Monday, August 8, 2016

Elisabeth Lohninger’s latest album "Eleven Promise"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Vocal stylist Elisabeth Lohninger’s latest album Eleven Promises due out in September takes the listener on a sensuous journey through emotional passion lost and emotional passion found. Working on a set of 11 original compositions written by the singer either alone or in collaboration with her husband, pianist Walter Fischbacher, and one additional piece, a totally original look at Antonio Jobim’s classic “The Girl From Ipanema,” she hits song after song out of the park. Her vocals are both carefully layered and intensely felt—art in the service of emotion.

She is accompanied by a tight ensemble featuring Fischbacher on keys, Goran Vujic on bass, Ulf Stricker on drums, along with guitarists Ben Butler on two tracks and Pete McCann on two.

Highlights include “Birthday Girl,” a sensuous depiction of the fragility of dreams of love in a world where “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It is a haunting, wistful melody evoking likely disappointment. The alliterative “Mellow Moon Moaning” stresses the emotional need to seek love in spite of the fear that its promised paradise may not be lasting. Fischbacker adds some elegant piano solo work, curls of music leading to a climactic moment of wordless vocal ecstasy from Lohninger, perhaps the album’s absolute peak moment. Gary Shreiner guests on the chromatic harmonica on this track.

She shows another side when she offers up some social criticism in “Merry Go Round,” which takes the idyllic image from childhood and transforms it into a metaphor for useless repetition; human beings go round and round, round and round trying to deal with the ills of society, but nothing ever really changes. The repetition of the phrase mirrors the repetition of the merry go round. Repetition is a device she uses in the album’s title song as well, except there it is used to reinforce the importance of the promises we make to each other. Circularity and repetition seem to be tropes that stick with the singer—there is even a song called “Circles.”  The disc ends on an upbeat note with “Ya Mi Corazon,” a tune, we are told, based on “Cuenta con los Santos” by Tirso Duarte.

Elisabeth Lohninger is a fine singer and her original songs provide her with ample opportunity to show what she can do. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Music Review: Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts

This article was first published at Blogcritics

As often as not when talking about the crossroads of jazz and spirituality the music very often mentioned is something like John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Duke Ellington’s three sacred concerts. And deservedly so, both Coltrane and Ellington were committed to the exploration of the spiritual possibilities of jazz, and nowhere is that passion more explicitly front and center than in those iconic works. So when new opportunities to reinvigorate these works of commitment become available attention should be paid.

The release of Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts, a live recording of selections from the first and second of the three Ellington concerts in May, provides just such an opportunity. The concerts were recorded in Lüneburg Germany in September 2015 and featured the excellent 60 voiced Junges Vokalensemble Hannover under the direction of Klaus-Jürgen Etzold, vocal soloists Claudia Burghard and Joachim Rust, and the Fette Hupe Big Band directed by Jörn Marcussen-Wulf who also served as artistic director of the project.

The album opens with a 16 minute version of “In the Beginning God,” a kind of introduction allowing all of the participants to share a piece of the spotlight—soloists from the big band leading to the vocal soloists and the chorus. Other pieces from the 1965 concert include “Come Sunday” which the composer borrowed from his Black, Brown and Beige suite, and here is a highlight for Claudia Burghard. “David Danced” has saxophonist Felix Petry doing the tap dancing handled by Bunny Briggs on the original. “Ain’t But the One” adds some up-tempo gospel flavor with Joachim Rust up front.

“Will You Be There” is a short piece for the choir and Gary Winters big band trumpeter who does all the spoken word work on the album. They also work together on an angelic “Father Forgive” from the 1968 concert. Winters, by the way, plays some hot trumpet on a low down version of “The Shepherd.” They close with a rousing long form take on “It’s Freedom.” By the way, this last and the opener, “In the Beginning God” only seem to be available on the album.

A trailer for the album is available on YouTube:

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Nana Simopoulos "Skins" Reviewed

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Skins, the seventh album from guitarist, singer, composer Nana Simopoulos, is an exotic mélange fusing elements of jazz and world music with inspired poetry. Working with a changing cast of talented musicians—ranging from the likes of jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman and bassist Mary Ann McSweeney to sarangi  master Ustad Sultan Khan—she glides through an enchanting program of eight original compositions.

Her voice elegantly angelic in the service of lyrics at times mystical, at times haunting, at times both. “Merely to Know,” for example takes her composition, “Til We Meet Again” and adds these lyrics from a 12th century Japanese poem by Kojiju, a Buddhist nun: “Merely to know the flawless moon/dwells pure and clear/inside the human heart/Is finding that the darkened night/will vanish/under clearing skies.” Royal Hartigan on drums and Solis Barki’s percussion provide a strong foundation for Simspoulos’ guitar and vocals as well as Liebman’s intense sax.

