Friday, December 18, 2015

Halie Loren sings "Butterfly Blue"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Photo by Bob Williams
Butterfly Blue, the June release from vocalist Halie Loren is on the 58th GRAMMY ballot for well-deserved consideration in the “Best Vocal Jazz Album” category. The dynamic album takes its title from two of its original songs, Loren’s own “Butterfly” and “Blue” from guitarist Daniel Gallo. Taken together they are intended as an indication of the album’s thematic connection which the singer suggests is the need to find a way through moments of pain and sadness to new and even more beautiful experiences—much the way a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. Whether you buy the metaphor or not needn’t affect your pleasure in the music. Halie Loren can sing with the best of them, and song after song, she makes that clear.

The album is an intelligent mix of standards and original material, once in a while leaning to pop, more often creative, straight forward jazz. Songs like Gallo’s “After the Fall” and Loren’s “Danger in Loving You” have a real noir sound right out of a 1940’s black and white flick. Just listen to Rob Birdwell’s flugelhorn on the former and Joe Freuen’s trombone highlights on the latter. Loren’s vocals are on the money. On the other hand she opens the set with her own more pop oriented “Yellow Bird.” Still, even here punctuated with some sweet vocalise.

Her work on the classic material tends toward creative interpretation. And although her treatment of a tearful warhorse like “Stormy Weather” is a little too upbeat for my taste, she takes a tune like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and knocks it out of the park. “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” are winners. “I Wish You Love” with some of the original French lyrics thrown in is magical. She closes on a high with Horace Silver’s “Peace.”

With solid album after solid album, this has been a great year for vocal jazz. Butterfly Blue belongs on any long award list.     Bob Williams 


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Art Pepper Live

This article was first published at Blogcritics

2015 is a good year for Art Pepper fans. No it’s a good year for jazz lovers—hell, make that music lovers. Early in the year there was the digital release of three volumes of Neon Art recorded back in 1981, and now comes another savory gem from the alto sax master. Art Pepper Live At Fat Tuesday’s is a newly discovered previously unissued recording of an April 1981 gig at the famed New York jazz club remastered for CD.

While the recording comes near the untimely end of Pepper’s life, it captures him at the crest of his mature powers. He had returned to music and rediscovered his bliss after a prolonged period of silence as he struggled with addiction problems. He had gone through what was once called “the dark night of the soul,” and he had emerged with a renewed energy and a true maturity, a maturity that pervades his playing.

Pepper fronts a rhythm section featuring pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist George Mraz and drummer Al Foster. Together they work through a program of five extended explorations giving the quartet the opportunity to stretch their improvisatory muscle, an opportunity they take with gusto.
The set opens with a jazz classic, Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” a contrafact based on the chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Pepper’s lengthy solo moves from melodic moments to more discordant notes as the piece ends—perhaps an indication of where Pepper was early in his career and where he is in the eighties. His playing on the second track, the Cole Porter standard “What Is This Thing Called Love” follows the same duality, almost as if the artist has a split personality.

The Benny Goodman closing theme “Goodbye” sits oddly right in the middle of the set.  Here it gets the slow soulful treatment, and the gig ends with two of Pepper’s own compositions, “Make a List, Make a Wish,” coming in just short of 18 and a half jam packed minutes, and “Red Car,” a free flowing blues with something for each of the musicians to stretch with.

The disc comes with a packed 39 page booklet which includes a 1980 Pepper interview with jazz historian Brian Priestly, producer Zev Feldman’s interview with Laurie Pepper, Art’s widow, reminiscences by the great Stan Getz and producer John Koenig, as well as an essay by writer Stephane Ollivier.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Chucho Valdés Salutes Irakere

This article was first published at Blogcritics

For the past two months piano stalwart Chucho Valdés has been touring the United States with Irakere 40 a celebration of the famed Afro-Cuban ensemble he founded back in 1973, an ensemble which included musical greats the likes of Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. In conjunction with the tour, Jazz Village/harmonia mundi has released Tribute to Irakere: Live at Marciac, a collection of long form compositions culled from an earlier European tour stop, August 15 in Marciac, France.

Working with his current ensemble the Afro-Cuban Messengers supplemented with three trumpets and a couple of saxophones, Valdés is less interested in a nostalgic visit back to Irakere’s glory days than he is in building new wings on its foundation. Instead of looking to the original crew, now in his seventies, he has chosen to work with a younger set of musicians who have learned from what their elders have done and now can honor them by expanding horizons. It is music that honors both its African roots and its jazz explorations with a dynamic sound to be savored.

While the album begins with one of Irakere’s classic pieces, “Juana 1600,” there is also a focus on newer work like “Lorena’s Tango” and “Yansá.” The latter has the band working in a truly modern jazz idiom. There is a fine rendition of “Congadanza” as well as a brilliant extended version, almost double the length at nearly 18 minutes, of “Afro- Comanche,” a piece with native American themes, both previously recorded with the Messengers on the 2013 Border-Free album. Valdés may be in his seventies, but if his piano work on “Afro-Comanche” is any indication, the man still can deliver the goods.  “Afro-Funk” lives up to its title with a sound that plays to some of Irakere’s jazz and rock influences.

