JAZZ IN SPACE: February 2014

Saturday, February 1, 2014


The lanky, unassuming young man in street-worn slip-ons and a hoodie, fiddled with cords and gearboxes on the small secondary stage at Rockwood Hall last November, a compact room in New York’s Bowery neighborhood on the gentrified lower East Side. He could have passed for one of the tech crew, but he was guitarist Nir Felder and when he turned on his axe and started to play, everybody in that room was transfixed. Previewing songs from his debut release Golden Age, Felder interacted with his band with the casual nonchalance that comes with friendship, and pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Nate Smith and bassist Orlando LeFleming (substituting for Matt Penman) dug into this joyous material with enthusiasm.

Felder has been a go-to sideman on many high-profile gigs, supplying superior fretwork and textures to projects by Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, the singer José James and saxophonist Brian Landrus.

His debut scores on many fronts – the songs are modestly epic, performed by a band that’s locked tight with groove and invention, and combined with the leader’s awe-inspiring gifts as a composer and player, Golden Age heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice on jazz guitar. The all-originals playlist naturally reflect Felder’s influences and aspirations, from grunge-like chords and blues riffs to soaring waves of sound (“Lights”), tight harmonic rhythms and heartfelt melodies (“Bandits”). Better still is “Code,” a power ballad with a Prince-like backbeat and a precise pace -- it resonates with Felder’s distinctive chord effects that give this track its ethereal beauty. Dipping into the jazz/R&B realm, “Lover” fuses a bright groove with Parks’ intricately beautiful piano solo.

Another element Felder employs to great effect is voiceover, specifically segments of speeches from political and cultural figures. The juxtaposition is used sparingly, but winningly on “Sketch 2,” where a sample of former NY Governor Mario Cuomo’s rebuttal to then President Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” speech segues into an urgent impressionistic track that nonetheless conveys an ever-present optimism that weaves through Felder’s compositions.

When Felder played on the Rockwood Hall stage that late night, he and his Mexican Stratocaster were one voice. Felder’s body was stretched tall and loose, his face aimed to the ceiling and while the music he played was amplified, it sounded as if it radiated out from his body. It turns out that the guitar is Felder’s original instrument that he bought as a teenager, putting heavy strings on it early on (“like Stevie Ray Vaughan did”) and it’s the instrument that Felder uses on all tracks but one on Golden Age, his fearless and resplendent first recording. (10 tracks; 61 minutes)
my lousy photo of the great band at Rockwood Hall, NYC, 2013

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Updated February 21, 2014

I feel fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Amy Cervini. She’s a whirlwind of positivity no matter what hat she wears - -singer, songwriter, producer, manager and mom. Who knew she had it in her to make one of the freshest vocal records I’ve heard in a while? And if I didn’t know better, a recording called Jazz Country might not be one I’d reach for in my stack of CDs for review consideration, but Amy Cervini is not boxed in by labels or genres and that's what makes the music on Jazz Country so rewarding. You can frequently catch her in performance at NYC’s 55 Bar, where I took these quick snaps of her performing earlier this month with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, bassist Linda Oh and keyboardist Michael Cabe.

WRTI, Philadelphia’s Classical and Jazz Source, has posted my review of Jazz Country – read it here.


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Updated February 21, 2014

If you haven’t heard of pianist Helen Sung, her new recording Anthem For A New Day is a great introduction to her music and highly recommended. She’s been on my radar for a while now, ever since she sent me her 2011 Steeplechase Records release (Re)Conception – that I reviewed here.

From the titles of her recordings, you can tell that this classically trained musician is forging her own path in jazz, relentlessly exploring new sounds while opening up the possibilities on existing standards. It was by happenstance that I found her playing a late night set at 55 Bar in NYC last year with her band – drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Rueben Rogers, violinist Meg Okura and a crushing frontline of trumpeter Marcus Printup and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw – under the moniker “Helen Sung Electric Company.” Modest and unassuming, she told me that a new record was forthcoming and she was writing music for electric keyboards. Her creative instinct was right -- the new album is her best yet.

Read my review of Anthem here on the WRTI website, Philadelphia's Jazz and Classical station.

