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.




Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Music Review: Airelle Besson/Nelson Veras – ‘Prelude’

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Proving once again that musical preconceptions are worthless, comes Prelude, an album featuring an unlikely duo combining trumpet and guitar. Who would imagine that such a duo could hold an audience’s attention over the whole of an album? So perhaps it isn’t surprising that given that kind of preconception, it took me four months to give this January release a listen. The trouble is that when your duo combines a trumpeter as fine as Airelle Besson with a sensitive guitarist like Nelson Veras, preconceptions are meaningless, and in this case they unreasonably kept the album on the shelf gathering dust.


                                                           Photo credit: Airellebesson.com

Fine musical talent in almost any combination can be successful. You need to listen to the product to make any sort of adequate judgment, and listening to the dozen tracks laid down by Besson and Veras will very quickly demonstrate that truth. Prelude is filled with gorgeous music. Besson’s playing is often magical and Veras works hard to keep that magic front and center. These are artists that complement each other completely.

Whether they are reinvigorating a classic like “Body and Soul” or taking on an original composition like Veras’ “Vertiges,” they have an infectious passion for the strong melodic line. Theirs is music you want to listen to carefully as they develop and play with musical ideas. The atmospheric treatment of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “O Grande Amor” is a further case in point.

The lion’s share of the album, however, is made up of Besson originals. A fine composer, Besson’s compositions are as high in quality as her work on the trumpet. The duo opens the album with her “Ma Ion,”which she introduces with a haunting solo, and then moves on to the quirky Latin rhythms of “Pouki Pouki.” “Neige,” “Full Moon in K,” and “Lulea’s Sunset” are programmatic pieces with cleverly evocative themes. “Virgule” is an improvised piece for Besson, and “Birsay” and “Time to Say Goodbye” round out the album.


Prelude is very convincing proof that music doesn’t have to be the same old same old to make for some fine listening.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Ghost Train Orchestra - "Hot Town"

This article was first published at Blogcritics:


Hot Town, Ghost Train Orchestra’s third album, follows in the very large footsteps the ensemble created for itself with its 2011 debut Hothouse Stomp, an album that made it on to the NPR top ten jazz releases of the year, and its equally fine sophomore effort, Book of Rhapsodies (2013). Like its predecessors, the album specializes in band music from the early decades of the last century, not the big names spotlighted over the years, but lesser known outfits—indeed, names long forgotten if ever known even to the most avid jazz fans. Nonetheless it is fun music, and in the hands of the Ghost Train Orchestra’s musical director and arranger trumpeter Brian Carpenter, it is music that sparkles.

According to Carpenter’s liner notes, the new album features unreleased arrangements omitted from the debut disc along with some new pieces. The music is culled from Chicago and New York based bands like Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra, Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys, Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, and Tiny Parham and His Musicians. This is not a sentimental nostalgia trip. It’s hard to be nostalgic for the music of a quartet of bands you’ve never heard of. The Ghost Train Orchestra takes this music and fits it out for a new day. It is music that has been nursed, rehearsed and pushed through a horn giving birth to the blues with a modern touch and a something more as well.

Ghost Train opens with the album’s title song which has an almost otherworldly quality at the beginning before it moves into a train imitation and blasts into the hot town. They end the set with the jumping “Charleston is the Best Dance After All.” In between there are forgotten gems like the quirky “Mo’lasses,” a happy romp through “Skag-A-Lag,” a low down “Harlem Drag” and “Bright Boy Blues.” There are vocals by violinist Mazz Stewart on “You Ain’t the One” and “You Can’t Go Wrong.”

Hot Town is music you’ve more than likely never heard before, but more than likely it is music you’ll want to hear again. . .and again; it’s that infectious.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Music Review: Harold Mabern - "Afro Blue"

This article was first published at Blogcritics


Harold Mabern, veritable titan of the piano whose vibrant disc, Right on Time, launched Smoke Sessions Records critically acclaimed jazz series is back with another winning album, Afro Blue. This time he is working both with his basic quartet—tenor sax man Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth—and an impressive roster of guest performers highlighted by five top jazz  vocalists, Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling and Alexis Cole plus instrumentalists Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone) and Peter Bernstein (guitar). It is a disc crowded, but never as is sometimes the case in these star studded compilations, over crowded, with talent and fine music.



Although the 14-tune set begins with an instrumental, Mabern’s salute to John Coltrane “The Chief” and ends with a trio of instrumentals including some sweet guitar work from Bernstein on the Steely Dan classic “Do It Again,” the emphasis on this album is support for the vocalists. As Mabern says in his dialogue with Damon Smith that makes up the album’s liner notes: “I love to play for singers because that’s really how you learn to play the piano jazz-wise. . . .It’s a tremendous challenge to play for a vocalist. You’ve got to orchestrate when you play for them.” His work with the vocalists on Afro Blue makes clear that his reputation as one of the finest of accompanists is not exaggerated. He supports the singer with assurance and never tries to steal the spotlight.