Irakere was a band with a big sound, a sound captured once more in this tribute. Let’s hope for some more tracks from the live performances.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Music Review: John Basile - "Penny Lane"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

When it comes to jazz covers of the Beatles, there have been some truly inventive treatments of the material and there have been some that relied on the melodic popularity of the music for safe interpretations. And while there is nothing particularly ground breaking about the 11 covers on guitarist John Basile’s August release Penny Lane, for those who like their jazz smooth there is much to admire. After all it would be strange if a talented guitarist, and Basile is a talent to be reckoned with, working with the Beatles’ music didn’t come up with a winning album.

Backing up his guitar with midi programming, Basile runs through the range of the Beatles song book, from earlier work like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” to later pieces like “The Fool on the Hill,” both here building on a Latin beat. Somehow, in spite of the fact that you might not expect it with this teeny bopper classic, he manages to take a lengthy look at “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and works it for all it’s worth.   He makes some dynamic harmonic choices for his cover of the title song, “Penny Lane” and his “Norwegian Wood” is one of the album’s more creative efforts.

His covers of “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day in the Life” are fine, but these are two tunes that have been coopted by Wes Montgomery, at least as far as I’m concerned. His avoids any of the obvious gentle weeping that might that might tempt a lesser guitarist covering George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” although mistakenly the album cover attributes the composition to Lennon and McCartney. “And I Love Her” features some of his most effective solo work. “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays with funky blues, while “Here There and Everywhere” gets a mite syrupy. A clean and simple version of “In My Life” concludes the album.

Basile is a fine guitarist. His work on the Beatles canon is both intelligent and emotionally satisfying, if not as adventurous as some. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Music Review: Brad Allen Williams - "Lamar"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

What distinguishes guitarist Brad Allen Williams’ August release Lamar from the ordinary jazz trio album is not so much its choice of material, not so much its instrumental make-up, and not so much its innovative playing. What distinguishes Lamar is its return to older recording techniques in an attempt to reproduce the human feel and vibe of an ensemble playing together, without any digital games.

As Williams’ liner notes point out: “”The vinyl release of this will have never touched a computer at all. It was recorded with the three of us in one great-sounding room together using the best analog tape machines and a great analog engineer.” Echoing an aesthetic idea that goes back at least to the 19th century, Williams goes on to explain that he believes that the humanity of a musical performance isn’t in mechanical perfection, but in the preservation of “the little hiccups; the little mistakes.” Blotting out the warts blots out the humanity.

Besides when you are fronting a tight trio where the musicians have played together over the years and know each other well, there may be “hiccups” and “mistakes,” but if there are, they will be few and far between. If the price for a powerful humane musical experience is a wart or two, it is a small price to pay. Williams on guitar working with Pat Bianchi on the Hammond organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums delivers a winner. “Hiccups?” I didn’t hear any.

The eight tune program features three Williams originals: a bluesy “201 Poplar” and a swinging “Euclid and Lamar,” while his “Culver Viaduct Rehabilitation Project” makes for some fine improvisation opportunities. The album opens with Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” a good indication of what’s to come. Added to these are a couple of pop pieces you wouldn’t expect on a jazz album “Galveston” and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” but work well Williams hands. There are two standards as well—a really dynamite arrangement of “Stairway to the Stars” and a solo guitar version of “More Than You Know.” This last could well have been extended.

Lamar is also available on CD and download at one extra mechanical remove from the vinyl. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Short Review:"The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas

At times fawning, at times snarky attempt to explain the enduring popularity of Holmes and Watkins in all their many manifestations over the years. His conclusions are not very satisfying and don't justify almost 300 pages of text. In the end it is his compulsive fandom and that of all the others he talks about in the text that supply the book's real interest.

From Goodreads:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Music Review: Rob Reddy - "Bechet: Our Contemporary"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Composer and saxophonist Rob Reddy’s Bechet: Our Contemporary is one of the more interesting tribute albums released recently. True to its title, the album honors the pioneering soprano saxophonist not by mere regurgitation like some, but by using his music for creative inspiration. It is as though he is presenting a musical vision of what Bechet’s music might be, was he playing today.

Reddy makes clear what he feels the album is after in the liner notes: “The idea of entering into a conversation with an iconic body of work as a means of engaging my own questions and those of the time and culture in which I live was at the heart of what I wanted to do with the compositions of Sidney Bechet.” If success is defined as fulfilled intention, Bechet: Our Contemporary is an unqualified success. Perhaps even more importantly, if success is defined as great listening, that success is equally unqualified.

Reddy sets up his dialogue by alternating the album’s eight song program between his own original compositions and those of Bechet. He opens with his own “Up – South.” A clear indication from the very start of where he is going as he takes the New Orleans traditions associated with Bechet and translates them into an inventive modern idiom. It is much like a contemporary deconstruction of the tradition. New Orleans and its vibe are always there, sometimes up front, often in the shadows.

This even more evident in the treatment of the Bechet songbook. The atmospheric classic “Petite Fleur” and the lengthy exploration of Mid-Eastern exoticism in his work on “Song of Medina” give Reddy and his ensemble the opportunity to stretch, and they take it with gusto. The other Bechet pieces on the set are “Chant in the Night” which has Lisa Parrott guesting on the baritone sax and a lively “Broken Windmill,” which has Oscar Noriega guesting on clarinet.

Reddy’s soprano sax is complimented throughout by John Carlson on trumpet and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. They are joined by Charles Burnham on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, Marvin Sewell on guitars, Dom Richards on double bass and Pheeroan Aklaff on drums. Reddy’s arrangements give each and every one of them plenty of time to shine, and they make sure to take advantage of their opportunities.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"Orange is the New Black's" Lea DeLaria Sings David Bowie

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, the only thing you know about Lea DeLaria, is her fine-tuned portrayal of Big Boo, the butch lesbian in Orange is the New Black, you’ve got a surprise coming. Turns out DeLaria is one stylish jazz singer with a voice belied by her television image. This lady can sing. The proof is in her recently released album, House of David, a collection of a dozen David Bowie compositions. These are not ordinary run of the mill covers. Joined by a varying ensemble of swinging musicians, DeLaria transforms the songs, takes them and makes them her own.

As she explains in a short liner note, she fell in love with Bowie’s music back in 1972 when, hanging out in a boyfriend’s basement, she first heard the strains of “Starman.”  It was a love she defines in superlatives: “David Bowie, God of Rock. . . . David Bowie, to me, the defining singer-songwriter of the latter part of the 20th century.” Even without her praise, her passion for the music is clear in her performance.

From the very first song, “Fame,” her arrangement lets you know she is not interested in mere pop copies. Her vocals are crisply inventive and her band is tight. It is only a taste of the goodies to come. She follows with excellent versions of “Space Oddity,” “Golden Years,” and “Suffragette City” before getting to her own take on “Starman.” Here she spotlights her rich voice by paring down the ensemble to a quartet featuring sweet solo work from Kevin Hays on piano and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

Other highlights are the even more greatly pared down “Let’s Dance” where she works with Hays and Tony Scherr on acoustic bass, and “Boys Keep Swinging” with some swinging tenor sax from Seamus Blake. “Life on Mars?” is a dark torch song that builds to a dynamic emotional climax, while “The Jean Genie” has a funky vibe. The set ends with Bowie classics “Modern Love” and “Young Americans.” By the time you get to the end of the album if you don’t feel that Bowie is a god, you may well feel that Lea DeLaria is a goddess. 

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:

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.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review- "Red Cavalry" by Isaac Babel

This article was first published at BlogcriticsWhile it is true that the more you know about Russia’s 1919-1920 war with Poland, the easier it is to understand all the nuances in Isaac Babel’s collection of short stories Red Cavalry, it is no less true that even without that knowledge the book is a treasure to be savored. Babel, who served as a correspondent during the war, published the stories first in a number of periodicals and then as a book in 1926. A final story, “Argamak,” was added as a postscript in 1933. All 35 stories are newly translated by Boris Dralyuk in this new edition from Pushkin Press.

Often acknowledged as the most significant of the Russian-Jewish authors writing in the Russian language, many of his best stories in Red Cavalry deal with the alienation he felt as both a Jew and an intellectual. Certainly the key example is perhaps the best known story from the collection, “My First Goose.” The narrator, presumably Lyutov who seems to be the narrative voice throughout the book, but is often unnamed in specific stories, describes his reception joining with the Sixth Division. The officers immediately see him as a problem and the Cossacks want no part of him.

Babel, as he often does in his stories, spotlights the precise detail to illustrate his point, in this case the alienation is clear from the reaction to the narrator’s glasses. It is the glasses that sets him apart from the others and they make him welcome by throwing his trunk over a gate and passing gas. It is only when he kills a peasant woman’s goose and orders her to prepare it for his diner that they are willing to accept him as one of their own. When a Rebbe’s son is seen smoking on the Sabbath in “The Rebbe” or the narrator is unable to ride a horse in the acceptable Cossack manner in “Argamak,” these are the kind of seemingly random details that tell the real story.

War is brutal and brutalizing. The language used to describe it may at times be poetic, but the poetry pales in context. A vicious soldier yearns for the warmth and beauty of Italy while persecuted Jews live in squalor. The content may verge on the comical. A woman pretends to be nursing a sack of salt swathed in cloth in order to get aboard a train. A renegade artist uses villagers as models for his religious icons.

If there is poetry, it is poetry painting over a hellish vision.  If there is comedy, it is comedy of the blackest sort. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Music Review: Annie Ross Salutes Billie Holiday in "To Lady With Love"

This article was first publishereired at Blogcritics

Near the beginning of her interview on the DVD that accompanies her tribute album to the great Billie Holiday, To Lady With Love, Annie Ross tells the story about how she first met Lady Day when she was called upon to stand-in for her at an Apollo Theater gig. She recalls her trepidation at filling in for a singer she had idolized since she was a teen, and she recalls Holiday’s supportive reaction to her performance as she fell into the star’s arms when it was over. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted through the rest of Holiday’s life.

Ross, now in her eighth decade and understanding her own voice is no longer what it was when she became famous as a member of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, rather than looking to work with material from when Holiday was at  the heights of her vocal powers, chooses to honor her by revisiting Holiday’s 1958 sunset recording, Lady In Satin, a recording made when Holiday too was reaching the end of her remarkable career. With the exception of a short into and an original concluding piece, “Music is Forever,” a kind of musical catalogue of the greats who have passed on, as well as an additional song or two, the bulk of the album is devoted to covers of songs from the Holiday album.

Whether she is covering classic tunes like “For All We Know” and “You’ve Changed” or less well known pieces like “Violets for Your Furs,” there is a heartfelt emotional honesty in the drama of her vocal stylings that makes up for the vocal limitations of age. Like Holiday back in the day, Ross knows what she can do with her instrument, and what she can’t. Ross is a pro. She reminds me of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the aged warrior refusing to “rust unburnish’d,” setting out to do something great again before the inevitable end. Ross gives a heroic performance.

Other tunes in the set include “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and “Travelin’ Light.”

She is accompanied brilliantly by the guitars of Bucky and John Pizzarelli.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Music Review: Lisa Hilton - "HORIZONS"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

HORIZONS, the latest album from Lisa Hilton, is simply more proof that when it comes to jazz piano, she ranks with the best of them. The creative intelligence of her original compositions combines with her sensitive craftsmanship to define the road ahead for post bop jazz. Her music, built upon classical and jazz influences, is both sensuously lyrical and improvisationally rich. It is the kind of music that rewards attention: the more you listen, the more there is to hear.

HORIZONS takes its inspiration from nature,” she writes in her blog. “Every day I see so much beauty, truth, and healing after difficulties in nature.  In our highly tech world, I believe we need nature and art more than ever, so we have tried to explore these ideas musically through sound, melody and improvisation to create a sense of expansiveness, depth, beauty and hope for today and our future.” It’s the kind of programmatic approach that has fueled much musical composition from Vivaldi to Ellington.

Leading a quintet featuring J. D. Allen on tenor sax, Sean Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn, Greg August on bass and Rudy Boyston on drums, Hilton runs through a 12-tune set made up of nine original pieces and three covers.  Her trio arrangement of the Duke’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” is suitably retro, while her take on the Black Keys “Gold on the Ceiling” is a rhythmic adventure fueled by bass and drums. She gets everyone involved in her evocative arrangement of the classic “Moon River,” with some especially soulful work on flugelhorn from Jones.

Her own “Vapors and Shadows” opens the album and sets the tone for what is to come. It is a melodic jewel. “Nocturnal,” which follows, is more upbeat than its title might suggest; it bounces with a Latin beat, and “Surfer Blues” takes the traditional blues up a notch.  She does a beautiful solo piano take on “When it Rains.” The opening of “Lazy Moon” puts the emphasis on evoking the “lazy” and working it ambitiously. “Dolphins” goes in a more playful direction, and “Currents” ends the set on an expansive note. 

Hopefully, Lisa Hilton’s HORIZONS, unlike that other Hilton’s horizon, once found will not be lost.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

David Sanborn - "Time and the River"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

More than likely jazz purists with a built in aversion to any of those musicians noted for the accessibility of their music will come to the latest album, Time and the River, from alto sax crossover star David Sanborn with a readymade frown. Overly commercial, lacking depth, creatively meek—these are the complaints likely to be heard from the pushing the envelope crowd. They would be wrong.

Commercial success need not mean pandering. Accessibility need not mean dumbing down. David Sanborn puts out the kind of music that does perhaps the one thing needful for fine music: it sounds good. It’s the kind of music you want to listen to. It may not be intellectually challenging. It may not explore the borders of innovation. But over and over again, it is the kind of music you want to listen to. Indeed, if the definition of success is accomplishing what you intend to do, Time and the River is a smashing success.

Sanborn’s infectiously lyrical playing layers jazz lines with a bit of funk here, some R&B there, even a pop line or two. It is a style showcased on this album by the production of electric bassist, Marcus Miller and complemented by a grooving ensemble. Roy Assaf plays keyboards, Ricky Peterson, Hammond Organ. Guitars are handled by Yotam Silberstein and Nicky Moroch. Peter Hess is on horns and flute, Marcus Baylor, drums and Javier Diaz, percussion. Trumpeter Justin Mullens and trombonist Tim Vaughn play on several tracks.

