Keiko Matsui Takes A “Journey To the Heart”

Keiko Matsui (photo: © Jordan Perlman. All Rights Reserved. )

Out of pain comes growth and in 2007, Keiko Matsui, emerged from a divorce, record label troubles, and embraced her new singularity by striking out in a bold new direction as she traveled to South Africa, paired up with trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the results was the adventurous Moyo, one of the brightest and best recordings of a 30-year career.

Fast forward nine years and Matsui’s back at it again with Journey To The Heart,  a spirited and joyful project that brims with equal parts euphoric passion and unbridled brilliance as Matsui seems invigorated as a player, composer, and bandleader. Paired with a drum-head tight new band, this is her finest album in nearly a decade.

Don’t call it world beat. Put a Japanese pianist in the studio with a Cuban bassist and drummer, (Del Puerto and Branley) add a guitarist from Peru (Stagnero) and a percussionist from Venzuela (Quintero) then just for grins invite a dazzling harmonica player from Switzerland (Maret) to join in on the festivities, and what you have is Matsui’s 27th album as a leader as she stakes out a bold new direction as she moves into more acoustic music. Intact is her signature precision on the piano and her stately compositions and arrangements.

I don’t have any proof,  but I wonder if Matsui stripping down her sound to a more acoustic setting has anything to do with another Japanese pianist, Hiromi Uehara unplugging with her Trio Project to positive reviews.   It’s possible, if not provable…

It takes supreme confidence in yourself and your fellow musicians to reign in and allow them to take the lead and compliment them instead of relegating them to little more than sidemen. Taking few solos here, Matsui has always been willing to unselfishly share the spotlight as her duet with Greigoire Maret on the riveting “Two Harbors” is ample evidence of.

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“Moving On” and “Carnival” are two romper stompers featuring guitarist Ramon Stagnero who nimbly navigates his way as Matsui trades leads with him until percussionist Luis Quintero brings it home. It’s exciting to follow in a way Matsui’s recent outings with studio pros were not.

Too many musicians reach a stage in their careers where they seemingly say, “That’s good enough. I’ve done a few different things. I can just keep making the same old same old with different titles and it will sell.” Maybe that’s true for a dinosaur rock band content to go on stage and crank out the hits, but for a jazz artist, that is a shortcut to stagnation and musical death.

When jazz musicians play it safe and are content to just make the donuts, it ceases to be jazz and becomes instrumental pop without vocals and who needs that? Keiko Matsui will never get her proper due for remaining true to the spirit of innovators and risk-takers who elevated the idiom, but Journey To The Heart serves as the testimonial she’s richly deserving of the accolades.

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“We need to find that common bond in our hearts. People are dying with violence, hunger and war. This music is my new journey,” explains  Matsui. “It is an evolution in many ways. I hope I can make a path and make some noise and leave a positive effect on the world. This is my mission and I am dedicating my music to this cause.”
Track Listing: Moving On; Carnival; The Edge of Twilight; Butterfly; Casablanca; Journey To The Heart; Havana Nights; New Beginning; Two Harbors; Blue Rose

Personnel: Keiko Matsui: piano; Carlitos Del Puerto: bass; Jimmy Branley: drums; Ramon Stagnero: guitars; Luis Quintero: percussion; Gregoire Maret: harmonica; JP Mourao; additional guitar (2), Randy Waldman; string arrangement (4, 6, 8); Gary Stockdale: string arrangement (10)

Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Shanachie Records | Style: Modern Jazz

(This review originally appeared in a different form at All About Jazz)

Hiromi and The Piano In the “Spark.”

 

If you don’t know who Hiromi is yet you’re probably reading the wrong article. And listening to the wrong music.

There are three reasons why some people will not enjoy Spark, the fourth album from the Trio Project featuring Hiromi Uehara, the Japanese-born pianist and composer and drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Anthony Jackson:

1. It’s too complex.

2. It rocks too hard to be jazz.

3. It’s long (72 minutes).

None of these are good reasons. Here are three reasons which are good ones.

1. Simplicity has its place. So does complexity. 2. Jazz is not a hyphenated word. It’s just jazz. 3. You can’t make and bake a cake in two minutes. Patience is its own reward.

Hiromi continues to be one of the most inventive and awe-inspiring pianists in jazz today. Phillips’ drumming is alternatively both dynamic and precise. Jackson is the silent partner of the band, but is the glue which holds it together so it doesn’t fly apart into undisciplined soloing.