Of all the performances, I found Kurt Elling’s dramatically passionate reading of “You Needed Me” most compelling. Not that there is anything wrong with any of the others, but there was an intensity here that made the track something special.  He also does yeoman work on “Portrait of Jennie” and his “Billie’s Bounce” is characteristic Elling vocalese at its swinging best. Jane Monheit, after a sensitive reading of “My One and Only Love,” takes a sprightly turn on “I’ll Take Romance,” while Mabern playfully captures the meaning of the cliché, “tickle the ivories.” Norah Jones, dueting with Mabern’s solo piano, hits all the emotional beats in Gordon Parks’ “Don’t Misunderstand” and her “Fools Rush In” with Pelt and Turre added to the quartet is enticing. Gregory Porter opens the vocals with the album’s title tune, and a laid back reading of Mabern’s “The Man from Hyde Park.” Alexis Cole closes out the vocals with a robust version of Mabern’s “Such is Life.”






Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wes Montgomery - "In The Beginning" - Jazz Review

This article was first published at Blogcritics



While it is a truism worth remembering that the early work of a great artist is unlikely to equal the work of his maturity, it is also true that any work produced by a genius demands attention. At the very least it gives an insight into the artist’s development; at its best, it reveals an artist whose talent shown through from earliest days. The discovery of previously unreleased material from such an artist is never without interest.

So when Resonance Recordings comes out with a deluxe two-disc set of early tracks from one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the last century, Wes Montgomery, attention must be paid. The album, In The Beginning contains 26 tracks from the years 1949 through 1958. It includes club dates, recording sessions, and jams from the Mongomery-Johnson Quintette which featured the three Montgomery brothers, pianist Buddy, bassist Monk along with Wes and tenor sax man Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson and drummer Sonny Johnson, a set of five Quintette tracks produced by the young Quincy Jones for Epic Records in 1955 only one of which, “Love for Sale” was ever released and an assortment of other pieces.

Disc One has 14 Montgomery - Johnson tracks recorded in 1956 at the Turf Club in Indianapolis. They run through some driving takes of tunes like "After You’ve Gone,” “Four,” and “My Heart Stood Still.” There is an enticing take on the John Lewis composition, “Django” and a blues jam featuring an Andrews vocal. This may be young Montgomery, but it is fine Montgomery already showing his chops. The disc closes with a private recording of a jam which has Wes playing bass on “Ralph’s New Blues.” There are two vocal tracks from Debbie Andrews: “Going Down to Big Mary’s” and the standard “I Should Care.”

The second disc begins with quartet versions of “Soft Winds,” “Robbin’s Nest,” and “A Night in Tunisia” recorded in 1958 at the Missile Lounge in Indianapolis in 1958. It has Montgomery working with a variety of other musicians on individual tracks: Melvin Rhyne and Richard Crabtree on piano, Flip Stewart and brother Monk on bass and Paul Parker on drums. The Jones produced tunes include three Montgomery originals—“Leila,” “Blues,” and “Far Wes.” The disc ends with a set of three pieces recorded for Spire Records in 1949—“King Trotter,” “Carlena’s Blues,” and “Smooth Evening” with a vocals on the last two from Sonny Parker.



The set comes with a 55 page booklet complete with some vintage photographs and notes from producer Zev Feldman and authors Ashley Kahn and Bill Milkowski. There are excerpts from an unpublished book from Buddy Montgomery as told to Joseph Woodard, conversations with others and an appreciation from Pete Townshend.

The recording on some of the tracks leaves something to be desired, but the music gives a real taste of the great things to come. In The Beginning is not the mature Wes Montgomery at the top of his game, but early Montgomery is nothing to sneer at.



Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: "The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings" (Vinyl or CD)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Put two great artists in a recording studio and leave them to their own devices, and if those artists are Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, you’re likely to come up with something special. At least that’s what you’d expect. And while just how special the music from the duo’s 1975 and 1976 sessions which produced first The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and then its sequel Together Again is debatable. There is no debate but that the performances are exceptional, even, if at least for some listeners, not quite as exceptional as expected: once again suffering the curse of great expectations.

Now comes the release April 28, of a “deluxe” four-LP Box set of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings, and it is something of a mixed blessing. The set includes both original albums plus two discs made up of bonus tracks and alternate takes, as well as what they call a “collectible 12X12 photograph” of the duo  and a 12-page booklet with liner notes by Will Friedwald. But since the music itself is already available on a 2009 two-disc CD, the audience for the new release would seem to be the audiophile with a jones for vinyl and the most devoted of Bennett, Evans fans, the kind of obsessive collectors who must have everything.

Since I only had access to CD versions of the “Audio from the Forthcoming Vinyl Box Set,” which I presume is comparable to, if not actually the same as the 2009 release, I have no way of commenting on the sound quality of the new release. As far as the music itself, Bill Evans can’t make a mediocre album, and Tony Bennett in the seventies is at his best, so put me in the great expectations met camp. Their alternate takes would have been gems for other artists. And it is interesting to hear and try of compare rejected takes with those used on the album.



The songs for the album were chosen on the spot. Bennett and Evans worked out the arrangements “semi-spontaneously.” There are a number of stalwarts from the Great American Songbook: tunes like “Young and Foolish,” which opens the first album, “My Foolish Heart,” “Make Someone Happy,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” There are some less familiar pieces, songs like “When in Rome” and “You’re Nearer.” There is a version of the classic Evan’s instrumental, “Waltz for Debby” with lyrics by Gene Lees (although why you would want to burden that masterpiece with lyrics is beyond me).

I can’t speak for the vinyl set, but the two-CD album is a joy.