The 9-song set opens with “A La Verticle,” the first of two compositions by French composer Alice Soyer. Its catchy rhythms and fluid lines provide a good indication of what is to come. Sanborn comes back later with some fine work on her “Oublie Moi.” Vocalist Larry Briggs guests on The Temptations hit, “Can’t Get Next to You,” and Randy Crawford does an impressive vocal on “Windmills of Your Mind.” Sanborn includes two of his own pieces, “Ordinary People” and a wrenching ballad,“Drift.”

Altogether, Time and the River, has David Sanborn doing the kind of thing David Sanborn does best—playing music you want to listen to.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Music Review: Dizzy Gilespie -- ‘Live at Ronnie Scott’s: Volumes 1-4′

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Perhaps nothing signifies the age of jazz after the decline of the big bands like the small combo—a quartet, a quintet fronted by a great saxophonist or trumpeter on a cramped stage in a smoke filled club—tearing up the joint with their creativity in the moment. You didn’t have to be in Manhattan to hear great music; you could walk into a place like Pittsburgh’s legendary Crawford Grill on almost any night and be sure to hear something special.

So when tapes of one of a trumpet grandmaster like Dizzy Gillespie playing live at Ronnie Scott’s in London in August of 1973 are rediscovered in the club basement, tapes filled with enough previously unreleased music to fill four CDs, it is a nothing short of a major event. Dizzy Gillespie’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s, Volumes 1-4 make for the kind of treasure that will warm both the heart and more importantly the ears of happy jazz fans all over the planet.

One note, while three of the album covers (including Volume 1) indicate that these are “never before heard/ unreleased performances,” Amazon is offering a 2010 recording of Volume 1.

Gillespie was coming off 30 days of one night touring for a two week gig with his quintet at Scott’s and he was at the top of his game. The crowds loved him and artist that he is he was well aware of how to work them. Listen to his charged rant on music and slavery that serves as an introduction to “The Truth” on Volume 1.

Nonetheless it is really all about the music. And working with Al Gafa on guitar, Mike Longo on piano, Earl May on bass and Mickey Roker on drums, Gillespie put out some fine music. Volume 1 contains five tracks, opening with the Longo composition “Sunshine” and concluding with an extended version of Gillespie’s “Timet,” which had been previously recorded for his 1970 album, Portrait of Jenny. “Timet” features some dynamic Roker drumming. Longo’s “The Truth” is an exciting excursion into the blues. Gillespie’s muted trumpet casts a spell on his treatment of the theme from Black Orpheus, and they follow with his own “Con Alma.”

Volume 2 opens with the classic “A Night in Tunisia” and includes Gillespie’s bebop tour de force, “Groovin’ High.” The funky “Matrix” is a 10 minute blast, while “Beyond a Moonbeam” adds a Brazilian touch.  There’s an improvised Gillespie vocal on “The Blues,” and “Brother K” and “Manteca” close the album.

After opening Volume 3 with “The Crossing,” Gillespie introduces “Ole’ For the Gypsies” with a story about being kidnapped by a band of French Gypsies. Gafa adds some compelling guitar work, and Gillespie maintains the Gypsy vibe with a muted solo. He sings on “Something in Your Smile” and does some scatting on “Oop-Pop-A-Da.” The bossa nova “No More Blues,” “Olinga” and “Birks Works” complete the disc.

A swiftly paced “I Told You So,” opens Volume 4, leading to a 19-minute “Kush” highlighting the work of bassist Earl May. There is a solo trumpet opening, some Swahili chanting and a bit of call and response before May gets the ball at about the 15-minute mark. Gillespie sings a somewhat irreverent version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” to begin the song, adding an aside or two, but when he picks up the horn, he’s all business, giving nods in his solo to “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Tenderly.” “Alligator” gets another of those playful Gillespie intros, and “Mike’s Samba” leads to a short blasting “Bye” and an introduction of the band members.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Jazz Potpouri: Art Pepper, Julie Lyon Quintet, Michael Snow and Thollem McDonas, Roger Davidson and Pablo Aslan, The Miami Jazz Project, The Louis Romanos Quartet

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Omnivore Recordings continued its monthly Art Pepper reissues with the March release of Volume Two of the sax great’s Neon Art. The three tracks on the re-mastered CD were recorded in Japan in November of 1981. Pepper fronts a quartet featuring pianist George Cables, bassist David Williams and drummer Carl Burnett playing an 18-minute version of “Mambo Koyama,” a Pepper original composition, a soulful take on “Over the Rainbow,” and a bop romp through “Allen’s Alley.”

Volume Three, due for early April release, contains three more tracks recorded in Japan by the same ensemble. It includes two Pepper originals, “Make a List (Make a Wish)” and “Arthur’s Blues,” and “Everything Happens to Me.”

Vocalist Julie Lyon debuted her Julie Lyon Quintet with the January release of Julie, a swinging ten tune collection culled mostly from the standard repertoire, songs like “Love for Sale,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “Comes Love.” Tom Cabrer is on drums and Bobby Brennan on double-bass. Trumpeter and alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle and guitarist Jack DeSalvo complete the ensemble.

