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.