Diane Schuur (with Stan Getz): A Time for Love

Stan Getz prided himself on his skill as a talent scout—a role spurred both by his genuine interest in new sounds and stylists as well as his need to compensate for his personal indifference to composing, which forced him to seek out others who could provide him with fresh material for his interpretation. Over the decades, he helped advance the careers of Horace Silver, Chick Corea, Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gary Burton and others, and they in turn inspired him to some of the defining moments in his oeuvre. Late in life, he continued to look for emerging talent, and was especially excited by Diane Schuur, a vocalist whom he first heard at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1979 when she sat in with Dizzy and Stan and received a standing ovation from the audience. In the following months, Getz found opportunities for Schuur to perform with his band, and in 1982 brought the vocalist with him to the White House—an event which led to Schuur's signing with the GRP label, and her subsequent Grammy awards.

Getz joins Schuur on this track from her Timeless album, and his every contribution is perfectly matched to the emotional temper of the song, from his plaintive solo introduction to his moving solo to his austere coda. "Ballads intrigue me," Getz once told a journalist. "I let the mood do what it wants. I never intend to do anything, it just comes as the piece dictates." His obbligato accompaniment behind Schuur's vocal inspires comparisons with Getz's role model Lester Young, whose sax lines underscoring Billie Holiday's classic recordings are the gold standard by which all other such musical partnerships are measured. The singer, for her part, is more controlled than usual, and mostly avoids the shrillness that sometimes mars her work, except for a unfortunate lapse at the 4:11 mark. The arrangement is sweet without becoming saccharine, and the accompaniment is handled thoughtfully. But Getz is so creative, from start to finish, that he become de facto leader of the date.

September 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Some Of These Days

With his classic big band recording of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the basic formula for Louis Armstrong's arrangements was set: melodic interpretation on trumpet, solo break by a member of the band, vocal solo, another solo break, then big final trumpet chorus. Now, there's nothing wrong with a working formula, especially—as in Louis' case—when you're the first person to do it. His version of the evergreen "Some Of These Days" was made fairly early in the series and in this case, the formula was turned inside out. It sounds like the band is reading a stock arrangement which means that there's more for them to do than just accompany Louis. Still, Louis gets all of the solo space he normally had, just in a different order. After the saxophone intro, he sings first, and since the song was fairly well-known, he takes a lot of liberties with it. In fact, it almost sounds like he's singing in the wrong key for the first half of his chorus, but he's just singing an adventuresome variation of the melody. After a clumsy break by Jimmy Strong, Louis plays his first trumpet solo. In contrast to the vocal, he's fairly conservative, using a set of symmetrical phrases and closing with a hoochie-coochie riff that was part of the arrangement. The saxes have a variation and the playing is about as clean as any of Louis' backing groups of this period. Louis' final solo is a dazzling display which covers the entire range of the horn and peaks with a sustained high D-flat. Louis didn't favor his low register much, and on the non-vocal take also included on the above CD, we can hear why: in the same spot, Louis moves to the lower register and he gets covered up by the saxes. Within a few years, recording techniques would improve and there would be less of these balance issues. What is surprising is that the non-vocal version was issued (mostly outside of the US) even with the balance problem. While not the equal of the vocal version, the instrumental take is worth a listen.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Judy Niemack: Beautiful Love

Niemack is a singer's singer who has never quite achieved the name recognition she deserves. Her formal training, plus private lessons with Warne Marsh, gave her a foundation from which to develop a technically flawless and adventurous style. Her warm, clear, and powerful voice, and improvisational (scatting) and composing abilities comprise elements of a complete jazz musician who just happens to use her voice as primary instrument or means of expression. Those who may remember her 1989 and 1992 recordings with Cedar Walton (Blue Bop) and Kenny Barron (Heart's Desire), respectively, will be delighted to learn that Niemack is, if anything, better than ever in the year 2009, as shown by her new (and 10th) CD, For the Sundance.

Her duet with bassist Rufus Reid on "Beautiful Love" is a stark, definitive example of what Niemack is all about. Her understated wordless intro is bolstered by Reid's sensitive and continuing commentary. The singer glides seamlessly into the standard's lyrics, her pliant voice shaping each phrase in a fresh and inventive manner. Niemack's scatted solo that follows is made that much more effective by the harmonic base she has established previously in her melodic exposition. She concludes by reexamining the lyrics even more creatively, this time breaking up the tempo and effortlessly revamping the expected phrase lengths in ways that are totally musical and invigorating, and never over the top. This is a masterfully realized duet performance, and essential listening for those already hip--or new to--Judy Niemack.

