “Pocket Full of Blues” before adding an extended take on “Naima’s Love Song” prefaced by a Chestnut introductory reverie starting with the hymn “Sweet Hour Of Prayer”and morphing into “For All We Know.” It is a solo piano tour de force. The set closes with Miles Davis’s “The Theme.”

Out in August is Orrin Evans’ Liberation Blues recorded in January 0f 2014. Divided into two parts, the album begins with The Liberation Blues Suite dedicated to Dwayne Allen Burno who composed the first two of the five pieces: “Devil Eyes” and “Juanita.” Evan’s own “A Lil’ D. A. B. a do Ya” follows along with Donald Brown’s “A Free Man”(including a poetic recitation), and the suite closes with Evan’s “Liberation Blues.” Evans’ base, drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Luques Curtis, is joined by trumpeter Sean Jones and tenor sax man JD Allen. Both also show up on some of the later tracks.

The second part includes a couple of Evans’ originals, “Simply Green” and “Meant to Shine.” They take a modern turn with drummer Paul Motian’s “Mumbo Jumbo,” and follow with a reworking of the old chestnut “How High the Moon.” They end with “The Theme,” but then return for an encore—“The Night has a Thousand Eyes” with a spirited vocal from Joanna Pascale.

September brings an Eric Reed led quartet album, Groovewise, which the liner notes indicate was recorded on September 6 and 7, 2014. Allowing either for some kind of time warp or more likely a typo, something is wrong somewhere. Most of the album, eight of the ten tracks, consists of Reed originals. In the liner notes Reed describes “Until the Last Cat Has Swung” as a “hymn for all our fallen soldiers” referring to the all the jazz greats that have passed recently. “The Gentle Giant” was written for the laid back pianist Mulgrew Miller and plays a bit with “Giant Steps.” “Ornate” is a bit of musical word play on Ornette.

His “Una Mujer Elegante” was written for Marian McPartland, and “Bopward” is Reed’s interpretation of the kind of tune Charlie Parker might have written. He closes the set with the album’s title song, another of what he calls an “Ornette-ish” tune. Clifford Jordan’s “Powerful Paul Robeson” which opens the album and Christian McBride’s homage to Cedar Walton, “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” are the two non-Reed compositions.

The quartet has saxophonist Seamus Blake, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and bassist Ben Williams joining with Reed.

Given the high quality of the Smoke Sessions recordings to date, including these three fine new releases, jazz fans can only look forward with glee to what they’ve got planned for October and November, and hope that they can keep going into the new year.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Music Review: Phoebe Hunt- "Walk With Me" (featuring Connor Forsyth)

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

“The Many Sides of Phoebe Hunt” might be a good alternative title for Walk With Me, the fine new album from singer/songwriter Hunt and The Gatherers due for release later this month. She does pop. She does country. She does folk. She can swing with a touch of jazz or sell an emotional ballad. And she does it all on the new album, and she does it all with style and vigor.

There might be some who see this as a scatter shot artist in search of herself. That would be a mistake, this is a talented artist who won’t be pigeon holed. And she shouldn’t be. If you can do it all, why accept limits. And if there’s one thing to take away from Walk With Me, it is that Phoebe Hunt can do it all, and do it all remarkably well.

Joined by multi-instrumentalist Connor Forsyth, she runs through a set of 11 tunes that spotlights both the singer’s different vocal personalities and her mastery of a variety of genres. There is the vulnerable innocence of “Warm Summer’s Evening,” and the worldly experience that rises almost to an anthem in “Before I’m Done.” “Long Gone” is catchy pop with an infectious hook that sticks with you. “Walk of Angeline” channels Cajun country with Hunt’s fiddle and Forsyth’s accordion, while “Flee Fly Flow Flum” is free flowing, ‘giant’ killer country pop. The album’s title song is classic country.

The album opens with some exciting brass infused swing in “Darkness,” and closes with “Send Out Your Love,” a quiet ballad sung with touching emotional honesty. She does a breathy, flirty “You Can Love,” a tune delivered as though it could have been taken from the Great American Songbook. “Song For Jacquelyn,” on the other hand, is a haunting folk ballad.

Phoebe Hunt is a talent that deserves to be heard, and Walk With Me is an album that ought to get her the attention she deserves.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

CD Review: Original Cast Recording - 'Forbidden Broadway: Comes Out Swinging!

