Soul Shadows on Savant (CD Review)

Soul Shadows
Denise Donatelli
Savant CD

Los Angeles based vocalist Denise Donatelli, joined by pianist/arranger Geoffrey Keezer, presents a mixed program of jazz standards and “classy” pop songs on her third Savant Records release Soul Shadows. Some are adorned with strings, others feature small jazz combos, and most are given straight ahead treatment; a noteworthy exception is a bossa nova rendition of the Joe Sample penned title song. Donatello’s voice and phrasing are flexible, her interpretations suave and detailed without being fussy. Keezer’s arrangements are very finely constructed, keeping in mind and flattering Donatelli’s instrument while providing ample interest themselves. A CD that is consistently appealing and rewards repeated listenings, Soul Shadows is one of our favorite jazz vocal recordings of 2012.

RIP Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Fond memories of seeing Dave Brubeck at Berklee, Scullers, Newport, receiving his honorary degree at Manhattan School of Music, and, best of all, going with my brother Tyler Carey to the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts to hear him. Tyler encouraged me to go backstage and get an autograph. When Dave heard that I was a composer, he had me sit down and talk to with him about classical music for a good while. A very kind soul and talented pianist, composer, and group leader.

Theo Bleckmann Performs Kate Bush (CD Review)

Theo Bleckmann

Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

Winter & Winter CD

Often, we discuss covers – artists interpreting songs written by others – in relation to their original renditions. Hello Earth!, a quintet outing by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and a quartet of musicians with jazz and contemporary classical backgrounds, is devoted to the music of prog pop songwriter Kate Bush. It is a loving homage to Bush’s textured arrangements, and thoughtful, atmospheric, and, at times quirky, catalogue. However, to frame Bleckmann’s recasting of this music as a set of covers is to undervalue the considerable transformation these songs undergo here.

This doesn’t mean wholesale deconstruction. Although it starts out tempo rubato, one’s pulse will still surge by the second verse of Bleckmann’s rendition of “Running Up That Hill.” Both it and the title track inhabit a world of morphing, flexible, and swinging rhythms that are the stuff of modern jazz. But Bleckmann and drummer John Hollenbeck are well aware that, in order for the pop propensities of Bush’s songs to also be respected, this pliability of tempo must be met with corresponding forward momentum. Add to this the experimental touches that appear on the CD, such as prepared harpsichord, toy instruments, and other atmospherics, and the balance that is achieved would be the envy of many tight rope acts.

What the artists avoid doing, and perhaps this is a secret to some of the record’s charm, is seeking to recreate Bush’s well nigh inimitable and often theatrical performance persona. Bleckmann is a singer with a powerful and singular sounding instrument and formidable stage presence of his own; he wisely avoids any whiff of caricature. While the aforementioned affection and awareness for the originals is evident, there is no by the numbers recreation attempted on the instrumental musical front either. Instead, Bleckmann and his estimable cohorts pleasingly avoid literal mindedness when crafting their arrangements. The clearest demonstration of this: in “Saxophone Song” Caleb Burhans’ violin replaces the saxophone solo of the original. On “Violin,” the band moves from the more acoustic-based sound world that prevails on the album to a more rollicking and plugged in aesthetic. Burhans shreds on guitar in tandem with thrumming bass licks from Skúli Sverrisson, Hollenbeck unleashing an uncharacteristically aggressive barrage, and pianist Henry Hey’s Leslie-saturated rock organ work.

Bleckmann also refuses campy choices. “This Woman’s Work” could certainly have been accommodated at pitch in the singer’s attractive falsetto; As Ann Powers pointed out on NPR, this approach once helped to supply a big hit to Maxwell. Instead, Bleckmann allows the lead vocals, and backing vocals overdubs, to span his range from low to high; inhabiting the song’s emotive content rather than consigning it to a gender stereotype. It’s a masterful, and affecting, album closer.

