Thursday, March 15, 2018

Alexis Cole's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"

Alexis Cole's You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To Venus VHCD-1046

Full disclosure, I have been following the singer Alexis Cole for some time now. I first heard her when I lived back in the metro New York are and I caught her performing in a local Westchester venue after hearing her sing on a fabulous album I Carry Your Heart : Alexis Cole Sings the Music of Pepper Adams from 2012. The friends that I brought along at the time were so taken by her beguiling voice and charming, unassuming stage manner that they became instant fans and snapped up all of her recordings. At the same time they all wondered how such a fabulous singer had been running so low under the radar. I explained that Cole was serving her country as a member of the armed services for a stretch of six years, where she nonetheless continued to sing, fronting with the Army big band up at West Point. 

She was just getting her professional career started after attending undergraduate studies at William Patterson College and later at Queen’s College for graduate studies. I continued to follow her and saw her perform with the pianist Pete Malinverni at his Jazz Vespers series at the Pound Ridge Community Church, where he is musical director. She continued to impress me with her easy, unforced delivery and vocal acumen. I just loved her voice. By this time, she was snapped up by SUNY Purchase College as an instructor. 

Later that year, I was curating a jazz series for the Stamford Center for the Performing Arts in Stamford CT. I wanted her to be the lead off act for a new jazz series that we were piloting and she enthusiastically obliged bringing with her a fabulous group of musicians that included the guitarist Jack Wilkins, the bassist Andy McKee and the drummer Mike Clark. Predictably she was a big hit.

When I moved to the Atlanta area we stayed in touch via email and I was pleased when she asked me if I would write the liner notes for a Chesky Records project she was doing covering Paul Simon tunes. The album, which was titled Dazzling Blue from 2016, was a fine mix of Simon’s poetic music performed in a bare, roots-based style with Cole’s haunting vocals, Mark Peterson’s bass and Marvin Sewell’s guitar on most of the tracks. Cole was finally beginning to be noticed as the record climbed to 24 on the Billboard jazz charts.

The music on Cole’s latest album, You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To, was recorded back in 2010 at Avatar Studios in New York. Cole’s Japanese label, Venus, released the album in Japan in 2011. It was only available as an import before this year when the album was printed and released in the US. Lucky for us that the Japanese jazz fans didn't just keep this one to themselves, as this is a swinging session with Alexis in excellent form and her band offering inspired support behind her. 

The group is made up of many of the musicians that regularly perform at the upper West Side of Manhattan super club SMOKE. They include tenor star Eric Alexander, versatile trumpeter Jim Rotundi, masterful trombonist Steve Davis, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist John Webber and ubiquitous drummer Joe Farnsworth. 

Alexis has one of those lilting voices that seems to float in the air. Her delivery is so effortless, so natural, so fluid as to bespeak of some innate talent that requires no sweat equity; but be assured she has honed her craft with many hours of diligent study and assiduous practice. She is s a serious student of the music and like many great singers she has trained herself to become an effective storyteller.

Alexis Cole

While in the past Cole has taken some material from more modern sources, on this one she has mined the reliable Great American Songbook.  Composers like Victor Young, Michel LeGrand, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer, Julie Styne, Jerome Kern and of course Cole Porter have their work wonderfully represented by this talented songstress.

My favorite selections include the lead off Victor Young/Jay Livingston composition “Golden Earrings" where Ms. Cole starts out with a short, tasteful scat before introducing the lyrics out front of the three-horn section of Davis, Alexander and Rotundi and the swinging rhythm section of Hazeltine, Webber and Farnsworth. Rotundi’s muted trumpet meshes beautifully with Cole’s melodious voice, before Davis and then Alexander take turns soloing on this swinging piece. Webber’s big round bass leads the way as Farnsworth’s traps keep the time. Just listen to the ease with which Cole’s voice negotiates the lyrics through the changes, impressive.

The Michel Legrand composition, “I Will Wait For You,” is the perfect vehicle to showcase this lady’s wonderful instrument. After a scatted lead accompanied by a walking bass lead in that sets the tone, Cole starts off with the iconic lyrics. She has an astute sense of timing and her inflections are always subtle with no vocal theatrics. Alexander offers a sublime harmonizing tenor solo before the group plays in tight section style behind her; Cole’s years of experience playing in front of the Army Band has obviously paid dividends.

The highlight of Mancini and Mercers’ “Moon River” is a splendid tenor solo by the powerful Eric Alexander.

