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Ten Artists: April 2019

C. Michael Bailey By

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Claudia Vorbach
Is There a Time?
Phoneector
2018

Claudia Vorbach follows up Come Down Easy (Phoneector, 2016) with these 14 smart original compositions infused with the swagger of a confident composer/singer. At first blush, Vorbach sounds like a relaxed Norah Jones, playfully whimsical and vocally daring. Vorbach sings with an assured Van Morrison-fashioned slur that is both rakish and sensual. "Princess With A Cross To Bear" is a dead ringer for "Moondance," swinging hard with a certain mainland European style. But that is where all comparisons end. Vorbach is of a mind to mix the jazz community up with a standard piano trio including keyboardist Martin Soros, bassist Axel Kühn and drummer Felix Shrack, playing music from all over the genre map.

Vorbach accompanies herself on the best that this disc has to offer, with piano on "Something Endless In Their Love" and "Pearls Of Wisdom" and guitar on "My Old Man." The piano tracks evoke early Elton John during his Tumbleweed Connection (DJM, 1970) period while "My Old Man" conjures Joni Mitchell by way of Rickie Lee Jones. Is There A Time? is a delightful and refreshing release. It beckons from both jazz and pop realms in a way that melds the two together seamlessly, something tried and failed by many but fully successful here.

Sarah McKenzie
Secrets of My Heart
Normandy Lane
2019

Secrets Of My Heart follows on the heels of Sarah McKenzie's Paris in the Rain (Normandy Lane, 2017). Like that recording and her Don't Tempt Me (ABC, 2011), this one is smart, stylish and plush. Produced by Australian composer, arranger and events music director Chong Lim, the recording bears an infusion of bossa nova from beginning to end, seasoned with straight mainstream. It makes for a breezy and humid collection of mostly original compositions with a sprinkling of standards. The disc opens with sardonic understatement in John Barry's title composition from the James Bond Film You Only Live Twice. Light and airy, McKenzie parlays this same mood through "De Nada" and "To The End of Time."

Her straight ballad treatment of "You Must Believe In Spring" shakes up the disc with a bit of well-performed tradition. McKenzie's voice is well-studied and practiced. Acting as her own pianist, the singer plays triple duty capably from beginning to end. The greatest joy of this disc is instrumental and saved for the end: McKenzie shows off her saucy piano chops steering through "Rhapsody In Blue," "Summertime," "The Man I Love" and "I Got Rhythm," separating the pieces with inventive transitions. Achieving swing is no problem for McKenzie, who should have a warning label for possible whiplash on this release.

Gabrielle Stravelli
Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson
Self Produced
2019

How can this recording possibly work? Then again, how can it not work? Willie Nelson, whose band book is the subject of Gabrielle Stravelli's Pick Up My Pieces, is the type of rarified artist who can perform any genre of music while retaining his own identity. Other artists of the same ilk include Ray Charles, Van Morrison and Prince. One of Nelson's most popular recordings was Stardust (Columbia, 1978), a collection of mostly Tin Pan Alley songs infused with Nelson's special brand of Western jazz. It is no far reach for vocalist Stravelli to add a bit of New York and Broadway to Nelson's oeuvre. Bassist Pat O'Leary doubles the arrangement duties for this jazz nonet supplemented with a string quartet. That adds up to one lush and powerful sound.

Pick Up My Pieces draws equally from Nelson's compositions and songs he became closely associated with. Stravelli does her best Ethel Merman on Nelson's "Lady Luck" before melting jaggedly into Lefty Frizzell's "If You Got the Money," sung with the casual flair of the cabaret chanteuse—if the cabaret were in Lubbock, Texas. "Three Days" and "Butterfly" respond well to the jazz treatment; Stravelli takes advantage of them to show her considerable vocal talent. The dense center of the recording is the medley of "Time Of The Preacher/I Still Can't Believe You're Gone," where Stravelli and O'Leary cast the former in the deepest gospel/blues dichotomy while converting the latter to a pastoral ballad of loss.

The most stunning transformations of material are evidenced in the hard swinging, bop-infused into "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" and the slow ballad treatment of "Good Hearted Woman." The title song is coupled with "Crazy" and six minutes of multigenre bliss. If there was ever a song to be included on this disc, it is the muted big band treatment of "Nightlife." Gabrielle Stravelli earns kudos for having the guts to imagine and then produce this recording. Good show!

