Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Jazz - Sanitized, or A Tale of Three CDs

One thing I have noticed recently, is that a lot of music, new jazz that is, almost too clean, too pretty, and consequently, too cold, with little personality, and no rough edges. A lot of it is very classy, with great musicianship, perfect time/pitch, impeccable recording, but ultimately boring, lacks personality, and most often, any presence of the blues. This is nothing new, there has long been a tension between those who prefer the polished versus those who prefer the "raw" approach. It goes all the way back to Paul Whiteman! But today, it seems to be all over the place, and I don't see many people comment on it.

Perhaps it's just a product of modern production methods in the studio. (a disturbing trend is the move to make live club recordings sound like studio sessions, totally robbing them of the unique ambiance of live performance). Now, technology allows the musician to make the "perfect take" truly perfect. Maybe it's the product of the demise of the club circuit, and the rise of the "jazz studies" major at hundreds of universities. We always talk about the lack of "innovators" but more frightening to me, is the lack of true "personalities" in the music. Now this is not to say that there's many fine musicians, even young ones, who "get it", who can play the blues, aren't afraid to use their imagination and try something that might not work, and just let it go. But all too often, it's the opposite.

For example, take three new female vocal cds I got this week. CD #1 is by Tierney Sutton, on Telarc records, a live date a Birdland (though it's not billed as one) titled "I'm With the Band". Icy is the first word that comes to mind when asked to describe the record. She's very talented, very sophisticated, sometimes almost too clever, but about as far from "earthy" or "bluesy" as you can get. This is also one of those live recordings, made to sound like a studio session. To her credit, I do hear Tierney taking a few more chances vocally on this session than her studio albums, though it hardly ever sounds like they're having fun performing this material. Someone needs to give them a copy of one of Sarah Vaughan's live albums, a live Monk record or something to simply loosen up! It is hard to fault music for doing what the artist intended it to do, so I hesitate to say it's bad or incorrect in some way, but it's not my cup of tea. I'll play it, because people will want to hear it, it's not a BAD record (like so many we get) and because I realize my tastes are not the end all/be all of all jazz fans. But it's not a record I would spend my money on.

CD #2 is by 23 year old vocalist Sara Gazarek. It's her debut recording, produced by the estimable John Clayton (one of the most under appreciated figures in jazz and a real nice guy too) and recorded by the brilliant Al Schmitt. It's called "Yours" and is on the Native Language label. I first heard about Sara in a full page ad in Downbeat, and became intrigued seeing John's name involved with her project. It turns out Sara was the winner of a Downbeat award for outstanding collegiate vocalist (with USC), and then suddenly wound up on the William Morris roster, and touring with Dianne Schuur, Karrin Allyson via the Concord Jazz Festival, etc. Sara sings a mix of standards and jazz lite originals, in the Norah Jones/Jamie Cullum style, which sometime I like, sometimes I don't. In this case, the whole album falls into that dreaded never never land that is neither hot nor cold. It's swings reasonably well, Sara has a nice voice for a young woman, maybe richer than you would expect, her equally young band (I assume of USC students or recent grads as well) is nothing to write home about, but they're talented. I suppose it would be cliche to say that she hasn't "lived enough" to be a really remarkable singer, but for whatever reason, she lacks that "certain something" that makes you really respond to an exceptional singer like Shirley Horn, Dianne Reeves, Abbey Lincoln, etc. It's all very pretty, warmer but less daring than Tierney's cd. Vocally reminds me a lot of Karrin Allyson, but with a little richer, fuller voice. Her approach is more like Jane Monheit's but without the killer musicians Jane had on her first couple of records (Kenny Barron, David Newman, Ron Carter, Lewis Nash, etc). A couple of the songs she sings (Cheek to Cheek, Too Young to Go Steady) are also ones recorded by Jane. Again, there's little if any blues feeling or any rough edges, all very polished perfect and pretty, as that's what William Morris knows will sell. It'll probably be a pretty good seller. She's a lovely young lady, it'll probably get plenty of airplay on jazz radio, and with the heavyweight pr effort, will get good print exposure. Interestingly enough Sara says in the liner notes, in reference to her version of Too Young to Go Steady, "In any realm of existence - love, politics, music, and life in general, - age has no bearing on life experience." Some of course would beg to differ, but it certainly has a bearing on musicianship! Most of the time musicians make a record due to financial situations, and I'm not going to blame ANYONE for getting paid to make music and record jazz and follow their dream. Clearly this is a situation where a business chose to invest in an artist and in today's world, that's great. But it doesn't change the situation that more "seasoning" might be necessary in order for the artist in question to live up to the "vocal sensation" (just quoting the ad in Downbeat!) hype. But we all know to take the hype we read with a grain of salt. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice cd, but nice, is just, well, nice. Not great.

