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Tag: vocal jazz

A Vivid, Original, Brightly Tuneful Debut Album From Jazz Singer Alyssa Giammaria

Alyssa Giammaria has a soaring, warmly mapled, crystalline voice and writes ambitious but similarly translucent jazz songs. Her debut album Moments is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s always a treat to discover vocal jazz as imaginative and individualistic as this: we hear all kinds of cliches about “fresh new voices,” but Giammaria is the real deal.

The album’s first track is Beginning and End, a wistful contemplation of impermanence, whether in relationships or otherwise, “tracing darkness,” as Giammaria puts it. Leighton McKinley Harrell’s starkly bowed bass behind the vocals expands to a lustrous brass arrangement over a steady sway. Pianist Jen Lo plays an elegantly ornamented solo with unexpected peaks as drummer Jacob Slous edges toward a shuffle.

The horns – trumpeters Evan Dalling and Christian Antonacci and trombonist Nick Adema – build bright harmonies to introduce the album’s title track, Giammaria revisiting a hopeful/downcast dichotomy. Adams’ bubbling solo over Lo’s three-on-four and Harrell’s dancing bass raise the optimism even as Giammaria confides that “I won’t stay the same.”

“How many times do I have to start over?” she muses over Lo’s spare resonance in Understand, a pensive but brightly lyrical duo ballad. “I learn to leave all the things that don’t find me.”

Harrell scrambles uphill by himself to kick off For Myself, a darkly clustering, soul-infused modal ballad. This time it’s a trumpet solo that pushes the clouds aside, setting up the bandleader’s guardedly cheery scatting. The contrast between the band’s polyrhythmic intensity, and Giammaria’s self-admonition to think for herself in the most pivotal moments, is visceral.

“There is an answer to the emptiness of now,” she asserts in the album’s final number, What About. Yet, there’s an inescapable vulnerability and woundedness in her airy vocalese over the group’s lively, altered shuffle. What a breath of fresh air this is: let’s hope there’s more where this comes from.

Lurid, Lowlit, Slyly Reinvented Lounge Sounds From the Tiki Collective

Why did David Lynch take the title of his iconic second film from a lounge song? Because lounge jazz is creepy, and seedy, and phantasmagorical. Not everything on the Tiki Collective’s 2018 debut album Muse – streaming at Spotify – is creepy. In fact, some of the Toronto crew’s reinventions of pop hits are funny as hell, in a sarcastic Richard Cheese vein. But there’s sinister stuff here that’s perfect for any Halloween party playlist you have planned for this year.

The group chose a different vocalist for each song. There are subtle, ominous touches – a reverb guitar riff from Eric St-Lauren, a ripple of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone – in I’ve Never Left Your Arms, sung by Genevieve Marentette. With its moody klezmer overtones, It’s a good choice to open the record.

Did you know that Harlem Nocturne and Mood Indigo had words? Joanna Majoko and Tyra Juta do, and they sing them. Neither version is up to Ellington level…or the Ventures for that matter. The first of the really funny numbers is the Fleetwood Mac hit Hypnotized, reinvented as a deadpan, brooding soul song with Heather Luckhart and the Willows out front.

The Willows return with Melissa Lauren for a Sade-ized version of Don’t Fear the Reaper, which is also funny, though not quite as ridiculously surreal as Bobtown’s bluegrass cover. Speaking of Sade, guest singer Paget reaches for dreamy ambience in a slow, trip-hop influenced take of The Sweetest Taboo: the original vocalist would do just as well with these guys behind her.

The reliably excellent Lily Frost’s airy delivery matches the band’s spare Asian inflections in Mountain High, Valley Low. Irene Torres sings a muted, remarkable southwestern gothic remake of the old cheeseball mambo Quizas Quizas Quizas. Likewise, Chelsea Bridge gets the album’s most menacingly lingering intro before singer Mingjia Chen’s vocalese takes over.

