November 30, 2014
Marlene VerPlanck I Give Up, I’m In Love (Audiophile ACD-347)
Admirers of Marlene VerPlanck will need no telling that the standards she set for herself more than 20 albums ago are as high as ever and that on her latest release she reaches, indeed surpasses these standards with insouciant ease. Another expected aspect of Marlene’s albums is her song choice. Unfailingly, she finds examples from the Great American Song Book that have flowing melodies and intelligent lyrics, and she matches these with newer songs with similar pedigree. Here, the repertoire presents love songs, the staple of that Song Book, and Marlene’s interpretations are warm, profound and flawless. Among the songs, some are familiar: How Little We Know (Carolyn Leigh, Philip Springer), The Way You Look Tonight (Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern), and I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers). Perhaps a little less familiar but equally pleasing are You’re Really Someone To Write Home About (Roger Schore, Lew Spencer), I Love The Way You Dance (Frank Grant, Ronny Whyte), I Give Up, I’m In Love (Morgan Ames, Johnny Mandel), and My Little Brown Book (Billy Strayhorn). The melodic grace with which Marlene performs this music is underscored by exceptional accompaniment. On five tracks, she is joined by the trio of Mike Renzi, piano, David Finck, bass, and Ron Vincent, drums, with Warren Vaché playing cornet on two tracks and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen on two. On four tracks, the trio has Tedd Firth, piano, and Jay Leonhart, bass, with Vincent, while Allen appears on two selections. Glenn Franke’s Big Band provides powerful backing for Marlene on the remaining three tracks, on two of which they are joined by Vaché. All these instrumentalists provide exceptional accompaniment, granting the singer richly-deserved settings. Interspersed solos from Vaché and Allen and Rienzi and Firth are exemplary and add immeasurably to the occasion.
And what of the singer’s sound? In past years I have reviewed many of Marlene’s albums, chiefly for Jazz Journal. Two recent albums appear also on this site: One Dream At A Time (mid-July 2012) and Ballads . . mostly (mid-May 2013). When writing of Marlene’s voice on that last album I observed: “Astonishingly, given the number of years she has performed, Marlene still retains the gorgeously fluid crystal-clear sound that has always been a distinctive hallmark of her timeless work.” A year on and there is not a word there that I would want to change. Come 2015 and Marlene will embark on her twenty-fifth tour of the UK. Her schedule is now released: the tour starts on 4 March 2015 and runs through 16 engagements, including Ronnie Scott’s and Wavendon, and concludes on 22 March. On this tour, she will be accompanied by John Pearce, piano, Paul Morgan, bass, and Bobby Worth, drums, while on the final date she will once again meet John Ruddick and the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra. Full details of locations, dates, times, phone numbers, email addresses, etc, can be found on Marlene’s own site. In the meantime, the impending winter nights will be much warmer and brighter thanks to this exceptional album.
For Marlene VerPlanck’s latest album, or indeed any and all of earlier releases go as usual to Amazon.
November 26, 2014
Kaoruko Pilkington Bright Side of Life (self produced)
Although little known to the CD-buying public, Kaoruko Pilkington is a long-established figure in jazz voice teaching. Since graduating from Berklee in the late 1990s, where she studied jazz improvisation, jazz theory and arranging, she has been a respected and sought-after private teacher and has also taught at various music institutions. Formerly on the faculty at Boston Conservatory, Charles River School and at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, she presently teaches at Wellesley High School, Rivers School Conservatory, as a jazz voice faculty member, and in the summer months at Berklee. Among the methods Kaoruko teaches is Jeanette LoVetri’s Somatic Voicework(tm). During these same years she has also been active as a performer leading her band, the kaorukojazz ensemble, mainly around her Boston base. Sadly for those who do not live within reach of venues such as Acton Jazz Cafe and Amazing Things Arts Center, before this new 2014 CD, Kaoruko has released only one other album. That was Joy Spring, which came as long ago as 2000.