Two Piano Concert at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, released last October by Edgetone Records, is a live recording of a January 31, 2014 concert by pianists Michael Snow and Thollem McDonas in conjunction with MichaelSnow: Photo-Centric, a retrospective of the pianist’s photography. 
The concert, labeled Chamber/Improvisation by Edgetone, consisted of three freely improvised pieces titled simply “Part 1,” Part 2,” and “Part 3.” It is the kind of avant garde material that will appeal to a more adventurous audience.

A more accessible duo recording spotlighting Roger Davidson on piano and Pablo Aslan on Bass is their February release, Live at Caffe Vivaldi, Volume I. In 2012, Davidson’s Soundbrush Records inaugurated a Wednesday night series at the Greenwich Village Caffe Vivaldi as a safe place for their recording artists to work on new material and develop new ideas. A year later they started recording the performances. Here, then are some of the results. The 11-track set includes eight Davidson original compositions supplemented by Irving Berlin’s classic “How Deep is the Ocean,” Stelvio Cipriani’s “Anonimo Veneziano,” and Angel Villoido’s “El Cholclo.”

Speaking of accessibility, The Miami Jazz Project’s self-titled album released last October, can, as the liner notes indicate, “be regarded as an extension of the tradition that Miles and other bands like Weather Report laid down.” The set includes both acoustic and electrical tracks with “stylistic elements rooted in mainstream jazz, blues, jazz rock and world music.”

The album’s ten tracks feature nine original compositions by Project members Dave Liebman (soprano and tenor sax), Arthur Baron (tenor and alto sax, flute) and Abel Pabon (keyboards) illustrating the groups varied influences from the exotic Middle Eastern flavors of “Lordy Lourdes” and “Jinnistan” to the short Tibetan chant of “Blessing Eternal” serving as an introduction to “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground.”

Take Me There, a November release from The Louis Romanos Quartet, sports a dozen tracks composed and arranged by drummer Romanos, ranging from the quirky infectious “Klezmer” to curl-up-by-the-fireside  ballads like “Second Song” and “Lovely.” Dan Sumner plays guitar, Neal Starkey, bass and Alex Noppe does sweet work on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Basic Basie" (Remastered)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

When it comes to swinging big band jazz there are always the familiar names at the top of the list—Goodman, Dorsey, Ellington, and of course Basie. And whenever their work happens to get another life as from some newly discovered archived performance, or a reissue of an out of print album, it is easy to see why. Great soloists, tight ensemble work: these outfits are the crowning glory of the middle of the last century. So when that antique material comes available, you don’t want to miss out on it.

MPS, the German record company is in the process of releasing re-mastered CDs of music from its back catalogue, and among those releases is a fine 1969 recording of the Count Basie Orchestra, called Basic Basie. This is an album that had also been released in the U. S. by Verve records, both as a single LP and a two LP set. The MPS reissue is limited to the single.

Featured on the album are Basie’s tenor saxophone stalwart, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, guitarist Freddie Green, and trumpeter Oscar Brashear. In addition, as the limited liner notes point out, Basie, at the request of MPS head Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, did a lot more work on the piano than was his normal practice. Chico O’Farrill, though best known for his Afro-Cuban music, handled the arrangements on all but one of the album’s dozen tunes with a real feel for the Basie vibe.  Tenor sax man and flautist Eric Dixon gets credit for the haunting arrangement of “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.”

The majority of the album consists of selections from the Great American Songbook. Basie’s piano introduces a fine version of the classic “Moonglow” and a shorter preface to a laid back “Sweet Lorraine.” He comes back later in the number to take the tune to conclusion. He is also spotlighted on a torrid “Ain’t Misbehaving.”

The set opens with the up-tempo “Idaho” and closes with a sweetly syncopated “I’ve Got the World on a String.” They have fun with a witty arrangement of a novelty number like “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me,” while riffing their way through Basie’s original “M-Squad.” “Blues in My Heart,” “Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” “Don’t Worry Bout Me,” and “As Long as I Live” complete this lively trip to Basie country.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Re-issues From MPS

This article was first published at Blogcritics

As if the recent reissues of music by a roster of major American and German jazz artists from the archives of Südwestrundfunk (Southwest Broadcasting) weren’t gift enough, along comes MPS Records (Musik Produktion Schwarzwald) with their Kultur Spiegel series and the promise of the current release of 25 remastered albums and by the end of the year the digital release of their entire back catalogue. Among the names scheduled for release are Lionel Hampton, Billy Taylor, Count Basie, Sun Ra, and Stephane Grapelli, and that barely scratches the surface. American jazz artists found an eager and appreciative audience as well as a vital jazz scene in Germany after the Second World War, and the positive atmosphere often brought out the best in them. There are certainly some gems soon to be made available.

Great musicians, fine sound—sounds like a combination that’s hard to beat.

