ARTIST: Sarah Brightman
LABEL: Blue Note / USA
Reviewers: Rebecca B. Preciado and James Darby
Rebecca: This latest offering from Sarah Brightman is a symphonic treat – very aptly entitled “Symphony.” Stylistically, we could have just as easily placed this in our Classical reviews section. In fact, we did. To add to the conundrum, it was released on the Blue Note label, which is known for its jazz. Released in 2007, this is one of the most impressive albums from her body of work. The material is very noteworthy and not to mention the CD packaging and booklet filled with glossy and arty pages with photos of Ms. Brightman digitally enhanced by Photoshop, as well as some poetic verses of “Fleurs Du Mal” incorporated on Liner Notes. It is co-written by Brightman with the album’s producer Peterson, Schwartz, Messner, Himmelsbach and Kirschburger. One meaningful verse that caught my eyes goes...
“All my life I’ve been waiting for
In this perfume of pain
To forget when I needed more
Of love’s endless refrain.”
“Symphony” is an album with a contemporary flair and classical crossover consisting of thirteen songs ingeniously interpreted in a variety of settings. All the tracks were recorded between 2004 and 2007 in London and Los Angeles, and four of which are in duet settings: “Canto Della Terra” with Andrea Bocelli, “I Will Be With You” with Paul Stanley, “Sarai Qui” with Alessandro Safina and “Pasión” with Fernando Lima.
My top choices from this set include an all-time favorite song of mine, Pietro Mascagni’s “Attesa” with lyrics penned by Chiarra Ferrau. It is an adaptation from the Italian composer’s opera “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Every time I hear this tune, I am always deeply moved and carried away by its beauty regardless of who is interpreting it. I also love the wonderful duets with Andrea Bocelli (Canto Della Terra) and Fernando Lima (Pasión), and of course the title track, “Symphony.”
Sarah Brightman is one of the most talented singers we have now in the music world. I am so impressed with her performance on “Phantom of the Opera” and my favorite album of hers apart from this one is “Time To Say Goodbye.” She is a Leo-born (August 14) and undoubtedly has the qualities of a typical Leo when it comes to being artistically creative and possesses an innate talent in performing arts.
Are you a huge fan of Sarah Brightman, James? Do you think this is her best offering so far? What do you think is so special about this album?
JD: She was born on August 14th? So was my wife who is also very talented and creative. Interesting…
I can’t say I am a fan of Sarah, but I would like to be. I have tried hard to be. I do like her. Or at least I try to. I have purchased almost all of her offerings available in the US, but the only one I really like is “Time to Say Goodbye”. Married to Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote “Phantom” specifically for her, she has always been a bit of a Diva, but it seems as if each new release gets more ostentatious, overblown and melodramatic that it becomes more of a spectacle than a true musical event. The musical theatrics employed here make “Phantom” look and sound like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Like a movie soundtrack, the music should never draw attention to itself but merely enhance what is happening on screen.
The arrangements are all so grandiose that they detract from her voice, particularly when she uses her soft, breathy, little girl-like style as in the title track. She has a lovely, strong, well trained coloratura soprano that she seldom uses, singing from the roof of her mouth rather than her diaphragm. Almost every song starts big and splashy and stays that way.
Listen to the gorgeous melody of “Schwere Träume”. The overly massive string section plays the melody note for note as she sings. They never breathe or change instrumentation. They are never silent for a moment. So “Storia D'Amore” (Love Story), the next cut, continues with the same too-thick strings at the same tempo, though she switches to her Broadway or almost “classical” voice.
We have to wait until we get to “Attessa” before we get to hear her real voice and it is beautiful. Rebecca, perhaps that’s why you liked this cut. For me, this was the best as well, but we still have those overwrought, thick strings that would be more at home in a Batman score by Danny Elfman, playing mostly in unison with her melody, even when she hits that flawless high “B” at the end.
The last cut is “Running” and it does – for over nine minutes, much of which is instrumental. Perhaps Sarah was making one of her famous costume changes during most of it.
Gothic is the theme and like that clothing style, it is over the top and more than a little too much. After enduring this, I dream of another album of just her and a piano. She does have a very unique and colourful voice that will traverse almost any style. I’d just like to hear more of it with a lot more substance and a lot less style.
Sonically this is more of a disappointment that the music. It is very bright, very digital and laden with more effects than Cirque de Soliel. There is no air, no definition, what soundstage there is a smear of glare. Fatiguing and difficult to listen to. She deserves better.
TITLE: RIVER -The Joni Letters
ARTIST: by Herbie Hancock
LABEL: Verve Records / USA
By: Rebecca B. Preciado & James Darby
Rebecca: Herbie Hancock is one jazz pianist/composer who needs no introduction for when it comes to jazz music, his name always pops up and never goes unnoticed. He has recorded quite a number of jazz albums as a leader most notably his wonderful tribute to the timeless standards of George and Ira Gershwin entitled “Gershwin World.” And not to mention his projects as a sideman to many jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Bobby Hutcherson, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter and Grant Green, to name but a few. For the record, he is one of the most honored jazz artists of all-time in terms of Grammy Awards, Academy Awards and other prestigious music awards.
“River: The Joni Letters” was recorded in 2007 under a prestigious jazz recording company, Verve Records. It is the winner for 2008 Grammy Awards for the most coveted “Album of the Year.” For fans of Herbie Hancock, this tribute recording to Joni Mitchell is a must-listen if they want to discover why it is an award-winning-album.
Here he is supported by some of the finest musicians in the jazz world, namely: Wayne Shorter (soprano and tenor saxophone), Dave Holland (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Lionel Loueke (guitar). For a variety of vocal stylists, he has invited Joni Mitchell on “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” Tina Turner on “Edith and the Kingpin,” Norah Jones on “Court and Spark,” Corinne Bailey Rae on “River,” Luciana Souza on “Amelia” and Leonard Cohen on “The Jungle Line.” To better experience and appreciate Mr. Hancock’s piano artistry, listen closely to the purely instrumental ones: “Solitude,” “Both Sides Now,” “Nefertiti” and “Sweet Bird.” The ingenious arrangements on all the tracks are written by Larry Klein and Herbie Hancock himself.
JD:With such a luminous cast, one would think this release would be one of Herbie's best efforts. Unfortunately, it is not. Somehow he has turned some exciting and masterfully written,classic Joni songs into a snoozefest of very slow to slow/medium tempo interpretationsthat would best be described as background dinner music. A better album title might have been "Herbie Plays Joni for Relaxation".
About his approach to the tunes, Herbie says,“We wanted to create a new vocabulary, a new way of speaking in a musical sense". The goal was to adapt the songs to a "genre-less and conversational musical approach.” "Genreless" and "Conversational" apparently means music you can easily talk over or music that inspires you to strike up a conversation about sleeping pills. The songs, they say, were "transformed into lyrical and elegant instrumental tone poems, devoid of the trappings of conventional jazz records." Well, it definitely is "devoid".
R&B rocker and senior citizen Tina Turner sings "Edith and the Kingpin", the one cut that is taken at a tempo somewhere close to the original. The two short verses she sings add nothing to the lyrics. "Sweet Bird" is over eight minutes of instrumental meandering over brushes on a snare. The guys focused on the lyrics, mostly ignoring Joni's well crafted melodies, and turned these tunes into a puzzle that leaves it up to the listener to piece together. It sounds as if it is supposed to be hip and sophisticated with the listener eavesdropping on a conversation between a small cadre of intellectuals at a cocktail party in a posh apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park at four o'clock in the morning. I get it. The result is more like the music playing in the background of that cocktail party in a posh apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park at four o'clock in the morning.
I Googled some other reviews to see what others were saying about this. All of the reviews I read are glowin, but they are replete with words and prhases like, and these are quotes, "plays it light, with a gentle bossa rhythm, remarkably subtle, plaintive, a soft groove for Norah Jones characteristically relaxed vocal delivery, Mitchell's familiar melody may be obscured, introspective, Hancock’s playing is impressionistic and subtle, languid, Hancock’s re-imagining of “Both Sides Now” is essentially unrecognizable, this is long, slow and lyrical, a mood and approach that Hancock and Mitchell seem to have agreed upon...and so on. Friends, this is the very definition of background cocktail piano trio music, except that if you want to get tips, you'd better be able to recognize a melody or two. I know. I've played lots of it at champagne soaked, black tie affairs, particularly in college. The money was great. I particularly loved it when some blitzed older man was trying to impress some young ingenue by making of show of handing me a $50 tip.