That’s the risk involved in a Hiromi recording. At what point will her dazzling proficiency give way to just spraying notes all around the joint like an Eddie Van Halen freak-out turned up to “11” on the overkill scale? This is an entirely fair comparison. Hiromi can match a guitar god like Van Halen for speed, frenzy and mindless self-indulgence when she goes off.

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“Spark” leads off with a gently synth/piano solo that takes off as soon as Phillips comes in and Hiromi engages in dueling leads as they chase each other in musical game of “tag.” Good luck with figuring out what the time signature is. The stuttering stop-start of “In A Trance” shows off the favored approach of the Trio Project to jazz: aggressive, inventing and very, very fast and furious.

Even when “In A Trance” slows down to a more traditional approach, it isn’t long before it reverts to the highly individualized nature of the players. Phillips launches into a drum solo, shows off some hot licks, and then ends up with some killer fills and cymbals work until Jackson and Hiromi come back in with a vaguely Latin piano riff.

Is “Indulgence” a playful jab at the naysayers who accuse the pianist of being more style than substance? Maybe so and maybe no, but whatever the intent it, along with “What Will Be, Will Be” is a showcase for Jackson’s contrabass guitar work and some mighty fine funky grooves and the restrained solo piano piece “Wake Up and Dream” washes over the listener like warm spring rain.

Like it or not (and some jazzheads don’t), Hiromi is much more than an programmed automaton who can play really fast. The rollicking closer “All’s Well” is funky good fun which connects emotionally on every level. For jazz to resonate beyond its base it has to—repeat—has to develop and promote artists the way rock, pop and country does. It cannot thrive and will not survive unless the new generation is alerted of the new innovators residing among them just beyond their range of hearing. Hiromi is one of those innovators.

Spark is Hiromi’s 10th  album and it’s the 10th album I’ve dug the hell out.   She has to be included on any short or long list of the best pianists in jazz today.  It’s not a coincidence that Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea have both tapped her to join them on solo projects.  She’s just that good and with Phillips and Jackson in tow the Trio Project has been blowing it up over four masterful albums in five years.

Oscar Peterson said, “Too many jazz pianists limit themselves to a personal style, a trademark, so to speak. They confine themselves to one type of playing. I believe in using the entire piano as a single instrument capable of expressing every possible musical idea. I have no one style. I play as I feel.”

Hiromi Uehara is living what Peterson advised. Hers is the piano in the Spark.
Track Listing: Spark; In A Trance; Take Me Away; Wonderland; Indulgence; Dilemma; What Will Be, Will Be; Wake Up And Dream, All’s Well

Personnel: Hiromi: piano, keyboards; Anthony Jackson: contrabass guitar; Simon Phillips: drums

The best “power trio” since Cream.

A different version of this review originally appeared at All About Jazz

Eliane Elias Goes Home Again With “Made In Brazil.”

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If you’ve never been to Brazil, consider Eliane Elias as a goodwill ambassador with Made In Brazil. It is a triumphant return for the pianist/vocalist to her native land to record her first album there since relocating to the United States in 1981.There is a delicacy to how Elias chooses and approaches the material. There is no genuflecting to pop music as there was on Light My Fire (Concord, 2011). Here Elias is all about adult emotions and days of “wine and roses” gorgeously captured on her original, “Searching.” Elias called upon Rob Mathes to handle orchestral arrangements on seven of the 12 tracks which were recorded in London at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Never overbearing or overblown, Mathes utilizes the strings to enhance the dreamily romantic atmosphere of Made In Brazil.
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You might think by now Elias would have covered the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic “Aguas de Marco (Waters of March).” After all she dedicated a tribute to her countryman, Eliane Elias Sings Jobim (Blue Note, 1988), but somehow she bypassed “Waters of March.” That oversight is remedied by inviting the vocal group Take 6 to join in with some R&B sweetness as Elias deftly provides a sparkling solo on the Fender Rhodes.When a musician is wearing as many hats as Elias is here as a producer, composer, lyricist, arranger, musician and vocalist there is an inherent risk of coming up short somewhere, but there are no notable lapses. Whether Elias is dueting with daughter Amanda Brecker on “Some Enchanted Evening” with band mate and husband Marc Johnson on acoustic bass or joined by composer Roberto Menescal who adds his vocals to “Você” and guitar on “Rio,” the results are nothing short of blissful perfection.Switching gracefully between English and Portuguese, Made In Brazil is a sensual, sexy, swaying journey through Elias’ native heart. Beyond any doubt it proves you can go home again.Elias has firmly established herself as an consummate talent whether she is behind the keyboard or in front of the microphone. The artist presented in these twelve tracks is an assured and polished professional who brings a subtle delicacy to this music. Made In Brazil is another glittering gem in Elias’ crown as the luminary leader of contemporary bossa nova, samba and Brazilian jazz.