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 photo by Jimmy Katz
Among the most prolific of musicians, jazz or otherwise, Pat Metheny is far from your average guitarist. After playing more than 100 concerts with his Unity Band – their terrific 2012 debut recording netted him his 20th Grammy award – he sets about composing a new record with even more moving parts and adds multi-instrumentalist and pianist Guilio Carmassi to an already tight crew that’s comprised of saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez – warranting the name change.

Kin (<-->) overflows with typical Metheny touches. The grand lead off tune, the 15-minute long “Day One,” covers these bases with expansive writing, remarkable solos over delicate layers of sound, complete with blazing synths, soaring wordless vocals and buzzy orchestration. Metheny has always been a musician of the world, incorporating influences and textures from cultures across the globe, and “Rise Up” bursts with his unique brand of optimism -- percussive Latin rhythm, blissful acoustic guitar, percolating saxophone, deep, and popping bass gives way to a high-flying electric guitar solo that dips and dives like a stunt plane at an aerial show. It culminates in a blizzard of harmonic intensity and instrumentation that is as dazzling as it is complex.

“Born” is among the guitarist’s most beautiful ballads – it’s lushly cinematic in scope and feeling and the group’s simpatico interplay consistently pulls you in. Halfway through the title track, there’s an impressive trading of solos between bassist Williams and saxophonist Potter, underscored by a zippy electronic foundation that crackles and fizzes throughout. The tune’s denouement rests on the shoulders of Sanchez and he consistently astonishes on his kit. Dispatching an arsenal of percussion, he’s an ever-inventive soloist, a powerful player and leader in his own right, and as with all of Metheny’s projects, the drummer gives this music its backbone.

In the press release, Metheny states “writing this music and putting it together for this incredible collection of players and integrating all the materials at hand was one of the biggest challenges I have ever undertaken.” That could be an understatement because Metheny’s control and intuition, plus the input from the quartet of players that he’s assembled that give rise to his compositions, is what puts him in a class of his own. The groove and street-wise beats that make “We Go On” weave and bounce ultimately codifies the popular achievement that is Kin (<-->) and it further secures Metheny’s rep as among the most revered and appreciated artists in music. Essential listening.  (9 tracks; 70 minutes)

The Pat Metheny Unity Group launches a 44-city tour in North America, hitting Philadelphia at the Keswick Theater on March 22. www.keswicktheater.com

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Beautiful Life is an upscale entertainment that confidently establishes Dianne Reeves as an adult contemporary R&B singer of romantic ballads and mid-tempo love songs. Producer Terri Lynn Carrington surrounds Reeves with first-rate jazz and studio players and the recording sounds deep and lush. Obviously designed for maximum radio play, with arrangements that employ up-to-the-minute grooves and after-hours rhythm, Reeves gives Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” a quiet storm makeover, Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors” a funky, slam-dunk read and offers up a dazzling original, “Cold,” that features an irresistible chorus.

Reeves is indisputably one of the world’s great jazz singers, a splendid and charismatic entertainer with a luminous voice that evokes the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. After many fine records for Blue Note, four Grammy Awards and a bravura turn in the George Clooney directed film Goodnight and Good Luck (her companion soundtrack album is among the best examples of her vocal mastery), Reeves waited five years until this superior effort that pairs her voice with all-star contributions from singer/composer and bassist Esperanza Spalding who accompanies Reeves on the uplifting “Wild Rose,” the in-demand jazz pianists Robert Glasper and Gerald Clayton, along with vocalist Gregory Porter who clicks with Reeves on a fine duet called “Satiated”. Drummer Terreon Gully supplies notably tight beats. And in a bittersweet turn, Reeves cousin, the late George Duke takes a final bow with a synth solo on “Feels So Good (Lifted).”

Some may find Reeves’ typical exuberance curbed somewhat on Beautiful Life. She’s celebrated for scatting and voice effects in concert and record, but apart from the improvised coda on Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” and the wordless boffo original called “Tango,” Reeves plays it mostly cool. Producer Carrington is gifted in so many ways and she treats Reeves with the respect she deserves. Life remains a success and is destined to reach many new listeners not familiar with her greatness.  Regardless, Beautiful Life flows easily between jazz and soul and this album is nothing less than a gift from Reeves to her fans. (12 tracks; 69 minutes)

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