Marco von Orelli 6 (CD Review)

Marco Von Orelli
Close Ties on Hidden Lanes
Hat Hut CD hatOLOGY 709

Swiss trumpeter and composer Marco von Orelli is equally at home in both traditional and “out” settings. Close Ties on Hidden Lanes, a recording of his sextet for Hat Hut, is a snapshot of a band versatile enough to encompass both ends of the jazz spectrum – as well as a healthy dose of contemporary classical reference points – Messiaen, Ives, Scelsi, etc. – to boot. The recording consists of eight originals by von Orelli , which are fleshed out with arranging help from band member and pianist/synth player Michel Wintsch, a performer who isn’t averse to adding electronic rocket fire periodically to the proceedings (listen to the varied and extended cut “Marsala’s Strandgut” for examples). These two are joined by trombonist Lukas Briggen, bass clarinetist Lukas Roos, bassist Kaspar von Grünigen, and drummer Samuel Dühsler.

Make no mistake however, even when the group is moving towards post-tonal terrain, they seldom lose track of strong sense of pulsation. On “Urban Ways,” wah-wah trumpets and long drawn out pitch bends are undergirded by a post-bop groove. The rhythm section eventually coalesces in a series of pounding repeated dissonant verticals that recall Stravinsky doing the “Rite thing.” Even in the more free play environment of “Poetry,” in which talking muted brass overtake the rhythm section for an extended period, there is still a sense of urgency and forward drive in the solos. When drums, bass, and keys forcefully reenter, one doesn’t feel as if gears shift, but that the underlying groove has been maintained during their relative absence.

A particularly fetching tune which shows off all of the players, as well as von Orelli’s composing chops and imaginative sense of form, is “Narragonia,” a fifteen minute long opus that forms the album’s centerpiece. It embraces long lyrical neo noir  solo trumpet and trombone duets, chorale-like tutti passages, and impressively well controlled upper register interjections from Roos. A bracing middle section filled with chromatic coruscation from the piano and terse angular blatting responses from the winds gives way to some avant mayhem from Roos in an extended howling cadenza. Wintsch, von Orelli, and Briggen follow suit, each soloing in equally questing fashion.

After the inevitable explosive tutti, we are shifted into a more mysterious soundscape, filled with repeated note filigrees, whole tone piano riffs, and low register glissandi. Another cadenza, this time from trombone, is accompanied by synth, a  bit of prepared piano, and alternately shimmering and terse percussion textures. Gradually, von Orelli and Roos reassert themselves, and the opening chorale, deconstructed, lined out, and elaborately ornamented, brings us full circle. The interwoven chromatic lines from the piano and brass interjections reintroduce an even more ecstatic version of the opening chorale, which brings the composition to a tense and dissonant conclusion. Close Ties on Hidden Lanes brings together notation and improvisation, freedom and structure, chamber music and jazz in an amalgamation that suggests vibrant ways forward on each of these musical thoroughfares.


Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up (CD Review)

Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up
The Air is Different
482 Music CD 482-10719

Pictures of Tomas Fujiwara’s grandparents, dressed elegantly and exuding warm yet somewhat reserved countenances, grace the cover and sleeve of his latest CD: The Air is Different. The jazz drummer and composer helms this, the second recording of his “Hook Up” group, which includes guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Trevor Dunn, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. The Air is Different is in an outing that blends contemporary chamber jazz with fleeting references to trad jazz and Twentieth century neoclassicism. Thus, it embodies both reflection on the traditions of one’s elders and the resolve and courage that their example gives to descendents to forge their own pathways; Fujiwara’s inclusion of family photos is no mere dedicatory happenstance.

Compositions like “Lineage” and “For Ours” present tight structures and duetted thematic melodies that often reference their progenitors; in homage, not parody. Plummy tone from Finlayson and supple, dynamically nuanced drumming from Fujiwara prove particularly distinctive in these pieces. Meanwhile, listeners are treated to a strong and urgent polymetric groove (and shredding solos from Halvorson and Settles) on “Double Lake, Defined,” and free play with a raucous rhythmic underpinning and bracing dissonance on “Cosmopolitan, Rediscovery.”

The CD’s final two selections — “Smoke-Breathing Lights” and “Postcards” — are a bit more extended; allowing the quintet to change demeanors, soloing roles, and accompanying textures a number of times. It’s in these variegated landscapes that Fujiwara and the Hookup shine most brightly, sensing the shifts in one another’s playing with the  near-prescient perception. This is no ESP; it is hard won acquaintance that comes from the chameleon like exchange of roles occurring nearly nightly on a variety of Brooklyn bandstands among these, and many other, frequent collaborators in the ecstatic jazz tradition.