This line really stood out by one reviewer that shall go unnamed to illustrate the mentality we're dealing with; "The instrumental tracks will keep River: The Joni Letters from becoming too popular. Plainly, these tracks are not going to be played on pop radio any time soon. Was there really a time when Joni’s own music was played on pop radio?"
He was right about one thing - sales of this CD were dismall before the Grammy Award, got a short boost right after, and dropped like an olive in a martini thereafter. Honestly, I think, like a dinner party gig and Hancock's infomercial for Bose, this CD was a marketing grab at some quick bucks. It was released with much hype the same day as Mitchell's new album "Shine".
Rebecca: Knowing you’re a big admirer of Herbie Hancock, do you really think this album is worthy to be awarded the ultimate recognition – Grammy’s “Album of the Year?”
JD: Though it may not sound like it, you're right Rebecca. I am an admirer of Herbie. I have heard him live several times and I own many of his recordings. This one will not stay in my music library. His similar collaborative effort "Possibilities" is far more interesting and engaging. Album of the Year? Let me think: ummm, no.
Sonically, the production is about average for a recent jazz release, which means it is pretty good. Better than most pop/rock for sure, but that is not saying much. Like classical, jazz recordings focus more on how they sound at home rather than on MTV or radio.
ARTIST: Cassandra Wilson
LABEL: Blue Note Records B0016NCTH2
REVIWERS: James Darby & Rebecca B. Preciado
JD: Taking a cue from Elton John with "Honkey Chateau" and U2 in most of their albums, Ms. Wilson rented a house in her home state of Mississippi and assembled a first rate band along with superstar producer T-Bone Burnett to create this collection family style. Apparently familiarity breeds contemplation. This is her second collection of covers, a follow up to her moderately successful "Blue Skies" way back in 1988.
It sounds like the group approached each tune from the groove up as this collection is very much rhythm driven as each familiar tune is reframed in their own image. While that is not unusual, what is rather peculiar is the amount of patter, banter and talking we hear in these sessions. I thought for a while that the rehearsal tapes had accidentally made it to publication. This can be off putting if you're not prepared for it, but it conveys Wilson's approach to the sessions: "I wanted to work with spare arrangements this time," says the earthy alto. "I decided to dig back into standards with a small, compact group of musicians. I don’t record the typical jazz standards a lot, but I love them and that’s how I honed my craft. I studied the standards, listening to how other singers put their swing into them. But it’s hard to do standards. You can’t really sing them until you understand them."
The arrangements may be "spare" in that there is not a large ensemble or orchestral backup, but the charts are full of bluesy and gospel tinged percussion. Any great singer's goal is to take a song and make it their own. Like she said, that is particularly hard to do with songs that are so familiar. Change them, deconstruct them, introduce different styles and time signature, even play with the melodies a bit, but you still have to make them recognizable and not cross too many lines. After all, these songs are standards because of their ingenious melding of melody and lyrics. Like a good dish, mess with the recipe too much and you court disaster. There are no disasters here, but as usual, some are more successful than others.
If you are familiar with Louis Armstrong's authoritative reading of the New Orleans funeral dirge "St. James' Infirmary", you may have a trouble with this uptempo, funky, electric guitar driven interpretation. It's kind of like taking the National Anthem and making it a rap tune. Or a guitar solo like Hendrix. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. This one doesn't. If you know the song.
In contrast, she nails "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", a tune from a Broadway musical that opened one night and closed the next. When she digs down to her incredible low range which invades the male tenor register, it can give you chills. She had the wisdom to not change this one around too much. Her voice and style are enough to make this one a keeper.
Rebecca: Listening to this latest album of Cassandra Wilson is such a novelty for me since this is my first taste of her one-of-a-kind vocal artistry. I have enjoyed the whole CD after listening with repeated plays and as a result of my delightful listening adventure, I have added another one of hers, Rendezvous to my ever-growing collection. And I'm looking forward as well to owning some of her most remarkable recordings.
With this CD, Cassandra Wilson has totally impressed me with her unique vocal art and flair. Ms. Wilson and her bandmates did a great job with the remarkable renditions with new twists on all twelve tracks making it a truly notable album that is worthy to be in every music lover's collection. She called their group the "magnificent seven musicians"-- Lonnie Plaxico and Reginald Veal (bass), Lekan Babalola (percussion), Marvin Sewell (guitar), Herlin Riley (drums), Jason Moran (piano) and the "Woman on the mirror."
My ears' favorites include the following:
1. An attractive, enchanting and tender interpretation of "Black Orpheus" making it the best vocal version ever recorded.
2. The most stirring and eloquently rendered "The Very Thought of You" that its composer Ray Noble would surely be proud of. The lone accompaniment is courtesy of Reginald Veal's acoustic upright bass.
3. A stylishly wonderful delivery of a jewel of a song, Meredith Wilson's "Till There Was You," from the Broadway musical "The Music Man."
4. One of the strongest tracks is "Caravan" wherein her bandmates put a lot of fresh and ingenious styles without deviating from the true essence of the song. The rhythm is vivacious and very engaging.
5. "Gone With The Wind" - I simply love how they created a beyond brilliant arrangement on this one.
6. Last but not least, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from one of my favorite musicals, Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady" - it is such a delight to listen to her singing this song with a new flavor especially the sweet and unaffected line..."lots of choc'lates for me to eat." (make it See's please).
Wholeheartedly recommended. You'll enjoy it as much as I do.
JD: Cassandra is well known for the attention she pays to the sound of her recordings. So does T-Bone. While there are many talented instrumentalists represented, the star instrument is Wilson's voice and the production reflects that everyone knows that. Her voice is round, dimentional andnicely out front with the band spread judiciously behind and to the sides. Her voice is big and T-Bone goes easy on compression. Significantly above average for this genre, but not up to the best we've heard.
TITLE: WORRISOME HEART
ARTIST: Melody Gardot
LABEL: Verve Records / USA
Reviewers: Rebecca B. Preciado and James Darby
Rebecca: Melody Gardot “needs a hand with her worrisome heart.” According to her, “she gravitates towards soothing music, often genres that are soft and somewhat unassuming.” She further states that “music can do wonders for your spirit especially when it’s the kind that calms you down.”
About five years ago, Melody Gardot was slammed into by the front end of a jeep that left her bedridden and disabled. As a result, she had turned her recuperating time into something creative and productive by writing the lyrics and music on all ten tracks on this remarkable album, “Worrisome Heart,” which starts off with the title track and ends with “Twilight.” This album is a showcase of Ms. Gardot’s versatility where she shows off not only her vocal style, but also her talents in guitar and piano, and composing and songwriting as well.
She is ably supported by a crew of fine musicians who are all skilled in their respective instruments namely Ken Pendergast (bass), Dave Posmontier (piano), Charlie Patierno (drums), Matt Cappy (trumpet), Joel Bryant (Hammond B3/Rhodes/Wurlitzer), Jef Lee Johnson, arney McKenna (guitar), Ron Kerber (clarinet), Diane Monroe (violin), Mike Brenner (Lap Steel guitar), Krista Nielsen (cello), Kurt Johnson and David Mowry (Dobro guitar).
What do you think of this album, James? How would you rate her musicality?
JD: At 22 when she wrote and sang these songs, she exhibits a maturity well beyond her years and lightyears beyond most of the drivel I hear on the radio or if I make the mistake of stopping on VH1 while channel surfing. The most obvious comparison would be to Nora Jones. Both dwell in the land of slow to medium tempos and both have rather soft, breathy vocal styles. Melody sounds more like Ricky Lee Jones to me on several selections but more straightforward, innocent and less complex, but she can also resemble KT Tunstall in a country mode in "Gone" while "Some Lessons" is sounds like it could have come from Nashville. “Quiet Fire” is a slow, smoldering blues where she lets loose a little and almost wails. I particularly liked this one with the Hammond B3 added.
