Sergio Mendes: The Look of Love

It must be tiring to build your career by jumping on trends. Sergio Mendes has been doing just that for 40 years. He followed the U.S. craze for Brazilian music back in the 1960s, late to the party but still able to parlay it into substantial sales. He came up with the brilliant(?) idea of adding dates to the names of his bands (Brasil 65 or Brasil 66 or Brasil 77) to make sure everyone knew he was keeping up with the times. And now in 2008, he mixes in rap and programming and anything else he can beg, borrow or steal. But the song itself is a 1967-vintage tune, dustier than Dusty Springfield, that Mendes recorded as a Top 10 hit 40 years ago. But (did I say this already?) he has brought it up-to-date with some trendy gimmicks.

Now for the good news . . . Mendes possesses genuine talent and a great feel for commercial music. His records are usually smartly produced and quite listenable. Moreover, the lounge music revival of recent years plays to his strength, which is to craft a higher class of chill-out music. This critic wishes that he had taken a more artistic path over the decades, rather than sniffing out the money trail. I have listened to many of his recordings, enjoying them at times, but I still get no feel for his personal vision or character. Sergio Mendes might be the name of a corporation or syndicate for all the individuality of these tracks. But you have to take these CDs as they come to you. In this instance, Mendes has crafted a very clever arrangement with a potent beat. This disk has earned coveted shelf space on your local Starbucks counter, and I can envision legions of commuters bouncing brightly behind their steering wheels as Sergio Mendes guides them on their way to work. Well done, Mr. Mendes.

But what will you do next year?

June 17, 2008 · 1 comment


The Bad Plus: This Guy's In Love With You

Cocktail lounge music from hell? No, it's just The Bad Plus playing games with a song that is best kept locked inside elevators and dental practices. This Bacharach and David tune was never cool. After all, it was debuted by Herb Alpert (of Tijuana Brass fame) on a TV show. Herb Alpert is to cool what kryptonite is to Superman. But this trio doesn't put "Bad" in their name for nothing. They like to play up the hokey elements in songs like this -- check out how they rev up the overwrought part near the end of melody -- but occasionally mixing in some radical jazz elements to show that they -- The Bad Plus -- are above it all. I usually prefer my songs played straight and with real emotion, but when I want a dose of postmodern, deconstructionist jazz, this band gets the nod. A fun outing from the most irreverent trio in jazz.

December 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Brad Mehldau: Alfie

One of the curses of jazz pianists is that they are forced to share their repertoire with cocktail lounge tinklers and elevator Muzak maestros. Some jazz musicians are so dismayed by this state of affairs that they refuse to play many of the best-known standards -- especially those composed after 1960 when hip chord changes became an endangered species. Most of them would rather work through Czerny backwards or play Hanon with mittens on before tainting their fingers with Bacharach or the Beatles. But Brad Mehldau plunges bravely into the world of pop tunes, playing more Bacharach than Bird, more McCartney than Monk. But he puts these songs through an exemplary purification rite, stripping them of the vapid flourishes and empty gestures that your local bar piano man might employ. The end result is a pristine "Alfie," beautiful in its starkness, and without any excessive sentimentality. This, my friends, is harder than playing "Cherokee" in all twelve keys. Ballard's brushwork is sublime, and Grenadier's time as reliable as a Patek Phillipe watch.

November 30, 2007 · 0 comments


Roland Kirk: Alfie

Yet another great movie theme from my youth evoking melancholy and ennui addressed by one of the great musicians/characters of his day. While Kirk may be better known for his persona and extended techniques (circular breathing and playing multiple instruments at one time), down deep his poetic take on this Bacharach/David piece is awe-inspiring. As is often the case with artists of this caliber, you hear the history of the jazz saxophone interspersed with the unique voiceprint of the individual. The band’s sensitivity is top-notch throughout with Boykins standing out in particular. Dig the trick ending!

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: This Guy's in Love with You

The schmaltzy Burt Bacharach/Hal David pop song “This Guy’s in Love with You” was for a while something of a jazz standard (and it’s coming around again, with new versions by the Bad Plus and others). Its most natural-sounding incarnation is the one recorded by Jimmy Smith’s trio at an Atlanta club in 1968. Despite the recording’s obvious flaw – the inconsiderate crowd at Paschal’s La Carousel is heard talking throughout the tune – the trio puts on a soul-jazz master class. Donald Bailey’s drumming is clean and crisp, and George Benson’s smooth genius on the guitar is already on display. Smith lays low at first, holding down chords for Benson, and then comes alive with a solo that throws every conceivable B-3 idea at the chart.

October 28, 2007 · 0 comments


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