James Sudakow & Eric Zimmermann: The Greatest Life I've Even Known

I was sure I found a typo in the title "The Greatest Life I've Even Known." I went out on the net and found some other reviewers had assumed the same thing and changed the "even" to an "ever." But I have learned painfully never to take something for granted. I got in touch with the publicist and discovered there is no typo. It is what it is. I now find myself fascinated with the title. What the hell does it mean?

"The Greatest Life I've Even Known" is the album's final cut. Violinist James Sudakow approaches the tune from the Middle East. His slow echoing lines are suddenly interrupted by guitarist Eric Zimmermann's Metallica-like power chords. The two musicians, using overdubs and Zimmermann's programming, then kick into gear. Zimmermann plays some acoustic guitar along the way. It sounds unusual in this industrial setting. Sudakow's compositions and the performance heard here are an acquired taste. You must be prepared to be blasted away. Quiet reflective moments are less than scarce. Melodies may be hard to locate as well. This is music for those with a strong constitution. Those of you who scarf down the atomic hot wings will dig it "ever" more.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments


James Sudakow & Eric Zimmermann: When I Am King

Violinist James Sudakow's music is not for the faint of heart. He lists Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Jean Luc Ponty, Jerry Goodman and other fusion notables as influences. But with the exception of two cuts (the other being "The Greatest Life I've Even Known"), this music is more electronica than fusion, as if Tangerine Dream had swallowed Kraftwerk and couldn't quite stomach it. (You youngsters can go run for Internet sound bytes from those ancient bands now if you want.)

"When I Am King" is the album's most accessible piece. Sudakow is not shy. He comes at you with strings blazing. His lines are harsh and dramatic. Subtlety is not in his vocabulary. Guitarist and programmer Eric Zimmermann reads out of the same dictionary. His disjointed electric forays actually give the piece some structure, and his programming deserves special note. He has concocted a wobbly seamless synthesized bassline in the form of a sine wave that is the heart of the piece. It reminds me of the old ad slogan for the weeble toy: "Weebles wobble, but they won't fall down." You will find yourself following this weeble from beginning to end.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Raggin' the Scale

Call me crazy, but to my ears (and to get a bit grandiose), this seems like a short-piece jazz answer to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (especially No. 3), taking a holistic impression of the piece. Particularly in the early going, in the basic structure of the ensemble's instruments and their respective roles, in the leading violin lines in relation to the rest, in the flowing, rolling music that seems like an aural stream cascading over smooth rocks down a hill (though in musically ascending and descending manner), it could serve as a jazz version of a Brandenburg Concerto.

In any case, this is marvelous, fun, rousing, rolling, upbeat and up-tempo music. It features typical expressive lead lines from Venuti's violin. But it is very much ensemble jazz, with breaks for violin, banjo, piano and clarinet all adding nice creative lines and further dimensions of texture and tone, with Adrian Rollini's bass sax providing well-timed, deep sonic underpinning and punch. Also, especially when the piano comes to the fore, it has a ragtime feel (with hints of Jelly Roll Morton).

February 04, 2009 · 4 comments


Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Wild Cat

"Wild Cat" is an apt title for this recording, as the piece is taken at a fast, if not frenzied, tempo and played with intensity and exuberance in a very 1920s style. The track starts with a dramatic, intense, 2-stage ascending violin flourish that amounts to a call to action, with a perfect, sharply strummed 2-stage response by Lang's guitar. After that, Lang provides more than his usual solid, chugging rhythmic and harmonic foundation; he gives us a high-octane, rollicking, ascending and descending guitar counterpoint to Venuti's expressive violin lines that sail and skitter over the top with verve and style. With all the energy and strong, driving rhythm, this is serious toe-tapping music. And after they are fully in motion with the fiddle and guitar exchanges, it sounds like a brilliant precursor to the best bluegrass breakdown records of later years (direct or indirect inspiration?).

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Stringing the Blues

"Stringing the Blues," drawing on the early jazz classic "Tiger Rag," is the first violin-guitar duet of Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang. As such, it is a pioneering work. As in his duets with Lonnie Johnson, Lang lays down a solid rhythmic base and harmonic structure for Venuti's sliding, skittering, often staccato lead work on violin. On this track, Lang mostly uses a standard 1920s, on-the-beat, thrum/thrum/thrum rhythm; it provides a strong momentum, but after a while feels choppy and, well, standardized. But at a couple of points Lang and Venuti have fine, excellently coordinated intricate exchanges. This music has a quintessential 1920s feel. Venuti's bowing draws effectively on the expressive capacities of the violin, and the flow of his lead lines makes for good jazz with a different texture and style than in the best-known earlier jazz recordings.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Christian Howes: Walkin' Up

He reaches for the heavens with his bow, perhaps overreaching on occasion, but never without conviction; and in the process, generates an edgy energy that compels the listener to reach with him. In an age when so many jazz violinists strive to emulate the suave, measured phrasing of Stéphane Grappelli or the near- mystical lines of Jean-Luc Ponty, Christian Howes paddles his own canoe. On this track he shoots the modal rapids over Bill Evans's lively romp without fearing the ever-present risk of capsizing or hitting any tonal rocks. As in all Resonance releases, there is plenty of virtuosity to be found here in biting solos from Howe and pianist Roger Kellaway, with volatile, intuitive support from Bob Magnusson and Nathan Wood. "Walkin' Up" should be the jazz violinist's wakeup call to wider recognition.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio: Cherokee

