New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: vocal jazz

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.

The 8-Bit Big Band Can’t Stop Playing Mighty, Orchestral Versions of Video Game Themes

The 8-Bit Big Band are one of the most improbably successful brands in music. They own the franchise on lavishly orchestrated, jazz-oriented arrangements of video game themes. They have more of a following in the video game world than in jazz circles, maybe because much of what they play is closer to action film scores than, say, Miles Davis. But it sure is a lot of fun. Their frequently hilarious latest album Backwards Compatible is streaming at Bandcamp.

Between the horns, and reeds, and string orchestra, and singers, there are so many people among the group’s rotating cast of characters that they would take up more space than there is on this page. After a bit of a lush intro, they launch into the album with the main theme from Chrono Trigger, pianist Steven Feifke scrambling over a fusiony backdrop that descends to a dreamy string interlude. Take out those piano breaks and this could be an early 80s Earth Wind and Fire number.

The Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star is basically a beefed-up hot 20s tune, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon soloing lickety-split over a racewalking pulse as the strings swell behind him. They do Hydrocity Zone, a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 theme, as beefed-up funk with Grace Kelly adding a gritty alto solo.

Benny Benack III croons a silly lyric, Rat Pack style, then raises his trumpet in a blustery 50s-style orchestral pop reinvention of Want You Gone, from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Metaknights Revenge, a Kirby Super Star theme has a clever interweave of horns in place of motorik synth and a trio of wry synth solos from the mysterious “Buttonmasher.”

The first Mario theme here is the killer, irresistibly amusing, quote-laden tarantella Super Mario Land Underground, from Super Mario 64, with Balkan-tinged baritone sax from another mystery soloist,  “Leo P.”  It’s the best track on the album. Dire Dire Docks, also from that soundtrack, features bassist and bandleader Charlie Rosen burbling around way up the fretboard over a pillowy ballad backdrop.

It’s hard to resist singing “That’s the way of the world, yeow,” as Birdman, from Pilot Wings 64, gets underway. Zac Zinger emulates a woozy synth through his EWI while the music edges closer toward Alan Parsons Project territory. Choral group Accent’s contribution to the floating Lost in Thoughts All Alone, from Fire Emblem Fates, will have you reaching for fast forward to get away from the autotune, ruining an otherwise clever Rosen chart.

Bassist Adam Neely goes up the scale and noodles in Saria’s Song, a cheerily symphonic remake from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time score. Tiffany Mann sings on a sweeping 70s soul version of Snake Eater, found on the Metal Gear Solid 3 soundtrack.

The group close with a couple of additional Mario themes. Kelly returns, this time on the mic, for a ridiculously amusing, vaudevillian reinvention of Jump Up Super Star, from Super Mario Odyssey. The orchestra close appropriately enough with a brassy take of the Super Mario World End Theme, complete with shivery strings and a ragtime piano solo. This is a great party record and obviously a labor of love. The amount of work Rosen spent reworking all these tunes is staggering, and the huge crew here seem to be having just as much fun with it.

Purist, Upbeat, Dynamically Retro Swing Songs From Gemma Sherry

Singer Gemma Sherry escaped her native Australia before the lockdown. Considering how the lockdowners have turned the country into the Southern Hemisphere’s North Korea, she was lucky to get out when she did. On her sarcastically titled album Let’s Get Serious – streaming at Bandcamp – she shows off a purist retro 50s sensibility and an often devious sense of humor. Musicians love to play on records like this because it gives them a chance to cut loose and have fun, and Sherry is contagious when it comes to that.

Sometimes that humor is pretty broad, sometimes it’s more subtle. With her irrepressibly chirpy, cheery delivery, Sherry plays up the hokum and innuendo in the album’s opening number, Blossom’s Blues. So do pianist Rick Germanson and guitarist Paul Bollenback, the latter doing a little B.B. King flutter before nailing one of the punchlines.

Sherry approaches Give Me the Simple Life with a more pillowy delivery as the band strut behind her, propelled by bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer George Coleman Jr. The addition of Joseph Doubleday’s vibraphone in the spare, boleroesque take of Too Much in Love to Care gives it an unexpected, understatedly lurid Blue Velvet lounge feel.

Likewise, the delicate take of Try Your Wings, beginning as a wistful guitar-and-vocal duet, is a heartfelt change of pace. Sherry also does much of The Alley Cat Song as a jaunty duet with Wheeler, She plays up more wistful self-effacement than snideness in the Blossom Dearie classic The Gentleman Is a Dope (for a badass version that’s 180 degrees the opposite, check out Joanna Berkebile’s new recording).

