Voices of Summer 2005

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Somehow Wright's luminous voice bridges the gap between the secular blues confessionals of Tracy Chapman or Joan Armatrading and the spiritual gospel confessionals of Anita Baker.
Singers come in all styles and sounds. Not everyone thinks they have the dexterity to master a saxophone, guitar or drums. But almost everyone has a voice; and almost everyone thinks that they can musically use it. Some people, of course, use it musically better than others. For example:

Paul Anka
Rock Swings
Verve
2005

Pop music sure has changed since Paul Anka last helped rule the airways (as composer or performer) with such mainstays as "My Way, "Diana, "She's A Lady and "Puppy Love.

Decades later, Anka's own notes explain the Rock Swings! concept: "We all embraced the idea: to find songs from a diverse group of musicians, from Nirvana and Van Halen, to Lionel Richie and The Pet Shop Boys, and reinvent them in an entirely unique way: Swing! The result, a unique sound with great musical content.

Rock Swings! indeed, when cast in these orchestral overviews anchored by rhythm session aces Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Mike Valerio (bass) and earnestly fronted by an experienced, genuine singer who helped rule one of pop music's golden eras. When the brass section introduces the opening "It's My Life (Bon Jovi) by quoting "The Best is Yet to Come, it foreshadows the fun that Anka and musicians have tumbling through this survey of two pop decades.

This singer has rarely sounded better, soaring through the love note to Ella Fitzgerald nestled in "True (Spandau Ballet) and pouring himself into the climaxes of "Wonderwall (Oasis) and "Eye of the Tiger (Survivor), where he exchanges hot wallops from the brass. Cool as Fred Astaire, Anka magically glides — no bootstomps or stumbles — through the grunge swamps of "Blackhole Sun (Soundgarden) and "Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana).

Anka may be the star singing up in front of the orchestra, but arrangers Randy Kerber, Patrick Williams and John Clayton contribute powerfully swinging, warm and good-humored charts that hoist and keep him there. In total, Rock Swings! becomes far more than Anka breathing new life into old songs - these "old songs seem to breath new life into the singer, too. As an album, this is good. As a career move, this is great.

Ithamara Koorax
Autumn in New York
JSP/Huks Music
2004

Spilling over with jazz and pop classics, this new set is probably the best program yet from this blossoming Brazilian vocalist.

Like almost every other female vocalist from Brazil, Koorax sounds influenced by Flora Purim - heard, for example, in Koorax' fearless hopscotch jumps across the endpoints of her entire vocal range. Also like Purim, Koorax has been tinted by classic jazz harmonies and phrasings - and not just by vocalists (though Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Horn are obvious influences) but particularly by horn players and pianists too.

Koorax' impending greatness is evident from the very first cut, "I Fall in Love Too Easily, which she dedicates to Miles Davis, who famously interpreted this ballad, and to Keith Jarrett. She radiates her "ooo vocal sound to resound then fade like a trumpet (which happens again later in her dedication of "She Was Too Good To Me to Don Sebesky and Chet Baker, perhaps the song's most famous interpreter). Its closing is stunning and stratospheric; it dawns on you afterwards that you simply cannot sing "I Fall in Love Too Easily, at least its last line, any better than this.

Koorax also revisits two classics from Brazil's legendary composer Antonio Carlos Jobim: Two versions of "You Were Born to Be Mine (Absolut Lee) , unfurling its introduction as long and elegant as a gown for a royal ball, then swimming in the liquid pools of Jobim's soft, almost hidden rhythms ( "dedicated to Jobim, of course! ); and a dramatic "How Insensitive dedicated to Purim.

Koorax fronts a piano trio led by Jurgen Friedrich with bassist Sergio Barroso and drummer Cesar Machado. They stretch out in the up-tempo numbers, particularly the middle passages of "Walking Down the Street and "Absolute Lee, and shift rhythms into a churning undertow beneath "How Insenstive, but for the most part their instrumental support is dedicated entirely to the vocalist.

Ken Saydak
It's My Soul
Evidence
2005

Born in one of the blues' most essential cities, this Chicago native learned from some of the Windy City's best by playing piano and keyboards on tours by Mighty Joe Young and Lonnie Brooks. In the 1980s, Saydak played an essential part in Texas blues guitar legend Johnny Winter's renaissance as pianist on several tours and albums, including Winter's justly famous, Grammy-nominated Guitar Slinger album.

This solo album, his third, would certainly be catalogued under "blues. But listened to closely, it reaches back through labels and categories to clutch the still-pumping heart of the simple and glorious music that became rock n' roll - the seminal, simmering soul stew bursting with different but related flavors: the twangs of country music, the tangs of New Orleans R&B, the heart pangs of gospel and the ka-bang! of the blues.

For rock and roll energy, look no further than the cannonball blast opening and title track. Then explore the rhythm underneath "Hard Work, which flows from the same pool as Fats Domino's classic New Orleans rocker "Blueberry Hill, and the slow rolling "I'll Pray for You which sounds like gospel, blues and country, THEN tosses barrelhouse piano boogie onto its collection plate!

Saydak proves an earnest and spirited blues songwriter (composing eleven of these thirteen cuts) and musician with a rich and robust voice that sounds ready-made to sing the blues. In fact, his strong voice sometimes overpowers less substantial material ("Two of Everything, "Road and the Weather ). But given more solid songs Saydak's voice rings more true. It nurtures "Half-Assed Love into a slow-rolling blues piano tidal wave, then spanks "Hanging by a Thread and "Rearrange, both of which feature guitar and vocal patterns that sound like Clapton deeply steeped in the blues.

