Fred Hersch: Insensatez

If a young pianist asked my advice about recording a solo album of Jobim tunes, I would strongly suggest the choice of any other composer—Scriabin, Zez Confrey, Billy Joel—in lieu of one more painful bossa nova nostalgia trip. Don't get me wrong, I am one of Mr. Jobim's most devoted fans, and he makes it into my short list of the five greatest songwriters of the 20th century. But his music has been butchered by so many cocktail pianists, wedding reception bands, and maple-syrup-in-their-veins arrangers that it is almost impossible to approach his songs with fresh ears any more. I remember living in Firenze years ago and trying to imagine what Ghiberti's doors to the Baptistry might like if you removed all the accumulated soot, tarnish and gunk. Jobim's songs are the same, but it would take a master to find the pristine beauty below the layers of noise piled atop them.

Fred Hersch is that master. Here he tackles one of the more familiar Jobim songs (often recorded under its English title "How Insensitive") and unearths the saudade below all the sludge. He brings to bear on this song his acute analytical mind, but while still retaining the emotional temperature of this melancholy reminiscence of a love affair gone bad. There is much to admire here: the harmonic movement, Mr. Hersch's touch, his phrasing. But the holistic effect (as so often is the case with Hersch) is more powerful than a mere list of ingredients can evoke. Any pianist who wants to study how an artist of depth salvages an over-played song should check out this CD, and this track in particular.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Gabriela Anders: Agua de Beber

So many great singers have recorded Jobim that you have to wonder why his compositions keep getting additional covers. The popular "Agua de Beber" is a prime example: after interpretations by Ella, Sinatra, Charlie Byrd, Al Jarreau, Toninho Horta, and of course Astrud Gilberto (with Jobim), what could possibly remain unstated? Yet this version by the lovely Gabriela Anders deserves attention, if only for the mesmerizing quality of her voice, a pastel palette of blues and greens, applied with the subtle brushstroke of a master impressionist painter.

As befitting the gentle form of the Bossa Nova, Anders allows the melody to beckon through quiet whispers and a soft vocal percussiveness. There is no big event here, no radical new twists other than a subtle cry-baby guitar in the rhythm section. But the result is an inviting waterfall in the midst of a steaming rainforest, with the players providing a polished foundation over which Gabriela's quenching phrases cascade. This is indeed very cool water to drink.

March 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Pass: Meditation (Meditacao)

Joe Pass's mellow rendition of "Meditation (Meditacao)" is a light bossa nova performed in what has become a timeless style of music. Relaxed rhythms are colored by rim shots that map out a sublime mood befitting deep introspection. For easygoing, laid-back music celebrating oneness, the presentation here is just right, as the ensemble is washed away in a large amount of audio sweetening that renders guitar, bass and drums indistinguishable after awhile.

Contrary to the ways most "hip" producers and artists were shaping their studio music in 1970, Pass's group was recorded live in a single take, and it fills up the wide-open spaces with note choices that were more carefully considered than what would have been heard on a Grateful Dead recording. Amidst a paucity of cluttered sound, aggressive kick-drums lead the track to its coda as the players step through the veil of aquatic reverb to deliver a wall of gutsy, uncluttered illuminations. The obvious goal was to deepen the instrumental tension while adding emotional resonance to an already unwavering flow, and all three players can be considered "on point," or in top form.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Toninho Horta: Portrait in Black and White

Winter blues got you down? Take a sonic sojourn with a recently unearthed gem that summons visions of Rio beaches, swaying palms and steaming rainforests. To mark bossa nova's 50th birthday, George Klabin, founder of Resonance Records, has reissued Toninho Horta's loving tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. Originally released only in Japan and Brazil, To Jobim With Love had long been a Klabin favorite. In 2007 he was presented with the opportunity to secure the rights to this nearly forgotten recording, and happily did so.

The bossa has been around for decades, but with few exceptions (Charlie Byrd comes to mind) most non- Brazilian artists tend to misinterpret the form's subtle rhythm. This track is the real McCarlos; guitarists aspiring to capture that Brazil vibe could find no greater example than the flawless, pearl-shaped lines Toninho lays down on "Portrait in Black and White," going down smooth as a freshly shaken Caipirinha. The layers of string and flute enhancement are deep but somehow never interfere with the melody's quiet introspection. Horta's breathy vocals and assured, warm guitar work get ample backing from a crack rhythm section and his soaring, dreamy orchestral arrangement. This is a masterful interpretation of Jobim's classic.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Rita Edmond: Dindi

I have had the pleasure lately of listening to several very good contemporary female jazz vocalists for the first time. These women have spent serious time on their craft and honed their talents to give themselves completely over. La Tanya Hall and Monique Danielle are two of the best I have heard in a long time. I now happily add Rita Edmond to that list.

