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Notable and Nearly Missed 2014

C. Michael Bailey By

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As I have grown older, I have come to the startling and disheartening realization that I will not be able to read all the books there are, and, more importantly, listen to all the music there is (much less write about it). I otherwise appreciate a finite lifespan, but not when it comes to books and music. For a genre of music garnering a percentage of listeners in the single digits, jazz is represented disproportionately in the market place.

Demanding much of talent and technique, jazz provides new releases that tend to be, at least, "pretty good" (not unlike sex, pizza and beer). The "wisdom" alluded to in Reinhold Niebuhr's serenity prayer (..."and the wisdom to know the one from the other.") is that discerning taste able to separate the merely "good" from the quite "exceptional." What follows are some of the recordings I heard this year but did not or could not write about. The majority of these will not have otherwise been covered at All About Jazz.

John ButtJ.S. Bach: Das wohltemperierte Klavier (Linn Records, 2014). John Butt and his Dunedin Consort has already lit a blazing bonfire in period instrument/performance circles. Butt's Mozart Requiem (Linn, 2014) was revelatory and his reading of Handel's Messiah (Linn, 2013) was transcendent. Butt has previously established his Bach bona fides with meticulously researched recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos, John Passion and the Mass in B Minor. It is no surprise then that Butt elected to display his keyboard chops on Bach's Well-Tempered Clarier. As expected, Butt performs on harpsichord, specifically a copy of German instrument (dated 1702-04) by Michael Mietke tuned to a' = 415Hz (the Modern a note resonates at 440Hz). Butt's playing is reverent, precise and accurate. He obviously treasures his Bach in the original vernacular, crisp and punctuated.

Lara St. JohnSchubert (Ancalagon, 2014). Violinist Lara St. John has become a special brand of raconteur in the classical music business. Her early Bach recordings are quite exceptional, but St. John has cleared a path with some well-conceived projects like her recent Bach Sonatas with harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet and coupling of Vivaldi and Piazzolla over The Four Seasons. Entitled simply Schubert, St. John programs a recital of Schubert pieces from early and late in the young composer's life, using the unique format of violin, cello (Ludwig Quandt), harp (Langlamet)and soprano voice (Anna Prohaska). The vocal selections are songs based on Goethe. St. John's daring pays off in a highly listenable recording that has much to teach us about performance and interpretation.

Igor KamenzPlays Scarlatti (Naive, 2014). Russian pianist Igor Kamenz recorded repertoire has up until now included Beethoven sonatas. His performance repertoire includes Beethoven, Schumann, Couperin, Liszt...and a healthy smattering of Domenico Scarlatti. Scarlatti, Couperin and all of these romantics make for strange stylistic bedfellows. But Vladimir Horowitz made it work in his own inimitable style. Kamenz reprises many of the same sonata Horowitz addresses, doing so in a much more period punctual manner. Kamenz goes light on the Romanticism in deference to a more Classical approach. That said, Kamenz plays the minor key sonatas richly and well-paced. The A minor Sonata, K109 is almost Chopinesque, creamy with reverie. He attacks the up-tempo and driving D minor sonata, K141 with near fury. Kamenz concentration and articulation are impressive and expressive.

Jeno JandoHaydn: The Last Seven Words of Our Saviour on the Cross (Naxos, 2014). Jeno Jando could properly be considered the house pianist for Naxos. He has recorded for the label since its inception producing the complete sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as Schubert and Schumann. He is omnivorous in his repertoire equally at home with Bach or Bartok. Jando augments his Haydn repertoire with the piano reduction of "The Seven Last Words." Papa Haydn prepared three scores of his piece: one for orchestra, one for string quartet and one for solo piano. Jando's performance is welcome as there are few piano recordings of the piece. As would be expected, Jando infuses the piece with all of his experience, with early sections sounding startling Baroque, while the later sections evolve into the avant-garde. It is a harrowing account of a staid piece of music.

Ulrich Roman MurtfeldAmerican Recital (Audite, 2014). German pianist Ulrich Roman Murtfeld takes a big bite out of 100 years of North American piano composition on his American Recital. Murtfeld brings together five disparate American composers in Gottschalk, Gershwin, Glass, Rzewski and Barber, thereby assembling one of the better piano collections recently conceived. Murtfeld's Gottschalk is solid with the exception of "The Banjo" which is played at too fast a tempo (but played well nevertheless). His Gershwin is equally solid, rhythmic and relaxed in turn. Philip Glass' "Opening Piece" from Glassworks is sumptuous and deep, resonating from liberal pedal use. Rzewski's Piano Piece No. 4 is about as far out as the recital gets while Barber's "Nocturne," Op. 33 is dark and rich. Barber's piano sonata is performed similarly. Murtfeld's confident hand and command of his American repertoire make of a most entertaining listen.

