Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Brazilian Jazz from Antonio Adolfo and Carol Saboya

This article was first published at Blogcritics,

Brilliant Brazilian pianist/composer/arranger Antonio Adolfo has been busy. Witness next month’s release of Tropical Infinito a new album that has him fronting an octet enhanced with a horn section, a musical lineup, he explains, he has not used for “a great deal of time.” Witness Carolina, the lovely new album from vocalist Carol Saboya, produced and arranged by Adolfo. And for fans of top flight Brazilian oriented jazz any time Adolfo is busy, that is one very good thing.

With the addition of trumpet/flugelhorn, tenor and soprano sax, and trombone the Tropical Infinito octet works its way through a nine-song set focusing on what could easily be called a Brazilian translation of a variety of jazz classics, plus a selection of Adolfo originals.

They open with two Benny Golson gems, a frenetic version of “Killer Joe” and a witty exploration of “Whisper Not.” The latter featuring a blast of a tenor solo from Marcelo Martins. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” has a noir feel with another fine tenor solo, as well as some wicked work from Leo Amuedo on electric guitar. This is followed by Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” featuring the trumpet of Jessé Sadoc and the trombone of Serginho—would you believe it—Trombone. There is also a quite interesting reinterpretation of the one selection from the Great American Songbook, “All the Things You Are.”

The four original pieces are “Cascavel (Rattle Snake),” “Partido Alto Samba (Light Partido Alto Samba),” “Luar Da Bahia (Moon Over Bahia)” a  kind of nocturne which closes the set, and an eloquent tribute to the composer’s mother “Yolanda, Yolanda.”

Bassist Jorge Helder, drummer Rafael Barata and percussionist André Siqueira round out, with Claudio Spiewak guesting on three tracks, the octet, the same group, with the exception of Trombone and Sadoc, which works behind Saboya.

Carolina is her first U. S. album release since her 2012 debut disc, Belezas – the Music of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento. A voice very like the poplar Astrud Gilberto, she sparkles in Adolfo’s arrangements of eight classic pieces from Brazilian composers. Of course there is Jobim: she begins with “Passarim (Little Bird) and adds “Olha, Maria (Hey, Maria).” There is also a gorgeous version of the famous “A Felicidade (Joy/Happiness)” from Black Orpheus.

“1 x 0,” the title reflecting a soccer score, gets a playful treatment and which includes her interesting vocalise duet with the flute of Martins. “Zanzibar,” which closes the album also features some energetic vocal gymnastics. There are two pop tunes, Lennon and McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye” and Sting’s “Fragile,” and they are pleasant enough, after all she has a beautiful voice, but my own preference is for her work on tunes like Djavan’s “Avião (Airplane) and “Faltando um Pedaço (Missing a Piece).”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review: "A Better Goodbye" by John Schulian

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

A Better Goodbye, the debut novel of sports writer John Schulian, has been compared to the work of a writer like Elmore Leonard, and while this initial effort may not have quite the polish of vintage Leonard, Schulian is painting with a similar palate, relying as much on the creation of absorbing major characters as he does on blood and mayhem.

Set in the gritty Los Angeles of massage parlors, second rate actors, and criminals, some vicious, some wannabees, Schulian focuses on Jenny Yee, a young Asian college student working as a massage girl and Nick Pafko an emotionally broken ex-boxer. Neither is an assembly line product. Yee is cute, not gorgeous. She is in the sex business, but she has strict limits. She reads the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and the novels of Stendahl. Pafko, once a promising fighter, lost his passion and his effectiveness when he accidently killed his opponent during a fight.

Now, down on his luck, he is working as security in a high end massage parlor, run by Scott Crandall, an over the hill actor looking to expand from pimping to other criminal activity. To that end he cultivates the friendship of Onus DuPree, a violent ex-con with a hair trigger temper. This is the quartet of central figures in the novel. And when Pafko and Yee begin to have feelings for each other, and then Pafko and DuPree get into a pissing contest, the scene is set for some inevitable fireworks. And fireworks is what Schulian provides, when DuPree decides first to enlist Crandall to rob one of Yee’s customers, and then double cross Crandall and rob the massage parlor.

The four major figures are surrounded by a supporting cast of less fully developed, indeed often stereotyped characters: a benevolent fatherly fight trainer, a shyster lawyer, a sports writer down on his luck, plus a variety of johns and an assortment of massage girls with made-up names like Sierra, Kianna, Twyla, Rikki and Ling, to name  just a few. These are the kinds of background characters—those that E. M. Forster called “flat characters”—that satisfyingly provide breadth and context, but don’t need to be fleshed out with a lot of detail.

Schulian tells a good story: A Better Goodbye will have you turning pages with anticipation as it builds to a crescendo and then rewards you with a smash bang finale.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Music Review: Darren English - "Imagine Nation"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Darren English, a young trumpeter from Cape Town, South Africa now living in Atlanta, makes his recording debut with the March release of Imagine Nation. Fronting a rhythm section featuring Kenny Banks, Jr. on piano, Billy Thornton on bass and Chris Burroughs on drums along with guest shots on selected tracks by vocalist Carmen Bradford, tenor sax player Greg Tardy and trumpeters Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden, he runs through a 10-piece set highlighted by an original three-part suite celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid.