CD #3 is by SF Bay area vocalist Joyce Randolph. It's called "Just a Little Blue" and features two top bay area musicians, pianist Bill Bell and drummer Jeff Chambers. It doesn't have fancy packaging, or Al Schmitt running the controls, and was probably recorded, mixed, edited, mastered and duplicated on a budget smaller than one full page ad for Sara Gazarek's cd. But Joyce, who is probably about thirty years older than Sara, has one thing Sara doesn't - that's SOUL. Joyce brings to mind Carmen McRae, Etta Jones, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson - she has that artistic poise, that use of space, and all the little vocal subtleties that Gazarek lacks, with the warmth and soul that evades Sutton's cd. It's an intimate project, just bass and piano, and has the casual yet profound improvised feel that is missing in these highly arranged, highly stylized, "look how clever I am" records that are all too common today. And she knows something about the BLUES!!! Her contribution of Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow" is great, no fake Lady Day stuff, but a profound knowledge of both the blues and her instrument, which is aged like a fine wine. Joyce Randolph is not a "girl singer" she's a woman, and is a real pro, and so are her fellow musicians. THIS is what jazz is about to me. This is not to say that it's without fault. Sometimes she uses more vibrato than I'm comfortable with, but so what? That's just my effort to find something to criticize. "Old Folks" is not an easy song to pull off, and Joyce does it beautifully, something I couldn't imagine a 23 year old doing. Just listen to her sing the line "At the old livery stable, whenever he's able, pitching shoes with lord knows who." She embellishes the "lord knows" line in a way that just oozes soul. Her voice has a subtle edge to it, like Carmen's did late in her career, perfect time and a great rapport with her fellow musicians. She turns in a great performance of Sophisticated Lady, a song we rarely hear the lyric to these days, likely because of its difficulty. Joyce Randolph knows what it means to be a jazz singer. Her record likely won't sell as many as the other two, won't get the kind of press the others get, but when it comes to really being an example of jazz singing at its best, she's it down. It's not slick, or overproduced, not cold or clever, and CERTAINLY not sanitized! It's jazz.

New Monk & Trane, Bad Plus cd, etc

I'm swamped in new cds here!!! Drowning to be more precise. September/October is always really busy in the record industry, since everyone wants to have their album out in time for Christmas, and this year is no exception. A few real short items on some of the notable new albums that are in the pile-

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane - Live at Carnegie Hall
It might not be the jazz version of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it's close, as this historically significant group was terribly under recorded - and now, lo and behold from the VOA archives, surfaces a PRISTINE concert recording from November 29th 1957. Never before released OR broadcast in the US. The music is as good as you would think, maybe even better than you would think, everyone is at their creative peak - I especially like this period of Coltrane's evolution as an artist, and it's quite interesting. This will without doubt be the record of the year. Let's hope the rest of the concert, featuring Billie Holiday, Dizzy, Chet Baker, Ray Charles and Sonny Rollins survives and will be released!

Marc Johnson - Shades of Jade
Talk about an all star lineup - John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Eliane Elias, etc. It's on ECM but it doesn't sound like an ECM record, wonderful compositions by Marc and Eliane, it's the kind of cd that would be easy to pass over in the record store, but it's a gem.

The Bad Plus - Suspicious Activity
I'm not a huge Bad Plus fan, but I'm listening to their new cd right now as I type this (first listen!) and I must say something is different. The formula is the same, but they sound more musically mature. The other albums didn't really do it for me, this one just makes a lot more sense. Perhaps that's not a good thing, who knows, maybe I'll hate it after a few more listens. It sounds like an album that might actually still sound decent in 10 years, which I'm not sure you can say for their other records. There's a clarity to this record that I didn't hear in the others. But I'm still listening.

