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August 2022: Higher Ground

August 2022: Higher Ground

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Higher Grounds
Outside In Music

Polymath composer, guitarist and pianist, DO'A, possesses an embarrassment of talent equal only to the smoky and concealed mystery surrounding her and her provocative moniker. Her voice is deeply alto: dusky, rich, and indulgent, like dark chocolate, full of crepuscular secrets and seductive charisma. Her musical vehicle is largely a Latin vibe with an elastic momentum defying any interfering inertia. Conceived and recorded remotely, Higher Grounds reflects our new normal, where distance is overcome by musicians recording in place, be it in Colombia, Boston, Cuba, Israel, or the Gran Canary Islands. DO'A returned to her native Albania to complete recording and assembling the pieces, smoothing them into unity. This seven-song EP is steeped in the humidity of the Latin clave, revealed in the breezy, mid-tempo "Flor de Lis" and the quiet and drowsy balladry of "Alfonsina ye el Mar." "Lámpara" and "Unidad" sway with Cuban grace and precision, while the single English lyric, "I Fall In Love Too Easily" reveals an affectless, Chet Baker-like delivery, lightly accented and lusciously appealing.

Key Selection: "Pranvera."

Vicki Burns
Lotus Blossom Days
ViBu Jazz

What jazz is all about is swing. For our purposes here, swing is what we've got. Vicki Burns' introduction to "If You Never Fell In Love With Me" is robust, giving way to pianist Art Hirahara's propulsive solo. It is a rhythmic exegesis spurred on by the pressing 4/4 of bassist Sam Bevan who plays his own taut and muscular solo with Burns doubling on voice and drummer Billy Drummond taking over timekeeping. And Burns swings. She joins a new generation of singers, including Jane Monheit, Kristina Koller and Naama Gheber, who use small instrumental forces to reconfigure the Great American Songbook in their youthful image. On Lotus Blossom Days, Burns adds a change-up in peppering the release with vocalese selections. Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" ("Watch Out," lyrics by Mary Ellen Donald), John Coltrane's "Equinox" ("A Long Way to Go," lyrics by Chris Caswell), and Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" ("It's Over Now," lyrics by Mike Del Ferro ), all expertly realized. Burns comes out swinging and realizing a knockout punch.

Key Selection: "Out Of This World."

Chicago Soul Jazz Collective
Way To Be Free
JMarq Records

Co-led by saxophonist John Fournier and trumpeter Marques Carroll, the Chicago Soul Jazz Collective release their third recording in On The Way To Be Free. Celebrating the city where Louis Armstrong made his first recordings, the group receives its inspiration from such soul-jazz pioneers as Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley, while opening its arms to include rhythm-and-blues, classic '60s soul, and neo-soul. Joining CSJC is the Chicago-native vocalist Dee Alexander, who celebrates the great vocalists of the past, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday. The vibe is an urgent funk and sensual slow groove. The opening "Mama Are We There Yet" smacks of the period vibe captured in the film Summer Of Soul (Searchlight Pictures, 2021). The CSJC effects a Lou Donaldson boogaloo on the title song while Alexander approximates a strutting Abbey Lincoln crossed with Anita Baker "So Alive" is a lyric waltz that floats beneath Alexander's committed vocals. Alexander is featured on seven of the nine selections, the instrumentals being a funky Crusaders homage, "Behind The Crusaders." and the sleek and jaunty "Nothing Good Ever Goes Away." Way To Be Free is a fully engaged and realized recording, celebrating the past, present, and future.

Key Selection: "So Alive."