Another more obscure Young/Livingston composition “Delilah” finds Cole at her most expressive. Her introduction to this theatrical version of Biblically inspired Middle Eastern music is emblematic of her storytelling acumen. Her voice gently sways into the swing of the music as the horn section plays the evocative Alexander arrangement. Rotundi’s open bell trumpet solo is just magic. Farnsworth’s drum solo is punctuated with a synchronous chorus of Cole’s voice and the stellar horn section. Cole is simply hypnotic. Like a snake charmer’s Punghi transfixes a deadly Cobra into docility, Cole’s sultry vocal treatment captivates you like the Biblical Delilah subjugated the mighty Samson. The soporific beat adds to the enchanting effect.

“Alone Together” is played as a quick tempo swinger with some wonderful solo work by Davis. Rotundi, whose trumpet work on this album raises the entire program, makes a brilliantly succinct statement. Bassist John Webber's beat is always strong and omnipresent.

The poignant “You’ve Changed” is played like a slow ballad with Cole and company wrenching out all the emotion and pathos that this classic song of lament can muster. Listen to Rotundi’s solo on this and marvel at the man’s ability to play precisely what is needed and then listen to Cole’s crystalline voice at the coda. Just beautiful.

Other songs on the album include “Cry Me a River,” “A Beautiful Friendship,” “All the Things You Are,” “So in Love,” and the title song of the album “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”

For those of you who crave to hear familiar standards played with modern, creative arrangements and featuring a fabulous singer backed by a great band, then look no further than Alexis Cole’s You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To. Believe me this is an album you’ll be glad to come home to.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Guitarist Robben Ford plays the Blues on "Made to Last"

Robben Ford's Made to Last Sweetwater Studios

When your in the right mood, there is nothing like listening to some Blues. The Blues has been recorded for nearly one hundred years and although it often relies on simple three chord progressions it can still powerfully stir the soul and get the blood temperature rising. 

Guitarist Robben Ford has been plying his trade for over fifty years. Although the saxophone was his first instrument, he picked up the guitar at the age of fourteen and never looked back. Ford is one of those rare guitarist that can’t be pigeon-holed by genre. He seems equally comfortable in the worlds of rock, jazz and blues. The five-time Grammy nominated musician is now  sixty-six year old and has collaborated and played with a who’s who of musicians in his career including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Haden, Larry Carlton, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, George Harrison and Kiss to name just a few.

Robben Ford (photo credit unknown)
He joined the electric jazz world of Miles Davis in 1986 at the Montreux Jazz Festival and was enlisted into saxophonist Tom Scott’s fusion band the LA Express in the nineteen seventies. His collaboration with the progressive crossover group The Yellowjackets started in the late seventies and he recorded two albums with them in 1981 and 1983. Despite his ability to traverse the different genres with great facility it is the Blues that seem to be closest to his heart. His playing is said to be strongly influenced by the guitarist Mike Bloomfield, but Ford has matured developing his own signature style. He started his career playing for Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite back in 1969 at the age of eighteen and recorded a live album with Blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon sometime later.

Fast forward to 2018 and on April 6th the guitarist/vocalist will release his latest Blues recording Made to Last. Ford is joined by the bassist Brad Allen, the drummer Wes Little, the rhythm guitarist Casey Wasner and Flecktones and Dave Mathews Band alumni, the versatile multi-reed artist Jeff Coffin.

From the opening power chords on Lightnin’ Hopkins “Good Times” Ford brings his tasty guitar and plaintive voice to vacuum you up into his orbit. The funky, synthesized saxophone of Coffin takes a few nasty licks of his own sounding like a chorus of horns, before Ford wails with his pungent, flowing guitar lines. The behind the beat drums of Little and the pulsing bass of Allen drive the song forward.

On the Willie Dixon classic “Crazy for My Baby” Ford’s voice leads the way as the rhythm section plays a rambling shuffle. Coffin’s raspy saxophone solo leads off before Ford plays a synthesized guitar solo, using the POG by Electro-Harmonix to create a double octave effect that has a unsettling feel to it, creating three notes at once.

Ford’s “Somebody’s Fool” is propelled by Wasner’s driving rhythm guitar, as Ford and Coffin take turns soloing. Ford’s guitar takes on a distinctively Southern rock tone as he pierces the changes with distinctive free flowing single note lines that perfectly punctuate the song. Coffin’s overdubbed saxophone almost sounds like a recreation of the Memphis Horns section.

On Lightnin’ Hopkins “Automobile Blues” we get the real Blues side of Ford. Again Coffin creates a backing horn section accompaniment that sounds as if three guys are playing it. Ford for his part is comfortably in his element on this slow cooker. His intonation is precise and liquid, and the rhythm section is firmly in the pocket. Coffin and Ford trade licks in a call and response that quivers with excitement. This one simmers.