On this new release, Kaoruko sings an interesting repertoire of songs that includes mainly standards, such as All The Things You Are, Night And Day, and What Is This Thing Called Love?. There are also some songs from the jazz world – Pat Metheney’s Bright Size Life, Ralph Burns’ Early Autumn and Duke Ellington’s Just Squeeze Me. Altogether, these songs provide an interesting insight into the singer’s worldly approach to music, the arrangements being the work of herself and various members of her ensemble. These musicians are trumpeter Greg Hopkins, saxophonist Rick DiMuzio, trombonist Bob Pilkington, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, with pianists Mark Shilanksy and Doug Johnson sharing duties as do drummers Bob Tamagni and Casey Scheuerell.
Chie Imaizumi A Time Of New Beginnings (Capri 74104-2)
After playing organ as a small child in her homeland, Japan, Chie Imaizumi then switched to piano but it was while studying at Berklee that her potential talent as a composer was recognized. Chie began concentrating on writing music and won awards in various countries. For this CD, Chie has composed music for a large ensemble and for her performers has selected an all-star line-up: Greg Gisbert and Terell Stafford, trumpets and flügelhorns, Steve Davis, trombone, Steve Wilson, alto and soprano saxophone and flute, Scott Robinson, tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones, clarinet and flute, Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, Tamir Hendelman, piano, John Clayton, bass, Jeff Hamilton and Paul Romaine, drums. Additionally, trumpeter Randy Brecker guests on one track. The music that Chie has composed and arranged is fluid and melodic and the band has a light, airy sound more in keeping with small groups than a big band the line-up suggests. The solos are very good indeed and the ensemble playing is tight. This fine, swinging album will appeal to many lovers of contemporary jazz.
November 16, 2014
Joan Merrill’s latest crime novel featuring jazz-loving, San Franciso-based private investigator Casey McKie takes us to the Pacific Coast Jazz Fest at Monterra. Headlining the festival is the country’s leading male jazz singer, Sid Satin, and when he is found shot dead, the local cops suspect veteran jazz singer Dee Jefferson of the crime. Casey lives close to Dee’s club, regularly hangs out there, and regards the singer as her best friend; not surprisingly, she unhesitatingly steps in and sets out to find the real killer. She quickly learns that the murder victim is a decidedly unpleasant individual with dozens of enemies in the jazz world and in his private life, none of whom are sorry to learn of his death. One by one, Casey follows up leads that bring her into contact with jazz singers and instrumentalists, newcomers and veterans, promoters and agents, journalists and fans. All of these men and women, as well as others outside the jazz nucleus have good reasons for seeing Satin dead and unraveling the many motives for the murder proves to be an intriguing puzzle for Casey to solve.
Well established in jazz, especially in the Bay Area, Joan Merrill works as a musician’s agent, concert, film, radio and record producer. Deeply involved in the world in which And All That Motive is set, the author ably explores the highs and lows encountered by musicians. It is all believable as is the interplay between musicians, veterans and newcomers. As Merrill’s fans already know, her background ensures that when the characters express opinions and ideas about jazz as it is now and how it used to be, their words come with the ring of truth. This is a thoroughly enjoyable journey into the (hopefully fictitious) murderous underground beneath the world of jazz.
November 4, 2014
The very welcome publication of Ellen Johnson’s new biography, Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan, prompts not only a review of this book but also a few very brief comments about CDs. This is because the book’s arrival not only sent me to albums recorded by the subject of Jazz Child but also to some of those recorded by the author herself.
For some decades now, Ellen Johnson has vividly demonstrated that she is a remarkably gifted exponent of that same difficult art at which Sheila Jordan excels. Indeed, not only does Ellen sing jazz, she also teaches jazz singing. During the past several years I have had enormous pleasure in listening to and writing about her albums, sometimes in Jazz Journal, other times on my old website. Among these albums are Too Good To Title, Chinchilla Serenade and These Days, all on Ellen’s own label, Vocal Visions (numbered respectively 2300, 2310 and 2700). Her eclectic repertoire includes compositions by jazz masters Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Thad Jones, Charles Mingus, and Michal Urbaniak, for some of which she has written lyrics ably demonstrating another facet or her multi-talented persona. The third of these albums is dedicated to Sheila Jordan, who appears as backing singer on Little Messenger, a song composed by Ellen for Sheila, and the two singers duet on The Crossing. As if being singer, teacher and lyricist were not enough, in recent years Ellen Johnson has also proved herself to be an able writer on jazz. Previously, Ellen’s writing consisted of short pieces while here she has produced a full-length book that recounts with skill and insight the story of a remarkable woman.
