Monday, October 30, 2006

Truth In Advertising - Jazz Edition

Before I start, let me first say that if you're a Ray Charles fan, the following CD is a worthy addition to your collection, as it contains some EXCELLENT live vocals from Ray, when he was at his peak.

With that out of the way, let's proceed to talk about this interesting "new " CD - "Ray Sings, Basie Swings". Ray passed away in June 2004, shortly before the release of his "final" studio album, "Genius Loves Company" which came out in August of that year. A hit by any definition of the term, the album stood for weeks in Billboards Top 10 list (not for jazz or r&b, but Top 10 overall) and debuted at No. 2 on the chart. It shipped over 3 million copies and that figure is likely to rise even more, due to the brilliant marketing from Concord Records and Starbucks Corp's Hear Music division. It has become Ray's best selling album (eclipsing even his great sides for Atlantic and ABC in his prime).

Naturally, the industry was paying attention, and Charles estate was as well. In 2005, Rhino Records released a CD called "Genius and Friends" - an attempt to salvage an aborted session Ray did in the late 1990's, in more of a pop vein. They went back to the master tapes, removed many of the "duet" partners who were part of the original project, and put in folks like Reuben Studdard, (who as far as I know, never even met Ray in his lifetime). The project wasn't nearly as well crafted as "Genius Loves Company" (it was really rather mundane adult contemporary material) nor did it have the Starbucks machine behind it. It didn't sell nearly as well as "Company".

Now, the folks at Starbucks and Concord are back, with their own take on a posthumous collaboration - "Ray Sings, Basie Swings". Musically of the three albums discussed in this post, it's probably the best. Ray is at his peak as a performer. It swings hard, and at times, Ray is simply on FIRE! But things aren't quite what they seem:

Count Basie isn't on the album. His band is, but it's directed by Bill Hughes. And Ray never actually recorded with the band. Ray's vocals on the CD are taken from Jazz at the Philharmonic tapes made by Norman Granz from the 1970's. Supposedly they were marked "Ray Charles/Count Basie" but featured separate performances by the artists. And also according to Greg Fields who produced this new CD, the instrumental backing on the tapes featuring Ray were recorded poorly (oddly, most of the 1970's live Granz recordings I've heard have been pretty decent, who knows).

So the producers got the idea to commission new arrangements (based on Ray's originals) to be performed by the 2005/2006 edition of the Count Basie Orchestra. They would take Ray's 1970's vocals, isolate them from the originals by removing the band backing him and mix them with the new "Basie" performances. Tom Scott, Shelly Berg and others penned the charts. And they did a pretty good job. Some of the tracks come off better than others, but overall, it's one of the better attempts at this sort of studio wizardry I've heard. The producers make the point that Ray loved technology, and would often overdub parts, in much the same manner that this album was created.

Ok, I know some purists have a problem with that. I'm a little less than sold on the concept, but like I said, Ray's vocals are A+ quality, so I'll give a little lee-way on that issue. The thing I have a problem with is the name of the album, and the false impression it gives the consumer. The title is "Ray Sings, Basie Swings" Subtitled Ray Charles + The Count Basie Orchestra = Genius2 (squared). The subtitle is ok, as the Basie band's albums since the Count's death have all been listed as "The Count Basie Orchestra", where as in Basie's lifetime, it was usually "Cont Basie and his Orchestra". But when you say "Ray Sings, Basie Swings" and then talk about this great collaboration between two great artists, the implication is that the man from Red Bank, NJ, Bill Basie, is ON the CD. But he's not. "Ray" refers to an individual, but somehow we're supposed to infer that "Basie" refers to "Basie Inc" and not the man himself? When I first saw this CD I was very excited, thinking it was some long lost session featuring the two men together, I was less excited after reading what it really was, though still pleased with much of the music.