There are two originals on the album. Avery Raquel sings the fluttering, bossa-tinged Dreaming, while Denielle Bassels closes the record with The Wanderer, a Ricky Nelson-style pop song. Also included are pretty straight-up covers of All Too Soon and I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Jocelyn Barth and Jessica LaLonde, respectively.

A Purist, Nuanced New Jazz Album From Chanteuse Sasha Dobson

These days Sasha Dobson may be best known for her work as a multi-instrumentalist in the supertrio Puss N Boots with Norah Jones and Catherine Popper. Dobson’s own work is more jazz-focused, with a nuanced Brazilian streak. Interestingly, on her new album Girl Talk – streaming at Spotify – Dobson appears strictly on the mic, even though she’s just as much at home behind the drum kit as she is on bass, guitar or keys. Fans of iconic Golden Age singers – Billie, Sarah, Dinah and the rest – will appreciate Dobson’s uncluttered, thoughtful, original style.

This time out, she’s pulled together an allstar cast with Peter Bernstein on guitar, Dred Scott on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. She opens with Better Days, casually slinging torrents of lyrics over an increasingly syncopated bossa pulse fleshed out by Bernstein’s erudite chords.

She spices Sweet and Lovely with some coy scatting, shadowed by Bernstein as the bass and drums edge into straight-ahead swing and then the guitarist’s signature litany of chordal variations. The album’s title track, a sly, low-key duet with Jones, celebrates female bonding – in an era where the Biden regime wants to get rid of moms and substitute “birth parents” instead, we need that bonding more than ever.

A hazy bolero lowlit by her brother Smith Dobson’s spare vibes, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps has a misterioso understatement in contrast to Wollesen’s colorful cymbal work. The bandleader brings judiciously modulated acerbity to her lyrics in You’re the Death of Me over the band’s low-key stroll, then follows with a distantly Blossom Dearie-tinged delivery in The Great City. In her hands, Dobson it’s more about perseverance than urban angst.

Her take of Softly As in a Morning Sunrise reinvents the song as spare, sun-dappled, straight-up swing, with some unexpectedly biting blues phrasing. The chime of the vibes and the brushy guitar chords in Time on My Hands are a characteristically understated touch beneath Dobson’s low-key optimism.

She joins with Miner in a spare bass-and-vocal duet to open Autumn Nocturne, then the band swing it gently, Bernstein choosing his spots to raise the energy. Dobson winds up the album by transforming a big Nancy Sinatra hit into a swing blues with jaunty harmonies from special guests Steven Bernstein on trumpet and Ian Hendrickson Smith on tenor sax.

Bright, Colorful East African-Inspired Jazz Themes on Saxophonist Berta Moreno’s New Album

The main inspiration for Berta Moreno‘s latest album Tumaini – streaming at Bandcamp – is the trip the alto saxophonist made to Kenya, where she fell in love with the region’s many indigenous sounds. The album title is Swahili for “hope,” which resounds throughout this upbeat, optimistic mix of original jazz songs equally infused with soukous, soul and latin influences. We could all use something upbeat and optimistic these days, right?

Singer Alana Sinkëy’s warmly inviting soprano fuels the optimistically clustering, latin-tinged opening number, Karibu, Moreno’s carefree solo soaring over the scrambling groove of bassist Maksim Perepelica, drummer Raphaël Pannier and percussionist Franco Pinna. Pianist Manuel Valera’s brightly rhythmic attack brings the sunshine in, full force. They take the song out with a cheery soca-inflected romp.

Sinkëy multitracks herself into a one-woman choir, singing in her native vernacular in the second track, Afrika. After those balmy, atmospherics, the band pounce into a brisk, bounding groove that could be soukous, or Veracruz folk.

“Stolen sunlight, golden dust around your feet,” Sinkëy muses as The Beauty of the Slum gets underway, an understated trip-hop beat and Valera’s blend of piano and organ anchoring a catchy neosoul tune reflecting how there’s so much more to Africa than destitution and bloodshed.