Even though she has been through more pain and trauma in her 22 years than most experience in a lifetime, this album is mostly optimistic, uplifting and inspiring. A terrific first effort. I look forward to hearing her grow as she gains confidence and experience.
Rebecca: I’m a huge fan of beautiful Standards from the Great American Songbook -- I welcome and embrace new recordings of this genre, I would have rated this five-star if she would at least incorporated some timeless Standards from the repertoire. It would have been a lot nicer. She will definitely do more than justice singing the Standards. For her next project, I only wish it will be an album of Standards.
JD: Rebecca, how do you know these new jazz tunes won’t be standards someday? After all, when Ella and Frank were singing what we think of as “Standards” today, they were relatively new songs back then. What if Frank and Ella had been stuck singing songs that were sixty years old? Think about this; Sinatra’s two biggest hits “My Way” and “New York” were brand new compositions and not standards. Ella and Frank were incredible singers, but they were not noted songwriters. Today’s contemporary songs are tomorrow’s additions to the Great American Songbook. I don’t think people like Melody who not only sing but write her own tunes, especially at this level of quality should be rewarded, not penalized.
Rebecca: I understand where you’re coming from, James, like most contemporary singers of today, Melody can write and record her own songs, but I still think she should embark on singing the standards in order to gain more popularity and exposure, and be at the top constantly rather than “come and go.” I honestly think that it’s the shortest way to stardom in music industry. A good example would be Diana Krall. Her albums of Standards rated better and were embraced by the listening public tremendously compared to her album in which she has written the material, “The Girl In The Other Room.” Another good example would be Jane Monheit whose debut and succeeding recordings were all bestsellers because of the repertoire of Standards. In conclusion, I admire Ms. Gardot for the simple fact that she turned her pain and discomfort into something creative and productive –- and as a result, an impressive debut album with a remarkable set of all-original-songs, which represent her innermost feelings and heartfelt thoughts set into beautiful music and meaningful lyrics.
What about the sound quality? Does it measure up to your expectation and the standard of excellence?
JD: Sound quality of this CD is above average with a live, laid back quality with minimal compression that allows for some almost realistic dynamics. There are minimal trick effects used and most of the instruments are acoustic rather than amplified. The soundstage is well spread out from side to side and front to back. Above average for sure, but nothing groundbreaking.
TITLE: Feeling Good
ARTIST: Randy Crawford & Joe Sample
LABEL: PRA US 60207-2
If you don’t know who Randy Crawford is, you should. If you don’t know who Joe Sample is, you don’t know much about jazz. Joe’s body of work is legendary in the jazz genre as well as in audiophile circles. “Carmel” and “Rainbow Seeker” are audiophile treasures, particularly the MFSL reissues. Before his solo career, he was one of the original members of the Jazz Crusaders. It was there he hooked up (musically, at least) with Randy Crawford who did a cut with the Crusaders for a 1979 movie.
Miss Crawford was born in Macon, Georgia and has had limited success in the US while gaining more popularity in Europe as a jazz singer. Here, she goes back more to her R&B roots, but there is no mistaking her jazz chops, either. Her voice is sheer silk, dark blue silk perhaps and she demonstrates the difference between a musician and a singer. Randy is a musician whose instrument happens to be her voice. She sings with an extreme amount of ease; nothing is ever forced and you never get the sense that she is screaming at you, which is a rarity in this genre. She communicates the words and the emotions of each song is a very transparent way without resorting to gratuitous melisma (singing many pitches or notes on one syllable), a style for which Christine Aquilara is famous (or infamous). Randy never shows off. She does not have to.
Listen to her interpretation of “When I Need You”, first recorded by Albert Hammond circa 1977 but later made famous by Leo Sayer. This is by far the best rendition ever, and, to me, worth the price of the CD all by itself. However, every cut is a winner.
This is what Natalie Cole, Sade, Diana Krall, Rebecca Pidgeon and lately even Aretha wished they sounded like. She has the coolness of Sade, but the hotness of Aretha in her prime. She can go from a whisper to a wail in a heartbeat. If Ella could do a session backed by these guys, it might sound something like this. Even the old standard like “But Beautiful” does not sound dated. This one you can sit down and listen to all the way through without getting bored. Every cut has a different flavor and texture that captures your attention and doesn’t let go. Even the Nilsson “Everybody’s Talking At Me” has a funky latin, more uptempo feel.
But Joe Sample sets the style of this disk with his impeccable taste and original hooks. The grooves these guys lay down are infectious. The sum of all these great musicians is even greater than the parts. This is no ordinary “phone it in” studio session. There is some real chemistry here. While it is easy to listen to, it’s no “Smooth Jazz Easy Listening” junk. This is one of the very rare recordings to which I want to - and do - listen to more than once. A lot more than once.
The other sidemen involved are all jazz session first call names: Steve Gadd on drums, Christian McBride on bass, Ray Parker Jr. on guitar and Luis Quintero on percussion. They never get in Randy‘s way, but propel the rhythms along flawlessly in back of her.
The production is minimal, giving these artists the space they need to do their things. Randy’s voice is out front and large. There is little evidence of limiting or compression - the bain of good recording. The voices and instruments are dynamic and set in space with lots of air. “See Line Woman” has a group of guys that repeat the phrase “See Line” at sparse intervals throughout. They sound like they are 20 feet in back of the soundstage. Reverb is abundant but applied judiciously to compliment the artists, never making them swim in it or masking the transients. Pretty natural.
McBride’s bass is nice and woody and Gad’s drumset is not spread all over the place and sounds like a real set in a real place.
Whether you call it pop, jazz, funk, R&B, you are right. Randy’s voice and style is something you have to hear and Joe Sample, well this is the best he’s sounded in years. This music is engaging enough that you can sit down and listen to in one sitting or play in the background during dinneror while working around the house. Either way, you find yourself "Feeling Good".
ARTIST: ERIC ALEXANDER
TITLE: Temple of Olympic Zeus
LABLE: Highnote Records
If I told you this was a newly discovered recording of Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon, I bet you'd believe it. We even have Rudy Van Gelder mixing and mastering. Yeah, Eric is an old-school, hard bop tenor saxman who adds a few fresh courses but sticks to the basic curriculum. Just 40 years old, he has already participated in over 60 recordings - more than twenty of his own and forty as sideman.
His style is on the conservative side of say, Coltrane, but he is inventive enough to make this effort, where he seems to step out a bit more, engaging and worthy of a close listen. His tone is big and very clean, very well suited to burning bop as well as the sensitive ballads like “Some Other Time” and “I‘m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life,” which, like the title track and two others, are originals.
Along with Jim Rotondi on trumpet, David Hazeltine (piano), Joe Farnsworth (drums) and Nat Reeves (bass), Eric covers three tunes; Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Curtis Montgomery’s “Blues for David” and the late Bud Powell’s “I’ll Keep Loving You.” Eric gives his friends plenty of room to stretch out with tasty solos, most all performed with uncommon verve, lacking only that last bit of the founding fathers soul and coolness, though Hazeltine - the old man of the group - quotes some Red Garland pretty convincingly.
Sonics are excellent. Apparently Rudy still has some ears left as there is lots of air between the guys and the mics are neither too distant or too close. This recording would feel right at home in the Bluenote or Verve 60's catalogue.
If you think hard bop died thirty years ago, you need to let Eric and friends take you back to school - old school.
TITLE: FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT – 20th ANNIVERSARY ADDITION
ARTIST: JENNIFER WARNES
LABEL: SHOUT 826663-10490
This album, a tribute to the gravelly voiced Leonard Cohen who is most recently known for his opening theme to the Sopranos, the huge HBO hit series, was originally released in 1987. The LP immediately became an audiophile hit because of its outstanding sonics. Most did not realize it was recorded on a Sony digital machine.
This new “20th Anniversary Edition” CD has been completely remastered by master recordist Bernie Grundman. It also has been repackaged as a gatefold with new liner notes. While it is not unusual for such a re-issue to include some unreleased material, what is unusual here is that all four new additions are first-rate tunes.
