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.