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.