C. Michael Bailey's Best Recordings of 2013
Vocal jazz continues to enjoy an overwhelming wealth of talent that is, by and large, very good. That said, one could readily believe that everyone believes they can sing jazz and release a self- produced recording to prove it. What I have cited here is what I consider not merely very good but exceptional.
Austrian-American Renaissance woman Elisabeth Lohninger is many things. She is a singer, composer, producer, writer, teacher and studio owner. Over the past several years Lohninger has found time to record four collections with her quartet: Beneath Your Surface (Lofish, 2005), The Only Way Out is Up (Lofish, 2007), Songs of Love and Destruction (Lofish, 2010), and Christmas in July (Jazz Sick, 2011). All of these recordings were well conceived and received, and the fate of the present Live should be no different...continue.
Heather Masse & Dick Hyman
Lock My Heart
Vocalist/songwriter Heather Masse received her didactic training at the New England Conservatory of Music and her practicum on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Her academy training was in jazz vocals, but her practical experience reflects more folk- flavored fare. Her previous recording, Bird Song (Red House, 2009), was a well-received collections of folk originals, solidifying Masse's folk bona fides established with the wildly popular Wailin' Jennys. Her voice is user friendly, neither over-practiced nor hyper-informed by her education. She is comfortable in her voice. It was inevitable that Masse would return to jazz in the studio, only a matter of time... continue.
Ginny Carr and the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet recently paid proper homage to vocalese master Eddie Jefferson with the song "He Was the Cat," from Hustlin' For A Gig (HouseKat Records, 2012). Jefferson, along with Clarence Beeks (King Pleasure), specialized in writing lyrics for and singing the more notable jazz compositions, like "Moody's Mood for Love" and "Parker's Mood." This rarefied musical form has remained dormant for many years, waiting for a new talent to pen new lyrics for old instrumentals. Enter New York City native Dorian Devins on her debut, The Procrastinator. With no shortage of guts does she enter this honored fray, seasoning a collection of standards with her lyrically applied talent to hard bop giants including trumpeters Lee Morgan and Kenny Dorham, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter... continue.
The Laura Nyro Project
The combination of a unique and beautifully au courant voice with an equally rare and manifold composing talent makes for compelling listening. When the voice is that of vocalist/songwriter Mark Winkler and the songs are by Laura Nyro, the resulting project reaches criticality rapidly. Winkler has been composing and recording for the better part of 30 years, releasing ten recordings and penning upwards to 150 songs in that time. His previous recording, Sweet Spot (Cafe Pacific Records, 2011) was praised widely and featured some of Winkler's most recent composing...continue.
You Are An Edgy Visionary Seer
Jazz is serious music: so serious that sometimes it becomes a labor of such intensity that the composers and performers fail to have fun making the music. Vocalist/pianist/composer Jim Pearce specifically makes it a point to have fun, before getting serious (as serious as he ever gets). Gratefully in the mold of Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg and Mose Allison, Pearce specializes in bright melodies and clever lyrics, a modern throwback to Tin Pan Alley reclaiming clever lyrics from the great unwashed of country music, the current keeper of cagey words with snappy music...continue.
Songs I Like A Lot
There are four potent musical personalities at play on Songs I Like A Lot. The first is the erstwhile leader, drummer John Hollenbeck, musical raconteur and general high-art roustabout. He has had a long association with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both in big band settings on A Blessing (Omnitone, 2005) and with Claudia Quintet on What Is Beautiful? (Cuneiform, 2012). Bleckmann, in turn, is friends with vocalist Kate McGarry, who's Girl Talk (Palmetto, 2012) was a highlight of the year. From McGarry's past releases, including Girl Talk comes pianist/organist Gary Versace, completing our power quartet...continue.
Under Your Spell
First, there is that name...Thisbe Vos. It is not merely exotic; it is something much more than that, something mythic. Dutch-born, living the dream in America's land of Milk and HoneyLA Vos, by her looks, voice, repertoire, composing...demands attention, and gets it without ever raising her voice. Her debut, two years percolating, Under Your Spell is a fully realized throwback that doesn't sound a day over the rainbow. Made up of five standards and six smacking, swinging originals, Under Your Spell goes a long way towards blowing on the coals of mainstream jazz vocals...continue.
Rene e Yoxon and Mark Ferguson
Here We Go Again
Here We Go Again is Canadian singer/songwriter Renee Yoxon's follow- up to 2010's Let's Call It A Day (Self Produced). She teams with pianist/trombonist Mark Ferguson for a dozen original compositions that are refreshingly familiar, meaning they all have a traditional form and mainstream sensibility that softens the blow to even the most stalwart traditionalist deaf to any material composed after 1960...continue.