The classic Jobim bossa nova "Dindi" (pronounced jin-jee) has been successfully covered by everyone from Jobim himself, Astrud Gilberto, and Frank Sinatra to Claudine Longet(!). Edmond's treatment is very pleasing. After an affecting jazz-tinged vocal introduction, the tune becomes a bossa in earnest. Edmund possesses a deep, expressive voice that is especially impressive in the lower registers. Her tone and phrasing are perfect for the personal story that is told here. Every nuanced syllable brings pleasure. The tune has also been recorded quite well, producing an intimate and crisp experience. Edmond is ably supported by outstanding musicians, including noted saxophonist Ricky Woodward, who offers a strong solo. You can't go wrong listening to Rita Edmond.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Eliane Elias: Chega de Saudade

Bossa nova puts me into a kind of altered state in which perception of time loosens up, as does the attitude. There must be something about those rhythms that provides comfort at a subconscious level. Eliane Elias opens "Chega de Saudade" with her sultry and breathy vocals, accompanied at first by acoustic guitar and percussion. Liftoff is achieved when her piano kicks in, urged on by Marc Johnson's subtle and swinging basslines. It's amazing to me that bossa nova is celebrating a half century as a genre. This song feels like it's been around forever.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Martial Solal: Corcovado

When Martial Solal played the Vanguard alone in 2007, he was the second pianist ever, after Fred Hersch, to be granted such a privilege. It's definitely an honor, especially for a European musician. But after more than a half century of playing and recording all over the world with an international reputation, it can't be considered undue. The press clips say that the Vanguard was packed every night, and the reviews were excellent. The record is, anyway, and on this track Solal plays a Brazilian standard he'd never recorded before, as far as I know. To him, all music is just music, so he won't really care if it's Brazilian or Norwegian; it's basically food for his brain and fingers.

He starts, as often, by getting at the theme from a side angle, with one hand, then two in unison. Next he exposes the theme with more and more rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alterations until hitting a brief stride passage followed by virtuoso scales. Here you may fear the worst, but the theme comes back and undergoes more metamorphoses, including a short coverage in the very low register that is surprisingly musical. And just when you are beginning to get used to Solal's way of dealing with a standard, suddenly it's over. Applause, laughs, speechless signs of surprise (one supposes) … That's about the diversity of reaction that Solal expects from a listening audience, and one wishes that all the musicians who played the Vanguard before him had found such a rapt and respectful reception.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Bireli Lagrene: Wave (1983)

By-rote versions of well-worn jazz classics are generally defined as "filler." However, this fitting tribute to the Gershwin of Brazil is well served by the spirit of gypsy jazz, alive and well via the years of expertise that Lagrene, Coryell and Vitous carry to the stage. The trio lends new charm to a cut with unbreakable ties to the Latin heritage. And most importantly, Lagrene's fusion musings on guitar are not forced to succumb to the familiarity of a lead sheet. Overall, the track is successful due to this combo's uber-chops and stylistic panache.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Diana Krall: How Insensitive

It's not easy to sing bossa nova. Diana Krall just makes it seem easy. Krall has tackled bossa before, demonstrating a preternatural knack for this style. Krall manages to find just the right balance between relaxed languor and bittersweet emotion. She does it again on this exceptional track. Very few non-Brazilian jazz singers can match her on this terrain. Others will over-sing or clumsily impose jazz phrasing on the Brazilian idiom. In Rio de Janeiro, they describe something indigenous to the city as Carioca, which comes from the Tupi word Karaioca. Well, let me coin a new word . . Krall-i-oca, to signify that rare U.S. singer who can capture the ambiance of this music with such intimacy and assurance.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Elli Fordyce: Dindi

Music is mainly mind-reading; it's psychokinesis among musicians, their listeners and back again. An apt singer can transmit their thoughts, and one can almost see Elli's expressions as she sings this Jobim gem. "Dindi" may mean "little jewel," or it might be taken from the Dirindi Forest near Jobim's estate; it could also be about a beloved Yorkshire terrier. With this inspired performance, Elli could make one believe almost anything. Assimilate a clairvoyant flugelhorn solo and perceptive percussion with a telepathic trio and you've got what is unknown as musical sixth sense. It's more fact than hunch that Elli was singing to her dog "Minty" and the spirit of her "Dindi," but you'd swear she's sending it out to you.

