The Warmth of Ashleigh Smith’s “Sunkissed.”

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Summer 2016 was hot, sticky and not a lot of fun. Many big name Hollywood blockbusters tanked. The presidential election has been a long slog. Television ratings for the Summer Olympics were off and every time you turned on the TV there were plenty of reasons to turn it back off.

Then along came Ashleigh Smith to save the summer with Sunkissed as welcome as coming across brightly sparkling gem in the sand. Blessed with maturity beyond her years, Smith is a singer more than a stylist who caresses and interprets a song than hammer the listener with hey-look-at-me vocal gymnastics.

The 27-year-old Dallas-based singer/songwriter effortlessly blends soul, jazz and pop on her debut album. Smith’s “Best Friends” is radio-friendly and serves as a nice introduction to what she brings to the party. There’s a breezy bossa nova groove to the tune as Smith references her fondness for Stevie Wonder courtesy of Kevin Wyatt’s quality harmonica work.

Smith’s skill set includes songwriting as she co-wrote five of the album’s 10 compositions. The other half includes covers of The Beatles “Blackbird’ and Hall & Oates’ 1975 hit, “Sara Smile” and they work best as showpieces for Smith’s comfort with lighter fare without really moving the needle as game-changing interpretations.

What does work better for Smith are her own songs like “The World Is Calling,” a commentary on contemporary social issues which avoids becoming preachy, the optimistic “Sunkissed” and the sparkling “Into the Blue” which is enhanced in no small part by the four-piece horn section arranged by trumpeter Jarriel Carter. The whole album is brimming with right choices by Smith and producers Chris Dunn and Nigel Rivers and avoids any glaring missteps, but “Into the Blue” is a track that demands repeat listening.

In 2014, Smith won the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition after placing second two years later. She added vocal backup for pop artist Chrisette Michele and covers one of her compositions, “Love Is You” but Smith is equally comfortable with standards as she closes out with Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory stripped down to only her multi-tracked vocals and it is a pure delight.

Read the liner notes and the names of the other musicians likely aren’t familiar ones. That is not an accident. Smith wanted to avoid “big name” musicians and went with other players she worked with from a jazz camp at the University of North Texas. When a new artist enters the studio the temptation is there to wrap them in a cocoon of hand-picked professional musicians and production. Thankfully, Sunkissed does not succumb to playing it safe and Smith never gets lost in studio gimmicks.

In 2014,  one my favorite AAJ critics (me!)  wrote, “For jazz not only to thrive, but survive, it must begin to create its own superstars who can deliver a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the flagging art form, but have skills in social media and marketing, creating a global brand, and finding new forms beyond record sales, radio play and live gigs in fewer clubs and concert halls to reach the new breed of jazz fans.”

Ashleigh Smith announces with Sunkissed the next generation of jazz artists is here for the previous generation to pass the baton on to capable hands. She’s not the next Sarah Vaughan. She’s the first Ashleigh Smith.

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Ms. Smith would like to sing for you if that’s okay.

Track Listing: Best Friends; Sara Smile; The World Is Calling; Love Is You; Blackbird; Sunkissed; Into the Blue; Brokenhearted Girl; Beautiful and True; Pure Imagination

Personnel: Ashleigh Smith: vocals; Shelton Summers: piano, Fender Rhodes; Sergio Pamies: piano (9); Joel Cross: guitar; Mark Lettieri: electric guitar (3, 9); Justin Schenk: electric guitar (3, 9); Nigel Rivers: electric bass; Cedric Moore: drums (1, 5); Marcus Jones: drums (2, 4); Matt Young: drums (9); Cleon Edwards: drums; Greg Beck: percussion (1); AJ Flores: percussion: (2-4, 6, 7); Kevin Wyatt: harmonica (1); Jarriel Carter: trumpet (1,7); Jason Davis: saxophone (1, 7); Gaika James: trombone (1, 7); Antone Amalbert: trombone (1, 7); Veronica Gan: 1st violin (4, 9); Emily Aquin: 2nd violin (4, 9); Emily Williams: viola (1, 7); Craig Leffer: cello (1, 7); Sergio Pamies: string arrangement; Jarriel Carter: horn arrangement

Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Concord Records

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

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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

Fourplay @ 25: A Silver Lining Playbook

Fourplay (James, East, Loeb, Mason) as they are…

Any band in any genre of music, be it rock, country, classical or jazz can’t make it two and a half decades based solely on pure dumb luck. Fourplay defied the critics who dismissed them as pop schlock when they debuted in 1991 and shook off the haters who never thought they would still be here 25 years later. The secret for the quartet’s staying power is right there in the name: Fourplay. Four talented, versatile and experienced master musicians playing together. Nobody is the front man and nobody is first among equals.

When Fourplay dropped their eponymous debut, one reviewer described it as “between jazz, R&B, and pop with an emphasis on lightweight originals, soulful and moderately funky rhythms, and predictable radio-friendly music.” Not exactly a critical endorsement.

Though dissed and dismissed by the cognoscenti, no band lasts 25 years on slick sounds and dumb luck alone. Fourplay not only endures, but thrives as being a group people love to listen to even if critics hate to. Beyond the commercial success, the band’s longevity is in no small part because they are a band. Lee Ritenour, East and Mason all were part of James’ band for Grand Piano Canyon (Warner Bros, 1990) and from those sessions a superband was born. The fact they are still here when bands have largely vanished from jazz is a credit to their ability to sublimate the individual ego for the collective good of the group as well as the groove.

Fourplay: Silver
Let’s talk about “super groups.” In rock n’ roll, established acts team up in a group all the time and watch the money roll in, but most of these pairings are merely cynical cash grabs for the short term. Jazz has always seen collaborations, but most of these super groups barely last beyond a few albums before calling it a day.One of the biggest problems in jazz today is there are too many solo acts and not enough bands. There are things a musician can only learn in a band and one of them not every idea is always a good idea. In a band there’s someone there to say, “Nah…don’t like that one. Let’s try something else” and that idea which was all wrong for a band might be perfect for a solo record.No relationship—musical or otherwise—lasts two-and-a-half decades without disagreements, conflicts and personality clashes. Fourplay has kept whatever internal dramas are going on in-house and out of the press. Ritenour exits and Larry Carlton enters with no drop-off. Carlton leaves and is replaced by Loeb and all three guitarists are back in the fold for Silver and some two-plus decades later that’s it for the personnel changes.Quiet as its kept, Loeb has somewhat supplanted James as the principal instrumentalist. No knock on James. He’s still killin’ it on the keyboards, but Loeb is leading from the front whether its his subtle stylings on “Horace” (as in Horace Silver—get it?) or flat out rocking out on “Silverado” duking it out with Carlton as they swap guitar licks. Ritenour lays back a bit more on “Windmill,” but its good to hear him back in the fold for the first time since 1994.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZODwJ4BsRI

Don’t sleep on James though because while he turns 76 in December and contributes only two of the ten tracks, they’re two of the strongest with the aforementioned “Horace” and the lush and gorgeous “Mine.” James is still the major domo of Fourplay, but he has gracefully shared the throne with his “younger” bandmates, Mason, East and Loeb.

The the major takeaway from Silver is simply this. Fourplay is not Bob James and his backup band or the Harvey Mason Quartet or the Nathan East Group or the Chuck Loeb Crew. Fourplay is, and has always been a band, and one of the most enduring, accomplished and greatest bands in jazz. Silver is as much a proud statement of resilience as it a triumphant celebration of achievement.

Track Listing: Quicksilver; Horace; Sterling; Silver Lining; Silverado; Mine; Silver Streak; Precious Metal; Aniversario; Windmill

Personnel: Bob James: piano, Rhodes, synths; Nathan East: bass, vocals; Chuck Loeb: acoustic and electric guitars, synths; Harvey Mason: drums, percussion,vibes, synths; Larry Carlton: guitar (5); Lee Ritenour: guitars (10); Kirk Whalum: tenor sax (8); Chris Wells: background vocals (7); John Beasley: additional keyboards (10); Mitch Forman: organ (3); Tom Keane: synths (9)

Record Label: Heads Up International

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz

…and Fourplay as they were (James, Ritenour, East, Mason).

“Winelight” Was Grover’s Greatest Groove

When jazz musicians pass away there’s an unfortunate tendency to put them in one of two categories, the never to be forgotten giants and then there’s everyone else. For the few artists who enjoyed a degree of mainstream success, if not always critical acclaim, they are forgotten fastest. This is not right.

When Grover Washington, Jr. passed away in 1999 the jazz world lost one of its most successful and talented creators, and in his wake a slew of saxophonists have stepped up to fill the void. None have. Philadelphia jazz deejay Bob Perkins said, of Washington, a native of the City of Brotherly Love, “He was the originator of smooth jazz, and all the rest—Najee, Kenny G—followed him.”

It is absolutely true that Washington was, along with George Benson, one of the founding fathers of smooth jazz and after the monster hit that was the Grammy-winning Winelight it wasn’t long before the saxophone became, along with the electric guitar, the two most preeminent instruments in the genre. For better or worse (and there’s an argument to be made for either side), Washington blazed a trail many others have followed, with varying degrees of success.

Within the crowed group of smooth jazz saxophonists there are a few originals following their own muse and blazing their trails of their own. Regretfully, the majority of bland cookie cutter clones slavishly hacking out infinite versions of the R&B/jazz fusion of “Mister Magic” and “Just the Two of Us” without bringing anything fresh to the table. Smooth jazz is stuck in a rut of safe sax where nothing is risked and nobody wants to step out of their comfort zone. Real jazz is all about taking risks, not playing it safe.

Washington was not so much a daring innovator as much as he was a solid musician who had paid his dues as part of Creed Taylor’s CTI and Kudu record labels, where the music was glossy and the album jackets were distinctive. Washington was labelmates with Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws and Esther Phillips to name but a few of the artists on the CTI roster.

With his move to Elektra Records, in 1980 Washington uncorked Winelight. Predictably, it reached number one on Billboard’s Top Jazz, but then it crossed over to other charts. The album went to number five on Billboard’s Pop Albums, number two Top Soul Albums and “Just the Two of Us” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and stayed there for three weeks. The album would go on to win two Grammy awards.

The quiet greatness of Winelight has not faded 35 years after its release. It’s far and away the best album of Washington’s long career. The slip n’ slide funk of “Mister Magic” put Washington on the map, but Winelight was the evidence he could flat out play.

Washington would go on to record 11 more albums before his horn fell silent, but none approached the all-time high of Winelight. Not much of Washington’s extensive catalog garners much airplay beyond “Mister Magic,” “Let It Flow” and “Just the Two of Us,” and that’s a shame because he continued to make some interesting albums at Columbia which deserve to be heard. Perhaps this new reissued and limited edition multichannel 5.1 SACD release will rekindle a discovery of the extensive Washington discography.

The Surround Sound remix was produced by Ralph MacDonald, the renowned percussionist who also co-wrote “Just the Two of Us” and shared production duties on Winelight with Washington. MacDonald died in 2011. Other notable musicians include drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Eric Gale and a 21-year-old wizard on bass by name of Marcus Miller.

The only complaint with the remastered release is the absence of any bonus tracks or new liner notes. It is a missed opportunity not to offer some details and insights into the recording process or how Washington and McDonald convinced the reclusive Withers to provide the vocals for “Just the Two of Us.”

When most lists of the Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time are compiled, Winelight is nowhere to be seen. It likely wouldn’t make the top 100 for the truly hardcore fan who likes their music with a rougher edge than smooth jazz provides. No way does it knock a Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Time Out or Blue Trane off the list, but when the list includes the 25 most influential jazz albums, Winelight belongs in there as much as Head Hunters or Breezin’ for taking jazz into a brand new direction even if everybody wasn’t happy with where it went.

Track Listing: Winelight; Let It Flow (for “Dr. J”); In the Name of Love; Take Me There; Just the Two of Us; Make Me A Memory (Sad Samba).

Personnel: Grover Washington, Jr.: soprano, alto, tenor saxophone; Bill Withers: vocals (5); Ralph McDonald: congas, percussion; syndrums; Steve Gadd: drums; Marcus Miller: bass; Eric Gale: guitar; Paul Griffin: Fender Rhodes (2, 4), clavinet (1); Richard Tee: Fender Rhodes: (3, 5); Bill Eaton: synthesizer (5); Ed Walsh: Oberheim 8-voice synthesizer; Raymond Chew: clavinet (1); Robert Greenidge: steel drums (tuned by Rudolph Charles); Hilda Harris, Yvonne Lewis, Ullanda McCullough: background vocals.

Record Label: Audio Fidelity

Style: Contemporary/Smooth

This review originally published in a different form 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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Annie Lennox’s “Nostalgia” Proves It’s Never As Good As the First Time

You can’t fault Annie Lennox if she gives the impression Nostalgia is her first swipe at a “serious” jazz record.   It’s an album of jazz standards and its released by Blue Note records.   Back in the 90’s she entered the scene as the gender-bending vocalist of the Eurythmics turning out perfect synth pop. Lennox turned 60 this year and along with her closely cropped grey hair, she displays the full maturity of a veteran artist.

However, the results here are bit muddled with peaks and valleys along the musical journey through the well-worn territory of the Great American Songbook, fast becoming the favorite vacation spot for aging rock stars.

In no way, shape, or form is Lennox a jazz singer. That is not to say she can’t sing or has no soul. She can and she does, but in comparison with Nina Simone, Ray Charles or Billie Holiday, she is emphatically not a jazz singer.   In fairness it’s a heavy lift for anyone to be compared favorably to a trio like Simone, Charles and Holiday and while Lennox gamely tries, she all too often face plants when she tackles material she clearly has no feel for.

Things start promisingly enough as Lennox turns in a credible performance on “Memphis In June,” previously popularized by Simone. Seek out her version and contrast if with Lennox and the differences are dramatically stark. Whether the world really needed another take on “Georgia On My Mind” is subject to debate, but what isn’t is Sweet Baby Ray’s has nothing to fear from Lennox’s stab at it (neither does Willie Nelson).

Where the album stumbles badly are on the fourth and sixth tracks, “Summertime” and “Strange Fruit.” The former is stripped down to a stark piano-and-vocal dirge with Lennox carefully enunciating every word as she strives to be poignant, but merely comes off as stiff.

“Strange Fruit” is a hot mess. Lennox comes off as utterly clueless and as a dabbling dilettante. By most objective standards Lennox is a technically superior vocalist to Holiday with a pretty voice, but “Strange Fruit” is not a pretty song and it does not need pretty vocalizing to get its bleak point across. Holiday presented “Strange Fruit” as a damning indictment of Jim Crow lynch law, but Lady Day‘s scathing indictment of Southern racism is absent from Lennox’s sanitized and bloodless interpretation and the completeness of the failure nearly sinks Nostalgia.  A singer must choose material which suits them and an English White woman attempting to a song about the lynching of Black folks in the South is completely unsuitable for her.

Lennox takes another shot at a Holiday with “God Bless the Child” which isn’t terrible, but its nothing special either. Memo to Annie Lennox: You are a great singer, but you do not “get” Billie Holiday. After the double Lady Day debacle Nostalgia gets a lift from three short songs. “You Belong To Me” has been covered by artists as diverse as Patti Page, Bing Crosby, Homer and Jethro, Rosemary Clooney, Ringo Starr and Michael Buble and Lennox gets back on track with a tune which plays to her strengths of perfect phrasing accompanied by a stylish presentation. “September In the Rain,” “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “The Nearness of You” are all well within Lennox’s comfort zone.

The purest “jazz” moment should be the closer, “Mood Indigo” but it’s spoiled by a silly middle and end section where Lennox starts freestyling and the band starts goofing around, so its left to John Green and Edward Heyman’s “I Cover the Waterfront” to give Nostalgia, previously covered by Sarah Vaughn, John Lee Hooker and (surprise!) Billie Holiday, what little jazz credibility it has.

As more and more pop artists turn to the Great American Songbook, some have hit and others have whiffed. Nostalgia hit with landing at Number One on Billboard’s Jazz Albums and as of this writing holding steady at #3. Lennox told Billboard, “I was drawn towards exploring and recording in the classic jazz genres interpreting 12 songs from the legendary American songbook —the fact that many of the compositions were written almost eighty years ago stands as testimony to the caliber of their legacy.”

Lennox’s sentiment’s are doubtlessly sincere, but unfortunately Nostalgia falls short of delivering an auspicious homage to that legacy.  I’m wary when the Great American Songbook is raided by older pop artists looking for a quick and easy fix to the musical doldrums. Rod Stewart has cashed in on this for a while now.   I hate to think Lennox followed suit, but it sure sounds like it.

Great singer, but not a great jazz singer.

 

Track Listing: Memphis In June, Georgia On My Mind, I Put A Spell On You, Summertime, I Cover the Waterfront, Strange Fruit, God Bless the Child, You Belong To Me, September In the Rain, I Can Dream, Can’t I?, The Nearness of You, Mood Indigo

Personnel: Annie Lennox: vocals, piano, fender rhodes, flute, percussion; Mike Stevens: guitar, Hammond organ, accordion, harmonica, vibraphone, keyboards, programming; Neal Wilkerson: drums; Chris Hill: double bass, bass guitar; Nichol Thomson: trombone; Simon Finch: trumpet; Richard Brook: percussion; Stephen Hussey: violin, viola, orchestration; Ivan Hussey: cello

Record Label: Blue Note Records

Hiromi Comes “Alive”

Not the savior of jazz and doesn't want to be.

Not the savior of jazz and doesn’t want to be.

 

If jazz has become a niche market in the music industry (and it has), a contributing factor for its slide into cultural irrelevance is a failure to promote and support new artists. No matter what sub-genre of jazz you personally love, across the board there is no sustained effort to develop a roster of first-tier talent in jazz. Every so often along comes a Esperanza Spalding who joins the long list of earlier “saviors” of jazz such as Wynton Marsalis or Robert Glasper and is saddled with the unasked-for responsibility of reviving interest in the incredibly shrinking jazz field.

Writing in The Root, Frank McCoy painted a gloomy picture for the idiom, “It’s even harder in jazz today as CD/album sales have plummeted. In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased.”

For jazz not only to thrive, but survive, it must begin to create its own superstars who can deliver a much-needed shot of adrenalin to the flagging art form, but have skills in social media and marketing, creating a global brand, and finding new forms beyond record sales, radio play and live gigs in fewer clubs and concert halls to reach the new breed of jazz fans.

Hiromi Uehara is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the vanguard of bold creative minds revitalizing jazz. At 35, the pianist from Shizuoka, Japan, has over the span of nine albums as a bandleader and solo artist demonstrated how well she absorbed the tutoring of Ahmad Jamal and bassist Richard Evans when she matriculated at the Berklee College of Music. Hiromi has led two separate bands, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom and The Trio Project and stints with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, as well as a duet with Chick Corea have solidified her credentials as one of the best and brightest young musicians in contemporary jazz.

