Sunday, September 15, 2019

Nash + JALCO = really fine jazz

The first time I heard pieces of this jazz suite was at a live performance where the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra traveled to a venue near my home. They devoted the whole last half of the show to playing four pieces from this work, including the rousing “Pollock” and the inimitable “Dali”. Mr. Nash announced each piece beforehand, and in one of the more memorable moments, explained that to evoke the esoteric characteristics of Dali and his fantastical paintings, he wrote the piece in 13/8 time. This elicited an awed reaction from the musically aware crowd. Mr. Nash took the reaction with aplomb, drily noting, “Oh, yeah. As if you know what that is.” But we did, and the crowd loved it. 

I relate this story only to give context to my comments, namely that, this recording is so well written and so well played, it flows naturally from one song to the next, with each one still bringing some new fold to the fabric of the overall piece. The dimension that the orchestra adds is exceptional, from the lucid singing of trombonist Vincent Gardner , to the spirited Spanish trumpet stylings of the ubiquitous Wynton Marsalis, to the steady swing of the steely rhythm section of Dan Nimmer, Ali Jackson, and Carlos Henriquez, there’s just so much to hear and enjoy on this jam-packed CD. As a hard core collector of jazz recordings (I own the entire Penguin Jazz Recordings core collection, plus a lot more), I can always find something to meet a specific mood or occasion, but if I ever have a doubt, I can put on “Portraits”, and it never fails to provide a lift and impress listeners, both among those acquainted with the work and not. This is just a great jazz CD and one of the most artistic (sorry) jazz works of the past decade. Fans of Wynton Marsalis and JALCO will certainly be delighted with this work, but no true jazz fan who bought this could possibly be disappointed. It’s wonderful.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Less than perfect circumstances, nearly perfect results

Anybody well steeped in the history of jazz will be familiar with the story of this recording, which goes something like: strung out, drug-addled saxophonist who is out of work and out of luck is surprised by the announcement of his spouse that he has a recording gig at a local studio with the rhythm section of the then ubiquitous Miles Davis, so he dusts off his horn (literally), gets to the studio, is handed some lead sheets, and in the haze of a fading high, attempts to do a close reading of songs he is largely unfamiliar with, and pulls off one of the classic jazz recordings of the decade, if not of all time. 

He looks okay to me...
Over the years, we can only speculate how much of this story is true and how much is embellishment, but what cannot be argued is that the quality of this recording and its overall musicianship and listen-ability is top notch. It’s recordings like these that make a person disappointed that there aren’t more of them, more opportunities for these parties to have collaborated, maybe even in writing some original tunes together. I mean, Miles Davis’ rhythm section was tighter than a conga drum head, and though at times you get the feeling they are carrying Pepper along with them, there are other times where you can’t help but feel that Pepper has led them down a musical road they weren’t planning to travel. It's a scintillating effect.

The variety of tunes is great, and the remastered recording is without glaring inadequacies. Red Garland’s piano is ethereal at moments, while Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers keep the swing steady and strong. Pepper lays back when he wants, pops out when he wants, and generally adds just the slightest amount of risky instability to the steadiest support group from that era of jazz. This is just a great jazz album, a must have for Miles Davis, Art Pepper and honking sax fans, and a definite cornerstone of any serious aficionado’s collection. Add this to you collection, and do so sooner than later. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - 2014

With a new album pairing Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, along with Bill Charlap and his trio in support, it seems a good time to post this review, of Tony's work with Lady Gaga, which was released four years to the day before the upcoming album. 

Nothing short of thrilling

I’m a big Tony Bennett fan and I’ve really admired the way he’s reinvented himself on an almost continuous basis, starting with the epic MTV Unplugged CD in the early ‘90’s. Of course, the duets albums have also been an incredible sensation, to the point where even other singers will compose laments to not doing a duet with Mr. Bennett (Kevin Mahogany Old New Borrowed and the Blues). My awareness of Lady Gaga and her work was, until this recording, limited to a picture of her in a meat dress and the song “Poker Face”, which I think I heard once. And until the Wall Street Journal wrote about this recording, as much as I like Tony Bennett, I had no intention of purchasing this. But, if the Wall Street Journal tells you a pop star you have no interest in has serious jazz chops when singing with a jazz legend like Tony Bennett, you pay attention and buy the recording.