Sinkëy’s lively vocalese interchanges with Moreno’s terse, blues-tinged lines throughout the next cut, simply titled Dance, Valera’s chords punching through a thicket of beats. Mandhari, a diptych, begins as a slowly undulating but stately soul-jazz ballad, a tribute to a “sacred place,” as Sinkëy puts it. The conclusion is a trickily rhythmic dance, Moreno’s wryly stairstepping solo handing off to Valera’s precisely circling phrases.

Valera loops a brooding minor phrase, mingling with Pinna’s shakers as the album’s title track gets underway, vocal and sax harmonies and then a tersely acerbic Moreno solo following a subtly brightening trajectory. Meanwhile, Valera channels his native Cuba, spirals and dips, and chases the clouds away.

Christine, a funky soul stroll, is a portrait of an inspiring, indomitable little girl, with a bitingly modal Moreno solo midway through. She winds up the record with Kutembea, a catchy, understatedly enigmatic, circling anthem, the most distinctly Kenyan-flavored track here. Beyond Moreno’s eclectic tunesmithing, this album is a welcome introduction to Sinkëy, a versatile and potently expressive singer that the world needs to hear more from.

A Smart, Provocative, Funny, Swinging Album From Singer Lauren Lee

Lauren Lee distinguishes herself with a clear uncluttered soprano as well as her cynical, spot-on sense of humor, unusually strong lyrical sensibility and acerbic chops at the piano. Among pianists who also can handle the mic, only Champian Fulton is in her league. Lee’s songs are sharp, relevant and tackle both the philosophical and political, far beyond the standard jazz singer terrain of affairs of the heart and their aftermath. Her album The Consciousness Test with her Space Jazz Trio featuring bassist Charley Sabatino and drummer Andy O’Neil is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s as provocative as it is entertaining.

The album’s first track is Power Lines, Lee’s catchy, terse vocalese solos over a tumbling backdrop as the song coalesces:

Coming down
The leaves are falling to the ground below…
Mass devastation in the distance
How can we take shelter when so much must be done…
Enjoy the stillness while it lasts.

She takes it out over catchy, circling syncopation. Hurricane Sandy reflection or premonition?

The title track starts out as a briskly swinging number in 12/4: “Nightmares don’t just happen while you’re sleeping,” Lee warns. Everything goes quiet, then her piano slowly brings it back:

Feeling discomfort is part of the norm,
Insanity scenes take over your dreams…
You don’t own me you cowardly fearmongering bully

Although it could be a lockdown-era parable, this anti-narcissist broadside actually dates back to 2018 or maybe even before. Some insights are timeless.

Lee and trio follow with Demons, a fast, pulsing, catchy jazz waltz: “It’s all in your head,” is the gist. Voyager begins as an broodingly enigmatic piano-and-vocal number: a bass pulse comes in with scrapes and shimmers from the cymbals, lots of rhythmic shifts, and a long, bitingly gorgeous, glimmering piano solo over searching bass at the center.

The rhythms get much more playful in Oh No Oh No Oh No, from leaping quasi-rubato to steady swing. “Could this be the thing that I fear the most…calm me down, hey let’s build a blanket fort from the world,” Lee cajoles. She sticks with straight-up swing for The Life Cycle, contemplating both the biological and metaphorical need to “disturb the parasitic order of the undead but barely living.”

The Procrastination Song is about unraveling, Lee’s piano leading the disintegration to an unexpected calm. She closes the album with Moral, shifting from a moodily unsettled intro to a precise clave groove. Here the humor is very subtle, a tongue-in-cheek look at the certainty that fuels various kinds of human behavior.

Low-Key, Subtle, Inventive Jazz and Parlor Pop From Singer/Pianist Aimee Nolte

Aimee Nolte is best known for her extremely popular youtube jazz piano instructional videos. To her further credit, one of her most interesting videos is on how to play rock piano, a rare art to be sure. After all, you don’t want to clutter a rock song with fussy harmonies: Nolte shows you how.

