Sunday, July 29, 2012

Music Review: The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Throughout his long career legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, never content to keep to the old script, has always been ready to explore new ideas.  Critics and fans have not always been happy to go along with him, but that has never stopped him from going his own way.  So when you talk about the best of Miles Davis, the first thing you have to consider is which Miles Davis do you mean: bebopper, cool, hard bopper, electric, fusion.  There are as many bests as there are Davises.

The nice thing about Riverside's new release of The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet is that it makes crystal clear just exactly which Miles Davis we are going to hear.  This is the Miles of the middle 50s, the period of what is always referred to as the first great quintet.  And who would argue with that?  Joining Miles, there's John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drum—as fine an ensemble as was around at the time, maybe any time.
The album collects ten pieces from six albums—some as legendary as the performers—recorded with one exception in 1956 for the Prestige label.  The opening track, Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" was recorded in '55 for Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet.  The other nine were recorded over two days to meet the trumpeter's contractual obligation to Prestige before he moved over to the major leagues—Columbia Records.  Prestige went on to release tracks from the sessions though the next few years under the titles Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin', Steamin' and Cookin', all of course with the Miles Davis Quintet.  These are among the most heralded jazz albums of the day.

Davis and the rest of the ensemble came ready to play.  Whether they're in a lyrical soulful mood in ballads like "You're My Everything" and "My Funny Valentine," or stampeding through Sonny Rollins' "Airegin,"(Nigeria spelled backwards) the album showcases the Quintet at its best.  These are classic performances.  As Ashley Kahn explains in his excellent liner notes: "In many cases, these tracks stand as definitive performances of the tunes."  There is an exquisite version of Monk's "'Round Midnight" with a haunting opening as evocative as it is elegant. There is an absolutely jumping take on Davis's own composition, "Four." Completing this album filled with highlights are "Tune Up," another Davis tune, Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," and Monk's "Well, You Needn't."

 The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet is not hyperbole.  The music deserves the title.  You won't want to download single tracks from this album; you'll want the whole thing. The only thing that jazz fans who have probably worn out their coveted vinyl recordings might have to regret about this new album is that there are only ten tracks. There may well be more music that belongs, but that takes nothing away from what is here.  Still, it's always possible that there's a Very Best volume two down the road a piece.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Music Review: The Otmar Binder Trio - Boogie Woogie Turnaround

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The worst thing about the Otmar Binder Trio's album Boogie Woogie Turnaround is that almost everything you are going to hear will sound very familiar.  The best thing about the album is that almost everything will sound very familiar.

For many years now it is the rare musician that would have even included a boogie woogie track on one of his albums, let alone let alone devote an entire album to it.  It is a musical genre that smacks of the past.  In a world that focuses on the latest craze, the newest trends boogie is about as old fashioned as grandma's rocking chair.  New, however, doesn't necessarily mean good, and old fashioned isn't necessarily bad.  The truth is, that when you listen to boogie woogie played with passion and skill by musicians that honor the genre and its history, you have to wonder why it has fallen from grace.


Boogie Woogie Turnaround may not mark the beginning of a Renaissance, but it has enough fine music to get more than a few listeners thinking a little boogie now and then could well spice up the jazz scene. The seventeen tracks on the album although filled with licks that will bring back memories to anyone who has ever listened to the likes of Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner are all new compositions written by pianist Binder himself or along with a collaborator. That the songs sound like they could have been written early in the last century is testimony to the authenticity of their composer's vision.
Although the album is credited to the Binder Trio (Binder on piano, Alexander Lackner, bass and Michael Strasser on drums) most of the tracks feature additional instrumentalists. B.J. Cole plays pedal steel and slide guitar on "Southbound," "Rising River Boogie" and "Venice Stomp." He also plays on the bluesy  "Brighton to Boston." Christian Dozzler plays on five of the tracks including another blues, "Bluesprint" and the evocative "Uphill." Both have that sweet antique vibe.

Gerry Schuller plays the B3 on "Changes to Be Made," a tune straight out of the rock and roll tradition that the album calls a bonus track."At Last," another bonus track which features pianist Charlie Furthner is a much more traditional piano boogie played with verve and power. The album ends with a whole additional orchestral ensemble with strings and vocalists plus Cole's guitar playing a final Binder original, "Floyd's Turn."

 An Austrian, Binder says he was introduced to boogie woogie in 1978 when his father brought home the debut album of the Mojo Blues Band called Shake That Boogie-Woogie. "As soon as the record-player's needle lifted up at the end of the record," he says, "I started it back from the beginning." He was eight years old at the time, and happily for us boogie woogie became his passion, after all it could have been the 70s version of The Wiggles. This is fun music. Binder understood that as a child, and as this album shows, he hasn't forgotten it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Todd Barry's TV Special Available on CD and DVD

This article was first published at Technorati

In recent months Comedy Central has released a tide of top flight comedy CDs and DVDs: Hannibal Buress' Animal Furnace, Reggie Watts', A Live At Central Park, John Mulaney's New in Town, and Doug Benson's Smug Life to name a few. Well they've got another one coming later this month with Todd Barry's Super Crazy, an extended uncensored version of his world premiere one hour TV special scheduled for July 21 at 11:00. 