Deanna WitkowskiRaindrop: Improvisations with Chopin (Tilapia, 2014). New York pianist Deanna Witkowski has previously released three well-received recordings Wide Open Window (Khaeon, 2003), Length of Days (ArtistShare, 2005) and From This Place (Tilapia, 2009). For Raindrops: Improvisations with Chopin Witkowski couples her classical and improvisational talents into a well-conceived thematically sound recording. Witkowski's straight Chopin is sparkling and derived from the composer's collections of Nocturnes and Preludes. Her improvisations are fanciful without being aimless. Her melodic and harmonic grasps are sure and well framed by her choice of time signature and tempo. "Light that Shimmers" does exactly that, highlighting the entire disc. Eminently listenable music that is thought provoking and relaxing in the same breathe.

Freda PayneCome Back to Me Love (Artistry, 2014). "Band of Gold" was a long time ago. But before and since, Payne was and is a jazz singer. Backed by a swinging big band on Come Back to Me Love, Payne strolls through some freshly realized standards and non-so-standards beginning with an intense and upbeat "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" where Payne demonstrates that she has not lost a step. Payne performs several songs penned by fellow Detroit-ite Gretchen Valade. Known for her ballads, Valade provides Payne about half of the fourteen selections included on Come Back to Me Love. The title tune is a delicate lilt with a wholly contemporary feel. Produced by pianist Bill Cunliffe, Come Back to Me Love sports plush and generous sound and sonics that cushions Payne's considerable vocal instrument. "Guess I'll Hang My Tears out to Dry" is a treat.

Helen MerrillParole e Musica (Schema, 2014). Singer Helen Merrill began her recording career in the early 1950s sparing with such peers as June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Chris Conner, Anita O'Day and Julie London. Merrill grew up with the be bop greats and was the vocalist for the Earl Hines band. While on tour in Europe in 1960, while in Italy, Merrill appeared on the television show "Moderato Swing." These performances, each prefaced by the lyrics narrated in Italian, was collected and released originally by RCA Italiana. Pick up by Schema, Parole e Musica is a reissue of these recordings. Merrill, with the backing of Italian musicians turns out an almost perfectly performed collection of standards. Parole e Musica is one of those recordings that can serve as a standard for jazz vocals. Merrill's well-balanced voice is captured and presented warmly.

Sunny Kim & Ben MonderThe Shining Sea: Live at the Olympus Hall (Audioguy Records, 2014). Sunny Kim is a Korean singer who has been recording since 2008 where she debuted with Android Ascension (YDS Music). She has performed in groups capacities, most notably with trombonist Roswell Rudd (Keep Your Heart Right). Her singing and conception are near experimental as evidenced by a moody and cool "Willow Weep for Me" which opens her live recording The Shining Sea. She is accompanied by guitarist Ben Monder, who shares her pioneer spirit in performance. He has an impressive bag of tricks and attempts to use them all to accent Kim's perfectly balanced alto voice. The two demonstrate their experimental method on Monder's lengthy soundscape "Late Green" where both musicians search sounds, combining them in inventive ways. The title Kim's own "Everywhere" is a light and air piece where she effortlessly weaves her voice among the delicate filigree established by Monder. The title song and "Let's Fall in Love" are two standards treated in the same experimental vein as "Willow Weep for Me." Kim is a forward thinking singer looking beyond the current horizon for what is coming next.

Amy McCarleyJet Engines (Self Produced, 2014). There is more to Alabama music today than Jason Isbell. Amy McCarley may be Isbell's creative counterpart. Her songs rely on the hard scrabble of rural life, spread over the post-bellum southern landscape. She is capable of that modern alt-country sound like "Everybody Wants to" and "Radio On" and equally adept at the throwback country as on "Here I am." McCarley's voice is a strange mixture of Bob Dylan's phrasing and a stable Lucinda Williams tone. Her songwriting reveals a well-studied musician who manifests her influences strictly through her own creative filter. She is surrounded by good players: Kenny Vaughan's electric guitar twangs true on "Fools Lament" and George Bradfute's slide guitar adds bona fides to "Head out of Town." The title tune encompasses all of McCarley's charms: erudition and intelligence sung with southern grit.

