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Bird Songs, Tripping Fantásia, Real Harmony & Klezmer-Hop


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Alex Bird
You Are the Light and the Way

You Are the Light and the Way presents an interesting challenge for a writer. Twelve new songs by Canadian vocalist Alex Bird (lyrics and music) and keyboardist Ewan Farncombe (music and arrangements) consistently sound like new "songbook classics"—in several places, as if Harry Connick Jr. magically composed music with Johnny Mercer. Bird, Farncombe and the Jazz Mavericks swing each tune with a refreshingly direct and honest spirit. The challenge? Writers often want to make great music sound more complicated than excellent tunes swung with power and grace.

But sometimes it really is that simple. You Are the Light and the Way is an absolute joy. Bird's voice is a strong and supple lead instrument, sometimes resounding echoes of Canada's pop vocal legend Paul Anka, and the Maverick's accompaniment moves as its mirror image, reflective and cool.

Bird's voice strolls all alone into the first verse of the opening "You Are the Light and the Way," cold and sharp as an icepick. The Mavericks slip in and pull the second verse down into a funky blue groove made up of gospel, pop, R&B, and jazz filtered through the musical colors of New Orleans, while drummer Eric West lays greasy jukejoint fatback behind the beat. "My Cutie Pie" more sharply focuses on that Crescent City sound, with West's big fat bass and drum sounds rocking its easy beat and Alexander Brown's trumpet meowing and prowling like a wet tomcat crawling in from the rain.

You Are the Light and the Way turns the spotlight not only on Bird's commanding voice but also on the Jazz Mavericks. "Tell Me It's You," which sort of glides out from under the closing curtain of the preceding "I Held You In My Arms," somehow digs deep into a throaty, romantic saxophone sound but luxuriously floats like a drifting cloud upon the rhythm section's languid tempo. "Back to You" stretches the Mavericks out the most: In the first verse, West splashes cymbals and drums to rattle dissonant and eerie saxophone moans, then the second verse drops dead into the pocket of a blues stride so cool that it burns icy hot. Brown smolders through Miles Davis' acoustic muted ballad sound in "Sittin' By My Lonesome," a beautifully hurting sound so sweet it sings like a ballad and so sad it aches like a blues.

"Old Soul" rumbles from its opening swinging big-band sound into a finger-snapping stroll which Bird's vocal seems to relish with all the finger-snapping cool of Bobby Darin or even a young Frank Sinatra.

Sometimes, it really is just that simple.

Dave Devine
Played Against the Harmony of the Real

Dave Devine's Played Against the Harmony of the Real was recorded live in the studio, with bassist Paul McDaniel and percussionist (and sometimes pianist) Matt Mayhall helping pianist, keyboardist, guitarist and vocalist Devine paint dreamy sonic landscapes of various moods and hues. Brilliant engineering by Colin Bricker allows your ears to genuinely feel each musician reaching and feeling their way towards the others as every song evolves and grows.

"Wolf City" and "Sopris" sound inspired by the free, open spaces and wildlife of the western mountains near Devine's Denver (Colorado) homebase. "Wolf City" builds in the tension between Devine's liquid classical guitar and Mayhall's robotic drumming, and eventually takes shape around his repeated guitar phrases but remains weird around the edges. Acoustic and electric keyboards jamming together and with the guitar pump a progressive rock-jazz groove into "Sopris" that also skips along Mayhall's bright sunburst cymbal splashes. (Devine's press sheet provides occasionally hilarious, inscrutable yet accurate one-line track descriptions: "Sopris" is "a glorious mountain near Aspen" and "Wolf City" is "classical guitar therapy.")

Played Against the Harmony seems to grow more focused and "real" as its music rolls on and culminates in a family-based trilogy near the end of the set. In the lovely "Wife Song," glistening cymbals and whispered brush drumming build up a shimmering, suspended sonic wave for Devine's electric blues guitar to surf and glide upon. "Son Song" blasts off with spacy strummed guitar that rockets back and forth in stereo and sets up a grinding conflict with Mayhall's avalanche of power drumming —their two sounds working against instead of with each other—before settling into a more surefooted straight-ahead stride. The trilogy concludes with "Daughter Song," a tender yet spacy Soft Machine jazz-rock groove that Devine's guitar wraps itself around with a unique, protecting and nurturing, jazz-rock sound.

