Saturday, December 16, 2017

Phil DeGreg Trio's Queen City Blues

Those who can't, teach.

That old saying seems to be obsolete in the world of contemporary jazz. So many of these new jazz releases I've been reviewing are fronted by academics, usually musicians who head departments of Jazz Studies at major universities. I just received a pile of CDs from the University of North Texas, for example, and they are very serious about their jazz department. But before I get to those, I have this rather low-profile CD to review from the Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati, Phil DeGreg. I refer to this CD as having a low profile because I've had it in my possession for a few weeks now, and I haven't really given it much time until now. That was a mistake.

Pianist Phil DeGreg, along with bassist Aaron Jacobs and drummer John Taylor, have created a simple, compact jazz masterpiece with Queen City Blues. Sure, it's just a recording of a jazz trio. Sure, they're playing the usual mix of standards and originals. On the surface there's nothing extraordinary about this Cincinnati trio, but when you crawl inside you'll find plenty to celebrate.

First, the sound quality is spectacular. It's not hard to make a jazz trio recording sound great. But this is a redbook CD that's been self-released, which probably means with the help and direction and funding from the university. And sound-wise it's a reference disc. Jacob's bass is woody and dense and full of individual timbres that contribute to such a fleshed-out sound. Taylor's drum set shimmers and booms and is so dynamic, despite the fact that he has an understated style that emphasizes his deft work on the hi-hat and cymbals.

And then there's DeGreg. He's a great player, of course, steady and quick and genial. He's strong on melody, on being in service to the tune. But I'm hearing all those wonderful cues in space that signal a great recording reproduced on a great sound system--the way the notes emerge from different areas of the sound board, the way those same notes float out into the room and blossom in strength. I can almost imagine him playing this CD in the classroom, telling the students that this is the way to do it--if he does say so himself. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Gabriele Tranchina's Of Sailing Ships and the Stars in Your Eyes

Gabriele Tranchina's new CD, Of Sailing Ships and the Stars in Your Eyes, has a lot in common with the Veronneau album I reviewed yesterday. Both singers specialize in jazz, but they have unusual voices for the genre--Lynn Veronneau has a relaxed, folk-rock voice that reminds me somewhat of Carole King or Joni Mitchell, while Tranchina has a thinner and slightly more plaintive voice that makes me think of Astrud Gilberto. That's certainly not a knock, since Gilberto's voice was so charming that she's still a legend after singing one song 50 years ago. (Let's not forget that the others who performed on that album weren't exactly chopped liver.)

Another similarity between these two modern albums is that, like Veronneau, Tranchina has her talented husband nearby for musical support. That suggests a certain synergy between performers, also known as love, and it's presumed that should carry over into the music. Joe Vincent Tranchina provides layer after layer of keyboards throughout these twelve tracks, piano, Hammond B-3 and programming. That said, this is album heavy with percussion. That gives more than half of the album a distinct Latin feel.

On the other half of the album, Trnachina's voice is the star. I've suggested it isn't the richest or most sultry voice you'll hear in jazz, and I am hearing more processing in the recording than usual for a jazz album, but her voice does become more impressive once you scoot in for a closer listen. First of all, she sings in multiple languages on this album--French, Portuguese, German, Italian and of course English. On a beautiful Cormon/Carre arrangement of Bizet's "Je Crois Entendre Encore," the show-stopper of the album, you'll hear Tranchina at her most committed. Every syllable is like a long, soft kiss--I wish more of the album consisted of this kind of music since it's more suited to her.

Another slight knock? Perhaps. There are some missteps here, most notably some Middle Eastern scatting on "A Song for India" that veers a little close to nasally cliches. (Instrumentally, however, the song is more intriguing with its atypical layering of keyboards that almost reminds me of Dead Can Dance.) The title track is a skip-over--the melody makes her sound a little flat. I think another problem, as I've already suggested, is in the recording of Tranchina's voice. At times it's buried in the mix. That's unfortunate, since I do think she's an interesting singer, and perhaps a different approach might have made a bigger first impression.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Veronneau's Love & Surrender

Not all jazz/female vocal albums are created equally, although it does seem that most of them are aiming squarely at sultry, romantic and nostalgic. Some model themselves after Diana Krall and her album theme du jour, and others may go for the more purist approach, say Julie London (my preference). I hate to break it down to those two extremes, but whenever I hear a female vocal album these days it seems like they're targeting one or the other. Sure there are exceptions--Lyn Stanley's The Moonlight Sessions Vol. 2 is the obvious example of someone trying to do something truly new with the Great American Songbook. But over the last year, these standouts are becoming quite rare.

