Sunday, April 22, 2018

Utterly Enjoyable: Tessa Souter's "Night of Key Largo"

Tessa Souter Nights of Key Largo Venus 

I was recently sent a copy of Nights of Key Largo, an album from the vocalist Tessa Souter. The album was originally released on the Venus label in Japan in 2008 and was re-released here in the United States this year.

Ms. Souter is a London born singer who took to singing late after a successful career as a copy editor, a freelance journalist and a mother. She moved to the US in 1992 and attended the Manhattan School of Music meeting and later being mentored by the late great Mark Murphy for four years. She has also studied with the NEA master vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Ms. Souter’s work is marked by one of the most natural voices in jazz today. Her delivery is clean, honest and emotionally sincere. She has what musicians call great ears and a superb taste when choosing material to cover. She often finds inspiration in re-imagining songs that do not fall into the repertoire that is generally associated with jazz. Some splendid examples of this woman’s musical creativity include her flamenco-fused version of Cream’s “White Room” and her treatment of the Beatles classic “Eleanor Rigby” both from here 2009 album titled Obsession. She extended her musical boundaries venturing into a successful fusion of jazz, pop and classical on her fine 2012 album Beyond the Blue, putting her own lyrics to jazz versions of Beethoven, Rodrigo and Chopin. 

On Nights of Key Largo, Ms.  Souter, along with producers Tetsuo Hara and Todd Barkan, assembled an intuitive group of musicians to accompany her on this outing. The inimitable Kenny Werner on piano and I assume arrangements, bassist extraordinaire Jay Leonhart, guitarist Romaro Lubambo, saxophonist Joel Frahm and drummer Billy Drummond all add significantly to the overall success of this effort.

Souter again finds some hidden gems that other singers seem to miss. There is something for everyone who loves great music on this album. Notable compositions  include Ivan Lins romantic “The Island,” where Ms. Souter’s breezy vocal and Frahm’s mellow tenor wrap you in a sensuous blanket.

Van Morrison’s folk/jazz/blues classic “Moon Dance,” is given to a jaunty treatment featuring Leonhart’s buoyant bass. 

Lubambo’s lush guitar chording is the perfect complement to Souter’s liquid vocal on “So Many Stars.” 

Werner’s beautiful piano accompaniment on Bachrach’s “Look of Love” is just transcendent and Souter knows how to make the most of it with her unadorned approach. 

On the cinematic John Barry theme to James Bond “You Only Live Twice,” Souter’s voice floats over Lubambo’s gentle guitar picking.

The oft neglected Benny Carter composition “Key Largo” features Ms. Souter’s voice at it’s most sultry.  This is adult contemporary at its best. Werner is superlative and Leonhart and Drummond keep the walking time impeccably.

Lubambo’s delicate guitar and Drummond’s shimmering cymbals introduce the Mancini classic “Slow Hot Wind” before Souter comes in with her telling reading of the evocative lyrics, as Frahm offers a sensitive tenor solo.  

The album continues with the lovely “Moon and Sand,” “I’m Glad There is You” -with an exceptionally  swinging solo by Frahm- “All or Nothing at All”, “Morning of the Carnival” -with some beautiful arco work by Leonhart- and ending with John Lennon’s wistful and hopeful “Imagine.”

I've listened to this album several times now and it is utterly enjoyable. If her previous work hasn’t convinced you to pay attention to this fine vocalist than the re-release of this hidden gem Nights of Key Largo should be all you need to sit down, listen and enjoy the compelling sound of Tessa Souter.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Piano phenom Christian Sands graces the stage at Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta

Christian Sands, Eric Wheeler and Jerome Jennings at the Woodruff Arts Center

Last Saturday evening, those in the know attended the final concert of a three-part Emerging Jazz Icons series at the Richard Rich Theater in the Woodruff Arts Center here in Atlanta. The series was a symbiotic collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Georgia Public Radio and WABE and the Woodruff Arts Center that was meant to showcase three emerging talents in the jazz world by presenting them in concert to the citizens of Atlanta. By any measure the series was a fantastic success. If you were fortunate enough to catch any one of these three fine talents, your life was immeasurably changed for the better;each offering a new and exciting take on the jazz tradition.  

The series started back in November with the chanteuse Charnée Wade and continued in January with an appearance of the sensational Jazzmeia Horn (you can get my take on Ms. Horn’s concert by clicking here). The final show featured a piano trio led by the piano phenom Christian Sands.