The melancholy guitar with vocal ballad "Vanish" ("Elliott Smith meets Barclay James Harvest") comes before the last track ("Mondegreen"), but a track so sadly beautiful really should have closed this set.

Jacopo Ferrazza
Teal Dreamers Factory Records

Jacopo Ferrazza's imaginative Fantásia opens luminous landscapes for his emotive basslines and Alessandra Diodati's dreamy vocals (in her recording debut) to float and wander over, around, and through. Ferrazza's bass and synthesizers lead an elastic quintet through a suite of soft compositions that reflect his romantic sound, his classical (piano) training, his jazz sense of curiosity and adventure, and perhaps even a poet's or painter's eye for pastel colors and harmony. Deep moaning tones from cellist Livia de Romanis flood each composition with extra breadth and depth.

Its first two tracks firmly establish this ethereal mood. The leadoff and title track opens with an acoustic piano melody that Diodati's evocative, wistful voice picks up and traces. But just as her voice lifts up and begins soaring over this spacy landscape, the music erupts into disparate bass, drum and trumpet sounds: Bass and drums dig so deep down they seem to claw a hole in the song's floor while guest Fabrizio Bosso's trumpet scrapes against its upper limits. These seem like two disconnected parts until Diodati's vocal floats in and descends like a bridge across them to close this first glimpse of Fantásia.

"The Explorers" is a great description of this ensemble as they traverse this tune. Drums open with a staccato beat that Ferazza's bass quickly picks up and strings together. Then the music goes through so many different passages, including a vocal section where synthetic and human voices dance on a melody as colorful and fleeting as a butterfly, that it's difficult to keep track. This leads drummer Valeria Vantaggio and pianist Enrico Zanisi, into an acoustic piano trio jazz section that relentlessly keeps changing its own rhythm and shape, some of the most amazing (jazz) music of the set. "The Explorers" is an excellent musical adventure for the listener, too.

"Step By Step" seems to build in precisely that way: Cello and violin twirl the first verse into a beautiful dance with piano and Diodati's spectral voice; pushed hard by the rhythm section, the remaining steps grow in power without increasing tempo or volume. Ferrazza's sympathetic bass thrusts and tugs, energizing pianist Zanisi's closing solo, a gorgeous jazz crown atop this curiously satisfying combination of instrumental styles.

Bosso's guest trumpet and Diodati's ethereal, haunting voice whisper eternity into "Old Souls," another beautiful reflection in this expansive journey through Fantásia.

David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg
Mazel Tov Cocktail Party!
Table Pounding Music

When David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg announced the release of Mazel Tov Cocktail Party! , they included this accompanying statement: "This project riffs off a slip of the tongue by a conservative pundit who called Molotov Cocktails "Mazel Tov" Cocktails. We were tickled by the imagery of a "Mazel Tov Cocktail" lighting up the world with hope and joy—instead of being a destructive force... We wanted to take traditional, old dance forms and completely recast them to bring an overt message of tolerance and celebration of our shared humanity."

"Celebration" captures the riotous, joyous sound of Mazel Tov Cocktail Party! in a single word. Or at least as close as one word can get to capturing the sound of an ensemble co-led by multi-instrumentalist Tagg (assorted keyboards, cello, electronics and beats) and Krakauer, one of the world's leading (and certainly among the world's most experimental) klezmer clarinet players—it is built upon a rhythm section teaming American bassist Jerome Harris and guitarist Yoshie Fruchter with Iranian drummer Martin Shamoonpour, and also features three guest mixmasters/DJs.

