Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Next Roundup (Part 1 - Nicky & Pete)

Barely 6 months have passed since the release of "Space and Time", vocalist Nicky Schrire's splendid second recording of duets with pianists Gil Goldstein, Gerald Clayton and Fabian Almazan.  Her followup is a 6-song "Extended Play" (EP), digital-only, collaboration with Mr. Almazan and bassist Desmond White (a singer-songwriter as well).  "To The Spring" (self-released, self-produced) concentrates on original material, was recorded in 1 session and continues the maturity of a singer/storyteller.  If you are familiar with Ms. Schrire's music, you know there is a playful streak that inhabits many of the songs but also a contemplative edge (that carries over to her "live" shows - what you see/hear is really what you get. No artifice.)

Her musical relationship with Fabian Almazan is near perfect; he is such a poetic accompanist (listen to his melodic backings.)  White adds a pleasing depth, also quite musical.  The songs have the feel of a short story with Ms. Schrire as the narrator and, in the case of "Father", a participant remembering events of her youth.  Other pieces have a fictional feel, such as "Traveler" which is the story of a songwriting team that has broken up.  The title track is a lovely ballad, opening with a long piano/bass reading of the melody.  When the vocalist enters, one understands this is a song inspired by a bleak winter landscape to dream of the inevitable future. Her wordless vocal in the middle is part of 3-way conversation that creates a whirlwind of sound before returning to the melody/verse.  "Fall Apart" follows but "fall" is not the season but a person who is on the edge. The chorus section has vocal overdubs which reminds this listener of the work of the late Harry Nilsson.  The melody line of "Your Love" feels like the flow of a mountain spring or a summer wind sprite - Almazan's wondrous piano solo picks up on the "freedom" inherent in the vocal.  The program closes with "Give It Away" (not the  Abbey Lincoln classic), a piece that speaks about being careful with matters of the heart, urging caution and to "Don't give it away." More judicious overdubbing, sweeping piano lines and solid bass accompaniment bring the song to life.

Do give this music a listen - it's not a slap-dash project, the songs are well constructed and the performances are sparkling.  This is the music for the heart, for the soul of those who need reassurances that life can be contemplative without being morose or downright stultifying.  Sunshine permeates "To The Spring", filtered through clouds of memory and responsibility yet brought to life by the clarity of and in Nicky Schrire's voice.

As I wrote above, "To The Spring" is only available as a digital download (iTunes, Amazon, and Nicky Schrire will only play 1 gig in support of the release (Tuesday March 25 at the Cornelia Street Cafe) before leaving New York City to go home to South Africa and on to London, England.  

Saxophonist Pete Mills, a native of Toronto, Canada, knows a good rhythm section when he hears one.  On his 2004 CD "Art and Architecture" (Summit Records), he employed drummer Matt Wilson and the bassist Dennis Irwin, a member of Mr. Wilson's Arts & Crafts quartet.  For Mills' new CD, "Sweet Shadow" (Cellar Live), he brings back the drummer with Mr. Irwin's replacement (the bassist passed in 2008), Martin Wind.  Also back from the earlier recording is guitarist Pete McCann (who also appeared in Mills' 2007 CD "Fresh Spin") - there is also a new addition in pianist Erik Augis (who appears on 8 of the 14 cuts).

The CD opens with 3 original pieces including the lively and boppish "Shiner", a tune that displays not only the leader's handsome tenor sound but also just how nicely Messrs. Wind and Wilson can swing.  Augis romps over the dashing bass lines while McCann comps sweetly behind him.  On "The Snagel", Wilson's snare work and McCann's "mysterious" guitar chords suggest an Asian Indian feel while the saxophonist's melody lines go in a more Western direction.

Cut 4 changes the program's direction.  "Duo 1" is a musical conversation for tenor sax and drums; here, Mills digs a bit deeper, making his sound fuller while Wilson pushes and prods for 80 seconds.  The title track is an elegant ballad with solos from Wind and Mills while McCann, Wilson and Augis create a lovely background.  The guitarist gets to "shred a bit" on "Close to Never", letting loose after Mills raises the energy level with his intense solo.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo" is the first of 3 covers and is a delightful jaunt for sax, bass and drums (listen to Wilson's inventive cymbal and high-hat work.)  After another short sax/drum conversation, "Duo 2", McCann switches to acoustic guitar for a Brazilian-flavored reading of Billy Strayhorn's "The Star-Crossed Lovers" (composed for Duke Ellington/Strayhorn's Shakespeare collaboration, "Such Sweet Thunder") - here, it has a Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd feel and is quite entrancing.  Augis returns (and McCann sits out) on "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", noteworthy for Wind's eloquent bowed bass solo, Wilson's fine brush work and Mills' melodic solo.

The closing 3 tracks are all Mills' originals and ranges from the hardy "Blues for Mel" to the pretty medium-tempo ballad "Elora Dolce" (excellent piano work from Augis) to the energetic finale "Momentum."

"Sweet Shadow" does a really good job of blending styles, originals with standards, leaving room for all the musicians to take the spotlight.  The program might flow better with the elimination of several tracks but I'm not sure which ones. What does stand out is the pleasing tenor sound and melodic approach of Pete Mills as well as the clarity of the rhythm section and the smart utilization of guitar and piano.  For more information, go to

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