Patrice Jégou
If It Ain't Love
Prairie Star
2019

Canadienne vocalist Patrice Jégou follows up her exceptional 2014 release Speak Low (Prairie Star) with this evolutionary and stylish collection of old and new standards. Originally an accomplished figure skater, while singing to herself backstage at a skating event, Jégou realized that she had a "lovely voice." Fast forward through three music degrees, culminating in a doctorate from Rutgers University, and we find Jégou building on her already considerable reputation with a repertoire expanding the definition of "The Great American Songbook."

Jégou and her arrangers Jorge Calandrelli, John Clayton, Mark Kibble (Take 6), David Paich (Toto, Marty Paich's son) and Mike Lang show complete fearlessness in song choice, formats and arrangements. The disc opens with a much lauded a cappella presentation of "Lover Come Back To Me," arranged by Kibble and Alvin Chea. It is exceptional: sharp, contemporary and intelligent, with Jégou's scat chops intact. This stripped down track is juxtaposed against the big band bang of "Jersey Bounce," backed with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which also provides support on a swinging performance of Fats Waller's cover title, the tightly arranged "Just Squeeze Me," and a va-va-voom "Please Send Me Someone to Love." If It Ain't Love has depth and breadth. This is an excellent recording.

Laurie Antonioli
The Constant Passage of Time
Origin Records
2019

West coast vocalist and teacher Laurie Antonioli has had a storied jazz career (which she has mentioned committing to the page one day). Presently, she is enjoying a calm period of determined evolution and realization that has resulted in her most recent recordings: American Dreams (Intrinsic Music, 2010), Songs Of Shadow, Songs Of Light: The Music Of Joni Mitchell (Origin Records, 2014) and Varuna (Origin Records, 2015). Antonioli extends her Origin Records contract with The Constant Passage of Time, evidence that the singer is in a good place and doing exceptional things.

Antonioli has a theme here: to highlight her vocalese lyric writing, extending the language of Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, Jon Hendricks and Bob Dorough. Of note are "Longing For You," composed with Russell Ferrante as well as "Moonbirds" and "Highway," resulting from collaborations with Johannes Enders. Antonioli covers three Joni Mitchell compositions, "Harry's House," "The Arrangement" and "Love," displaying the enduring influence of and love for that songwriter. The disc also sports a tour de force in a hugely orchestral reading of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." Backed by the majority of her superb American Dreams band, Antonioli thunders through Young's Eliot-esque landscape, spurred on by the equally thundering left hand of pianist Matt Clark and crashing cymbals of drummer Jason Lewis. This is a definitive statement made by an artist.

Ellen Rowe Octet
Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion
Smokin' Sleddog Records
2019

Pianist/composer Ellen Rowe's recording Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion is a concept recording similar to Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sides recorded in the late '40s. Both projects use "little big bands" whose music is highly and specifically arranged. Both are trying to achieve a signature sound different from their respective contemporaries. Rowe funnels several efforts at once: creating an all-female band, recording her original compositions and honoring different women from vastly different places. Rowe includes some symmetry here, employing eight women on eight compositions dedicated to eight sets of women.

The churchy opener "Ain't I A Woman" praises heroines of the civil rights movement such as Daisy Bates and Septima Clark, featuring a Carla Bley-inspired trombone solo by Melissa Gardiner. "R.F.P. (Relentless Forward Progress)" honors the great female distance runners Joan Benoit Samuelson and Meghan Canfield, while "Game, Set, And Match" is devoted to Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. The bouncing strut "Soul Keeper" remembers the late pianist Geri Allen and by extension, her muse Mary Lou Williams. Rowe heavily seasons the piece with Thelonious Monkian stride dissonances over those very familiar twelve bars. The recording sports a thoughtful theme that lets it hang together on its own terms. What a great idea and realization!

Emma Larsson and Xavier Davis
The Makings
Self Produced
2019

Swedish-born New Yorker Emma Larsson has established solid bona fides with three recordings since 2006: Irie -Butterflies (Imogena, 2006); Let It Go (Imogena, 2010) and Sing To The Sky (Origin, 2015). Keeping with her timetable of releasing a recording every four or so years, Larsson is back with a duet recording alongside pianist Xavier Davis.

The intimacy and empathy achieved between vocalist and pianist is immediately striking. The two understand one another well, as illustrated on "Time Stops For No Man," which places Larsson in the direct path of Davis wordlessly singing the circuitous melody. The pair employ the same method on "As The Sun Interrupted The Moon," making for a deliciously complex singing and listening environment. Larsson commands John Hicks's "Naima's Love Song" with assertive grace. "Never Let Me Go" is dispatched with balladic perfection while Larsson and Davis have fun with "I Didn't Know What Time it Was." The duo closes the disc with an angular and dissonant interpretation of Gordon Jenkins's "Goodbye," concluding a solid and emotive release.

