Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 - What a Year, Especially for Music! (Part 1 - Voices)

Most years are a blend of happy and sad, chaos and peace, health and illness, loss and gain. 2017 certainly was that way for me. Reading the news from home, from Washington, throughout the country and the world, one is not surprised that our capability for shock is tested every minute our eyes and ears are open.  Music reflects all that and more; often music deflects all that and more.  We have as much a need to be entertained as we do to hear our favorite artists try to speak or sing "truth to power."  No surprise that Kendrick Lamar's recent CD is titled "DAMN" and in all caps.   The lists of favorite television show are peppered with programs ("Handmaid's Tale", "Dark", "Stranger Things") that warn us of dictatorships, of totalitarian governments of the near-future, of women continuing to struggle to be equal.  Are we surprised by the almost daily "sexual harassment" charges levied at movie and television personalities, at producers and directors, at trusted newsmen.  And at government officials.

Music reminds many of us of what can be good, that the creative process brings people and audiences together, if not to change the world than just a small part of it and, maybe, just for two to four hours.

Listed below, and in subsequent posts, are the albums that brought me joy and hope through this year,  created by artists who made me question my beliefs or soothe my spirits.  Step Tempest was quieter than normal this Fall, actually since the end of July.  Not that I wasn't listening to music but, perhaps, I needed it step back to see a bigger picture. True, I was committed to other projects that took more of my time that I expected but, in the past, I found the time to write because the artists who send me their music, the publicists who are kind to hang with me, the people I interact with when I are writing and doing radio interviews appreciate the work I do. No excuses, no apologies. Just thought you should know.

Part one is but 10 of the, possibly, 36 recordings I think deserve recognition.  This list contains albums with voices, many with poetry, some I never had the opportunity to write about.

If you held me down and ordered me to tell which album was my true #1 choice, I would admit to "Matt Wilson's Honey And Salt Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" (Palmetto).  It's not just because I saw the band live at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT, and was invited on stage to read with the band ("We Must Be Polite" with the delightful Bo Diddley-beat and more)...well, that was great (I mean, Ron Miles, Jeff Lederer, Dawn Thomson, Martin Wind, and the irrepressible Mr. Wilson....did I mention Ron Miles?) but the album has so much going for it, so much diverse music, pithy poetry, and at the center of its big heart, the need to connect in dark times.  Might not be your cup of joe (or Matt for that fact) but every time I listen to the album or relive the live gig, it brings a smile to my face.

Been a good couple of years for poet Emily Dickinson what with, at least three CDs of her works set to music plus the brilliant 2016 movie "A Quiet Passion."  Jane Ira Bloom connected with Ms. Dickinson when she discovered that poet was a pianist and that her poetry has a sense of improvisation about it.  Ms. Bloom and her brilliant ensemble (bassist Mark Helias, drummer Bobby Previte, and pianist Dawn Clement) created the 2-CD "Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson" (OTL Records); CD One features 14 originals plus the Rodgers-Hart classic "It's Easy to Remember" while the second disk has the same songs plus the voice of actress Deborah Rush reading snippets of the poetry that inspired the songs (save for "It's Easy....")  Ms. Bloom takes a different approach than Matt Wilson, the music is not inspired by Americana but is certainly American music, with swing, with flowing melodic passages, splendid interplay, and soaring improvisations.  What a tribute, what a treat!

"Freedom Highway" is the latest album from Rhiannon Giddens and it posits the racial insecurities rife in the United States in the heart of the music.  For all those people who woke up the morning after the 2016 and saw that our country truly was not united (not that it wasn't obvious during the previous administration and the highly flammable voices raised during the endless election cycle), for those people whose voices were just beginning to be heard in this country, this music hears your concerns and gives you hope.  Perhaps the best way to move forward after being knocked to the ground is to keep telling your stories of hope, of reconciliation, of recognition, of dancing until your body expels the evil spirits, of remembering that battles are rarely won without sacrifice and pain. Yes, there are moments of pure joy, moments of anger, pride, lust, love, of hope.

Trombonist-composer Ryan Keberle & Catharsis looked for hope on "Find The Common, Shine a Light" (Greenleaf Music). Original songs mixed with intelligent covers ("The Times They Are A'Changing", "Fool on The Hill", "Al Otro Lado del Rio") played by a band that enjoys working together including trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Eric Doob plus the voice and guitar of Camila Meza.  Also a response to the 2016 election, the music reached out to divergent audiences across this country, reminding people that creative musicians see what's going on in the world they travel through, that they react by playing music to exemplify community, togetherness, showing how men and women from different backgrounds can share a common  vision.

Ms. Meza is also part of pianist-composer Fabian Almazan's album-length suite "Alcanza" (translate to "reach") - the music, released on the pianist's Biophilia Records, speaks to the need of conservation of natural resources, to education, to the proliferation of wars and homelessness and more.  The rhythm section of Linda May Han Oh (bass) and Henry Cole (drums) know when to stoke the fire (and when to hold back) while Almazan's string arrangement are sophisticated and essential.  Note how melodic the solos are, how those arrangements frame and interact with the voice and soloists, and just how powerful the music is.  A shout-out to the string section of violinists Tomoko Omura and Megan Gould, violist Karen Waltuch and cellist Noah Hoffield for their stellar work.  All in all, a splendid recording.

Trumpeter, vocalist, saunter player, composer and arranger Amir elSaffar expands upon his studies of Iraqi maqams with his 2-CD masterwork "Not Two" (New Amsterdam Records). Written for his 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the songs flow with grace and elegance, moves on the power of the brilliant rhythm section (drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlos de Rosa), and draws on many traditions to create an aural sound painting  that shifts gears all the time. Keeps you on your toes does this music without condescending to popular tastes or being strictly traditional - the more creative composers do that and Amir elSaffar is deserving of all the accolades he has received for his brilliant contributions to music and to educating his listeners to the width and breadth of Arabic culture.

Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou - collectively known as Duchess - added much-needed brightness to a cold and dark winter (heck, the whole darn year) with "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records). The group's music, a potent and pleasurable mix of standards from the "Great American Songbook" and beyond.   Each with solo careers and two with young families, they come together to invite listeners out of the ordinary and the humdrum into a world where harmonies, melodies, smart and sassy arrangements (from the fertile mind of Oded Lev-Ari) and sometimes saucy and often sweet lyrics tell delightful stories.  Special guests Wycliffe Gordon (trombone, scat vocal) and Anat Cohen (clarinet) augment the musical trio of Michael Cabe (piano), Matt Aranoff (bass), and Jared Schonig (drums) - guitarist Jesse Lewis and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer also add their unique voices to several tunes.  The music can certainly stand on its own but does the sun shine brighter when these three voices step out in front. Whew! What joy!

Ms. Gardner joins forces with pianist Ehud Asherie for "The Late Set" (Anzic Records), an aural evocation of smoky nightclubs, out of the glare of the lights of Broadway, perhaps down a set of stairs, with glasses clinking while the audience sits quietly listening.  Mostly composed of ballads, the performers do not rush through these performances (mostly from well-known composers of the 1920s-1950s. Asherie is the perfect accompanist, framing Ms. Gardner's supple voice with lovely reactions,interactions, and harmonies.  O, and that voice....plenty of emotion, a dash of playfulness, every lyric can be understood, even felt. "The Late Set" is more than the midnight hour at the cabaret - listen to the songs and the you'll hear the fine line between blues, joy, and sadness.

I'm still processing the amazing 2-CD "Dreams and Daggers", the latest album from C├ęcile McLorin Salvant. Mostly recorded live at The Village Vanguard with her Trio of Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), and Laurence Leathers (drums), this music often shimmies, shakes, struts, slithers, slides, and sashays out of the speakers. Plus don't miss the songs that whisper, sigh, shudder, and sit in wonder. There are also several shorter tracks recorded in the studio where Ms. Salvant's voice is accompanied only by the strings of the Catalyst Quartet and piano - those tracks, arranged by bassist Sikivie, add a classy touch but your brain will be forever rearranged by the torch songs, by the intelligent choice of material from the Great American Songbook and the early blues of Bessie Smith (pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanies the vocalist on "You've Got To Give Some") and Ida Cox.  The multi-sectioned "Somehow I Never Could Believe", composed by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill for their "American" opera "Street Scenes" (1947), is a certifiable masterpiece as performed by Ms. Savant and the Trio.  So much to behold here.

Vocalist Lizz Wright strikes pay dirt on "Grace", her second album for the Concord Music Group. Produced by Joe Henry, who surrounds this lovely alto voice with the twin guitars of Chris Bruce and Marvin Sewell, the acoustic bass of David Piltch (one great underrated bass player), drummer Jay Bellerose, and the keyboards of Kenny Banks and Patrick Warren plus an occasional choir.  Compare her version of "Stars Fell On Alabama" (first recorded by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra in 1934) to the one on the Duchess CD - two great interpretations with Ms. Wright's dreamy reading displaying her Southern roots (born in Georgia and now living in North Carolina) while Henry's arrangement gives the song a glow of late evening.  Ms. Wright covers tunes from Birds of Chicago, Bob Dylan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, k.d. lang, Ray Charles, and others, making each song her own without losing the beauty, joy, anger, and soul within.

Each one of these albums buoyed my spirit - the next list will feature albums from younger musicians, from veterans, from masters, and several delightful reissues.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Three Ladies in Melody

The Holiday season is upon us, the winter is fast approaching (getting dark in CT by 5 p.m.), and we are continually being assaulted by advertisements plus bombarded by bad news.  This Saturday evening at 8 p.m., one can leave all the negatives behind to "accentuate the positive" with the Duchess Trio.  Duchess - Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou - is bringing their delightful sounds to the Milford Center for the Arts, 40 Railroad Avenue in Milford CT.  Billed as a "Holiday Show", these delightful songstresses will mix and mingle music from their two Anzic albums with songs of the seasons.  One of the most engaging elements of their music is how they blend songs from the 1930s and 40s, some you may know, many you might not, and make one tap his feet or smile from the emotional tug at the heartstrings.  On top of that, all three are wonderful solo singers and, collectively, create sweet harmonies.

Joining them in concert will be pianist Michael Cabe, guitarist Jesse  Lewis, and bassist Noah Garabedian.  Yes, no drummer, so the music will be on a more intimate level (but it will still swing with glee) plus it's a "cabaret" setting and one might feel as if he/she was sitting in a 1920s jazz club (just maybe).

No matter what, Duchess will brighten your mood, make you laugh (check out their podcast "Harmony & Hijinks" for a healthy taste of the trio's stage banter as well as a closer look into their creative process plus interviews with fellow musicians and producer Oded Lev-Ari) and, ultimately, feel good. Can't ask for more than that!

For ticket information, go to milfordarts.org/about-us/tickets/. To learn more about this Trio (which, this month, celebrates its fourth anniversary), go to www.duchesstrio.com.

Here's a taste from the group's second recording: