Saturday, March 31, 2012

Music Review: Liza Minnelli - Live at the Winter Garden

This article was first published at Blogcritics

There are those performers, not all that many, who can take the stage all on their own with an orchestra and maybe a dancer or two and keep an audience enthralled for an evening.  Liza Minnelli is one of the few.  In January of 1974, after award winning successes on TV with Liza With a Z and on Broadway with Flora the Red Menace and Cabaret, Minnelli came to Broadway with a one woman show, Live at the Winter Garden, a show that sold out its month run in 36 hours, and has since become the stuff of legend. 

Listeners will soon have the opportunity to judge for themselves.  The show's recording long unavailable because of the inclusion of a medley from Cabaret which conflicted with the release of the show's sound track album will be available for digital download on April 3rd from and more widely from retailers in May.  While there is clearly something of the live performance vibe lost in any recording, Liza Minnelli's magical touch with her audience is apparent. 

The repertoire is a mix of show tunes, standards, some specialty numbers written for the star by Kander and Ebb and a song or two that would have been contemporary back in '74.  And while Minnelli is the kind of singer who can take a "mouldy oldie" like "Shine on Harvest Moon" and make it her own, who can invest a novelty piece like "Exactly Like Me" with the power of her personality, she can be less at home with some of the more contemporary songs.  It's not that her pop performances are inadequate; it is simply that they don't quite rise to the level of her treatment of the music in her wheel house.  Songs like "I Can See Clearly Now" and "If You Could Read My Mind" are well done and even exciting, but they are not the singer at the top of her game.

Unquestionably the show tunes, the standards and the Charles Aznavour songs show off the singer at her best.  They are the highlights of the evening.  There is "A Quiet Thing" from Flora the Red Menace and of course the show stopping climax of "Cabaret."  It is not strange that she has a special connection with the music of Kander and Ebb, but there is also that same kind of connection with the dramatic eloquence of the Aznavour pieces, "And I in My Chair" and "There is a Time."  They give the star an opportunity to show her acting chops.   The Edith Piaf/ Fred Ebb composition "The Circle" stands out in much the same way.  "More than You Know" and "It Had to Be You" show what she can do with a standard, and "Shine on Harvest Moon" gets the audience standing.  This is Liza at her unmatchable best.
The new release features three previously unreleased encores not originally included in the song list for the show's Winter Garden run: Stevie Wonder's "You and I," "My Shining Hour," and the above mentioned "It Had to Be You."  Altogether, including the overture, the album has 17 tracks put together for the singer by Kander and Ebb.  The musical coordinator was Marvin Hamlisch. "The thing about doing a show like Liza is that every song means something," Minnelli explains. "Fred and John were so brilliant at building a show, plus I had Marvin, so we tried all kinds of different rundowns and finally came up with what you hear on the album, and thank God it worked! But you keep trying, and don't get satisfied with anything but the best."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Question For the Day

What is the difference between a heebie jeebie and an ordinary jeebie?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Music Review: Slim Loris - Down to Earth

A shorter version of this article was first published at Blogcritics

There can be something exciting about the arrival of an unsolicited new album from a band you've never heard of.  You have no idea what to expect.  You know that a lot of people thought enough about what is in this sleeve to devote a good bit of their time and more than likely a nice chunk of their cash to it.  You suspect that the band members have put their hearts and souls into it, never mind their hopes and dreams.  And often enough, there have been those albums that have justified that excitement.  The music is great.  It may never reach the tops of anyone's charts, but it is wonderful music anyway. 

There can be something disheartening about the arrival of an unsolicited new album from a band you've never heard of.  As likely as not, even a cursory hearing will make the reasons you've never heard of them abundantly clear.  The time, the cash, the hopes, the dreams, the hearts, the souls: the whole catalogue of commitment is there, and it would have been better directed somewhere else.  At least as far as you're concerned.  The  music is bad and if no one ever hears it, they will be none the worse for it.

There is no problem writing about the first kind of album; praise comes easily.  There is no problem writing about the second; nothing comes easier than bitchy criticism.  Although it is always a good thing to keep in mind all those critics who made fools of themselves failing to recognize the genius of artists like Beethoven and 100's of others. 

All that said, along comes an album like Down to Earth from a Swedish pop rock trio which goes by the name Slim Loris, and it just doesn't fit into either category.  The album is quite nicely done. There is nothing to dislike intensely, but—and of course there is a but—there is nothing about it that is especially exciting.  It has a familiar retro sound that seems to go back half a century.  There is little that is surprising or innovative in what the band is doing.  The 12 tracks on the album are the work of Mattias Cederstam, the band's capable vocalist who also plays bass, guitar, piano and organ and guitarist Robert Barrefelt.  Lyrics are by Cederstam.  One track adds drummer Leon Lindstöm to the credits.