I have been following Christian Sands since I first heard him as part of the Grammy nominated Christian McBride Trio. I caught this dynamic trio at a small nightclub in New York. While I expected nothing but a superlative performance from the virtuoso bassist McBride, it was the young firebrand pianist that most impressed me that evening four years ago. The twenty-nine year old Sands comes from a musical family based out of New Haven, CT  and he has ties to Atlanta on his Mother’s side of the family, as he made clear by announcing his mother was in the audience on this evening. Sands was mentored by the late pianist Billy Taylor and in addition to his former bandmate McBride, he considers the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the pianist Marcus Roberts as strong influences; their approach to the music starts with a deep and abiding respect for the tradition while still moving the music forward.

Christian Sands
On this night, Sands was accompanied by the bassist Eric Wheeler and the drummer Jerome Jennings. The group started the set with a composition by the pianist Eric Reed titled “The Swing in I.” Among the fine young pianists on the scene today, Sands and Aaron Diehl, are in my mind, two of the most respectful of the piano tradition.You can just hear it in their playing. 

On the opener, Sands played with a percussive intensity that had elements of McCoy Tyner’s style. The young man has tremendous velocity on the keyboard and so he naturally likes to strut his chops, astounding the audience with his facility, but make no mistake the man can swing with the best of them. He also knows dynamics and can play block chords ala George Shearing, which he incorporates into his repertoire with skillful aplomb.

The trio took their cue from Sands as he led them down various paths of rhythmic and harmonic diversity. Mr. Wheeler was particularly effective on the second selection, a Chick Corea composition titled “Humpty Dumpty,” and Jennings made the song explode with his rhythmic dynamics. This burner was for me a highlight of the evening. Mr. Sands has obviously been influenced by Corea’s work, what pianist hasn’t been in the last forty years? But Sands has big ears, and besides his ability to play with the facility of a Corea, his playing wove in elements of embellishers like Errol Garner and maybe even Hampton Hawes. His interplay with the powerful Jennings was particularly empathetic.

After the first two songs, Sands rose from his piano chair to address the audience. When he spoke, the was a sense of maturity and wit in his delivery. You could see that he has absorbed a great deal of the polish and affability that his former employer Christian McBride is famous for.  After introducing the titles of the songs previously played and naming his bandmates, the dapperly dressed Sands went back to his seat and began with his own composition “Reaching from the Sun” from his latest album Reach. The song had a Latin influenced beat and Wheeler was given a lengthy solo.Sands imparted a driving gospel sound to his playing as Jennings and Wheeler laid down an effective backbeat upon which Sands could explore.

On the next selection, Bassist Wheeler was given the stage for an extended less than melodic bass solo that I could have done without. Nonetheless it elicited shouts of approval from the crowd, who eventually started clapping along with him.  Sands and Jennings returned to support him bringing in some bluesy swing with Sands offering some colorful arpeggios that included some ragtime chording.

The pianist offered a beautifully filigreed intro to the Jackson 5 song “Never Can Say Goodbye” which gave the willing audience a chance to sing along to this familiar pop classic, once they finally caught a whiff of the melody. Sands started the song out slowly, but as the band continued to build momentum, first with a pizzicato bass solo by Wheller, he began building tension on his piano. He created a wave of sound using his uncanny ability to hold a seemingly endless sustained tremolo effect; his right hand producing a deluge of notes that washed over the song like a torrent from a broken dam. The trio developed a sustained groove over which Sands explored multiple harmonic possibilities, oftentimes with Jennings taking on an aggressive polyrhythmic role. The audience just roared with approval.

The set continued with another Sand’s original from his album titled “Oyeme” which the pianist said was inspired by his recent trip to Havana, Cuba. Sands started out with a clave-based rhythm over which Wheeler and Jennings ruminated. The song darted into and out of the rhythm as Sands danced all over his keyboard in an inspirational display of his grasp of hard-driving Latin music. Jennings showed how he was no stranger to the polyphonic rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, playing his own nearly three-minute solo of sustained rhythmic articulation. Sands has clearly absorbed the tradition of jazz piano in all its ethnic diversity.

