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October 2022: Smile

October 2022: Smile

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Resonance Records

Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim, known professionally as Tawanda, tied for first place in the 9th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition held in June 2021. That is fresh talent. Tawanda won this award only a year after making her stage debut, a feat, surpassed only by the aptitude and maturity revealed on her debut recording, Smile. Tawanda seems to go from zero to belonging in the esteemed company of Veronica Swift, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Cyrille Aimee in negative time, if that could be measured. Tawanda's voice is described as ..."a cloudless alto...," one able to nuzzle both the high and low places in the register. It is a voice of seamless confidence that is as equally at home with established standards like Harry Woods's "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and the canon-expanding songs like Sting's "Sister Moon." The singer excels on a sharply curated version of the Gary McFarland/Lou Savary composition "Sack Full of Dreams," making it the spiritual center of her hopeful recording. These performances are punctuated by the arrangements of pianists Tamir Hendelman and Josh Nelson, whose contributions elevate this recording above its already lofty position.

Key Selection: "What A Little Moonlight Can Do."

Judy Niemack
What's Love
Sunnyside Records

Vocalist and teacher Judy Niemack represents a link in a chain of music instruction rivaling that of Franz Liszt in the 19th Century. Niemack was the first vocal student of tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, himself a student of Lennie Tristano. She has since become a prominent jazz educator, in the United States and Europe after having relocated there in the early 1990s where she continues to instruct in music. This dedication to jazz is reflected in the singer's choice of bandmates for her recording What's Love. Guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Joe Farnsworth make up Niemack's core ensemble, addressing the singer's consideration of love and its manifestations. Niemack programs a collection of original compositions, standards, and popular songs on her topic. Tina Turner's "What's Love Got To Do With It" serves as the focal center of the recording, Nieman slowing it down to produce a resigned song of love too challenging. A close colleague of Farnsworth's, alto saxophonist Eric Alexander, appears on "Let Life Lead You," providing an ideal accompaniment and solo for the song.

Key Selection: "What's Love Got To Do With It."

Yola Nash
Manhattan Whispers
YoStar Records

Yola Nash embodies the universality of jazz. The Polish-American singer is also a composer, media personality, producer, visual artist, and influencer. Her third recording, Manhattan Whispers, a collection of nine original compositions, perfects further her unique approach to seasoning elements of Latin jazz with musical spices of Eastern Europe nurtured in her two previous recordings: Another Girl (YoStar, 2018) and Touched By Love (YoStar, 2020). This cultural cross-inoculation is nothing new as evidenced by música norteñ, the Czech-and German-influenced Mexican music of south Texas, where canción ranchera collides with the polka and waltz and a great emphasis on the accordion and bajo sexto. Grounded with the organic low notes of bassist Dave Baron and musical direction of pianist Edsel Gomez, Nash weaves together multiple cultures. "Lovers in Paris" presents a Latin-Slavic vision that would be as much at home in 1920s Montemartre as in present-day New York City. "Still Love You" infects with its humid clave informed by Alex Meixner's smoky and piquant accordion. Nash's voice is sensual and breezy with a deeply accented base, gently informed by the singer's Easter European heritage. Manhattan Whispers is a celebration of the mind and the heart.

Key Selection: "World On Fire."

Hanka G
Universal Ancestry
Culture Bridge Records

Singer Hanka G has released three recordings since having relocated to New York City from her native Slovakia in 2016. Her fourth, Universal Ancestry, celebrates all that it means to be a part of our richly diverse humanity and is considered from the perspective of an immigrant. Hanka G takes on diverse cultures and musical heritages, in an effort to show the possibilities when racial and other differences are overcome. The singer honors those who came before her and influenced her, such as Phyllis Hyman who first recorded both McCoy Tyner's "In Search of My Heart" and the recently deceased Pharoah Sanders's "As You Are." Hanka G also tips her hat to Abbey Lincoln covering that singer's "Throw It Away." With great love does the singer address Whitney Houston's "All The Man I Need" and Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire." Revealing her spiritual side, the singer performs Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" and Walter Hawkins's "Be Grateful." Her accompaniment is lush and well produced and her style is adult contemporary jazz: sleek and refined.

Key Selection: "In Search of My Heart."

Cathy Segal-Garcia & Phillip Strange
Live In Japan
Origin Records

Smart and accomplished, West Coast vocalist Cathy Segal-Garcia releases her 15th recording, Live In Japan, on the heels of her well-received Social Anthems, Volume 1 (Origin Records, 2021). Live In Japan is a retrospective December 1992 performance that pairs the singer with her frequent collaborator, pianist Phillip Strange. Recorded in Osaka during the holidays, Segal-Garcia sprinkles her two generous sets with enough seasonal music to qualify as a Christmas offering had it been released earlier. Segal-Garcia is daring and sophisticated when interpreting the Great American Songbook. The singer kicks things off with "I'm In The Mood For Love" replete with vocalese courtesy of James Moody, establishing the high bar her performance would sustain through "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, "Honeysuckle Rose," and "I've Got Rhythm." Strange's playing is warm and sprite, brimming with humor and community. The pair end the recital on a mid-1940s note, pairing a swing-tinged "Sentimental Journey" with a tender and introspective "The Christmas Song," making Live In Japan worthy of its resurrection from the catalog.

Key Selection: "God Bless The Child."

Jackie Ryan
Recuerdos De Mi Madre
OpenArt Productions

Recuerdos De Mi Madre (Memories Of My Mother) is San Francisco Bay-area vocalist Jackie Ryan's very personal homage to her late mother, Soledad Garcia Ryan, who passed away when the singer was 15. Ryan is a well-established interpreter of the Great American Songbook as can be heard in her previous recordings, most recently, Listen Here (OpenArt Productions LLC, 2013). Because of her Latina heritage, Ryan has made it a practice to include one Latin selection on each of her previous 7 recordings, but she has yet to release a "Latin" album: until now. Recuerdos De Mi Madre is a collection of 10 compositions from the Great Latin American Songbook. These songs make up the core of Latin American popular music and were well known to Ryan growing up. The singer is joined by clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera who adds the authentic sound to an introspective "El Dia Que Me Quieras," a dark "Perfidia," and a brisk and piquant "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás." Marco Diaz doubles on piano and trumpet, excelling at both, his open-bell trumpet playing pristine on "Sabor A Mi" and "Contigo Aprendi." All songs sung in the vernacular, Ryan is perfectly at home with the material making this the Latin jazz release of the year. This recording is nearly perfect and a delight.

Key Selection: "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás."

Joe Coughlin
Dedicated To You
Cellar Music Group

In completely non-scientific observations, based on promotional materials received, it appears that there are fewer male jazz singers than females. This impression can quickly extrapolate to an equally small number of exceptional male singers when compared to females. Where female singers have a litany of influences to draw from: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday; Sarah Vaughan; Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, and Cassandra Wilson, male vocalists seem restricted to one, Frank Sinatra, without whom we would not have Paul Anka, Harry Connick, Jr., Peter Cincotti, and Jamie Cullen. But, there are more male singers, many of who hide in plain sight. One journeyman vocalist is Canadian Joe Coughlin, a keeper-of-the-flame like Tony Bennett and Michael Buble, who fronts a traditional piano-based quartet, for a collection of durable and time-honored standards. Coughlin sings con brio in a readily recognizable style that is warm and welcoming—think of a singer with arms wide open. "After Your Lover Has Gone" and "On Green Dolphin Street" let the listener know that all of those saxophonists and trumpeters were tooting about in their instrumental renditions. Coughlin's "Lush Life" may be a performance difficult to better. "My Ship" and "Nature Boy" are expertly turned out. Coughlin's support is sophisticated and subtle; his voice is golden and aged, like a fine whiskey, revealing notes of wood and amber. It is also sure and commanding. Coughlin is a pro, it is obvious. If a listener wished to know how this music sounded in its heyday, Coughlin gives a good idea.

Key Selection: "Lush Life."

Jeremy Wong
Hey There
Cellar Music Group

Where Joe Coughlin represents the Canadian old guard, Vancouver vocalist, composer, and lyricist Jeremy Wong symbolizes the next step in genre evolution. Kudos to the Cellar Group for sponsoring both artists. While Coughlin's approach is solidly mainstream, Wong is steeped in hard bop: bold, assertive, and swinging. This may best be heard in Jesse Cahill's exuberant and muscular drumming, influenced by Tony Williams (hear "Invitation"). With a baritone voice, Wong has a John Proux-sweetness to his instrument, making his delivery more complex than expected. His voice has an excellent balance throughout his range. The singer shares an empathic relationship with bassist John Lee, who acts as the band's metronome. The two spur one another on. Lee provides a taut drama in the release sections preceding solos and full band introductions, as in "Easy To Love" and "The Days Of Wine And Roses." Pianist Chris Gestrin and saxophonist Ardeshir Pourkermati direct and season the hard bop nature of Wong's recital, keeping the music at a constant and tinsel simmer. Wong's song choice, track programming, and singing make the listening experience special.

Key Selection: "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most."

Carolyn Sampson, Allan Clayton, Joseph Middleton
Hugo Wolf -Italienisches Liederbuch, IHW 15
BIS Records

Passionate and mercurial, lieder composer Hugo Wolf lived a difficult, incandescent, and creatively short life made brief by syphilitic madness at 43 years old. He made hay in that short amount of time, composing eight books of lieder containing in excess of 300 songs. Wolf is considered to be the master of the art song, elevating the style above that of Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. Heavily influenced by Wagner, Wolf was melodically motivated, creating songs brimming with drama and pathos. This recording of Wolf's Italian Songbook reveals the seminal matter from which the cabaret music of Weimar Berlin derives. Listening to these glistening interpretations by soprano Carolyn Sampson and tenor Allan Clayton (supported by pianist Joseph Middleton) captures Wolf's quickly evolving art. These songs arise from the kiss between the art song and popular music and can be enjoyed from this perspective.

Key Selection: "Daß dochj gemalt all deine Reize wären."

Noël Akchoté
Anton Webern— Six Bagatelles For String Quartet, Op. 9 (1910) (Early 20th Century For Steel Guitar)

French guitarist and provocateur Noël Akchoté closes his survey of classical music performed on acoustic guitar with Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles For String Quartet. Having recently addressed selected Hadyn, Mozart, and Beethoven string quartets, Akchoté ends this creative series as he promised and on a craggy, atonal, serial, 12-tone note performance. Akchoté's choice of this material serves two purposes: first, it shines a light on misunderstood music genres not well represented in commercial recordings, and second, it attempts to make the music more accessible. Akchoté's recordings all sound analog, with an audible hiss detectable before he begins to play. It is a warm, familiar, and amiable background sound that softens the guitarist's interpretation of the difficult and challenging music. These are short, crowded segments, each less than a minute long, save for the final "VI. Fließend (Varians)." Tense and dissonant, Akchoté well captures Webern's intellectual soul. Reference string quartet performance: Juilliard String Quartet, Berg: Lyric Suite -Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Six Bagatelles for String Quartet (Sony Entertainment 1961/2016).

Key Selection: "VI. Fließend (Varians)."

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