Chick Corea & Bela Fleck: Senorita

On an airy but intense duet between Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, "Senorita" manages to sound like a relatively authentic Latin instrumental. While the track does maintain that certain Corea musical mark that stamps most of his recordings, neither player boldly crosses the line into abstractness, and the cohesion helps the music achieve its aims.

Compositionally, the track is indicative of the meeting place between Spanish-oriented sounds and the rootsy Americana found within the bluegrass genre, and the stylistic fusion is a perfect fit. Corea and Fleck both utilize staccato approaches when playing their respective instruments, and the resultant percussiveness effectively replaces what could have easily been a stereotypical Mestizo rhythm section tracked underneath.

As the pair trades off solos, it all sounds effortless as the liquidity of the shared space is punctuated by the fact that the production is so sympathetic to each individual phrase. Both players comfortably check their egos outside the recording studio, performing music that resonates with highly desirable freshness and heartfelt sensitivity. For any single Corea note cluster, a Fleck flourish exists, and their double-edged banter is quite engaging.

June 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Lurie: Pinjur

Jessica Lurie's open-ended music is hard to categorize but easy to like. "Pinjur" is a case in point. Atop a loping beat, Lurie's alto sax and Brandon Seabrook's banjo combine for a klezmer-like unison line that may never have been played this way at a Polish wedding, but would sound pretty cool at one anyway. Seabrook later uses his banjo as an extra percussion instrument, producing hearty strums at one point and skittering atonal plucks at the breakdown point. Bassist Todd Sickafoose's funky pulse eventually brings the tune back to its Slavic theme, where Lurie and Seabrook again unite in perfect harmony.

Eastern European banjo whack jazz? Hey, I'm down for that!

March 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Béla Fleck & The Flecktones: Scratch & Sniff

Let's get down and funky, Weather Report-style with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones! "Scratch & Sniff," you say? OK. Well, there's a little Weather Report in the intro and a lot of Flecktones the rest of the way in this down-&-dirty bass-dominated cut. Bassist Victor Wooten takes the spotlight, offering up several different funk recipes. Gutbucket stuff. There is some electronic noise and jazz sax wailing from Jeff Coffin. Steel pan player Andy Narell engages in call-&-response and unison playing. Fleck's banjo arpeggios, which he always seems to prefer over single-note runs, are prevalent. One of those arpeggios is joined by his compadres and played over and over, faster and faster, louder and louder. It sounds real cool and powerful. If you can have fun and play strong music at the same time, you should go for it. These guys do that pretty much every time out.

March 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Béla Fleck & The Flecktones: Hall of Mirrors

As a fan, I am happy when a favorite jazz artist is nominated for a Grammy. But I always get suspicious. If the mainstream Grammy people are digging what I dig, there's got to be a problem. And let's face it, if a jazz album has special guests from the pop world like Sting, Bon Jovi, Diddy, or Beyoncé, it is almost guaranteed to be nominated. Think Herbie Hancock and 2007's Grammy Record of the Year. I have yet to hear that album. It is probably quite good. But I assure you the same album without popular mainstream stars Norah Jones, Tina Turner or Joni Mitchell on it would not have been nominated. As a jazz fan, that really burns my butt. Béla Fleck & The Flecktones' Outbound won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz album. One of the recording's guest stars is pop vocalist and Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin. "Here we go," I think to myself as I look at the cover askance.

"Hall of Mirrors" proves my concerns were unfounded. The intro is a bit spacey and esoteric for the Flecktones. I soon discover that Colvin's voice is used as an instrument. She sings no words. She is a sprightly woodwind playing along with Jeff Coffin's sax and Béla Fleck's banjo on the piece's singsong melody. We are back in Flecktones territory. I catch a bit of Medeski's B-3 at the end. But for the most part the heavy-duty musicians on this cut must be adding textures and shades, since you don't hear much from them. Perhaps they did their thing in the spacey intro. This is a catchy number replete with an ingratiating theme and fun attitude that should please most listeners.

March 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko: Ninka Nanka

The banjo is unfairly tainted in the mind of the general public—who probably know the instrument best from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies or perhaps the film Deliverance. But the next time you hear someone shout out "Squeal like a pig" when the banjo starts to play, remind the ruffian that in Africa this instrument has a royal lineage.

Or better yet, point the culprit in the direction of the CD Africa to Appalachia, which is the fruit of banjoist Jayme Stone's time in Mali exploring the historical antecedents of his instrument. The kora is closer to the harp than the banjo, yet the pairing of Stone with Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko is an inspired idea. An arcane and still mostly unwritten history lies hidden behind the instruments assembled here, but their combination creates a fresh sound that is neither African nor Appalachian. The track opens with a free-flowing mood piece, an ethereal marriage of string sounds, but in the final 1½ minutes the tempo picks up into a strange type of holistic hoedown. Then at the very close a flamenco flavor enters, all too briefly, before the performance comes to a sudden halt—leaving this listener for one wanting more.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Evans (sax): Jean Pierre

Bill Evans (sax) seems to have found a genre that is pleasing to him musically and offers some lucrative opportunities not usually afforded progressive or fusion sax players. He takes bluegrass music, mixes it with jazz, a little funk and a little bit o'soul to create a rich gumbo. The degree to which you accept this music is probably related to the proportion of bluegrass, jazz, funk and soul used in the recipe. The Grammy people seemed to like it. Soulgrass received a nomination. To me, the roux is a bit over-spiced with bluegrass. But perhaps it is an acquired taste. At any rate, there is enough good music coming through the aroma to try some extra sips.