The set closed with a ballad that Sands used as a vehicle for some his most impressive harmonic explorations of the evening. The young pianist showed signs of his mastery of stride, as the melody emerged from his musings on a song often associated with the late great Nate King Cole titled “Love.”  To watch this talented pianist explore the different styles that he can call on at will is quite impressive. I hear sounds of Tatum, Shearing, Garner, Tyner and even Teddy Wilson in this man’s playing and yet with all that influence there is something unique here that is all Christian Sands. Catch him if you can, you will be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Art of Bill Frisell Live at City WInery in Atlanta

Thomas Morgan, Bill Frisell and Rudy Royston at Atlanta's City Winery
This past Wednesday night, April 4th, at Atlanta’s City Winery the world class guitarist and innovator Bill Frisell and his trio thrilled a nearly full house of faithful followers, aspiring guitarists and a few curious uninitiated listeners with an unforgettable night of music. The Winery can accommodate over three hundred in the confines of its comfortable, sonically pleasing wine cellar-like atmosphere. Frisell just released a fabulous solo album titled Music Is on the Okeh label on March 16, 2018.  On this night Frisell was joined by Thomas Morgan on upright bass and Rudy Royston on drums.

The now sixty-seven-year old Frisell has been playing his distinctive style of guitar for the better part of three decades. He signed to Manfred Eicher’s ECM label back in the early eighties and became the virtual house guitarist for the label. He has had long term associations with the eclectic experimental composer/saxophonist John Zorn from his early days in New York. In the early 2000’s he was a part of the influential drummer Paul Motian’s trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano. The list of collaborators he has worked with is a who’s who of the contemporary and avant-garde music world during the last quarter century. Along the way Frisell has developed his own unique sound- a mix of bluegrass, country, surfer rock, Americana, jazz, fusion and sophisticated electronics- that has made him one the most adventurous musicians and a sought-after collaborator. His work has been nominated for a Grammy on four occasions in 2005, 2009, 2016 and 2018 and he won once for Unspeakable in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category for 2005.

The Guitarist Bill Frisell at Atlanta's City Winery 
Bill Frisell has the casual appearance of a disheveled, absent-minded professor, with his shock of white spiky hair, horn- rimmed glasses and his loosely fitting jacket and jeans. You could see this guy working part-time fixing motorcycles in a neighborhood garage or repairing old radios in his basement, but when he plugs in his Telecaster-style guitar and connects to  his array of electronic wizardry he becomes a master of the universe. The universe of the sound that he so deftly creates.

The guitarist started off with a series of harmonics, tones generated from his guitar that resonate with sympathetic frequencies. He is master of harnessing them to great effect and he used them to introduce the Henry Mancini classic “Moon River.”  The audience listened intently as he conjured up a delicate repeating motif on his guitar, looping it and then harmonizing to it. When the melody became apparent the crowd let out a collective sigh of acknowledgment.

One suspects that Frisell’s trio mates must have big ears to play with this man as his playing appears to be snatched from the ether, rather than firmly pre-planned. Morgan has been playing with Frisell since 2016 and they recently did a highly acclaimed duo release last year titled Small Town. Royston is a sought-after drummer whose work can be heard all over the gamut. His stylistic approach was first heard with Frisell on the guitarist’s 2010 Grammy nominated recording History Mystery. Together these three musicians showed just how empathetically connected three people can be, responding as Frisell utilized a series of surprising electronic embellishments to create cascading effects before transitioning into the familiar theme from the James Bond thriller “You Only Live Twice.”  He has a penchant for creatively using looping to allow him to create multiple layers of expression on a repeating motif.

Frisell’s repertoire often features movie soundtracks and on this evening besides the aforementioned “Moon River,” and the Bond theme “You Only Live Twice,” he later played another Bond theme from the movie “Goldfinger” to the delight of the audience. His surfer sounding guitar resonating clear, concise lines as the memorable melodies hung in the air like wisps of smoke from Bond’s lethal Beretta.  The man wastes no motion in his playing. He is a quiet leader that directs in an unobtrusive, firm but nuanced manner. Morgan’s bass is clear and resonant, and Royston is a master of delicate shading.

The group continued with a walking blues, which might have been Frisell’s “Winslow Homer,” which the guitarist played in his own fractured way, with Morgan and Royston each being featured on solos. The group went onto a more ethereal sounding piece, a rambling waltz that was reminiscent of the late John Abercrombie’s work. Interestingly Frisell was a highlight performer at a memorial concert held for the recently deceased guitarist at Brooklyn’s Roulette on March 26, 2018.