Marcia Ball
Live! Down the Road
Alligator
2005

Ball here showcases one great slow-rolling blues, "Louisiana 1927, Randy Newman's dust-bowl tale about a historic flood, into which she wholeheartedly dives and immerses herself. Perhaps her best singing of this entire set, she recoils from its last line as if in horror from nature's awesome devastation of person and property.

But throughout the rest of this set, this composer, pianist and singer - and current owner of the W.C. Handy Awards for Contemporary Blues Female Artist and for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year (So Many Rivers, also nominated for a Grammy Award) - throws a Crescent City party that shakes the house of rock down to its seminal roots.

Ball's party mixes and cooks up the spicy sounds of Texas and Louisiana, from Ball originals and several well-chosen covers, into potent jambalaya. In "That's Enough of That Stuff, her snapshot of the joys of a New Orleans party, in living color and illuminated by white-hot Crescent City piano, she displays a reporter's eye for nuanced detail: "We got 'Fess down on the jukebox/ Fats on the radio/ Got Toots on the piano in the living room/ And the Nevilles singing 'Iko Iko'...

Ball kicks in several other well-placed covers: With a great vocal and Pat Boyack's incendiary electric solo on Duke Robillard's "Just Kiss Me ; sharing with vocalist Angela Strehli "It Hurts to Be In Love (once a hit for Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers) across the border between New Orleans R&B and rock n' roll; jumpin' like Louis Jordan fronting the Chuck Berry band at Mardi Gras in "Crawfishin' ; and ending the set by shredding the bawdy blues "Let Me Play with Your Poodle, favored in previous generations by Lightnin' Hopkins, Tampa Red, and Memphis Slim.

Celso Fonseca
Rive Gauche Rio
Six Degrees
2005

There's something especially unique about the way a Brazilian strums an acoustic guitar. Perhaps their rhythms play from a memory, instinctive not thought, inherited through generations of moonlight strolls on the beach, of soft cool breezes caressing warm soft tanned skin, memories of romance and passion.

The heart of Fonseca's second international release beats from his acoustic guitar and vocals - incredibly light, deceptively rhythmic, irresistibly romantic - supported by bassist Luiz Alvez and drummer Alexandre Foncesa (no relation). But he also uses the cool jazz sounds of flute, flugelhorn and Fender Rhodes to expand upon the instrumentation of his masterful, understated debut Natural. Written in Portuguese, Spanish and English, Fonseca admits, "All these songs are love songs of one kind or another.

If you can write such beautiful love songs, why write anything else?

Attempting to analyze or describe the intuitive genius of music this romantic seems to only serve to destroy it. Fonseca's solo "My Broken Heart and Damien Rice's "Delicate - a melancholy blue dance between percussion, vocals and guitar - are no less rich from such bare instrumentation. With a wink and grin, Fonseca duets guitar and vocals on the charming "Don De Dluir with Jorge Drexler, who won the 2005 Oscar for Best Song ("Al otro lado del Rio, Motorcycle Diaries).

"Feriado and "Pousada merrily chirp and sparkle like mountain streams, bubbling with percussion then adorned with flute ("Feriado ) and flugelhorn ("Pousada ), each soaring overhead softly, just out of reach, graceful and beautiful birds in flight. Fonseca's "Bela is simply gorgeous Brazilian jazz-pop - subtle, soft, supple - that dances with the gracious and gentlemanly spirit of Jobim.

Fonseca is surely Jobum's heir apparent. Gorgeous music from his hands, like "Bela, sounds so advanced that it seems simple. Almost EVERY song on Rive Gauche Rio begins and ends in the hands of this Brazilian singer strumming his shimmering acoustic guitar.

Lizz Wright
Dreaming Wide Awake
Verve Forecast
2005

Wright's sophomore release is a great production of songs impeccably crafted, both soul-rending originals and poignant renditions of pop classics. Wright, who more or less emerged as a professional singer after she debuted with a 2002 series of tribute concerts to Billie Holiday, continues to demonstrate exquisite taste.

As good as the songs, the instrumentation, the playing and the production are on Dreaming Wide Awake - and they are all quite good - Wright's allure is ultimately all about her voice. Somehow this luminous voice bridges the gap between the secular blues confessionals of Tracy Chapman or Joan Armatrading and the spiritual gospel confessionals of Anita Baker. Yes, this voice is THAT good.

Wright's voice leads a core band of keyboardist Glenn Patscha, bassist David Piltch (Holly Cole, k.d. lang), and Seal sidemen guitarist Chris Bruce and drummer Earl Harvin. Guest musicians on this set include guitarist Bill Frisell and Marc Anthony "Chocolate Genius Thompson; it was produced by Craig Street, who should certainly know his way around the genre from his previous productions for Cassandra Wilson, k.d. lang, Holly Cole, and most recently Norah Jones (Come Away With Me).

Wright shapes her interpretations into reflections upon herself through the looking glass of others' lyrics, and let this considerable voice shine through: For openers, "A Taste of Honey as urgent and dark and sweet and liquid as a stolen midnight kiss, and leading into a gorgeously melancholy reading of Joe Henry's "Stop ; profound folk meditations on the Youngblood's "Get Together and Neil Young's "Old Man, poured from Wright's smoldering soul into brooding blues. "I'm Confessin' serves as her confessional, but swings more lightly in the tradition of jazzy blues.

Full of mystery and wonder, Wright's original material swims these same spiritual depths. She moans the blues with strong echoes of Chapman to "Hit the Ground, openly wonders how to find the strength to overcome "Trouble then gives thanks to her guiding muse in the title track, yet she softly and colorfully twirls like a little girl through rootsy, Al Green-ish soul in "When I Close My Eyes.

The sound of a solitary soul seeking communion, the thoughtful Dreaming Wide Awake would be a great gift for a young woman on the threshold of adulthood.

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