Dennis Coffey
Live at Baker's
Omnivore
2018

We are in the midst of a Dennis Coffey renaissance. The past years have seen the release of Hot Coffey In The D—Burnin At Morey Baker's Showplace Lounge (Resonance Records, 2017) and (One Night At Morey's: 1968 (Omnivore Records, 2018). These releases were originally recorded in the late '60s and early '70s. This album was recorded at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit on May 20, 2006. The sonics reflect the more recent technology (despite excellent remastering on the other recordings). This record is also more fully realized in both execution and repertoire than the earlier performance .

Live at Baker's features Coffey backed by keyboardist Demetrius Nabors, bassist Damon Warmack and drummer Gaelynn McKinney. The ensemble is funky and tight. The disc is made up of nine lengthy performances, the high points being Coffey's scorching take on his original "Scorpio," a sensitive reading of "Moonlight In Vermont" and a show-stopping "Just My Imagination," which Coffey played with The Temptations on their 1971 single. But Coffey does not stop there: he continues to plow the Detroit asphalt with Jimmy Smith's "The Sermon" and turns Wilton Felder's "Way Back Home" into a soul benediction. Let us rejoice and be glad there is more music like this.

Randy Brecker and NDR Big Band-Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra
Randy Brecker Rocks
Piloo Records
2019

Rocks resulted from a pair of successful tours featuring trumpet and flugelhornist Randy Brecker performing with the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) big band and the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra. Critical response was so positive that the NDR organization agreed to record the band's live book in the studio, resulting in the present release. The set features nine Brecker compositions arranged and conducted by Jorg Achim Keller. The recording features Brecker, alto saxophonist David Sanborn, tenor and soprano saxophonist Ada Rovatti (Brecker's wife) and drummer Wolfgang Haffner. The NDR big band is augmented with an extended woodwind section featuring oboes, bassoons and bass clarinets with additional flutes added for color. The result is a woody, lush undercurrent over which the soloists fly. This recording has a BIG sound, so contemporary that the electrons fly off the edge of its performance.

These songs, from the length of Brecker's career, are arranged and presented in a pristinely fresh way, updated to the late 2010s. "First Tune Of The Set" is a cheeky opener: intensely swinging with a blistering solo from keyboard specialist Vladyslav Sendecki. It is the type of opener that takes command from the beginning and never relinquishing that command. What does hard bop sound like today? It sounds like "The Dipshit," a dump truck of a song that recalls the The Jazz Messengers if they were asked to perform in the original Star Wars trilogy. Rocks reminds us how vital the Brecker Brothers have been since the beginning. At 73-years-old, Brecker plays 40 years younger, ready to cut heads and make musical history.

Ehud Asherie
Wild Man Blues
Capri Records
2019

Israeli-born pianist Ehud Asherie plays deep in the mainstream jazz groove. His pianism is informed by everyone from Lil Hardin Armstrong to Jason Moran. His love of early jazz is evident on his most recent recordings, Upper West Side (Positone, 2012), Upper East Side (Positone, 2013) and The Late Set (Anzic, 2016), where Asherie proves his bona fides for being steeped in the tradition.

Wild Man Blues is a traditional piano trio outing that Asherie shares with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Rodney Green. All three share in the soloing responsibilities and are mixed at an equal and close distance by Michael Broby. Asherie shares the production duties with clarinetist Ken Peplowski, who brings his own special bona fides to bear on the proceedings. The Louis Armstrong/Jelly Roll Morton title piece sets the stage for an urbane and accessible recital that includes two Charlie Parker pieces, "Parker's Mood" and "Chasin the Bird," sharing the stage with a sumptuous "Autumn Nocturne" and a frenetic "Flying Down to Rio."

Asherie's left hand is sure and his right certain, never missing a beat even at impressive velocity. "Ma Baixa Do Sapateiro" is a balladic outlier that belongs perfectly with these performances. Asherie plays an extended solo introduction that breaks into a boogie-Latin vamp with momentum. Asherie's touch is nimble and light and his band equally attentive. Just when one thinks that they have already heard the best of the standard piano trio, Ehud Asherie turns all on its head with a recording like Wild Man Blues.
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