No jazz concert, although that is too restrictive of a title for Frisell's work, would be complete without at least one Thelonious Monk song. Frisell and company didn’t disappoint, doing their own take on the quirky “Epistrophy.”  Here the group was at its most intuitive, perhaps because of the familiarity of the song, but it was marvelous to watch the exquisite interplay, especially between Frisell and Royston who operates without bombast. The drummer created a jungle beat that added surprising rhythmic interest and an inherent sense of swing. Morgan had one of his most creative solos of the evening.

The real surprise of the evening  was Frisell’s marvelous take on the John McLaughlin classic “Arjen’s Bag.” Later renamed “Follow Your Heart,” from Mclaughlin’s 1969 album Extrapolation; Frisell played this on his own album, Ghost Town, from 2000. To hear Frisell’s take on this guitar classic some nearly fifty years later was a true treat, bringing me back to when guitar virtuosity was my idea of true greatness. The guitarist’s introduction cleverly hinted at the song before revealing his true intent. Royston played timely rim shots as Morgan plucked away creating the atmospheric feel of the song authentically. Frisell employed some distortion and echo to his guitar before he went into the song’s distinctive lead in. I had never heard anyone do this “live” and for me it was just so good to hear it played again with such creative energy and inspired tremolo and electronic effects.

The band continued with one of Frisell’s own compositions, this one played with phaser effects titled “it Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” which is on his last release Small Town with Thomas Morgan. It is a song that has a nostalgic feel to it, one that you might hear coming from a guitarist, albeit a very good one, sitting on his front porch musing away the late afternoon. Frisell plays the sing-song line like the repeating verses of a melancholic nursey rhyme. His footboard of electronic wizardry produces sounds that at times mimic a harpsichord or perhaps a mandolin. Then he takes it to another level, accelerating the pace, developing it into a rhythmic jig of sorts, playing in a style that to my ears had native American elements to it, before returning to the main theme. An impressive display of what seem to be on the spot improvisation on a theme.

Transitioning into the theme from “Goldfinger,” Frisell recreated that echoed, twangy guitar on the John Barry composition that Shirley Bassey made famous. It was pure fun listening to this master explore this movie classic.

Frisell disengaged from his guitar and took to the stage, introducing his bandmates in his own inimitably folksy way. In a brief humorous interlude, he warned the audience of the excesses of eating locally made Maple Bacon ice cream, which he said gave him the sniffles.

After unrelenting applause, the band returned for an encore with what Frisell called his theme song, the Americana standard, “Oh Shenandoah.”  This poignant song, a lament from one that longs for a return to home, was the perfect vehicle for Frisell to spin his magic. His guitar took on multiple tones each one more expressive than the last as Morgan and Royston played the cadenced march like a mournful dirge. But Frisell is an optimist, and he skillfully transitioned from the somber Shenandoah into the uplifting Burt Bacharach composition “What the World Needs Now,” ending the show on an encouragingly upbeat note. The audience was completely taken by this wonderful performance. As a fellow audience member stated to me, Frisell takes you to another place.

The City Winery should be applauded for continuing to up its game, providing a comfortable, inviting and sonically pleasing venue and booking world class musicians like Bill Frisell to perform here in Atlanta. Hopefully people will respond accordingly and continue to support this premier music venue.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Many Facets of Bassist Martin Wind on his latest: " Light Blue"

Martin Wind Light Blue  Laika Records
Martin Wind is a classically trained bassist with impeccable tone and a polished arco technique. Consequently he has become an  in-demand sideman and sought after musical collaborator. His credits include his duo work with  guitar great Philip Catherine and current collaborations with fellow German and long time friend, guitarist Ulf Meyer. He is a member of the trios of vocalists Dena DeRosa and Anne Hampton Callaway; a member of the trios of pianists Bill Cunliffe, Ted Rosenthal, and Bill Mays  and a member of drummer Matt Wilson’s Arts and  Crafts Group. Wind has been a first-call session musician whose work can be heard on several films and if that wasn't enough he is educator on the faculty of both NYU and Hofstra Universities.

With all that work as a sideman, educator and collaborator, its hard to imagine him finding the time to both compose and lead his own group, but that’s exactly what this industrious bassist has done. His last album was an ambitious undertaking that re-imagined the work of Bill Evans. Titled Bring Out the Stars, the album featured Wind’s own quartet in concert with the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana and was a joyous feast of sound.

On Wind’s latest release LightBlue, the bassist is joined by a stellar cast musicians including the clarinetist Anat Cohen, the multi-reed artist Scott Robinson, the trumpeter Ingrid Jensen,  the pianists Bill Cunliffe and Gary Versace, the vocalist Maucha Adnet and the drummers Matt Wilson and Duduka Fonseca. 

LightBlue is a revealing look into the versatility of this accomplished bassist and in the compositional inventiveness department it is anything but light. We are treated to ten original Wind compositions that show just how far he has come since his days of  studying composition and performance with such luminaries as Mike Richmond, Jim McNeely, Kenny Werner and Mike Holober.

The record is divided into two groups, the first half of the album, the more adventurous and daring of the two, utilizes keyboard artist Gary Versace, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, Scott Robinson on tenor, alto, taragota (A Hungarian instrument similar to a soprano saxophone but made of wood)  and bass saxophones, and drummer Matt Wilson, with clarinetist Cohen playing on just one cut. The second half of the album features Wind's more  Brazilian influenced, lyrical side. This lineup included clarinetist Cohen, Robinson on tenor, alto, bass saxophone and clarinet, pianist Bill Cunliffe, drummer Duduka Fonseca and the vocalist Maucha Adnet. Each side has its own distinct merits. 

The range of diversity in these compositions is quite impressive. Whether it be the opening bars of “While I’m Still Here,” with Versace’s wonderful cinematic sounding organ, or the raucous but jubilant “Power Chords,” with Wind’s rumbling bowing and Robinson’s bellowing bass saxophone solo creating a driving, almost metal-inspired sound, there is something here for almost anyone.

On his composition  “Rose,” the delightfully evocative taragota work of Scott Robinson is otherworldly and when played together with Jensen’s clarion trumpet, the group attains an admirable symbiosis.  Wind’s booming bass keeps the metronomic time whilevVersace dances intuitively between piano and organ. The music just cries out to be listened to, absorbed and enjoyed.

“Ten Minute Song” is a jaunty swinger that features the versatile Robinson’s wonderful bass saxophone work over Wilson’s shuffling brush strokes and Wind’s walking bass lines. A jabbing piano solo by Versace leads to a wispy Jensen trumpet solo and a reply by Cohen’s buoyant clarinet. Wilson offers his own playful solo before the group returns to a unified conclusion.

The often cold and dreary month “February” is represented here by a brooding ballad. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen makes the most of the mood with a moving solo. Wind’s pizzicato intonation is remarkably precise and projects beautifully on his emotional solo. Versace’s tinkling piano musings  at the coda adds to the perfect ending.

Side two transitions into a more lyrical theme with the folk-inspired, “Genius and A Saint." Here the music features some of the best woodwind interplay I’ve heard in ages. The ubiquitous Cohen is a marvel on her instrument, but Robinson is an underappreciated master of the clarinet and he finds his harmonic groove in a graceful exchange with Cohen that can only be described as pure magic.

Brazilian vocalist Maucha Adnet lends her bossa authenticity to sing Wind’s breezy “Seven Steps to Rio.” Robinson creates a marvelous Getz-ian tenor sound clearly in the spirit of the master’s work with Jobim before putting his own spin on his solo. Cohen’s clarinet rises to new heights as Fonseca’s animated drums add some percussive accents to this catchy tune.

“A Sad Story” finds Wind’s emotive arco-playing merging with Cohens’s soulful clarinet opening this aching lament. Adnet’s voice is charged with the sorrow and regret that the lyrics portray.

“De Norte A Sul” (From North to South) finds Wind and Fonseca laying down a samba inspired beat and features darting solos by Cohen, a soulful vocal by Adnet and an inspired solo by pianist Bill Cunliffe.

Wind rediscovered this closing melody, “Longing,” while researching material for this album. Cohen’s signature woody sound floats over the changes in graceful communion with the backing rhythm. Wind’s bass is again featured on a pizzicato solo that is accompanied by Fonseca’s ever so light touch on his cymbal and by Cunliffe’s thoughtful chording. Adnet’s vocal stylings are splendid.