Up until this collection’s release, Jennifer Warnes had been marketed as the new Linda Ronstadt. Other than some of her phrasing, Jenny was no Linda and wasn’t really into the country rock the corporate suits wanted her to record. So she moved to the Private Music label and worked with Cohen, with whom she has previous toured and recorded, to produce this. It had the double-bang outcome of revealing that she was a superb interpreter of lyrics and melody and had a voice, literally and figuratively, of her own, as well as elevating the enigmatic and minor figure Cohen to the threshold of Great American Composer status.
The CD starts out with a tough, dark and aggressive rocker, “First We Take Manhattan” with Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar. She wasted no time here making the “I’m the new Jennifer” statement loud and clear. But most of the songs are very sensitive and beautiful ballads with sweeping melodies, replete with Cohen’s complex and sometimes disturbing poetry.
Several of the songs here, “Song of Bernadette”, “Joan of Arc”, the added “If It Be Your Will” and even “Coming Back to You” are deeply spiritual and infused with genuine emotion and are probably the best interpretations on the disc. Devastatingly gorgeous.
The darker “A Singer Must Die”, an all a capella waltz with a fascinating choral background, is mesmerizing. Among the 13 cuts here, there are no throw-aways. This is one of the very few recordings, and I have owned thousands and heard many more, that I enjoy listening to more than once. This is easily one of the top female recordings of all time.
Grundman’s remastering of an already wonderful sonic masterpiece has definitely taken “Raincoat” to a new level. It even competes closely with my original LP. So close that I confess when I go to listen to this in the future, it will be this CD remaster I reach for and not the LP. This collection needs to be listened to straight through.
We rarely give top ratings to any release in both music and sonics, but this is easily one of them.
ARTIST: JUDITH OWEN
TITLE: HAPPY THIS WAY
LABEL: LINN AKD 299
If there was ever a singer whose music is a direct reflection of her life experiences, it’s Judith Owen. Her Welsh father was a singer and her mother died while Judith was in her teens. She has be oft quoted as saying , “I sing for him, I write for her”. So yes, there is plenty of angst in her sophisticated and artistic lyrics, but then she is married to Harry Shearer who was heavily involved with the satirical and hilarious Spinal Tap as well as The Simpsons. Doh! When you throw all of that into a blender, you get songs that are intelligent and true to life with a humorous twist, sung by a woman with loads of talent and a low ranged voice that she controls wonderfully. Her style is hard to peg because she is so eclectic (read – never boring) with influences as diverse as jazz, Celtic and folk. The instrumental arrangements go from minimal to full symphony orchestra.
To whom to compare her? Look no further than the guest appearances; Richard Thomspon, Cassandra Wilson , Julia Fordham , pop/jazz vocalist Ian Shaw and Nick Drake. “Wait”, you say, “Nick Drake died in 1974”. True, but his influence is felt posthumously, most evident in her song entitled – are you ready – “Nick Drake”. But this is not a maudlin collection, rather the spirit is more “Yeah, life is tough and depressing sometimes, but you can overcome it and be “Happy This Way”. Her songs – she wrote all of them - let you think and feel with a wry British smile at times and leave you refreshed emotionally and fulfilled musically. In a musical world where lyrics are written with “Oh baby” as a highlight and actual vocal talent is overshadowed by how the “artist” looks on MTV, Judith Owen is a not a breath, but a hurricane of fresh air.
Audio quality on this Linn (Yes, the turntable company) SACD is superb with minimal compression, allowing the dynamics to be heard naturally with good air and detail. You can hear Judith any way you choose; 5.1 SACD Surround, SACD Stereo, CD or even HDCD. On the Linn website, you can even download individual cuts or the whole enchilada in your choice of formats from MP3 to Studio Master Lossless ultra hi-rez.
ARTIST: Ian Shaw
Ian Shaw is another one of those jazz/pop singer/songwriters that is well known and appreciated in Europe, but a stranger to the American audience. That is a shame because in a place and time where MTV dictates many radio station’s play lists and therefore album sales with pretty people who all sound alike with their juvenile lyrics, there is no opportunity to be exposed to artists with some maturity and real talent.
Lifejacket is an intelligent and sophisticated collection of stories about coping with everyday challenges that music lovers over the age of 18 will appreciate and enjoy. Take “Forty-Two,” for instance – a story about growing older. You’re not going to get that from Ashley Simpson or Hanna Montana. Same with the catchy uptempo “Love at First Tequila” with lyrics such as, “ Here’s a pound towards the next drink, here’s a diamond for your ear, here’s to what the other girls think, will you dance me out of here? Here’s a kiss to last till later, here’s a number on your palm, here’s a ‘later alligator’ in ink across my arm”.
His style is more popish than straight ahead swing/jazz like say, Buble’, even though Ian was awarded best jazz vocalist at the BBC Jazz Awards in 2007. I might best compare him to early Joni Mitchell. His previous effort was a collection of Joni covers. Regrettably, like Joni he wanders in over his head in "Letter to a Dead Soldier" and gets a bit too political; "I'm sorry if the hands that held you to the sunlight are the hands that killed for oil again. I'm sorry that the bullets from the wicked west came down on you instead of rain". It's not clear what nationality the solider is who was the victim of the "wicked west". Ian, being a Brit, do you remember bullets raining down in Belfast? One just shouldn't throw stones whether they live in glass houses or not.
“She’s Loaded” and “I Want to Live in Paris” swing in a half-time feel with some jazz trumpet adding some heat while “A Good and Simple Man” is a slow jam that pays tribute to his dad.
There’s much more substance here than Norah Jones or Diana Krall. At times I heard quite a bit of Steely Dan influence with much more warmth. You probably won’t find yourself humming his quirky and a bit jerky melodies in the shower, but they are refreshingly unpredictable and far from the ordinary – and they do not all sound the same via the current boring pop formula where a short verse is sung followed by endless repeats of an unimaginative chorus. This is music for adults who have an IQ greater than Britney Spears.
Since this is a Linn release, it is a Hybrid Multichannel SACD with a CD layer encoded with HDCD. You can also download selections or the whole album in your choice of resolutions from MP3 to Studio Master hi-rez. The recording is much better than even a “good” pop/rock recording, but I would not call it an “Audiophile Reference”. The soundstage remains firmly between the speakers but with some good front to back depth. There is some compression and limiting, but nothing like current radio fare.
ALBUM: Toys of Men
ARTIST: STANLEY CLARKE
LABEL: HEADSUP (Telarc) HUCD 3128
First base? A kiss. A good start, but leaves you wanting more.
Best known for his early work with Chick Corea’s trend setting fusion band “Return to Forever”, Stanley since has put on the corporate feed bag writing for films and TV with an occasional album release that lately has been more aimed at the smooth jazz, Chardonnay crowd. Now he is purportedly upset about war in the Middle East and this is his statement about it. So where’s the statement? Fortunately, there is no clue in the music that has anything to do with the war or politics. The one obligatory vocal on the album “All Over Again” sung by Esperanza Spalding seems to be about, maybe, illegal immigration – she falling in love with one;
“You have traveled so far and you finally are where you belong. You’ve braved mountains and valleys just to reach me, now they tell us you don’t belong”. Say what?
The opening 11-minute opus is divided into 6 parts named “Draconian/Fear/Chaos/Cosmic Intervention/The Opening Of The Gates/God Light”. This could easily be a retread of charts from the Return to Forever book, though more mello and not as bombastic – not a bad thing, but it bears no musical resemblance to anything political, which is also a good thing. If I want to be lectured to I’ll listen to Joni Mitchell or John (no longer “Cougar”) Mellencamp. Seems to me Clarke in several interviews attempts to goose sales by casting this as an anti-war statement. There is absolutely no mention of war in any of the10 pages of liner notes. Some statement.
“Come On” is a 3 minute cut that is unequivocally RTF/Mahavishnu Orchestra in style. Not bad. “Jerusalem” is written in a minor key and conveys a bit of sadness.
If you’re looking for hot funk, you have to wait ‘tll cut 7 and “Bad Asses”. This one made it onto the hard drive in my car stereo. Now were talkin’.
Cut 8 is a slow fusion jam with lots of synth leads and pads.
