Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Unthanks, Diversions, Volume I: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons

The Unthanks, those melifluous dual sister-singers from England are quite more than OK in my book. I've reviewed a number of their previous four albums on these pages. The fifth is something a bit different than their usual Anglo folk excursions--in that it centers around contemporary "art song" if you will. Diversions Volume 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons (Rough Trade) is just that. It's a live concert with half devoted to the Johnsons and half Mr. Wyatt. There's a band with strings added and that gives a nice carpeting to the Unthanks' lovely renditions.

I am not exactly overly familiar with Antony and the Johnsons' songs but they sound rather nice. Robert Wyatt of course has written some wonderful songs over his career and the Unthanks cover a good number. The uniquely plaintive vocal instruments of the Unthanks are well served by the music, and the music is well served by the Unthanks' vocal style. So it's good for both. And it's good for the listener.

A beautiful concert and another significant notch in the Unthanks discography. Very recommended.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mean Street, An Anthology of Classical Blues in the "Jukin' with the Blues" Series

Mean Street (Catbone 2005-2) is an anthology of what Julius Hemphill was referring to in his "Hard Blues." Here's an anthology in the Catbone series, an anthology of hard, hard blues about some hard times. It has some of the best. Elmore James' "Dust My Broom," Howlin Wolf's "Killing Floor," Jimmy Reed's "Goin Upside Your Head," Etta James and "It Brings a Tear" (aka "Drown in My Own Tears"). This is the school of hard knocks, songs about people driven to the edge, beyond, sometimes, what is considered politically correct. You have big problems in your life, you look to the closest people to blame and it might be your mate. But they may have done you wrong too.

Here are 17 slabs of the blues truth, the hard truth, the hard blues. There are enough classics in this stack-o-sound that you might just be well served by grabbing it if you don't know how the hard blues could and can be. Hard times? Hard blues.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Nils Lofgren, Old School: The Guitarist Returns

Rock vet Nils Lofgren returns with a new album that stays on the mind. I speak of his Old School (Vision Music 1016). The emphasis is on songs, possibly commercial potential things, and they are generally catchy and memorable with a roots-country rock directness. Vocally and guitar-ally Nils is in fine form.

He delivers twelve songs and after a listen or two you feel convinced of his sincerity. There is a little Bruce Springstein parallelism here: story-telling songs, a little gruffness.

This may not be a guitar showcase per se, but his artistry is there and it's good music.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sharon Lewis & Texas Fire, "The Real Deal"

I present for your consideration Sharon Lewis, soulful alto singer, as Rod Serling might have put it. But Sharon's not in a Twlight Zone. She's got both feet on terra firma. She and her band Texas Fire have one out on Delmark, The Real Deal (816). It's a funky old-school horn band with Ms. Lewis getting down overtop.

They get real throughout, plunging through some nicely hard-_ssed originals and some good-choice covers. Ms. Lewis may not be Bessie Smith but she has soul. The band lays it down. It almost sounds like something that might have come out of Memphis in the Hi-Muscle Shoals days. But then it has a Chicago-by-way-of-Texas hard honesty and what counts most of all, it kicks up a good fuss. Oh, and Dave Specter sounds nice on guitar too.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

No Milk Today. Sorry.

Thanks to my virus software, the time I would have spent writing today's review was instead spent watching the software update itself for an hour, which I suspect meant that it was stuck. It doesn't like when you turn off "automatic updates" and punishes you by demanding up to an hour of your computer time whenever if feels like it, then basically uses up all the memory and does nothing so far as I can tell. Grrr! See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Michael Bisio Trio, Composance, 2003

Composance (Cadence Jazz Records 1173) comes out of the bassist/composer's Seattle days. It is an intimate trio date with Rob Blakeslee on trumpet, Greg Campbell on drums (and a cameo appearance on French horn) and of course Michael on bass. Michael wrote most of the pieces, the title cut is a collective collaboration, there's a classic Duke item, and there's one piece each by Rob and Greg.