And this is but one example. The evocative “Let the Fire Burn Me” is based on a translation from Rumi, as is “Inside.” This latter features Liebman on the wood flute. “For No Reason,” the romp that opens the set and which reminds me of the classic “Carravan” is based on a translation of a poem by Hafiz. “The Pathway” is based on the work of a 12th century Sufi, Mahsati Ganjavi, and with a nod to the Western Hemisphere there is “Owl Woman” with lyrics inspired by her song, “How Shall I Begin My Song?”

“Anases,” a lyrical gem, is a song written, she tells us on the album notes, as a gift for her wife on her birthday. It is a ballad, both lush and simple, written and sung in Greek.  Simopoulos conveniently provides an English translation as she does with all the album’s lyrics. “You are my sun,” she translates, come/let me drink in your light.” It is a melody filled with magic punctuated by some elegant sax work from Dimitri Vassilakis.

Call it jazz. Call it world music. Call it fusion. Better still call Nana Simopoulos’ Skins wonderful listening.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Music Review: John Daversa -"Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles}

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Since it often seems that musicians by the boatload are busily covering the Beatles Songbook—just Google jazz covers of the Beatles—it might also seem that another album filled with the songs from the Fab Four archive in danger of sinking the boat. Not necessarily. Indeed, not likely, if that album is trumpeter/composer John Daversa’s May release, Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles, recorded live at Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro, California.

Kaleidoscope Eyes is more than an attempt to take a tune and change a tempo or a harmony here and there, rather it is an attempt to reimagine the music, reimagine it in the context of a truly progressive big band. In his rather short liner notes for the CD, trumpet virtuoso Terence Blanchard says the album is “the definition of artistry and creativity.” This is the Beatles’ music like you haven’t ever heard it—at least on some of the nine tracks. “There are different colors and swirls,” Blanchard goes on, “where reality doesn’t seem real anymore. . . .an alternate universe where everything is different.”

Perhaps one good example is the band’s nine and a half minute exploration of “Here Comes the Sun.” Featuring Daversa himself on trumpet, Jeff Driskill on soprano sax, and Bob Carr on bass clarinet, the arrangement begins and ends with a simple statement of theme, but in between it builds an innovative sonic bridge with otherworldly solo work to connect them. This is not to say that “Here Comes the Sun” is an outlier; the album is filled with interesting and inventive interpretations.

The extra-large band, supplemented by strings and vocalists, begins with a dynamic version of “Good Day Sunshine” with beginning with a powerhouse tenor sax opening from Tom Peterson leading to a swinging vocal from Renee Olstead. Olstead returns with some equally impressive vocal work on a beautiful, laid back arrangement of “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” “I Saw Her Standing There” has some interplay between vocal lines from Daversa set into a rap tattoo from tenor sax man Katisse Buckingham. At just over 10 minutes, it is the longest piece on the album.

There are lovely, soft arrangements of “And I Love Her” and “Michelle” complete with some of those swirls that Blanchard talks about. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” begins with a quiet thematic statement on the piano from Tommy King, but is transformed quickly into a multi-instrumental blend, including a cello, a piccolo trumpet, an oboe, a bassoon, a couple of guitars and a trombone. 

The set concluded with “Kaleidoscope Eyes Medley.” “With a Little Help From My Friends” with Daversa on trumpet leads into a drum focused “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” featuring Gene Cove, and a sprightly vocal chorale singing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before ending with a chaotic, blasting “I Am the Walrus.” A reprise of “Good Day Sunshine” ends this very fine set.

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Bright Star" Original Cast Recording

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Were it not for all the hoopla surrounding the musical Hamilton, no doubt the star power of its creators Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, if nothing else, would have garnered the Broadway bluegrass musical Bright Star a greater share of the hype. Not that the production does not deserve it. It does. It has a fairy tale-like book following two stories separated by some 20 odd years—thwarted love in the 1920’s and a young man’s search for his bliss in the 1940’s. Both, of course, come together by the final curtain. It has a fine tuneful score more often Broadway tinged with bluegrass than it is bluegrass tinged with Broadway. Moreover it is filled with fine musical performances by an excellent though perhaps underrated cast, led by Tony nominated Carmen Cusack.

And on May 27, those performances will be available in CD format on Ghostlight Records’ original cast recording.