The band's website describes their songs as "a mix of traditional and modern styles that creates a pattern of unadulterated indie music."  "Slim Loris," it goes on, "create beautiful, melodic songs with emotional vocals."  This is exactly accurate, except maybe for the "modern styles."  The music is indeed melodic and often beautiful; the vocals are emotional.  There is a good bit of angst on display.  Cederstam, like the poet, manages to find the "sovereign shrine" of melancholy in the "very temple of delight."  There are times when his lyrics seem a bit clunky, a syllable off here, a phrase off there, but for the most part they work well enough.  The music, on the other hand, can be infectious.  The more you listen the more it echoes in your head. 

Myself, I have no problem with a retro sound.  In fact I quite like it.  Songs like the album's opening number "Low" are very easy on the ear.  "Blackstones" has a kind of hypnotic passion as it keeps "fading away."  "She Won't Believe" works off an interesting rhythmic pattern.  "Ain't Nothing Like it Used to Be" opens with an almost classic piano riff coupled with some string accents and although there is something portentous about the lyric, the song has a power all its own.  These are musically well crafted songs, played with sincere commitment.  If they seem to belong to another era, well who's to say there's anything wrong with that. I just have to wonder how many listeners would agree.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Music Review: The Decemberists - We All Raise Our Voices

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It is true that as often as not live performance albums don't measure up to studio recordings—production values may be limited, there are no retakes for performance flaws, comic banter, planned or ad lib may not work after the first couple of hearings (where is it written that musicians must be comedians).  Still, there is something special about a great live performance, an electric energy that a band gets standing up before an enthusiastic crowd of screaming dancing fans, that can more than make up for any problems. 

The newly released  double album by The Decemberists manages to capture all the energy of a live concert while obviating at least some of the problems that might have arisen by featuring performances recorded at a variety of concerts from their recent tour in support of their Grammy nominated album The King is Dead.  We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11 – 08.11) draws from a dozen different shows in venues from Nashville to Seattle to the band's Portland base.  And if some of Colin Meloy's patter, mildly funny the first few times, gets old with repetition (I mean how many times do you want to hear that this isn't a Keith Urban concert), the crowd energizes the band with its joy in the music.  Clearly everyone--audience, band members—is having a great time, and the recordings capture that joy.

While the album's 20 tracks reach back for songs from the band's six albums over the past 10 years, it is not surprising that the lion's share, seven tracks including the massive hit "Down by the Water," is taken from the best selling The King is Dead.  In a choice selection from the album, "Calamity Song" and "Rise to Me" are on the first disc, and the second disc has "All Arise," "Rox in the Box," "June Hymn" and "This is Why We Fight."

The album opens with the dynamic drama of "The Infanta," the song, a line from which its title was taken.  The three sections of "The Crane's Wife" played  here consecutively in a sixteen minute block unlike the separated sections on the original album close the first disc.  Other highlights include "We Both Go Down Together," "The Bagman's Gambit" and "The Rake's Song."  This last is the only song from The Hazards of Love.  The second CD opens with the lilting "Oceanside." Later there's "Dracula's Daughter" which Meloy calls the "worst song" he's ever written, but it quickly and perhaps mercifully morphs into "Valencia."  The set ends with their crowd pleasing "The Mariner's Revenge Song" and "I Was Meant for the Stage."  For some reason the theme—the performer's need to perform--of this closer feels like a commentary of sorts on an anthem like Jackson Browne's "The Load Out/Stay."  The cacophony with which it ends may be meant to suggest something about the nature of that commentary.

There are those who find The Decemberists pretentious, their lyrics overblown.  There are those who find them overly ambitious, those who find them not ambitious enough.  There are those who feel they have yet to have found themselves a consistent aesthetic.  But if this live collection of much of the best of the band's work demonstrates anything, it is that Meloy, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Nate Query, and John Moen, with some additional help from Sara Watkins, are playing some truly fine music, songs that make you think, hooks that make you sing, songs that can make you scream like you're being swallowed by a whale. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Music Review: Cannonball Adderley - Legends Live: Cannonball Adderley Quintet