Track Listing: Brasil (Aqualera do Brasil); Você; Aguas de Marco (Waters of March); Searching; Some Enchanted Evening; Incendiando; Vida (If Not For You)l Este Seu Olhar/Promessas; Driving Ambition; Rio; A Sorte du Amor (The Luck of Love); No Tabuleiro da Baiana

Personnel: Eliane Elias: vocals, piano, keyboards; Take 6: vocals (3); Mark Kibble: vocals (3, 6, 9); Amanda Brecker: vocals (4); Ed Motta: vocals (7); Roberto Menescal: vocals (2), guitar (2, 10); Marcus Teixeira: guitar (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12); Marcelo Mariano: electric bass (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12); Marc Johnson: acoustic bass (2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11); Edu Riberio: drums (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12); Rafael Barata: drums (2, 4, 5, 10); Mauro Refosco: percussion (1, 3, 5, 7, 9); Marivaldo dos Santos: percussion (5, 9); Rob Mathes: orchestral arrangement

Record Label: Concord Records

Originally appeared at All About Jazz

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Paul Hardcastle: The Snoozejazzmaster

You’d slide out of your chair too. From boredom.

Jazz: noun, often attributive \’jaz\ a type of American music with lively rhythms and melodies that are often made up by musicians as they play

Jazz. Say the word. J-A-Z-Z. Paul Hardcastle calls his side project “The Jazzmasters.” If he means he plays instrumentals, it is. If he means truly understanding the idiom, it’s not.

A lot of jazz albums end up in my mailbox.  A few are good.   Some are terrible.  There are some rare gems, but most are competently mediocre.

The Jazzmasters VII is total shit.   It is dull beyond belief.   It is tedium, tiresome and the embodiment of the worst of snooze jazz.   It didn’t even hold my interest long enough to get me to hate it.

The not-so Secret Sauce of Hardcastle’s success is his music is designed, calculated, formulated and manufactured so as not to deviate from the template. There is no discernible difference between a Jazzmasters release and a Hardcastle solo joint. They are interchangeable and the sound faithfully follows Hardcastle’s freeze-dried jazz/chill formula. This sort of Tinker Toy, generic pap is popular in the same way McDonald’s french fries are popular: all the consumer must do is consume. Whether it provides any nutritional value is purely secondary.

The titles are generic. “Unlimited Love,” “Soft Rain” and “Starlight Express” sound like names for bottles of perfume. Songs start, stop tinkle quietly and fade away. There isn’t a single hook or a spontaneous moment. There are no twists, no turns, no diversion, no digression, and no deviation, only cold efficiency.

To be a jazz master shouldn’t you actually play jazz?

If you’re a fan of this sort of thing and dig Hardcastle’s chilled out drizzle and you’ve consumed his past product here’s some more of the same old same old. At this point in his career, Hardcastle can be described as one football coach described the other team: He is who we thought he was. Only in the most liberal sense of the word can the sound recordings of Hardcastle be even remotely considered to be any sort of “jazz.”

It is false advertising to proclaim there are any masters of jazz on The Jazzmasters. Hardcastle certainly isn’t interested in lively rhythms and melodies that are often made up by musicians as they play. This is background music. It’s too mechanical, too bloodless  and too flat-out lazy to be anything more than empty sound.

Duke was a jazz master. Miles was a jazz master. Thelonious was a jazz master. Paul Hardcastle is about as much a jazz master as a Kardashian sister.    Before he dubs himself a “jazzmaster” he should learn how to play some first.

Track Listing: Unlimited Love; Rhythm of Life; Free to Fly; Starlight Express; Soft Rain; Domino Effect; Pulse of the Universe; Unlimited Love (the Strings), Come On; Breathe; Echoes of Eternity; Rhythm of Life (Chill Reprise)

Personnel: Paul Hardcastle: unspecified instruments; Rock Hendricks: saxophone; Paul Hardcastle,Jr. : saxophone idea (1); Maxine Hardcastle: backing vocals (2); Cindy Bradley: trumpet (1); Margo Ledue: backing vocals (3)

Record Label: Trippin n Rhythm Records

A different version of this review originally published at All About Jazz.