Recorded live at the Gramercy Theatre in New York, Barry's set includes observational bits about tourists and travel directions, the real value of eating Italian food in a restaurant, and fraternity sales pitches delivered with his patented  laconic deadpan.  From the very beginning with his rant on bartending in the wilds of Montana to his finale about the fan who confuses him with another comic, Barry has the audience in the proverbial palm of his—well, you know where the palm is, and you don't sit on it, and neither does the audience.  This is funny stuff.  It has the audience roaring; it had me in stitches, and more than likely it will have you laughing too. 

Not only has Barry made the rounds of the late night shows—Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel—with his stand-up routine, but he has also appeared on TV shows from Sex in the City to Sesame Street.  His movie credits include Wanderlust, Road Trip, and Pootie Tang.  He was Mickey Rourke's boss in the deli in the 2009 Academy Award winner, The Wrestler
The DVD will contain more than 15 minutes of material omitted from the TV broadcast. 

Bonus features include his performance at the Friars Club roast of Chevy Chase and the video of Todd Barry on Giggles, Wiggles and Giggles with Gordy.  You can check out this video of what is supposed to be Barry interviewed by a student working on a dissertation on comedy from his dorm room on the Comedy Central website.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Music Review: Joe Jackson - The Duke

This article was first published at Blogcritics

There are tributes and there are tributes, and imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but paying an artist the complement of using his work as a foundation to build upon may be the best kind of flattery.  And this best kind of flattery is exactly what alternative rocker Joe Jackson has done for the music of Duke Ellington in his new album The Duke set for release June 26th from Razor & Tie. Imitation is far from Jackson's mind.  He takes the music and in a real sense makes it his own. “Ellington didn’t consider his own arrangements to be sacred”, Jackson says. “He constantly reworked them, sometimes quite radically. So I think my approach is in the spirit of the man himself.”

Jackson has collected an eclectic crew to join him in the project from punk favorite Iggy Pop and Iranian songstress Sussan Deyhim to Zuco 103 Brazilian vocalist Lilian Vieira and soulful blues artist Sharon Jones. Then there are the musicians—jazz stalwarts violinist Regina Carter and bassist Christian McBride, rock guitarist Steve Vai, and Roots drummer Ahmir '?uestlove' Thompson.  Older Jackson collaborators include Vinnie Zummo on guitar and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos.  With this kind of musical cast working on different tracks, the one thing you can expect is variety, and variety is what you get.
Jackson takes 15 Ellington classics and combining some into unique medleys (not to mention adding some quotations from other pieces) arranges them into 10 highly original tracks. He is clearly having himself a good time, just listen to the quotation at the end of "The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy" or the drum and bass coda at the end of "It Don't Mean a Thing."  In the middle of Vieira's hot and sexy romp through "Perdido" he inserts a time bending "Satin Doll" piano solo.  This is Ellington's music, but there is no escaping Jackson's aesthetic touch.

Take the classic "Caravan;" here be manages to create a big sound without any of the trademark Ellington horns.  “I wanted to take it in a completely different direction, and there was a danger of just sounding like watered-down Ellington if it wasn’t different enough. Not using horns was a good place to start. It makes you think: what else can we do?” Instead you get a Farsi vocal from Deyhim and some exciting ensemble work from Jackson and the band.  It may well make me forget what had been my ex-favorite cover from Benny Goodman and the orchestra.  He gets a big textured sound on most of the instrumentals, the opening track, "Isfahan" and "The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy."  "Rockin' In Rhythm," on the other hand, is a bubbly bauble.  And not a horn to be found.

"Mood Indigo" is a boozy vocal for Jackson worthy of Tom Waits, indeed the whole bit has that drunken vibe, even the violin highlights.  Jackson also does the vocal on "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" usually a vehicle for a female singer for what it's worth, and "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Iggy Pop joins him on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).  Sharon Jones does a number on "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" and Jackson adds some nice solo work with"Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me" as part of the medly.

Jackson's transformations of classic Ellington may not please everyone.  Some of the originals and even earlier covers have become so much a part of the culture, it will be hard for many to listen to what he has done without hearing echoes from the past.  It is not easy to overcome the bias of familiarity.  On the other hand we all know what familiarity breeds.  Besides the more you listen, the more respect you have for Jackson and his musical ideas.  The Duke is nothing if not a fitting tribute from one musical genius to another.