Stanley steps behind acoustic bass for three short solo jams that sound like he just turned a mic on and improvised. Worth listening to – once.
He goes Latin with "El Bajo Negro” and “La Cancion De Sofia”, the first another acoustic solo awash in reverb that doesn’t sound Latin at all, the later a tender ballad where he momentarily picks up a bow. Pretty.
Another highlight for me was “Châteauvallon 1972”, which he dedicated to the late great drummer Tony Williams. It’s a mid-tempo, minor-key fusion piece that lets sessionist drummer Ronald Brumer, Jr.do an very impressive impersonation of RTF’s Lenny White pyrotechnics. This may be a keeper, too.
Sonics are just okay and not up to Telarc’s high standards. The short acoustic bass improves have lots of air and space while the rest of the CD is not plagued by excessive compression, but otherwise this is an ordinary pop/jazz studio session with nothing to set it apart.
ARTIST: VICTOR WOOTEN
LABEL: HEADS UP HUCD 3135
In high school, getting to second bass meant that things were getting a lot hotter, explorative and much more interesting. Same here. While he is best known as the foundation of the many Bela Fleck recordings, Victor proves he is his own man here, writing all but one of the compostions that encompass genres as diverse as jazz, rock, black gospel, R&B, Latin, Indian Bollywood, African and bop; proving he is a jack of all genres and master of them as well. He is the only three-time winner of Bass Player magazine’s Bass Player Of The Year.
Unlike Clarke’s single bagger, there is a lot more structure and compositional prowess that generates much more heat, interest and downright fun. While there are no Sly Stone covers, this truly is “A Family Affair” with family members Roy, Joseph, Regi who actually plays bass on a couple of cuts , mamma Dorothy and even his wife and children (“Camo” is named after his son Cameron) all contributing along with another family, The Woodards, supplying some tasty vocals.
On the highly charged “2 Timers”, Vic uses two different drummers playing in two different time signatures. While 3 against 4 is nothing new, if you listen carefully you hear Wooten’s bass in ¾ start a sixteenth note ahead of the drummer’s 4/4. The two time signatures are woven throughout the piece, but at about 2:40 it all comes together with one drummer in three and the other in four. Fascinating, but then much of this album is a study in unusual time signatures with “,,,” in 9/16 and “The Gospel” in 9/4 for example. See if you can ascertain the others.
Then Vic decides that two drummers are not enough and he wants to do a song utilizing three of them. He doesn’t have a song, mind you, just the idea. So he lays down a click track (an electronic metronome) and brings in J.D. Blair and turns him loose to just play to the basic tempo. Then he brings in Dennis Chambers who doesn’t listen to JD’s track, but plays to the same metronome. Lastly comes Will Kennedy who somehow manages to lay down a third track while monitoring the other two. So now he has three drum tracks but no song. He calls on guitarist Mike Stern to improvise a solo which he nails in one take. Vic is so blown away that he memorizes Stern’s solo and doubles it on bass which becomes the root of the song. Then Neal Evans comes in and lays down a smokin’ Hammond B3 track and we have the tune “Left, Right & Center”, referring to how the drummers are panned or spread across the soundstage.
There is a very uplifting spirit to several of the tunes such as “I Saw God” where there is spoken word over a sizzling African beat reminiscent of Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al”. The story is that a guy sees God just “walking down the street” and God tells the guy “You’ve been waiting for My return, but the truth is, I never went away!” Don’t worry, there no sermonizing, even in “The Gospel” and “Miss U” – just a celebration of life, love and consummate musicianship. And unselfishness. There are at least three other guys playing bass with three different tones on this CD. See if you can tell which is which.
“The Lesson”, taken from his novel by the same name, is the only bass solo that was not overdubbed. He exhibits several bass techniques from funk to Flamenco. A standout and much more intriguing that Clarke’s “I ran out of ideas so here’s some filler tracks” solos.
The lone cover is of Horace Silver’s much loved “Song For My Father” which gets a more contemporary, uptempo jazz/pop/funk reading here featuring a blazing sax solo by Karl Denson.
Though it may be second base, this is one collection you can unbutton and enjoy your own “Palmystery”.
ARTIST: MARCUS MILLER
LABEL: CONCORD JAZZ CCD 30264
Getting to third base three decades before Monica Lewinsky made it a national pastime was was not easy, unless the girls were, but I didn't hang out with them. But then, this recording is more of a home run anyway. Marcus Miller first burst onto the New York music scene about the same time I was in high school, but the Grammy-winning bassist is still a vibrant presence in R&B and jazz. At any particular point in time he might be functioning as a producer, composer, arranger, or performer — and sometimes all at once. That's the case with his newest album, his first for Concord, which is simply titled "Marcus".
Miller is a talented multi-instrumentalist who is not only skilled on electric bass, but also keyboards, clarinet, sax, sitar and probably a few more besides. Just about everything shows up on his seventh solo album, a 13-track collection that's top-heavy with his own compositions — not that
Did you have to play those little plastic Flutophones in gradeschool as part of a music class? I did. And so did Marcus Miller. He took to it much more than I did and went on to take up clarinet. He went to a high school for gifted musicians where he continued his clarinet studies. Luckily for him and us as well, he picked up a bass guitar and messed around in neighborhood bands playing funk. At 15 he was playing in clubs in his native New York. A year later he was playing sessions for big names which continued until he hit the BIGGEST name, Miles Davis. He played with Miles for 2 years and 6 albums including “The Man with the Horn”, “Tutu” and “Amadla”. This is his 11th solo project and his first for Concord.
This is a much different collection than Clarke’s – no retro 70’s fusion here. This thing has more groves than than the Smithsonian Institute LP collection and they are all full to the brim with delicious, nasty, bumpin’ funk. Yeah baby! He’s joined by vocalists Keb' Mo', Corinne Bailey Rae and Lalah Hathaway.
If there was subtitle to the CD it was have to be the first cut’s title; Blast! Because listening to all 14 cuts is just that. Blast! Never changes chords and if my pitch is right, it’s all in D using a Middle Eastern scale with a chorus blasted by the brass trio. I even heard a bit of Sitar mixed in and sure enough, not only was it there, it was played by Marcus. A quick survey shows Marcus playing more than a dozen instruments across the cuts plus some beat synth programming including bass clarinet on the next cut “Funk Joint”, a slow burning funk with Marucs snappin’ the melody. Some serious low end on this cut.
Corrine Baily Rae sings the mid-tempo R&B tune “Free”, but Marcus’ bass co-stars as well.
One of my favorite cuts is Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, with Miller’s bass singing the melody. Hot brass and smokin’ B3 and a cool Sanborn sax solo.
Keb Mo’ takes the vocal and a blazing guitar solo on “Milky Way, some spacey R&B. “Oh Yeah” indicates Marcus has listened to some Moby with a sampled “Oh Yeah” as an accent. Only Marcus can make a bass clarinet into an instrument of funk. You have to hear this.
Donny’s daughter Layla Hathaway moans a sultry R&B vocal on “Ooh”, but Marcus solos throughout. So tasty!
For me, the epitome of hot, blazing, tight, bumpin’ funk is Tower of Power. I’ve seen them many times. TOP’s top hit is “What Is Hip” and Marcus, along with TOP’s original organist Chester Thompson with some added fire by Sanborn’s sax. Here the bass clarinet is no substitute for Stephen Kupka’s (TOP’s the Funky Doctor) signature Bari sax bumps. This is no Tower of Power, but Chester’s Hammond organ is hot and Miller takes a subsonic bass solo that will test your subs.
In 2001 Marcus was awarded a Grammy for his M2 release. I won it. This is better. Much better. Interestingly if you’re an Apple computer fan, the whole thing was recorded and mixed on a Mac using Apple’s own Logic Pro.