Cusack, it is true, has much the best material to work with, but also true is that she knocks every chance she gets out of the park. Beginning with a dynamic performance of the show’s opening number, the character defining “If You Knew My Story” through her bravura take on the anthemic ballad that leads to the finale, “At Long Last,” one of the tunes attributed solely to Brickell. The other is another blast for Cusack, the lovely, wistful ”Way Back in the Day.” She joins with Paul Alexander Nolan for a rousing take on “Whoa, Mama,” a tune that reminds me in parts of the classic “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Nolan also takes the lead on the duet “What Could be Better” and retires some on “I Can’t Wait.”  “Heartbreaker” is a melodramatic showpiece for him matching the ensemble piece in the first act, “Please, Don’t Take Him.”

“Bright Star,” the title song, is a pleasant centerpiece for A. J. Shively, who joins with Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett for the jazzy “Another Round.” “Asheville” is a country ballad for Hannah Elless who joins with Shively to do their best with the somewhat treacly “Always Will.”
Bright Star, as the cast recording makes clear, is Carmen Cusack’s show and she makes the most of it.

The album comes with a booklet that includes a synopsis of the story by Bill Rosenfield, complete lyrics, and notes from Brickell, Martin, Rosenfield and album producer and music supervisor Peter Asher.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Music Review: Jane Ira Bloom - "Early Americans"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Early Americans, due for release later this month, is soprano sax specialist Jane Ira Bloom’s follow-up to her 2014 album Sixteen Sunsets. While the earlier album was devoted entirely to ballads, the new disc has Bloom working with a variety of rhythms. While Sixteen Sunsets had a program fairly evenly divided between original compositions and standards, Early Americans consists almost entirely of original pieces. The one exception is Bloom’s solo version of the West Side Story ballad “Somewhere” which closes the 13-tune set. While Sunsets had bloom working with a quartet, here she is pared down to a trio—with Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums.

Now, on the other hand, there is one thing this new project has in common with the older album, and that one thing is some truly great music from an artist who knows how to get the most out of her instrument. She makes her “straight horn” sing through the breadth of its sound palate. From the lightly filigreed to the densely rich, from the melodically mellow to the otherworldly exotic, she plumbs the soprano sax’s full range. The album is a tour de force. Were she a classical artist, one might be tempted to describe her album as a set of etudes for the soprano saxophone. On the other hand, great jazz played with stylish verve and technical expertise is no mean descriptor.

The original pieces run the gamut from the darkly ominous “Dangerous Times” to the Latin flavors of “Rhyme or Rhythm,” from the swinging “Cornets of Paradise” and “Big Bill” to the jumping bop of “Gateway to Progress.” At times subtle, at times direct, the ensemble interplay on tunes like “Hips and Sticks,” “Singing the Triangle,” and “Mind Gray River” is impressive, indeed it is impressive throughout the album. “Song Patrol,” “Nearly (For Kenny Wheeler),” “Other Eyes,” and “Say More” round out the album set list.

When it comes to truly creative work with the soprano sax today, Jane Ira Bloom is the name to remember.


Friday, April 29, 2016

"Providence:" Jazz from Charlie Ballantine

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Providence, the sophomore album from Indianapolis based guitarist Charlie Ballantine due for release on May 6th, is another clear indication that fine jazz isn’t limited only to the usual places. Ballantine, named Indianapolis' "Best Jazz Musician" of 2015 by NUVO Magazine, has put together a powerful set of music emphasizing the diversity of his artistic palate, but focused on this overriding belief in the spiritual nature of art.

On his Facebook page, Ballantine lists a quotation from the great Bill Evans as his favorite quote which could well stand as a motto for this new album: "My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise, a part of yourself you never knew existed." I mean he does call the album Providence for a reason. In a sense the nine-track set is an illustration of the guitarist’s faith in the Evans creed.

Ballantine is working with a quartet featuring saxophonist Amanda Gardier, organist Josh Espinoza, bassist Conner Green and drummer Josh Roberts.

Six of the album tracks are original compositions. There are blues based pieces like his rocking “Roads” and “Conundrum.” There is a more overtly spiritual piece like the gospel flavored “Hopeful Mind.”  There is some old style funk on the opening number, “Old Hammer.” “Eyes Closed” is a haunting, moody melody, while the title tune offers a brighter horizon.

The covers are a short version, a kind of folksy interlude perhaps, of Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Lena Clare,” a dark vision of Tom Waits’ “Temptation” and an elegant version of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah.” This last features some fine alto sax work from Gardier, who also adds some mean soprano sax to “Hopeful Mind.” There is a version of “Hallelujah”available on YouTube. 

