Saturday, April 7, 2012

More of Dears, I Surrender

Yes, another female vocalist and another recommended release.  Sara Leib has not issued a CD in 8 years but, judging by "Secret Love" (OA2 Records), she has not been wasting her time. Looking at the list of tunes and seeing that 8 of the 12 tracks are recognizable "standards", you might be inclined to pass on this music.  Don't make that mistake.  With the exception of one song, Ms. Leib created these arrangements and producer Matt Pierson (Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Kirk Whalum, Becca Stevens) has surrounded her with a responsive band.  Start with the excellent rhythm section of bassist Harish Raghavan (Taylor Eigsti, Kurt Elling), drummer Eric Harland (Charles Lloyd, SF Jazz Collective)  and percussionist Richie Barshay (The Klezmatics, Herbie Hancock) who create fascinating textures beneath Ms. Leib supple voice and then add either Taylor Eigsti or Aaron Parks (piano, electric keyboards - 6 cuts each) both of whom add colors and frame the voice very well. Dayna Stephens bring his expressive tenor saxophone to several tracks including the ever-so-funky "With My Own Two Hands" (Ben Harper). On that tune, Harland turns up the percussive fire and Ms. Leib delivers a super vocal, displaying her ability to scat and melismatic turn of phrase.  The world she creates for Cole Porter's "Night and Day" is mysterious and fiery, Eigsti's piano providing a chordal cushion for the voice (but also check out his rhythmical left hand) and delivering a solo that rises atop Harland's taut drums.

Ms. Leib's arrangements might offend purists but truly breathes new life into "chestnuts" like "Someday My Prince Will Come" (Aaron Parks shines on his forceful solo while Stephens lets loose in his short spotlight) and "Willow Weep For Me" (the blend of Harland's drums and Barshay's percussion below Eigsti's Fender Rhodes is made for the dance floor).  Ms Leib dips, swoons and soars through the fine re-imagining of "The Thrill Is Gone" (a  smart blend of Los Angeles "cool" and Philly Soul.)  "All I Have to Do is Dream" closes the program with a funky dance groove wrapped around Boudeleaux Bryant's plaintive melody and lyrics - it shouldn't really work but does so in a delightful manner.

One hears the influence of Tierney Sutton and Kate McGarry in the textures and rhythms of Sara Leib's music and arrangements. That's fine - they are her contemporaries.  For every person who thinks they know "Night and Day" or ""It Might as Well Be Spring" inside and out, Ms. Leib recasts them in new threads yet never loses the intent of the originals. "Secret Love" may not melt your heart but this music will certainly make you smile and maybe even want to take a spin around the dance floor. For more information, go to

Pianist-composer Sunna Gunnlaugs writes music that plays to her strengths and those of her fellow musicians.   First of all, she thinks melody; few songs are mere riffs with extended "blowing" sections.  Second, bassist Þorgrímur Jónsson is her "cushion", freeing her left hand to color the melodic phrases she plays. Third, drummer Scott McLemore (her husband) shows wonderful sensitivity throughout the repertoire, never overreaching or dropping into beats just for the sake of "groove." Listen to "Thema", the second track on "Long Pair Bond", the trio's new self-released and self-financed recording.
You'll hear the drums "frame" the piece and how the Erik Satie-like melody moves through both the bass and piano.  Blues chords mix with minimalistic splashes, creating a hypnotic slow groove that moves like ripples across a pond.  And, this is a band that can "groove" - there's a bouncy beat to "Crab Canon", the kind that insinuates itself into your feet even as Ms. Gunnlaugs creates an impressionistic musical painting atop the throbbing bass.  The sensuous bass line wrapping around the soft percussion on "Safe From the World" frees the pianist move the melody lines in subtle ways;  these pieces have a "poetic" feel in that one can imagine that story behind them.  A soulful aura pervades "Diamonds on the Inside", a piece from Ben Harper that shows the influence of Bob Dylan and The Band.  The piano rides atop the melodic/propulsive bass line while the drums create an easy rhythm.  The interplay of Ms. Gunnlaugs' gentle melodic phrases with the melodic counterpoint of  Jónsson's full-toned bass on the opening minute of "Vicious World", the final track, is a gracious and enchanting dance.

Listen to "Long Pair Bond" under headphones at least once to really hear how wonderfully these 3 musicians navigate the music. Scott McLemore often plays so quietly you might think he's absent but listen; his supportive and color-filled percussion is quite fine.  Þorgrímur Jónsson's fulsome bass work works well with the Ms. Gunnlaugs' lyrical piano lines. The beauty of this music rings true throughout the program, allowing the listener to relax and enjoy the flow.  To find out more, go to    

Here's the Ben Harper tune, courtesy of Sunna Gunnlaugs and Bandcamp.

It's easy to classify this new recording from bassist/composer Anne Mette Iversen as "Chamber Jazz" but the 2-CD "Poetry of Earth" (BJU Records) is really a splendid amalgam of "art" song, well-developed melodic and harmonic ideas, glorious musicianship and poems (in both English and Danish) that speak to the human condition through observations on nature. The magic of this program is the work of her cohorts including Dan Tepfer (piano), John Ellis (tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet, clarinet) as well as the 2 vocalists Maria Neckham (English lyrics) and Christine Skou (Danish lyrics). With texts by A.E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, John Keats, Lene Poulsen, Henrik Ibsen and 8 by contemporary Danish poet Svende Grøn (whose nature poems were the catalyst for the program, the music is, by turns, quiet, contemplative, experimental, rhythmical, forceful and shimmering.  When you first sit to listen, don't spend a lot of time with the words (there is a lyric sheet with translations); pay attention to how the vocalists move in and around the instrumentalists (and vice versa).  Listen to the full bass tones, the lyrical and articulated piano work of Tepfer and the excellent work of Ellis (on all his reeds.) Ms. Iversen has tailored these pieces to leave room for improvisation, also allowing the vocalists and musicians to improvise transitions between selected pieces.  While Ms. Neckhan and Ms. Skou split the lead vocals (depending on the language of the song), they do sing together (wordlessly) on the rollicking "Music" on Keats' "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket" (the only tracks on which Ms. Skou sings English.)

One can hears traces of Kurt Weill, Danish folk melodies, jazz, show tunes, contemporary classical music and so much more.  Yet, don't waste time looking for antecedents in the melodies or improvisations. Just listen - music as pure as this needs your attention because of its subtle shifts and turns, the way Ellis's reeds move through the songs, either shadow the voice, doubling the piano or bass lines or any one of impressive solos (smart use of overdubbing on several pieces.)  Dan Tepfer continues to impress with his finely etched solos, strong left hand work and ability to be percussive and melodic, often within the same phrase.  Anne Mette Iversen is the sculptress of this creation, not only pushing the rhythm forward but also as a melodic force. "Poetry of Earth" is compelling modern music; don't expect to be "blown away" but to be seduced.  For more information, go to

Here's a track from "Poetry..." courtesy of BJU Records and IODA Promonet:
When I Was One-and Twenty (mp3)

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