 

George Duke: A Weaver of Dreams

The end comes eventually for us all with only the time and method to be determined. Dream Weaver is an album constructed around death, loss, healing and moving on. George Duke lost his wife, Corine, in 2011 as well as guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, and vocalist Teena Marie who passed away in 2010 as she was collaborating with Duke on a jazz album.

Despite the sense of loss and sorrow hanging over the recording, Dream Weaver is hardly a solemn affair. Duke’s trademark good humor, playfulness and finely tuned ability not to take himself too seriously, as benefits someone who played with rocker Frank Zappa, shines through.

Working with multiple players and guests, Duke’s final album is at times messy and sprawling, but Duke never allows all four wheels to leave the road. George Duke the producer was as accomplished as George Duke the musician and he was acutely aware of what his strengths and weaknesses were in both roles.

It was the old school funk of “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick” that put Duke on the map as a solo artist and the thumpin’ “Ashtray” is a worthy callback to those days. You’ll look in vain for the name of the bassist thumbin’ out those fat licks. It’s Duke with his battery of synthesizers ripping off bass riffs that would make Bootsy Collins or his old pal, Stanley Clarke, smile with admiration.

Clarke appears here on “Stones of Orion” showing off his underrated skills on the upright bass. “Missing You” features sensitive vocals from Duke and Rachelle Ferrell. While he sought to make the object of the ballad a generic woman, it is apparent whom the warm passion in Duke’s singing is directed to. The serious intent behind “You Never Know” belies its breezy, lightweight sound, but it’s a caution to treasure every moment because you never know when there will be no more moments.

Duke’s albums are frequently saddled with a few throwaway tunes and it’s “Jazzmatazz” and “Round the Way Girl” that don’t add much to the discography, though the instrumental “Brown Sneakers” featuring Michael Manson on bass is a fine bit of fusion.

If a title like “Change the World” weren’t a dead giveaway of Duke trying for a “We Are the World” moment, the assemblage of an all-star chorus (Jeffrey Osborne, Lalah Hathaway, BeBe Winans, Freddie Jackson and more) drive the point home with sledgehammers, but sincere as it is, it still feels generic and the clunky kid vocal at the end shows a bad case of the cutes.

Teena Marie was known primarily as a blue-eyed soul singer, but her interests ranged beyond belting out R ‘n’ B and before her passing she was working with Duke on an album of jazz vocals. If “Ball & Chain” is any indication of what the finished product would have been, Marie might have been successful in the attempt. Though the amazing range she exhibited on the classic “Portuguese Love” (seek it out and find out for yourself) isn’t evident here, “Ball & Chain” demonstrates Marie had down the phrasing of a jazz singer. As a producer, Duke had the ability to bring out the particular strengths of an artist rather than apply a signature sound to them.

“Burnt Sausage Jam” is a remnant from a session with Johnson and the rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer John Roberts that is just a jam and a rather pointless one at that. It never really develops into much but drags on for 15 minutes. Originally recorded for Face the Music (BPM, 2002) it recalls the similar “Ten Mile Jog” from that album, but Duke should have trimmed it down or left it in the vault, but having done neither it’s just an overly long song and the only outright clunker.

The concluding “Happy Trails” was probably meant as a lighthearted parting gesture, but a month after the release of Dream Weaver , George Duke succumbed to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was 67 years old.

Whether or not there will be further unreleased material from Duke’s lengthy recording career is a question for the future. Here and now, this versatile, accomplished and celebrated artist who was equally at home playing in a myriad of styles and genres, left a rich legacy of music with Dream Weaver being a worthy coda.

Track Listing: Dream Weaver; Stones of Orion; Trippin’; Ashtray; Missing You; Transition 1; Change the World; Jazzmatazz; Round the Way Girl; Transition 2; Brown Sneakers; You Never Know; Ball & Chain; Burnt Sausage Jam; Happy Trails.