If you want to get my attention, in other words, you have to do something different. It's one thing to have a wonderful singing voice, but it's quite another to carve your own niche in a well-traveled genre. You don't have to be crazy or unorthodox, just distinctive. Just a few minutes into Veronneau's new CD, Love & Surrender, this jazz trio had my attention. I don't even want to call them a jazz trio--that pigeonholes them. This trio, which consists of singer Lynn Veronneau, and guitarists Ken Avis and David Rosenblatt, is different because they're "doing their own thing," meaning that they're covering a lot of interesting tunes, throwing in some originals, and really finding unique strengths in each melody.

What's most striking about Veronneau the band, obviously, is Veronneau the singer. Lynn Veronneau has a lovely, rich and expressive voice that, for lack of a better word, is genuine. She's putting herself into these songs without gimmicks, and without affectation. It sounds like a cliche to talk about "singing from the heart," but how many singers these days are hyper-aware of the uniqueness of their voice and how they have to sell themselves to audiences, record labels and the like? Veronneau (the singer) sings as if she has no idea anyone else is listening. It's almost like we "catch" her singing and she gets all embarrassed and apologizes and explains that she didn't know anyone else was around. She's singing because she loves to sing, because it's her natural state of being.

Avis (Veronneau's husband, by the way) and Rosenblatt are fine company for her lovely voice--the dual guitar approach is delicate, beautiful and matches the singer's sense of spontaneity. There are also plenty of other guest musicians who provide a fuller and more satisfying feel to songs such as Serge Gainsbourg's "La Javanaise" and Jim Webb's "Moons a Harsh Mistress." Dave Kline, whose Shifting Borders I just reviewed, creates a strong presence through multiple tracks on his violin.

As different as Love & Surrender is, it's not revolutionary. It's sweet and relaxing--it's more Carole King and Joni Mitchell than Krall or London or anyone else out there. It's slight and sunny, but in a completely charming and unique way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Jeff Dingler's In Transit

In my review of bassist Reggie Young's Young Street, I mentioned that the wide variety of tracks were inspired by the sounds Young heard in the streets of New York City. Jeff Dingler, another bassist, was inspired by the same thing in his new album In Transit--the music he heard while walking around New York City. Dingler, however, spends equal time there and in Ethiopia, and those very different places set the mood for this collection of eight original tracks.

Middle Eastern and African influences are hardly new to the world of jazz, as anyone who has listened to "Caravan" knows. But Dingler is able to combine exotic themes with a profound sense of what it means to be home, especially when home can exist in two places on opposite ends of the planet. Dingler and his quartet (guitarist Brad Shepik, pianist Lou Rainone and drummer Gusten Rudolph) sound as skilled and accomplished as any contemporary jazz ensemble out there--as a group they play notably quick and clean and with oodles of energy--but when the Ethiopian influences emerge (often earmarked by guest appearances from percussionist Josh Bailey) the music suddenly becomes much more complex and intriguing.

I had to dig deep into this recording before I realized an old point of reference--Ethiopiques, a collection of Ethiopian jazz from 1965. If you've seen the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers, you know this album intimately. There's an awesome synergy at work between Ethiopian folk music and Western jazz genres, and you'll hear it on In Transit as well. Ethiopiques sounded primitive--it was a primitive recording, and many of the musicians playing could barely maintain control of their instruments. But that was the magic in the recording, that it all set into such a mysterious whole full of beauty. Dingler and his ensemble are precise where the Ethiopians in 1965 were sloppy, but that stunning mix of the familiar and the esoteric is still there, lurking just beneath the surface.

I've one more comparison, and it goes back to the Reggie Young CD. Young is a maestro when it comes to his electric bass, and the entire album centers around that. Dingler is a very solid and thoughtful double bass player, and he likes to stay in the background. His playing isn't flashy, but it will be appreciated by fellow bass players. The strength here is in the compositions, and they way the evoke two very different worlds. It's quite an accomplishment.

Reggie Young's Young Street

Bassist Reggie Young's new album, Young Street, is kind of odd. I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just that as you move through these 11 tracks, you'll start to wonder who Young is, and what kind of sound he's going for.

You can see his intentions--he's an incredible electric bass guitar player, and he's showing off how his unorthodox style can be applied to a number of jazz genres. There's certainly nothing odd about that, since many jazz musicians take that challenge. He starts off with a couple of tunes, "Young Street" and "Smash 'Em Up," that seem perfectly suited to his dynamic and funky aesthetic. From there he moves into "Brazilian Dreams," which of course shows off his taste in Brazilian jazz. He's still hanging in there, despite light and flippant backing vocals that border on stereotypical (ba-ba-ba-BAH!). Then comes a song called "Magic," which is hampered by sleepy, repetitive vocals and a lack of focus.

After that we get "Riding Low," which is more rock and roll than anything else--it definitely has momentum. From there we get Reggie Young's take on all sorts of genres, and for the most part they all sound great. I guess I'm wishing for more consistency in these tunes--I want "Young Street" as an album to feel more of a whole instead of a mere outlet for Young's virtuosity.