The three tunes in the suite are the album’s opening title piece, the punning “Imagine Nation” and “Pledge for Peace” (which includes spoken word sections from Mandela) and “The Birth” which follow later in the set. Since he calls this a suite, I would normally expect the three elements to follow each other. Why, English chose to separate them, I have no idea. Indeed, they seem to play just as reasonably as separate pieces. There is one other original composition, a tribute to Russell Gunn leader of the Krunk Jazz Orkestra which English calls “Bullet in the Gunn.” English is a member of the Gunn orchestra and plays on their recent release The Sirius Mystery.

The rest of the album is made up of well-known standards giving the trumpeter the opportunity to showcase his own original steps down well-worn paths. So for example when he plays the opening melody of the venerable “Body and Soul” without his mouthpiece, he seems to be serving notice of something new in contrast to the lovely tones that follow with the reintroduction of the mouthpiece. Whether it works or not is open to question.

He does a super job on the other hand working with Gunn and Gransden on an exciting version of the old Charlie Barnet showpiece “Cherokee” and his take on the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Bebop” is a winner as well. Bradford does a fetching vocal on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do (To You)” and they work elegantly together on “Skylark.”

If his debut is any indication, both as composer and performer, Darren English is a force to be reckoned with. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Bill Evans’ Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forrest

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

On the one hand, the release of previously unknown recordings of jazz icons long deceased should be cause for celebration, but then, and there is a but, how are today’s unknown young musicians looking to find an audience for their music to compete. It is not far-fetched to argue that what seems to be a constant stream of newly hatched material from past masters may well have a less than happy effect on the development of new voices. After all why take a chance and buy the debut album of an unfamiliar musician when you can load up on classics?

That said, it would be churlish to complain when newly discovered work from a jazz genius like the great Bill Evans comes available. So, to those unknown young musicians struggling for notice, apologies, but while Resonance Records’ upcoming release of Bill Evans’ Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forrest a two-disc studio set recorded at MPS Studios in Germany on June 20, 1968 may be taking the air out of your market, but we’re talking about Bill Evans.

The set gets the full Resonance treatment with an elaborate 40-page booklet including an essay by producer Zev Feldman detailing how he came across the recordings, a brilliant essay on Evans from critic Marc Myers and interviews with trio members Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJonette, as well as a special limited edition hand numbered two-LP set in addition to the deluxe two-CD set and digital edition.

The recordings have the pianist playing in solo, duo and trio settings. Disc One has 11 tracks and contains the material from the session that was intended for release when and if contracted approvals could be arranged. The second disc contains the rest of the recorded material which producer Feldman felt was just as worthy of public attention.

While bassist Gomez was to play with Evans for quite a few years, this is the only studio recording of the pianist with drummer DeJohnette who only played with him for about six months. Myer’s essay tries to explain the impact of the drummer on Evans’ playing. DeJohnette’s “tender, kinetic drumming style caught Evan’s ear, educating him on the interplay possible when percussive figures are feathery and challenging.” He hears in the collaboration between them an indication of Evans’ future direction.

Highlights on Disc One include the opener “You Go to My Head,” a lyrically intense “My Funny Valentine,” duo versions of “I’ll Remember April” and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.” Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” gets a classic treatment as does Evans own composition “Very Early.”

Disc Two which opens and closes with versions of “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” also has an alternative trio version of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” providing for some interesting comparisons. There are solo versions of “It’s All Right With Me” (which is marked incomplete” and “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).”

Some Other Time is a welcome addition to the Bill Evans canon.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sarah Vaughan "Live at Rosy's"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, you can never have too much Sarah Vaughan, you’re in for a treat. Due for a March 25th release from Resonance Records is a two-CD set of the jazz diva’s previously unreleased 1978 live session recorded at Rosy’s Jazz Club in New Orleans for the National Public Radio program Jazz Alive! She is accompanied on the gig by Carl Schroeder on piano, Walter Booker on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

Sarah Vaughan Live at Rosy’s has the singer at the top of her game. A consummate musician, she plays her voice like the magnificent instrument it is. Her song readings are excitingly inventive. She takes a classic up-tempo piece like “Fascinating Rhythm” and playfully finds a variety of multiple fascinating rhythms. It is an interpretive tour de force, while a classic ballad like “My Funny Valentine” is vocally rich like fine cognac.

 But you don’t need me to tell you that Sarah Vaughan can sing, this is one of the truly greats. And on two CD’s with 20 songs, each and every track is a winner. Beginning with “I’ll Remember April,” and running through tunes like “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” “Somebody Loves Me,” “Poor Butterfly,” and “Send in the Clowns”—and that’s only from Disc one—she takes these standards and not only makes them her own, but stamps them indelibly with her name. Meanwhile highlights of the second disc include “The Man I Love,” ”I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and a stellar version of “If You Went Away.”

