Thursday, August 29, 2019

"The Hope I Hold": Ryan Keberle & Catharsis

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis The Hope I Hold Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1072

Ryan Keberle has been steadily earning a well-deserved reputation as a splendid trombonist. He has won the Downbeat’s rising star award for his work on his instrument and has contributed his talents on projects by popular mainstream artists like David Bowie and Alicia Keyes. He is a valued member of the brass section of the prestigious, Grammy winning Maria Schneider’s Orchestra and worked with jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, Brazilian composer Ivan Lins and the forward-thinking composer/arranger Darcy James Argue to name a few. His work as an educator has included numerous improvisational trombone seminars in many prominent music schools and he has directed the jazz program at Hunter College since 2004.

Ryan Keberle 

Keberle’s most progressive and inspired work has been recorded since he started his group Catharsis in 2012. Keberle’s Catharsis has included, at various times, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, guitar/vocalist Camila Meza, bassist Jorge Roeder, multi-reedist Scott Robinson and drummer Eric Doob.

The word Catharsis means purification; the processing of releasing and therefore providing relief of strong or repressed emotions. Unfortunately, in today’s world, “strong or repressed emotions” often include a fair share of hatred and fear, but Keberle and Catharsis use their music as a vehicle to promote and accentuate the positive. Their music offers sensitivity and creativity, using music as a path to enlightenment. Their music has espoused the importance of love and hope even when faced with prevailing negative forces. Over several albums, the group has offered a positive mantra that promotes inclusion, represented by the band’s diverse ethnicity and celebrated by their ability to create such a strong cohesiveness, as witnessed by the  joy that is overwhelmingly apparent in their music.

On the latest recording The Hope I Hold, Keberle’s artistry is inherently bonded to his socially altruistic message. “The Hope I Hold Suite” is inspired by his admiration for Langston Hughes searing 1935 poem “America Will Be.”  I’ve re-read the full poem (you can read it here) and recognize that, despite a passage of over eighty years, the aspirations often committed to have still been stubbornly elusive to an  unconsciously large portion of our population.
Keberle’s message restlessly refuses to accept the inevitability of a failed dream. His hope, like a North Star, is a beacon that leads us to continue to strive for universal rights and equitable equality. Keberle admirably believes the realization of this dream can only be found through truth, love and inspired music. I'm with him on this.

The group is amazingly empathetic, melding their individual musical personalities into a unified sounding symphony. The first four songs are all part of a "The Hope I Hold" suite that honors the Hughes poem. Not just an exemplary trombonist, Keberle is an accomplished pianist who opens the set with an elegant tingling simulation of clanking chains on “Tangled in the Ancient Endless Chains.” He plays some airy Fender Rhodes as Reoder’s booming bass paces the rising melody and the music grows in intensity. Camila Meza’s haunting wordless voice finds a compatriot with Scott Robinson’s responsive tenor and Doob’s splashing cymbals and exploding toms. Meza’s voice is interpretative and moving. She beautifully vocalizes Hughes' verse, the fourth paragraph of his poem, and brilliantly adapts the lyrics to the music with only slight word substitutions to make it work for her. Robinson’s soaring tenor is uplifting and hopeful, Meza’s electric guitar solo follows, lending another color to this aural watercolor that offers promise.

Left to Right Jorge Roeder, Eric Doob, Camila Meza, Ryan Kebrle and Scott Robinson,
Earshot Jazz Festival ( photo credit unknown)
Keberle’s emotive trombone opens “Despite the Dream.” He and Meza’s guitar match notes and sounds before her plaintive wordless voice is joined with Robinson’s tenderly searching tenor in a three-instrument conversation. Meza’s voice adds lyrics, vocal backups are included by Keberle and Roeder, as the rhythm section of Doob and Roeder establish the swaying pace. Robinson’s tenor is a joy on the bridge and Keberle’s trombone is like a force of emotion and expressiveness, artful. The music retains an orchestration that is positive and inspiring.

“America Will Be,” the third song in the four-song suite, starts out with a dirge-like feel. Eventually the music elevates to a stirring apex with Keberle’s probing trombone, Robinson’s atmospheric tenor, Meza’s spidery guitar, Roeder’s booming bass and Doob’s militarily cadenced drums. The years together have tempered these musicians into a precise, empathetic and responsive ensemble. The composition has, at times, a solemn feeling, but hope and defiance is also present and Hughes’ words “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath-America will be.”  Meza’s melodic voice singing the defining statement both codifies existing disappointment but also demands realization of the promised dream.

“Fooled and Pushed Apart” is a dynamic, fluid song that utilizes a driving rhythm section of Roeder and Doob, a responsive front line of Robinson and Keberle and a tantalizing, Flora Purim-like wordless performance by Meza. Keberle’s composition has a modern, Blue Note-era feel to it and it just bristles with precision, excitement and vibrancy. Keberle’s trombone has a liquid bellow to it and his intonation is flawless.  Robinson’s tenor artfully darts around Keberle’s trombone adding subtle and effective accompaniment that seem improvised on the spot. Upon multiple listens you find more and more things to like about this one.

