BY BOBBY REED Jane Monheit,
The Heart Of The Matter(Emarcy/Decca) Jane Monheit is a technician who operates with precision. But that doesn’t mean she’s stuffy or aloof. This supremely gifted singer is capable of tremendous vocal flights, dips, turns and extensions, but she doesn’t grandstand or hold a note simply to show off. Her goal is to convey a story, and she does so with grace throughout her 10th album, The Heart Of The Matter. With a terrific band that includes her husband—drummer Rick Montalbano—guitarist Romero Lubambo and producer-arranger-keyboardist Gil Goldstein, Monheit interprets Mel Tormé’s “Born To Be Blue,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me” and two compositions by the brilliant Brazilian tunesmith Ivan Lins (“Depende De Nós” and “A Gente Merece Ser Feliz”). Whether a track includes several instruments or just a few, Golstein’s arrangements leave plenty of space around Monheit’s luminous voice, as shown by the spare instrumentation on “The Two Lonely People,” a Bill Evans composition that the late pianist recorded with Tony Bennett. The centerpiece of the album is a seven-minute tour de force that combines two Beatles songs, “Golden Slumbers” and “The Long And Winding Road.” Monheit launches the track with a wordless vocal section, coaxes the melody for its emotional impact and ultimately creates a potent tearjerker. Monheit favors mature substance over superficial style, and the results are addictive.
BY FRANK ALKYER The Bill Horvitz Expanded Band, The Long Walk(Big Door Prize) The Long Walk is composer-guitarist Bill Horvitz’s tribute to his brother Philip, a dramatic artist who passed away suddenly from heart failure in 2005. It’s taken eight years to get the music out on record because The Long Walk is the kind of far-reaching tribute one artist would create to honor another artist. Not just simple or loving or introspective (though it contains elements of all of those), The Long Walk is big, boisterous, complex, bold and ultimately gorgeous. The leader employs his “Expanded Band”—a 17-piece powerhouse that features horns, strings and Horvitz’s searing electric guitar—and sweats every detail to take you on a ride through the connection he felt to his brother. Each movement in this suite of eight songs explores a different facet of Philip’s life. “Astor Place” is a nod to the famed area of New York City where the two would meet for coffee and conversations about life, family and art. “Funk Side Story” honors his brother’s love of musicals and has an immensely creative, catchy connection to the music of West Side Story. “Where Did The Monkey Go?” was the first movement that Horvitz wrote. It opened the floodgates for the rest of the music here and has a galloping, spaghetti western flavor that sits just right in the program. But Horvitz saves the best for last, writing the title track to express the grief felt upon losing a loved one. With rich strings and beautiful horns (including a heart-breaking solo by Michael Cooke on bassoon), it’s a masterpiece of orchestration and storytelling, the perfect finale to a wondrous musical eulogy.
BY FRANK ALKYER Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam) We define musicians by the instruments they play. Darcy James Argue is one of those rare, magical artists whose instrument is the large ensemble. With Brooklyn Babylon, Argue’s latest recording with the 18-piece Secret Society, he answers the question of what’s next in jazz. First, there’s ambition. Writing, rehearsing and recording for this group is a massive undertaking handled with grace. Second, there’s vision. People ask, “What is jazz?” and God laughs. So does Argue. On Brooklyn Babylon, Argue refuses to be easily boxed and defined, except by one word: amazing. The entire world of music is at his fingertips, and he uses it all to conjure his idea of Brooklyn’s contemporary music scene. “Prologue” has the feel of a Balkan brass band. “Construction + Destruction” drives ominous and powerful, like a Hitchcock thriller. “Missing Parts” weaves classical overtones, Eastern European horn lines, Middle Eastern percussion, Josh Sinton’s wailing bari sax and a driving rhythm section—all in the span of five minutes. The best part is that it all makes perfect sense. “Grand Opening” begins as a march that would make J.P. Sousa proud but quickly darts into an ultra-modern composition where Erica von Kleist’s atmospheric flute solo is especially notable. Beyond the music itself, there’s the back-story. Argue conceived Brooklyn Babylon in collaboration with graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj, whose work evokes a mythic Brooklyn where the borough’s past, present and future collide. The music is an aptly fitting partner to the visual narrative. Argue debuted the multimedia piece live—complete with immense graphics—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011, and some of Zezelj’s artwork is incorporated into the killer packaging of the Brooklyn Babylon CD. For more insights into the project, check out the feature on Argue in the June issue of DownBeat. In the meantime, go get this album. It’s one for the ages.
