New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Michael O’Brien bass

Charming, Cheery Swing Tunes For a New Era of Speakeasies

When Fleur Seule put out their album Standards and Sweet Things – streaming at Spotify – in 2019, little did they know how radical their music would be less than two years later. Obviously, in 2019, nobody regarded this group’s perennially cheery, dancefloor-friendly swing tunes as dangerous. Sure, back in the 1940s, the sound they emulate was considered scandalous in redneck parts of the world, but that was then and this is now. Right?

Wrong. Who knew that dictator Andrew Cuomo would illegalize dancing to jazz in clubs…never mind criminalizing music venues themselves? Until the underground speakeasy circuit which has come to replace the scores of shuttered venues around town becomes more integrated into this city’s nightlife, we have Fleur Seule’s sassy, urbane record to remind us of the fun we had…and the fun we will have. But we’re going to have to work for it. Recent court rulings have overturned Cuomo’s ridiculous lockdown edicts against gyms and houses of worship, but we have to do our part and keep fighting to get back to normal. Let’s not forget that if the lockdowners get their way, indoor concerts in this city will always have to be clandestine.

The album opens with a low-key, scampering take of Taking a Chance on Love, frontwoman Allyson Briggs’ understated optimism over Jason Yeager’a tightly clustering piano, Michael O’Brien’s woody bass and Paul Francis’ shuffling drums, Andy Warren’s muted trumpet raising the temperature here and there. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: most of this is party music, and this is a long album, sixteen tracks.

One of Fleur Seule’s distinguishing features is that they have more of a latin flair than most of the energetic, female-fronted swing acts to come out of this town since the big swing revival a quarter century ago. Their version of Piel Canela has a lowlit simmer, coy overdubbed vocalese and Spanish guitar from Richard Miller. Trumpet and guitar elevate Sabor a Mi above a muted wistfulness, while Briggs plays up the innuendo in Manuelo (even as she mispronounces this hombre’s name). She turns her brittle vibrato up all the way for an aptly summery version of Con Los Ayos Que Me Quedan. And the take of Sweet Happy Life, with its precise, carnavalesque piano, is one of the album’s most individualistic tracks.

Briggs toys with the melody of Almost Like Being In Love, Anita O’Day style. The band plunder the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songbook for brisk romps through Them There Eyes and S’Wonderful. Shoo Fly Pie has a wry muted trumpet solo and all the guys joining in on the chorus; the group opt for doing Zou Bisou Bisou as a light-fingered bossa

There are some ballads here too. The most lushly nocturnal track here is Embraceable You. Tenderly is a showcase for glittering piano over a slow triplet shuffle, a lyrical bowed bass solo at the center. Briggs saves one of her most vivid vocals for Misty, then a little later she gets especially tender in an expansive take of La Vie En Rose.

Vienna Carroll’s New Album Reveals the Defiant, Transgressive Roots of Gospel and Blues Classics

Vienna Carroll could be called a New York counterpart to Rhiannon Giddens. Both artists share a deep, historically-informed, often witheringly insightful knowledge of the roots of African-American music, and can be riveting performers. Carroll’s new album, Harlem Field Recordings – streaming at youtube – includes both politically-charged reinventions of classic blues and gospel themes as well as more traditional numbers and originals which sound like 19th century standards. It’s classic music as you’ve probably never heard it before. Carroll also has a show tomorrow night, March 6 at 5:30 PM at a familiar haunt, the American Folk Art Museum; admission is free.

She opens the record’s first track, Strawberries and Glory with the shout of an oldtime urban fruit vendor. This is a one-chord gospel jam sung rousingly over a backdrop of Michael O’Brien’s fat bass chords, Keith Johnston’s stingingly resonant dobro and Newman Taylor Baker’s subtly swinging washboard percussion. Midway through the song, Carroll switches to a hilarious subway vendor scenario, bringing this story into the present day: over the years, good entrepreneurs may change their pitches, but ultimately, business savvy hasn’t changed much. Happily, Carroll’s story doesn’t include what could have happened to this enterprising businesswoman, when she moved to another car on the train…and got busted by an undercover cop, simply for trying to make an honest living.

The group follow with a bouncy, country blues-tinged version of the old spiritual You Better Mind. Carroll’s slowly simmering 6/8 take of Come Into My Kitchen draws a straight line back to the Howlin’ Wolf classic Sitting on Top of the World, with a sparkly guitar solo at the center. She half-sings, half-speaks her way through the grim narrative of No Mo Freedom, the vengeful promise of a wrongfully convicted prisoner at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. She uses the same technique a little later on in her spare bass-and-vocal arrangement of Grinnin’ in Your Face.