Indianapolis, of course is no stranger to great guitarists. Following in the footsteps of an icon like Wes Montgomery, is a daunting prospect. Charlie Ballantine has bravely taken the first of those footsteps. One can only wish him well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Brazilian Jazz from Antonio Adolfo and Carol Saboya

This article was first published at Blogcritics,

Brilliant Brazilian pianist/composer/arranger Antonio Adolfo has been busy. Witness next month’s release of Tropical Infinito a new album that has him fronting an octet enhanced with a horn section, a musical lineup, he explains, he has not used for “a great deal of time.” Witness Carolina, the lovely new album from vocalist Carol Saboya, produced and arranged by Adolfo. And for fans of top flight Brazilian oriented jazz any time Adolfo is busy, that is one very good thing.

With the addition of trumpet/flugelhorn, tenor and soprano sax, and trombone the Tropical Infinito octet works its way through a nine-song set focusing on what could easily be called a Brazilian translation of a variety of jazz classics, plus a selection of Adolfo originals.

They open with two Benny Golson gems, a frenetic version of “Killer Joe” and a witty exploration of “Whisper Not.” The latter featuring a blast of a tenor solo from Marcelo Martins. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” has a noir feel with another fine tenor solo, as well as some wicked work from Leo Amuedo on electric guitar. This is followed by Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” featuring the trumpet of Jessé Sadoc and the trombone of Serginho—would you believe it—Trombone. There is also a quite interesting reinterpretation of the one selection from the Great American Songbook, “All the Things You Are.”

The four original pieces are “Cascavel (Rattle Snake),” “Partido Alto Samba (Light Partido Alto Samba),” “Luar Da Bahia (Moon Over Bahia)” a  kind of nocturne which closes the set, and an eloquent tribute to the composer’s mother “Yolanda, Yolanda.”

Bassist Jorge Helder, drummer Rafael Barata and percussionist André Siqueira round out, with Claudio Spiewak guesting on three tracks, the octet, the same group, with the exception of Trombone and Sadoc, which works behind Saboya.

Carolina is her first U. S. album release since her 2012 debut disc, Belezas – the Music of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento. A voice very like the poplar Astrud Gilberto, she sparkles in Adolfo’s arrangements of eight classic pieces from Brazilian composers. Of course there is Jobim: she begins with “Passarim (Little Bird) and adds “Olha, Maria (Hey, Maria).” There is also a gorgeous version of the famous “A Felicidade (Joy/Happiness)” from Black Orpheus.

“1 x 0,” the title reflecting a soccer score, gets a playful treatment and which includes her interesting vocalise duet with the flute of Martins. “Zanzibar,” which closes the album also features some energetic vocal gymnastics. There are two pop tunes, Lennon and McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye” and Sting’s “Fragile,” and they are pleasant enough, after all she has a beautiful voice, but my own preference is for her work on tunes like Djavan’s “Avião (Airplane) and “Faltando um Pedaço (Missing a Piece).”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review: "A Better Goodbye" by John Schulian

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

A Better Goodbye, the debut novel of sports writer John Schulian, has been compared to the work of a writer like Elmore Leonard, and while this initial effort may not have quite the polish of vintage Leonard, Schulian is painting with a similar palate, relying as much on the creation of absorbing major characters as he does on blood and mayhem.

Set in the gritty Los Angeles of massage parlors, second rate actors, and criminals, some vicious, some wannabees, Schulian focuses on Jenny Yee, a young Asian college student working as a massage girl and Nick Pafko an emotionally broken ex-boxer. Neither is an assembly line product. Yee is cute, not gorgeous. She is in the sex business, but she has strict limits. She reads the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and the novels of Stendahl. Pafko, once a promising fighter, lost his passion and his effectiveness when he accidently killed his opponent during a fight.

Now, down on his luck, he is working as security in a high end massage parlor, run by Scott Crandall, an over the hill actor looking to expand from pimping to other criminal activity. To that end he cultivates the friendship of Onus DuPree, a violent ex-con with a hair trigger temper. This is the quartet of central figures in the novel. And when Pafko and Yee begin to have feelings for each other, and then Pafko and DuPree get into a pissing contest, the scene is set for some inevitable fireworks. And fireworks is what Schulian provides, when DuPree decides first to enlist Crandall to rob one of Yee’s customers, and then double cross Crandall and rob the massage parlor.

The four major figures are surrounded by a supporting cast of less fully developed, indeed often stereotyped characters: a benevolent fatherly fight trainer, a shyster lawyer, a sports writer down on his luck, plus a variety of johns and an assortment of massage girls with made-up names like Sierra, Kianna, Twyla, Rikki and Ling, to name  just a few. These are the kinds of background characters—those that E. M. Forster called “flat characters”—that satisfyingly provide breadth and context, but don’t need to be fleshed out with a lot of detail.