For example, Jim Hall, certainly a name that belongs near the top of any reasonable list of great jazz guitarists shows his stuff in a 1969 trio recording, Jim Hall in Berlin: It’s Nice to Be With You. Working with bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Daniel Humair, he runs through a set of eight tunes ranging from the Jimmy Webb pop winner made famous by The Fifth Dimension, “Up, Up And Away” through a swinging take on the standard, “My Funny Valentine” to Duke Ellington’s classic “In A Sentimental Mood.” The Hall set includes three originals, “Young One, For Debra,” “Blue Joe,” and “Romaine,” as well as the album’s title tune written by his wife Jane Herbert. It is a fine set showing off the guitarist in his many moods and a welcome addition to the Hall discography.

Then there’s piano master Hank Jones perhaps unfortunately best remembered as Marilyn Monroe’s accompanist when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden who shows up in an excellent trio recording of his own, Have You Met This Jones? Recorded in 1978, he plays with Swiss bassist Isla Eckinger and German drummer Kurt Bong, both of whom rise to the occasion. Indeed he plays three tunes he had previously recorded on his 1955 release, The Trio where he was joined by bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Clarke, “There’s A Small Hotel,” “We’re All Together,” and “Now’s The Time,” and the new versions hold their own.

The set also includes his brother Thad’s “Portions,” Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and the jazz standard many of us will always associate with jazz broadcaster Fred Robbins, “Robbin’s Nest.”

These are two fine albums, and from what MPS has available, it looks like there is plenty more to come.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Music Review: "Collective Portrait" Eddie Henderson

This article was first published at Blogcritics

 Septuagenarian trumpet jazz master Eddie Henderson’s Collective Portrait was the February release in the monthly series inaugurated last year by Smoke Sessions Records, and like nearly every album in the series, it is a winner. Age has not dimmed Henderson, if anything, like a great wine, it has enriched his playing. Like many a fine musician,  he has never garnered the kind of popular fame his playing certainly deserved, but over the years he has consistently delivered the goods playing with some very well-known  jazz names—most notably Herbie Hancock and Art Blakey.

Often compared to the great Miles Davis for his lyrical prowess, Henderson chose the title for his new album from a Davis quip defining the collaborative essence of the best jazz: “A collective portrait is better than a self-portrait.” Also pointing out the care that Davis would take in choosing compatible musicians to work with, he chose side men that he had worked with over the years, side men with chemistry. George Cables plays piano and Rhodes, Doug Weiss, bass and Carl Allen is on drums. Gary Bartz plays alto saxophone on six of the album’s ten songs. Together they have come up with one fine album, an album that like some of the others in the Smoke Sessions series has been at the top of The Cool Jazz Countdown.  

The set opens with two original pieces, “Sunburst” and “Dreams,” and adds two by Cables, “Morning Song” and “Beyond Forever,” all revisiting earlier recorded material. He includes a number of songs by musicians he considers his mentors, teachers and friends: Freddy Hubbard’s “First Light,” Jimmy Heath’s “Ginger Bread Boy” which he first heard on Miles Smiles, and Woody Shaw’s “Zoltan.”
But perhaps the highlights of the album are the lyrical ballads (with apologies to Wordsworth). 

Pianist Duke Pearson’s “You Know I Care” is a sonic romance and Natsuko Henderson’s “Together” is a tender, melodious tribute to their years together. Ballads demand a sensitive touch else they melt into sentimental schmaltz, not from the horn of Eddie Henderson, not to my ear.

The album liner notes consist of Damon Smith’s interview with Henderson and are filled with interesting biographical material, including Henderson’s childhood visit backstage at the Apollo theater to meet Louis Armstrong, his teenage prowess as a figure skater, and his pursuit of a medical degree eventually specializing in and practicing psychiatry. Eddie Henderson is the very model of the Renaissance man.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: "The Revenant" by Michael Punke

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Originally published in 2002, Michael Punke’s fictional account of frontiersman Hugh Glass’s wilderness meeting with a grizzly bear in 1823 and its stranger than fiction results, The Revenant, is back in a new edition from Picador as a tie in with a film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy and directed  by Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu set for release in December.

Out on a scouting mission for a small party of trappers working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass comes upon the grizzly and is horribly mauled. Nearly dead from his wounds and certainly unable to go on, he is left in the care of two of the party—a young boy, Jim Bridger and a scheming malcontent, John Fitzgerald—presumably to wait for his inevitable death and then bury him. When a band of hostile Indians appears close by, Fitzgerald and Bridger run off and leave Glass on his own. Almost more importantly, they steal his rifle, his knife and everything else he has that might be useful in the dangerous wild. After all, they caviled he was as good as dead already.

Turns out it takes more than a bear to send Glass to meet his maker, and the wounded man sets out to crawl his way through hundreds of miles of wilderness seeking help and eventually revenge on the men who abandoned him. It is an epic tale of mythic proportions, a testament to one man’s courage and indomitable will, and much of it is based on fact.