American enthusiasts of the Hot Club Swing Revival all face the same challenge: where do you find a truly hot Gypsy jazz/hot-swing group this side of the Atlantic? If you're in New York, you have a few options, but none hotter than this sizzling trio, led by the smoldering Mark O'Connor, whose confident technique and chops evoke the spirit of Eddie South as well as that of Stéphane Grappelli. Captured live in a warm, clean and faithful recording, O'Connor delivers the goods with solid support by the remarkable Jon Burr and Frank Vignola, one of the best jazz guitarists in a town crawling with great jazz guitarists.

Mark O'Connor's accomplishments span several genres; his compositions have been performed by classical artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Sharon Isbin, and have been choreographed by contemporary dance legends Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp. But his metamorphosis into a jazz violinist began with his discovery of swing fiddle pioneer Benny Thomasson, and continued under the tutelage of Stéphane Grappelli. Listening to this rendition of "Cherokee," it's obvious that his classical training and clear understanding of the Grappelli esthetic give him the power and depth to own this music. His authoritative lines soar effortlessly, never seeming frantic or edgy, even when playing at this breakneck tempo.

Guitarist Frank Vignola demonstrates a clear understanding and command of Djangospeak, but is as modern and deadly in his attack as Biréli, Angelo or Stochelo, his Sinti contemporaries across the pond. Even though the trio lacks a rhythm guitarist to provide a pompe platform during his solo, the playing here is so strong you don't really miss it.

My one complaint is that the track ends too soon. Still, this is a high-octane "Cherokee," all the more remarkable for being served up in a flawless live performance by a powerhouse jazz Manouche trio and a fiddler who is definitely off the roof.

January 27, 2009 · 1 comment


Michal Urbaniak: Chinatown (Part 1)

In the 1970s, Polish violinist Michal Urbaniak made his bid to join Jerry Goodman and Jean-Luc Ponty in the forefront of jazz-rock fiddle players. He was a composer of merit, had a great sound and possessed incredible technique. What he did not seem to have was consistency. He could be counted on to produce one or two outstanding cuts per album. That may be a little unfair because perhaps we can look back at those compositions that didn't quite work as being outside the box of formulaic fusion. (Yes, even fusion had a formula.)

Urbaniak's talent and potential ensured he could get some of fusion's best musicians to play with him. Thus it was on "Chinatown (Part 1)." The introduction is a bit Jean-Luc Pontyish and Mahavishnu-like. But it was hard not to be in those days. Urbaniak and Abercrombie wail over a funky keyboard. Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson play a complicated and pleasing unison run that vocalist Dudziak, Urbaniak's wife, joins. Her tone almost sounds like a violin itself. This harmonizing riff section becomes the most memorable part of a high-energy workout. This performance stands up to the output of any fusion band playing at the time.

Though Urbaniak never broke through in a big way, he still must be listed among the finest jazz violinists ever. His important contributions to fusion are part of the record. He continues to ply his trade quite successfully in Europe.

January 25, 2009 · 1 comment


Michal Urbaniak: Bloody Kishka

From what I have read, the phrase "bloody kishka" is redundant since a kishka is an Eastern European sausage made with pig's blood. Redundant title or not, a cute, sing-songy violin and percussive intro sets the stage for this track's European jazz funk fest. By "European jazz funk fest" I mean funk that sounds like it was played by European jazz musicians. The oomph isn't quite present. This often occurs regardless of a band's international makeup if the leader of the session is European. It's not a bad thing, just a stylistic phenomenon. Urbaniak lays back somewhat on this piece and is happy to let Coryell do the screeching over the repeating pattern. Keyboard player Wlodek Gulgowski adds Moog touches. The music doesn't travel very far but it is an enjoyable running-in-place number that features some pyrotechnics from Coryell and a hum-able melody. It most certainly isn't like listening to sausages being made.

January 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Miles Stiebel: Dance With Me

OK, it's time to admit the obvious: I have somehow become a sucker for jazz covers of pop tunes from the 1970s. "Dance With Me" was a pretty big hit for the group Orleans, and though I was a fan at the time, I can sense that part of me likes this cover for the nostalgia factor. Let's face it, each of us enjoys music for different reasons, and sometimes those reasons can cause more than a bit of cognitive dissonance. As a jazz guy, I can't deny that the percussion here leans a little too much toward the "happy" (read: Smooth) side of things. And speaking of happy, the violin that takes the role of the vocal melodies is just, well … bursting! The same can be said for the horn flourishes. Oh, and then there's the funky guitar bits, which have a sort of Chuck Mangione "Feels So Good" vibe. And yet … ah, screw the reasons. This is simply a load of fun, just like the original tune. So there!