"Jean Pierre" provides some jazz and bluegrass common ground. Evans (sax) played this tune many times with its composer Miles Davis. I am quite sure Miles never had a banjo player perform the opening bars. The sing-songy melody is evocatively captured by Evans (sax) the same way he did when he was in Miles's band. He is truly an impressive player. On this "Jean Pierre," he often doubles-up with fiddler Stuart Duncan. A contrapuntal section leads to a fluttering funk sax solo. Then short turns are given to fiddler Duncan and banjoist Leos. Wooten supplies a thick funk base. The tune is boiling over the pot now. Stir. Stir again. Take a spoonful. Blow it off. Have a taste. Miles would.

April 07, 2008 · 2 comments


Béla Fleck: The Sinister Minister

In the early days of fusion, one could never imagine that some day one of its more popular exponents would be playing a banjo. John McLaughlin pulled one out with the One Truth Band for a number. But aside from that one-off, there were no banjos to be found anywhere. It's not just about the banjo. Who would have expected that bluegrass music would find its way into fusion music? There is a slight lineage from the Southern jazz-rock of the Dixie Dregs. But still, there was no banjo or bluegrass. It took Béla Fleck, among others, to do that.

"Sinister Mister" is really a showcase for bassist Wooten. His walking electric bass sounds more like he is skipping down the street gathering up the kids for a game. It is immediately infectious. It grabs you at the beginning and never lets you go. Levy's harmonica also beckons. There may be a sinister tone to all this, but it is fun sinister, like the Munsters. Béla takes a lighthearted solo: no heavy lifting. To be honest, on this number, there is more blues than bluegrass. At the break, Wooten does some real cool bass stuff before the musicians put their instruments down to get the game started.

Nowadays, we have what is known as "newgrass." This is progressive bluegrass music that contains elements of fusion. Who would have thunk it? Well, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and some others, that's who.

March 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Otis Taylor: Absinthe

If you want to check out the new masters of acoustic blues, go no farther: many of them are on this track. Here we find Keb Mo (and his son K2), Alvin Youngblood Hart, and above all the amazing Otis Taylor. No one can vamp with more hypnotic intensity than Mr. Taylor, and on "Absinthe" he demonstrates again his ability to craft a powerful performance out of the simplest musical materials. Not since John Lee Hooker, has a blues player been so totally in the groove. "Absinthe" is part of Taylor's banjo project, which is a fine release. But if you haven't heard this musician before, start out with some of this guitar work - for example, his great "My Soul's in Louisiana." But do check this artist out.

March 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Eugene Chadbourne: Eleanor Rigby

I listened to this version of "Eleanor Rigby" and couldn't figure out if Chadbourne & Co. were playing it in major or minor. I listened again, and still couldn't decide. I'm not sure Eugene Chadbourne ever quite made up his mind. Maybe we should check with Paul and Yoko. Then again, fidelity to the original spirit of the music is not a high priority with this band. Elsewhere on the same CD, for example, we are regaled with "The Girl from Al-Qaeda" set to the music of your least favorite cocktail lounge song. (At least, Chadbourne is generous enough to credit "Getz / Jobim" as co-composers.) I might be old-fashioned . . . but I still think you should make sure your bandmates agree on the chord changes before you record the song. Nonetheless, Chadbourne will have his fans, especially among those who prefer Joseph Spence to Wes Montgomery, and Ed Wood to Orson Welles. If you fall into that category, you better not tell Paul and Yoko. They might want to put a stop to all this fun.

December 22, 2007 · 1 comment


Chick Corea & Béla Fleck: Brazil

Jazz fans have enjoyed this composition in many versions, both jazz arrangements such as Chick Corea's solo piano rendition, or when played (usually under the title "Aquarela do Brasil") by many of the leading Brazilian musicians of the last half century. This standard is so well known and beloved in Brazil that a panel of experts picked it as the "Brazilian song of the century" back in 1997. I can't remember asking for a version featuring banjo . . . but maybe that just shows my lack of imagination. Even so, I became the biggest believer in Brazilian banjo jazz after hearing Béla Fleck and Chick Corea work their wonders on Barroso's delightful composition. For several years now I have been suggesting that many of the most exciting developments in jazz will increasingly be found in various fusions with 'World Music' styles. But sometimes even I am surprised where these cross-fertilizations lead. Fleck and Corea's take on "Brazil" is one of those happy discoveries.

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments


Béla Fleck: Arkansas Traveller

Once the official state song, "Arkansas Traveler" was demoted to historical status because of its unflattering portrait of a lazy rube content to fiddle in a cabin full of puddles rather than mend his leaking roof. Needless to say, this isn't the image of modern industriousness the tourist bureau seeks to promote. Obligingly, Béla Fleck omits the lyrics for an instrumental reversion to the pre-Civil War tune that reeks nonetheless of rustic charm. With bassist Meyer's strong support, Fleck recreates the simplicity of a quiet backwoods afternoon without impugning the dynamism of a state that, after all, gave us Wal-Mart.

November 19, 2007 · 1 comment


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