Schulian tells a good story: A Better Goodbye will have you turning pages with anticipation as it builds to a crescendo and then rewards you with a smash bang finale.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Music Review: Darren English - "Imagine Nation"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Darren English, a young trumpeter from Cape Town, South Africa now living in Atlanta, makes his recording debut with the March release of Imagine Nation. Fronting a rhythm section featuring Kenny Banks, Jr. on piano, Billy Thornton on bass and Chris Burroughs on drums along with guest shots on selected tracks by vocalist Carmen Bradford, tenor sax player Greg Tardy and trumpeters Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden, he runs through a 10-piece set highlighted by an original three-part suite celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid.

The three tunes in the suite are the album’s opening title piece, the punning “Imagine Nation” and “Pledge for Peace” (which includes spoken word sections from Mandela) and “The Birth” which follow later in the set. Since he calls this a suite, I would normally expect the three elements to follow each other. Why, English chose to separate them, I have no idea. Indeed, they seem to play just as reasonably as separate pieces. There is one other original composition, a tribute to Russell Gunn leader of the Krunk Jazz Orkestra which English calls “Bullet in the Gunn.” English is a member of the Gunn orchestra and plays on their recent release The Sirius Mystery.

The rest of the album is made up of well-known standards giving the trumpeter the opportunity to showcase his own original steps down well-worn paths. So for example when he plays the opening melody of the venerable “Body and Soul” without his mouthpiece, he seems to be serving notice of something new in contrast to the lovely tones that follow with the reintroduction of the mouthpiece. Whether it works or not is open to question.

He does a super job on the other hand working with Gunn and Gransden on an exciting version of the old Charlie Barnet showpiece “Cherokee” and his take on the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Bebop” is a winner as well. Bradford does a fetching vocal on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do (To You)” and they work elegantly together on “Skylark.”

If his debut is any indication, both as composer and performer, Darren English is a force to be reckoned with. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Bill Evans’ Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forrest

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

On the one hand, the release of previously unknown recordings of jazz icons long deceased should be cause for celebration, but then, and there is a but, how are today’s unknown young musicians looking to find an audience for their music to compete. It is not far-fetched to argue that what seems to be a constant stream of newly hatched material from past masters may well have a less than happy effect on the development of new voices. After all why take a chance and buy the debut album of an unfamiliar musician when you can load up on classics?

That said, it would be churlish to complain when newly discovered work from a jazz genius like the great Bill Evans comes available. So, to those unknown young musicians struggling for notice, apologies, but while Resonance Records’ upcoming release of Bill Evans’ Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forrest a two-disc studio set recorded at MPS Studios in Germany on June 20, 1968 may be taking the air out of your market, but we’re talking about Bill Evans.

The set gets the full Resonance treatment with an elaborate 40-page booklet including an essay by producer Zev Feldman detailing how he came across the recordings, a brilliant essay on Evans from critic Marc Myers and interviews with trio members Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJonette, as well as a special limited edition hand numbered two-LP set in addition to the deluxe two-CD set and digital edition.

The recordings have the pianist playing in solo, duo and trio settings. Disc One has 11 tracks and contains the material from the session that was intended for release when and if contracted approvals could be arranged. The second disc contains the rest of the recorded material which producer Feldman felt was just as worthy of public attention.

While bassist Gomez was to play with Evans for quite a few years, this is the only studio recording of the pianist with drummer DeJohnette who only played with him for about six months. Myer’s essay tries to explain the impact of the drummer on Evans’ playing. DeJohnette’s “tender, kinetic drumming style caught Evan’s ear, educating him on the interplay possible when percussive figures are feathery and challenging.” He hears in the collaboration between them an indication of Evans’ future direction.

Highlights on Disc One include the opener “You Go to My Head,” a lyrically intense “My Funny Valentine,” duo versions of “I’ll Remember April” and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.” Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” gets a classic treatment as does Evans own composition “Very Early.”

Disc Two which opens and closes with versions of “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” also has an alternative trio version of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” providing for some interesting comparisons. There are solo versions of “It’s All Right With Me” (which is marked incomplete” and “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).”

