New Singing Things

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There seem to be as many different forms and functions for our voices as there are musical styles for our instruments. Whether recorded in live performance, recorded in the studio, or chopped and looped into a preexisting mix, several recent releases spotlight the human voice.

Andy Bey
Ain't Necessarily So
12th Street
2007

The supple, nurturing hands and voice of pianist / vocalist Andy Bey generally dispenses most music in two flavors, either a ballad or a blues. This live recording during Bey's first headline appearance at the world famous jazz hotspot Birdland continues his series of albums with producer Herb Jordan, who, like most listeners, remains amazed at Bey's subtle musicianship: "He approaches chord changes and rhythm in a way that many others just do not. He finds harmonic subtleties that escape many singers."

Bey commands a trio with bassist Peter Washington and either drummer Vito Lesczak or Kenny Washington, and in this setting begs for comparison with Nat King Cole, another highly individualized jazz pianist more widely known as a singer. Shaded in dark piano chords, Bey's voice in this opening, title track submerges you neck deep in the reflective spirit of this entire set—it jives sometimes, it hurts sometimes, but it's always beautiful. You won't find another artist whose music is more perfectly suited for a rainy day.

Necessarily sets a slow, smoldering tone but it's not all moody Bey brooding. "All the Things You Are" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" move their tempos uptown, and his unique falsetto in "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" coolly and elegantly glides above and between the notes of the melody, demonstrating how Bey brushstrokes his piano and voice together to illuminate a tune. His piano in the completely instrumental "If I Should Lose You" bounces through the intersection of Horace Silver's lusty Latin soul and Cecil Taylor's heady abstractions.

But the finale is the killer. Bey's hesitant, thoughtful phrasing and restless, plaintive voice blossom throughout "Someone to Watch Over Me" into palpable longing and loss. It just hurts so good. Though he dedicates this take to Sarah Vaughan (specifically her version from The Gershwin Songbook), I would go so far as to say that Bey's version of "Someone to Watch Over Me" surpasses not only hers but all others, and is the definitive.

Sarah Brightman
Symphony
Manhattan
2007

The vocal star of Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Requiem may be the former Mrs. Andrew Lloyd-Weber but this Symphony proves that Sarah Brightman will never leave epic melodrama too far behind. Brightman continues to satisfy both critics and her public by working through the crossroads of classic popular music, popular classical music, theatrical show tunes—and, on this new album, recorded across three different countries with her longtime producer Frank Peterson, evocative orchestral goth. "Over the past four years of recording this album, I find myself approaching my music even more visually than I ever have before," Brightman says. "I found that the canvas was endless for this album."

The first note you hear Brightman sing—in "Fleurs du Mal," after the "Gothica" orchestral prelude—unleashes from on high an almost impossible note, a purely musical sound that seems more godly than human. There's little need for the choir in its chorus because a voice this powerful needs no such backup. The title track makes this same point: One of this set's least overwrought and complicated arrangement gives her voice room to breathe into the lyrics gorgeous life (Her previous relationship with AL-W makes this chorus particularly poignant: "Symphony/ It's gone quiet around us now/ How I wish you would hold me/ And that you'd never told me/ That it's better if you leave"). Similarly, her voice ethereally moves like a spirit over the quiet, still waters of "Sanvean."

Symphony also features several Brightman duets. She reprises "Canta Della Terra" with Andrea Bocelli, one of the few singers whose voice she cannot overpower, and beautifully renders "Sarai Qui" with Italian tenor Alessandro Safina. "Pasión" with countertenor Fernando Lima aches with longing yet twirls dashing and romantic, like a Spanish dancer. On "I Will Be With You (Where the Lost Ones Go)," Brightman teams with Paul Stanley, who herewith takes a gigantic leap forward in his quest to transform from badass Kiss lead guitarist to Cher impersonator. Someone—even if I'm not quite sure whom—should have known better than this.

Brightman concludes her Symphony with the three-part suite "Running," the International Association of Athletics Federation Green Project Charity song, which borrows its middle section from the straight-on 4/4 rock of Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell" then bookends it with an orchestral melody and chorus.

Fabio Fonseca Trio
Opus Samba
JSR
2007

Arnaldo DeSouterio produced Opus Samba to feature Fonseca's funky Hammond B-3 organ in his trio with Pedro Leão (bass) and Mac William (drums). Though you won't hear any jazz standards on its set list or many harmonically adventurous jazz solos in its jams, the very musical way that Fonseca and friends blend together jazz, Brazilian, Latin and soft funk rhythms makes Opus Samba a nearly perfect jazz trio set.

"Samba de Nanh" crisply yet softly opens this Opus with bright Brazilian colors in splashes of rhythm, and you can immediately hear how Fonseca seems to project a very different Hammond sound than, for example, Joey DeFrancesco, or others who sound more connected to the instrument's more familiar gutbucket soul-jazz presentations. The rhythm section leads Fonseca's organ in their dance through Stevie Wonder's "Too High," with William's percussive accents and beats making the soulful rhythm feel even more vibrant.

