Saturday, March 24, 2018

Ingvild Koksvik's Songs From the Deepest Sea

There's a flurry of activity in Farsund, Norway these days. Just a couple of weeks after I blogged about Lark Jakob Rudjord's Pharos,a new single featured on all the streaming services, singer Ingvild Koksvik has released a new digital EP featuring three of her songs from her last album, sung this time in English. Lars confirmed this for me in an email exchange a couple of weeks ago, but I accidentally stumbled onto Songs From the Deepest Sea while browsing through Tidal this morning and reminded myself to check it out.

Og sangen kom der havet, Ingvild's last album, is a beautiful and hypnotic experience. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with it was hearing her sing these Norwegian lyrics with such emotion and conviction that I felt like I didn't need an English translation. As I mentioned in my review for Positive Feedback Online, Ingvild supplied translation in the liner notes of the album, but I avoided them because I loved the hint of mystery. And now we have the English versions...will that mystery vanish?

Of course not! It's thrilling to hear her English vocals because they ground her voice--for an English-speaking fan like me, anyway. When I listen to Ingvild in her native Norwegian, she sounds like a beautiful, fleeting spirit. Hearing her sing "Song From the Deepest Sea," "Something Better" and "Mathilda's Lullaby" in English radically changes the mood of the music--a layer of meaning is both added and subtracted. It's almost like I'm hearing her voice for the first time, as if she's in the room with me. This might be a completely personal impression for one reason--Ingvild and Lars occasionally send me messages, and their English is perfect. (This is true, of course, of most Scandinavians.) And there's a slight disconnect between these perfectly normal conversations and the gorgeous, exotic Nordic music they make. Maybe I'm just a little starstruck by these two.

Now, Ingvild has supplied a bridge for me. The mystery has lessened, but the meaning is now more in focus. The music is still just as beautiful, but now I understand even more. Above all, I feel like I know her voice a little more because of this.

Ingvild and Lars pretty much take turns when it comes to releasing my favorite albums of the year, so hopefully these smaller projects are hinting at full albums to come. But now that I've flung myself into digital streaming, it's a genuine treat to be able to hear the in-between projects, the creativity and the direction these two are taking.

You can hear Songs from the Deepest Sea on Tidal and right here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Folketoner on 2L Recordings

Have I ever told you about my longtime friend Dan? Dan grew up with us back in Southern California, and while he appeared to be the archetype of a '70s barefoot hippie complete with the obligatory Jesus beard, he seemed to grow up a little faster than the rest of us did. He was the first to get married, settle down and raise kids. He was also much more mature and adventurous when it came to music--he was the first in our clique to explore jazz and classical music, and he always had intriguing opinions on the '70s classic rock we all enjoyed, opinions that made the rest of us think and re-evaluate our tastes.

Dan once told me something about his changing tastes in music. It was initially something I didn't agree with, but it stuck with me over the years and has made me think. Dan had given up on singers, and he was suddenly devoted to instrumentals--one of the biggest reasons he got into jazz and classical in the first place. (He also turned me onto the sheer magic of The Ventures, which now makes perfect sense.) He explained to me that "the human voice is such an imperfect instrument, especially compared to musical instruments." He enjoyed the purity of those tones and no longer wanted to listen to the overwrought rock singers of the day screaming their way through another power ballad.

I'm bringing up Dan because I wonder how he would have reacted to one of these choir performances from 2L Recordings. There's nothing imperfect about these oceans of voices, these rich sounds that are as textured and complex as any string orchestra.

It's kind of silly to say that 2L specializes in these recording of choirs--that would be ignoring the fact that they specialize in almost everything else including string quartets, horn and woodwind ensembles, chamber orchestras and piano recordings. But with these recordings, such as the new Folketoner, it's clear that producer Morten Lindberg knows the secrets of capturing the magic of massed singers. He records them in a big church. By now you know that most 2L Recordings are captured this way, and even I'm getting bored with mentioning it in every review. But the idea behind this is simple--where else would you want to listen to a choir? In an airport restroom? No! You want to hear these interweaving voices flutter and bounce off the big wooden ceiling beams of a beautiful old church. There is no other way.

Folketoner is performed by Det Norske Jentekor (Norwegian Girls Choir) and conducted by Anne Karin Sundal-Ask. These ensembles--there are four different choirs in the group--are quite famous and respected in Oslo because the organization has been around for so long and because so many of its singers have moved on to brilliant careers. Folketoner consist of the group's favorite Norwegian folk songs and hymns--the ones they actually love to sing, that is. That's why these performances seem to glow with love and appreciation. They're also quite beautiful--it seems that each 2L choir recording surpasses the last one in terms of sheer musicality. With Folketoner you will be swept up in gorgeous melodies sung with rare emotion and conviction. You'll have an instant view into another culture, one that's hypnotic and filled with soul and wonder.

Dan's still around. He's still the family man, and now he's surrounded by grandchildren. He still loves music. We're friends on Facebook, so I think I'll tag him so he sees this. It's been thirty-five years or more since we had that conversation about singers, and I'm sure his tastes have evolved just like everyone else's. But I'm curious to have him listen to Folketoner, if merely to challenge his old ideas about the perfection of the human voice.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sundae + Mr. Goessl's When You're Smiling

In this day and age, I feel I have to be cautious when choosing adjectives to describe female singers. For instance, when I'm listening to Kate Voss, aka Sundae, sing these old originals from the first half of the 20th century, the first two words I think of are coquettish and kittenish. In their defense, those two words are old-fashioned in the right context and not at all dismissive since Sundae + Mr. Goessl are anything but from "this day and age." Voss and guitarist Jason Goessl are a "vintage duo," a seemingly new name for a very old sound. You've heard it before, probably in other recordings that have been pigeonholed into the genre known as hot Parisian jazz. I've been hearing a lot of these recordings lately; it's a thing, and I'm happy about it.

I do have a word, I think, and it's adorable. Sundae's voice is equal parts Billie Holiday and Teresa Brewer, light and silly when it needs to be and tinged with an old soul's wry wit that pulls these vintage themes away from forced innocence into something more pure and knowing. She's a charmer. She casts an undeniable spell on you and she does it by staying honest and doing things that have been done before, just not for a long time. Once you hear her simple and loving takes on old songs like "Stardust," "Embraceable You," "The Best Is Yet to Come" and the title track, you might forget about everyone else's versions, at least for a while.

Ah, but Sundae is not singing acapella. None of this would work as well without Mr. Goessl's hot Parisian acoustic guitar, played with deft uke strums from the Django Reinhardt School of Casual Virtuosity. Just when you think you have a handle on his style and his instrument, he switches it up with a classic electric jazz guitar ("Caravan") or he turns up the reverb ("Bang Bang") or he throws in a little country twang (Patsy Cline's "Any Time"). Sundae often provides an amusing counterpoint with her little melodica, reinforcing the whole Parisian aspect, and both add a smattering of bells and chimes whenever punctuation is required. Percussionists Adrian Van Batenburg and Sam Esecson provide the beats and subtle rhythms when needed.

Most of the time, Sundae and Mr. Goessl give everything that's required in a pared down, almost pristine manner. It's a beautiful recording, enhanced by the compact simplicity of the accompaniment. You won't be digging through layers of texture and meaning here--this is a concise idea that's composed of a lovely voice and an exquisite guitar delivering familiar classics in a way you haven't heard in a very long time. Don't be surprised if the younger generations immediately pick up on When You're Smiling and turn it into a thing. Remember how everyone jumped onto the martini wagon twenty years ago and started listening to Sinatra and Tony Bennett? This album has that same combination of hipness and historical flair. Or, as one of these classic tunes declare, "S'wonderful."

Friday, March 16, 2018

OKB Trio's The Ing...

Jazz trios don't usually sound this full and open. I think about my favorite trio albums such as Sonny Rollins' Way Out West and how these albums always do such a superior job of isolating what each member of the trio is doing and how each contributes to the whole. Even so, there are a lot of empty spaces in jazz trios, which is certainly not a bad thing. It just is.

The OKB Trio sounds a little too full and warm at first, as if these three musicians--pianist Oscar Perez (the O), bassist Kuriko Tsugawa (the K) and drummer Brian Woodruff (the B)--aren't really a trio after all. They sound a lot bigger at first, and that's mostly because there is this fluid warmth that defines the way they play together, interlocking ideas that fill in the gaps. There's a point, obviously, where your mind is able to organize each musician's space and conclude that this is an unfettered trio with no tricks up anyone's sleeves. It's tough for a contemporary jazz trio to distinguish themselves so clearly from similar ensembles, but OKB manages to do it quite easily.

OKB was born in 2010, when Woodruff played a run at Blackbird's in Queens and was able to book different musicians each week. One June evening Tsugawa and Perez jumped on stage. By the end of the night, all three had a drink together to celebrate their extraordinary synergy. Tsugawa declared, "I always want to play with this trio." Listening to this mix of original and standards, it's easy to understand why. Again, this trio sound sounds incredibly fluid in an entirely intuitive way, and that comes from pure unadulterated chemistry. Whether they're playing from the GAS (Ahlert and Young's "I'm Going to Sit Right and Write Myself a Letter") or taking turns with their own compositions (each submit two), they get it down like no one else.

The Ing... is special in another way. It is the very first performance recorded at Big Orange Sheep, a new studio that was built by many in the Queens jazz community including Woodruff, Perez and Tsugawa's husband. The warmth I describe is partially due to this space, which was built as a true labor of love. Woodruff produced the album, and Chris Benham, the owner of Big Orange Sheep, recorded and mixed and mastered the album. So there's something quite special about this inaugural offering, a combination of community love and support and getting everything right by doing it yourself. It shows in every note of this excellent album.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Andrew Gould's First Things First

Remember that 1982 song by Fear titled "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"? I do, and whenever I hear about a sax player and his relationship with NYC I immediately think about Lee Ving and his crew talking about being pushed in front of subways, dealing with drunks in their doorway and freezing to death on the street. That certainly described the city back in 1982, but I've been to New York plenty of times over the last few years and I now see it as something vibrant and exciting and relatively safe, if not quite sparkly clean.