Personnel: George Duke: vocals, synthesizers, piano, rhodes, drum programming, Nord 3 synth, Arp odyssey, mini-moog, Prophet 5, synth programming, Wurlitzer electric piano, castlebar clavinet; Stanley Clarke: upright bass (2) Gordon Campbell: drums (2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12, 15); Daniel Higgins: flute (2), tenor sax (4); Everette Harp: alto sax(2, 4, 8, 14); Kamasi Washington: tenor sax (2-4, 8, 13, 14); Gary Grant: trumpet (2, 4); Michael “Patches” Stewart: trumpet (3, 8, 13,14); Terry Dexter: background vocals (3); Lamont VanHook: background vocals(3, 5); Rashid Duke: “Ahoom” vocals (3); Erik Zobler: “Ahoom” vocals (3); Paul Jackson Jr.; guitar (4, 6); Chris Clarke: words and thangs (4); Rose Geddes: lady with a question (4); Rachelle Ferrell: vocals (5); Jef Lee Johnson: guitar (5, 9, 12, 14, 15); Larry Kimpel: bass (5); Jim Gilstrap: background vocals (5), vocals (7); Lalah Hathaway: vocals (7); Jeffrey Osbourne: (7); BeBe Winans: vocals (7); Lori Petty: vocals (7); Dira Sugandi: vocals (7); Freddie Jackson: vocals (7); Terry Dexter: vocals (7), background vocals (8); Howard Hewitt: vocals (7), Kennedy Fuseller: kid vocals (7); Michael Landau: guitar (8); Chill: rap (8); Ramon Flores: trumpet solo (8); Allen Kaplan: trombone (8); Josie James: background vocals (8); Lisa Chamblee-Hampton: around the way girl (9); Michael Manson: bass (11): Lenny Castro: percussion (11); Teena Marie: vocals (13); John Roberts: drums (14); Christian McBride: bass (14).

Record Label: Heads Up International

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.

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George Duke: The Master of the Game

I never caught George Duke in concert.   I never met the man in person.  However, he did give me two hours of his extremely busy time to talk to me for a career-spanning interview.   What came of it was the longest interview I had ever done before, after or since and after I finished it, I never wanted to put so much work into something I got so little compensation from.  Like zero dollars and cents.

But I think George liked it too because he put a link to it on the front page of his web site and that’s an honor.

I gained a whole new appreciation of the man they called “Big Daddy.”  If you love jazz fusion (and I do because I ain’t no jazz snob) you love George Duke, who was one of the top five keyboard players of the genre along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Jeff Lorber.  Where Duke ranks in that group is subject to debate.   I place him in second place behind Hancock and ahead of Corea, Zawinul and Lorber.   Others may see it differently, but hey, it’s my list and I’ll order it how I want.

I published an excerpt of the interview which can be found in full on All About Jazz, but it’s way too long to publish the entire thing on this blog.   However, I couldn’t let an opportunity pass to ask Duke what it was like playing with the notoriously short-tempered Miles Davis.

All About Jazz: Regarding “Ripple In Time,” the trumpet playing by Oscar Brashear is a shout-out to Miles Davis. You played with Miles in his final years, and nobody comes away from working with Miles without some impression: good, bad or otherwise.

George Duke: He could be extremely intimidating. Matter of fact, I was playing with Cannonball Adderley at the Beacon Theater in New York. We had finished our show and I was out front listening to John McLaughlin, and Miles came to the show.

Two fusion masters: Jean Luc-Ponty and George Duke.

He said [slips into gravelly Miles Davis voice], “Hey man, what you doin’ in this band?”

I was, like, “Damn, did I just get dissed?” I didn’t know if he was saying I wasn’t good enough to be in Cannonball’s band. I didn’t know how to take that comment.

Years later, Miles would come to my shows in New York but he wouldn’t say anything to me. A murmur would go through the audience: “Miles is in the room!”

As time went by, he’d call me on the phone and tell me he wanted me to write a tune for him. He actually asked me to join his band at one point. We were never close friends and I wasn’t in his band, but we had this weird kind of relationship especially when he was with Cicely Tyson. I’d see him all the time. He said, “George, I want you to write me a tune.”

I wrote “Backyard Ritual” and sent it over to him as a demo thinking he’d go in and re-record it live with his guys. But he said, “I like it because it sounds funny.”

I said, “Miles, that’s a demo. We’re going to come in and re-cut it.”

Miles said, “Naw, man. I like it the way it is.”

And that’s the way it came out. “Backyard Ritual” is a demo Miles played over. I never saw him in the studio.

The original song I wrote for Miles had a French-Cuban atmosphere to it. Dianne Reeves came in the studio and heard me working on it. She said, “What’s that?”

I said, “This is for Miles.”

She said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re family. I want that tune for my record.”

GeorgeDuke

I told her, “Well, you can’t have it.”

Dianne said, “We’re family. You got to tell Miles he can’t have it. Write him something else.”

I said, “He’s already heard it. You call Miles and tell him he can’t have it!” She said she was already writing a lyric for it. I told her, “You gotta stop!” Well, Dianne is my cousin so I had to call Miles tell him. I said, “Hey Miles?”

“Yeah.”

“You know that I tune I wrote for you?”

“Yeah.”

“You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh, can I write you another tune? She wants it for her album.”

Miles cussed me up and down. It took him about 15 minutes of swearing at me and her. “Tell that blankety-blank to get her own song!”

The song that came out of it for Dianne’s album was “Fumilayo,” and it was nominated for a Grammy. It didn’t win, but it started out as a song for Miles Davis.

AAJ: You hear these amazing stories about how intimidating Miles was and you think no way could it be true, but maybe it is.

GD: Miles was quite a character and much funnier than most people realize, especially if you were with him one-on-one—very interesting dude.

Going down the list of who Duke played with or produced includes Michael Jackson, Stanley Clarke, Sheila E., Frank Zappa, Jeffrey Osbourne, Deniece Williams,  Jean-Luc Ponty, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Billy Cobham,  Barry Manilow, Anita Baker,  A Taste of Honey, and on and on.   Duke liked to work as much as he liked to play and when his career cooled as a musician, he slipped effortlessly into the producer’s chair and kept pumpin’ out the hits.

I struggled with Duke’s last album, Dreamweaver.   It was dedicated to his wife, Corrine,  who passed away last year.   The album has its peaks and valleys and I struggled with writing the review.  I didn’t feel it was a great record, but I couldn’t knock the sincerity behind it.

The promotional video for the album shows a somewhat diminished Duke.  I see a man who has lost weight and wearing a hat instead of his usual Afro (possibly to cover hair loss from chemotherapy?).   Don’t know and it’s not my business anyway.   Duke cared about the music, not the trapping of stardom.  He played with giants, made hits for giants and became a giant without ever losing his humility, humanity or humor.  There’s the music he made and the many millions he reached for and turned on with the Dukey Stick.

There’s also the respect and love George Duke’s peers felt for him.

When I was growing up and learning to play guitar in Hawaii, George Duke was one of my heroes. It was a dream come true to play in his band, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his supportive attitude — and the way he pushed us all to play the best we could .

~ Charles “Icarus” Johnson, writer and blogger, Little Green Footballs and former guitarist in the George Duke Band
I can’t believe that I’m writing these words. George Duke has passed. This one is extra tough. He’d just lost his wife a year ago. George was one of those special human beings who changed the feeling of whatever room he occupied. When you were around him everything just seemed better. , lighter, more positive. Tremendous musician, incredible human being… No one who knew him will be quite the same now that he’s moved on.

~ Marcus Miller

George Duke’s talent was universal. He could adapt to all forms of jazz, pop, and rock – from Frank Zappa to Miles Davis and everything in between. He died not only of an illness but I think also of a broken heart. His wife Corrine left us last year and they were deeply in love.

~  Ramsey Lewis

Words cannot express the lost of my mentor and friend George Duke. I tried to come see you yesterday. You are now home. I love you.

~ Sheila E.

Go easy, Big Daddy.

Jazz Needs Fewer Critics and More Fans

“Gimme a good review, Jeff!” You got it, George.

It’s been a little quiet around here.  I wasn’t planning on taking a Christmas break, but the demands of work and home call and would not be denied.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Either you’re going to do something or you’re not. If you really want to drop 25 pounds or find another job or scale the Himalayas then you will. Or you won’t.

A new year doesn’t just mark new beginnings, it can mean the end of old ways and old relationships. That’s why 2013 will be the year I stop reviewing jazz.   I’m  not having a crisis of confidence and I haven’t given up jazz in favor of death metal or country  music.   It is time to put a fork in it.   After a decade of writing and listening to jazz, I’ve used up all the words I have.  I don’t have an original thought left in me.

For months now there has been a half-dozen albums sitting on my desk waiting for me to review…and waiting..and waiting.   Some of the CDs are quite good actually.  A few are okay and one or two are totally lame.   My problem is I can’t work up any enthusiasm for even the ones I like.  It’s not exactly writer’s block.   I’m numb to it and in some ways that’s worse than not being unable to come up with 500 words for a review.

You! Go out and listen to some jazz!

I’ve contributed to All About Jazz since 2006 and written 102 reviews and several interviews. The career-spanning conversation I had with the .great George Duke was one of the best I’ve ever conducted and after it was published I knew I’d never write another for AAJ. It was epic in length, exhaustive in the research and limited in impact.  The Duke interview generated over 17,000 page hits. That’s a nice number.  For a blog post.  In relation to the time and effort I put into it the result was a big disappointment.

That’s was the point where I began to wonder, “Does this really make any difference to anyone?”

After close to a decade of writing reviews for AAJ and Jazz Review.com, I’m gratified for all the music I’ve been allowed to hear and the artists I’ve been allowed to interview. Speaking with Patti Austin, Keiko Matsui, Harvey Mason, George Benson, Rachel Z., Everette Harp, Gerri Allen, Cheryl Bentyne, Jane Monheit, Paul Jackson, Jr., Jessy J., Nestor Torres, Chris Standring, Al Jarreau and Cindy Bradley among others was big fun. Musicians are my most favorite persons to interview.

Yet I’m frustrated that the following of jazz is so small. I’m frustrated when an artist asks me what the best venue for live jazz in town is and my answer is “There isn’t one.” I’m frustrated even when I give a jazz release a four-star rating, it will be nearly impossible to walk into what’s left of the music section of a Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Barnes & Noble and buy it.

Check out Billboard’s 2012 Year-End Charts for Jazz Albums and you know what sold the best?  A Michael Buble Christmas album!   Michael Buble?  Are you yanking me?

Can the savior of jazz get a chair?

It gets worse.  The top Five is rounded out by Duets II by Tony Bennett, Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney, Dead Sinatra’s Best of the Rest, and That’s Life from Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., whom I’ve never heard of, but I guess he was on “American Idol” so that makes him a big deal.   The first album I’ve even heard of is Esperanza Spalding‘s Radio Music Society at No. 6 ( and I thought it was lousy).

My favorite jazz recording of 2012 was Najee’s  The Smooth Side of Soul which came in at #26.   It’s been that kind of year.

Jazz is not dead. It’s not even sick. As long as there are young artists still playing pianos, strumming guitars, pounding drums and blowing horns, the tradition carries on. What I fear is jazz being ignored. You don’t hear it on the radio. You never see it on television. Jazz is not the music of the young. It’s a tough time to be a fan if you don’t live in a city with a jazz scene or radio stations that still program it.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to Hiromi’s  “Move” upcoming in March.    The Japanese piano virtuoso has been a consistently interesting talent whose rise I’ve followed since 2003.    When Hiromi released her third album Brain in 2006,  I positively bubbled with excitement.   THIS is why we love jazz. It’s exciting to see an artist develop. It’s thrilling to hear how self-assured and confident a group of musicians can become when they learn, grow and develop their talents together. It’s a joyous and satisfying experience when it all comes together in a burst of aesthetic brilliance. “

I meant every hyperbolic word, but I don’t get that feeling as often from as many jazz artists any longer.

I may not give up critiquing jazz entirely, but I will ring down the curtain on my AAJ contributions. My taste in jazz  always were more mainstream than the majority of their writers.   I know a lot about jazz artists, but many times AAJ’s annual  “Best of” lists  didn’t have a single name on it I recognized.   There isn’t much use for someone who prefers  Fourplay,  Jeff Lorber or Norman Brown to some Yugoslavian thumb piano player.

My love for jazz  still runs strong, but I’ve run out of words to express that love.  I began covering this music because I wanted to spread what Kirk Whalum calls “the gospel according to jazz.”   I’m still  excited by its endless energy and uncanny creativity, but I have doubts I’ve been as effective advocate for jazz as I hoped I would.  Looking at  what is currently riding high on the smooth jazz charts and it’s more like “snooze jazz” to me.

Maybe what jazz needs are fewer critics getting the music for free and more paying fans to keep it alive.

Jazz doesn’t need saviors. It needs supporters.

Crawford, Sample and Vaughn: Collaborations and Breakthroughs

Randy and Joe have forged a musical marriage that works.

Randy Crawford &  Joe Sample: Live

It’s a slight exaggeration to say keyboardist Joe Sample rescued Randy Crawford from pop music limbo, but it’s not too far from the truth. Crawford is among the most distinct vocalists working, but her discography is riddled with over-arranged and over-produced disappointments. One of her finest moments remains when The Crusaders dropped all 11 minutes of “Street Life” on radio airwaves in 1979, featuring Crawford belting it out.

Some 27 years would pass Sample and Crawford before they reunited to record Feelin’ Good (PRA, 2006), where the pianist wisely chucked the synthesizers, strings and overproduced pop tunes that Crawford’s sensual vocals had to fight through over a decade’s worth of middling albums and stripped the sound down to a bare (but not sparse) combination of piano, bass, drums and Crawford’s  sweetly sensual vocals.