Voice Like A Horn
"Did you hear the one about the singing trombonist?." It's not even a joke because there have been many a fine trombonist that also sing, to wit: beginning with the inestimable Jack Teagarden. Then there's Billy Eckstine, Wycliffe Gordon, Henry Darragh, Natalie Cressman, and one Pete McGuinness who releases his third recording as leader, Voice Like A Horn. It is McGuinness' vocal abilities that are showcased on this recording, where the singer is supported by a piano trio augmented with special guests...continue.
Colin Trusedell Trio
Some Of My Best Friends Are...Divas
Bassist Ray Brown did a "Some Of My Best Friends Are..." series of recordings for Teldec shortly before his abrupt death in 2002. That bassist Colin Trusedell has chosen the same theme for his leader debut Some Of My Best Friends Are...Divas is the most auspicious thing about his release. What makes this disc one of the finest released in 2013 is its vacuum-lack of pretension and its critical- mass realized with musicianship. Nevermind that the recital includes the oft-cited "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine," here these warhorses breath anew, deftly lacking any sepia tones or shellac pops (not that those are bad...)...continue.
Space and Time
New York City-based jazz vocalist Nicky Schrire has two albums to her credit. Freedom Flight (Circavision Productions, 2012) was well received by AAJ colleague Dan Bilawsky, who explained her fresh and well- scrubbed appeal thusly: "The London-born, South African- raised, New York- based vocalist bursts onto the scene with this dazzling debut, but she didn't simply materialize out of thin air. This worldly woman has been honing her skills at the Manhattan School of Music and studying with the crème de la crème of the jazz vocal world, including Peter Eldridge, Theo Bleckmann, Gretchen Parlato, Kate McGarry and Norma Winstone; it's clear that she's taken their lessons to heart." ....continue.
I'm A Shy Guy: A Tribute to the King Cole Trio & Their Music
San Francisco vocalist Ed Reed is a bona fide contemporary of West Coast jazz luminaries: Art Pepper, Frank Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Hampton Hawes. Unlike that august group, Reed remains to tell his story, and by proxy, theirs' in the bargain. Like this same group, drugs (and in the case of Gray, murder) suspended Reed's musical career. Unlike Pepper and Morgan, who staged much heralded late- career comebacks, Reed did not first record until 2007 at age 78. Neither "late bloomer" nor "rising star" adequately describe Reed any more than "senior" or "elderly" do. These terms might apply to mere mortals, but Reed is something else. When he entered the studio to record his debut Ed Reed Sings Love Stories (Blue Shorts Records) he was fully-formed as a singer and performing from a lifetime of anticipating that very moment...continue.
Instrumental jazz and beyond also continues to teem with expertise and invention...even as reissues...
Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective
If a musical note has a soul, Duane Allman could slide up to it and hold it beneath a Coricidin bottle in a tremolo seizure of sonic perfection until it screamed. Whether it is the whiplash introduction to "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'" or the most perfect electric blues performance recorded on "One Way Out," Allman had a certain radioactive intuition that translated into fire, grace and passion... continue.
Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) made a career as the consummate concert showoff. He fully learned to be a showoff from fiddler Nicolo Paganini (1782- -1840), who, with Liszt, championed the idea of the "Artist as Hero." Previously, it had not been so fashionable for an artist to outshine the composer whose music he or she was playing. With Paganini, this was easy: he composed music that no one else could play and played it with a flair of the dramatic. Liszt did a good bit of his own composing, but also was successful at producing piano transcriptions of operas, symphonies and art songs. While his Beethoven Symphony Transcriptions continue to be the most popular, his treatments of Wagner opera music and Schubert songs run a close second... continue.
Trombonist Michael Dease's Coming Home is the evolutionary culmination of all of the small group work of which he has been a part. Dease's musical personality reveals itself fully on the disc, one he has populated with a very fine band and thoughtfully composed and selected pieces for that band. Dease's previous work as a leader on Dease Bones (Astrix Media, 2007), Clarity (Blues Back Records, 2008) and Grace (Legacy Jazz Productions, 2011), as well as with multi-reedist Sharel Cassity on Just For You (DW Records , 2009) and Relentless (Legacy Jazz Productions, 2009)...continue.
George Shearing at Home
Pianist Sir George Shearing (19192011) was himself an integral part of the be bop jazz movement in the late 1940s. His quintet that featured vibraphone and guitar with the standard piano trio was sonically ground breaking. His precise and measured piano style influenced a generation of pianists and several of his compositions ("Lullaby of Birdland" and "Conception") have become jazz standards. He was not flashy, but a solid, well-considered player whose playing could always be counted on to be elegant and durable...continue.
It may be a poor- man's explanation, but here it goes: bebop begat hard bop begat the freer post-bop. Free jazz emerged among them. What next? Jeff Williams' The Listener. The greater freedom of post bop compared to its predecessor is given more freedom, but not so much that the music descends into the ravenous particles of John Coltrane In Japan (Impulse!, 1973)...continue.
Taking their lead from the Beatles as opposed to the Rolling Stone or the Who, Led Zeppelin knew when it was time to quit. The 1980 death of drummer John Bonham effectively ended the band's successful run as one of the biggest concert draws of the period. So the band retires into quiet seclusion only to be drawn out in 2007 for a benefit concert commemorating the life of music executive Ahmet Ertegun. With John Bonham's son, Jason, behind the trap set, the band performed. Once finished, they returned to quiet seclusion save for their Kennedy Center Honors in 2012. This is a stunning concert all the more important because the band refused to follow it up with a tour: good show. Read my colleague, Nenad Georgievski's review of the DVD/CD package of Celebration Day.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Live From Alabama
The review of Blackberry Smoke's The Whippoorwill (Southern Ground, 2012) provoked the comment:
"The review sets up a bit of a straw man, since southern rock is alive and well in the hands of bands like the Drive-by Truckers and Jason Isbell...These guys did not come out of a vast wasteland."Well, indeed. And speaking of Jason Isbell, he and his new band The 400 Unit released the live recording, Live From Alabama which immediately fulfills the warrant of every live recording: to present the music as a living, breathing entity given a new face from the studio and to provide a recital of the better known songs by the artist. Isbell and company meet both requirements head on with this baker's dozen of finely crafted songs...continue.
The Jason Klobnak Quintet
"The Jazz Mainstream" is a sub-genre that has, by necessity, changed with the music's evolution. During the 1910s and '20s, New Orleans and Chicago ruled the mainstream, while the '30s and '40s belonged to big band swing. With the twilight of the big bands, combos shrunk to quartet and quintet size and bebop burned brightly in the late '40s and early '50s, maybe not becoming the mainstream, but setting it up by sparking the cool movement and hard bop of the '50s and '60s. It was the assimilation of these two movements that became what might be considered the jazz mainstream today. When the popular media chooses a jazz soundtrack, it is the smoky, small- club noir sound heard on the likes of Miles Davis' first great quintet or Oliver Nelson's The Blues and The Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961). When this music is heard, there is no mistaking that it is jazz...continue.
After two well- behaved, straight-ahead, and positively reviewed recordings Opening (Blue Bamboo Music, 2010) and Blue Glass Music (Blue Bamboo Music, 2011)Texas-cum-New York City trumpeter Carol Morgan decides to take a walk on a wilder side with Retroactive: a mostly electronic affair prominently featuring guitarists Mike Stern and Chris Cortez as well as one Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q258) on drums...continue.
Bach---Sonatas & Partitas
At first blush, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin played on the humble mandolin might be akin to making a Rusty Nail with single- malt scotch. A successful performance will require, at the very least, great virtuosity and vision: both of which Chris Thile possesses in impressive amounts. Banjoist Bela Fleck's superb 2001 recording Perpetual Motion (Sony) demonstrated that in the hands of a superior musician, Baroque fare shines like a new dime (Fleck even covers Bach's "Prelude" from Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin (BWV 1006) here). Thile, most recently of the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek, has grown into a mandolinist who eclipses his contemporaries and near- contemporaries...continue.
It's all in a name. Some names and occupations just go together, especially in sports. Harmon Killebrew, Orlando Cepeda, and Catfish Hunter are all baseball names. Blues musicians have similar iconic names. The Ur-Blues has Eddie "Son" House, Nehemiah "Skip" James, Tommy Johnson, and Charlie Patton. The generation after has Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett) and Elmore James. Today, we have Joe Bonamassa, Ronnie Earl, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Add to this latter group the Southern-fried, bona fide name of Shreveport-native Buddy Flett... continue.
Plays Well With Others
Pianist Mike Jones has got a really sweet deal going. He is the opening act for the Penn and Teller Las Vegas Show. He is also now the heir apparent to the late pianist Gene Harris' commanding style of two- handed keyboard barrel housing. Harris was a master of propulsive and deliberate piano playing. He had all the firepower needed to make whatever he played: ballads, blues, jump tunes, up-tempo, no matter, when Gene Harris played something, you knew it was Gene Harris. Jones possesses this same skillfulness at the keyboard, what Harris once called being, ..."a blues player with chops...continue.