March 31, 2014
Kris Adams Longing (Jazzbird JB 003)
As a glance at the composers and lyricists whose work is presented here instantly conveys, Kris Adams draws her repertoire from a broad palette. There are songs by Joni Mitchell, songs with lyrics by Norma Winstone and Abbey Lincoln, songs from the pens of names as diverse as Mary Lou Williams and Cole Porter. There are also songs with lyrics by Kris herself, to music by Steve Swallow (Wrong Together), Joakim Breicha (When You Smile) and one, Pulled Pork, for which she also wrote the music, and there are also some Latin touches. Kris’s voice is light and tuneful, gently introspective, and admirably suits the contemporary jazz scene. Most of the arrangements here are by Greg Hopkins, who also plays trumpet and flügelhorn. Among other instrumentalists on this album are pianist Tim Ray, guitarist Eric Hofbauer, saxophonists Shannon LeClaire and Bob Patton and Rick DiMuzio. This album will prove especially attractive to those whose taste leans towards thoughtful and highly musical latterday concepts of jazz song.
Juhani Aaltonen To Future Memories (TUM Records TUM CD 036)
Hearing Juhani Aaltonen play, it is hard to believe that this questing, inventive and always forward-looking musician has been active in Finnish jazz circles since the end of the 1950s. Although he was an in-demand studio musician through the following decades, Juhani also played free jazz and jazz rock, worked with musicians such as Edward Vesala, Arild Andersen, Heikki Sarmanto, Helsinki’s New Music Orchestra, Peter Brötzmann and the UMO Jazz Orchestra, and he also led his own small groups.
Now, many years later, Juhani is as adventurous as ever before, playing alto and tenor saxophones and flute and bass flute in intriguing explorations of music composed by Antti Hytti. The core group is Juhani’s quartet: pianist Iro Haaria, bassist Ulf Krofors, drummer Reino Laine; extended on this outing by bassist Ville Herraia and percussionist Tatu Rönkkö. The music is drawn mainly from Antti Hytti’s work in the motion picture industry, for which he composed during the 1980s and 90s. The composer’s themes are often pleasingly lyrical, a quality that is especially appropriate for an instrumentalist such as Juhani, who has always maintained lyricism in his playing.
Henrik Otto Donner & TUMO And It Happened . . . (TUM Records TUM CD 039)
Always melodic and intriguing, the music composed by Henrik Otto Donner is especially suited to the music played by TUMO. This is a large studio-assembled orchestra drawn from Finland’s notable and effective improvised music scene. On this occasion, TUMO is joined by alto and tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and vocalist Johanna Ilvanainen, both of whom provide thoughtful interpretations of the composer’s concepts. TUMO is a 33-piece orchestra, with brass, reeds and rhythm conducted by Mikko Hassinen, and strings conducted by the composer. This album was recorded late in 2012; sadly Henrik Otto Donner died the following year.And It Happened . . . is an eloquent memorial to a fine musician.
More information about Kris Adams can be found on her site (see above) and the Jazz Promo Services website; and there is also the TUM Records site. As always, Amazon is the place to go for these and other albums.
September 30, 2013
Billy Bang Da Bang! (TUM Records CD 034)
Recorded in February 2011, this was very nearly Billy Bang’s final flourish. Hard to believe, and deeply sad, that in April, just a a few weeks later, he would be gone. Although he knew that he was fast-approaching death this is never apparent from the vibrant, exhilarating music created here. Alongside the master violinist are some like-minded contemporary jazz players, all of them, like him, setting down crisp, authoritative musical ideas that will surely be a lasting testimony to Billy Bang’s exceptional contribution to jazz in the last few decades. These other musicians are trombonist Dick Griffin, pianist Andrew Bemkey, bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker. Interestingly, the repertoire chosen comes from leading jazzmen: there is Barry Altschul’s Da Bang, Don Cherry’s Guinea, Ornette Coleman’s Law Years, Miles Davis’s All Blues, Sonny Rollins’s St. Thomas, and Billy’s own Daydreams. Exceptional music, often joyous despite the presence in the wings of the Grim Reaper, performed by an outstanding musician whose enormous talent is much missed.