Some Other Time is a welcome addition to the Bill Evans canon.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sarah Vaughan "Live at Rosy's"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, you can never have too much Sarah Vaughan, you’re in for a treat. Due for a March 25th release from Resonance Records is a two-CD set of the jazz diva’s previously unreleased 1978 live session recorded at Rosy’s Jazz Club in New Orleans for the National Public Radio program Jazz Alive! She is accompanied on the gig by Carl Schroeder on piano, Walter Booker on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

Sarah Vaughan Live at Rosy’s has the singer at the top of her game. A consummate musician, she plays her voice like the magnificent instrument it is. Her song readings are excitingly inventive. She takes a classic up-tempo piece like “Fascinating Rhythm” and playfully finds a variety of multiple fascinating rhythms. It is an interpretive tour de force, while a classic ballad like “My Funny Valentine” is vocally rich like fine cognac.

 But you don’t need me to tell you that Sarah Vaughan can sing, this is one of the truly greats. And on two CD’s with 20 songs, each and every track is a winner. Beginning with “I’ll Remember April,” and running through tunes like “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” “Somebody Loves Me,” “Poor Butterfly,” and “Send in the Clowns”—and that’s only from Disc one—she takes these standards and not only makes them her own, but stamps them indelibly with her name. Meanwhile highlights of the second disc include “The Man I Love,” ”I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and a stellar version of “If You Went Away.”

Jazz singing doesn’t come any better than Sarah Vaughan. What she does with a song is magic, and pro that she is, she makes it sound effortless. In an essay by James Gavin included in the 36 page booklet that serves as the liner notes for the set, he quotes the singer: “’I don’t know what I’m doin’!’ she said ‘I just get onstage and sing. I don’t think about how I’m going to do it—it’s too complicated.’” Modesty aside, this is a singer who knows how to make the most out of her natural talent: the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Not only does she sing, but the set includes some of her banter with the audience.  There is some of her standard patter with the introduction of her trio. But perhaps the most interesting bit comes when someone shouts out a request for the Ella Fitzgerald classic “A-tisket, A-tasket,” and after joking that they have mistaken her for another singer, Vaughan treats it as a challenge and has some fun with it. Sassy is a pro. She knew how to work an audience, a skill singers today might want to emulate.

Soon after the release of the album the U. S. Post Office will be issuing a commemorative forever stamp honoring the singer. A ceremony will take place at the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall at Newark Symphony Hall, 1020 Broad Street, Newark, N.J., at 11:00am, March 29th, 2016th.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: "Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story" by Ellen Wayland-Smith.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Of the various utopian groups that had sprung up in 19th century America, the millenarian Oneida Community birthed in upstate New York under the charismatic leadership of John Humphrey Noyes is one of the most interesting. Beginning by subscribing to a radical religious doctrine that advocated free love, communism and the perfectionism, the community morphed into a major industrial force, a model of benevolent capitalism. The history of that transformation is the compelling tale told by Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of Noyes, in Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story.

Avoiding the easy sensationalism inherent in her subject, Wayland-Smith manages to treat the ideas of Noyes and his followers seriously, placing them squarely in the context of the times. If, in terms of religion, they challenged Christian orthodoxy, they certainly were not alone. If their faith in communal sharing challenged the conventional social and economic norms, challenge was in the zeitgeist. And while her explanations of some of their particular ideas, ideas like “complex marriage,” “sticky love” and “stirpiculture,” may leave the reader wondering, those explanations are both detailed and lucid, odd perhaps, titillating at times, but never salacious.

The insular radical community’s transition to innovative industrial giant in the hands of a dynamic younger generation is in some sense the classic American story. As the end of the century approached, conservative attitudes toward sexuality stigmatizing free love even when described euphemistically as “complex marriage” forced the Oneidans to adapt their ideas to the new norms. And with the normalization of their teachings about sex, came new ideas about the way they conducted the businesses that supported the community.

Wayland-Smith describes how Oneida Community, Limited grew from a sleepy manufacturer of traps and silk threads to the world leader in the production and sales of silverware under the innovative leadership of Pierrepont Noyes. She notes the company’s success through its emphasis on design, sales and advertising. And she is careful to focus on its excellent treatment of its work force—perhaps a nod back to the community’s original principles. Less emphasis is given to the company’s decline of fortunes as the 20th century came to a close.

Wayland-Smith, it seems, was born into a fascinating topic, and in Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story, she has made the most of it.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Love Wins Again:" New Album From Janiva Magness

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Probably best known as an award winning blues singer, the dynamic Janiva Magness releases her twelfth album, a highly personal emotional manifesto she calls Love Wins Again, in April. As she asserts quite clearly at the end of her liner note: “This record is me celebrating happy.” Celebration indeed: the album’s 11 tunes, several written by Magness and the record’s producer Dave Darling are performed as a kind of manifesto of the singer’s joy in the knowledge that “music is love, and it speaks, as it always has. If you listen it won’t be difficult to hear love, happiness, intimacy, truth, rebellion, redemption, resignation, hope, acceptance and finally the comfort of understanding.”