The final song of this short but sweet cd is titled another Ford composition titled “the Champion” and here Ford switches to the trio of Dave Martin on bass and Nick D’Virgilio on drums. This is power trio stuff that harkens back to early Cream and yet it reminds a bit of the a late great  Roy Buchanan in its effectively raw simplicity. It's all Ford and his Gibson Les Paul guitar, with no vocals, just a straight ahead free-wheeling guitar jaunt.  Freed of the responsibility of singing, Ford’s lines seem even more unleashed and spontaneous than normal. Quite tasty.

For those who love great Blues guitar, Robben Ford’s Made to Last is no frills delight.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Julian Lage and Trio Debut His Latest Album "Modern Lore" at East Atlanta's The Earl

Julian Lage's Modern Lore Mack Avenue Records MAC 1131
On Tuesday March 1, 2018 at an East Atlanta club called The Earl, the guitarist Julian Lage brought his touring band of Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums in support of his latest release Modern Lore which was released on Mack Avenue Records on February 2, 2018.

The Earl has a neighborhood-like bar front room and a rear room that can reportedly accommodate up to two hundred and fifty standing patrons. It has a distinctively punk, rock and roll, maybe even shit-kicking country vibe. Lage apparently played there previously and liked the vibe so he returns this time with his trio.

Lage has made his reputation as a serious crossover guitarist who can play comfortably in many genres. From his work with progressive guitarists like Nels Cline of Wilco fame-they did an interesting album titled Room from 2013- or his contemporary folk/bluegrass music with singer/guitarist Chris Eldridge of the band Punch Brothers; or his jazz duo work with the pianist Fred Hersch; or his more “out” work with the avant-gardist John Zorn;  or his own lyrical guitar work on albums like Gladwell, World’s Fair and Arclight. He has found a niche in a zone that straddles country, folk, rock, jazz, bluegrass and American roots music all mixed up in his own neo-classical style. He joins a pantheon of artists that have followed similar paths, artists like Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Alison Krauss, Chris Thile and perhaps more closely, fellow guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. Like these other great musicians, he has prodigious technique and an inherent lyricism.

I introduced myself to the guitarist backstage before the show and he was extremely warm and engaging without a hint of pretension or self-importance. That’s quite impressive for a musician who has been lauded from an early age as a wunderkind.  At eight years old he was the subject of an Oscar nominated documentary Jules at Eight. By the age of nine he was playing live on stage with the likes of Carlos Santana trading licks on the acid rock “Maggot Brain.”  He was introduced to the world on record in 1999 at the age of eleven in a duo with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman on the song “Old Souls.”

The humble, now seasoned, thirty-year-old guitarist has always found inspiration from many different sources. On Modern Lore he seems to be mining his rock and country roots, lacing it with his filigreed guitar work and occasionally a smidgen of folksy twang to produce a very enjoyable suite of music.

On the band’s opener, which I believe was “Activate” from his album Arclight, Lage struck a distinctively rock posture on his Telecaster that warmed up the mostly twenty-something crowd. On the second selection, “Atlantic Limited,” Jorge Roeder led off the sauntering tune with his loping bass line (played on the album by Scott Colley). Lage’s guitar turned to a fractious power chord opening for “Roger the Dodger.” Lage’s ability to weave complex lines and to dazzle the audience with his fretboard facility was fully on display. He is an ebullient player, bouncing on the toes of his feet, raising his head skyward while he is playing in blissful community with his bandmates. You can just feel the energy surging through this guy’s body when he is playing. Doob, who replaces veteran drummer Kenny Wollesen from the album, was especially powerful with his roiling drum work as Lage and Roeder powered on.

Julian Lage
After a brief announcement naming the members of his group, Lage and company took off on the frenetic “Persian Rug,” a country cooker that is credited to Charlie Daniels and Gus Kahn and that Lage first recorded on his 2016 album Arclight. The amazing facility that this man has was quite impressive to see in person as his fingers flew across the fretboard like fluttering fireflies. The audience stood in awe and respect and gave the band a rousing ovation.

The next selection was the roots- based, Spike Hughes tune “Nocturne” also from Lage’s fine Arclight. Lage and group proved that they could work the dynamics of a song to perfection, building crescendos of sound to erupting apexes before abruptly changing direction with a purposeful time change or a hushed interlude.

The Julian Lage Trio w Jorge Roeder (b) and Eric Doob (dr)
Lage went right into an extended version of his wistful composition “40’s” from his solo album World’s Fair released in 2015. The song featured a powerful and lengthy probing bass solo by Roeder and an exploratory solo by Lage that went way outside the box before returning to the main theme of the song.  Toward the end of the song the three musicians created a mélange of free improvisations that somehow worked, tying it all together with an explosive Doob solo at the coda.