There’s striking modal sternness in Why Don’t You Do Right, fueled by Germanson’s resonant, incisive chords and Bollenback’s biting solo: this Great Depression-era hit has special resonance in a year where forty percent of New Yorkers can no longer pay rent. Sherry drifts back into slinky latin noir in Whatever Lola Wants, Germanson relishing the role of creepy lounge lizard. It’s the best song on the album.

The group give a chipper early 50s feel to Straighten Up and Fly Right, complete with drum breaks and spare vibes. It’s hard to disassociate Sherry’s remake of Go Away Little Girl from a certain version that plagues mallstore radio mixes. She winds up the album with a tiptoeing, lighthearted take of The Doodlin Song, which will definitely drive the party poopers out of the room.

An Uneasy Treat From Noa Fort and Vinnie Sperrazza

The new short album Small Cities by multi-keyboardist Noa Fort and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – streaming at Bandcamp – is a real change of pace for both of them because it’s so minimalist. The centerpiece, Only Happy When I’m Haunted, is the real showstopper here. Bookended by a wry drum solo, and a final, playful vocal-and drum-tune, it features Fort on what sounds like an old Yamaha organ instead of her usual piano. And it’s creepy, with an almost-unhinged tension similar to Serena Jost’s improvisational work in a completely diffferent context.

All proceeds of purchases go to Planned Parenthood.

A Brilliant, Badass, Inventive Debut Album by Jazz Singer Joanna Berkebile

Every year, this blog receives scores of albums by jazz singers. Most of them are women, and most of those are in their fifties or older. These records, most of them available on cd, seem to be audio resumes, something a veteran of restaurant and bar gigs can use to get more of the same, or to sell there as souvenirs. Very few of them contain any originals. Fewer still hold up to repeated listening.

Once in awhile there’s a blast of fresh air from a younger singer like the Swingaroos’ Kimberly Hawkey, or polymath Champian Fulton, or the badass Brianna Thomas, who’s in a class by herself. So it’s refreshing to see Kansas City-based singer Joanna Berkebile come right out of the chute swinging with her debut album Love Me or Leave Me, streaming at Soundcloud. She’s firing on all cylinders. She has a badass sense of humor, she sings in character with a strong, mutable, vintage soul-infused soprano, she has great taste in songs and an equally inspired band behind her. Pianist Leslie Maclean gets credit for the inventive arrangements, with Tim Brewer on bass and Jerry Pollock on drums.

This is also a remarkably upbeat, energetic album. A couple of klezmer-inspired tunes are among the strongest. The first is the opening track, Blossom Dearie’s The Gentleman Is a Dope, done as straight-up swing with a devious bit of a tempo change and a purposeful bass solo, i.e. the good kind, plus a subtly glittering crescendo from Maclean before the last chorus. Berkebile starts out brassy but shifts toward poignancy as the song grows more complicated. This version should be required listening for any woman eating her heart out over some unattainable dude.

The other is Comes Love, which Berkebile and the band do as a spacious midtempo clave tune with a wry matter-of-factness that echoes the song’s roots. They reinvent Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby by ramping up the carnivalesque, Cab Calloway hi-de-ho factor, something she goes even deeper into in Temptation. The late Amy Winehouse couldn’t touch the noir smolder Berkebile channels here.

Likewise, Berkebile ramps up the revenge in Goody Goody, Maclean adding ragtime flair, bass and drums hinting at vindictive vaudeville. She pulls back, but just a little in the brisk, defiant title track, complete with soaring, triumphant scatting solo and some ridiculously funny moments from the rhythm section.

Although Berkebile’s take of Mean to Me has an undercurrent of exasperation, the band have just as much devious fun with it. Maclean’s glimmering, emphatic chords propel My Last Affair, Berkebile’s most dynamically bristling number here.

The album’s most expansive track is a stunningly moody, modally-tinged version of Peel Me a Grape, Berkebile relishing her insatiable narrator’s litany of demands. For those whose taste in vocal jazz runs to demure coquetry, this is not it. But for those who like their singers on the fearless and indominatible side, Berkebile is someone to keep your eye on.

Escape to Paris in the 1930s with Chloe Perrier

The point of chanteuse Chloe Perrier’s new album Petite Fleur, with her French Heart Jazz Band – streaming at Spotify – is that these are dark times, and she wants to give everyone a little escape to a better time and place. Les Deux Magots in the Quartier Latin, smoky and electric…but with sounds far more cross-pollinated than even the musical mecca that was prewar Paris could have conjured at the time.

Over the past couple of years, Perrier and the band have been playing a mix of classic chanson, Romany jazz and American standards, many of them reinvented with counterintuitive panache. Everything on the album has been thoroughly crowd-tested: until the lockdown, Perrier and the group maintained a tough schedule of club and hotel bar gigs. And even though this is an upbeat album, she’s never sung with more depth and gravitas than she does here.