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Martial Solal & Stéphane Grappelli: Nuages

Both are internationally known historical figures of French jazz. Each played with Django Reinhardt: Grappelli on their famed prewar recordings, Solal on Django's final 1953 studio session (where the Gypsy genius used an electric guitar). But they had never played together on record. What was to be expected from such a late meeting, taking place more than a quarter of a century after Django's death? The best! And it's obvious from the piano intro on. Solal wrote a dreamy impressionistic prelude to one of Django's most famous tunes, and when the violin enters on the theme itself, the piano alternates between this harmonic atmosphere, served by a beautiful touch, and a more rhythmic approach. Grappelli basically remains himself, halfway between a tradition that he comes from and a taste for innovation that has always been present in his improvisations and choice of partners. Solal also remains himself, playing around both the violin and the theme with respect towards each. He obviously has ventured farther from tradition than his elder, but his style is deeply rooted and can be highly melodic, as this track beautifully demonstrates.

January 19, 2009 · 1 comment


Regina Carter: Our Delight

When Regina Carter joined the String Trio of New York in 1992, she succeeded Charles Burnham, and before him Billy Bang, as the group's violinist. Bang's and Burnham's distinctive styles seemed to be most influenced by Leroy Jenkins and Ray Nance, respectively, while Carter's gorgeous tone, relaxed swing, lyricism and classically polished technique brought to mind a refreshing blend of Stuff Smith and Stéphane Grappelli. Eight years later, in duets with Kenny Barron on the CD Freefall, all of Carter's early promise would be fulfilled in a glittering series of emotionally satisfying and precisely articulated improvisations.

The seed for that memorable encounter with Barron was planted two years earlier on Carter's first session as leader for Verve, when the pianist played on four selections, including "Our Delight." Lewis Nash nearly steals the show with his crisp drum dialogue with Carter as she heartily navigates the theme. The violinist's solo has a bluesy lilt to it, as she uses a rich, penetrating vibrato to course through a variety of continually changing phrase structures, in a statement that overall never loses its airtight logic. Barron's solo glides breezily over the classy Nash's adroitly executed pulse, before Carter and trio once again do admirable justice to Tadd Dameron's familiar line.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Lonnie Johnson: Falling Rain Blues

This was Lonnie Johnson's first hit (backed with "Mr. Johnson's Blues"). Instead of his noted guitar, he plays violin, the instrument his father started him on, to accompany his singing. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there is no digitally remastered copy of this song; the old, scratchy 78 record—and acoustically recorded at that—is all that's available, which tends to be tough for some to listen to. (A well-performed and well-recorded version was, in coming-full-circle manner, the last song on his final major recordings in 1967, Lonnie Johnson - The Complete Folkways Recordings; he plays guitar on that track.)

The general historical importance of this recording, beyond beginning a great career, is that Johnson took the expressive capacity of the violin and applied it to the guitar, which contributed to how he changed guitar-playing and popular music in general. Now, to many the idea of blues violin playing might seem like an oxymoron. But Johnson adds to his singing interesting and inventive lines on the violin, with a blues feel, and an extended bridge in the middle; the violin work complements well the vocal lines. Johnson's singing in these 1920s recordings was merely pretty good to good; from the late 1940s on his singing had become outstanding to great (such as on "Don't Ever Love" and "Mr. Blues Walks"). His guitar playing during that period was masterful.

Editor's Note: At the time of this posting, the Amazon.com Download Links provided with this review had the wrong album cover, but connected respectively to the right track.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Miles Stiebel: Midnight Fifty

Miles Stiebel leads an orchestra that is in demand for political and corporate events in and around the Washington, D.C., area, and is also president of an entertainment agency he founded in 1983. While his Excellent Distraction might provide too concentrated a dose of "contemporary jazz" for the hard-core jazz listener, there's no denying the excellent musicianship of these players. Also, it's refreshing to hear an accomplished violinist as the lead voice in a genre that is almost exclusively dominated by saxophonists.

The first track, "Midnight Fifty," provides perhaps the most straight-ahead, non-formulaic performance on the release, with an attractive arrangement by Stiebel and guitarist Gerry Kunkel. The horn section is vigorously tight, and Fidyk maintains a driving but not overbearing backbeat throughout. After Stiebel intones his soulful, infectious theme, he delivers an exhilarating solo with a piercing tone and expressive phrasing. BarenBregge's promising wailing alto solo is regrettably short, but pianist Reynolds has longer to show off his creatively melodic talent. There follows an unusual arranged section that pairs the spirited horns with meandering, wispy synthesizer washes. Stiebel then treats us to his likable theme once again to take out this winning piece.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Gjermund Larsen: ArriVals

This Norwegian trio could easily fall outside your music radar screens, but their pastoral 2008 release Ankomst is well worth tracking down. Larsen's playing meets at the crossroads where acoustic jazz and folk styles intersect, a rich field only occasionally plowed by American jazz artists these days, but with far more adherents in other parts of the world. This CD covers a range of styles, sometimes even evoking a spirited Nordic hoedown or ECM-ish currents, but "ArriVals" is a simple, heartfelt performance that I found myself listening to over and over, and sharing with others. Highly recommended!

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments


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