The primary emphasis is on blowing loose and coherently, and that is most definitely happening here. It's a good mix of distinctive players. Rob has obviously listened to Don Cherry and Bill Dixon (and who hasn't?), which in part comes out in his sound, but the notes are his and help define the music played on the date. Greg Campbell has an excellent presence here, a melodic sense and the ability to loosen the time or notch it in. Michael whether bowing or pizzing has a mastery and projective melodic inventiveness that rivals the very best--because he is up there as part of the very best. His tone is beautiful too!

What's most important for the listener is that this is excellent modern jazz that hangs together throughout, grooves and takes it out a bit, and has a very engaging melodic and textural heft to it. The trio version of Ellington's "Come Sunday," where Campbell adds french horn to Michael's bowed bass and Rob's trumpet is a sign of the very real versatility of the group and has a beauty that's chamber-like and soulful too.

You could just listen to Bisio's bass on this CD and get off on that. Open your ears to all three working together and you will hear why the improvisatory arts are exciting and worthy of your attention! Well worth your time.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Joelle Leandre - Phillip Greenlief, "That Overt Desire of Object"--Bass-Reed Duets and Solos

So we are in a new week on a Monday morning at an obscenely early hour for avant music but yet I play what I am writing about as I write about it, and that's what I always do. If something still sounds good at 8:00 Monday morning, it sounds good. Period. That's what I tell myself as I write this review--for the CD That Overt Desire of Object (Relative Pitch 1002), by Joelle Leandre and Phillip Greenlief.

Ms. Leandre is a highly inventive, highly skilled avant contrabassist; Mr. Greenlief does the same with the woodwinds--here soprano, alto, tenor and clarinet. Together they conjure up some wonderful improvisations.

Both have excellent control and command of their instruments. Both can evoke convincing variations in tone, sound and pitch. Both do so here, collectively and singly. They also use their voices as a second color-sound supplement.

The extra-musical theme is that of greed. We've seen how it can bring us all to our knees. The music is in part about that--or to be more accurate it is a response to a meditation on what that can and does do--judging from Mr. Greenlief's remarks on the liners.

In the course of the program the two get a remarkably sympatico vibe going and both are limber and eloquent in their musical speech. For those readers who might not be overly familiar with the new music world, this is music that is sometimes called "free jazz." That doesn't mean that it is the music of tosspots or a_s over teakettle aesthetics. It means that they play music of a certain language with a certain degree of spontaneity. And they do it excellently.

Friday, February 17, 2012

NHIC: Atlas, New One from the New Haven Improvisers Collective

The New Have Improvisers Collective is a home-grown brand of free improvisation centered around New Haven, Connecticut--headed by guitarist Bob Gorry. Their latest, NHIC: Atlas (NHIC 006) teams Gorry with a selected smaller ensemble, namely Steve Asetta, saxophones, Nathan Bontrager, cello, Jaime Paul Lamb, bass, Adam Matlock, clarinet, and Stephen Zieminski on drums.

What makes this one of their very best are the compositions by all concerned and the creative interplay among the band members. DIY can work if everybody is on the same page and there is a good plan compositionally or structurally--of where they plan to go in any given piece. Of course pure spontaneity can work too, but it can be harder to attain with a kind of local "can do" aggregate.

In this case there is plenty of spontaneity in the compositional-structural frameworks and the improvisers respond with coherency and energy.

There's no describing NHIC style--it's what the players attain with a sort of local earthiness. That is not to say that the players are not schooled at what they do--just that they do not show jazz or new music rootedness in any major formal sense. And that's in part what makes them different. They run on instinct and creativity in their improvisations.

So here they are. This is a good place to start. Atlas has a genuine sound and they get it together well.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sylvia Bennett, "Sonrie," Latin Tinged Cabaret Jazz from A Finessing Vocalist

Sylvia Bennett did an album of standards with a Latin flare a while back. That album is now available in a Spanish-language version, Sonrie (Smile) (Out of Sight 2517). Ms. Bennet has a dead-on sense of pitch, passion in reserve, and plenty of nice finesse, a very pretty voice. She gets the full red-carpet Latin-tinged arrangements that give the whole thing the bachelor pad easy-on-the-ears sort of sensibility so many MOR albums had in the late-'50s through the '60s. Yet there is nothing at all tasteless about this music (unlike some of those records from back then). There are some very nice standards, Latin and otherwise--"Besame Mucho," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Smile," etc., all with a Latin-bossa lilt.