The group continued with “Splendor Riot” from the new album. Lage’s ability to play repeated lines in rapid succession flawlessly and his penchant for rapidly and repeatedly sliding into and out of notes is emblematic of his individualistic style. He played what appeared to be an old Fender Telecaster exclusively for this gig and his tone was often set in treble mode producing a fair amount of twang that he used to great effect.

“Whatever You Say, Henry,” again from the new album, featured Jorge Roeder on his acoustic bass, bending and plucking notes pizzicato as Lage strummed chords softly behind and a stick-less Doob used his bare hands to create a soft back beat. When Lage did take a solo, it had a country music feel until he started to play some quick lines that were from another world. At one point he strummed his guitar much like a banjo creating an unusual effect.

The evening continued with the experimental free sounding “Earth Science,” also from the new album. The three musicians trading ideas in a seemingly unbridled exchange of on the spot improvisational stream of consciousness.

After a lengthy abstract solo by Lage, he changed the mood entirely by introducing the familiar lyrical sounds of Sammy Fain’s classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.”  If there was any thought that Lage has left his jazz guitar tradition behind, then this left the purists satiated. It’s quite moving to listen to this master take a familiar song like this and embellish it in his own inimitable way. The only negative, Doob’s drums could have been a bit more sedate for my liking.

The finale was the lead off song from the new album and is titled “The Ramble.”

It was a near capacity crowd of approximately two hundred people, mostly young and receptive to Lage’s unique, genre-less style, a pastiche of multiple influences that somehow just works.  He is an engaging artist of immense talent and one who seems to be able to expand the audience for those who are curious and open minded about contemporary extemporaneously improvised music. He is an artist we all should continue to watch closely.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Drummer Adam Nussbaum's "The Lead Belly Project"

Adam Nussbaum's The Leadbelly Project Sunnyside Records SSC 1500

The drummer Adam Nussbaum is one of those journeyman percussionists whose grounded beat can be heard on over one hundred-seventy recordings. He has worked with the likes of John Abercrombie, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, Steve Swallow and Carla Bley to name just a few.  I have always found his work to be interesting, if slightly under the radar, and was particularly impressed with his work in his band  BANN with saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Jay Anderson and guitarist Oz Noy from back in 2011.

As a youngster growing up in Norwalk. CT, Nussbaum became exposed to the music of the folk/blues artist Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, from his parents record collection.  The music inspired young Nussbaum but as he says “…he listened, loved and forgot those old recordings.” It was a long time coming, but the drummer decided to assemble a group of like-minded musicians and dedicate a record to this legendary folk/blues artist, one who left such a lasting impression on him during his formative years. The Leadbelly Project is a project that honors the music of Americana as represented by the music of Ledbetter. There is a deeply authentic feeling that this music elicits and it is only enhanced by the musicianship and fervor that these four artists bring to this endeavor.

Adam Nussbaum
Recorded in Brooklyn in March of 2017, Nussbaum garnered the services of two guitarists, Steve Cardenas and  Nate Radley, and one saxophonist, Ohad Talmor. Led by Nussbaum’s agile drums, these guys re-invigorate the simple but powerfully moving blues/gospel based-folk music of Lead Belly. They inject their own sensibilities into the repertoire, contemporizing it and re-introducing this wonderful music to a whole new generation of listeners.

The album features seven songs composed by Ledbetter, two traditional songs “Green Corn” and “Good Night Irene” and two Nussbaum Originals “Insight, Enlight” and “Sure Would Baby.”
Just sit back and listen to these guys interact. It is a communal love fest for this fiercely original, American roots music and if you listen intently you will be transported to a simpler time.  

The dual voices of Radley and Cardenas seamlessly mesh through each other’s lines without ever clashing. Saxophonist Talmor plays with admirable restraint, favoring a dedication to tone and feeling over speed. Nussbaum is clearly the leader here, but not in an overtly, out-front sort of way. The veteran drummer chooses the tempos and sets the tone, building an armature upon which his proteges can further enhance. He leaves the group plenty of room to develop their own ideas and pushes and prods as the master rhythm maker he is.

From the opening saxophone refrain of Talmor on “Old Riley” you can hear this album is about imparting a “down home” feeling. The two guitarists dance around each other in complementary fashion as the drummer adds  splashes of color before the group gets into a cadenced march following Nussbaum’s brushed traps.

On “Green Corn” the musicians carry on a delicate conversation where each respond to the other’s brief statement. They eventually create a circular whirlwind of notes, the two guitarists almost indistinguishable as they play off  each other’s ideas, with Talmor and Nussbaum carry the melody to a tidy coda.

The slow sauntering “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) creates room for Cardenas and Radley to create a Frisellian atmosphere drenched in picked and strummed twang over a 5/4 beat.

