New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: billie holiday

Maverick, Poignant Cross-Generational Reinventions of Swing Jazz Classics

What a refreshing change to hear an album of Billie Holiday classics sung by a frontwoman with her own distinctive style, who isn’t trying to rip off Lady Day! Samoa Wilson was a pioneer of the New York oldtime Americana scene back in the zeros, but she also has a thing for jazz. Jim Kweskin is the best-known of the 60s jugband blues revivalists, but he’s just as much of a jazz guy. The two have a long history of collaborations and a new album, I Just Want To Be Horizontal streaming at Spotify. It’s a joyously dynamic mix of both well-known and obscure swing tunes reinvented from a string band perspective, more or less.

The lineup Kweskin pulled together is fearsome. After all these years, his guitar fingerpicking is still nimble, and Wilson, with a larger voice and wider-angle vibrato than Holiday, varies her delivery stunningly from song to song. Western swing maven Dennis Lichtman plays clarinet, violin and mandolin, alongside pianist/accordionist Sonny Barbato, lead guitarist Titus Vollmer, alto sax player Paloma Ohm and trumpeter Mike Davis, with Matthew Berlin on bass and Jeff Brown on drums.

The group take the majority of the tunes on this lavish seventeen-track record from Holiday’s early days with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra – in many cases, Wilson has restored the complete original lyrics. They open with the very familiar: in After You’ve Gone, Kweskin signals the point where he takes over the mic and they take it doublespeed, Lichtman puts down his clarinet for his violin and Barbato throws in a tantalizingly brief accordion solo. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: short solos, emphasis on going to the source of what these songs are all about

The album’s title track is a slow, hazy take of an obscure Bunty Pendleton tune with an aptly pillowy vocal from Wilson, downplaying hokum blues connotations for dreamy ambience. She pulls out the big vibrato for an achingly hopeful take of the midtempo number Trust In Me, then sticks with the gravitas while the band pick up the pace for the western swing-tinged  I Cried For You.

Rosetta Howard’s druggy anthem The Candy Man has a luscious interweave of strings and reeds, with a balmy sax solo at the center. The group remake Inch Worm, a children’s song from the Danny Kaye film Hans Christian Andersen, as trippy, velvety, vamping pastoral swing.

Wilson’s cynical delivery contrasts with the jaunty shuffle of That’s Life I Guess. The album’s most epic number is Until the Real Thing Comes Along, with expressive, wee-hours solos from sax, piano and Lichtman’s clarinet.

The bluegrass-flavored take of Me, Myself & I is less schizophrenic than just plain fun, echoed by the group’s update on Bessie Smith’s innuendo-fueled hokum blues classic Kitchen Man and At Ebb Tide, an old Hawaiian swing tune.

A low-key, pretty straight-up swing version of Our Love Is Here to Stay is a showcase for Wilson’s low register. She gets a little brittle and misty in Lover Come Back to Me, then lends her sultriest delivery on the record to a ahuffle version of Easy to Love.

Kweskin turns an Irving Berlin chestnut inside out with He Ain’t Got Rhythm. The last of the Lady Day numbers, I Wished on the Moon gets simmering intensity from Wilson and shimmery dixieland flavor from the band. They close the record with a plaintive interpretation of a rare Tony Bennett b-side, Someone Turned the Moon Upside Down.

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

Celebrating the World’s Most Famous Suicide Song

What’s more appropriate for Halloween than the world’s most famous suicide song? The truth about Gloomy Sunday is a lot less lurid than the legend. The song’s composer, Rezso Seress, actually did commit suicide more than three decades after he wrote it in the early 1930s. It’s a sad tune, although the same could be said about thousands of other melodies from across the centuries, none of whose writers ended up killing themselves. Nor did Laszlo Javor, author of the lyrics to the first recorded version, by Pal Kalmor, in 1935. That reality didn’t stop the BBC and other radio networks from succumbing to an urban myth and banning the song until just a few years ago.

You can hear Kalmor’s wonderful dead-calm performance – complete with funeral bells and heart-wrenching strings –  on the new compilation album Hungarian Noir, streaming at Spotify. The playlist also includes the more famous and considerably subtler 1941 recording by Billie Holiday with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra along with recordings from the past few years, some of which are more Halloweenish than others.

A handful are ludicrous to the point of being funny. A breezy African pop version? How about a Brazilian rap version? There’s also a talented Cuban chanteuse whose phonetic command of English falls short of what a singer needs in order to channel much of any emotion, happy or sad, in addition to an instrumental arrangement by Cuban salsa orchestra Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, whose icy precision speaks to the group’s professionalism more than their commitment to encouraging mass suicide.