Prison Blues, with the full band adding a funky sway behind her, is just as harrowing – and just as vindictive, in keeping with a familiar theme in Carroll’s work, four hundred years of defiance and subversion against racism and repression. Her interpretation of Let’s Go Down to the River is several levels more fervent than the wispy version you may have heard on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

With the band blending in a thicket of psychedelically-influenced guitar (and a wry Coltrane quote), Carroll’s approach to I Just Wanna Make Love to You reinforces its origins as a transgressive slave anthem. Likewise, Carroll’s stark remake of All the Pretty Little Horses, spiced with Melanie Dyer’s viola reveals a level of crushing sarcasm in what’s usually interpreted as an innocuous lullaby. The black nursemaid sees a bright future for the slaveowner’s kid in her arms; meanwhile, her own baby is crying from hunger in the slave quarters.

Carroll’s rousing Make the Devil Leave Me Alone leaves no doubt that this is no mere hymn; it’s an escaped slave’s anthem. She winds up the album triumphantly with Singing Wid a Sword in My Hand, a thinly veiled tale that takes that escape to its logical conclusion. It’s a party for our right to fight, something we really need to take seriously at a point where the DNC is shooting itself in the foot, handing over the 2020 election to the Trumpies just as they did in 2016.

Daniel Smith Takes the Bassoon Where It Wasn’t Designed to Go

Have you ever considered how weird it is that the bassoon is used so seldomly in both rock and jazz? The baritone sax has a similar timbre, and it’s pretty standard in funk and soul music and was in rock too, at least in the early years. Roy Wood famously used a bassoon in the Move and then ELO, and you’ll occasionally find a chamber pop band that employs a wind section in place of strings. But this magnificently cool instrument, with its unmistakably woody resonance, is just as rare if not more so in the jazz world. Daniel Smith is sort of the Charlie Parker of the bassoon, so how would it sound if he played blues on the thing? Pretty much like how he does his jazz gig. His latest album Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues is a follow-up of sorts to his 2010 album Blue Bassoon, a mix of bluesy tunes from the jazz catalog. In the case of this new one – streaming at Spotify – the songs date mostly from the 50s and 60s.

While Smith is the bandleader, he doesn’t hog the spotlight – although it’s easy to wish for more of him on this album. Technically speaking, he’s known for expanding his instrument’s range, sometimes with a tenor sax-like squawk, sometimes with a biting, ambered tone that the makers of the Arp synthesizer might have been trying to imitate back in the early 70s.

The album opens with Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, the bassoon more clustering and jazz-oriented than you would expect from a straight-up blues session, paired off against Efrat Shapira’s lively violin; a little later, Ron Jackson’s guitar goes in the same direction over the straight-up rhythm section of bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Vincent Ector. The best songs here are the ones that Smith totally reinvents. Alongside Shapira’s acidic, acerbic violin, Smith’s take of Charles Mingus’ Better Get Hit in Your Soul gives it a rustic 20s hot jazz feel, right from where the whole band careens into it together. Once again in tandem with the violin, the bassoon adds a rustically haunting quality to Horace Silver’s latin noir piece Senor Blues. And they reimagine Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues as a Jimmy Smith-style organ shuffle fueled by Greg Lewis’ fireworks on the keys and pedals.

The soul songs are also excellent. On Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, Smith’s sputtery lines perfectly capture its gruff appeal even before Frank Senior’s vocals enter the picture, with a scampering piano solo, and a latin tinge to the rhythm courtesy of percussionist Neil Clarke. Another Charles hit, Halleljah I Love Her So is surprisingly laid-back, with a tasty, shivery bowed bass solo. They also do an emphatic version of Moanin’, the Etta James hit. And the Nat Adderley groove Hummin’ has Smith mimicking the tremoloing sound of an electric guitar at the bottom of its range – then he goes in a more funky direction.

The rest of the album includes a purist take of Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack, a showcase for Lewis’ lickety-split lines; a swinging version of Sonny Rollins’ Blue Seven; a violin-fueled run through the latin blues of Joe Henderson’s Mamacita; and the most straight-up blues number here, Phil Woods’ Eddie’s Blues, which ironically was never sung by the guy it was written for – jazz vocal great Eddie Jefferson – because it doesn’t have lyrics. Throughout the album, Smith pushes the envelope in terms of both how much register and how much of a variety of tones the bassoon can produce. May he be a big influence on the next generation of players.