Tetel Di Babuya
Meet Tetel
Arkadia Records

Tetel Di Babuya is the sum of a series of fortunate contradictions. Firstly, Tetel Di Babuya is not the vocalist's name. It is, rather, a kinetic pseudonym, a nom de plume that gradually assimilated one Marcela Venditti into a whole new universe. A classically-trained violinist from Araçatuba, São Paulo, Brazil, Venditti recognized an all-consuming love for music that assimilated her love of poetry, writing, and music-making into a single dynamic package with the mysterious and provocative name Tetel. Meet Tetal is the result of Di Babuya's introduction to American Jazz through Ella Fitzgerald and then, seemingly out of nowhere (but after a self-admitted mountain of work) a collection of ten originals and one standard was born as our introduction to this specter. Di Babuya emerges and presents fully formed as a clever and engaging songwriter who likes to have fun with her material as heard in her opener "Lullaby of Loveland" and the cheeky, "Willow. Don't You Weep." Di Babuya sings with fun and barely bridled abandon that makes great use of her scatting skills (doubtlessly learned from Fitzgerald) while generously quoting the predicate compositions. The singer is supported by a crack band that swings with a dangerous velocity one minute and a sleepy, humid tempo the next while expanding over an international assembly of style. Meet Tetel is a masterful and engaging project that is a welcome wonder from a new and exuberant talent.

Key Selection: "For One Man Only."

Benjamin Koppel with Cæcilie Norby
Anna's Dollhouse
Cowbell Music

The Danish alto Saxophonist Benjamin Koppel complements his already impressive discography with a concept project orbiting the life of his Aunt Anna, featuring vocalist Caecilie Norby and jazz legends Kenny Werner and Peter Erskine, joined by Koppel's father, Anders, who arranged the accompanying string orchestra. Joni Mitchell and her music loom large here as influences. Commissioned by the Jewish Cultural Festival in Copenhagen in 2018, Koppel endeavored to tell the near century-long story of his aunt, from her piano-playing adolescence to her arranged marriage to her flight from Nazi-occupied Denmark to her unrequited love for another man, to her rebirth following the death of her arranged husband as a full-fledged performing musician, while meeting often with Koppel until her death in 2019. With Anna's Dollhouse Koppel kept good his promise to transform her life into music. Norby proves a grand choice for vocals, bringing a decidedly stage-toned voice to the project, one that melds well with Koppel's fluid and penetrating horn tone, reminiscent of Jan Garbarek. The two populate the project with feely melodic compositions of great sonic and harmonic beauty. Conveniently, this project positioned itself to take full advantage of Werner's considerable ability, creating a cogent and unified whole. This is jazz composition at its best with content, theme, and execution.

Key Selection: "Dying."

Ben Sidran
Swing State

Ben Sidran sneaks in here because he has sung on previous recordings (Ben There, Done That: Ben Sidran Live Around the World (1975-2015) (Sunset Boulavard, 2018)), and, while in the true spirit of jazz, his singing is an acquired taste. Not so with his instrumental trio recording, Swing State which shoots off like a howitzer, shaking the listener with a precision-propelled percussive playing style that is immediately engaging and understandable. "Power Swing" best describes this eight-song collection that includes the Sidran originals "Laura" (presented twice) and the title cut, with the remainder solid standards that Sidran addresses with obvious mirth and enjoyment. Joined by bassist Billy Peterson and drummer/son Leo Sidran, the elder Sidran ensures an even sonic mix for all parties (piano-left, bass-middle, drums-right). "Lullaby Of The Leaves" opens the disc with authority, Sidran playing his "old school" style, full of block chords and orchestral flourishes that recall both Horace Silver and Gene Harris. Older songs populate the disc: a historically informed "Ain't Misbehaving," a languid and strolling "Stompin' At The Savoy," an expansive "Over The Rainbow," and a loping and rollicking "Tuxedo Junction," resulting in infectiously delightful performances.

Key Selection: "Laura."

Michael Korstick
Plays The Essential Scarlatti
cpo Records

German pianist Michael Korstick has been busy, first providing an exhaustive accounting of Beethoven's piano concerto output and now a heapin' helpin' of Domenico Scarlatti on piano, an offering somewhere between Vladimir Horowitz's slim but iconic 17-selection Horowitz Plays Scarlatti (CBS, 1964) and Lucas Debargue's generous and expansive Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Masterworks, 2019) (neglecting several competing "complete recordings" already available or in preparation for this discussion). Korstick's Scarlatti addresses 37 sonatas that brim with brio while being delivered with thoughtful verve and discipline. The pianist opens his recital strategically with the E-Major sonata, Kk. 380, the same chosen by Horowitz to begin his famous 1986 Horowitz In Moscow (Deutsche Grammophon). The two performances provide context to the disparate approaches of the pianists. Horowitz is gently Romantic, allowing the left hand to tonally overtake the right while giving the pedal wide leeway. He cajoles the composition, approaching the code with the command and authority of an artist in his twilight. Kostick's performance is measured and even militant in places. His playing is precise, more classical than Baroque or Romantic. There can never be too much Scarlatti.