TITLE: YERBA BUENA BOUNCE
ARTIST: The Hot Club of San Francisco
LABLE: REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-109 HDCD
Review by Rebecca B. Preciado & James Darby
Rebecca: Michael Dregni, the author of “Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend,” wrote a catchy title on the Liner Notes and I quote: “BEWARE: The small plastic disc you hold in your hands is one dangerous item.” Yes, indeed, not only “dangerous” but highly contagious and infectious! Listening to it takes the listeners to the world of Django Reinhardt, hailed as the greatest guitarist who ever lived, and a genius of violin, Stéphane Grapelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France in the tradition of string jazz or “Jazz Manouche” – a term originated in Paris in 1920s to describe this kind of jazz. If you’re a fan of both jazz greats, you’ll absolutely love this album, “Yerba Buena Bounce” by The Hot Club of San Francisco, one of the most sought-out groups in the West Coast jazz scene today and who are all highly skilled in their respective instruments, namely Evan Price (violin) Paul Mehling (guitar), Ari Munkres (bass), Jeff Magidson and Jason Vanderford (rhythm guitars), and their special guest, the equally talented David Grisman, who plays mandolin on “Lullaby” and “Sway.”
Consisting of seventeen tunes that are pleasing to the ears, it is an olio of covers, originals and rarely recorded tracks … there isn’t any uninspiring track to bore your auditory sense. While the title track, “Yerba Buena Bounce” is the most bubbly and sparkling tune where you can jive to its danceable beat, “Stardust” is the most mellow and smoothly beautiful tune that evokes images of 1940s – the great era of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
What do you think, James?
James: I have to confess that this is not my favorite Reference Recording release. I liked the trademark Reference Recording label ultra-high quality sound, particularly the HDCD encoding which brings their releases to near SACD/DVD-A quality when played on a machine that has HDCD decoding. ANd there is certinaly nothing wrong with the musicianship. These can can play. The key phrase in your review Rebecca, and you nailed it, is "If you’re a fan of both jazz greats, you’ll absolutely love this album".
I'm not a Django/Grapelli collaboration fan and neither is my wife Linda or my listening pal, Stereo Mario. We all love jazz, just not this "Gypsy Swing" style. None of us wanted to listen to the whole disk, though a couple of the cuts were fun; namely the cuts that featured Grisman. He is a true master musician. I agree the best track is probably the "Yerba Buena Bounce". Original Django recordings are all mono and not nearly the quality of this modern release.
The most significant thing I remember about Django Reinhardt is that he played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers because his third and fourth fingers of his left hand were terribly burned in a fire when he was a youth. (Look closely at the picture, left) That he overcame that to become one of the jazz greats is one of the great stories in all of music.
The issue here is not the recording quality or the musicianship; both are outstanding. It's all about the musical style. Like Disco,this style is of a very specific time and place and whether it has aged well is a very subjective opinion. If you want to be transported back to a time when French society went to a "hot club" to take in some trendy music, this may be your cup of Absynth. Some people will absolutely love this recording, others will not. Can't be more honest than that.
TITLE: One Foot in the Blues
ARTIST: Johnny Adams
LABEL: Rounder 2144
I was introduced to this 1996 Rounder release by Peter Noerbaek as I was listening to his big Montana speakers at CES. When you are spending 10 hours a day rushing from room to room trying to hear, evaluate and report on as many systems and components as possible over four days, one tends to hear an awful lot of impressive recordings cued up by audio manufacturers to showcase their wares. None impressed me more than this one and it was the first CD I bought when I got back home.
I had never heard or heard of Johnny Adams before. So who is he?
Johnny Adams is a blues singer with a bigger, better and more expressive voice than just about anyone including BB King, Junior Wells and their brethren. And it is showcased here in one of if not the best recordings I have ever heard, which is exactly why Noerbaek was using it to show off his huge, expensive speakers. Producer Scott Billingham says in the liner notes, “This is certainly one of the least produced albums that Johnny and I have made – this music just happened!” He got that right. It sounds as if there was absolutely no limiting, compression or effects used in the recording chain. It sounds just like a live-in-studio capture, which is what it is. Very live.
There is no shortage of Blues CD’s tauted as “audiophile” by Telarc, Chesky, Opus 3 and others. This is right up there with “Muddy Waters – Folk Singer” and, in my opinion, better in terms actual listening value. Even Muddy Waters singing for an hour with just his guitar with no other instruments gets old after a while. Johnny has a bit more gospel and R&B inflections than Waters. He also has a much more polished and trained sounding voice. If Lou Rawls ever tried to sing like this, he may have come close. Don’t get me wrong – those other labels make some great recordings. This one just happens to be extraordinary.
The instrumentation is minimal with just drums, sax, guitar and Hammond B3. There are some cuts with a brass trio throwing in some background hits. No bass player. None needed. Dr. Lonnie Smith covers bass on the B3’s pedals. He also almost steals the show away from, Adams. He kicks the charts along with fills and accents that kick like Mirko Cro Cop. (If you don’t know who he is, he’s a full contact heavyweight fighter famous for knocking opponents out with a single kick to their head). What the Dr. does on his Hammond is incredible and is the best example of jazz organ accompaniment I’ve heard – and I have a lot of Jimmy Smith and other B3 jazzer’s recordings. This is also the best sonic rendering of a B3 that I know of. Just listen to his soulful solo at 4:00 into the title track that leads into the last verse and then how he kicks into a key change at 5:00and then takes it home. Killer.
Adams’ interpretation of standard ballads such as “Baby Don’t You Cry” and “Angel Eyes” can easily set the standard for all others. The way he can caress a note and sound like he’s talking and telling a story rather than singer is amazing. He draws you in with his emotional delivery no matter what the emotion may be. I have played this CD for many people of many ages who are not blues fans at all and they all have been blown away.
There’s more to meet the ears than just blues and ballads. The CD starts off with one of the funkiest grooves since Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. “Half Awake” take us almost into the rock arena with a cowbell on the backbeats. There’s a smokin’ 32 bars of sax solo here, too
Johnny Adams died September 14 in 1998 in Baton Rouge, La., where he lived. He was 67.
Whether you are a blues fan or not – if you just appreciate the rare combination of extraordinary music, musicians and superlative sonics – give this one a try.
TITLE: We All Love Ella
LABLE: VERVE B0008833-02
I like the concept of tribute albums – a variety of artists, often not associated with the genre of the artist being “tributed”, performing their take on one of the artist’s biggest hits. It’s all about variety – a pre-made mix tapes if you will. The problem is, more often than not, the artists engaging in the tribute offer rather tepid renditions, sounding for all the world like they phoned in their offering and they were just participating to make a quick buck without having to do the work involved in doing a complete solo project. And sometimes, of course, the greatest hits of of some performers are pretty poor to begin with.
Such is not the case with “We All Love Ella”, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, one of the greatest singers, jazz or otherwise, ever to grace the planet. We have fifteen selections from the Great American Songbook with the Great American Producer Phil Ramone at the controls. The rest of the supposrint cast is top shelf as well with arrangements by Billy Childs who just won two Grammies for his own work and who has also worked with everyone from Freddie Hubbard to Sting, and Rob Mounsey with Steely Dan, James Taylor, Aaron Neville, Paul Simon, Rihanna, Chaka Khan and Madonna on his resume. The big band includes tenor trombonist Birch “Crimson Slide” Johnson (the Blues Brothers) drummer Lewis Nash (Sonny Rollins),and oft recorded saxophonists Roger Rosenberg and Tom Scott to name a few.
A Tisket a Tasket - Natalie Cole
Lullaby Of Birdland - Chaka Khan
The Lady Is a Tramp - Queen Latifah
Dream a Little Dream Of Me - Diana Krall
(You'll Have To Swing It) Mr. Paganini - Natalie Cole
Oh Lady Be Good! - Dianne Reeves
Reaching For the Moon - Lizz Wright
Blues In the Night – Ledisi
Miss Otis Regrets - Linda Ronstadt
Someone To Watch Over Me - Gladys Knight
Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me - Etta James
Angel Eyes - K.D. Lang
Too Close For Comfort - Michael Buble
You Are the Sunshine Of My Life - Stevie Wonder
Airmail Special - Nikki Yanofsky
While none of these are throwaways, there are some standouts such as Etta’s “Do Nothin” which lives mostly in her low, chesty range is smokier than California wildfires fanned by a super El Nino. Same goes for “Angel Eyes” with K.D Lang. Queen Latifa leaves “Salt & Pappa” on the condiment shelf with startling vocal chops on “Lady is a Tramp”. The real show stopper has to be the up-tempo scorcher “Airmail Special” by Nikki Yanofsky. Nikki was TWELVE when she recorded this! That she can even grasp the concept of scat singing, much less nail it with such incredible vocal pyrotechnics that not only holds its own among such jazz luminaries but blows some away is just ridiculous. A must hear.
Current R&B and MTV diva Ledisi sounds rather screechy on the upper registers of the classic “Blues in the Night” and the 1977 live recording of Stevie Wonder who brings Ella on stage in New Orleans for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, is a pure train wreck as far as the performance goes. Ella gets lost, forgets words and otherwise blows the whole tune. However, her sweetness, laughter and poise and all that was Ella the woman shines through which, no doubt, is why this charming catastrophe was included.
Soundwise, the recording is also a success even though there are a plethora of recording studios used from New Jersey to LA. Generally, the vocals are nicely out front and not overly compressed with the instruments spread nicely in a layered soundstage, a credit to the mastering genius of Doug Sax. While not up to labels such as Reference Recording, Telarc or Linn, the sound is very listenable and much better than most coming out of New York and LA today.
Even if you may not a fan of jazz, big band or even Ella, we recommend you give this a listen. You may just love it. There’s a reason they called it “We All Love Ella”.
TITLE: Kill to get Crimson
ARTIST: Mark Knopfler
LABEL: Warner Bros / Wea
Review by Anthony Greive
When I first heard the title of Mark Knopfler's new album, "Kill to get Crimson", it piqued my curiosity enough to have to find out it's meaning. An exasperated artist in the song "Let it all Go" tries desperately to create just the right shade of red for use in his painting. He declares he would"...kill to get crimson on this palette knife". I imagine a musician, the caliber of Mark Knopfler knows well the "volcanic desire" and "un-quenchable fire" of creative impulse mentioned later in the song.
The well crafted collection of music on this album is for the most part, "optimistically melancholic". They are mostly stories of people doing their best to live their lives, under the sometimes crushing weight of monotony and regret, for the sake of love and/or their art. In spite of the serious tone, there is an upbeat tempo and subtle humor to many of the songs that keeps things from getting too dark. The sound of each song is an integral part of the tale being told. Mr. Knopfler's distinctive baritone just enough in front to tell the story, while blending in perfectly with the other musicians. To my ears this is English folk music, with a touch of country/blues. At times Bert Jansch comes to mind while at others Peter Green ("We can get Wild" ) or Link Wray (Punish the Monkey). Some of the wry humor,
along with the accordion recall Tom Waits.
While at times reminiscent of other musicians, Knopfler always remains unique. Other artists' influence may be heard, but it is always as a nuance of his own sound. His trademark guitar, though more subdued than in his Dire Straits days, is as unmistakable as it is beautifully woven throughout the music. The searing solos of old have been replaced with more restrained, yet no less original and compelling lead guitar passages. Each track takes a good ten seconds or more to fade out before the next begins. There is enough lyric and music within each of these "stories in song" to require this period of transition between them.
If you appreciate melodic, intricate music you will enjoy this album. If you've been waiting for a Dire Straits' reunion, you're out of luck. Getting "Money for Nothing" appears less likely with each of Mr. Knopfler's solo efforts. While I still like, and sometimes listen to Dire Straits, I now enjoy the solo recordings of the band's founder much more. He is an artist who has grown and matured with the passing years, offering what I believe to be more relevant and timeless music with each new release.
This most recent work was recorded entirely at Knopfler's own "British Grove" studios, where he has made sure he has access to the best of all things
audio. From completely restored vintage tube gear to the latest digital technology, Knopfler is able to make use of whatever best serves his purpose in reproducing the sound of the songs created by himself and his tight knit group of fellow musicians.
Sonically, the CD is better than the average rock release these days, which isn't saying much, but at least there are some dynamics, especially in the quieter passages, but compression is still the name of the game. There is some depth and width to the soundstage, but no one would call this an "audiophile" quality recording like "Love Over Gold". The lyrics are always discernable, up front and center, as they should be with this kind of music. There is nothing jarring or out of place on the entire record. To some, this might come across as sounding "too much the same". I believe this is only the case if one doesn't take the time to truly listen to each song. Without really listening to the stories as well as the music they are clothed in, the songs can sound similar. I believe this is largely due to the fact that most of them do have their foundation in English folk music. "Kill to Get Crimson" is a beautiful collection of twelve new songs built on this solid foundation.
TITLE: MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY by Sophie Milman
ARTIST: SOPHIE MILLMAN
LABLE: Koch Records
REVIEWERS: Rebecca B. Preciado & James Darby
Rebecca: To quote Sophie Milman from the liner notes, she admitted that when she “made her first album, she knew very little about music, which was a hobby and a passion. But since the release of her first record three years ago, music has become so much than a hobby and a passion. It has evolved into the best reflection of her experiences, emotions, and life. The last three years have been the most intense, stressful, difficult, turbulent, exciting, rewarding, and successful years of her life so far, and Make Someone Happy is the product of all that.” She believes that “making this record was a sort of a therapy.” That being said, Milman has truly developed into a fine jazz singer in such a short period of time. And not to mention that this album is the winner at the recently concluded Juno Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album of the Year.
Recorded and released in 2007, “Make Someone Happy” is Sophie Milman’s follow-up CD after the success of her debut self-titled album. With the influx of contemporary female jazz vocalists singing the Great American Songbook, Milman, a fairly-new singer, is ahead of the game considering her impressive musical qualities. She has a crystal-clear and powerful voice. Her phrasing is impeccable and her singing is effortless. I believe these are the same qualities to be a great and remarkable jazz singer and to be considered as a modern-day jazz diva.
The repertoire is pretty eclectic - contemporary songs mixed with some of the finest standards ever written from the Great American Songbook. Most of the brilliant songwriters and composers in the Tin Pan Alley are represented in this wonderful album, the likes of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, among others.
“People Will Say We’re In Love” is the perfect opener for this beautiful presentation where Milman shows off her knack for a light swing number, she also sings “Like Someone In Love” in the same swingy fashion. She then takes the listeners to a warm and cozy ambiance as she sings one of my favorites from this collection,
“Something In The Air Between Us” richly flavored with Bossa Nova rhythm and heavily infused with lush string arrangement resulting in a lovely interpretation making it one of the best tracks. Another track with a charming Bossa Nova beat is “Reste” (Stay) sung in French. The title track, “Make Someone Happy,” “Fever” and “Undun” are some of the highlights showcasing Milman’s clarity of vocals and effortless singing.
My choicest cut is Rodgers and Hart’s “It Might As Well Be Spring,” which is given the most effervescent treatment that will engage the listeners into the jazziest side of Milman and her band of fine musicians such as Cameron Wallis (tenor sax), Paul Shrofel (piano), Kieren Overs (bass), John Fraboni (drums) and Alan Hetherrington (percussion) who play their respective instruments with so much flair and verve.
What’s not to love about this CD, James?
James: As you know Rebecca, I'm a sucker for female vocalists, but not all of them. There are a ton of women and young girls nowadays that are releasing American standards collections, but I can't call this one of those. Kermit The Frog's "It's Not Easy Being Green" hasn't qualified as an American standard yet in my mind, and I hope it never does. But the Guess Who's "Undun" may well qualify in some future age if it keeps getting covered as well as this. Same with Stevie Wonder's "Rocket Love." Most of Little Stevie can already be considered standards so that was a good choice. But do we really need another "Matchmaker, Matchmaker?" This one didn't make it onto my Ipod. Neither did "Eli, Eli (A Walk to Ceasarea),” though it may be one of the better executed selections on the disk. I've been to Ceasarea in Israel a few times, we did TV shoot there a couple of decades ago. This song was more of a dirge that did not remind me of being in that beautiful place on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, it made me feel like I was attending a funeral.
Rebecca: Yes, James, you’re absolutely right about her rendition of the Guess Who’s “Undun” featuring songwriter himself, Randy Bachman, on electric guitar. I love the way she reinvented this song that takes me back in time when it was one of my very favorite songs. I think she gives “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” a new flair and style that makes it a welcome revival.