Bebo Valdes - Bebo de Cuba
His son may be more famous with American audiences but this guy is still alive, making great music in his 80's - he's like the Bud Powell of Cuba (not that he plays bop per say but he's on that level of importance). This is a new 3 disc set, 2 cds, and a DVD, one big band, one of "jam sessions" both with like likes of Paquito D'Rivera, Ray Vega, Diego Urcola, Bobby Porcelli, etc - basically the cream of the crop of NYC latin jazz musicians. His compositions and arrangements are brilliant, they are so perfect, they could not be improved. His arrangements have an "airy" feel to them which I don't hear in a lot of latin jazz or even contemporary big band writing. And he writes great tunes, and is a wonderful pianist too. Great stuff.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Monterey Jazz Festival Part III

Well, I'm back from another MJF, and again it was a great show. I wasn't there Saturday so I won't comment on those shows, though I heard good things about all the performers that day. Here's a quick rundown of what I saw and heard Sunday

I started things Sunday with Bay Area vocalist Natasha Miller, at 2:00pm Sunday at the Garden Stage. The performance was much like Natasha's cd, a tribute to the music of Bobby Sharp. Nice tunes, decent voice, but just not quite ready for prime time. I stayed for a couple of tunes, but it just wasn't doing it for me, I think it's harder to be a good jazz singer than it is to be a good jazz instrumentalist. "A" for effort as they say, but a "C" for performance.

I was then left debating what to do. Leave the festival, go eat some more (already had an excellent Naan Burrito), or hear some music. Lee Ritenour was on the main stage, at truth be told, that sounded about as enticing on paper as sitting in the barbeque line for an hour, but I put aside my jazz snob leanings and went to check things out. The band was Ritenour, Ernie Watts, saxophone, BOTH Dave Grusin and Patrice Rushen piano/keyboards, Brian Bromberg bass, and Alex Acuna drums. They opened things up playing a track from Lee Morgan's album "The Procrastinator" (I think it was Lee's tune Party Time, but I could be wrong) - and it was REALLY good. No smooth jazz BS at all. Rushen sounded especially good on piano, though sometimes it got a little busy with both her and Grusin playing. Ritenour showed his heavy Wes Montgomery influence, and it was a nice track. They played some more music, some more on the contemporary jazz side, some more funk, some more straight ahead stuff, and one of my favorite Jobim tunes, Stone Flower. It was perhaps the most surprising set of the festival for me, in a pleasant way. Two notes - Alex Acuna stole the show and turned in a very memorable perfomance on the traditional Peruvian instrument the cajon, not to mention his excellent work at the trap drums. The other note deals with bassist Brian Bromberg. I said when hearing Bob Cranshaw that he plays the electric bass like it was an acoustic bass. Brian does the opposite, plays the acoustic like the electric - he's a "virtuoso" in the worst way. It's almost annoying at points, especially on electric. I almost found myself saying "ok, you're good, get over yourself already!" But different strokes for different folks. Overall, I liked the whole set, though I'd prefer just hearing Patrice rather than Dave AND Patrice. I promise I won't talk trash about Lee ANY more! "A-" for this set, with the minus being Bromberg.

After that I caught a little bit of vocalist Clairdee on the Garden Stage. Much better than Natasha Miller, a much better stage presence, just more "seasoned". I have the CD in the rotation at the station, but I haven't played it yet. I'll try to give it some spins and see what people think. Not bad, but not knock out great. Good band backing her up of Bay Area musicians. I'd give it a "B"

After Clairdee it was Jon Jang's ensemble with Wayne Wallace and Francis Wong. I only caught portions of this, but I liked most of it. Mix traditional Asian music, with Blue Note era hard bop and bit of avant garde free blowing for some spice and that's what you've got. Francis has the most passionate tenor tone this side of Gato Barbieri. I liked the mix of approaches and influences, and I actually expected it to be much more "out there" than it was. Good edgy stuff, but grounded, which is pretty rare. "B"