And almost as though the blues alone might be too much of a generic limitation on all this happiness, Magness masterfully broadens her musical palate with the colors of soul, rock and pop. She opens with the title song, a hot rocker announcing “sorrow’s all the way over” because love, indeed, “wins again.” Other highlights are the pop/blues love treat “When You Hold Me,” the dramatic “Moth to a Flame” and a touch of Americana in “Just Another Lesson,” a dark lyric set in a sweetly soft melody.

“Your House is Burnin’” is a rocker complete with the kind of horn accents that have James Brown written all over it. Magness carries it off with abandon. And if the song’s message—a warning about the miserable state of the world—seems at odds with the album’s central message, the song does end with a call for positive action: “Brother to brother and hand to hand/Starting today, I’m gonna say it again/Woman to woman and skin to skin/This is the day that we begin. . ./ To get up, break the chain/Make it right.”

There is also a gutsy cover of the Creedence Clearwater hit “Long as I Can See the Light.” The album ends with the almost prayerful end of life question: “Who Will Come for Me?”
The album, released by Blue Élan Records includes a small poster backed handily by the lyrics of all the songs.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Latin Big Band Jazz From Socrates Garcia: "Back Home"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

As Socrates Garcia, the Dominican born creative force behind his big band, the Socrates Garcia Latin Jazz Orchestra, explains in the liner notes to its February release, Back Home, the album has him “arriving to a place where I could combine my heritage with the aesthetics of jazz” and move that combination “towards a promising future for this symbiotic relationship.” Although the idea of creating such a symbiotic relationship may not be particularly new, Garcia and his orchestra bring it to life with dynamic force. Back Home is top of the line big band Latin Jazz.

The seven-track album, all composed and arranged by Garcia, begins with the high voltage “Vantage Point,” a tune based on the merengue that runs close to nine minutes. It features Ryan Miiddagh on the baritone sax and pianist Manuel Tejada as well as some real energy from the percussion section. This is followed by “Calle El Conde a Las 8:00,” a composition that celebrates the liveliness of what the composer remembers as a vibrant cultural neighborhood of his youth. Will Swindler on soprano sax and Jordan Skomal on trumpet capture the essence of the local scene.

The tenor sax of Kenyon Brenner highlights both “Celebration of the Butterflies,” a salute to the Mirabel sisters, anti-Trujillo activists assassinated in 1960 and the subjects of the novel and later the film In the Time of the Butterflies, and the album’s title song.

Back Home closes with a three-part suite entitled “Dominican Suite for Jazz Orchestra,” a major piece much in the tradition of the famed big band suites of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  The first part is “Homage to Tavito.” Tavito Vasquez is a saxophonist, Garcia explains, revered as the “Charlie Parker of the Caribbean.” Garcia uses it as an opportunity to explore the symbiotic union of bebop and the merengue. “Bachata for Two” follows. The bachata is a genre born in the countryside of the Dominican Republic and sometime disparaged by the elites as peasant music. Garcia and the orchestra demonstrate the folly of disparaging any musical genre. “From Across the Street” concludes the album. It is the only track which includes a bit of vocal work. It is based on Garcia’s memories of a woman from his infancy who used to play a percussion dominated Dominican folk music called palos or atabales.

The suite provides a fine conclusion to Socrates Garcia’s jazz soaked tribute to his homeland.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Note on Hilary Mantel's "Beyond Black"

I first heard about Beyond Black from "A Good Read podcast," where two of the guests didn't like the book, With all the great criticism accrued to Mantel in recent years, my curiosity was piqued. Here's my very short take from Goodreads:

Starts off like a house on fire, but slows up in the middle, comes back with an exciting ending. Putting together an over weight psychic and her rail thin officious aide, mistaken for a lesbian couple trying to come to terms with a variety of evil spirits, is something quite different for the author of "Wolf Hall."

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Brooklyn Dreaming From Flautist Lori Bell

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Thomas Wolfe may have been wrong when he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, if flautist Lori Bell’s latest album Brooklyn Dreaming is any indication. Fronting a quartet featuring Tamir Hendelman on piano, Katie Thiroux on bass and Matt Witek on drums, the West Coast transplant takes the opportunity of her ninth studio album to put together a nine-track musical return to her roots in Brooklyn and Manhattan (since six of the tunes reference New York City). Home is where the music comes from.