Iro Haarla Kolibri (TUM Records CD 035)
Even a casual glance at current releases of contemporary jazz and improvised music albums readily demonstrates that something remarkable has been happening in Finland in recent years. In this instance, the leader is the gifted pianist Iro Haarla who is joined by trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, tenor saxophonist Kari Heinilä, trombonist Jari Hongisto, bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Markku Ounaskari. Although like-minded, these instrumentalists have all acted as leaders of their own groups, yet display no difficulty in lending their talents to the common cause. That cause here is a fluid sextet performance built upon themes composed by the pianist herself. Although leading independent musical lives, this sextet has been in existence for around four years and this is apparent from their togetherness as support is provided for the creative impulse of individual soloists. The often introspective solos reflect the background of the players, offering distant yet distinct echoes of past work; for example, Iro spent several years in harmonious collaboration with the late Edward Vesala and with Tomasz Stanko. Musically intense and at times demanding careful attention, this is contemporary improvised music for the discerning. In passing, on two compositions Iro plays chen, a Taiwanese folk instrument, a diversion that adds intriguing color.
Craig Hartley Books On Tape Vol. 1 (Skidoo Records)
This is the first appearance on Skidoo by pianist Craig Hartley and ably demonstrates why he is held in such high regards. He is joined by bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Henry Cole, with guests trumpeter Fabio Morgera on two tracks, Why Not and Just For Me, and Israeli vocalist Dida Pelled on one, I Should Love You More. With the exception of My Foolish Heart all the music here is composed by Craig and builds upon significant moments in his life and career, ranging through the effect upon his development by mentors Gary Dial and Jackie McLean to echoes of classical music, which here comes with two versions of Why Not, which reflects J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Craig’s playing throughout is fluid, lyrical and always melodic. A most satisfying album.
These albums are available at most stores, including Amazon. Additionally, look for Craig Hartley on Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services website; more on the Billy Bang and Iro Haarla albums can be found through Braithwaite & Katz Communications as well as on the TUM Records site.
March 17, 2013
Here are some thoughts on three female singers from countries that do not spring instantly to mind when talking about jazz. Yes, I know that jazz has long been an international form of music, but I would suggest that if the average jazz fan from the USA or UK were asked to make a list that reached double figures of musicians from Poland, Finland and Italy, they might well struggle. Why is that? It isn’t as if there are no Polish, Finnish or Italian musicians of the highest caliber and more than worthy of serious consideration by jazz fans around the world. I do not doubt that many readers of these words who live in Poland or Finland of Italy, countries that have lively jazz scenes, will be screaming out lists of names, but those from the USA and UK might be much quieter. Well, here are three names, one from each of the three named countries – all are seriously worth your attention. They are Deborah Latz, Sofia Laiti and Roberta Gambarini.
Deborah Latz is now well-established in New York City, and her latest release, Fig Tree, finds her again exploring the Great American Songbook, something that she did to considerable effect on an earlier album I enjoyed. This field of music is one that she clearly admires and respects and, indeed, performs very well; all of which might come as a surprise if a newcomer to her work had first read of her background. Before becoming known as a singer, Deborah built a career in acting and performed several one-woman shows, which embraced the popular culture and often dark history of Central Europe. One of these shows brought her Best Actress Award at the Jerzy Grotowski Theater Festival in Poland. Unafraid to confront historical issues that echo painfully through to the present day, Deborah also appeared in a one-woman performance, The Prisoner, which centers upon a Holocaust survivor. Ably composing words and music for her one-woman show, Travels With Ma Own Self, a career move towards working as a singer was perhaps inevitable, and it is a move that Deborah has accomplished with enormous skill.
Writing about an earlier album, Lifeline, I remarked that although billed as a jazz singer I thought that she really belongs in that large group of singers who bring jazz touches and thinking to the art of popular song. I felt that she did this very well, comfortably finding empathy with American song standards while also displaying rapport with songs better known to European audiences. On Lifeline Deborah is accompanied by her then regular trio of pianist Daniela Schächter, bassist Bob Bowen and drummer Elisabeth Keledjian (as well as guest tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm). Deborah and her collaborators deliver attractive and thoughtful interpretations of songs such as I Get Along Without You Very Well, Witchcraft, How Deep Is The Ocean, and I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and altogether this is a thoroughly entertaining CD.
Clearly, Deborah is at ease with the standards, especially ballads and on Fig Tree she sings Blue Skies, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, Ill Wind, Embraceable You and Moon River. But she comfortably moves into the jazz arena, singing Hi-Fly, which is by Randy Weston and Jon Hendricks, and Alberta Hunter’s I’m Having A Good Time. There are also attractive examples of Deborah’s abilities as composer and lyricist:You Are, Fig Tree and She Was. On this album, Deborah is supported by the core trio of pianist Jon David, guitarist John Hart and drummer Willard Dyson, while saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum appears as guest soloist. Deborah’s vocal sound is light, delicate, yet her interpretation of lyrics is profound. She sings with springy joyousness that imparts to the listener the pleasure she clearly has in singing these songs.