As an artist herself, Nolte has a clear, direct, uncluttered voice and a fondness for inventive, counterintuitive arrangements. Her album Looking for the Answers is streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of low-key originals and jazz standards. Nolte is all about subtlety: there’s nothing here that’s going to blow you away, but there are all sorts of clever touches. As a vocalist, she really excels at ballads; as a pianist, she plays with classically-influenced lyricism and remarkable terseness: this music is on the quiet side, but there’s nothing loungey about it. 

The balmy woodwind arrangement that opens the album’s first song, The Loveliest Girl, matches Nolte’s calm, warmly unadorned delivery. As the aphoristic narrative about a sunbeam finding its raison d’etre gathers steam, Mike Scott’s gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar enters the picture, followed by bassist Bruce Lett and drummer James Yoshizawa.

There’s a hint of the South in Nolte’s voice and a little Brazil in the album’s title track, a syncopated swing shuffle, Scott’s guitar intermingled within the bandleader’s bright, steady piano. Scott’s long solo really nails that same matter-of-fact, lyrically ratcheting drive.

A samba titled Falling Snow might sound bizarre, but it works as a muted backdrop for Nolte’s tender vocals and some nimbly interwoven guitar/piano exchanges. She sings with a bittersweet resonance throughout This One Hurts, a pensive but catchy solo lament.

Then she picks up the pace with the salsa party anthem I Gotta Get, Lett’s bass prowling around deviously. The plush woodwinds return in Save Me One Last Time, the album’s best and most haunting track, a wounded breakup tale told from the point of view of the instigator.

Nolte recalls Ella Fitzgerald in her stripped-down bass-and-vocal take of Bye Bye Blackbird with a lot of carefree scatting. Her piano follows a mutedly exploratory tangent in a trio version of All Too Soon over Scott’s steady chords.

So In Love is an understatedly joyous return to samba jazz, followed by You Should’ve, a 70s-style Nashville country-pop ballad recast as grey-sky art-song. Nolte closes the record with For a While, a brief, lyrical solo piano ballad.

The Susan Krebs Chamber Band Play Imaginative, Deviously Funny Jazz and Other Styles

It was impossible to resist cueing up the final track on the Susan Krebs Chamber Band’s album Spring: Light Out of Darkness before listening to the others. It’s hilarious, a quiet, completely deadpan, roughly seven-minute chamber arrangement of the most famous themes from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s no whirling, aching release from cabin fever and no virgins being sacrificed here: pianist Rich Eames plays the percussion parts. This seems closer in spirit to Bridget Kibbey romping through the Bach Toccata in D on the concert harp than, say, Richard Cheese doing lounge versions of Nirvana songs.

The rest of the record – which came out in 2018 and is still streaming at Bandcamp – is just as imaginative and entertaining. The group ease their way playfully and atmospherically into a lithe jazz version of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning that wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez playbook, spiced with Luis Mascaro’s violin and Rob Lockart’s bass clarinet  over Eames’ piano and Scott Breadman’s drums.

Likewise, the band coyly edge their way toward oldtimey-flavored swing in their take of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass, Krebs’ half-spoken, half-sung delivery underscoring its message of how loose lips sink ships. She looks back to the cabaret origins of Some Other Time in a slow, lingering version with piano, bluesy violin and sailing clarinet.

Spring is another ridiculously funny interlude, the famous Vivaldi theme from the Four Seasons reinvented as a jaunty soul-gospel tune. You Must Believe in Spring has a steady implied clave bounce and cheerily lyrical piano, then Krebs shifts to a wee-hours saloon blues ambience for the album’s title track. It’s been a rough year: this album will lift your spirits.

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

Lauren White Reinvents Mose Allison and More on Her New Album

It takes a lot of nerve to name your album after an iconic Mose Allison song. It takes even more to make Ever Since the World Ended the centerpiece. Maybe it’s easier for a woman – and it underscores singer Lauren White’s good taste. She reinvents it with a tongue-in-cheek, funky sway, and some unexpected grit on the record – streaming at Spotify – with her quartet of pianist Quinn Johnson, bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker.