August 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Beck and Laura Theodore: What More Can A Woman Do?

Golden Earrings was Joe Beck’s final recording, as he had succumbed to lung cancer in 2008. His absence from the jazz universe is sorely felt. Beck’s innovative approach helped to expand the sonic boundaries of jazz guitar, as evidenced in the wet, rich, and slightly percussive tone of his guitar work on stellar dates with a wide spectrum of artists — from jazz pillars like Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich to singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon and Laura Nyro. In this unique, satisfying tribute to the songwriting team of Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour, he joins forces with chanteuse supérieur Laura Theodore and the result is a fine farewell, indeed.

Joe Beck was a master of the hybrid alto guitar (featured on other cuts from this album), which allowed him greater harmonic range while covering the functions of the bass. But here the Martin CF-1 also works well within the context of this guitar/vocal duo, sounding almost as rich as a fat archtop. On this track Beck’s sparing use of studio enhancement only emphasizes the lush substitutions which give his Martin an orchestral feel, actually serving to underscore the ballad’s intimacy. His lines are confident, authoritative, and well-situated between reference chords as he solos without really needing any other accompaniment. Laura Theodore’s sultry voice and relaxed phrasing fit snugly with the spontaneity of Beck’s guitar throughout the piece and do justice to Peggy Lee’s poignant, ultra cool ballad.

August 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Hello Dolly

A bystander at the recording session notes that Louis Armstrong shook his head in dismay when looking over the music to "Hello Dolly," an unknown song (at the time) that the trumpeter was simply performing to please long-time manager Joe Glaser. Glaser must have been repaying a favor to someone—certainly this repetitive tune with the simple-minded lyric from a Broadway show that still hadn't opened was no gift to Armstrong. Yet Louis was a consummate showman and seasoned veteran of many sessions, and delivered the tune with so much enthusiasm that one might have concluded that he was the one who had concocted the whole idea. Even the old-timey banjo, overdubbed by a producer looking to add a little more "period charm" to the song, can't detract from the charisma of New Orleans' most famous musical ambassador. A few weeks later the song was a hit, and by May a 62-year-old trumpeter had pushed the Beatles out of the top spot on the Billboard chart. This artist had never enjoyed such a big hit, and never would again. No, this is not Louis Armstrong's finest moment, and will merely distract newbies trying to understand why this artist had such a substantial impact on American music. Yet when a musician of this stature has a surprise commercial success, the only proper response for the rest of us is to cheer loudly. Louis at the top of the charts? Hey, it's so nice to have you back where you belong!

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gretchen Parlato: Butterfly

Since taking first place in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocals Competition back in 2004, Gretchen Parlato has been making believers out of a growing group of admirers—in whose ranks you will find Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Barron, among others. The usual next step for an artist of this stature is a blowout, overproduced CD filled with famous guest artists and fluffy arrangements. Instead Parlato attempts something far riskier here, and the results are simply stunning.

This is one of the most under-produced, intimate jazz vocal recordings you will ever hear—it sounds like it was conceived in a NY apartment building with thin walls where the musicians need to play at a whisper so neighbors won't complain. But Parlato blossoms in the quiescence, delivering a pristine performance that refuses to follow the predictable path at any point. Her intonation is flawless, as it needs to be in this setting, where there is no place for a singer to hide. There's no bass, no keyboards, and only the singer's handclapping for percussion . . . but Lionel Loueke is there at every breath and phrase, matching Parlato's singing perfectly, yet also challenging her with his own unexpected twists and turns. He sometimes seems on the brink of entering some strange polytonal set of alternative changes, but Parlato dances over the turbulence like the lepidoptera commemorated in the song title.

This track, and the entire recording, are built on what the music industry always promises but rarely delivers: a singer with a breathtakingly fresh approach and a daring personal style that stands out from the crowd. This CD is in frequent rotation on my home sound system, and will probably stay there for quite some time. I'm not sure if the general public is ready for Gretchen Parlato—music like this is usually kept off the airwaves of mainstream radio stations—but in a way she reminds me of some other understated singers (Astrud Gilberto, Chet Baker, Kenny Rankin) who became surprise crossover stars. So who knows?