There is head-bopping authenticity of the group’s “Bottle Up and Go” that makes it a real treat. Listen to Nussbaum’s dancing calliope of sounds as he works his kit to great effect. Talmor’s saxophone lazily lopes along in perfect harmony with the rest of the band. The guitar work is so integrated into the music that it’s hard for me to distinguish who is playing what here, but no matter it all sounds fluid and right.

The album continues with other Lead Belly classics like the rousing “Black Betty,” a funky sort of vamp with a nice solo by Cardenas;  the short, angularly played “Grey Goose” which has a sweet drum intro by Nussbaum, and the gospel-like “Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie” which features some country-inspired guitar work  and some dreamy saxophone by Talmor.  The shaking “You Can’t Lose Me Cholly” is a joyful tune with Nussbaum adding a lot of color to the rambling song.

“Insight, Enlight” is a gentle gem. It starts with a light, finger-picked guitar intro that hangs in the air like the sound of a wind chime in a gentle breeze. Nussbaum’s shimmering cymbal work and the hauntingly tenor of Talmor stating the repeating melody line further enhance the solemnity of this beautiful miniature.

The easy shuffling of Nussbaum’s “Sure Would Baby," is a song Adam wrote for his wife and is just plain fun to listen to. You can hear the group take this one and make it their own.

The set closes with the classic “Good Night Irene.” Nussbaum opens with a tom-based drum intro that leads into the melody stated simply by Talmor’s tenor as the two guitarists weave their lines into a filigreed pattern.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Emory Jazz Fest 2018: Peter Erskine, Darek Oles, Warren Wolf and Gary Motley perform at the Schwartz Center

Gary Motley, Darek Oles, Warren Wolf and Peter Erskine at Emory's Schwartz Center
On Friday February 9th the 2018 Emory Jazz Fest presented a sophisticated quartet at the beautiful Schwartz Center featuring the world class drummer Peter Erskine, the vibraphonist Warren Wolf, the bassist Darek Oles and Emory’s own director of Jazz Studies Gary Motley on piano. The concert on Friday was the highlight of a series of master classes that professor Motley arranged with the drummer/educator Peter Erskine to conduct on Thursday for the jazz studies students. Bringing in musicians of Mr. Erskine’s caliber, to share their in-depth insight, makes the musical educational experience at Emory appreciably more vibrant and Professor Motley should be applauded for his continuing efforts in this direction. Past performers at the Emory Jazz Fest have featured an impressive array of artists including the trumpeter Nicholas Payton, the saxophonist Theodross Avery, the drummer Carl Allen, the bassist Rodney Whitaker, the clarinetist Anat Cohen, multi-reed artist Victor Goines, the violinist Regina Carter and drummer Terreon Gulley.  The Emory Jazz Alliance should also be commended for their dedication to supporting the jazz studies program at Emory by raising awareness of this admirable art form.

The concert on Friday night was a highlight open to the public. A drum clinic on Saturday morning was opened to the public and was packed with drummers who wanted to get some of the inside scoop on techniques from the jubilant Mr. Erskine. Erskine, a roundish almost jovial presence, peppered his Saturday morning clinic and demonstration with some pithy anecdotes about his career and the various characters that he has worked with over the years, from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan to Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter from his Weather Report Days. 

Erskine’s work can be heard on over seven hundred recordings starting with the Stan Kenton Big Band,  the seminal fusion group Weather Report and the cutting edge group Steps Ahead and including his work with artists from Joni Mitchell, Diane Krall and Jaco Pastorious to Bob Mintzer and Pat Metheny. He is a drummer’s drummer.

I attended both the Friday night concert and the Saturday morning drum clinic with Mr. Erskine. I was unable to attend the Saturday performance where Mr. Erskine and Mr. Oles performed with Mr. Motley and the Emory jazz orchestra and the Emory Symphony Strings.

The Friday night concert was nearly sold out, with the audience anxious to see this talented group perform. The group started with Erskine’s own composition “Twelve” which is a swinger loosely based on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Warren Wolf, whose vibraphone was center stage, took the lead solo; a smoothly executed cascade of high register notes. Mr. Motley seated at the piano stage left, took the second solo, a brief one featuring some interesting block chording ala George Shearing. The bassist Oles (whose full name is Darek Oleszkiewicz) offered a facile, deep-toned solo of his own before Erskine ended the piece with his own rousing barrage.