Key Selection: "Keyboard Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, Kk. 247."

Phillip Dyson
The King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin -Complete Piano Works
Decca Records

Every generation deserves its own Scott Joplin revival. The 1970s had Joshua Rifkin, a period instrument Bach scholar, who released a definitive performance of 24 Joplin rags on three Nonesuch LPs that have gone on to be the gold standard for proper Joplin interpretation. Pianist-provocateur Lara Downes recently envisioned Joplin as the complete artist on the richly imagined Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (Rising Sun Music, 2022) and now Phillip Dyson emerges to present all of Joplin's solo piano pieces, numbering 56 and including the composer's "3 Pieces from Treemonisha. Dyson plays his Joplin with careful grace, punctuating the statements requiring it ("The Great Crush Collision March" and "Stoptime Rag") while softly addressing the more tender moments ("Solace" and "Silver Swan Rag"). Dyson proves more assertive than Rifkin but no less reverent and meticulous. Dyson's collection illustrates well why Joplin should be considered the American Scarlatti. Joplin's rags are all self-contained stories composed with the solo (and often, the amateur) pianist in mind: egalitarian and all-inclusive. This is the music of hope, joy, despair, and resignation...just like real life.

Key Selection: "Bethena."

Jorge Jimenez
Rethinking Bach: Goldberg Variations
Jump Start Jr Records

Part of the beauty of all canonical music is its durability. Only the sturdiest compositions can stand up to often well-intentioned, but poorly realized efforts of less traditional or more progressive approaches in interpretation. In jazz, this is the rule rather than the exception. Jazz is all about playing the familiar differently, and the more familiar and the more different, the better (while still retaining a thread of the original piece). In Classical music, not so much so. Sure, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, in D major, Op. 61 has been performed as a piano concerto and a clarinet concerto and Bach transcribed Vivaldi orchestral compositions for performance on the organ. But, as a rule, the more iconic a piece, the more resistant to successful meddling it is. This would certainly be true of Bach's cornerstone, "The Goldberg Variations." Throwing caution to the wind, violinist Jorge Jimenez has transcribed and performed the aria, 30 variations, and aria, da capo, on the baroque violin. He makes it work, giving the variations an often rustic, almost pastoral character. The violin's woody and sometimes harsh tone reveal notes of despair (Variation 13), stateliness (Variation 14), and country contemplation (Variation 15). This performance is music for the imagination performed by an artist with a refined one.

Key Selection: "Aria, da capo."

Noël Akchoté
Arnold Schoenberg—String Quartet in D Major (1897) (Classical For Steel Guitar)

French guitarist Noël Akchoté has addressed "Classical Music" from plainchant to, now, Arnold Schoenberg, That is a huge wingspan by any estimation. As he did with his Berg recording (Klavierstücke: Reading Alban Berg (1901-1908) (Classical For Steel Guitar) (BandCamp 2022)) Akchoté draws the starkly melodic from the atonal soul of Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet in D Major (1897). When referring to "Steel Guitar," the guitarist means using steel guitar strings. Playing his Martin HD-28 wound with Thomastik Strings, Akchoté readily achieves the ringing tone for which he has become noted on his previous classical recordings. In all of his playing, the guitarist plays with dead serious intention tempered with a mirthful sense of humor. Akchoté steeps his playing with iconoclasm, producing sounds ranging from playful calliope music, to stanch German Marches, to delicate lullabies. Using the comparison recording: LaSalle Quartet, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Zemlinsky, Apostel: Complete String Quartets (Deutsche Grammophon, 2011); the listener will easily hear and understand what Akchoté is doing. For his part, the guitarist never ceases to amaze.

Key Selection: "Intermezzo (Second Movement, N°. 2a)."

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