Although the album’s main focus is on original Bell compositions, she begins with a swinging version of the Charles Mingus classic “Nostalgia in Times Square”—note the appropriate emphasis on nostalgia to set the thematic tone. The other covers are a brilliant romp through Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” and Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” which closes the set. This last providing a bit of personal nostalgia recalling the rock and roll blues version of Sam “The Man” Taylor, a favorite of my own youth in Brooklyn, here treated with a Latin beat and some elegant solo work from Bell and Hendelman.   It is tough competing with youthful memories of Alan Freed and the Brooklyn Paramount, but Bell and her quartet manage quite well.

The original material includes an inspired almost mystical “Times Squared” with a dynamic conversation between Bell and Hendelman and a smoky “Streets of New York.” The title song with its dreamlike melody re-enforces the nostalgic theme, while “A Dog on Coney,” a real jazz romp, changes the mood entirely. “Lower Manhattan” and “3 Deuce Blues,” with a wispy opening leading inevitably to the blues in its title, round out the album.

The Lori Bell Quartet is an ensemble that demands attention. These are four top notch musicians who work as one. Bell has a vision, and Hendelman, Thiroux and Witek buy into that vision with gusto. Their collaboration has produced an album that is both beautiful and intelligent. Brooklyn Dreaming is a winner.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Alyson Cambridge"s Crossover Album "Until Now"

This article was first published at Blogcritics"

Operatic soprano Alyson Cambridge’s Until Now released earlier this month has the powerful vocalist shifting gears from the classical repertoire to explore some of the more pop musical genres. In a 13-song album that could well serve as a supper club set, Cambridge, a singer who has graced the stages of opera houses like The Met and London’s Royal Albert Hall, makes clear that she has the range certainly to crossover to the Broadway stage and maybe even a smoky jazz room.

As she says in her liner notes: “My hope for the album has always been to give an eclectic and thoughtful representation of me, in a range of non-operatic musical tastes, influences and vocalism. It truly is a side of me and my voice that I have never shared until now.” For the most part she has chosen songs that have special meaning for her. And while most of them allow her to show her range effectively, there are a few, like “Fever” which opens the album, which are less well served by the beauty of her voice, songs which could use more grit and less perfection. “Bill” from Showboat, on the other hand shows Cambridge at the top of her game.

The album includes classics like “Night and Day,” “The Man I Love” (complete with verse), and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and pop pieces like the covers of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last,” which appropriately closes the album. There is a steamy version of “Too Darn Hot” and a very effective sultry blues take on “I Had Myself a True Love.” “Just Another Rhumba” and a catchy arrangement of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” provide some novelty relief, and she does a unique take on the old Elvis Presley hit, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

All in all, if, as Cambridge concludes her liner notes, the album “feels like just the beginning of a new musical and performance journey,” it is a journey worth taking—worth taking just so long as she doesn’t forget Puccini. Check out her “Vissi d’arte.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Book Review: "The Whites" by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The Whites, Richard Price’s 2015 novel written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt is scheduled for reissue as a trade paperback by Picador in February. Price, much lauded for novels like Clockers and Lush Life as well as his work on HBO’s The Wire, explains in interviews that he chose to write under a pseudonym because he intended the book to be a departure from what he normally wrote, much perhaps like J. K. Rowling choosing to write her adult mysteries as Robert Galbraith. Only then to discover that old saw about leopards and spots, and as far as Price enthusiasts certainly a good thing.

If The Whites is not Price at his best, it is not far off. What distinguishes him from the run of the mill thriller writer, is his ability to tell a compelling story that keeps pages turning while at the same time making serious comment on the human condition. He draws his characters honestly and in depth avoiding comic book heroes and villains. Good people have their flaws, evil their sympathetic moments. Right and wrong are not always immediately distinguishable, and ordinary human beings are forced to make difficult ethical choices. Moreover, he deals with these larger ideas in a prose style that crackles with a drama that often rises to elegance. Richard Price should never be brushed aside as a genre writer, Richard Price is a novelist of stature and deserves consideration.

This time out he is concerned, Melville-like, with characters obsessed with vengeance. The Whites of the is the term police officers use to refer to criminals they are certain are guilty, but whom they are unable to get the evidence necessary to convict. They are their modern day white whales.
Back in the day Billy Graves worked with a hot shot anti-crime squad in the Bronx, but after he accidently shoots a ten year old boy under questionable circumstances, he has been shunted out of the way and is now in charge of Manhattan Night Watch a crew that seems set up to mind the store at night until the big boys get on the job. The other members of his old squad have all gone their separate ways, but they have remained friends and meet together regularly. Each, it turns out has their own “white,” and when the “whites” begin turning up dead, Billy is faced with his moral dilemma. A dilemma made even more complicated by an unknown attacker threatening his family.

The Whites is a book you will not want to put down until you reach the final page.