“Campinas” features Keberle’s trombone accompanied by his overdubbed Rhodes. Jorge Roeder’s voice offers a wordless opening over his own electric bass lines and Doob’s cadenced drums, which seem to be the one constant in this song. Meza and Roeder weave their wordless voices expertly as Keberle adds his spacey Korg Minlogue accents and Meza’s guitar eventually adds another voice to the mix.

The second part of the album features three drum-less Catharsis trio songs. Keberle, Meza and Roeder take on a Latin vibe. The program includes “Para Volar” a buoyant Latin song sung and composed by Meza and accompanied by her guitar, Keberle’s trombone and Roeder’s bass. Meza’s voice always has a joyous sound to it as she sings the lyrics in Spanish and Keberle’s trombone takes on a warm, Latin feel.

The beautiful “Peering” is written by bassist Roeder and features Keberle’s trombone, Meza’s guitar and wordless voice and Roeder’s looping bass. Meza sings precisely in sync to her own guitar. Keberle compliments her emotively on trombone. The three musicians who have played together for the past seven years have developed an undeniable musical telepathy that can’t fail to impress. 

“Zamba de Lozano” is a folk-like composition by Manuel Jose Castillo and Gustavo Leguizamon has a slow, romantic flow to it with Meza’s guitar and voice, Roeder’s and Keberle’s accompanying vocals and Keberle’s trombone.

“Becoming the Water” is uplifting composition of hope by Keberle and Mansta Miro and reprises the song from previous Catharsis album Find the Common, Shine a Light but this time without Michael Rodriguez’s trumpet.

The finale is titled “Epilogue/Make America Again” is the final composition and a bit of a reprise of the previous song “America Will Be” restating the sentiments. The song features Meza’s electric guitar, Keberle’s electric piano and trombone, Roeder’s bass, Doob’s drums and Scott Robinson’s tenor. The music has the cadence of a march with the ensemble raising the sound and tension to a peak of excitement before allowing the music to calm and settle, with Meza’s tactile voice resubmitting the moving Hughes words at the coda to great effect.

Ryan Keberle continues to show his progression as a serious composer, a deft leader and a brilliant instrumentalist whose music is always passionate, moving and timely. Keberle and Catharsis have progressed their musical mission with The Hope I Hold, and hopefully their music and message will inspire listeners  who aspire to achieve a better world for all of us.

Monday, August 26, 2019

"Heartbeat" from Jelena Jovovic: A Gift of Love

Heartbeat Jelena Jovovic

It is always a joy when you surprisingly come across an album from someone who you have never heard of before. Perhaps they are from a geographically different place, a place like Serbia. Maybe their music piques your interest and stirs that something inside you that makes you want to listen again and again. Maybe this is someone you should be aware of, to pay attention to. Jelena Jovović is just that kind of musician. A Serbian vocalist whose new album Heartbeat is precisely the kind of gem-in-the-rough that makes exploring new and unknown music such a joy and worth all the effort.

Jelena Jovovic

Ms.  Jovović s career included studies at University of Arts in Graz, Austria, a masters from University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia and a professorship at Music School of Stankovic in Belgrade, where she presently teaches. While living in South Africa, she established a vocal curriculum at Cape Town University and Pretoria Tech School of Music. She has played with American artists like saxophonist Bob Mover, veteran drummer Steve Williams and bassist/composer/arranger Chuck Israels.

On Heartbeat, we find out just how sonorous Ms. Jovović ’s voice can be. There is a beautiful flow to her intonation, a hip sense of modulation, an art carefully developed by years of studying with some of jazzes best vocal interpreters. Vocal masters who have an instrumental approach to the voice like Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton and Andy Bey. Jovović has precise control, impeccable timing and an astute sense of taste in her choices of the music to record. Modern music from composer/artists like Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt”, which Jovović’s voice and her talented Serbian band make it their own. Pianist Vasil Hadzimanov’s sprite Rhodes work, Rastko Obradovic’s probing tenor solo and Milan Nikolic’s vibrant double bass solo all make this a winning cd right out of the gate.

Jelena Jovoic and some members of her band

Hadzimanov’s gorgeous piano introduction and accompaniment on the Bruneti folk song ballad “Paladin” and Jovović’s incandescent vocals are a real treat to anyone who loves a sensitive song delivered with an unforced authenticity and fervor.

Modern jazz meets ancient Balkan music with Oleg Kireyev’s haunting Tater throat singing that opens Jovović’s nimble and funky “The Countless Stars.” Listen to the flawless modulation of her voice toward the coda, simply masterful.

The title song ‘Heartbeat” is another Jovović composition that expresses the singer’s upbeat approach to the universe and her sentiment that love can resonate with the world over anything. Another soulful tenor saxophone solo by Obradovic compliments Jovović’s flexible vocals.

