Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hearts & Souls (Part 2)

One of the joys of 21st Century is the mixing and meshing of various genres by an artist; the idea that variety should be the spice of art, however, does not always translate into "big hit records" but the results can be such fun for the adventurous listener.  Jazz and/or rhythm 'n' blues artists delving into country music is nothing new (Ray Charles, Joel Harrison) however Amy Cervini has certainly added her own twist on the fusion with her new CD, "Jazz Country" (Anzic Records).  First thing one notices, there's the ensemble that features the vocalist fronting a trio featuring Jesse Lewis (acoustic guitar) and Matt Aronoff (acoustic bass). Mr. Lewis, whose impressive electric guitar work shone on the new "Dickens Campaign" CD by drummer Deric Dickens, sticks to acoustic guitar here and is so creative in his support and voicings. Mr. Aronoff's bass work is fundamentally solid, his thick tones providing a strong bottom.  Second, the material ranges from Johnny Cash to Neil Young to Dave Frishberg to Hank Williams to Rodgers & Hart to Carrie Underwood and more.  Third, there's Ms. Cervini's warm and appealing voice.  Like Kate McGarry and Nicky Schrire, the songs she sings tell "stories" as opposed to being vehicles to show off her "chops." Fourth, this ensemble is no "one-off project" - it's been in existence for several years playing monthly gigs at the 55 Bar in New York City.

Several guests add their unique voices to the project.  Nellie McKay not only sings along on "Wallflower Lonely, Cornflower Blue" (a Dave Frishberg tune recorded by numerous people but especially Blossom Dearie) but adds her ukulele.  Ms. Cervini brings out her alto saxophone (her first instrument) for the song.  Her husband Oded Lev-Ari plays piano on the lovely duo version of Dominque Eade's "Go Gently To The Water" and joins the Trio plus guest Gary Versace (accordion) on "Penguin Dance" ( a piece Ms Cervini co-wrote with Nicky Schrire.)  Marty Ehrlich's unique alto saxophone sound is the opening sound on the sweet version of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", a piece that also features excellent guitar from Lewis.  Anzic label head Anat Cohen delivers a lively clarinet solo on "Frim Fram Sauce", a sprightly tune first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio in the 1940s.  Ms. Cohen also appears on the Cervini/Aaron Kotler original "Je Danse Avec la Neige", a tune with roots in the swing music of Django Rheinhardt.  For Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone", trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis gives the country tune a taste of Louis Armstrong's bluesy style.

Among the other highlights are the beautiful readings of Canadian songwriter Allister MacGillivray's haunting "Song For the Mira" and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile", the latter featuring a fine bass solo.  Mr. Aronoff's bowed bass lines on the first verse of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" adds an ethereal touch yet it's Ms. Cervini's stunning reading of the lyrics that truly stands out. The bassist is the sole accompanist on "Drivin', Cryin', Missing You", a song composed by K.T. Oslin for her final recording (released in 2001).  With its hint of blues and soul and the hearty bass lines, the piece is the perfect close to an excellent musical experience.

"Jazz Country" is a wondrous place, a musical heaven on earth created by Amy Cervini in collaboration with Jesse Lewis and Matt Aronoff plus their talented guests. Kudos to producer Matt Wilson and recording engineer Brian Montgomery for the intimate sound on this recording, as warm as any you'll ever hear on a CD. For more information, go to

The majority of the music alto saxophonist/composer Sarah Manning created for her 4th CD, "Harmonious Creature" (Posi-Tone Records), came from a month-long stay in 2012 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.  In fact, the first track of the recording, "Copland On Cornelia Street", was inspired by the fact she stayed in a cabin that Aaron Copland had used many decades before.  Even though the Colony is in rural New Hampshire, the music on this CD has quite the urban sound.  The electric guitar of Jonathan Goldberger mixes with the hard-edged tones of Eyvind Kang's viola and the forceful rhythm section of drummer Jerome Jennings plus bassist Rene Hart to create an often crunchy yet open backdrop for Ms. Manning's keening and melodious alto saxophone.  Several of the tunes have an unflagging intensity; "Floating Bridge" is a raucous romp, fueled by Jennings' relentless drumming while the squalling  ballad "On The Beach" (a Neil Young composition) rises higher and higher on the strength of Kang's moaning viola and Ms. Manning's strident solo.

On the quieter side, there is an emotionally rich reading of Gillian Welch's "I Dream A Highway" (the blend of viola and alto saxophone is other-worldly) and the handsome "Three Chords for Jessica" - the shimmering hand percussion of Jennings and Hart's trance-like bass lines on the latter track are sparkling accompaniment for a engrossing long solo from the saxophonist.

There's a "country" feel to the rhythm section and Goldberger's guitar work on "What The Blues Left Behind", all in support of a rustic melody.  The guitarist lets loose for a hearty solo, setting the stage for the leader to bring the piece back to the rustic melody.   "Grey Dawn, Red Fox" moves stealthily through a number of tempo changes as well as through shifts in sonorities.  Kang's viola solo really captures the movements of the fox on a solo that is reminiscent of the sound of the late Billy Bang.

The quintet of musicians led by Sarah Manning make this music come alive at every turn.  That is a compliment to the intelligent compositions and arrangements of the leader.  "Harmonious Creature" takes elements of jazz, rock, folk and even country music to create its own unique musical environment, one that beckons the adventurous listener.  For more information, go to

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