And am I ever glad I did. I absolutely love what Tony and Lady have done with this collection of standards. They’ve literally made the songs their own, sung their hearts out, and ended up with what is arguably one of the best vocal jazz albums to come out in years, if not decades. The arrangements are all swinging and most use a commanding big band format that is positively scintillating. On top of that, they’ve chosen a great selection of songs that encompasses all the highlights of the American songbook: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, a couple by Duke Ellington,  and a healthy sampling of the Gershwins, among others. Tony and Lady each take two solos, allowing them to sort of put their individual stamp on the recording, with Lady’s soulful rendering of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life narrowly edging out Tony’s Sophisticated Lady for top solo honors. But honestly, the duets are what this is all about. Tony sings everything pretty straight while solidly swinging, with his usual panache at lyrical timing and thoughtful song rendering, and Lady uses her voice to accent each piece. Whether she needs a thumping vibrato or a soft, still tone, she delivers when and where needed, and the songs’ meaning and feel just jump from the speakers. Even when she’s only speaking a playful line, as in Goody Goody: “I told you, I’m not a goody, I’m a baddy,” you can almost see her smile and wink as Tony proceeds to call her “rascal, you”. I could go on about the other songs that I found impressive, from the understated elegance of “Nature Boy” to the rousing sendoff of “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, but I’ll just go with the old cliché and say: there isn’t a bad track on this recording. The mixing and sound is flawless, and the CD comes with a generous fold out photo montage on one side and song-by-song musicians’ rosters on the other. (Jazz aficionados – like me – will appreciate being able to look up some of the other performers.)

I can’t say enough about this recording. It excites me, inspires me, calms me and soothes me, thrills me, kills me. It makes my love for jazz grow and what do you know? It made me a Lady Gaga fan. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lady is going to release one jazz album a year “forever”. I for one can’t wait, but I hope this isn’t the end of the collaboration between these two superlative artists. I’ll be even happier if Lady shows up as a special unannounced guest performer at the Tony Bennett concert in Nashville in December (that I already have tickets for), but even if she doesn’t, I still have this stunningly excellent CD to keep my heart pounding. It’s just phenomenal and a complete five star no brainer.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Resurrection of Late to Jazz

Never mind about my composer’s studio (which is coming along but still in the works). It’s time to resurrect the blog itself.

After writing 1700+ product reviews over a little less than eleven years, I had slowly and carefully worked my way up to become Amazon’s 156th ranked reviewer. It was a good run, and I enjoyed it, but then something happened.

They kicked me out.

Amazon's "You suck" email, delicately worded in Indiaglish.
And because they are Amazon, they don’t tell you why they are kicking you out. They simply inform you that you have broken one of their rules or terms of service, you are a terrible human being, and we (Amazon) don’t associate with terrible human beings except for Chinese manufacturers of worthless, dangerous, easily broken, and unnecessary products, and then they “suppress” all your reviews. Then it occurred to me: since they no longer publish my reviews, those reviews revert to being my work, and that means I can publish them.

And so, as a slow and calculated way to resurrect my once bright but now faded  blog, and in anticipation of retirement and more time to devote to stuff I want to do, I decided to resurrect my blog by republishing my jazz recording reviews. Some of them have appeared in this blog before in altered (non-Amazon-rule-breaking) format, so those that are duplicates will be a good lesson in avoiding copyright infringement. The others will show what I really thought about a lot of these recordings.

Anyway, it’s great to be returning to my roots. Writing, opinionating, and learning and teaching about jazz. Today I will finish cleaning up the blog. Tomorrow, I’ll post a review, and we’ll be on our way.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Another "In and out of jazz" story

I recently had the opportunity to make my second trip ever to lovely Greenville, South Carolina. If you’ve never been there, downtown Greenville is a nice little place, where many years ago, they had the foresight to narrow Main Street from four lanes to two, and widened the sidewalks and installed a bunch of greenery. The result is a quaint little boomtown, where sidewalk cafes, restaurants, bars, and snack shops proliferate. The two jazz clubs that I saw, however, we’re not proliferating. Both were closed.
L to R: Gage Banks, Garrett Graettinger, Morgan McGee, Roman Holder, Riley LePere. Damn! Are those great jazz musician names, or what!? 
Then I went to the first night’s reception of the event I was attending, the 40th annual SEUS-Japan Conference, and what do you know? There was a jazz band about to set to swinging. This jazz band was a quintet of young men, with the unusual instrumentation of alto sax, baritone sax and rhythm section. Of course, I had been drinking and I have no reservations about anything when jazz is involved, so I walked right up to them and said, “Play 'Scrapple from the Apple' ”. They looked at me quizzically, as this was not in their main repertoire from what I could gauge from their reaction. In fact, the leader, their pianist Morgan McGee looked at me funny and said, “What?” I repeated my request and they still looked confused. Then I goofed.

“You know, Monk!”

Roman takes a solo, while Riley plans his. (Morgan had already set them up with his bluesy lead.)
At this point, I think they wanted me to go away, but I didn’t. I said, “No, wait. That’s Charlie Parker. Play some Monk.” This they could relate to. They swung through a pretty terrific take of “In Walked Bud”, including piano and both sax solos. I complimented them and their solos, told them to play Miles when they saw me coming out, and left for the dinner. That, was that.

Riley and Roman go to the head ,with Garrett holding them up in back.
Or so I thought.

At the next night’s reception, there they were again, but I was on the other side of the venue windows. I waved, got their attention, made piano motions and mouthed “Monk, Monk!” Once inside, I introduced myself and my blog, and later on they did play “In Walked Bud” again, as I sat there and enjoyed myself and Mrs. S proceeded to ingest oysters that would eventually give her food poisoning.

Your blogger with the young saxophonists. I'm the fat one on the left.
So, I compliment Greenville on at least trying to have a jazz scene, and I compliment the young gentlemen you see pictured here on their pursuit of one of America’s greatest art forms (I would say, “the greatest”). Next time they see me, I’ll probably say, “In walked me, so you know what I want!” I’m sure that "Bud" will be close behind.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Something worth reading

I read about jazz every chance I get, so when I was offered a review copy of pianist Fred Hersch’s memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, I gladly accepted. What follows is an edited version of a review I posted on Amazon.

Prior to reading this book, I was only vaguely aware of Fred Hersch and his accomplishments, and then, mainly only his work as a record producer. To find out that he is an accomplished pianist, composer, advocate of various causes, coma survivor, and now a writer, was a real revelation. Early in his career, he played with a lot of jazz luminaries who unlike Mr. Hersch, were late in their careers. Those nostalgic kinds of stories about late jazz legends are always enjoyable, especially for the perspective they give about bygone jazz eras. I was also interested to learn that he is a fellow Ohioan who is close to my age. So even though I do not share his sexual orientation, which drives a number of his storylines – and obviously, portions of his life – I found his tales highly relatable and not entirely without correlation in my own life. That sort of thing always makes for good reading.

I will say, however, that Mr. Hersch is not the best writer. What was really surprising is, I thought that the main thing lacking from his prose was rhythm. He just chooses too many goofy, not completely accurate words, so when the narrative starts bouncing around, there was a tendency to get lost and lose the entire track of the narrative. Then I would have to go back and reread passages to piece the story back together. It’s just like playing in a jazz combo, too, in that when the rhythm isn’t there, the musicians tend to make bad decisions. I think that is why his word choice was not always correct, where what he wanted to say was somehow conveyed, but in a convoluted or “out of rhythm” fashion. He also drove me crazy calling a cello a ‘cello. I thought that was just plain obstinate, especially because it wouldn’t have been much of an issue except he has worked with a lot of ‘cellists who play ‘cello.
The book will be on sale September 12, 2017.
For the most part, I enjoyed this book, but it was a bit dark and melancholic at times, maybe even morose. Just the same, Mr. Hersch has certainly led an unusual, and at times charmed, life. If his writing was as good as his music, this book would have been a lot better, but it’s still a good look at an interesting corner of the jazz world.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Composer’s Studio: The Resurrection

A couple years back, I set about buying a piano, which required me to not only think about space, but to actually organize it. At the time, I had a notion to turn our smallest room into a compact and efficient studio. Put my digital piano in next to my computer, have all my musical accoutrements in the near vicinity, install some music software, put all my nice instruments in a separate room with my grand piano, and I’d have anefficient little composer’s space. Its nativity was right on plan.

Who wants to write a song here?
Then I started getting more involved in online reviewing, and products started to roll in. Pretty soon, my composer’s space had deteriorated into a miniature Amazon warehouse. It was good to have the delineated space for tax purposes and for keeping some of the clutter out of the house, but it was bad for composing, of which I did none. Something had to change.

Before the junk

After the junk
The first thing I did was cut back on the reviews and declutter. That at least gave me some ground to recover the space. With the addition of a dedicated music making computer and some MIDI controllers, however, I was soon recompacted into my tiny space. It was then we decided to sell the pool table and use the billiard room as a studio.
View of the future studio from the top of the stairs

Unfortunately, the billiard room was essentially unused for about ten years, other than to store boxes and gizmos Mrs. S and I had lost (or never had) interest in. That meant it needed refurbishing – wall repair, new switch and socket covers, a paint job, a working toilet, usable furniture – before it could be used as a studio.
View of the future studio back toward the stairs
That’s where we are now. The contractors – a plumber, an electrician, a painter – arrive Monday. Also arriving Monday is the nascence of my new composer’s studio.