Jazz singing doesn’t come any better than Sarah Vaughan. What she does with a song is magic, and pro that she is, she makes it sound effortless. In an essay by James Gavin included in the 36 page booklet that serves as the liner notes for the set, he quotes the singer: “’I don’t know what I’m doin’!’ she said ‘I just get onstage and sing. I don’t think about how I’m going to do it—it’s too complicated.’” Modesty aside, this is a singer who knows how to make the most out of her natural talent: the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Not only does she sing, but the set includes some of her banter with the audience.  There is some of her standard patter with the introduction of her trio. But perhaps the most interesting bit comes when someone shouts out a request for the Ella Fitzgerald classic “A-tisket, A-tasket,” and after joking that they have mistaken her for another singer, Vaughan treats it as a challenge and has some fun with it. Sassy is a pro. She knew how to work an audience, a skill singers today might want to emulate.

Soon after the release of the album the U. S. Post Office will be issuing a commemorative forever stamp honoring the singer. A ceremony will take place at the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall at Newark Symphony Hall, 1020 Broad Street, Newark, N.J., at 11:00am, March 29th, 2016th.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: "Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story" by Ellen Wayland-Smith.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Of the various utopian groups that had sprung up in 19th century America, the millenarian Oneida Community birthed in upstate New York under the charismatic leadership of John Humphrey Noyes is one of the most interesting. Beginning by subscribing to a radical religious doctrine that advocated free love, communism and the perfectionism, the community morphed into a major industrial force, a model of benevolent capitalism. The history of that transformation is the compelling tale told by Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of Noyes, in Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story.

Avoiding the easy sensationalism inherent in her subject, Wayland-Smith manages to treat the ideas of Noyes and his followers seriously, placing them squarely in the context of the times. If, in terms of religion, they challenged Christian orthodoxy, they certainly were not alone. If their faith in communal sharing challenged the conventional social and economic norms, challenge was in the zeitgeist. And while her explanations of some of their particular ideas, ideas like “complex marriage,” “sticky love” and “stirpiculture,” may leave the reader wondering, those explanations are both detailed and lucid, odd perhaps, titillating at times, but never salacious.

The insular radical community’s transition to innovative industrial giant in the hands of a dynamic younger generation is in some sense the classic American story. As the end of the century approached, conservative attitudes toward sexuality stigmatizing free love even when described euphemistically as “complex marriage” forced the Oneidans to adapt their ideas to the new norms. And with the normalization of their teachings about sex, came new ideas about the way they conducted the businesses that supported the community.

Wayland-Smith describes how Oneida Community, Limited grew from a sleepy manufacturer of traps and silk threads to the world leader in the production and sales of silverware under the innovative leadership of Pierrepont Noyes. She notes the company’s success through its emphasis on design, sales and advertising. And she is careful to focus on its excellent treatment of its work force—perhaps a nod back to the community’s original principles. Less emphasis is given to the company’s decline of fortunes as the 20th century came to a close.

Wayland-Smith, it seems, was born into a fascinating topic, and in Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story, she has made the most of it.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Love Wins Again:" New Album From Janiva Magness

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Probably best known as an award winning blues singer, the dynamic Janiva Magness releases her twelfth album, a highly personal emotional manifesto she calls Love Wins Again, in April. As she asserts quite clearly at the end of her liner note: “This record is me celebrating happy.” Celebration indeed: the album’s 11 tunes, several written by Magness and the record’s producer Dave Darling are performed as a kind of manifesto of the singer’s joy in the knowledge that “music is love, and it speaks, as it always has. If you listen it won’t be difficult to hear love, happiness, intimacy, truth, rebellion, redemption, resignation, hope, acceptance and finally the comfort of understanding.”

And almost as though the blues alone might be too much of a generic limitation on all this happiness, Magness masterfully broadens her musical palate with the colors of soul, rock and pop. She opens with the title song, a hot rocker announcing “sorrow’s all the way over” because love, indeed, “wins again.” Other highlights are the pop/blues love treat “When You Hold Me,” the dramatic “Moth to a Flame” and a touch of Americana in “Just Another Lesson,” a dark lyric set in a sweetly soft melody.

“Your House is Burnin’” is a rocker complete with the kind of horn accents that have James Brown written all over it. Magness carries it off with abandon. And if the song’s message—a warning about the miserable state of the world—seems at odds with the album’s central message, the song does end with a call for positive action: “Brother to brother and hand to hand/Starting today, I’m gonna say it again/Woman to woman and skin to skin/This is the day that we begin. . ./ To get up, break the chain/Make it right.”

There is also a gutsy cover of the Creedence Clearwater hit “Long as I Can See the Light.” The album ends with the almost prayerful end of life question: “Who Will Come for Me?”
The album, released by Blue Élan Records includes a small poster backed handily by the lyrics of all the songs.