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dee Alexander: This Bitter Earth

If indeed the cream rises to the top, it's inevitable that Dee Alexander, who has already won local awards recognizing her immense talent in her native city of Chicago, should soon receive similar accolades internationally. Her third CD, Wild is the Wind, is quite simply one of the very best releases by a jazz singer so far in 2009. On it, Alexander acknowledges two of her inspirations, with powerful interpretations of three tunes associated with Nina Simone, as well as "This Bitter Earth," first recorded by Dinah Washington in 1959. Washington's version came after she had entered her commercial period, and is hindered by her emotionally restrained delivery and a plodding string arrangement.

Alexander, on the other hand, lets it all out, with vocal inflections, nuances, and other devices that at times recall not only Dinah, but Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Ernestine Anderson--but at little cost to and without diminishing her own unmistakable musical personality. (Wilson, Franklin, and James also recorded the tune.) Alexander sings "This Bitter Earth" at a deliberate tempo that allows her to stretch and savor notes and syllables, and artfully utilizes space for dramatic effect. Mike Logan's piano accompaniment is strictly old school, soulful and patiently appropriate, and his solo has a Gene Harris flair and glow. Alexander's stunning command is reaffirmed when she revisits the lyrics, putting her final stamp on them with a succulent held-note falsetto. Just listen to this track and her treatment of "Wild is the Wind" and you will be forever hooked on this vital singer.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Fine And Mellow

“I summed up all existence in an epigram,” Oscar Wilde once bragged; Lester Young doesn’t quite capture all existence in his single 36-second blues chorus, but he certainly sums up his entire musical life in those few flawless phrases. Even today, 50 years after his death, Young’s economy is still startling: listening to the busy, swooping Ben Webster solo that precedes him leaves one quite unprepared for what Prez will do.

There is little to add to the legend of Young and Holiday’s last performance together: how they staked out positions on opposite sides of the room during rehearsal, then locked eyes during Young’s broadcast solo as the producers looked on and wept; how they were both ravaged from hard living and would be dead within less than two years. Their art was intact, and for those few minutes on national television, the two old friends and partners once again put light into each other’s lives.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Time On My Hands

Although he was amongst the most celebrated jazz soloists of the era, Lester Young takes no solo on “Time on My Hands.” Instead, the song reveals him to be a remarkable accompanist. The song begins as a call-and-response duet between Holiday and trumpeter Eldridge, who gives an intro and then adds embellishments at the end of each of the singer’s lines. On the bridge, however, Eldridge falls away and Young enters: not with responses, but in countermelody. The weighty sadness with which Holiday already croons suddenly takes on new depth, with Young’s saxophone gently sobbing behind her. He’s also well off-mike, so that he amplifies Lady Day’s grief and sorrow without ever competing for the spotlight. Considering the stars he is competing against for space on the record—Eldridge and Teddy Wilson, both of whom turn in sterling solos—it’s quite a selfless act. Whether he did it for the record or for Billie, we can’t say…but it’s irrelevant, since his backgrounds make both of them better.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Dark Rapture

“Dark Rapture” is a taut showpiece for singer Helen Humes that ranks among the glossiest productions of the early Basie years. Not coincidentally, it’s also among the least typical: There are no riffs, no blues, the call-and-response lines are reduced to short fills, and though Basie is listed as pianist, his trademark tinkling is nowhere to be heard. There are, however, two factors that inject some character into the proceedings: Humes’ exquisite control and enthusiasm, which together allow for some remarkable vocal gymnastics—check out her reading of the final line,The thrill that fills the still of a Congo night—and eighteen smoky bars by Lester Young that add a mysterious, noir-ish dimension to an already dark and dramatic performance. (In essence, he scores the scene in which Bogart would walk into the crowded but dimly lit nightclub and spy Lauren Bacall on the dance floor; the only thing missing is the movie.) Kansas City blues it ain’t, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson (with Billie Holiday): Say It With A Kiss

If there be any doubt that Prez and Lady Day were musical soulmates, one listen to their work together on “Say It With A Kiss” should settle the question. Holiday’s subtlety and velvet tone on her vocal chorus echo through Young’s eight bars; even with Harry James’ brilliant golden exclamations interpolating, the two can’t help but to be of a piece. What Young can’t replicate, however, is the sly, winking quality in Holiday’s delivery—which is only augmented by her reshaping of the melody. Instead, he plays out the tune’s fundamental sweetness on his axe, thus complementing Lady Day even as he reinforces her. Everything, in other words, that soulmates are supposed to do.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World

Major label executives, producers and (quite possibly) Washington insiders envisioned a new direction for Louis Armstrong once producer Bob Thiele brought him into the studio for this session. Sounding like a hardened lobbyist with greater political aspirations, this "contemporary" version of "What a Wonderful World" swings uncharacteristically amidst Armstrong's strange reflections upon society.

