Eva Cassidy: Autumn Leaves

A ballad performance such as this one sounds magical, as if the singer is casting a secret spell of enchantment on the audience. But behind Eva Cassidy's magic is her mastery of the microtonal nuances, the nudges between the notes, the hesitations and anticipations in pitch and rhythm, the continuations and disjunctions in her melodic line . . . in short, the attention to small details that make possible the larger-than-life performance on the stage. The end result sounds natural and unaffected, a straight connectivity between the inner spirit and voice, but this very sense of ease is part of the marvelous construction.

If you didn't listen carefully here, you might be tempted to write off the "Cassidy sensation"—which resulted in the sale of eight million CDs following the singer's death at age 33—as a response to the sad story of the singer's abbreviated life rather than as a measure of her artistry. But don't be mistaken, Cassidy was a huge talent, whose obscurity during her lifetime was almost as much a tragedy as her early death. This song has been sung so often that only a visionary of the highest order could bring back a springtime freshness to these yellowing leaves of fall. Yet listen to Cassidy, her voice and guitar lines locking together in a perfect embrace, and you will think this music had just been created anew on the stage of Blues Alley in this now deservedly famous performance.

March 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Eva Cassidy: Fields of Gold

When Eva Cassidy died from melanoma in 1996 at age 33, she was all but unknown as a performer. She labored in the fringes of the music world, but the industry knew her not—the execs and A&R gurus focused on trendier fare with more attitude, and were hardly interested in such compact, heartfelt music as one hears on this track. Cassidy had earned grudging respect through her backup work on projects in a range of styles, and had performed low-profile gigs in and around her hometown of Washington, D.C. But to support herself she also did landscaping, painting and worked for a nursery. This live recording at Blues Alley was a rare chance for Cassidy to present her music at the major local jazz venue.

After her death, Cassidy's small body of work spread far and wide by that best of methods, even more reliable as a guide to something special than a glowing review in the Times or The New Yorker—namely, word of mouth, the passionate advocacy of individual music lovers, each one anxious to share Cassidy's recordings with others. Eight million CDs were eventually sold in this amazing posthumous career turnabout. And Cassidy deserves every bit of this success. Even on the basis of her few recordings, she stands out as one of the great song interpreters of modern times. Her phrasing is sublime here, her technique absolutely sure, but most impressive of all is her preternatural ability to penetrate into the emotional center of a song. And it all sounds so deceptively simple. On that mythical desert island with the tiny CD case, I want this disk in my collection.

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Wynton Marsalis: Knozz-Moe-King

The title of the song may demand "No Smoking," but this band is clearly in violation of the city ordinance. In fact, if you are looking for a smokin' Wynton Marsalis performance, this track from the trumpeter's December 1986 engagement at Blues Alley is a good place to start. At age 25, Marsalis was playing with a technical mastery and burning energy that few horn players in the history of this music have ever matched. In a short while, Wynton would take on a more traditional approach, and enter into an Ellingtonian-ish phase of his career that still marks his music today. But there are no signs of that looming change on the Blues Alley date. Marsalis plays fast and hot, with long loping lines that feed off the rhythm section. And what a rhythm section! For sheer unbridled drive, it would be hard to top this combo. The piece is off in modal land, and is quite malleable; but Marsalis and company push it about as far as it will go without breaking. You can check out the other versions for comparison. (This is the longest—and fastest—of the three versions of "Knozz Moe King" from the Blues Alley album.)

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments


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