Standing on the shoulders of avant jazz giants, and not afraid to occasionally look over their own for inspiration, Fujiwara and company make exciting music together.

-Christian Carey

Neneh Cherry + the Thing: “Dream Baby Dream,” Four Tet Remix (Video)

On her latest recording, vocalist Neneh Cherry joins forces with Scandinavian avant jazz outfit The Thing.  Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound) features originals, jazz tunes by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, and covers of songs such as Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” and Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough to Die.” Check out Four Tet’s remix of the Suicide cover in the video below.

New issue of StN Hits the Newsstands

After a year’s hiatus, Signal to Noise, the journal of improvised and experimental music, has released a print issue (#63 Spring 2012). It’s just hit newsstands and, if you can’t find it at your local bookseller/news vendor, is available via the magazine’s website.

Issue #63 includes a feature written by yours truly: an interview with free jazz saxophonist Tim Berne as well as many other articles and reviews (table of contents below). The hope going forward is that the magazine will publish twice yearly. StN is also maintaining a blog (I’ve been deputized as “blog master”), which you can check for regularly updated exclusive online content.

issue #63 | spring 2012
available 04.15.2012
featuring …
story: chad radford  photos: alexander richter
story: steve jansen  photos: pete gershon
story: christian carey  photos: michael galinsky
story: william gibson
live reviews:
Edgefest in Ann Arbor by Lawrence Cosentino
Suoni Per Il Popolo by Lawrence Joseph
Anthony Braxton in New York by Clifford Allen
reviews of over 150 of the season’s key releases and reissues in CD / DVD / LP / download format

Tim Berne; new CD and Snakeoil Tour

Today I interviewed saxophonist Tim Berne in Brooklyn for a feature article that will appear in the next issue of Signal to Noise Magazine, the journal for improvised and experimental music. In a beleaguered market for print publications, particular for music magazines, I’m so pleased that StN editor and publisher Pete Gershon is working hard to keep the publication alive. The hope is that there will be two issues this year.

Snake Oil, Tim’s first CD on ECM as a leader (he’s supported David Torn and Michael Formanek on other ECM releases) is out this week (2/7/12). A quartet date, the personnel includes Berne playing alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega playing clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell playing piano, and Ches Smith playing drums and a number of other percussion instruments.

An enthusiastic collaborator who has been in many more bands than a blog post can contain, Berne brings a “chamber jazz” aesthetic to this project, with gig-tested charts that have rigorous compositional structures but leave plenty of room for improvisation and on-the-spot inspiration. A gracious interviewee, Tim spoke about this project and several other current endeavors. Pete has given us a generous word count (how often do writers get that these days), and I’m really looking forward to covering Snakeoil and a host of other subjects in the article.

Below, you can see another incarnation of this group, the Los Totopos band, playing live via YouTube.  We’ve also included dates for the tour Berne is undertaking in support of Snakeoil on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tour dates

Feb 16 Boston, MA Regattabar

Feb 17 New York, NY Rubin Museum

Feb 18 Baltimore, MD An die Musik live!

Feb 19 Washington DC Bohemian caverns

Feb 24 Austin, TX

Feb 25 Los Angeles, CA Blue Whale

Feb 27 Santa Cruz, CA Kuumbwa

Feb 28 Oakland, CA Yoshi’s

Feb 29 Eugene, OR The Shedd

Mar 1 Seattle, WA Seattle Asian Art Museum

Mar 2 Portland, OR Alberta Rose Theater

Mar 14 &15 London,Vortex, United Kingdom

Mar 16 Munich, Unterfahrt, Germany

Mar 17 Forlì—Italy

Mar 20 Ljubljana Cankarjev Dom, Slovenia

Mar 22+23 Paris, Triton, France

Mar 24 Bergamo—Italy

Mar 25 Cologne, Stadtgarten,  Germany

Mar 26 Berlin A-Trane, Germany

Mar 27 Rotterdam Lantaren Venster, Netherlands

Mar 28 Amsterdam, Bimhuis, Netherlands

Mar 29 Dublin—Ireland