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.