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.