It's not music I would ordinary cover but hey, it's so well done here. If I like it, well, there must be something to it, right? I mean, I am not getting paid (a dime) to say this. There is something here. It's really nice.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Michael Musillami Trio + 4, "Mettle," Advanced Jazz for Septet

Guitarist, jazz composer, bandleader. Any one of these things is tough enough to do when you are putting forward an advanced sort of progressive semi-electric jazz, as is Michael Musillami with his Trio + 4 and their album Mettle (Playscape 070111). Yet Micheal does all these things rather exceptionally well. His trio of self, Joe Fonda, bass, and George Schuller, drums, has held together, gigged and recorded a fair number of albums so far, getting more intensely together, tighter in a telepathic sense. Now they bring in four additional soloists/ensemble members for a quite ambitious program. There isn't a single slouch in the bunch: Matt Moran, vibes, Russ Johnson, trumpet, Jeff Lederer, tenor & clarinet, and Ned Rothenberg on alto & clarinet. They add much in a collective and solo sense to the music.

And of course you have the formidable, keen-edged sensibilities of the trio as backbone. Musillami plays a grinding, driving post-fusion guitar with a sound, rhythmic push and inventive notefulness that puts him on his own plane. Fonda and Schuller work together with a beautiful free-swing loose-tightness.

The compositions are weighty, the arrangements strong, the band cooks, the soloists get torque collectively and individually.

It's a bit of a monster. A nice monster of a set. Get it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ryan Davidson Trio, Compelling Plectral Eclectics-Electrics from A Worthy Practitioner

Ryan Davidson shows on his latest release, a self-titled trio offering [Ryan Davidson Trio (self-released)], that he can take an often fairly hard-edged electric sound, a solid trio with Ryan Hagler (bass) and Ryan Jacobi (drums), and a varied mix of standards and originals and go someplace interesting.

There are moments when you feel the sound influences of Scofield-Frisell-Abercrombie-Lucas, true. But he puts together a well-heeled and expressively controlled performance throughout. He's creative, he carefully crafts a meld of sound and substance, and he builds solos that maintain interest with a very musical sense. There are jazz-rockers, spacey ballads, and swinging scorchers. He is well rounded in technique and can do some multi-finger picking when called for, chord subtly, get good lines off and rock out convincingly and creatively. And he gets sounds that are on the verge of Davidsonian ownership.

Here's a guitarist to savor. May he continue to grow, gig, record and live the musical life!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hendrik Meurkens Live at Bird's Eye, Contemporary Samba Jazz

Vibist and harmonica adept Hendrik Meurkens fronts an able quartet in a set of lively samba jazz on Live at Bird's Eye (Zoho 201114). Misha Tsiganov does a fine job with a kind of hard bop/Tynerish modern samba feel and turns in nice solo work. The rhythm team of Gustavo Amarante (bass) and Adriano Santos (drums) does the push-pull swing of jazz samba well and keeps the fires burning, as it were.

Hendrik plays a well burnished chromatic harmonica with real jazz phrasing, good solo ideas and a terrific tone. His vibe work is a fine example of mainstream playing in the samba zone. There are Brazilian standards, songbook standards done with the samba swing and a couple of good Meurkens originals.

It's all very good and worthwhile. Now if they could nab a first-tier firey tenor of the Joe Farrell caliber and/or a trumpetiste of the Woody Shaw brassiness school they would kick it up a notch into near-nirvana I suspect.

But they have plenty of good things going as it is.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Esben & the Witch, Hexagons EP, 2011

What about some new music in the alt-indie-rock mode? Esben & the Witch's EP Hexagons (Matador) came out late last year and it's nicely spooky and out there in its own way. The group is Daniel Copman and Thomas Fisher on guitars and synths, and Rachel Davies on bass and spooky vocals.

These are cavernous-ceilinged songs with some electronic ambiance and a bit of heaviness. Rachel's voice has a Little-Red-Riding-Hood-lost-in-the-woods plaintiveness that is intriguing. I read that this EP closely approximates the band's live sound. If so they must be well worth catching.