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If it is true that parody works best when its audience is familiar with the material being parodied, the more you know about the Broadway musical and the season just passed, the happier you’ll be with the latest edition, the twelfth, of Forbidden Broadway. The less you know about the Broadway theater, the less likely you will be to get most of the jokes and even the less likely to care.  Forbidden Broadway: Comes Out Swinging! now available on CD from DRG Records certainly has comic moments that don’t depend on prior knowledge, but they are few and far between. Clearly, the show and the album are aimed at the Broadway maven. If the name Jason Robert Brown doesn’t mean anything to you, you are not the audience for this album. That’s not to say that if you are acquainted with Jason Robert Brown you are necessarily going to love the show and find it funny, but at least you’ll have a shot.

What the show has going for it is an impressive cast of four talented singer/comedians who know how to sell the material, and have the chops to get the job done. Their impressions are spot on: Carter Calvert as Jessie Mueller playing Carole King, Scott Richard Foster as Frankie Valli, Marcus Stevens as Mandy Patinkin, Mia Gentile as Teresa Brewer. Their comic timing is impeccable. Hey are engaging performers, together, they make the most of the material they’re given.

Highlights include Mia Gentile’s powerful send up of Idina Menzel, “Let it Blow” with the obligatory shout out to John Travolta and her Audra MacDonald to Carter Calvert’s Carrie Underwood in a send up of the NBC production of The Sound of Music. And that’s a good thing, since both are parodies that would be familiar to a much wider audience. Most people would get the joke, certainly more than got the point in the number about Pippin. The ensemble work on juke box musicals and the revivals of Les Miserables and Cabaret, also more familiar, was effective. The general critique of the formulaic Disney musicals that have become a Broadway staple is a point well made. Less effective was the material on unsuccessful shows that quickly closed—Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, and The Bridges of Madison County.

Forbidden Broadway: Comes Out Swinging is a must for the cognoscenti. For the rest of us, especially in the light of the charismatic performances, it may turn us on to what we’ve been missing.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Review: "The Splintered Paddle" by Mark Troy

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you like a thriller with a lot going on, Mark Troy’s The Splintered Paddle is right up your alley. You’ve got a beautiful prostitute hounded by a dirty cop, a vicious pot grower with a taste for young girls, and a newly released psycho convict looking for revenge. Throw in a runaway teenager, date rape drugs, rape videos, and a murder or two and there is more than enough to keep both private investigator Ava Rome busy and the reader turning pages.

Rome, a retired military police officer, working in Hawaii is first hired by the prostitute to help her deal with the cop who has been harassing her. Then a local lawyer asks Rome to locate his daughter who has run off. Meanwhile she begins getting crank phone calls, and a sadistic criminal she helped to catch years ago before she retired has been released from San Quentin and shows up in Hawaii. When she discovers the young girl with a local drug dealer, she finds herself dealing with three very violent customers, and it gets worse when all three seem to be working together.

Less a question of solving a mystery, the plot focuses on how Rome will be able to deal with what seem like the overwhelming odds against her. The local authorities offering little help, Rome is left to her own devices, both to protect her clients and eventually herself.  Though ex-military police, she is no Jack Reacher; still she is a woman who can handle herself, and she does get a little help from her friends. Beautiful, resourceful, tenacious—she is a heroine to be reckoned with.
Hawaii, as the TV networks have discovered, makes a sensational setting for a thriller. Not only do you have exotic scenery and lavish hotels, but you have a place with a seamy underbelly as well. You can have a film company coming to shoot on location; you can have Korean bars filled with Asian B-girls. You  can feature hard  bodied surfers; you  can have bikini clad sun worshippers. It is the kind of place where the surface beauty belies the ugliness beneath.

The Hawaiian setting is portrayed realistically. The conversation of locals is loaded with patois, Hawaiian pidjin. Characters represent the ethnic diversity endemic to the island. Local foods and customs are highlighted. Whether it is the aumakua, his guardian spirit, worn as an earring by one character, or the book’s very title, the novel fairly reeks with local color.