The back-to-basics/less-is-more approach served Crawford well on Feelin’ Good, and a second album, No Regrets (PRA, 2008) continued the collaboration. It was wise for Crawford to give up her pop/R&B stylings to pursue a more distinctive direction as a seriously soulful jazz singer, and Live pulls together some of the finest moments from a 2008 European tour. Steve Gadd handled the drumming duties on the two studio albums and returns here, as Nicklas Sample replaces Christian McBride on acoustic bass.

Live albums of a concert you didn’t attend are a bit like looking at a friend’s vacation photos of somewhere you haven’t been, but everything that sounded good in the studio loses nothing on stage. From the opener “Every Day I Have the Blues” to the closer “Last Night at Danceland,” Crawford and company deliver the goods over an economical 49 minutes. There isn’t a dull moment on Live, but Crawford does herself proud on the Billie Holiday-written “Tell Me More and More and Then Some,” with Sample killing ’em softly as he solos. “This Bitter Earth,” “Me, Myself and I” and “No Regrets” are presented skilfully, playfully and brilliantly, with Gadd and Nicklas Sample providing solid support throughout.

Sample and Crawford have recently finished a tour in South Africa, but whether they plan to record again remains to be seen. If they don’t, then Live serves as an outstanding document of a glorious alliance.

Track Listing: Every Day I Have the Blues; Feeling Good; Tell Me More and More and Then Some; Rainy Night in Georgia; This Bitter Earth; Me, Myself and I; No Regrets; One Day I’ll Fly Away: Almaz; Street Life; Last Night at Danceland

Personnel: Randy Crawford; vocals; Joe Sample: piano; Steve Gadd: drums; Nicklas Sample: bass

Mr. Vaughn is a sharp dressed man.

Julian Vaughn: Breakthrough

Within the first 30 seconds of the stomping “On Your Feet,” the lead-off track on Breakthrough, it’s hard not to think, “Darned if this guy doesn’t sound just like Wayman Tisdale.” Hopefully Julian Vaughn will take the comparison as a compliment because his “lead bass” playing style is eerily reminiscent of Tisdale, who passed away in 2009.

The publicity notes for Vaughn’s third album say he “doesn’t try to be any other bassist than who he is.” That’s nice to say but as one of the producers is Darren Rahn, who collaborated with Tisdale, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Vaughn, a Kansas City native, wasn’t ever so slightly influenced by Tisdale. Additionally, at a towering 6′ 7″ Vaughn is only an inch shorter than the former NBA power forward.

Breakthrough is calculated to make a splash on the charts and airwaves, not break any new ground. There is a cover of the R&B hit, “Rock Steady,” a few vocal tracks that are okay, nothing memorable though, and a lot party tunes that given Vaughn plenty of space to jam and riff for the sake of jamming and riffing. Most of it sounds pretty good even if it’s not terribly memorable.

The breakthrough here is Vaughn’s confidence as a player and how much he dominates the proceedings as the star of the show. The ranks of premier electric bassists in his field has thinned, since Stanley Clarke says he’s retired from the genre, Marcus Miller has one foot in the funk jazz genre, but is hardly wedded to it and Victor Wooten follows a uniquely eclectic muse which leaves the field wide open for Vaughn.

“Potential” is the heaviest word in the world because it means you haven’t done it yet. Vaughn is playing it cautiously and conservatively as he’s trying to leave a positive impression with the audience he’s aiming for and the current position of Breakthrough on the contemporary jazz charts indicates it was a savvy strategy.

Vaughn has demonstrated he has talent. Now he has to take on the next challenge of making himself stand out from the crowd by stepping off the path established by others and blaze his own trail.

Track Listing: On Your Feet; J’s Jammin; Ju Ju’s Groove; The Thought of You; Breakthrough; I’ll Do It; Be My Girl; Rock Steady; No Matter; Right On Time; Always Be Together.

Personnel: Julian Vaughn: lead bass, bass, keyboard bass; Ken Friend: bass; Darren Rahn: tenor sax, Wurlitzer, synthesizers, drum programming, additional guitar; Frank Selman: guitar; Anthony Jones: drums; Joey Woolfork: guitar; Nicholas Cole: piano; Jeremy Nixon; keyboards; Tobbi White-Darks: vocals; Marcus Anderson: saxophone; Anthony Saunders: vocals; Joey Woolfork: guitar; Josh Mayfield: drums; Jimmy Ellison: guitar; Matt Godina: guitar; Kinyon Price: Rhodes & strings; Paula Saunders: vocals

These reviews were originally published at All About Jazz.