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Legends Live, along with Big Bands Live is a series of remastered recordings culled from previously unreleased performances by many of the major figures in American jazz  from the archives of the German broadcaster Südwestrundfunk.  After the end of WWII, many bands took the opportunity to tour through Europe, and they found a welcome in the cities of Germany as well as in the allied countries.  They played to enthusiastic crowds in Freiburg, Karlsruhe, and Stuttgart among other places, and it is estimated that about 1600 audio and more than 350 television recordings of their performances have been gathering dust over the years waiting to see the light of day.
Jazzhaus is a new label launched in the U.S. by Naxos of America and Arthaus Musik to get these live concerts out of the vault and into the hands of jazz fans.  They have scheduled the first three releases in the series—a 1959 concert by Benny Goodman's band, a 1977 concert by the Gerry Mulligan Sextet, and this recording of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at the Liederhalle Stuttgart from March of 1969—for the end of March.
Legends Live: Cannonball Adderley Quintet is a collection of nine tracks that emphasize the ensemble's versatility and range.  There are brilliant examples of the quintet's signature soulful blues sound: "Sweet Emma," "Why Am I Treated So Bad," Work Song," and "Walk Tall."  The only thing missing is their most famous crossover gem, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." While these may not be as innovative as some of the other tracks on the album, I must say they are plenty good enough.  Adderley was always quite willing to play some for the less sophisticated jazz fan, and for many these are when he and the quintet are at their best.
This is not to say that the band is not at home with an edgier sound.  The set starts with "Rumpelstiltskin," a composition by pianist Joe Zawinul (who also wrote "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy").  This is a nine minute plus romp that has Adderley opening with a jumping solo on his alto followed by brother Nat's cornet that swings like early Miles Davis.  Zawinul's piano is from another world.  "The Painted Dessert," another Zawinul composition, offers another opportunity for the band to show its chops as it moves through a range of tempos with joyful abandon.  And when Nat comes in for his solo, I'll be damned if he's not channeling Miles Davis.  Zawinul's piano work is something special, dynamic and idiosyncratic.

Dizzy Gillespie's "Blue and Boogie" features an extended drum solo by Roy McCurdy.  It looks back to the band's bebop roots. "Oh Babe," a Nat Adderley compostion, is a classic blues with a vocal by the composer.  "Somewhere," from West Side Story, begins with a wistful statement of theme by the alto and builds to a climactic moment before drifting away to that hoped for somewhere.  It is a stellar performance by the leader.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Music Review: Benny Goodman - Big Bands Live: Benny Goodman Orchestra, Feat. Anita O'Day

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In 1947 Südwestrundfunk (Southwest Broadcasting) began a series of radio and TV Jazz broadcasts featuring both major American musicians like Art Blakey, Duke Ellington and Lester Young as well as rising European stars.  Almost 1600 audio and 350 video recordings of the live performances of these artists, most of which are previously unreleased, are housed in the company's archives.  Jazzhaus  is a new label launched by Naxos of America and Arthaus Musik to release remastered versions of some of the best performances in quarterly installments.  The first installment to be released at the end of March includes CDs by the Benny Goodman Orchestra featuring Anita O'Day, the Cannonball Adderly Quintet and the Gerry Mulligan Sextet.
If the Benny Goodman CD, a fifteen track concert running just over 76 minutes, is an accurate indication of what is still to come, jazz fans have a bonanza of good listening to look forward to.  Recorded live at Stadthalle-Freiburg in October of 1959, Goodman and a ten piece band play a selection of some of his best known tunes as well as one or two less well known, and while this is not the Goodman band of his heyday, it is a swinging ensemble that gives a fine account of itself.  Joining Goodman are Russ Freeman on piano,  Red Norvo on vibes, Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Flip Philllips on tenor sax, Bill Harris on trombone, Jerry Dodgion on flute.  Jimmy Wyble plays guitar, Red Wootton, bass and drummer John Markham rounds out the band.  The vocals of Anita O'Day highlight the album.

The concert opens with the familiar Goodman theme song "Let's Dance" and follows with the up-tempo "Air Mail Special" showcasing first the maestro and then Norvo, Phillips and the rest of the band.  "Raise the Riff" is a tight ensemble piece that has some nice work from Wyble and Freeman.  "Whispering" has the clarinetist in a playful mood and "Memories of You" and "Body and Soul" are vintage Goodman.  "Don't Get Around Much Any More" gives Wootton a chance to show his stuff and Norvo shines.  Bill Harris lights up the stage with "Ten Bone," and Phillips' sax is hot.

Anita O'Day steps up to the front of the band with a dynamic take on the Fats Waller favorite, "Honeysuckle Rose" before changing the mood with a sweet version of "Come Rain or Come Shine."  "Let Me Off Uptown," the classic duet she recorded with the Gene Krupa Orchestra and Roy Eldridge is something of a disappointment.  Her introduction of Sheldon as Roy is a cute variation on her introduction of Roy as Joe, unfortunately when Sheldon (who may be better known for his comedic TV appearances)  starts to blow he doesn't manage to equal Eldridge's terrific trumpet solo.  Although the album listing doesn't mention it, the track starts with "Boogie Blues."  The duet on "Gotta Be This or That" is a keeper.

The set includes two fine medleys.  The first features O'Day scatting on the Woody Herman hit "Four Brothers" after opening with "Not For Me" and coming back for a sultry blues.  The band ends with an eleven minute stew of "Don't Be That Way," "Stomping at the Savoy," Sunny Side of the Street," "In a Mellow Tone," "Moonglow" and Bei mir bist du scheen." Again, the track listing doesn't mention it, but the medley ends with the Goodman show stopper, "Sing, Sing, Sing."

If this is any kind of indication of what Jazzhaus has on tap, jazz lovers are in for a treat.