BY AARON COHEN Oliver Lake Big Band, Wheels(Passin’ Thru) Alto saxophonist Oliver Lake has been putting together big bands sporadically since the late 1960s after taking courses with the great Oliver Nelson. Lake made a new commitment to running these large ensembles in 1998, and this disc illustrates how he has become an original voice for this format. His 17-minute “Wheels Suite” is written and arranged for all kinds of shifting dynamics, and “Clicker” revels in pulling out melodies from flaring dissonance. Yet Lake is also a great traditionalist, as evidenced by the upbeat “Philly Blues,” which sounds like a tribute to Benny Golson. The biggest blast here is the group’s uproarious cover of Outkast’s “The Whole World,” recast as a brass-heavy march (with a fine piano solo from Marc Cary). But it’s actually not much of a shock, considering the fact that Lake’s other band, the World Saxophone Quartet, explored the r&b songbook in the 1980s. Either way, this track ranks as the best-ever jazz cover of a hip-hop track. Somebody should find the finances to take this fantastic band on the road.
BY FRANK ALKYER Clay Swafford, Rooster(Lost Cause) Don’t be concerned if you don’t know who Clay Swafford is yet. You will soon enough. Rooster is the terrific debut album by this 29-year-old boogie-woogie and blues piano player. The disc has a throwback, barrelhouse feel with Swafford playing an old upright Weber piano that’s been miked and recorded with love, sweat and affection. But this isn’t just a rehash or nostalgia. It’s one of the best blues albums to come out in years, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a bounce in your stride. The program features a sweet collection of Swafford originals, like “Rooster’s Boogie,” “Olympia Strut” and “Messin’ Around Davenport,” where he displays incredible chops and a deep love for this truly American concoction. The best of the instrumentals, “Big Joe’s Stomp,” was written in tribute to Big Joe Duskin, the king of boogie-woogie piano out of Cincinnati, who passed away in 2007. It’s an impressive ode to an underappreciated artist and proof that Swafford, a native of rural Alabama, has dug deep and done his research. He’s also spent considerable time in the woodshed. Swafford’s chops are crazy throughout the set with a rock-solid left hand driving the bass and a fleet right handling breakneck melody passages. In between his instrumental blazes, Swafford offers some blues classics, employing the fantastic Diunna Greenleaf, who has to be in the conversation as one of our best living blues belters. She booms on tunes like Big Joe Turner’s “29 Ways,” Big Mama Thornton’s “Sometimes I Have Heartache” and Little Walter’s “You Better Watch Yourself.” The disc also has three bonus tracks of Swafford playing live with guests Bob Margolin and Bob Corritore. The whole of Rooster—front to back, top to bottom and side to side—shakes the floor and rattles the roof. Long live the blues!
BY HILARY BROWN Albert King, Born Under A Bad Sign(Stax Remasters) Albert King’s seminal 1967 disc Born Under A Bad Sign remains the calling card for one of blues’ most revered axmen. The album was an influential link between the soul and experimental rock scenes of the late 1960s. At the time, King’s pivotal collection of tracks was a cultural force to be reckoned with, resuscitating the dwindling blues audience and sparking the interest of heavy hitters such as Eric Clapton and a young Stevie Ray Vaughan. Five of the tracks on Bad Sign were recorded initially as singles, including the sultry King co-write “Personal Manager” and his first tune for Stax, a version of Sandy Jones’ “Laundromat Blues.” The Midas touch of King’s keyboard accomplice, 88-key dynamo Booker T. Jones, is irresistible. Teaming up with Jones and the rest of the top-notch Stax house band was a brilliant move that merged the guitarist’s blues licks with Southern-fried soul. Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. are airtight on a jaunty rendition of the Leiber & Stoller classic “Kansas City,” while a memorable, six-note unison line introduces the title track. Blues fans who have never heard this disc will be thunderstuck by King’s contrapuntal use of mile-high Gibson Flying V bends alongside his genuine, intimate vocals. King (1923–’92) was a blues sophisticate who sizzled as much on this album’s cookers as he did on its three heartfelt ballads. Although Bad Sign was reissued in 2002, the remastered version serves as a fresh reminder of the charmed yet bittersweet history of this famed Memphis-based label. The icing on the cake? Four alternate takes and an untitled instrumental that were excavated from deep within the Stax archives—all of which engineer Joe Tarantino has enriched without straying too far from the integrity of the original recordings.
BY AARON COHEN Enrico Pieranunzi, Live At The Village Vanguard(Cam Jazz) Pianist Enrico Pieranunzi created a formidable challenge for himself when he recorded these sets at New York’s Village Vanguard over two nights in July 2010. He enlisted bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Paul Motian, both veterans of Bill Evans’ trios (the venue itself was the home of the piano legend’s heralded live albums). But Pieranunzi sidesteps any easy comparisons to Evans and carves out his own musical identity throughout the disc. Out of the eight tracks, half are his own compositions and they’re all compelling. His “Fellini’s Waltz” is a lyrical ode to the filmmaker—it’s filled with the sort of surprising twists that the Italian director would have applauded. Pieranunzi’s “Pensive Fragments” offsets his deep melodic investigations with Motian’s fleet brush swipes. The pianist sounds bright and assertive on a rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” Recorded about a year-and-a-half before Motian’s passing, this disc is another reminder of the drummer’s inimitable approach—like in his controlled fury on the trio’s version of Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee.”