The album’s opening track, Charles Trenet’s Menilmontant, is one that Perrier really excels with. This is a particularly bright, brisk version, with scurrying guitar from Akira Ishiguro and cheery clarinet by guest Jon Hunt over the scampering shuffle of bassist Jim Robertson and colorful drummer Rodrigo Recabarren. Perrier’s clear, unselfconscious, personable vocals are the icing on the cake.

She sings the old klezmer-jazz standard Comes Love in French, with a vivid wistfulness, over a syncopated, bouncy bolero beat, violinist Caroline Bugala adding cosmopolitan flair. The group revisit that milieu later on, in their version of Sway.

Perrier returns to the Trenet songbook for a relatively slow, swinging, Django-and-Stephane-tinged take of Que reste-t-il de nos amours and then follows that by reinventing Helen Merrill’s Just Squeeze Me as the coy Lorsque tu m’embrasses.

Then Perrier pays a jaunty visit to “le pays aux oiseaux” – you could do the same if the 44th Street club immortalized in the song hadn’t been shut down by Il Duce in Albany. She goes deep into the expat subtext of the old Josephine Baker hit J’ai deux amours over a steady shuffle, then she sings Coquette in English as the band leap and bound elegantly behind her.

Guilty, a knowingly enigmatic take on the big hit by British crooner Al Bowlly, was included on the soundtrack to the film Amélie. The inevitable version of La vie en rose here gets redone with a Djangoesque pulse, triumphant energy from Perrier and Bugala.

Ray Ventura’s Je voudrais en savoir d’avantage gets a verdant workout with sailing violin and guitar solos. Perrier and band close the record with an absolutely gorgeous, haunting bolero take of the Sidney Bechet-penned title track. Perrier’s going to cheer up a lot of people in her “deux amours,” on both sides of the pond, with this one.

Brianna Thomas Takes Her Soulful Sound to the Next Level

Buoyed by an endorsement from Will Friedwald, the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing, Brianna Thomas’ career was in full swing while she was still in college. But she’s always been more than a purist, elegant jazz singer. Anybody who’s ever heard her sing blues or gospel knows how badass, and funny, she can be. Her new album Everybody Knows – streaming at Spotify – is a real change of pace for her, in terms of the jazz, which is heavy on the ballads in addition to other styles beyond the idiom. It’s been a dark year; this is a pretty dark record, and Thomas’ voice will haunt you long after it’s over.

Conun Pappas pulls the sustain bar all the way out on the Rhodes, hovering above guitarist Marvin Sewell’s gritty, circling funk riffage in the album’s opening number, Since I Fell For You. Thomas’ impassioned, insistent vocals match the bite of his bluesmetal solo midway through.

“How deep can a hole in your soul go, how far back can you look to find a clue?” she ponders in How Much Forgiveness, a slowly crescendoing pop ballad, bassist Ryan Berg tiptoeing over Pappas’ shimmery piano chords. Those two players edge their way into the noir-tinged It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie with a similar terseness, Thomas working a mysterious, aching ambience up to a tantalizingly allusive scatting solo; Sewell’s austere, darkly bluesy lines fill out the picture.

She keeps the nocturnal vibe going with a slow, latin soul-tinged, rising and falling take of My Foolish Heart. Once again, Pappas’ starry chords provide a vivid backdrop, building to Thomas’ throaty crescendo.

Fueled by the shifting rhythms of drummer Kyle Poole and percussionist Fernando Saci along with Thomas’ gritty insistence, the band reinvent the old 60s Gerry & the Pacemakers hit Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying as a bustling, defiant anthem. By contrast, I Belong to You is a lusciously Lynchian latin noir mood piece that Sewell hits out of the park with his grim chromatics.

It Had to Be You gets remade as 70s boudoir soul, fueled by Pappas’ twinkly Rhodes and Sewell’s purist Memphis riffs and fills. The hokum blues My Stove’s in Good Condition is irresistibly fun: Sewell goes deep into his hometown Chicago blues riffbag , and the bandleader turns it into what could be the album’s title track. Or maybe one of a pair.

Sewell gets ghostly with his slide in the dirgey take of Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, a lauching pad for Thomas’ mix of nuance and full-throttle intensity. It’s a shock that more singers haven’t covered the Nina Simone classic Mississippi Goddamn, a protest song which is sadly just as relevant in 2020 as it was during the Civil Rights era. This group’s shapeshifting, crushingly cynical remake, part wah funk, part chilling oldschool soul, will rip your face off.

They close the record on an upbeat note with an impassioned, blues-infused, Allen Toussaint-esque version of The More I See You. History may judge this a career-defining album by one of this era’s most dynamic voices in jazz, and a lot of other styles too.