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.