Monday, December 29, 2014

Jimmy Greene - "Beautiful Life" Reviewed

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Back in 1833, British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson dealing with the untimely death of his great friend Arthur Henry Hallam, wrote one of greatest poems in the English language—In Memoriam. Faced with the idea that critics might find the idea of writing poetry when one was grief stricken off putting to say the least, he considered their criticism. He understood their objection, and he had an explanation. In practicing his art, the thing he was best at, working his work as it was given to him, there was a relief:

. . . for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

There may be nothing so tragic as the loss of a child. And if in dealing with tragedy a poet turns to his poetry, it is no shock that in like circumstances, a musician would turn to his music. Like the poet, he sings because he must. Saxophonist Jimmy Greene lost his daughter Ana on December 14, 2012 in the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. His album, Beautiful Life released in November is his In Memoriam. It celebrates the life of his daughter and honors those who died with her. It is a musical expression of the artist’s faith in the healing power of music.

Greene has put together a ten song set that moves from instrumental jazz to show tunes, from spirituals to faith based Christian music. He is backed by a top flight rhythm section featuring pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash, plus a flock of guest artists on individual tracks.

Guitarist Pat Metheny joins in on the initial number “Saludos/Come Thou Almighty King” which opens and closes with some heartbreaking recordings of daughter Ana singing. Other vocalists on the project include Javier Colon singing Greene’s lyric for “When I Come Home,” Latanya Farrell working on “Prayer,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer which also includes pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and Kurt Elling singing “Ana’s Way” along with the Linden Christian Early Years Choir which includes classmates of Ana.

The basic quartet works out a pensive “Last Summer” and “Seventh Candle,” and he and pianist Kenny Barron get together for “Where is Love” from Oliver and “Maybe” from Annie. The album concludes with a spoken word performance of Greene’s “Little Voices.”
Beautiful Life is an emotionally charged musical celebration of a life too soon lost. It is the kind of album you can’t help but appreciate, while you can’t help praying there will never need to be another like it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Red Molly - The Red Album: Review

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, The Red Album released back in May is your first acquaintance with Red Molly, a vocal trio that has been around for a decade, we have missed a lot, but at least there is one consolation. We have ten years’ worth of what promises to be excellent music, a half dozen albums, waiting for us.
Red Molly—Laurie MacAllister, Abbie Gardner, and Molly Venter—is an acoustic band that lives on the border of country and western and folk music. The ladies, often praised for their supple vocal harmonies, play a variety of instruments and write more than their share of impressive music. While five of the songs on The Red Album are covers, the rest of the 13 track set are originals by one of the Mollies. They clearly, each and every one of them, have a fine tuned sense of the kind of musical soundscape best suited to their aesthetic.

A tune like “Willow Tree,” written by Venter and Eben Pariser, could well have been a traditional piece handed down from generation to generation, it has both a musical and poetic authenticity. Venter takes the lead vocal and the others the harmony; Gardner plays dobro. On the other hand, a tune like Mark Erelli’s “Pretend” gives the trio an opportunity to show off their feel for the swinging Dixie vibe. MacAllister takes the lead on this one and trombonist Herb Gardner—Pops—makes a cameo. Gardner takes the lead on her gospel rocker “Lay Down Your Burden.” The ladies make sure to share the lead vocals.

They do an interesting arrangement of the Simon and Garfunkel hit, “Homeward Bound,” but it is their treatment of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” that is the highlight of album’s covers. And I guess that should be expected, after all as the liner notes point out, it is from this song which Gardner first heard  in Del McCoury’s version at a Berkshire bluegrass festival as a child that the trio  takes its name. Fittingly, each of the ladies takes the lead on one of the tune’s three verses.

Whether the dark “Clinch River Blues” which opens the album, the  lullaby “Sing to Me” Molly sings with a tear in her voice, or the jumping “My Baby Loves Me,” The Red Album shows off the band’s variety. And for effect, they close with a beautifully harmonized a cappella version of “Copper Ponies.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Cynthia Felton Sings Nancy Wilson

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Dr. Cynthia Felton is the founder and artistic director of the Ethnomusicology Library of American Heritage, an educator, a producer and an arranger—and to complete the package, this is one lady who can sing. Check out her website and listen to what she does with just a sample of “Time Out,” or better still listen to her latest album Save Your Love For Me:  Cynthia Felton Sings the Nancy Wilson Classics. Following up on previous tribute albums to Oscar Brown, Jr. and Duke Ellington, she has gathered a dynamite list of musical talent to work with her on ten of her favorite songs culled from five Wilson albums recorded in the sixties, and she does the singer proud.

She opens the album with a short, evanescent a cappella version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” serving as an invocation, before getting down to the business at hand. “The Old Country” begins with a piano intro from Donald Brown, and although a Nat Adderley, Curtis Lewis composition, in her arrangement there is no saxophone. There’s some sweet trumpet work from Wallace Roney, but no saxophone. She includes four more from Wilson’s album collaboration with Cannonball: “Save Your Love For Me,” “A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Never Will I Marry,” and “The Masquerade is Over.” Clearly, like the artist she is, her versions are not imitations—she honors Wilson by building on what she has done. Compare her version of the title song with Wilson’s and you can hear the emotional difference, and this time she does have a saxophonist, Jeff Clayton. 