“Solstice” was the next selection, a pretty melody written by Mr. Motley and featured on his fine album No Reservations Required, released in 2017, but played here at a slower more sensitive pace. Kenny Barron’s “The Traveler” became the vehicle for some nice synchronous playing between Wolf’s vibraphone and Motley’s piano. Watching Erskine was like a lesson in technique. While the drummer for the most part played very laid back, he utilized sticks, brushes, the back of his brush, mallets and every other technique to get the sound he wanted.

Mr. Wolf led the proceeding for the most part when he was on stage. His composition “Sweetbread,” an upbeat swinger, was the next selection and his work on the vibes was light and liquid. He drew upon that tubular sound of his instrument to great effect letting the ring of those metal tubes linger in the air when appropriate. Erskine started to push the proceedings along a bit and Mr. Motley seemed to respond to the prodding with his own invigorated piano work.

Mr. Wolf’s beautiful ballad “Annoyance” from his album Wolfgang was said to be inspired by an annoyingly repeated note in one of Mozart’s compositions. Mr. Wolf, who credits the vibraphonist Dave Samuels as his mentor, can be quite moving on his instrument. The talented Wolf can also play drums, marimba and piano.

Mr. Wolf then left the stage and the quartet turned into Mr. Motley’s trio. The group did a Cole Porter tune “Everything I Love.” The song started out with a call and response between Oles and Erskine. You could see the intuitive nature of these two communicating on the stand as they have worked numerous times together over the years. Being the odd man out, Motley at times during the evening seemed a bit tentative, but on this one his solo work was a fountainhead of creativity and nuance. It became obvious that it became his trio and the three musicians responded to his commanding direction.

Wolf returned, and the quartet did a Stevie Wonder composition “Knocks Me Off My Feet” from his Songs in the Key of Life for the final song. The funky arrangement featured a nice solo by Wolf.  The group took a bow and the audience stood applauding until they came back for a final encore.

The group did an encore of “You and the Night and the Music,” which featured one of Motley’s most adventurous solos of the night. Wolf was as smooth as silk. Oles kept a rock-solid tempo throughout the evening and Erskine made his nuanced drum work look like it was effortless. The drummer ended the set with a rolling tom solo that scintillated the crowd.

The group never got too out of the box but presented a very polished performance that was reminiscent of the sophisticated work of John Lewis and Milt Jackson with their seminal group the Modern Jazz Quartet. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Guitar Wizard Charlie Hunter Brings His World Class Trio to the Red Light Cafe in Midtown Atlanta

Charlie Hunter
On Tuesday night February 6, 2018, at Atlanta’s Red Light Café, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of guitarist Charlie Hunter and his trio. To see this seven-string guitarist in action in such an intimate setting as the Red Light is a real treat, and based on the sold out audience, I was not alone in my assessment. The Red Light is located on the eastside of Piedmont Park in the Amsterdam Walk section of Midtown. A storefront location with painted concrete block walls that are loosely adorned with funky local artwork gives this bare bones listening room a homey, comfortable vibe.  The venue features roots rock, folk, bluegrass, blues and occasionally comedy and burlesque nightly. To see a jazz artist of the caliber of Hunter and his trio mates at this venue is something special.

I have been fortunate to have seen the New Jersey native previously and he did not fail to surprise and delight with his touring trio on this occasion. Hunter has mastered a mind-blowing technique on his custom seven and eight string guitars where he plays bass on the upper strings and comps himself with chording or single note bursts almost simultaneously. If you don't see him actually do this with your own eyes you would not believe it is possible. The great guitarist Joe Pass would often accompany himself with a similar technique on a six-string guitar, but Hunter has taken the technique to a more rhythmically vibrant dimension with his custom seven string instrument. Hunter is a phenom and has recorded and played with the likes of rapper Mos Def, contemporary R & B artist D’Angelo, singer Norah Jones, rocker John Mayer as well as many contemporary jazz artists. He is also one of those musicians who seems never content to sit on his laurels, always searching for new avenues of musical expression.

This tour was originally billed to be a duo with Hunter and the Mexican songstress Silvana Estrada, who Hunter met while teaching a master class at the university in Mexico City. He was so impressed with her unique musicality that he stayed on and recorded an album of songs with her and drummer Carter McClean. According to the information on Hunter’s website, despite having an authentic sound that was born in her southern Mexican Jarocho tradition, the new immigration authorities in their infinite wisdom, determined that her music wasn’t sufficiently culturally unique enough to warrant a performing visa. This is unfortunately the state of affairs in our present- hostile to immigrants- political environment fostered by the present administration. 

With his tour pre-booked Hunter had to scramble and enlisted the percussionist Keito Ogawa of Snarky Puppy fame and the singer Lucy Woodward to join him for the North American tour. In talking to Ms. Woodward between sets, she got the call and the trio had to quickly come up with a suitable repertoire for the tour.