Saxophone player Andrew Gould has a very specific relationship with New York, which is why his debut album is dedicated to the experiences he has had living and working there. First Things First captures that pure, bristling energy with an exciting and extremely dynamic brand of jazz that simply jumps out at you by describing the heartbeats that drive the town. He doesn't paint broad panoramas in an effort to encapsulate his theme; he touches on his personal connections such as his jazz influences which include Coltrane, Joe Henderson and others. He also writes compositions based on the simpler pleasures of life--"7am" is named for the time when he finished composing it and captures the morning rush of the subway, and "Song for Millie" relates to a week he spent dog-sitting and how impressed he was with the animal's kind gentle nature.

Gould's cohorts are standing right by his side, boisterous and clear-headed. Pianist Steven Feifke is a steady, driving force who connects Gould to his rhythm section (bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Jake Goldbas, who shine and work well together). Together this quartet is explosive and sometimes teeters on the edge of free jazz, although Gould will pull them back from the edge of the precipice in time to introduce a lovely new Coltrane-esque theme. Only once does the quartet settle down and smooth out, and that's when singer Ioana Vintu takes the lead on "On a Darker Moon." (Her voice is charming, by the way, and Gould's lyrics are sweet and intelligent.)

What I find fascinating about First Things First is just how confident this quartet is on their debut album. I've been hearing this a lot lately, debuts that just fly out into the air and come alive. Gould has been playing in NYC for many years, and perhaps that's the reason--these jazz guys tend to pay their dues before the record labels come-a-callin'. He has plenty of presence and is destined to make his mark in saxophone-friendly NYC.

Diving Into RTR with Lyn Stanley Now Live at Positive Feedback

My latest article for Positive Feedback is now online. I discuss my continuing adventures with reel-to-reel tape, and Lyn Stanley's new Signature Series Tape releases. You can read it right here. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hughes Smith Quintet's Motion

"The HSQ is a Detroit-based jazz quintet that performs original music with purpose."

This is the opening sentence on the press kit, and my first reaction was "Purpose?" What does this mean? Is the purpose to advance contemporary jazz into new frontiers? To showcase the performers? To get some money in the bank? I know this is cynical, but that's exactly what I was thinking until I started listening to this new album from Hughes Smith Quintet. My first impression was straightforward and pure. This isn't groundbreaking jazz, it's just performed with an impeccable instinct for the genre. If you can imagine what jazz is, in your mind, for just a few seconds, it would sound a lot like this. So maybe purpose is the right word after all.

HSQ isn't led by a guy named Hughes Smith, it's led by sax player James Hughes and trumpeter Jimmy Smith. Their base in Detroit figures heavily into their sound--when I think of Motor City I tend to think of big horn sections way out front. Indeed, most of these original compositions focus on the Hughes-Smith tandem leading the way, driving the melody, creating all the big excitement. That's not to diminish the rest of the quintet, which includes Phil Kelly on keyboards, Takashi Iio on bass and Nate Winn on drums. Kelly, in particular, serves as yet another soloist on occasion. His Fender Rhodes electric piano takes are exquisite and further reinforce that Detroit feel of late nights at the club, the booze flowing and the air thick with smoke.

This is the kind of jazz quintet that sounds like it's been together for decades, but HSQ has only been around since 2013. The band put out an album then called From Here On Out and another one two years later called Ever Up and Onward that AllMusic selected as "Favorite Jazz Album" for 2015. I haven't heard either album, but I am impressed with the confidence on display in Motion, especially how it affects the level of the performances. If this had been an album of standards, I might say the HSQ's only flaw, a relatively minor one, is that they leave nothing to chance. Knowing these are all originals, I have to yank that observation off the table. It's difficult to make original compositions sound so classic, as if you've heard them all before. And if you haven't, where have you been, man?

I haven't mentioned the rhythm section until now, but I should. Winn plays the traps with a high-energy style that sounds like he's really into old Lalo Schifrin movie soundtracks from the '60s and '70s. He's a dramatic drummer, one who focuses on his big exclamation marks, and he brings enormous and tangible energy to the quintet. Takashi Iio underlines the trend of Japanese musicians finally receiving plenty of respect in American jazz circles--the days of criticizing the streamlined TBM sound are long over. Iio's bass is tricky, light and always searching for new phrases. He's a gem.

This is another jazz release that's just on the mark. It sounds right. I shouldn't be going on and on about this and that--just listen to Motion for a few minutes and you'll understand its purpose.