June 10, 2008 · 3 comments


Bireli Lagrene: Wave (1980)

Wunderkind Biréli Lagrène was all of 13 when he recorded his first album, Routes to Django. Lagrène pretty much had the Django repertoire down pat before he was even 12. But as any serious 13-year-old guitarist would tell you, you don't know how good you are until you master the rhythms of that Jobim Brazilian stuff.

Lagrène's brilliant performance on "Wave" is some sort of cruel joke foisted upon us untalented masses. I suppose if you had some skill you could spend 12 hours a day for about four years learning the piece and play something close to what you hear on this album. But according to the liner notes Lagrène really didn't practice that much. He didn't read music either. Jesus. How does a kid play with that effortless dexterity and deep feeling? His rapid-fire picking is full of subtlety and nuance. Could he possibly have been that tuned-in? My ears tell me so. My ears also inform me that his older and more accomplished bandmates were in the pocket too. This music is in their blood. Anomalies like Lagrène show you that music is so much more than about learning notes on a piece of paper.

May 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Ahmad Jamal: Wave (1985)

Ahmad Jamal understood popular music, he understood commercialism, but, to me, he didn’t compromise. All of his artistic and musical decisions were personal and deliberate choices. There were some similarities between his work during this period and the so-called “smooth jazz” or “instrumental R&B,” or whatever you want to call it. But even though it was in a similar instrumental setting, what Ahmad Jamal was doing was too intense and complex to be called “smooth jazz.”

On “Wave” he revives the same basic arrangement from his version on The Awakening [Impulse!] in 1970. He plays the bassline, then breaks it up with this completely divergent rhythmic tangent, comes back to the line, and then sets up the song. There’s that element of surprise. A lot of young musicians today compose songs with a little piano-bass ostinato line to start off, which usually winds up being the most interesting part of the song. Most of them don’t know it, but they’re following Ahmad Jamal’s popularization of that device. He will stay on the vamp of a song for 10 minutes, and then play the actual song itself very briefly. For him, the form doesn’t make a difference. He might play an “A” section 20 times before going to the bridge, but you didn’t get tired of it. Then once he got to the bridge it was this huge release. His ability to spontaneously orchestrate is absolutely incredible. His genius has no limits.

May 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Karrin Allyson: Estrada do Sol

On her Imagina CD, Karrin Allyson uncovers some of the lesser known gems from the oeuvre of Antonio Carlos Jobim. In his best known songs, this composer assimilated the Impressionist influences of Ravel and Debussy and gave them a distinctive Brazilian twist, and on "Estrada do Sol" we see the Erik Satie side of this seminal tunesmith. No, this song is not as well known as the bossa hits, but Allyson still needs to live up to the formidable predecessors who have recorded it, such as Nara Leão and Gal Costa. She hits the mark in this languid rendition. Allyson's Portuguese sounds credible to this Yankee - and she doesn't fall back into English as on many of the other tracks on this release. Above all, her tone captures just the right dose of saudade.

March 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Ahmad Jamal: Wave (1970)

Ahmad Jamal didn’t take part in the bossa nova craze of the early '60s, so it may sound strange that he suddenly tackles a Jobim tune 10 years later. But the Pittsburgh-born pianist doesn’t treat it as a typical Brasilian song at all. The theme appears only after more a minute-long original intro based on a bass ostinato. Then Jamal repeats short parts of the melody, while varying the intensity of his touch, or mixes them with rhythmic vamps. It’s deconstruction at its best, with optimal effect.

February 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Eliane Elias: Jazz 'n' Samba

Brazilian-born pianist Eliane Elias is not only adept at the music of her native land, but she’s also well known for proficiency in the jazz of her adopted country, ever since her time as a member of the first-class jazz-fusion group Steps Ahead. On Jobim’s “Jazz ‘n’ Samba (So Danço Samba),” she combines the music of both cultures, offering a gentle vocal duet with guitarist and bossa nova pioneer Oscar Castro-Nueves before breaking into some funky, straight-ahead jazz over a sizzling samba beat.

November 08, 2007 · 0 comments


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