Friday, September 6, 2013

3 by Twos

Vocalist/composer Nicky Schrire (pronounced "Shre-ra") issued her debut in Spring 2012, during a time when it seemed every other CD featured a great new voice or was a new recording by an established  female vocalist.  Yet, her "Freedom Flight" stood out in so many ways that it easily became one of my favorites of the year.

So, did Ms. Schrire rest on her laurels and put out "Freedom Flight, Vol. 2?" She certainly could have done that and, because of her inventive ways, the recording would (probably) stand out.  Instead, "Space and Time" (Self-released) features the vocalist in duo with 3 fine pianists, Gil Goldstein, Gerald Clayton and Fabian Almazan, singing a program that blends material from a variety of sources as well as 5 originals. She obviously adores a challenge, whether it's translating Massive Attack's electronically-driven "Teardrop" into a fierce yet heartfelt duo with Almazan or cavorting with Clayton on a gospel-tinged "Here Comes the Sun." The simple yet wonderfully effective "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" opens the program with Gil Goldstein's fine accompaniment and spare solo.  Ms. Schrire arranged every track and one can tell by the way she works with each pianist that these performances were treated as true duos, not as a singer with piano backing.  Her take on the Gershwin brothers' "Someone to Watch Over Me" commences with the opening verse sung a cappella. When Goldstein enters, neither vocalist or pianist pushes the pace.  There is an innocence to the way Ms. Schrire wistfully delivers the wish in the lyrics. Goldstein dampens the piano notes to create a percussive feel  on "Seliyana", a work by South African composer/bassist Victor Ntoni, who died earlier this year.  The vocalist, who was raised in South Africa, sings the piece in its original language.  

The original "A Song for a Simple Time" is deceptive in that the vocal is straight-forward but Almazan's playful piano work has many different angles, toying with the tempo and moving into modern classical music at several turns.  On "Bless The Telephone" (composed by British poet/activist/performer Labi Siffre), Clayton's piano work sounds classical in the verses and bluesy on the bridge while Alamazan brings a spareness to Ms. Schrire's "And So I Sing", a song that has the feel of a Stephen Sondheim work (the overdubbed voices that close the piece is a touch of brilliance.)  The dramatic reading of Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So" displays a stunning emotional maturity in the vocal.  The title track (yet another original) closes the program, the lyrics a gentle homily to take life easily.  The sweet blend of voice with Goldstein's lyrical piano lines has the feel of a lullaby, as if the singer is tucking us in and assuring all is right in the world.

There are moments when it seems all one does is attempt to make sense of the chaos all around him so, yes, listening to "Space and Time" does make me feel all is right in the world.  Nicky Schrire and her trio of pianists have granted the listener a generous view of the creative process, of the intimate interactions of voice and instrument.  We breathe with them, laugh with them, sigh, wonder and, ultimately, it seems as if we get to play with them. Open your heart, open your mind - this music can be your spiritual oasis.  For more information, go to  

The indefatigable pianist Dick Hyman (85 at the time of this recording) and the delightful clarinetist Ken Peplowski (33 years younger than Mr. Hyman) came together in April of 2012 to play duos at the Kitano, 66 Park Avenue in New York City.  Despite the ritzy address, this music mines the joyous veins of blues, jazz and standards that the pianist has explored in various duos (and groups as well as solo) over the better part of the past 7 decades  "...Live at the Kitano" is this duo's second CD for the Victoria Company and is a delightful hour of collaborations on tunes by Thelonious Monk and W.C. Handy plus pieces from the Broadway songbook.  Mr. Hyman, who could probably accompany just about any musician and make him or her sound better, has a partner in Mr. Peplowski who needs no nudge to be musically adventurous.  The clarinetist moves to tenor saxophone for "Gone With the Wind" (the music was composed in 1936 by Allie Wrubel, who grew up in my hometown and still has relatives here, including a fine clarinetist) - Mr. Peplowski displays a softer, breathy, tone in the style of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  It's a lovely solo but listen to the fun Mr. Hyman creates in his accompaniment.  His rolling left hand provides robust support on the Handy tune, "Yellow Dog Blues" and then supplies a rollicking solo of his own.

The duo takes a breather for a ever-so-slow reading of the Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill piece, "My Ship", a melody and performance so handsome as to give one pause.  Mr. Peplowski's lilting reading of the theme opens to a piano solo that moves away from and back to the melody in an impressionistic fashion.  They also give Monk's "Ugly Beauty" a pleasing yet dramatic reading (for these ears, the song is one of the composer's most lovely melodies.)  The piano solo sounds influenced more by Debussy than the composer (but, isn't that the joy of creative music.)

Dick Hyman and Ken Peplowski have performed together numerous times over the past 25 years, usually in the company of a rhythm section.  Yet, when you have a pianist as talented and creative as Mr. Hyman, he becomes the "rhythm section", the "strings" and more.  "...Live at the Kitano" is loads of fun and, if one pays attention, will brighten your day!  For more information, go to  

It's been 4 years since Fred Hersch returned to making music after his near fatal illness (check out to see what happened and how the pianist/composer has musically described the ordeal) and he continues to go from strength to strength.  He's recorded a live solo CD as well as a live trio CD and, now, we have "Free Flying" (Palmetto Records), a duo CD with the splendid young guitarist Julian Lage.  Recorded live at the Kitano in February of 2013, the program features 9 tracks, 7 composed by Hersch plus "Beatrice" by Sam Rivers and "Monk's Dream" by Thelonious Monk.  2 of the originals come from the pianist's suite "Songs Without Words", first recorded in 2001 for Nonesuch Records and the other 5 all carry dedications to musicians save for "Gravity's Pull", dedicated to poet Mary Jo Salter who collaborated with the pianist on a 2007 song cycle, "Rooms of Light."

Lage, who first came to notice in 2006 when he first worked with vibraphonist Gary Burton (that collaboration continues to this day in the New Gary Burton Quartet), is such a facile player and thinker.  He, like Hersch, has no fear of jumping into the musical fray.  Their interactions on the title track (dedicated to Egberto Gismonti) are stunning, their high notes blending to where you cannot tell them apart.  The gentle yet dramatic sway of "Song Without Words #3: Tango" displays the duo's intuitive interactions, Hersch building his solo from Lage's phrases.  When one solos, the other support in various melodic ways.  "Down Home (for Bill Frisell)" was first recorded on the pianist's 1998 CD with Frisell - here, it has a funky New Orleans in the rhythm and Hersch's delightful solo.  Lage's supporting phrases move from chunky Freddie Green chords (he of Count Basie Band fame) to bluesy riffs that slide around the piano lines.

The duo brings out the sunshine in Rivers' lovely melody that the saxophonist wrote to honor his wife and the frisky "Stealthiness (for Jim Hall)" shows a bluesy side of Lage even as the 2 engage in a series of playful exchanges.  More "play" on "Monk's Dream", with Hersch's quirky solo including a right hand up on the highest notes as his left reaches for the bass notes.  The suspended rhythms during the guitar solo add a pleasing bit of tension;  Lage matches Hersch playfulness with a solo that channels  Monk, Charlie Christian and early George Benson.

In his liner notes, Fred Hersch talks about how much he and Julian Lage enjoy the textures they create in this music.  It's not hard to hear that the two are kindred souls, the musical couple that finishes each other's phrases or reacts to a solo by quoting the other.  At times, "Free Flying" is just dazzling, breath-taking music that seems on the verge of a cliff, never falling off the edge but soaring over the valleys with ease.  Grab ahold and enjoy the ride!  For more information, go to

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