Their subsequent cover of Ray Santos' "Cochise" sounds more like Latin jazz, with Fonseca ripping into his organ, radiating sheets of sound like brass section blasts and shaping the rhythm, instead of bouncing along with it, through this sharp attack. This is not soft and sweet Brasilia—this is Brazilian jazz in the best musical sense of both terms. (Ed Lincoln scored a hit with "Cochise" in '66, which enjoyed resurgence in the European acid-jazz heydays of the '90s; Fonseca found and purchased Lincoln's Hammond-B3 in '94, and plays this tune on Lincoln's B-3.)

"Dormideira" turns back the rhythm section's tempo but not their tightness; this beautiful original melody, polished to a supple sheen by producer DeSouterio, strongly suggests the sweet delights of albums recorded by Deodato and Jobim for Creed Taylor's CTI label. So does "Mr. Bertrami," Fonseca's tribute to the founder and leader of Brazilian jazz-fusion supergroup Azymuth, Jose Roberto Bertrami, where the drummer consistently changes up his counterpoint to the bassist's Brazilian metronome to keep the groove feeling new. Sounding both happy and sad, Fonseca's "Missing Dom" similarly honors the late percussionist Dom Um Romao.

"A Mulher de 15 Metros" features vocalist Ithamara Koorax, whose crisp yet round phrasing and balance between control and abandon come together to create a singing style that, like Fonseca's instrumentation, is truly both Brazilian and jazz.

Orgone
The Killion Floor
Ubiquity
2007

If there's something/ANYthing that you've liked in funk, soul or hip-hop during the last four decades, you'll find something you like on The Killion Floor, the first full-length release from this LA-based funk hip-hop ensemble. This is Orgone's rhythm and blues encyclopedia, an expansive (17 songs, 76 minutes) funk survey refracted through the hip-hop perspective that routinely loops and edits together musical pastiche—except that Orgone is a funk band that plays and sings it all live and hot on the spot. Samples or loops not included.

These first four tracks combine into a suite that honors the greatest little southern soul label that could, Stax Records: You wade in the water through the introductory "Easin,'" a languid, Booker T. meets Pucho Brown organ/conga groove, then singer Fanny Franklin gives voice to every woman whose good love turned sour in the mouth of her lover in "Who Knows Who?" Five minutes of instrumental black magic, "Sophisticated Honky" stings with its sharply barbed rhythm guitar hook, and shines like a lost Stax / Volt diamond. Then Franklin fires up and smokes a genuine Stax hit single, Isaac Hayes' liberation manifesto "Do Your Thing."

And there's just so much more to love: "Hambone" throbs under the canopy of sweeping synthesizers, wriggling toward more experimental, electronic funk directions explored by Mandrill. "Dialed Up" drives you deep into the dance floor, with a bass/drum breakdown that sounds tres Chic.

The reggae backbone of "Justice League" sets up the subsequent cover of "Funky Nassau" where, upon Franklin's cue ("Listen to the bassman, gonna make you move your feet"), the bassist rips into the torrid bass line from "Give It Up (Or Turnit Loose)." "Said and Done" resurrects the neo-soul vibe of the late, lamented Brand New Heavies. "Crabby Ali" pulls out yet another thread from this broad funk tapestry, the tubby New Orleans rhythms of The Meters or Neville Brothers.

Like fine sausage ravioli, The Killion Floor comes hot, saucy and overstuffed with meaty goodness. "We draw from a wider musical and production palette than a lot of '60s inspired music that's making a resurgence," suggests drummer Sean O'Shea. "It's not intentional; it's simply a reflection of the music and production aesthetics that we love."

Cheb i Sabbah
Devotion
Six Degrees
2007

Devotion uses the human voice for more spiritual purposes, looping devotional chants from the Hindu, Sufi Islam and Sikh traditions, sung by leading practitioners of each liturgy, into Sabbah's uniquely synthetic, trippy music. "Trippy" is the keyword because Sabbah's sound collages travel backward and forward through both historical time and geographical space.

The opening "Jai Bhavani," one of two features for Anup Jalota, one of India's premier singers, footprints the template for every ensuing track, an electronic trance landscape that creeps forward in a hypnotic tempo, punctuated by percussion, with flute and chorus underlining then echoing Jalota's evocative lead vocal. When Sabbah cranks up the tempo, here and then later in Jalota's dervish turn through "Aaye Bhairav Bholanath," every sound and word twirls together faster, and the feeling that he's connecting you to a profoundly spiritual place correspondingly grows more intense.

"Kinna Sohna," written by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and sung by Master Saleem, sounds like the most heartfelt of prayers and feels especially timeless when its closing echo repeatedly twinkles then fades.

The languid reggae beat of the dub-style "Haun Vaari Haun Varaney" makes this ten-minute centerpiece of Sabbah's expansively spread table feel like the surrender of ecstasy, especially when Harnam Singh's incantation lifts and carries you heavenward. "Morey Pya Bassey" features Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal and also bubbles along a metronomic reggae-style beat, one that pulses through this set's most evocative instrumentation, as Sabbah constantly melts musical and religious traditions from so many different cultures into this softly liquid pool.

There's a rhythm track to the closing, title song, but it provides no actual rhythm or tempo. Instead, it floats a prayerful atmosphere in free "real" time behind the blissful sound of adults and children chanting their devotions, and returns Devotion to where it began—a heart of worship.

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