But some of the new reinterpretations of the song are very creative. Matuto contribute a moodily psychedelic, cumbia-tinged version, guitarist Clay Ross’ Lynchian, chromatic reverb guitar mingling with Rob Curto’s accordion. Accordionist Chango Spasiuk approaches the song as a vividly spare, Romany jazz-tinged instrumental. Polish art-rock songbird Kayah’s spacious trip-hop take looks back to the original with stark vocals over lushly crescendoing orchestration. And unsurprisingly, the best of the reinventions here is by Cimbalomduo, a collaboration between two of the world’s most exhilarating virtuosos of the Hungarian zither: Kálmán Balogh and Miklós Lukács. Obviously, their take isn’t about pyrotechnics but slow, brooding ripples and lingering despair.

The best new version of the song didn’t make the cut – or the album’s compilers didn’t have it on their radar. Nashville gothic songwriter Mark Sinnis recorded it on his 2010 album The Night’s Last Tomorrow, and gave New York audiences plenty of chills with it before he headed for the hills and, ultimately, to North Carolina. Speaking of which, Sinnis returns to New York State for a cd release show for his latest album, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves on October 30 at 6 PM at Sue’s Sunset House,  137 N Water St in Peekskill. There’s no cover; the baritone crooner and his band will be playing two long sets. The venue is just steps from the Peekskill Metro-North station, and trains will be running for a couple of hours after festivities end at 11 PM.

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein Bring Down the Lights

Tift Merritt, southern intellectual, put out what was arguably the most delicious guitar album of 2012 with a searing rock band including both Marc Ribot and Eric Heywood. Having convinced the eminent noir guitarist to play country and the country pedal steel virtuoso to play noir, Merritt has taken an abrupt detour into moody art-rock with her new album Night with pianist Simone Dinnerstein. As the title implies, it’s a nocturnal song cycle. As a singer, Merritt has never stopped growing: here she reminds that she’s just as competent at jazz as Patsy Cline probably would have been had she lived. As a songwriter, Merritt doesn’t appear to have any ceiling, leaping effortlessly from oldschool C&W to hypnotic chamber pop. Although she made her first big splash playing Bach – her recording of the Goldberg Variations topped the classical charts a few years back – Dinnerstein’s close attention to emotional detail makes her a perfect bandmate for Merritt in more Romantic moments such as these. The whole album is streaming at NPR (don’t forget to mute the sound for about the first thirty seconds of ads). They’re playing Merkin Concert Hall tonight, March 21 at 7:30 PM; as of this writing, tickets are still available.

Only in Songs sets the tone, a understatedly aching, terse, almost skeletal waltz, voicing a longing for a place “where people believe things can really change” and all the implications of that line. Merritt gives it the same kind of understated, crepuscular tension that Sam Llanas often evokes in more subdued moments. From there Dinnerstein takes over and they segue into an English translation of Schubert’s Night & Dreams, marvelously lowlit by Merritt’s harmonica in the background. Don’t Explain reaches beyond Billie Holiday wee-hours mist to a vivid ache as Dinnerstein alternates between spacious block chords and rapidfire, precise ripples – third-stream vocal jazz has seldom been so affecting.

The two reinvent Dido’s Lament, a Henry Purcell theme, with a plaintively neoromantic gleam. I Shall Weep at Night, a co-write with jazz piano icon Brad Mehldau, is a showcase for Dinnerstein’s ability to channel any emotion she wants, moving from creepily hypnotic to a big reflecting-pool crescendo and then back.

Merritt blends both starkness and bluesy sophistication into a solo guitar version of Wayfaring Stranger. Dinnerstein anchors her arrangement of a Bach E Minor Prelude (Bach wrote more than one: this one’s numbered BWV 855a) with an understatedly jazzy touch in the lefthand. The acoustic version of Merritt’s Still Not Home here strips it to a lingering, bluegrass-tinged, restless unease. The duo follow a hypnotically dreamy take of the old folk song I WiIl Give My Love an Apple with Merritt’s Colors, which with its guarded optimism and nuanced vocals against minimalistically resonant piano has the feel of an early Dolly Parton classic.

Cohen Variations, a series of solo piano variations on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by Daniel Felsenfeld, builds to an austere, wary, indie classical edge. It’ll resonate with anyone who’s ever sat down at the piano to play  Hallelujah and thought, “hmm, let’s make this really dark.”

The two elevate the title track, a Patti Griffin tune, to an elegant majesty. With Merritt’s nuanced, smoky vocals, Feel of the World is an uneasy, gospel-tinged reflection on triumph and joy that without a firm grip would be lost forever. The only time the record falls flat is at the end, with a brave but misguided attempt to redeem a cloying easy-listening radio ditty. Otherwise, chamber pop doesn’t get any better than this.