Keita Ogawa, Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward at the Red Light Cafe in Atlanta
The set started with a funky version of Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper” with just Mr. Hunter and Mr. Ogawa playing as a duo. The two feeding off each other in sympathetic response. Hunter’s facility on full display and Ogawa making a variety of sounds from a very unconventional looking drum set that used a dried gourd as his bass drum.

Keita Ogawa's Drumset complete with three toy pigs and a gourd bass drum
The duo did a slow, slithering blues written by Hunter “(Wish I Was) Already Paid and On My Way Home” and featured on his 2016 release cleverly titled Everybody Has A Plan Until they Get Punched in the Mouth. Hunter’s dexterity and technique on full display as he played the bass lines and ripped a gutsy solo using only his thumb and forefinger and a peculiar pickless-finger style.

The group introduced vocalist Lucy Woodward to the stage and they performed the Nina Simone classic “Plain Gold Earring.”  Woodward's pedigree includes back-up singing with Rod Stewart, Chaka Khan, Joe Cocker and Snarky Puppy. Born of English-American parents, Ms.  Woodward is an attractive, thirty-something with a sensuous voice that has elements of the chanteuse Shirley Bassey in it. Her bodacious smoky delivery also reminds me of a cross between Peggy Lee and Julie London. The group dynamic was smooth and joyful as Woodward added some vocal color to the music.

Ms. Woodward seemed to become more comfortable as the night went on, especially on blues like  “Walkin’ the Line” or “I Put a Spell on You” where her husky, breathy tone added a bit of  Janis Joplin-like rasp to full effect.  Hunter continued to astound with his steady rhythmic beat and his facile finger work. Ogawa added unique sounds to the mix from his treasure chest of percussive instruments.

One of the highlights of the evening, if just for the sheer originality of it all, was when Hunter and Woodward left the stage and Keita Ogawa performed an astonishing solo using three squeaky pig toys that he said he bought at Walmart. It claims on his website that the Japanese percussionist “…can virtually play any percussion instrument and musical style with fluency and unparalleled musicality.”  Click here to see  this brief cut and see if you don’t agree.

The band did a series of songs that featured Ms. Woodward’s fetching voice including Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” with a scorching solo by Hunter and Lucinda Williams “It’s Over But I Can’t Let Go” which featured some call and response between Ogawa and Woodward.

After a brief intermission- the audience given a chance to interact with the musicians and purchase some albums-the group restarted with a seething hot blues “I Don’t Know”  where Hunter played deftly on a wah pedal. Then proceeded on to  the Willie Dixon classic “Spoonful” where the guitarist had hints of Hendrix in his free flowing lines.

The set continued with “Dream,” “Making Whoopee,” and ended the evening with “I Go Insane.” The evening was a superlative event filled with funk, grit, blues, soul, jazz and swing. Mr. Hunter is a treasure of creativity, Mr. Ogawa a master of rhythm and Ms. Woodward a wonderful vocalist. The three musicians were incredible, and the crowd was on their feet at the end of the evening realizing they had seen a world class musical event in midtown Atlanta. Afterwards, a friend who I had brought gushed on about how it was one of the best concerts he had ever been to! What more could you ask for?

Here is a sample of Charlie's incredible guitar work with drummer Scott Amendola on Ellington's "Blue Pepper"

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Art of the Storyteller in Song: Kate McGarry's Trio "The Subject Tonight is Love" at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA

Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz and Gary Versace The Subject Tonight is Love Binxtown Records
The songstress Kate McGarry is one of those rare performers whose heartfelt interpretation of the lyrics and earnest vocal delivery capture you in a very visceral way. She has a tonally pure voice that she employs to portray everything from innocence to sultriness, wiliness to wonder and passion to pain. But at the very heart of her musical strengths is her authenticity, a sincerity that cannot be faked. When this woman sings a song, she is not just miming the words, she has absorbed them into her being and her voice  brings you into their essence in a deeply personal way.

Kate McGarry
I have had the opportunity to see Ms. McGarry previously, at this very same venue back in July of 2016 when, at the time, she and Mr. Ganz were doing a tour as a quartet with the vocalist Tierney Sutton and the guitarist Serge Merland. You can check out that review by clicking here. I was taken by the remarkable affinity her and Mr. Ganz had when they did songs like Kenny Dorham’s “Fair Weather” and at the time I wrote “Her voice has an earnest quality that captivates the listener, spinning imagery and wonder that recalls the best qualities of a great storyteller.”

Fast forward to 2018 and McGarry is as wizened a storyteller as ever. The addition of another sympathetic voice with the keyboard work of Gary Versace just adds to the beautiful dynamic that this trio has created on their new album The Subject Tonight is Love, which was released yesterday and was the basis for much of the show that I caught.