After that, and a dinner of fried catfish and hush puppies, it was back to the Jimmy Lyons stage in the Arena, for Branford Marsalis' quartet, with Joey Calderazzo, piano, Eric Revis, bass and Jeff Tain Watts drums. I've seen Branford several times now, and he sounded (to my ears) somewhat uninspired. Tain, Eric and Joey were great though. Branford sometimes sounds a bit obtuse to my ears, and I think he sometimes just relies on his "sheets of sound" burnout approach when nothing else comes to mind - it's his crutch, or at least it sounds like that. They opened with the Watts tune Mr. JJ. Branford made a comment that they hadn't played together in four months, and would be trying out new material - (he made a similar comment when I saw them in 1998 at Yoshis with Kenny Kirkland) and again, Branford seemed kinda dull. It just doesn't hit me, but perhaps that's just the bias of the listener. I prefer his soprano playing quite a bit more, and he played a nice and as yet untitled original on the smaller horn, in the vein of his recent album Eternal. Good stuff. He followed with a version of Wynton's "Free to Be" (saying he asked Wynton for the chart because he knew his band could play the song better than Wynton's could!) also on soprano. At this point I had to leave to catch some other music. I'd give Branford's set a "B" overall.

After that it was off to see vocal sensation (and tabloid queen) Madeline Peyroux. I've never seen Norah Jones live, but I am told that people say she's extremely boring. Well, so was Madeline. I'm not sure if it's due to a lackluster performance, or simply that material like this is best heard in a cafe, or on cd, and not before 1,000 people outdoors. It was a bore, though it showed flashes of excellence. Larry Goldings was great on B-3, and Ron Miles added a nice dimension (the festival didn't have much trumpet this year). "C+" - I like her cd, but would fall asleep with her one dimensional performance.

After that I went to catch Denny Zeitlin's trio with Buster Williams and Matt Wilson. Excellent. But of course, you'd expect nothing less. Denny might be the most intelligent guy I've ever talked to, and it comes out in his music. He's another example of a virtuoso who "gets it" that it's not just about showing off, but rather it's about artistry. Matt Wilson is simply great. "A+"

Following Denny, it was off to the Night Club stage (I skipped Kyle Eastwood - for shame!) and caught three tunes from John Scofield's trio with Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow. Wow, those guys are really good. Sco isn't my favorite guitar player, but I have nothing but good things to say about their set. Swallow plays the bass guitar like a bass when it comes to holding down the rhythm section, and like a guitar when it comes to solo, a perfect balance from what say a traditional approach would be and what Bromberg does. But of course that's why Steve is a living legend on his instrument. Bill Stewart and Matt Wilson (still playing with Zeitlin) could both go for the "most tasteful" drummer award, and both deserve it. Sco was excellent, I forget the first tune, but they followed it with "Green Tea" (from the A Go Go album) and a nice ballad version of "You Don't Know Me". Sco sounds so much better than on his overproduced Ray Charles tribute cd. Good stuff. "A"

I would have liked to have stayed for more music, but it was close to 10:00pm and I had to drive home, so I only got to hear Pat Metheny's trio/quartet set walking to my car, but thanks to KUSP, I was able to hear it all the way home via their live festival broadcast. Pat was Pat, you know what you're going to get there, but I like his current trio with Christian McBride and Antionio Sanchez better than the one he had with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade. (two excellent musicians in their own right). But the real surprise as I was driving home was David Sanchez. I've heard him a couple of time, and he sounded so much more mature and toughtful than I've heard before in person or on record. He works well with Pat's group, his tone seems to have matured, and his ideas as well, in an almost Joe Henderson sort of way.

One side note: while I didn't hear Pat live, I actually did SEE him! He was leaving the soundcheck at about 5:00pm or so, and gosh I wish I had my camera with me! He looked like Tom Hanks in that castaway movie! Either that or he had been digging for clams out on the beach. Pants that came up mid way on the shins, a sloppy t-shirt, baseball cap and hair going out every which way underneath! No surprise than that about an hour later ushers were seen giving the photographers present notes saying that no photos were to be taken backstage during Pat's set!

Everything considered, it was a good festival, not the best ever, but better than last year, which seemed to be lacking something. Sonny was the highlight for me, but there was plenty of good music, and lots that I didn't get to see. Because of that - here's some links to other MJF related blogs...