Young is far from a rookie--he's won a few Grammies, and he's played with Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder and Ruben Studdard. Fodera, a manufacturer of bass guitars, has released a Reggie Young Signature model. The sound of his bass guitar here is strong, distinctive and never trivial. Despite what I said before, he's not a show-off--he knows how to support his fellow musicians. Young Street was written to reflect the sounds Young hears walking through the streets of New York City, and perhaps that's why it's all over the place.

The liner notes state that "when you go hear him play live it's just remarkably entertaining." That's the album this should have been, focusing on this awesome bass player and how he interacts with his band. Instead, it feels like a greatest hits album that features tracks recorded in multiple decades, through multiple artistic periods. It's still quite good, but it is odd.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Justin Piper's Transcend

Here's another new release, like RK Dawkins' Journey, that seems to draw from so-called New Age music from twenty of thirty years ago to create a new pocket genre for contemporary jazz. The RK Dawkins album used jazz fusion and funk to draw the overall sound away from the ethereal synthesizer music from the '80s and '90s. Guitarist Justin Piper is more evocative of the Windham Hill style of music from the '80s--you can almost hear the late Michael Hedges nodding in approval.

Piper, who hails from the Boston area, uses the same layered approach to recording as Dawkins. Every sound on every track on Transcend is created by Piper--he starts with the guitar track and then adds texture through such instruments as a lap steel, bass, oud and banjo. He then uses programming instead of a mere synthesizer to create the dense backgrounds of sound. While he fancies his music as acid jazz, his classical guitar training is the first thing you'll notice. His acoustic guitars sound dense and fanciful, and his style is intricate and impressive. When I think of acid jazz, I think of something completely different than this.

The sound quality on Transcend merits discussion, and for the same reason as RK Dawkins' album. Twenty or thirty years ago, performers like this would add layer after layer of sound to recording in their efforts to be a true one-man band. In the old days, this meant adding track upon track, which also meant adding tape hiss, noise and other studio artifacts. While early digital recordings were supposed to address this, you could still hear those layers of haze piled on top of each other.

But with Journey and now Transcend, a lone musician can walk into a studio and create a multi-layered recording and still make it sound like it was recorded live and in one take. I'll freely admit that I don't know the particulars of how this is accomplished, or how long these technologies have been available in the recording studio. All I'm saying is that I'm really noticing this clean, pure sound...I almost said "for the first time," but I'm not sure if that's true. What I am saying is this might be the trademark of whatever genre this turns out to be, where one person can walk into a studio and create something that's, well...synergistic with one's self.

Friday, December 8, 2017

RK Dawkins' Journey

Do you like New Age music?

In 2017, the term "New Age Music" is about as nebulous as "New Wave Music." Both terms have becoming meaningless, except in terms of nostalgia, in the last couple of decades. Back in the '90s I went through a New Age phase or, more specifically, I loved ethereal synthesizer music that was called "space music." You know the stuff--it started back in the '70s with Klaus Schulze and Popul Vuh and a few others and then by the '90s everyone started adding beats and the "New Age" split up into dozens of new musical genres--ambient, dubstep, trip hop, you name it.

I'm bringing this up because I've received quite a few new releases that feel, for want of a more specific label, like the New Age music I was listening to twenty-five years ago. The only difference is that instead of wearing hip-hop influences on its sleeve, I'm hearing more jazz and funk. The synthesizers are still out in front, as are the drum machines, but this new genre seems focus on themes and improvisations in the same way as classic jazz. On the surface, it feels like New Age. But there's a different level underneath it all, something based more on old traditions. RK Dawkins' Journey is the first of many CDs I've recently received that seem to be fixated on creating a new hybrid subgenre. There's probably already a name for it.

Dawkins has even adopted the New Age approach of people such as Robert Rich and others by playing all of the instruments on Journey. He's primarily a jazz guitarist who counts Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington Jr. and Earth, Wind and Fire as his primary influences. He started off each compositions by focusing on a strong bass line and guitar lines saturated with effects, and then builds up layer after layer. That way he can focus on the "flavor" each instrument brings to the song. That's why each composition will remind you of so many different types of music at the same time--jazz, funk, Middle Eastern music, pop, techno, whatever you can think of.

While the one-man band approach to composition can occasionally lack both variety and a sense of synergy, Dawkins takes a different approach by thinking of each layer of music as a "contribution" from a musician with unique experiences and influences. As you listen to Journey, it sounds like it was performed by a group of musicians who love playing together. This wasn't always the case back in the New Age Era. Perhaps it's because today's studio technologies can provide a more seamless feel between the layers, but a lot of it has to do with Dawkin's ability to make this sound like a great jazz-funk-techno band all by himself. While Journeys doesn't quite sound revolutionary or even evolutionary from a perfunctory glance at its gleaming surfaces, it might just signal the arrival something very new.