The point of Allison’s characteristically aphoristic, wickedly cynical lyric is that considering how messed up everything has become, maybe the apocalypse isn’t such a bad thing after all. Guest Dolores Scozzesi takes the second verse and adds some sass about how there’s no more Bible Belt. Beyond the Clash, not many people have covered Mose Allison. But this isn’t just a breath of fresh air, it’s uncannily apropos to the horrors the world has suffered since the lockdown began.

To what degree does the rest of the album reflect alienation and despair? It doesn’t. White follows Johnson’s tricky changes with a jaunty ebullience in their version of If You Never Fall in Love with Me; the spiraling piano solo matches that optimism. She reinvents Just the Two of Us – the Grover Washington Jr. lite FM hit – as a subtly tropical-tinged, organic bounce and cuts it off right about where that long (some would say interminable) sax solo would start.

Likewise, White’s version of Alone Together has a spring-loaded bounce once the rhythm really kicks in, Johnson coyly accenting the lyrics. Her crisp, uncluttered delivery matches the spare bossa pulse of Remembering the Rain.

White opts for cheer over bluesiness in Some of That Sunshine, Henry contributing a slinky solo and a good joke at the end. The joke in Take Love Easy is the rhythmic complexity, but White doesn’t let it phase her. The album’s final ballad is Shattered (not the Stones classic) Johnson’s glittering accents and cascades and Brinker’s cymbal mist behind the bandleader’s wounded but resolute presence.

Not only is this an imaginative album, it’s a brave one. White splits her time between California and New York, neither of which is a free state. Still, she and the band nonetheless managed to find a studio where they could work and record this despite totalitarian lockdown restrictions.

Thoughtful, Sparkling Poetically-Inspired Chamber Jazz From Amanda Tosoff

Pianist Amanda Tosoff plays an eclectic, poetically-inspired blend of jazz and chamber pop, Her new album Earth Voices is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s collected a similarly diverse crew of voices to sing her songs, everybody seemingly chosen specifically for each one. 

Emilie-Claire Barlow sings energetically in A Dream Within a Dream over a a vampy latin-tinged groove that’s about as far from the classically-tinged phantasmagoria of the Alan Parsons Project’s earlier take on Edgar Allan Poe as you can possibly imagine. Kelly Jefferson’s spiraling soprano sax ironically adds a welcome, disquieted edge over the brightness.

Robin Dann moves to the mic for a low-key take of the Pablo Neruda text of Tosoff’s Sonnet 49, her elegant. tersely rippling piano bolstered by Aline Homzy’s violin and Beth Silver’s cello.

Here and Heaven, originaly recorded by Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Americana project, opens with a stark violin solo over Morgan Childs’ shamanic drums and Jon Maharaj’s terse bass. Michelle Willis and Alex Samaras’ vocal duet recalls the original pairing of Aoife O’Dononvan and Chris Thile; guitarist Alex Goodman adds a spikily joyous postbop intensity.

Samaras takes over vocals for Birdwings, Tosoff’s pensively rippling, lyrical setting of a Rumi poem. Laila Biali joins him to sing Oh, Life, a remake of a Mike Ross number from a theatrical production of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, where a girl emerges from her coffin to serenade the crowd. Tosoff’s baroque-tinged piano circles as the string quartet behind her slowly follows a long upward trajectory to another soulful Goodman solo.

Joni Mitchell’s antiwar anthem The Fiddle and the Drum, sung with stern intensity by Lydia Persaud, gets a sobering, emphatic reinterpretation but also an expansive, optimistic Tosoff solo. Felicity Williams sings To a Stranger, Tosoff’s setting of a Walt Whitman text over a vividly poignant string quartet arrangement. They bring the album full circle with Barlow resolutely singing another Tosoff original, Finis, built around a Marjorie Pickthall poem on a carpe diem theme.