BY BOBBY REED Edward Simon Trio, Live In New York At Jazz Standard(Sunnyside) Edward Simon specializes in piano jazz with teeth. Each member of his trio is an improviser par excellence who can craft lilting beauty and combustive fireworks in equal doses. Joining the Venezuelan pianist on his first live album are drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci, who have played together in the Wayne Shorter Quartet for more than a decade, so they’re obviously fluent in the language of spontaneous invention. This program of three Simon originals—along with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Chovendo Na Roseira”—was recorded over the course of two nights in December 2010. The trio’s version of the Jobim tune, played in a 7/4 time signature, conveys a journey, a sense of searching and an unquenchable curiosity about what lies around the next bend. “Pathless Path” opens with Patitucci’s poignant arco work and later features a melodic section of plucked, rumbling bass notes that are so low they could cause a cheap pair of stereo speakers to convulse. On the Coltrane tune, Simon engages Blade in a conversation that includes three bursts of drumming commentary, each about 20 seconds long, and each more compelling that the last. Whether he’s working the bass drum or sizzling the hi-hat, Blade’s economical delivery illustrates how a series of brief comments can be just as exciting as an extended drum solo. Simon’s pianism is impressive throughout, shifting from muscular propulsion to elegant introspection. Recorded and mixed by Tom Lazarus, this concert disc eschews chatter and clatter but still makes listeners feel like they’re cozily seated inside the Jazz Standard.
BY BOBBY REED Bobby McFerrin,
spirityouall(Sony Masterworks) Bobby McFerrin is his own genre. Over the past 30 years, he has carved out a unique spot as a singer who defies categorization and often uses a wide array of wordless vocals. But on the album spirityouall, he focuses on traditional lyrics and pays tribute to his father, Robert McFerrin Sr.—a baritone who sang with the Metropolitan Opera Company, and who was a gifted interpreter of Negro spirituals. “I had the idea of taking some of my father’s pieces and reinterpreting them,” McFerrin said. “In the meantime, I had also been writing some pieces that had a spiritual bent, and so the album is a combination of originals, traditional spirituals and things I heard my father sing.” The program includes seven gospel standards (including “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho,” famously recorded by Mahalia Jackson), five originals and a version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” that illustrates just how powerful McFerrin can be when singing in a straightforward style. Among his bandmates on this Americana album are producer-arranger-keyboardist Gil Goldstein, guitarist Larry Campbell and bassist Esperanza Spalding, who contributes vocals to four tracks. Although this album is a successful change of pace for McFerrin, he doesn’t abandon the techniques he has perfected over the decades, such as the wordless vocals he adds to “Fix Me Jesus” and “Glory” or the multi-tracked harmonies he crafted for “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Rather than merely embrace the gospel tradition, McFerrin has extended it with original compositions, such as “25:15,” which was inspired by scripture (Psalm 25:15) and merges his layered vocals with Campbell’s blues-infused resonator guitar licks. On “Rest/Yes, Indeed,” the combination of Campbell’s instrumentation (violin, acoustic guitar and cittern), McFerrin’s catchy, overdubbed vocals, the clever shifts in time signatures and poetic lyrics that reflect a deep religious faith all result in a song that gospel artists will interpret for years to come. The tour page on McFerrin’s website lists upcoming dates at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (May 13), the Rudolfinum in Prague (June 19–20), Central Park Summerstage in New York (Aug. 20) and the Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif. (Sept. 21).
BY AARON COHEN Dur-Dur Band, Dur-Dur Band Volume 5(Awesome Tapes From Africa) Before civil war, Islamic extremists and pirates devastated Somalia, the country was home to a rich blend of folk and popular music. Mogadishu was a crossroads for sources from across East Africa and the Middle East, plus whatever tunes local radio DJs could acquire. The Dur-Dur Band rose to prominence in Somalia’s capital during the 1980s, and this recording from 1987 offers a valuable look into this lost artistic hotbed. Transferred from cassette, this disc shows a group that mixed Arabic melodic scales with cheerful disco and funk rhythms through a recognizably Western lineup of guitars, horns, drums and keyboards. The religious and romantic songs (translated here) may derive from centuries-old folklore, but they’re sung in a style that’s closer to Michael Jackson. Along with the Dur-Dur Band releases, this label has been conducting terrific work finding and releasing fascinating music from across Africa—everything from Guinean hip-hop to solo Ethiopian Orthodox monk harp performances. Check them all out at awesometapes.com.