“Dearly Beloved,” is an up tempo gambol which features some fine scatting from Felton and has pianist Cyrus Chestnut and bassist Robert Hurst working their magic. Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues,” which follows the ballad “Only the Young,” offers a change of emotional pace, besides a jazz singer absolutely needs to sing the blues. “Guess Who I Saw Today” is a masterful interpretation of the tune’s misdirection. “I Wish You Love” concludes the set on a high note.

A note to Cynthia Felton—Ethnomusicology is certainly important, but keep the albums coming.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Venice"--Hip-hop at The Public Theater Now on CD

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The original cast recording of The Public Theater’s production of Venice, the combo hip-hop, rock musical with a book by Eric Rosen, music by Matt Sax and lyrics by both which opened in the spring of 2013 is now available on line and comes to stores in December. Although the dystopian tale of military occupation, terrorism and revolution could well have been set in quite a few cities in the here and now, the creators opted for a fictional Venice in the future as offering more freedom for stylistic innovation and allowing for more inventive symbolic content. In a sense it is an attempt to universalize the shows themes.

The fairly complex plot of the show is summarized in a booklet that accompanies the CD. Suffice it to say if you haven’t seen the show, the summary here isn’t likely to mean very much to you. But since it also includes the complete lyrics, you can toggle back and forth between the two and get a reasonable approximation of the relation between the music and the plot. Of course, some may feel that if you haven’t seen the play, there’s little reason to buy the album. Not so, this is a musical with an innovative soundscape building on the foundations of the rock operas that have become a staple of the popular theater. It has a score you may want to hear and savor.

The cast features composer Sax as Clown MC, kind of the rapping genius behind the action. He opens the show with “Citizens of Venice” and runs in and out through most of the play. Jennifer Damiano, the play’s romantic center, gets most of the more conventional musical numbers, “Willow,” “Sunrise,” and “If Only.” These are some sweet melodies, although as some have complained their lyrics can sometimes lapse into the banal. Haaz Sleiman her romantic counterpart joins her for an early rock duet, “Waited All These Years,” does a bit of rapping on “Put Out the Light” and provides some contrast to the rapping Clown in songs like “Wings.”

Angela Polk adds some rapping on the song named for her character, “Hailey Daisy,” and joins with Sax and the ensemble on “Liberation (Pull Up the People)” the dynamic first act closer. Uzo Aduba, Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black) plays a ghost and does a little singing in “Anna” when she is introduced and later at the end of the play. 

Clearly not traditional musical theater, Venice is an interesting example of how modern creators are trying to build and perfect new directions. They are not always successful, but they bring with them a creative vitality that promises much for the future.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque: Reviewed

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

 Canadian mistress of the flute and saxophone, Jane Bunnett, continues her long love affair with Afro-Cuban music when she joins with Maqueque, an all-female Cuban sextet, in their self-titled September release for Justin Time Records. A glance at her discography makes clear her passion for the Cuban soundscape—titles like Cuban Odyssey, Spirits of Havana, and Jane Bunnett And The Cuban Piano Masters don’t even scratch the surface of that passion
If there is something new and different here it is the collaboration with the all-female ensemble.  Bunnett describes the value of their partnership: “There’s a very happy energy about it. . . . “All of the women are very supportive of each other.  I’ve seen a couple of all-women groups in Cuba that are geared toward tourists and can border on being pretty cheesy. What we’re doing is creative and collaborative and involves a lot of the Afro-Cuban elements that stem out of traditional folkloric music.”

The name Maqueque, Bunnett explains in the liner notes, from an ancient Cuban dialect means the spirit of a young girl and was the suggestion of the grandmother of the group’s dynamic vocalist DaymĂ© Arocena. It is a name that “perfectly describes the musicians and our music,” she continues. If young girl connotes joyful exuberance and the celebration of life, they couldn’t have found a better name.

The album’s ten tracks include five Bunnett originals, three pieces by Arocena, one, “Mamey Colorao,” from the pen of Cuban piano great Pedro “Peruchin” Justiz, and the Bill Withers classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” 

Among the album’s highlights are Bunnett’s “Maqueque” which features some exciting piano solo work from Danae Olano,  and her “Song For Haiti” originally written for a Haitian benefit album and adds a gaggle of guest musicians. Arocena’s “Guajira” supposedly inspired by the self-sufficiency of Cuban farmers has an impish quality and her “De la Habana a Canada” has a haunting opening for Bunnett on the soprano sax, before moving into cha cha territory. Arocena and bassist Yusa provide a soulful vocal on the Withers, after a magical sax opening.

Bunnett and Maqueque are a match made in  Afro-Cuban heaven.

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.