Since 1989, Sofia Laiti has also been based in New York City. I first heard Sofia on her fourth CD, You Don’t Know Me, which was released in 2004. On this album, she ably demonstrated why she had gained an admiring following on the city’s jazz and contemporary pop scenes. Sofia sings in a mature contralto, comfortably displaying her mastery of her second language. On this CD, she is backed by an effective quartet: pianist Larry Ham, bassist Leon Lee Dorsey, drummer Vince Ector, and veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person. Sofia performs a selection of mostly familiar songs, for some of which she finds a relaxed intimate mood. Others, such as La Vie En Rose and If You Go Away lend themselves to the dramatic interpretations that they receive.
On her 2011 release, Like A Road Leading Home, Sofia broadened her repertoire to include latterday pop and in particular the music of Bob Dylan. Only recently has Dylan’s work been taken up by singers in and on the edges of jazz and many listeners will not be surprised that his songs lend themselves to interpretation by contemporary singers. The songs have interesting melodies and meaningful lyrics that explore many topics not often touched upon by the writers of classic pop. Sofia’s interpretations reach to the heart of these songs and she delivers always fascinating variations on the originals, leaning in some instances towards country while the blues that Dylan so admires can also be heard. On this release, Sofia is joined by pianist James Weidman, bassist Marcus McLauren, guitarist Adam Lomeo, and drummer Vince Ector, while accordionist Mariel Berger and violinist Scott Tixier bring added colour to the basic ensemble sound. This is a very pleasing set that should appeal widely and should certainly extend this admirable singer’s audience.
Within days of her arrival in the USA in 1998, Roberta Gambarini won third prize in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, coming behind winner Teri Thornton and runner-up Jane Monheit. Her move to America came after she had established her name in her homeland as a jazz singer of exceptional promise, and she was now intent on studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. Some singers have seen the Monk contest open up a route to fame and fortune, but Roberta chose to remain solidly rooted in jazz, despite the inevitable absence of acclaim outside the genre. That she has fulfilled all her early promise, building a reputation not only with jazz audiences but also among jazz instrumentalists with whom she has worked, is a credit to her ability and perseverance. These include front-rank artists such as Benny Carter, Hank Jones, with whom she recorded an album, Michael Brecker and James Moody. The last named of these appears on two tracks on Easy To Love, and others appearing with her include pianist Tamir Hendleman and bassist John Clayton. The subtle support of front-rank players propels Roberta into plangent performances of songs that while familiar are by no means overdone. They include On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, Too Late Now, and Only Trust Your Heart. The charts here are by Roberta and are comfortably loose, allowing singer and instrumentalists to swing through exhilarating variations on familiar chords. Roberta has a mellow and mature sound, her phrasing is ideal and her interpretation of lyrics excellent.
On You Are There, Roberta is accompanied only by Hank Jones and the results are majestic. (Only Hank Jones? That’s a bit like saying my only car is a Rolls Royce.) Among the songs interpreted here with love and skill and genuine sincerity are Stardust, Deep Purple, When The Lights Are Low, Just Squeeze Me, and You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me. Throughout, the mature understanding for the material makes every song a delight to hear. Choice of tempo is not always obvious, and so much the better for this, and unlike many of the other younger generation of jazz singers, Roberta handles scat with considerable aplomb.
For Grammy-nominated So In Love, Roberta is again backed by front-rank instrumentalists, among them tenor saxophonist James Moody, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Gerald Clayton, and drummer Jake Hanna. Again, Roberta has made all the arrangements and again the response is exceptional, bringing new life to old favorites, such as Day In, Day Out, Get Out Of Town, That Old Black Magic, From This Moment On, and You Must Believe in Spring. Even Beatles music something not readily adaptable to jazz, gets a new lick of paint.
A final thought: although these singers were born far apart and grew up in very different cultures, they have some things in common. Obviously, all are hugely talented, all have great empathy with the Great American Songbook; less obvious, until you hear them that is, all have excellent linguistic skills. Nowhere is there a hint that English is not their first language. One other link they share, and the only one that is a little less sunny, is that in order to achieve their present stature in today’s world of jazz singing, they had to leave home. Is it only me that finds this sad? Again, maybe it’s only me, but I think that a closer look at artists still working in Poland and Finland and Italy – to say nothing of Sri Lanka and South Africa and New Zealand and China and, well, the list is endless – is something well worth taking.
Or do we all just sit and wait for them to come to us?