Alessandro Scala QuartetViaggio Stellare (Schema, 2014). Italy has long been a bastion of jazz. The shiny new Italian label Schema is highlighting all at once directions in jazz. Currently considered is saxophonist Alessandro Scala's Viaggio Stellare, a supplemented quartet recital of mostly original compositions that plant themselves in the middle of hard bop mainstream circa Dexter Gordon in the 1960s. But the music sounds more updated than that. While Scala is obviously a fan of Gordon's (penning the excellent "Dexter's Blues") he sports a denser, more compact tenor tone. The same might be said for his soprano playing, and in any case Scala mostly avoids the Coltrane black hole, succumbing to circular figures played at light speed only occasionally and never to the expense of the music. Sonically, Viaggio Stellare is stunning...crisp and driving.

Manuel Valera and the New Cuban ExpressIn Motion (Criss Cross, 2014). Criss Cross Jazz, even more than ECM or Winter & Winter, has the reputation of recording only the cream of jazz. Dedicated to the more mainstream flavors, the label has always boasted an excellent discography. Adding to that is pianist Manuel Valera's In Motion. Leading his septet, the New Cuban Express, Valera presents nine mostly original compositions that showcase saxophonist Yosvany Terry and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. Valera's own pianism is gernerously in evidence, revealing him as a sensitive and thoughtful player/composer. The result is smart and engaging Latin jazz, gratefully devoid of cliché. Valera's approach is fresh and lyrical, well captured in the ballad "Preamble" and the circuitous "NYC."

DivaA Swingin' Life (Manchester Craftsman Guild, 2014). Directed by drummer Sherrie Maricle, Diva, the all-star big band composed exclusively of women is a potently swinging ensemble that has made a name for itself in the last decade. The band brags of having multi-reedists Sharel Cassity, Anat Cohen, Janelle Reichman trumpeter Carol Morgan and many more. Appearing before an appreciative audiences at the Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Coca Cola and the Manchester Craftsman's Guild in Pittsburgh, the band features vocalists Nancy Wilson and Marlena Shaw, both well programmed. Wilson stakes out "All of Me" while Shaw belts out a blues medley consisting of "Chicago Blues," "Kansas City Blues," and "Everyday I have the Blues." The brass is bright and sharp and the reeds polished and urbane. A Diva performance is an special musical event worthy of recording.

Bill PhillippeGhosts (Self Produced, 2014). For those listeners weaned on acoustic slingers like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Jorma Kaukonen, Bill Phillippe's guitar style might be heard as too simplistic, lacking the technical bells and whistles that plagued most of the (white) acoustic blues performance in the 1960s and '70s. Phillippe is in no way a flashy guitarist or vocalist. What he is is honest and this honesty and genuineness is what makes Ghosts a treat. Phillippe plays Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen" in a standard tuning with finger picking as opposed to playing with a slide as many others (David Bromberg, Duane Allman) have done. Phillippe's "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" sounds light years from Hot Tuna's. His spare playing and singing give the piece a stark and cold personality. "Motherless Children," "In My Time of Dying," "Death Letter," and "God Don't Never Change" all ring with renewed authenticity and grace.

Alex PudduThe Golden Age of Danish Pornography (Schema, 2014). Multi-instrumentalist Alex Puddu took on the near irresistible challenge to score several soundless loops of Danish pornography from the 1970s that were produced by Freddy Weiss. That alone is reason enough to be curious about the recording. Secondly, pornography soundtrack in the golden age of the art form was cliché before it was even programmed. Puddu directs an augmented quintet in fourteen tautly composed and performed pieces of music that are just artful enough to be taken seriously while still retaining a whiff of sleaze and decadence. "Massage Salonen" is straight-ahead blues hard bop performed perfectly on instrumentation that provides a faux-update on the original musical intention. These pieces are harmonically simple and composed to recycle themselves. The soloing is effective and sonically superb. Puddu captures the early '70s in all their depraved glory.

Alex PudduThe Golden Age of Danish Pornography vol.2 (Schema, 2014). One volume of music contemporarily composed for early '70s Danish pornography was simply not enough. Alex Puddu followed the first volume with a second even more finely produced. And how can one resist pieces entitled, "Boys and Girls and Danish Hotdogs" or "Horny at the Office." Puddu establishes a texture that finds its way into all ten of the pieces on the recording. Based on two or three chords and played appropriately in a looping fashion, this music becomes some retro-dance disguised as ambient music. Puddu's conservative use of the sitar gives the pieces a James-Bond feel. There is an immediate nostalgia to these pieces, that when heard separated from its object, recall white bell-bottom pants and pillow sleeve shirts, clove cigarettes and cocaine.

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