The album was inspired by a poem from the fourteenth century Persian poet Hafez titled “The Subject Tonight is Love” and is the springboard Ms. McGarry and company used in her selection of the ten songs on her album of the same name.

On the album the trio neatly bookends the music with a prologue where Ms. McGarry speaks/sings a few words about the title poem and an epilogue where the group does an impromptu and inspiring rendering of the Beatles “All You Need is Love,” McGarry’s voice with Versace on organ and piano, Ganz on drums and Ron Miles adding his clarion trumpet to the mix.

Gary Versace, Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry 
On Friday night, I attended the late show at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta. The trio will be performing another two shows on Saturday Feb 3, 2018 at the club. My suggestion is to get yourselves over there if tickets are still available. This is a show not to be missed.

The group started out with a Ganz composition Mr. Sparkle, that morphed into the canon standard What a Difference a Day Makes, arranged by Ganz with a Bossa beat. The intuitive interplay between Mr. Ganz’s guitar and Ms. McGarry’ voice being most prominent when she vocalized in sync with his improvised guitar lines; Mr. Versace, all ears, delicately comping and interjecting his own complementary lines in response.

The program continued with a song not on the album, “It Happens All the Time in Heaven” which found McGarry at her most poignant. The singer can easily evoke innocence or pathos with a turn of a phrase. She spoke of her love of the openness of jazz and you could see that openness in action. The trio respond to her every inflection with open ears and intuitive accompaniment, following her improvised phrasing seamlessly.

What is a tribute to love without a Gershwin tune like “Love Walked In” which was originally played in the 1938 musical “The Goldwyn Follies.”  Ms. McGarry’s voice donned a cabaret lustiness for this one. Mr. Ganz picked up his acoustic bass and Mr. Versace proved how facile he was playing an electric keyboard at the same time as his grand piano. Versace’s piano solo was the epitome of tasteful restraint and space. His almost Basie-like sparseness was sprinkled with some well-placed chordal dissonance that surprised and delighted.

The under the radar guitarist Steve Cardenas, wrote the music and Ms. McGarry penned the lyrics to the gorgeous “She Always Will/ The River.” Ms. McGarry is at her story telling best with this tale of maternal love and the lasting pull of home. Her voice is achingly real and moving, just beautiful. Mr. Ganz plays a wrenchingly sensitive guitar solo and Mr. Versace’s playing is crystalline in response, the three weaving their voices into a tapestry of rare beauty.

Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry
The trio did a more contemporary folk song by the Seattle raised songwriter Paul Curreri titled “God Moves on The City.” Mr. Ganz fingerpicked this roots-based song as Mr. Versace added chords and notes from both keyboards. Ms. McGarry’s voice is amazingly pliable and she takes on the Americana feel of this tome with an authentic hominess that is deserving of these moving lyrics. McGarry told me that this beautiful song will soon be released on a forth coming album.

Mining material from all eras, the next selection of the set was from a 1928 Victor Herbert song titled “Indian Summer.” The sauntering tune is like a pleasant stroll through a park with McGarry. Ganz plays bass as Versace adds a thoughtful piano/keyboard solo. Mc Garry introduces some slippery vocal inflections that just hint at scat.

The group took a Dorothy Parker lyric and put a rhumba beat to the song “I Wished at the Moon.”

The finale was the Ganz/McGarry re-imagination of the Rogers and Hart standard “My Funny Valentine.” Before introducing the song, McGarry spoke of the challenge for a vocalist to do a song like this. A song so thoroughly identified with one artist (in this case Chet Baker), and one that has been sung by countless other artists before. As she stated in the album liner notes “I never thought I would want to sing this most abused of love songs until Keith found a new doorway for me…”  For McGarry the song became more of a vehicle to express self-love. Love for the parts of ourselves that feel somehow inadequate or unloved.  

Ganz introduces a repeating guitar line with Versace adding celeste-like tones in the background before McGarry’s voice is heard reciting the unforgettable words. The pace is liquid and not rushed.  McGarry’s clear tone is transcendent as she sings these well-worn lyrics “…is your figure less than Greek, is your mouth a little weak.”  You believe that she has come to a place of confidence where she believes in herself, flaws and all. The trio plays this one with sublime sensitivity and feeling.

I found out that the brilliant poetic argument with the spectres of her Irish ancestors titled “Climb Down,” was played at the first set, so unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear her perform it live. That bluesy delve into the ancestral ghosts of one's heritage is sure to be a nominee for one of the best original songs of the year. The album is a tour de force for this talented singer who is the modern torchbearer for lost art of the singer as storyteller. If you get a chance to see these three perform live you will not be disappointed.