Monday, February 20, 2023

Musical Treats for February

 What a joy to be surrounded with such great music––here are two of the more delightful releases of 2023! 

Photo: Erika Kapin
Australian-born vocalist Jo Lawry may be best known for working with Sting, Paul Simon, Fred Hersch, and Peter Gabriel but she's been recording her own albums for the past 15 years.  She spent nearly two decades living, working, and teaching in New York City (her teaching appointments were at the Manhattan School of Music and at the Boston-based New England Conservatory).  Ms. Lawry, who is married to saxophonist Will Vinson, moved back to Australia  in 2021 to lead the Equity in Jazz program at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a program designed to encourage and support women and gender diverse musicians into a career in jazz through dedicated leadership, music development and mentorship.   She's released three albums as a leader with the most recent being 2018's "The Bathtub and The Sea." 

For her latest venture, "Acrobats" (Whirlwind Recordings), Ms. Lawry joins forces with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Allison Miller to create a fascinating program that ranges from standards to two special pieces either written by an Australian composer (the title track comes from the pen of Gian Slater) or made a big hit on the Aussie scene (John Farnham's anthemic "You're the Voice").  Don't be put off by the spare instrumentation as the music is so intimate, delightful, emotional and adventurous that the 43-minute goes by way too quickly.  When you listen to this music, you'll hear how melodic all three artists.  Both Ms. Han Oh and Ms. Miller certainly know how to swing; right from the voice/bass opening moments of the opening track, Frank Loesser's "Traveling Light" (from "Guys and Dolls", one hears the delightful give-and-take of Ms. Lawry with the rhythm section.

Photo: Erika Kapin
The title track (listen below) illustrates Ms. Miller's splendid hand drumming as well as why Ms. Han Oh is a first-call bassist as she supplies both counterpoint and rhythmic support.  Dig the delightful the voice/drums duo on Cole Porter's "You're The Top"; taken at a breakneck pace, the vocalist dances atop the rapid-fire brush work.  Later in the program, Ms. Han Oh and Ms. Lawry take a delightful stroll through Al Hoffman and Dick Manning's "Takes Two to Tango" (first made famous in 1952 in separate versions by Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong).  This version is slower and slinkier than the two versions from seven decades ago yet retains the humor and sassiness that the lyrics embody.

There is nary a weak track on "Acrobats".  While her previous album tilted towards folk and pop, it's really great to hear Jo Lawry as a jazz singer (her scat feature on Lennie Tristano's "317 East 32nd Street" is a treat as is the sparkling bass solo).  Adding Linda May Han Oh and Allison Miller to this project is a stroke of genius––you'll not hear a better trio album this year!!

Let's hear the album's title track:

For his third album on Edition Records, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter recorded several nights of his February 2022 gig at the legendary Village Vanguard.  Six songs from the multi-night engagement make up the program for "Got The Keys to the Kingdom: Live at The Village Vanguard." For the gig, Potter put together an ensemble featuring Craig Taborn (piano), Scott Colley (bass), and Marcus Gilmore (drums).  The set is bookended by two long blues/gospel tunes with the first being Mississippi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move."  The leader goes it along for the first 30 seconds then introduces the blues groove that the rest of the ensemble picks up on.  They run the first three verses with Potter adding more energy each time until they break into a short bridge and the saxophone solo commences.  It's a tour-de-force, filled with ideas and turns-of-phrases, reminiscent of a Sonny Rollins-like playfulness. Taborn is next and he digs into the song's blues groove.  After a quick return to the theme, Gilmore gets the spotlight and, with the help of Colley's short background figure, kicks the heck out of his drums.

Besides the blues, there are two tracks with Brazilian roots, the handsome folk tune "Nazani Na" (transcribed by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Edgar Roquette-Pinto from an Amazonian Indian folk tune) and "Olha Maria", composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chico Buarque, and Vinicius De Moraes).  The latter piece opens as a nearly-three minute conversation for Potter and Colley before the pianist and drummer enter.  There is also a lovely take on Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count", a piece he composed in the hospital awaiting treatment for esophageal cancer that would claim his life several months later. When recorded by the Ellington Orchestra, the solo on the piece was poignantly played by Johnny Hodges. Here, the quartet not only interprets the distress of the composer's condition but his fight as well.  It's quite a beautiful piece.  That's followed by Charlie Parker's "Klactoveedsestene", a jaunty dance for all involved.  

The album closes with the title track, a gospel tune first recorded by Washington Phillips in 1929.  Again, I hear the influence of Sonny Rollins in the rollicking rhythms, the playful interactions of the group, and Potter's powerful solo.  Gilmore and Colley push him hard while Taborn feeds him aggressive chords.  The pianist gets the next solo, dancing, strutting, bouncing, feeding off the lively bass and drums. A return to the opening theme then Gilmore begins his magnificent 3:30 solo that reaches its climax with the audience roaring its approval. The entire quartet takes the piece out on that high-energy level.  

"Got The Keys to the Kingdom" is a delight from start to finish. If you love high-energy creative, the album has numerous examples. If you need a heartfelt ballad that explores many emotions, that's here as well. Rhythmic adventures? Yes! Great solos? Yes!  Chris Potter and his excellent ensemble shine throughout–don't miss this splendid live album! 

Here's Chris and the band on Charlie Parker's "Klactoveedsedstene":

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