Hiromi_Alive_jaw

Matching her inclination for improvisation, drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Anthony Jackson hold down the rhythm responsibilities, freeing up Hiromi to do things with a piano most human beings can’t begin to imagine doing. Alive might be the finishing stroke in a trilogy of adventurous albums for the band. Nothing definite has been said by Hiromi that the group has run its course, but there is a sense of finality in the third Trio Project. Always a restless soul, it’s an open question how long Hiromi will continue this collaboration.

With Voice (Telarc, 2011) and its sequel, Move! (Telarc, 2012), Hiromi found in Phillips a drummer who could match her high velocity piano playing blow-for-blow. Jackson is the silent partner in the band who rarely takes solos and simply does his job with equal parts efficiency and creativity. He’s given opportunities to step out on Alive, but Jackson’s temperament leans to deferring to his colleagues when it’s time to let it all hang out. Overlength is at times an issue with four tracks going nine minutes in length, two clocking in at eight minutes. “Seeker” and “Firefly” both push past over seven minutes and at 6:49, the closing “Life Goes On” draws the shortest straw. Play strong, play long is the philosophy of The Trio Project, which is not a criticism, but to fully appreciate Alive , completed in only three days with Michael Bishop handling co-producing duties along with Hiromi.

Alive makes no bones about being a deep dive that necessitates several listens to fully grasp the complexity of Hiromi’s compositions., but it deserves it.  This is not simple music nor a record one pops into the CD player during a pizza run.

Sandwiched between the four albums with her Sonicbloom band and the trio of Trio Projects is Place To Be (Concord, 2010) Hiromi’s solo piano exercise where she proved even accompanied only by a piano she is a force to be reckoned with . When David Fiuczynski came aboard for 2007’s Time Control (Telarc) Hiromi could finally realize her jazz and rock synthesis with a guitarist as expressive (and equally prone to occasionally lapsing into excursions of stylistic excess) as herself. Phillips fills that role now far more harmonically than Fiuczynski whom occasionally had to struggle to be heard over Hiromi’s piano pyrotechnics.

Hiromi ‘s trust in her bandmates (and herself) free herself to simply play instead of continually dazzle with an onslaught of prodigious speed and technique. “Dreamer” is an example of that restraint with Phillips and Hiromi duking it out on their respective instruments until the 8:04 mark where they both pull back and gracefully close the frenzy with an understated climax. “Seeker” gives Jackson’s contrabass a soulful groove for his partners to work around and have some fun.

Ahmad Jamal nailed it when he observed, “Hiromi has discovered her own genre, and continues to pursue it with great sensitivity, energy, and dazzling virtuosity.” As time passes and her experience grows, Hiromi has not only become a better player, but a better listener. Compare the tasteful understatement of 2014 version of Hiromi onthe elegant “Firefly” with the frenetic, bug-on-a-hot-stove of 2004’s “Kung-Fu World Champion” and the difference is like that of night and day.

Dare we call Alive the dreaded “F” word? Fusion? Yes, and deservedly so even if this is not your daddy’s  jazz fusion. Even without the electric guitar of a John McLaughlin, or the arsenal of synthesizers employed by Herbie Hancock, The Trio Project is a legitimate inheritor of the legacy left by Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius when Weather Report called it a day.

That’s heavy company, but Hiromi’s Trio Project is one of the most consistently exciting and accomplished bands making music in any genre of music. Period. End of sentence. That it is also flying under the radar of most consumers is a sad commentary on jazz today, yet still provides hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Track Listing: Alive; Wanderer; Dreamer; Seeker; Player; Warrior; Firefly; Spirit; Life Goes On.

Personnel: Hiromi Uehara: keyboards; Anthony Jackson: contrabass guitar; Simon Phillips: drums.

Record Label: Telarc Records

Hiromi_3_photo_by_Muga_Miyahara

“No, I don’t know any Peter Frampton songs, silly. “