For now though, this EP has "catch" written on it in itself.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Liz Child Quartet, "Take Flight," Vocalist Steps Out Nicely

Liz Child has all you expect in a good jazz vocalist, a good instrument, intonational precision, displacement, scatting and the little embellishments. All seems to come naturally out of her good musical sense. That is, on her quartet album Take Flight (self release).

It's a nicely put-together gathering of Ed Maceachen on guitar, Dan Fabricatore, contrabass, Anthony Pinciotti, drums, and of course Liz on vocals. There are the more or less standard standards done nicely and swingingly--"It Could Happen to You" "Dindi," "Bluesette," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," etc. And then there are some things you don't necessarily expect: Cohen's "Hallelujah," and "Fake Blue Raincoat," Madison-Hughes "Bad Luck Card," and a convincing original (by Maceachen and Childs) with the title cut.

Rather beautifully done. Strong songs strongly interpreted, a loose and swinging band, nice guitar work. . . this one has that something that puts it well above the standard standard disk. Listen to it a few times and you'll be feeling good about it, I think.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

MSMW (Medeski-Scofield-Martin & Wood), "In Case the World Changes its Mind," Live

The idea of teaming Medeski, Martin and Wood with John Scofield is a good one. All four have a way of swinging the funk, of extended and expanding it with their ability to work outside of the box when they feel the spirit. And they do that well on the two-CD set In Case the World Changes its Mind (Indirecto).

It's the foursome (Scofield, guitar, Medeski, organ and keys, Martin, drums, and Wood, basses), live and kicking it for an extended set. They knock down the funk and stretch it out in ways for which they are well known. Perhaps there are not a great deal of surprises here but they do what they do very well and they can groove and solo tight or loose, in or a little out. And that's what they do.

Scofield of course is a monster on the guitar. He can do lots of things in lots of style niches but here he unleashes his expanded blues-funk, as does John Medeski, another monster when he feels it. The rhythm team bounces out of the four-square formulas as they see fit, or stays in the pocket when that seems right.

This is an nicely lengthy program and you'll get plenty to like if you grab it. If you want the outside leaning funk, this is it!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Marta Topferova, "The Other Shore", 2011

Folk and folk-rock, singer songwriters and song stylings, they seem to be resurging. Perhaps it is no wonder since the song form and good songwriting remain an important aspect of the music of our world today. If for a time it seemed that there were too few good songwriters, it was not necessarily so. They were not encouraged as much as they might have been. They were underground. They lived in rooms perfecting their craft.

Marta Topferova has been one of them. She scuttled back and forth between her native Czech homeland and the Spanish-speaking Americas. Her songs were not sung in English, which meant that many in the English speaking world did not hear her music. Her new album is her first collection of songs sung in English. The Other Shore (World Village) gives you an assortment of music, some wonderfully wistful songs sung by Marta in her own way, accompanied by her infectiously rhythmic strumming and an assortment of hand-picked sidemen who come through with some very nice backgrounds.

Well now, what else to say? Her songs are filled with the wonder and sometimes anguish of living life in the world. Seasons, nature, love, feelings, remembering, all get poetic and melodically interesting treatment. This Marta is rather excellent. Wonderfully evocative songs, nicely arranged, well sung. What more? I hope this is but the first in a string of such albums. We need the songs. We need the good feelings she gives us.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Steve Howe, Time: Mr. Prog Guitar Stretches his Wings with Pops "Classical" Flare

It was only a matter of time before new age music faced a challenge from more substantial, less vapid musical fare. Light classical has always been an alternative, as was at one point the classic "Pops" concerts by such institutions as the Boston Pops Orchestra. It was inevitable that Boomers and their underlings got jangled nerves and sought the peace of oblivion with armchair music to sooth the post-industrial workaday or lose-the-job, savings and home life-scenarios.

Enter Steve Howe, venerable institution of prog as longtime Yes guitarist. He's always had good taste and a musical sense of what to play when. Team him up with film composer Paul K. Joyce and get together some classical melodies everyone knows, some originals of mellow transport, lushly orchestrate them for real and virtual orchestral ensembles, and you have the rebirth of Pops.