With klezmer, hip-hop, calypso, polka, and other dance forms as their baseline, this party opens with a square dance. Krakauer blows clarinet like hot wind into the sails of "North Country Square Dance (Square Dance All Night)" to keep it rolling while Harris' bass lines bounce like a tuba player blowing in a moonshine jug, and hipster Tagg throws down a rap (including a verse in either patois or French) that doubles as a square dance call. In the same way, Krakauer's swinging clarinet, Harris' thumping tuba basslines, and Tagg's vocal throwdown energize "Krakky's Rainbow Polka," even as the surrounding music bounces from polka to calypso to techno/electro to hard funk and rock. But best of all, "Krakky's Rainbow Polka" makes playing the clarinet sound like fun. How great is that?

Just like these first two, the last two tunes are joyous celebrations. "Wedding on the Cyclone" is a perfect fit and description: A marriage made up of different musical cultures whirled together and collectively poured out with primal force. Krakauer's clarinet leads a repeating three-step dance through which the rhythm section keeps inventing new pathways, with mouth harp adding an extra twangy bounce, and the entire ensemble blooms into a lusty melodic and rhythmic roar as the leader rips into a few choruses of the traditional "Hava Negila" before dismissing the troops. "The Happy Hour Crew Theme Song" drops an enthusiastically wild and crazy coda on this enthusiastically wild and crazy set.

Musical and other cultural references whiz in and out of Mazel Tov Cocktail Party! like the howling flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and it's a decent bet that you've most likely not heard too much music like this before.

Tracks and Personnel

You Are the Light and the Way

Tracks: You Are the Light and the Way; Where the Blackbird Sings; Way Back Home; My Cutie Pie; Sittin' By My Lonesome; Fool for Love; Thinkin' 'Bout You Tonight; Old Soul; I Held You in My Arms; Tell Me It's You; Back to You; Honey Bee Lullaby.

Personnel: Alex Bird: vocals; Ewan Farncombe: piano, Hammond B-3; Eric West: drums; Leighton Harrell: bass; Jacob Gorzhaltsan: saxophone, clarinet; Alexander Brown: trumpet; Jesse Ryan: alto sax; Patrick Smith: baritone sax; Tom Richards: trombone; William Lamoureux: violin; Mo M. Mitchell: violin; Andrew Chung: viola; Jill Sauerteig: cello.

Played Against the Harmony of the Real

Tracks: Short Story Long; Canadian Yarnart; Sopris; Played Against the Harmony of the Real; Wolf City; Wife Song; Son Song; Daughter Song; Vanish; Mondegreen.

Personnel: Dave Devine: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards, loops, treatments, vocals; Paul McDaniel: acoustic bass, electric bass, synth bass; Matt Mayhall: drums, piano, glockenspiel, percussion.


Tracks: Fantàsia; The Explorers; River Theater; Old Souls; Land Of Time; La Course; Blue Glow; Step By Step; The Tree Of Life.

Personnel: Jacopo Ferrazza: double bass, synthesizers; Alessandra Diodati: vocals; Enrico Zanisi: piano, synthesizers, live electronics; Livia de Romanis: cello; Valerio Vantaggio: drums; Fabrizio Bosso: trumpet; Marcello Allulli: soprano sax.

Mazel Tov Cocktail Party!

Tracks: North Country Square Dance (Square Dance All Night); Krakky's Rainbow Polka; Bella's Calypso (Bella suit son cœur); Jammin' with Socalled; Mazel Tov Cocktail Party; I'm A Poor Wayfaring Stranger; Drum and Hornpipe: Poll Ha'penny; Wedding on the Cyclone; The Happy Hour Crew Theme Song.

Personnel: David Krakauer: clarinet, vocals; Kathleen Tagg: piano, prepared piano, keyboard, accordion, cello, beats/electronics; Sarah MK: rap vox, vocals, organ, tambourine; Yoshie Fruchter: electric guitar, oud, mandolin; Jerome Harris: electric bass, vocals; Martin Shamoonpour: daf (Iranian Frame drum), jaw's harp, whistles; Bergsonist: samples, electronics; Jeremy Flower a/k/a Keepalive: samples, electronics; Socalled: samples, electronics.



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