The title, The Splintered Paddle, refers to a principle of Hawaiian law based on an ancient law of Kamehameha The Great which mandates the protection of those who are unable to protect themselves. It is a symbol worn by the local police, and its message is emblazoned on Rome’s business card: “The defenseless shall be guaranteed protection from harm.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Music Review: Harold Mabern - "Right on Time"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Smoke Sessions Records a new jazz recording label launched by the owners of the New York City jazz club Smoke is nothing short of a godsend for jazz lovers—make that music lovers. While originally intended to focus on live performances of musicians associated with the club, not a bad idea given that Smoke features the cream of an elite crop, the success of the first releases may well argue for tweaking that original intention.

The first of the albums, pianist Harold Mabern’s Right on Time, is as good an advertisement for the series as anyone could want. Recorded in March of 2013 during the weekend of his 77th birthday, Mabern working with bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth plows through an energetic set mixing classic jazz tunes, an original or two, and even a couple of unusual choices. It is a lively foot tapping set filled with performance gems. Mabern is at the top of his game. His solos are rich and filled with wit. Webber and Farnsworth are the perfect complement.

Whether they are transforming, “Dance With Me,” the disco piece that opens the album, the Laverne and Shirley theme, “Making Our Dreams Come True,” or revisiting the Thad Jones classic “To You,” the trio delivers the goods in a big way.  Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” is treated as a powerful bluesy ballad with some strong solo work from Webber. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” made famous in the jazz context by John Coltrane, gets some cascading piano work from Mabern and its climactic musical allusion to “Lullaby of Birdland” is a clever touch.

The two Mabern’s originals are “Edward Lee” dedicated to trumpeter Lee Morgan and “Blues for Frank ‘n’ Paul ‘n’ All.” There are fine versions of “Charade” and “The Nearness of You” before “Cherokee,” a bop romp introduced and driven by drummer Farnsworth, closes the album on a high.

Other albums among the first of the Smoke Session series feature saxophonist Vincent Herring leading a quartet in The Uptown Shuffle, the Javon Jackson Band’s Expression, and David Hazeltine’s For All We Know. Albums are scheduled for release one a month beginning with the Mabern in January 2014 and running through September.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Music Review: Anne Ducros - "Either Way"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

You may think you have heard the songs from the Great American Songbook more than enough times so that you have no desire to hear them again.  Think again; you haven’t heard them like you’ll hear them on Either Way, the new album from French jazz singer Anne Ducros. That she makes these hoary standards her own, doesn’t come close to doing justice to what she does with them. She transforms them, and more important her transformations are absolutely killer.

She takes the original song and pushes its musical possibilities as far as they will go. This is a singer who colors outside the lines. Her vocals are a perfect demonstration of what a jazz singer should be doing. Many jazz singers are content to interpret, Anne Ducros creates. In a sense what she does with a song parallels what her deconstructionist countryman Jacques Derrida does with literature. The original song becomes a remembered shadow that marks just how far she’s taken its ideas.
All this wouldn’t make much difference if the lady couldn’t sing.  No problem, this is a lady with the chops to make her music work. If her performances don’t quite make you forget the originals, they sure give them a run for their money.

The concept of the album as Ducros explains is to work with songs associated with great Ella Fitzgerald and somewhat surprisingly Marilyn Monroe. The two are associated because of Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of a debt to Monroe for a booking she got at the prestigious Mocambo in Los Angeles, at a time when black artists were discriminated against. Monroe, it seems, called the club owner and demanded Fitzgerald be booked immediately. She promised to show up and take a front row table every night of the gig. With that kind of publicity, how could he refuse?

The album is made up of 15 songs, 14 standards and one, the title tune, original. Although there are some guest performers, the singer for the most part is backed by a quartet: Gilles Nicolas on double bass and electric bass, Benoît de Mesmay on piano, Maxime Blesin on guitars and percussion, and Bruno Castelucci on drums. It is a tight ensemble that not only backs up Ducros to perfection but contributes some fine solo work as well.

The songs— “You’d Be Surprised,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Thou Swell,” just to name a few, all titles you know—need to be heard to understand what Ducros is doing. Check out her version of “Summertime” and you begin to get an idea of the complexity of her art. And classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing),” “A Fine Romance,” and “Laura” push the cliché envelope even further.

Either Way is perhaps the finest album from a jazz vocalist, I’ve heard this year, and certainly the most interesting.