Jazz Police.com (2nd day review)
Doug Ramsey - Rifftides...
Fojazz (various posts)...

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Monterey Report Vol 1

The third weekend in September means one thing in California jazz circles - the Monterey Jazz Festival, now in it's 48 year, takes over the senic Monterey County Fairgrounds. It's about a 2-3 hour drive from Fresno (depending on traffic) so I made the trip up highway 152 for Friday night, and drove back home Saturday morning. I'll be headed back for Sunday, so another repot will follow.

First of all, a non musical note. Those who go to Monterey to sample Smokin Jim's fine barbeque - Jim is not there. In fact there seems to be an overall dearth of good barbeque vendors at the Festival - I had to wait in line 1 hour at one of the two vendors (no sign on the booth for some reason - a bad sign indeed, and not listed in the vendors list in the program!) and it was ok, but long on sauce and short on flavor. The actually had run out of ribs! I'll see if the situation has improved by Sunday.

About the music! John Handy opened up the Jimmy Lyons stage on Friday night, reuniting what remains of his famed quintet that played the MJF (and recorded there) 40 years ago. I haven't been a huge John Handy fan, but I enjoyed the set quite a bit, his sound and technique are still excellent, and the music was as fresh as most anything else out there today. Steve Miller (yes, that Steve Miller) joined the band for a few numbers (Nature Boy and St. Louis Blues), but Handy (with his incredible tone and control even in the highest ranges of his instrument) and violinist and harpist Carlos Reyes) were the real stars.

Next I went to the Coffee House stage, where the fare is usually piano trios or other small combos. I find that usually some of the best music I hear at the festival is in this venue. Last year I think it was Lynne Arriale, with a captivating set, in the past Jacky Terrasson, Stefon Harris, Jessica Williams and others that I can't remember right now. This year it was Benny Green and Russell Malone, with a wonderful standards based set. Green and Malone are both virtusosi who know that musicality is paramount, so it's never overpowering. They have a great rapport. I remember hearing them as a trio in 2000 with Christian McBride on bass, and I didn't like it as much. Green and Malone seem to work better (to my ears) in duo format, and they have two wonderful records in this format. Often I'll check out a few tunes of a set and leave to hear something else, not with these guys. Good stuff.

Next it was back to the Main Stage (after a stop at Starbucks) to hear the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. I've always had an affinity for latin jazz and salsa, but since I started filling in once a month for out latin jazz dj Steve Alcala, I've found that I love the music even more. Steve brought this very group to Fresno's Arte Americas last year, and I'm bummed I missed it after hearing their set at Monterey. High powered, very polished salsa and latin jazz, true showmen. It's hard not to move when you're listening to these guys.

The last artist of the evening was the man who I had been waiting for, Sonny Rollins. I've never heard Sonny live before, and have really been looking forward to this. Sonny played with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, trombonist Clifton Anderson, drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. Sonny opened up a little tentative (to my ears) but by the end of the hour long set, Rollins was showing everyone why he is considered the greatest living improvisor in jazz. It was a very satisfying set, though I think almost everyone (standing in applase all throughout the last tune) would have loved to see an encore. One complaint people have about Sonny these days is that his band isn't up to level. I didn't find that to be the case, though to be honest, no one is on par with Sonny. Clifton Anderson is probably the worst offender, he's a fine player, it's just that when he's playing, you think "gosh, I'd rather be hearing Sonny or someone else." A couple other things, Sonny likes "Oh Susannah" he quoted it twice on Friday night, and it shows up a couple of times on his new cd, recorded almost four years prior! Also, Bob Cranshaw looks much younger than I thought he would. Bob proves that one can play the electric bass like one would the acoustic bass. I wasn't wild about Sonny's first tune, a one chord vamp, that even the master didn't seem to take anywhere terribly interesting. It was ok, but not my favorite. Also, Sonny plays long solos, but they never SEEM long, if anything you're left wanting more. At the end of the concert, as he thanked the roaring crowd, Sonny pumped his fist in the air. I guess he had a good time too. And as the crowd filed out of the arena (at 12:30am) one fan could be heard shouting to his friends "Sonny Rollins, SONNY ROLLINS, I can't believe it, that was GREAT!"