Here's the kicker, the press materials talked about how this was a great pairing that never happened in "real life" but thanks to the benefit of technology, we now can enjoy on CD. Yes, it is true that Ray never recorded with Basie's band under Basie's name. But one of his GREATEST all time albums, though one that admittedly doesn't feature much of Ray's singing, actually was recorded with Basie's group, minus the Count "Genius + Soul = Jazz." Quincy Jones did the arrangements, Ray plays keyboards. It's as close to a real Charles/Basie collaboration as we'll ever get. Though the record store bin might lead one to think otherwise.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Nguyen Le - Tiger's Tail Quartet

Nguyen Le
Originally uploaded by jazzportraits.
A very interesting group, Nguyen Le's Tiger's Tail Quartet performed at Fresno City College last week, with Paul McCandless, Art Lande and Patrice Heral. I can't really say I've heard anything like it before. McCandless really makes this group in the textures he provides with his various instruments aren't normally heard paired with the electronics Le employs. Rarely do you hear a jazz group that uses both English Horn, pennywhistle, as well as multiple effects boxes and a Powerbook G4. Their Tiger's Tail on ACT is good, but a music like this really is best appreciated in person. This guy is an innovator, and though he was on the cover of Jazziz a few months ago, seems to be an unknown to most US jazz listeners. It's challenging music, but I think you'll be hearing a lot more buzz about him in the US after this tour.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Dave Brubeck @ the Monterey Jazz Festival

Ok, I had planned to get this review done much sooner, but other events took up my time. Now back to Sunday September 17th in Monterey. Dave Brubeck was the featured artist on the Jimmy Lyons stage for that evening's set. I've seen Dave three times now in the past 10 years, all of them at Monterey. This time Dave (now 85) appeared a bit more frail, but his playing was as inventive and joyful as ever. At this point in his life, he most likely doesn't need the money, but he works quite often, and you can tell he enjoys it.

He opened the evening with several tunes from his quartet, with Bobby Milletello, alto sax, Michael Moore (the bass player not the film maker) and Randy Jones on drums. I'm still not wild as Milletello as a foil for Brubeck, though he is a good alto player, but he's flashy in a way that isn't always appealing. I suppose it's a wise move for Dave to have a player like him, rather than a Paul Desmond clone though. The tunes ranged from On the Sunny Side of the Street to a blues to one of Dave's religious works.

After the quartet set, Russel Gloyd came out and Dave introduced his commissioned work "The Cannery Row Suite", inspired by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name. Brubeck told of how MJF director Tim Jackson wanted him to write a larger jazz opera, and how he (Brubeck) finally relented when Jackson said it could be 30 minutes "something more appropriate for a jazz festival." He also apologized for their lack of rehearsal time, though for just a few sections, you wouldn't have known that was an issue. Dave also told a story about his production of "The Real Ambassdors" at Monterey over 40 years earlier with Louis Armstrong. Dave said that in rehearsal he asked Louis to wear a top hat and carry an attache as part of his role in the production. Louis refused. However, when they went on stage, and Louis walked out, there he was with his top hat and attache. As he walked past the piano he told Dave "Am I hammin' it up enough foor you?" At that moment, Dave was handed a fedora, (see picture to the right) to sort of bring things full circle.

Brubeck's composition was a huge hit among the crowd, though as a jazz opera (or operetta) it wasn't all that successful, for that, it would have needed to be much longer. Rather we got to see a little bit of character development through the arias of Doc (Kurt Elling) and Dora (Roberta Gambarini) but not much in the way of actual plot. The bunkhouse group (Chris Brubeck and his band, plus singers from UOP) added a bit of rustic feel to the set, evoking the bunkhouses of Brubeck's California youth on the cattle ranch, and the bawdy Cannery Row of Steinbeck's novel.

The arias for Elling and Gambarini were incredible on their own. Based upon a 12 tone row, they must have been incredibly difficult to sing, yet they didn't sound like it, and Brubeck's melodic gift made what could have been "challenging" music for the listener, quite melodic and beautiful. Gambarini just nailed her parts. They say Sarah Vaughan could have been an opera diva. Gambarini showed a similar ability with her performance, with incredible range, excellent pitch (with all those tough intervals!) and great style and finesse. And she did all of this from memory. (this wasn't some 32 bar ABA form here folks) She's going to be a huge star. Ellling nailed his parts too, though to me wasn't as impressive (perhaps it was we all knew and expected Elling to pull it off, but for a relative unknown like Gambarini, it was more of a surprise).

The suite was punctuated by a reoccuring, and typically Brubeck-esque theme (lyrics for the suite by Dave's longtime wife, Iola) that was part sea chant and part blues. By the end of the suite the crowd was standing (for the entirety of the last number) singing along "Monterey, Monterey, a hell of a place to work and to play!" Indeed.

Oscar Peterson's set and Hank Jones still to follow...