Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Songs, Stories, Journeys, and Dreams

Cowboys and Frenchmen is a quintet based in New York City that took its name from a 1988 short film by David Lynch ("The Cowboy and The Frenchman").  Formed in 2014, the ensemble –– alto saxophonists Ethan Helm and Owen Broder, pianist Addison Frei (who replaced original member Chris Ziemba in 2019), bassist Ethan O'Reilly, and drummer Matt Honor –– released its debut album, "Rodeo" (Outside In Music), in November of 2015 and its second album, "Bluer Than You Think", in October 2017.  Listen to the music and you will hear many strains of American music, from folk to classical, rock music to jazz, and beyond.  And, although there are no lyrics on these songs, the music is telling us stories, illustrating how musicians convey their emotions through the music –– it's not about technical flashiness but about pulling the listener in to the music, not pushing them away.  

The quintet's third full-length album (recorded before the pandemic EP the group self-released in August of last year) is "Our Highway" (Outside In Music) and is a digital release only –– in some ways, it's a tribute to all the time the band has spent on the road and, especially, the times they played at clubs in Jacksonville, FL (home of Broder) and Yorba Linda, CA (Helm's hometown). The band also created a video album, which is available only through ticketed events like the one this Friday, February 26 via Live From Our Living Rooms You also see many shots of traffic from from various interstate highways as well as shots of the group walking through wooded areas and national parks.  Helm wrote all the music and, like the video, his songs cover a wide swath of musical and personal territory.  The power of the program is that it may be a long time before this band, and all other entertainers, live the "gig life" the way it used to be.

The music starts in the forest; "American Whispers: Pines" opes with the two altos playing a bucolic melody sans rhythm section. When the rest of the band kicks in, the music begins to fly. Note how the saxophonists are now playing complimenting each other, conversing as pianist Frei plays a powerful solo over the roiling rhythm section.  Next is "Alice in Promisedland", a lovely piece inspired by the music of the late Alice Coltrane. As one hears the influence of Ms. Coltrane's trance-like compositions, there's also a generous amount of blues especially during Broder's long, flowing, solo. Helm adds trills and long tones on flute and joins in on the repetition of the opening. Helm's coda leads into "American Whispers: Streams –– An Old Church" with the flute and alto parsing the melody until Frei rides the fast-paced rhythm section.  As the two altos join together on a classically-inspired melody line. the piano, bass, and drums fade out.  When they return, the music takes on the feel of a hymn. Bassist O'Reilly creates a lovely solo over spare piano chords and Honor's shimmering, dancing, brush work.  

The remainder of the six-song program is just as impressive and sweeping. Listen to the how the rhythm section moves together, how the piano pushes and prods the reeds and the reeds, at times, push back. Another goal of this sonic experience is to let the listener hear and know how much fun it is to play creative music. "Our Highway" is soulful, reverent and, at times, irreverent, looking back and forward (as many musicians do every time they compose and play), and well worth spending 47 minutes in the thrall of.  Go to www.cowboysandfrenchmen.com to find out more and all are invited to attend the Album Release Party on 2/26 – to find out more about the ticket event, go to www.bandsintown.com/e/102455835.  To hear more of the CD and purchase the album, go to https://cowboysfrenchmen.bandcamp.com/album/our-highway

Here's a taste:

With the release of 2016's "Words",  the focus of composer and pianist Amanda Tosoff went to blending her original music with the words of her father Lloyd, Uncle Ted, fellow Canadian poets (the pianist is a native of British Columbia and currently a resident of Toronto, Ontario) plus William Wordsworth.  For her new recording, "Earth Voices" (Empress Music), she turns to the words of Rumi, Edgar Allan Poe, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, and Canadian poet Marjorie Pickthall (1883-1922) plus covers of songs by Joni Mitchell, Mike Ross, Luciana Souza, and the quartet of Aoife O'Donovan, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan (from Yo-Yo Ma's 2013 "Goat Rodeo Sessions".  Instead of "Words" sole vocalist Felicity Willams, she is joined on the new album by Emilie-Claire Barlow, Laila Baili, Michelle Willis, Lydia Persaud, Robin Dann, and Alex Samaras.  The previous recording featured a sextet of musicians while the new album features an ensemble of up to10 musicians including a string quartet playing on various (see below).  What is not different are the engrossing melodies, the intelligent arrangements, and the attractive musicianship.