That in essence is what Steve Howe's new solo album Time (Warner Classics 2564665341) is about. It gives you Villa-Lobo's theme from the "Bacchianas Brasileiras No. 5," lushly re-orchestrated and set up for Steve'e cosmic slide electric to take the place of the soprano, or a well-known theme from Bach's Cantata No. 140, a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso theme, then originals by Howe and or Jacobs, or for a couple, one Paul Sutin and one Virgil Howe. Steve goes from very electric pedal steel to classical acoustic to banjo and 12-string electric. His artistry is on display in a good light. He's never been about lots of chops and he doesn't do that a great deal here, but he gets the nice declamatory tone and fronts the Pops movie soundtrack for your mind in ways that do him credit.

It's all quite nice. Some of the contemporary originals sound an awful lot like movie music in search of a movie. It's too substantial to be new age, another one like that, but it mostly chimes in as very pretty, very mellow, but rather thematically undistinguished music for the original contemporary pieces; the other part will no doubt appeal to many--namely the mellowing of the classics.

I would personally feel more comfortable had there been a little more of the edge that Howe we all know can do. But then part of the sales factor here is as a new easy listening pops thing. So for that, it is excellently done. Classics it's not so much as it might be. Still, a nice listen.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Boccherini, The Guitar Quintets, Zoltan Tokos & Danubius String Quartet

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) late in life rearranged Eight Piano Quintets (piano plus string quartet) for guitar and string quartet. There is much that is memorable and moving about this body of music, known as The Guitar Quintets, but as with the original this is not in any way music for a solo instrument and accompaniment, but rather a five-way ensemble interaction. So a guitar aficionado approaching these works for the first time should understand that the guitar part is coequal with each string part. A ninth quintet substitutes a second cello for the guitar.

This ensemble quality is especially clear in the Naxos 3-CD budget box of the nine works, as performed by guitarist Zoltan Tokos and the Danubius Quartet (Naxos 8.503255). The recordings took place, I would assume, without any close miking, so that you get the natural blend of strings and guitar. That means that the guitar part does not have a prominence that it does in recordings where it is spot miked. Now one also may presume that four strings and guitar in the natural ambient setting Boccherini worked in would blend just as they do on these recordings. The guitar has a supportive role much of the time and becomes a voice texture in the whole sound.

That chamber blend enables the listener to savor the interactive give and take of the music as it presumably was meant to be heard. So take note. This set of recordings does not provide you with bravura guitar music per se. Nonetheless these are highly appealing, spirited works of great inventiveness. Tokos and the Danubius Quartet are in good form and the music soars. You most certainly cannot beat the budget price for this box. And you get the Boccherini in full flower.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bryan and the Haggards, "Still Alive and Kicking Down the Walls"

My sort of "are you kidding" initial response to the first Bryan and the Haggards CD quickly gave way to an appreciation of how one can make good music out of cross-referencing almost any style or influence if it is done with honest conviction. So we have a second CD of Merle Haggard cover avantia, Still Alive and Kicking Down the Walls (Hot Cup 111).

It's Bryan Murray on tenor and "balto!" saxes, Jon Irabagon on various winds, Jon Lundbom, guitar and banjo, Moppa Elliot, bass, and Danny Fischer, drums.

OK so how does this work? They take Haggard tunes and play them somewhat straight, then do solos that get pretty out the window sometimes. Simple. But refreshing as hell.

With the returning debate stemming around "jazz" or whatever word there is to call it as fundamentally a black music Bryan and the Haggards go their own way without much reference to that. I say fine. If they want to do Haggard covers, why not? This might not be "great black music". It in fact is music, and you take or leave it.

I take it. For those who feel instinctively the need to incorporate any old thing they please into their music, for those who break stated or unstated rules, I say let them. We don't need to censor the musicians out there from the music side. There will be plenty of that from extra-musical sources. We need to respect the artistic integrity of the players out there, respect whatever roots they choose to be an extension of, and loosen up a little. The music is what is played today. Accept it, reject it, but it's here one way or another. In this case, we have something very different and if it works, it works. It works, it works. . .