Today, there are thousands of young singers around the world, many of whom find open doors through which to pass and perform their art. It is likely that they would be surprised, horrified even, were they to encounter the problems that faced Sheila Jordan when she was starting out in the early 1940s. Among these problems were poverty and the racial divide, and overhanging these widespread issues was another related specifically to the jazz world. This was the fact that while nowadays the term ‘jazz singer’ is acceptable as a definition of a young woman’s career choice, back then it was a decidedly disagreeable negative.
Sheila Jordan, then Dawson, was raised in a poor mining community in Pennsylvania but as a young teenager she headed for Detroit, which is where she was born in 1928. Back in the city as a young teenager, she hung out in jazz clubs, decidedly not the done thing, and sang with and socialized with black musicians, another alienating act seventy-plus years ago. The music itself was another no-go area because the young girl was immediately captivated by bebop, a genre that was a turn-off even for many in the jazz world, musicians as well as fans, who were still attuned to swing era styling. Then, if all these negatives were not enough to deter all but the armor-plated, Sheila crossed the racial divide by marrying black jazz pianist Duke Jordan. In her private life, she did everything with astonishing determination and dedication, including raising single-handed her daughter, Tracey, after Duke Jordan went off while she was pregnant. With equal grit, the singer took her own musical path, refusing to follow the commercial route and instead sticking uncompromisingly to jazz – and modern jazz at that. Now, more than seven decades later, she is still following her chosen path and doing so with flair and skill and consummate professionalism.
It goes almost without saying, that the story of Sheila Jordan is one that needed to be told and we are fortunate that it is Ellen Johnson who has brought us this estimable biography. Johnson has interviewed many of the musicians with whom her subject has worked, among them several bass players, appropriate given Jordan’s predilection for the voice-bass duo format: Cameron Brown, Harvie S, Steve Swallow. Other musicians whose comments illuminate this story include Theo Bleckmann, Kenny Burrell, Carol Fredette, George Gruntz, Alan Pasqua, Ra-Kalam, Sonny Rollins, Roswell Rudd. The life and music of Sheila Jordan is explored in intimate detail and many readers will find especial value in her warm recollections of Charlie Parker and the important personal role he played in her early life, and whose influence continues to guide her through to the present day. Biographer Johnson and her subject take a hard look at racism in America, while addiction is another topic explored; both of these troubled areas are approached with clarity and honesty. The overriding impression left after reading this book is that jazz, indeed all music, has been blessed to have had such an amazing artist in its midst for such a long time.
Listening again to some of Sheila Jordan’s CDs there is everywhere rich evidence of all those skills she has demonstrated over the decades. On albums such as Jazz Child (HighNote HCD 7029) and Little Song (HighNote HCD 7096), her performances are a joy. Hearing them again, this time with the underpinning of knowledge of the personal background to her career, adds immeasurably to the experience. It might be argued that a singer’s work should be assessed only on the basis of what is heard; but sometimes that rubric places an impossible demand upon the listener. Sheila Jordan is an exceptional singer, knowing the details of the life she has lived, evoked so masterfully in Ellen Johnson’s biography, makes this singer even more interesting and worthy of our attention and admiration. Music is her life; her life is in her music.
For many reasons Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan is a book that should be read not only by those with a specific interest in jazz singing, but also those whose interests in jazz extend to the life of jazz musicians in general, and those active during the early days of bebop in particular. It should also interest anyone who wishes to follow the inspirational tale of a woman who was determined to make her way through a minefield of antipathy and antagonism to achieve what is in essence a simple ambition: to sing her song.
ISBN 978-0-8108-8836-4 (ebook 978-0-8198-8837-1)