Sunday, December 8, 2013

2013 Best of - The Vocal List(s)

I've been writing about music since my Freshman year in college, nearly 5 decades.  Starting with reviews of live performances and moving on to Lps, then to cassettes, the CDs and now mp3s, digital downloads or a combination of list, save for cassettes, music has been a major part of my existence. My first date with the young lady who became my wife was a show that featured the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on tour supporting the release of "The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw", a band that featured guitarist Elvin Bishop, drummer Phil Wilson and alto saxophonist David Sanborn.  We ended up back in Middletown, CT (our hometown) and a great place to be if one was interested in expanding his musical vocabulary. Over the decades, Wesleyan University has had a strong music department, especially in African American music and ethnomusicology.  People such as Bill Barron, Bill Lowe, Anthony Braxton, Jay Hoggard, Alvin Lucier, Ron Kuivila, and Ed Blackwell have taught students such as Royal Hartigan, David Bindman, Taylor Ho Bynum, Chris Dingman, Matt Bauder, Mike Hefley, Mary Halvorson, Tyshawn Sorey, and Carl Testa, all of whom I got to see and hear perform.

I have had the privilege to write for The New Haven Advocate, CADENCE Magazine, and The Hartford Courant and have had the opportunity to vote in the Downbeat Critics Poll and the yearly Jazz & Pop Poll.  I have met so many fine people, musicians such as Noah Baerman, Jaki Byard, Kevin O'Neil, Henry Lugo, Professor Neely Bruce, Anna Barron, Joe Fonda, Michael Pestel, Mario Pavone, Thomas Chapin, Ben Allison, Ron Horton, Frank Kimbrough as well as music supporters Chuck Obuchowski, Jason Crane (on-line, at least), Ed Krech, Robert & Susan Rusch, Ann Braithwaite, Maurice Robertson, Joe Rybczyk and so many more. I owe them all great thanks.

I'm usually not so nostalgic at the end of the year (no, only every day) but 2013 has had numerous challenges, triumphs and sadness.  Through it all, music played in the foreground, in the background and running through my sub-conscious.

Loyal readers know that there is no such thing as the Step Tempest Top 10 or, even, 15.  This year, I'm breaking my favorite recordings into 5 categories e.g., vocalists, large ensembles, solo, trios-quartets-quintets, and modern classical.  Your feedback is always welcome.

Depending on the day and my mood, my favorite vocal CD this year has either been "Space and Time" (self-released) by Nicky Schrire and "Attachments" (Jazzed Media) by Lorraine Feather.  Ms. Schrire's 2nd CD, produced by Matt Pierson, is a series of duets, 4 tracks each with pianists Gil Goldstein, Gerald Clayton and Fabian Almazan.  The pianists bring different individual strengths while Ms. Schrire sings with clarity, with emotional strength and a joyousness that cannot be faked (one knows when a singer is not honest - doesn't bother everyone but....).  From originals to standards to popular songs to pieces that reflect her South African upbringing, Nicky Schrire's music just might transcend space and time.

"Attachments" is truly wonderful music that blends jazz, pop, soul, classical, funk, and country-rock into a satisfying stew.  Discovering the music of Lorraine Feather has made my life infinitely better - no, honestly - because these songs are the work of someone who is nearly a contemporary and proves there is no need to be fenced in by a genre or subject matter or that "playing music" can truly be "playing."  The work of the pianists - Dave Grusin, Shelly Berg and Russell Ferrante - is splendid as are the contributions of bassist Michael Valerio, guitarists Grant Geissman and Eddie Arkin (also an arranger and co-writer), drummers Michael Shapiro and Gregg Field, percussionist Tony Morales, the bass clarinet of Bob Mintzer and especially the super violin playing of Charles Bisharat. At the forefront is that voice, at times plaintive, on occasion with a wise-guy attitude, smooth and clear (her background vocals are mighty impressive) and above all, emotionally honest.

This was not the only release from Ms. Feather in 2013.  She partnered with pianist Stephanie Trick to create the duo "Nouveau Stride" and the CD titled "Fourteen" (Relarion Records). Rags and stride tunes, most blessed with Ms. Feather's fun and insightful lyrics, that should be heard.

Then, there is "WomanChild" (Mack Avenue), the second CD from 23-year old Cecile McLorin Salvant. With influences ranging from Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, Ms. Salvant brings a dramatic quality to this set of tunes that range from traditional pieces to early jazz to originals and, yes, a playfulness that should not be ignored.  Her version of "John Henry", powered by bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Herlin Riley, will knock you from your seat.  When pianist Aaron Diehl enters, damping the strings to get a "banjo" sound, the intensity level jumps even higher. The sensual feel of the opening of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" breaks into a romp that touches on Ella without imitating her (and Mr. Diehl's solo is splendid.)

Other strong releases include "Liquid Soul", Gregory Porter's Blue Note debut, "Winter Morning Walks" (Artist Share), the glorious orchestral music Maria Schneider composed for vocalist Dawn Upshaw and the soulful swing yet very adult subject matter of "What I See" (Jazzed Media), the latest release from Judy Wexler. All are worth your time and attention.

More to follow.

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