The eight-song program opens with Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream" sung by Ms. Barlow. The uptempo piece jumps forward on the power of Ms. Tosoff's piano in conjunction with the bass of Jon Maharaj and the drums of Morgan Childs.  The tandem of saxophonists Kelly Jefferson (soprano) and Allison Au (alto) create a wordless chorus behind the voice. Jefferson creates a delightful solo in the middle.  Violinist Aline Homzy and cellist Beth Silver join on "Sonnet 49", a lovely composition composed by Ms. Souza with words by Neruda. Ms. Dann's vocal has a light, ethereal, quality that fits the words perfectly and meshes so nicely with the strings.  "Here and Heaven" (listen below), the piece from the Yo-Yo Ma album, opens with a plaintive cello melody (played by Ms. Silver) –– Ms. Willis and Mr. Samaras sing the opening lines of several of the verses over Childs insistent drum.  The song also includes a excellent guitar solo from Alex Goodman; he also supports the vocalists on the final chorus. 

Samaras appears on two more tracks, by himself on "Birdwings" (words by Rumi, music by Ms. Tosoff) and with Ms. Biali on "Oh, Life" (words and music by Canadian native Mike Ross). The former tune is a lovely ballad with the string quartet building on the solid foundation of the rhythm section. The melody flows as does the handsome vocal (Mr. Samaras's vocal reminds this listener of Theo Bleckmann, especially the intensity he can inject into quieter phrases). The latter song has a hypnotic opening and an emotionally string arrangement. Ms. Biali takes the lead, her rich alto joined by Samara's tenor on the refrain.  Especially impressive in Childs's drumming over the repetitive piano figure.  After the vocalists hit an intense climax, Goodman creates a solo that also adds intensity to the piece.

Lydia Persaud
is the featured voice on Ms. Mitchell's anti-war piece "The Fiddle and The Drum" –– this arrangement, also recently recorded by Theo Bleckmann with The Westerlies, also features Ms. Au's alto sax, Goodman's guitar, and a particularly robust piano solo  The power of the Vietnam-era lyrics are not lost in the light of the terrorists attacks in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021.  Ms. Persaud sings with strength as well as gentleness without resorting to imitating Ms. Mitchell's airy vocalizations.   

The album closes as it opens, with the voice of Ms. Barlow.  "Finis" (appropriate title for the last track) features the words of Ms. Pickthall over the music of Ms. Tosoff.  The flowing melody helps take the sting out of the fact the poet is asking have more time in her life to enjoy the world around her –– one verse states "Give me a few more days to keep/ With a little love and a little sorrow/ And then the dawn in the skies of sleep/ And a clear tomorrow". In the middle of the song, the wordless vocal and piano take off together (in unison!) in a celebratory dance followed by another verse before Goldman's soaring solo.

If you allow this music to seep into your soul, "Earth Voices" will bring great comfort and light into your day.  Make sure to take the time to listen to the fine piano playing of Amanda Tosoff, her compositions and delightful interpretations, and the excellent contributions from the seven voices and 10 instrumentalists.  Enjoy!

For more information, go to amandatosoff.com.  To hear several tracks and to purchase the recording, go to https://amandatosoff.bandcamp.com/album/earth-voices

Hear "Here and Heaven":


Kelly Jefferson – soprano sax ("A Dream Within a Dream" only)

Allison Au – alto sax ("A Dream Within a Dream" and "The Fiddle and the Drum").                        

Aline Homzy – violin  & Beth Silver – cello (five tracks)

Jeremy Potts – violin (one track)

Laurence Schaufele – viola (one track)

Alex Goodman – guitar (four tracks) 

AmandaTosoff – piano 

Jon Maharaj – bass 

Morgan Childs – drums 

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