“Bubu’s Song” is a bouncing, bright song that Jovović’s created for her daughter Sara and features some tubular vibes by Milos Branisavljevic that interacts seamlessly with Jovović’s elastic scatting.

“Sweet Music” is a deeply emotionally sung composition that memorializes the importance of music in the singer’s life and soul. A moving trumpet solo by Stjepko Gut communicates intuitively with Jovović’s emotive voice. Hadzimanov’s empathetic piano accompaniment seems to be hard-wired to Jovović’s vocal explorations.

Claus Raible’s “Little Freddie Steps” is referred in the liner notes as a boogaloo and has a definitive groove to it and perhaps my least favorite song on the album.

“Time is Here” is another Jovović  composition that she sings in both English and a beguiling French. An airy soprano solo by Obradovic and some ethereal Rhodes work by Hadzimanov make this special. The liner notes refer to Joni Mitchell’s work on “Mingus” and I can certainly hear the influences from Ms. Mitchell in Jovović’s approach, although the voice is all Jovović’s.

“Mad in Heaven”, daringly morphs from one time to another and Jovović’s lyrics about gender relations is played using a distinctively staccato approach. Jovovic is clearly no one trick pony with her music and her stylistic varriations.

Don Grolnick wrote and played his song “Pools” when he was in the progressive group “Steps Ahead.” Jovović’s deft understanding of this modern, angular music comes through with Jovović’s smart arrangement and the facile execution by her impressive band on this neglected gem from 1985.

Jelena Jovović’s is a surprising delight. A multi-talented vocal talent from Serbia. whose music simply validates the universality of this music we call jazz. Let’s face it we can all use a dose of love from such a gift like Heartbeat.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Sliding "Across Oceans" : Ross Hammond and Poly Varghese

Ross Hammond and Poly Vaghese  Across Oceans
There is a recently released album by a Sacramento, CA based resonator guitarist Ross Hammond and the Indian Mohem Veena player Poly Varghese and if you like your music played without a net you owe it to yourself to experience this vibrant collaboration.

The cd is aptly titled Across Ocean. You might expect the music from these two culturally diverse musicians to be oceans apart as the title suggests, but in actuality these string masters have found a strong, aurally rooted commonality in the music they spontaneously created in these five musical mantras.

The Mohen Veena is an instrument built around a Hawaiian guitar. An expressive, drone producing, Southern Indian inspired slide guitar that was modified and created by the Indian master Vishna Mohan Bhatt. Bhatt taught and was mentor to the musician Poly Varghese, who has become quite proficient at this unique instrument and is also an experimental theater actor.

Mohen Veena

I have followed the Californian based Ross Hammond for a while and he is a master of the soulful, Americana sound of the steel resonator guitar that is used predominantly in country, bluegrass and blues music. These two met at a concert in Sacramento and were inspired to play together, explore their common love of improvisation and use the expressive use of the slide over strings to make their music.

Ross Hammond (photo credit unknown)

The songs are impromptu elaborations that bring out the best of these creative artists. They establish a symbiotic connection when they play together; a mood created when the vibe is right, and the music is flowing.  The titles include “The First Glimpse of the Morning,” “Rashmon Blues,” Global Blues,” “For Mary Oliver” and “Across Oceans.”  The music has a spiritual element to it. Two instruments that can lead you on an unexpected journey of exploration and wonder, if you let yourself be absorbed by it.

The opener “The First Glimpse of the Morning” is a musical representation of dawn accentuated by the duel sounds of the two slide masters. The men listen intently, sometimes providing background, sometimes introducing a new direction. The intensity of their instruments rise in anticipation like the radiance of the morning sun.  The blue-based tunes like “Rashmon Blues” and “Global Blues” seem to provide the basis for the most exciting, loose improvisational excursions from both these players.  Hammond’s resonator has a warm, melodic tone and Varghese’s Mohenn Veena offers a higher pitched, drone-based sound that creates a spiritual chant-like undertone to the music.

Well respected American poet Mary Oliver recently passed at the age of eighty-three in Florida in January of 2019. Hammond’s “For Mary Oliver” is a dedication to the poet whose work was a helpful inspiration to the guitarist. The song is a mournful combination of Hammond’s modulating slide work and Varghese’s cascading, sitar-like explorations. 

 “Across Oceans” is a wonderfully peaceful song with Hammond playing a delicate finger-picked guitar and some bottle slide. Varghese finds his way into some country-inspired slide guitar sound on his Mohen Veena. The music is a fusion; two identities that merge from two cultures Indian and American. Hammond and Varghese create an inspiring conversation, trading ideas, leading each other into new and exciting musical directions, and they take us willingly along with them.

There is another element to this music. Ross Hammond and Poly Varghese are two travelers from different worlds, from Across Oceans, who have found a bond in their music and in their cultural differences. If we all could learn this simple lesson of inclusion there is no doubt that this would be a lot better world to live in.

You can listen to and buy his album by clicking here.

Ross Hammond on Resonator Guitar "Codes"

Poly Varghese: