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.