Patricia Barber: Laura

Patricia Barber always puts a few surprises into her songs -- odd poetic phrases, unusual cultural references, layers of irony or ambiguity, or strange musical bric-a-brac. But the big surprise on this track is that she sings it absolutely straight. Yes, Barber the traditional chanteuse comes to the fore here, and contents herself with tapping into the inherent beauty of Raksin's melody and the smart Mercer lyric. And she does it very, very well. If Barber ever decides to abandon her role as the postmodern philosopher of jazz vocals, she could always find a second career as a singer of standards.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: My One and Only Love

Early 1963 marked a tumultuous time in the U.S., especially in Alabama. First, new Governor George Wallace seized the moral low ground, vowing: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" Then sit-ins began in Birmingham, culminating in Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing police dogs on demonstrators. Amidst this turbulence, Coltrane & Hartman's 5-minute ballad of "sweet surrender" became an island of sanity in a deranged sea. It was a refuge that Coltrane himself would soon abandon, but for one brief moment the stillness, "like an April breeze on the wings of spring," was a welcome respite. So it remains.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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J.J. Johnson: What's New

Rightly renowned for his incomparable technique, J.J. Johnson is often wrongly overlooked as a balladeer. Here, using a cup mute, J.J. displays a tonal purity matched by no other jazz trombonist, and a lyricism second to none. J.J. often expressed admiration for Billie Holiday, whose haunting 1955 recording of this song may be reflected in J.J.'s own heartfelt soliloquy two years later. Johnson, though, was always his own man, and this urbane interpretation is in no way derivative. With sensitive support from a stellar cast, J.J. justifies the title of Columbia's compilation: not "A" trombone master, but The Trombone Master.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ben Webster: Tenderly

Hey, I'm only writing about jazz till there's an opening in Romance Novels. You may not realize it, but RNs generate $1.4 billion in sales annually. Plus, unlike jazz, they're recession-proof. I mention this because "Tenderly" strikes me as an RN in disguise. Ben Webster is an RN's dream, an archetypal hairy-chested brute with a soft spot for heaving bodices. His manly tenor ravishes with fluttery allusions to sighing breeze, trembling trees, mists, kisses and breathless caresses, interspersed with crashing waves, wet shores and lips taken willfully to keep those bodices heaving. (Excuse me, gotta run. Harlequin is calling!)

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Summer Night

This is a hidden gem in the Miles Davis discography, a dark and moody ballad performance that got lost in the shuffle -- inserted as an extra track to fill up some space on Quiet Nights, the least well known of the Miles Davis - Gil Evans LPs. But "Summer Night" deserves a prominent place on any list of Davis's most emotionally charged performances. Here Miles returns to the ethos of King Oliver and Bubber Miley, pioneers who showed back in the 1920s that the quality of sound is always more important than the quantity of notes. This is also my favorite Victor Feldman performance. He makes every note, every chord, every pause count for maximum effect. "I wanted [Feldman] to join the band," Davis later wrote in his autobiography, "but he was making a fortune playing studio work in LA. I came back to New York looking for a piano player. I found him in Herbie Hancock." So Davis heads off into the sunset with his great mid-1960s band, and Feldman mixes it up with Steely Dan, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. But this moment when their paths intersected left us this classic performance.

November 29, 2007 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: A Ballad

As chief arranger and co-principal soloist, Gerry Mulligan helped deliver Miles Davis's obstetric triumph Birth of the Cool (1949-50). Three years later and on the opposite coast, Mulligan added a second trumpet and baritone sax to the 1950 BOTC octet lineup for an ad hoc "Tentette" that proved nearly as influential as the earlier band. Gerry contributes a lovely solo to this track, but its appeal is his gorgeous arrangement, answering Gil Evans's miraculous "Moon Dreams" chart for BOTC. "A Ballad" is deficient only in its title—rather like naming your newborn "A Baby." Otherwise it's three minutes of perfection.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Norah Jones: The Nearness of You

Almost from the release of her debut CD, critics carped that Norah Jones was not a “real jazz singer.” Students of the music’s history know that this criticism has been leveled at many of the greatest jazz performers of the last century, and is usually a signal that something interesting is afoot. Jones is, in fact, an exemplary jazz singer, and anyone who doubts it should listen to her sing an old ballad with just her own piano playing as accompaniment – as she does on this rendition of a Hoagy Carmichael standard. Her interpretation here is exquisite and heartfelt, and proves that Jones is the real deal whether handling contemporary material or (as on this track) a 70-year-old ballad.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: I Want to Talk About You


   John Coltrane, photo by Herb Snitzer

“I Want to Talk About You” is a pretty little Billy Eckstine ballad through which Coltrane weaves an increasingly daring solo, splashing a torrent of notes onto the backdrop provided by his nonpareil rhythm section, which was particularly hot on this night at the club Birdland. The real magic, though, begins five minutes into the tune, when the rhythm section drops out and Coltrane is left to blow unaccompanied. His lines are so fluid, so majestic, that it is easy to forget that a quartet was ever there. The drums and bass are gone, but the beat remains. The piano is gone, but the melody is right there behind Coltrane’s harmonizing. These three jaw-dropping minutes rank among the most blissful of Coltrane’s career.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ben Webster: In the Wee Small Hours

Nobody's balladry differed more from his up-tempo style than Ben Webster's. On jump tunes, Big Ben growled and snarled like a ravenous rottweiler mistaking your leg for lunch. On ballads, he turned as breathy and fluttery as a butterfly's sigh. (They don't?) Anyhow, this pensive late-night plaint introduced in 1955 by Frank Sinatra is best heard as you lie awake alone with an antique clock quietly ticking in the background while the rest of the world is fast asleep. "When your lonely heart has learned its lesson," goes the lyric, "that's the time you miss her most of all."

November 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Mark Murphy: Skylark / You Don't Know What Love Is

How many singers have performed at this high level in their seventies? Aspiring jazz vocalists should not just listen to this recording - they need to study it. There is not a single facile or uninspired phrase in this six-and-a-half minute performance. Murphy floats behind the beat or hurries ahead; he bends the notes both ways, and measures the tolerances in microns. He coos and whispers and even howls, crazy like a loon; sometimes sighing sweetly, like a nightingale serenading the moon. And though you will marvel at the vocal, don't ignore producer Till Brönner, a trumpeter and flugelhornist of real distinction. Even if (like me) you already own a stack of Murphy CDs, find a place in your collection for this release.

October 31, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: Lush Life

If you know someone who hates jazz, try an experiment. Secure a rope, tie that person to a chair (not too tight) and play "Lush Life" for them. Don’t forget your stopwatch to measure how quickly their expression dissolves from resentment to bliss. The folks at Guinness World Records keep track of such things. Cynics may dismiss this song about "jazz and cocktails" as make-out music, with more atmosphere than oxygen. But it boggles the mind that a youthful Strayhorn could write so profoundly, just as the mature Hartman's romantic baritone boggles the heart. (Hart-man indeed!) "Lush Life" is make-out music for the gods.

October 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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