 Punke’s narrative is spare, but he does manage to include some vivid pictures of what life must have been like for the trappers and traders living in the undeveloped territory. We learn how to make a variety of traps for small animals. We learn what the best tidbits of the buffalo are, as well as a little bit about butchering and building fires. We learn how to make bullboats out of buffalo skins. It is the kind of validating information that make incidents like his description of the wounded, weaponless Glass fighting off a wolf pack over the remains of a buffalo calf believable. Frontiersmen needed to depend upon themselves. Those that depended on others didn’t always last very long.

Hugh Glass is a name that belongs with the likes of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett, and if Punke’s account doesn’t put him in that pantheon, perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio and Iñárritu may do the job.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Music Review: Josh Nelson - "Exploring Mars"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Pianist, composer Josh Nelson’s follow-up to his 2011 science fiction inspired album Discoveries, Exploring Mars, delivers everything you would expect from an album with that title. Taking inspiration from actual science as well as science fiction, Nelson takes the listener along on a journey of musical exploration of variations on his Martian theme. There are tracks devoted to the exploratory rovers. There are tracks devoted to Martian geography.  There are tracks devoted to earlier imaginative explorations in music and literature.

He opens the 10-track set with “Bradbury’s Spirit,” a composition that in a real sense bridges the scientific and the imaginative. Over an understated evocative waltz, Nelson reads a passage from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a passage that describes a mystifying musical performance and its effects. It is a quite effective prelude to the album’s programmatic concept combining Spirit and Bradbury.

“Sojourner” follows featuring guitarist Larry Koonse and Nelson on piano as it like its namesake takes its exploratory journey. Koonse and his solo guitar handle the first of the geographically inspired pieces, “Memnonia Quadrangle,” leading to a haunting ballad, “How You Loved Me On Mars” with a pure and sensitive vocal interpretation from Kathleen Grace. Larry Goldings adds B3 accompaniment.

“Opportunity” is an otherworldly up-tempo piece which gets some exotically strange sounds from Nelson on the Nord Electro 3. Drummer Dan Schnelle takes over for a percussive rhapsody in “Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars.” This leads to “Mars, The Bringer of War,” the one piece on the album not composed by Nelson. Instead it is his adaptation of the first movement of Gustave Holst’s The Planets for the piano creating what he calls an arrangement “sort of like a Bill Evans Conversations with Myself approach to overdubbing.” Interestingly, Larry Goldings in the liner notes uses the phrase “converse with himself” to describe Nelson’s work on “Opportunity” trading solos on the piano and synthesizer as well.

“Curiosity” and “Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea” highlight the EVI (the Electro Valve Instrument), which like the Nord gives the pieces that spacey other worldly sound. For those of you like me unfamiliar with the EVI an interesting explanation of how the instrument is played and its range is available from John Swana on YouTube. The set closes with a reprisal of “Spirit,” this time without the spoken word passage, focusing attention on the music where indeed it belongs.

For the timid souls among us unlikely to be exploring anything at all, let alone Mars, Josh Nelson’s Exploring Mars offers a welcome taste of what we’re missing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Music Review: Branford Marsalis - "In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

A solo saxophone recital may not be the typical jazz lover’s idea of a good time, but if it is Branford Marsalis playing that saxophone, minds may well need to be changed. In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral, the album released last October, has the virtuoso taking center stage at the venerable scene of the famed Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts for his debut as a solo artist.

Certainly one expects technical perfection, and Marsalis delivers. But technical perfection alone may not be all that satisfying. Technical perfection is often mechanical and uninspired. Playing a lot of notes at warp speed will not always cut it. There must be more; there must be creativity in the moment. There must be an emotional investment by the artist. Marsalis understands what he needs to do and clearly he is up to the task.

Creativity in the moment is featured in four improvisations, the third of which has the artist working with a siren that happens by during the performance. Each of the four gives Marsalis a chance to show his different sides—melodic, meditative and technically proficient. He can evoke laughter in the audience with a witty programmatic moment in his own composition, “The Moment I Recall Your Face;” he can turn to a more abstract construct in his translation of the first movement of C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for Oboe Solo to the tenor sax. He can even take the abstraction up a level with his version of Ryo Noda’s “MAI. Op. 7.”

In many respects, for me at least, he is at his best with his “Blues For One,” a rousing blues that concludes the concert, before he comes back for an unplanned encore, which, hard to believe, is the theme from the old Carol Burnet TV show, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” a theme he ends with a squawk and a whimper. Other highlights are the set opener, a soprano sax take on sax master Steve Lacy’s “Who Needs It,” and an exciting version of the classic “Stardust.”

Perhaps the depth of Marsalis’s emotional investment in measured in an anecdote relayed in Rafi Zabor’s liner notes. Originally Marsalis had planned to play two classics—“Stardust” and “Body and Soul.” It was only when he heard recording of the concert played back, that he realized that instead of the “Body and Soul,” he had played the Hoagy Carmichael piece twice. We only get it once on the album, and we can only lament the loss of his “Body and Soul.”