James: I'm trying to think who she sounds like so we can give our readers a description. Not Nora Jones - Sophie has too many chops and she can swing. Not Diana Krall - not enough "I'm too cool" attitude. Maybe another Canadian. How about Holly Cole?
Rebecca: I think there’s a bit of Ella Fitzgerald, a twist of Julie London, and a touch of Jane Monheit in her. Moreover, she’s one versatile and talented jazz singer, and fabulous at that! And yes, you’ve said it perfectly, she can swing! What can you say about the overall sound quality?
James: Well first, she can swing, but she's no Ella or a host of other greats. I can say that the recording quality is above average. Nothing groundbreaking, but everything is clean with minimal studio gadgetry, especially compression. Her voice is up front and center with good separation from the background. The audio quality is good, even for a jazz recording. Studio effects are minimal and used tastefully when present. Her vocal is warm, robust and well in front of the band. Instruments sound realistic and are placed in a 3D soundstage that at least resembles a live session.
Rebecca: Out of the thirteen tracks, I’m very pleased with ten so it will still be a five-star affair for me, but James rated it a three. Final Rating: Four out of five.
James: What?! No way! A top rating means every cut is outstanding, not just 10 out of 13. You can make it a 4 - maybe. I think she's just average. This CD definitely calls for a listen before anyone buys it. But hey, we can compromise. Call it a 3 1/2 music rating.
TITLES: When A Woman Loves A Man & A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening
LABELS: Accia Bella Records (015882001427)/MoCo Records 23-002
REVIEWERS: Rebecca B. Preciado & James Darby
REBECCA: Recorded and released in 2005, Calabria Foti’s “When A Woman Loves A Man” is one of the most remarkable debut albums ever produced. Before she became a full-pledged vocalist, Ms. Foti was an in-demand studio musician as a violinist/soloist in Los Angeles jazz scene. Her talent goes beyond being a jazz vocalist, she’s also a songwriter and arranger as well.
Backed by a group of fine musicians headed by her husband, a fine trombonist and music professor, Bob McChesney, pianist Matt Harris and saxophonist Pete Christlieb, among others, and a string section consisting of 30 musicians, Calabria Foti interprets in her own inimitable style ten classic songs from the Great American Songbook infusing into every song her beautiful crystal-clear voice and flawless phrasing. There’s an ear-candy for every fan -- if you love Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, “A Fine Romance” is a delightful listen. If you love Sammy Cahn, Jim Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, listen closely to “Like Someone In Love” and “All The Way” where she also plays violin. If you love Ray Noble, there’s “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” to enjoy. If you love the Gershwin Brothers, you’ll be charmed with “The Man That Got Away” (a medley with “When Your Lover Has Gone”). If you love Rodgers and Hammerstein, you’ll also love “This Nearly Was Mine.” If you love Johnny Mercer, Gordon Jenkins and Bernie Hanighen, you’ll be fascinated with the title track, “When A Woman Loves A Man.”
If you enjoyed listening to Peggy Lee’s version of “Fever,” you’ll absolutely adore the way Ms. Foti gives this gem from John Davenport and Eddie Coole a fresh treatment resulting in an impressively beautiful rendition – one of the very best, I would say.
If you listened to this debut album with a smile on your face, you’ll certainly love her sophomore CD, “A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening,” which is making waves in the jazz scene since it was released five months ago. Both CDs are simply overflowing with charms.
“The title ‘A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening’ perfectly describes this incredible CD from Calabria Foti. It is one of the best records I have ever heard. Calabria is truly a marvelous singer in every way. She has all the technique and musicality you could want, and has the ability to tell a story and touch your heart. Everything about this production sounds just like what I would want it if it were my own. I’m jealous! The string arrangements by Bob McChesney are exquisite, as are his trombone solos. I’m sure you will enjoy this CD as much as I do.” ~ Johnny Mandel ~
I couldn’t agree more with Johnny Mandel! And coming from a brilliant and talented arranger/composer/conductor himself, he perfectly said all the good things about this sophomore CD of Calabria Foti, “A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening.” She’s one of the most talented and versatile artists who ever graced the world of jazz for she’s not only a great singer, but also an arranger, songwriter and violinist as well. You can hear her violin solo on “Do It Again.”
With a set of ten timeless and gorgeous standards from the big names of Tin Pan Alley, the likes of George Gershwin, Jimmy McHugh, Cole Porter, Jule Styne, Harold Adamson, among others, Ms. Foti with her impressive vocal art brings glamour with a touch of nostalgia into each song making this CD so listener-friendly and worthy to be in every jazz lover’s music collection.
Most of the charts were flawlessly co-arranged by Ms. Foti with her husband, trombonist/arranger Bob McChesney, who also plays a notable solo on “A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening,” an all-time favorite of mine. She is backed by some of the finest musicians/soloists in the jazz scene – Larry Koonse (guitar), Matt Harris (piano), Trey Henry (bass), Rob Lockhart (tenor sax), Dick Weller (drums), Luis Conte (percussion) and a string section composed of 26 musicians who are all skilled in violin, cello and viola.
My favorites? Not a single song, but the entire CD. There isn’t any uninspiring track from this set -- they’re all winners, but she’s truly at her utmost best in “The Touch of Your Lips’ where she scats impressively.
“A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening?” Quality time with your special someone: a cozy, candlelight, home-cooked dinner complete with your favorite wine and dessert ... and make this CD a part of it and create some wonderful memories to cherish forever. Recommended? Most definitely! … to every music lover who greatly appreciate gorgeous vocal jazz recordings.
JD: Whew...so Rebecca, do you really like these CD's? While I cannot put Calabria quite as high in the pantheons as you, I did like both of these, though her second release is light years ahead of the first, which is impressive in itself in that most sophomore efforts never live up to the first. "When a Woman" reveals a singer with significant talent and potential who is a bit reserved, lacking sufficient experience and confidence in her voice, but still very listenable and charming. In that sense, she reminds me of the first time I met Amy Grant when she was all of 16. She took to the small stage in jeans and a plaid shirt with only her guitar and long curly hair. She actually had to stop a couple of times and say "oops" when she flubbed guitar chords. But still, it was obvious to everyone that the kid could have a bright future. You simply could not help but love her.
Her bio doesn't disclose her age, but Ms. Foti (pronounced FOE-ti) as the pictures testify, has grown up a lot in "A Lovely Way". In a time when a singer's looks bear no resemblance to her ability, she sounds like she appears - gorgeous. She doesn't have the big voice of Ella or Judy Garland, or even Mike Buble' or Tony Bennett, but she's smooth and warm. She also does not possess the multi-octave range of Cleo Lane, but neither does Krall, Rebecca Pidgeon, Patricia Barber or Nora Jones. She stays within her limits and uses what she has well. In fact, her low range is very rich and sultry to the extent I'd like to hear her use it more.
In the last three years we have seen and endured scads of people (even Rod Stewart) attempting to jump on the Nora and Diana phenomenon with little success and less talent, but, especially on the second album, she proves she is for real.My wife put it best when she said, "I wouldn't pay $60 to see in her concert, but if she were appearing at a jazz club or a big Hyatt show room, I'd want to make the trip to hear her." I can say she's much better than the usual Vegas lounge act, but whether she'll ever fill the 1,000 seats in a major casino like Bennett still can today, well time will tell. If she travels with the band on the albums, I'd drive an hour to see them. These guys are incredible, especially the 'bone player who turns out to be her hubby. I told Rebecca I thought the guys overshadowed her on the first CD. These guys are blowin' hard bop pyrotechnic solos there, but I think they heard the stark contrast, too, because on the second effort she steps up her technique and they play more down and back with less soloing overall. Better balance.
Speaking of down and back, the recording mix is perplexing. While the sonics are clean with no studio trickery, everything save the lush, Nelson Riddle style strings are panned to the center. Her voice is more forward but still not in front of the speakers. The second CD often sounds like mono. What's up with that? The first recording is even weirder with the stereo piano spread clear across the stage in the speaker's plane with everything else, including Calabria behind it! Next time, put the band in a realistic "live" setup like most jazz recordings and let her voice stand out front. She deserves it.
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