Intoning as if he is sitting back in a rocking chair as an old grandpa smoking a pipe filled with tobacco, he says, "Some of you young folks been saying to me, "hey, Pops, what you mean what a wonderful world," continuing, "How 'bout all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful?" A quick change in tone finds him pleading with listeners, stumping for public support for a message which is the exact same as John Lennon's ("Give Peace a Chance").

My first reaction is one of disappointment, for I was unaware that this was not the original version until I heard it. As a result, my second (and final) reaction is to wonder who the "young folks" that turned to Louis Armstrong for political leadership in the late 1960s were and if they knew what brand of youthful folly they were dabbling with by doing so.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Etta James & Eddie Cleanhead Vinson: Please Send Me Someone To Love

No truth in advertising here. James and Vinson sing together on just one track on each of the two CDs drawn from a live club date in 1986. Perhaps that was for the best, because Etta is in magnificent form and Eddie, through no fault of his own, can't quite match her. In their careers, both artists proved comfortable performing R&B, blues, and jazz, and here they unite for a priceless version of Percy Mayfield's R&B classic, "Please Send Me Someone to Love." The live atmosphere is electric, as the supper club crowd is obviously psyched.

After a transfixing blues guitar intro by Shuggie Otis, James and Vinson alternate verses, and Etta's more intense style contrasts nicely with Eddie's much more laid-back delivery. James' quavers, melismas, and biting inflections seem to elicit a greater reaction from the audience than Vinson's vocals, which sound like a combination of Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock. Unfortunately, "Cleanhead" doesn't play his boppish alto on this track, but Red Holloway's tenor solo more than makes up for that, offering a soulfully unrestrained lesson in blues saxophone eloquence. For two nights in May of 1986, James and Vinson gave those in attendance at Marla's Memory Lane Supper Club a time to always remember, even if they only rarely shared the bandstand.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: This Black Cat Has 9 Lives

Talk about sloganeering. On one of the weirdest straightforward jazz recordings of all time, Louis "Pops" Armstrong interprets a cachet of lyrics that, on the surface, refer to the perceived unluckiness of black cats. According to the song, they continue to survive amidst a myriad of challenges and obstacles.

However, upon deeper inspection, a simile arises between the befallen animal and that of black Americans during the Civil RIghts era. That this somewhat dispirited recording was cut in 1970 is telling, but forced, idiosyncratic lyrics such as "falls down time and again/gets hung up and never wins/that's his history, my friend" will lead you to believe that this whole misconceived junket was not his idea.

The "hip" production style, which fuses Armstrong's growl with cheerful and frothy big-band backing, ultimately exposes how flat and ill sounding Armstrong's voice was at the time of this session, and further verification that Pops was obviously out for the pay comes to light when considering his background. Who knew that Armstrong, a poor black man born in total impoverishment in the New Orleans of 1901, even cared or knew this much about politics and race relations anyway?

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Patrick Rydman: Only the Devil

While the vocals on Patrick Rydman's "Only the Devil" charm in an indie sort of way, the music incorporates an invigorating Flamenco sketch with upfront vocals that sound influenced by contemporaries such as Harry Connick, Jr.

The image that springs to mind is that of the smooth, romantic everyman-much like Chris Isaak. Fittingly, this recording utilizes many of the same elements that comprised the recordings cut during Isaak's heyday-mainly, brassy arrangements, tons of backing vocals, and confident, swinging percussion that dons the edges. In fact, this track is effective on the very same level, as it is meant for pop consumption with its most enduring aspect being its crisp compositional sense and a professional construction that, in the right hands, could potentially find recognition.

The whole package seems to mirror legendary jazz images from years past, from the Blue Note inspired CD cover design to the retro sounding music inside (the CD itself resembles a vinyl LP and a case could be made that this music is also influenced by popular music recorded during the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era). There is an audience for it that consists of, for the most part, high earners who carry Blackberries and frequent Starbucks.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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