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Tag: vocal jazz

A Rare, Distinctive Male Jazz Vocal Record From Michael Stephenson

Michael Stephenson is a rarity: an individualist male jazz singer. In a world that’s probably about 95 percent women at this point, he distinguishes himself with his no-nonsense baritone and devious sense of humor. You would think that more dudes with his talents would have gone into the field, but at the moment Stephenson pretty much has the floor to himself. And he’s a competent tenor saxophonist as well. His latest album Michael Stephenson Meets the Alexander Claffy Trio is streaming at Bandcamp.

This is jazz as entertainment. He and the group – Claffy on bass, Julius Rodriguez on piano and Itay Morchi on drums, with special guest Benny Benack III on trumpet – are often a party in a box. They open the record with a mostly bass-and-vocal duo version of Sweet Lorraine: Stephenson shows off that he can cut loose on the mic in a split second, and that’s about it. Then things get really amusing with a slyly swinging take of Ray Charles’ Greenbacks, which as Stephenson sings it, are coated in chlorophyll…or maybe something else. No spoilers. Stephenson and Benack’s solos give it a muscular midsection.

Rodriguez and Morchi spiral around, building symphonic intensity to introduce a tightly pulsing version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Happening Brother?, giving voice to indomitability in the face of unrest. How times change, huh?

The group reinvent When a Man Loves a Woman as a straightforward midtempo swing tune: Rodriguez adds judicious gospel touches, with an exuberant solo from Benack. Stephenson and Claffy build intensity with a rubato-ish intro to On the Street Where You Live. then they swing it with a low-key simmer, Rodriguez’s hard-hitting solo giving way to Claffy’s balletesque break.

Stephenson resists reaching for the rafters in a slowly crescendoing take of the Tennessee Waltz, Rodriguez reinventing it with a neoromantic gleam. Stephenson’s smoky, purposeful tenor solo gives Benack a springboard to go for broke with his mute in Ain’t That Love, then he moves to the mic for an emphatic last chorus.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams is probably the last number you would expect a guy to sing: the band give it a lush nocturnal atmosphere, but this is a tough sell, and it’s out of place on what’s otherwise a good party record. On the other hand, the group’s cascading cover of Dionne Warwick’s Can’t Hide Love is a smashing success, Rodriguez fueling the inferno.

The group have fun with Ben Webster’s Did You Call Her Today?, keeping it stealthy until Benack’s trumpet pierces the surface like a missile from a submarine. Stephenson saves his most emotive vocal for his closing duo take of For All We Know with Rodriguez. It’s anybody’s guess where Stephenson is playing next – he’s quite the mystery man on the web – but Benack is leading a quintet at Smalls at 10:30 PM and then hosting the midnight jam session afterward on April 27. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

Melissa Errico Channels Her Inner Femme Fatale in Her New Film Noir Album

While singer Melissa Errico has always taken a lot of inspiration from film noir, she plunged deeply into the genre after the March, 2020 global coup d’etat. After a year and a half of watching movies, she was able to score enough studio time to record a vast seventeen-track collection of songs associated with noir cinema, Out Of The Dark: The Film Noir Project, streaming at Spotify. The music here is not particularly lurid: Errico comes from a theatrical background and is keenly aware that singing is acting, so a lot of these songs exist in the margins. Which, considering the genre, makes perfect sense. Even in the big aching crescendos, Errico doesn’t reach for anything more showy than a brittle vibrato.

Tedd Firth supplies flourishes at the piano, guitarist Bob Mann adds spare blues riffage and bassist Lorin Cohen keeps a sotto-voce presence behind Errico’s determined, inscrutable anti-heroine in the opening track, Angel Eyes.

Errico reaches for more towering angst over Firth’s glittery piano, David Mann adding misty sax in their take of With Every Breath I Take, drummer Eric Halvorson a ghostly presence with his brushes.

The band give Errico a slow, pillowy swing for her understated, Dinah Washington-inflected version of Written in the Stars , spiced with a wee-hours sax solo and Scott Wendholt’s spare trumpet.

Errico speaks for the tender but untrue over Firth’s lingering chords in their duo take of The Bad and the Beautiful. Haunted Heart (seriously, is there any other kind?) has the full rhythm section and a more tender, troubled vocal. She finally drops her guard in the descending cadences of Michel Legrand’s lusciously chromatic Amour, Amour, Joe Locke’s vibraphone harmonizing eerily with the piano.

Cellist Richard Locker is a whispery one-man string section in Silent Partner, Errico a forlorn accomplice in her own heartbreak. The album wouldn’t be complete without Farewell, My Lovely, or Laura: Errico gives the former a deadpan allure backed by Locke’s flickering vibes, while the latter gets a velvety bossa arrangement.

She sings Blame It On My Youth with a knowing gravitas, turning it into a wounded reminiscence. Checkin’ My Heart has a brassy cynicism and tinges of klezmer; a little later on, Errico has fun with a time-honored baseball metaphor or two in The Man That Got Away, one of the more expansive tracks here,

The album’s longest number, Detour Ahead has both distant foreboding and an epiphany, as well as some aptly nocturnal trumpet. The shortest one is a spare, tropical guitar-and-vocal version of Shadows and Light. True to the noir tradition, this album isn’t completely unproblematic: the material thins out toward the end, and Errico should have left the French-language material on the cutting room floor. A translator would have come in handy.

A Magical Mystery Album From Jazz Legend Sheila Jordan

Crate diggers know that “previously unreleased” is usually code for “caveat emptor.” Most recordings from the radio-and-records era that ended up on the shelf instead of in the stores have been gathering dust for a good reason. Happily, Sheila Jordan‘s Comes Love: Lost Session 1960- streaming at Spotify – is not one of them.

On face value, the performances are solid, notwithstanding the demo-like brevity of a handful of tracks. The iconic singer sounds younger than she was at the time – she was already 31 when she put these songs in the can. The intrigue here is who was in the band: Jordan can’t recall! The pianist knows his or her blues, has a Romantic side and seems well-versed in working with singers. Bass tends to be low in the mix, and the drums are often barely present, which might account for why this never saw the light of day until now. Be that what it may, the digitization is excellent, leaving no doubt that the source is analog.

Although a lot of the songs here are standards, there’s some lesser-known material here as well. Jordan leads her mystery quartet in a stately, expressive, understatedly bittersweet take of James Shelton’s I’m the Girl, supremely confident in being a guy’s plan B. A tantalizing single verse and chorus of It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing is 180 degrees from that, a lickety-split vehicle for the hard-bop gymnastics and daunting range she’d show off on her 1963 bass-and-vocal debut, Portrait of Sheila with Steve Swallow.

She takes her time, empathetically, with a glittery Ballad of the Sad Young Men – there’s more Dinah Washington than Sarah Vaughan in her delivery. The same applies to her versions of Don’t Explain and Glad to Be Happy a little later on.

Jordan hangs coyly behind the beat in a brief, ripe. no-nonsense bluesy take of the klezmer-jazz standard Comes Love and reprises that approach in They Can’t Take That Away From Me, which if you listen closely could be a soundcheck. There’s more than a hint of the sassiness that she’d bring front and center throughout her career in a low-key, swinging Sleeping Bee and also a circumspect, saturnine piano-and-vocal interpretation of When the World Was Young.

Her approach to a tantalizing verse of I’ll Take Romance is more brassy, and less distinguished, even as the band scramble and hint at latin noir. The most fully realized of all the full-band songs here is These Foolish Things, Jordan rising to subtle angst as the group hint at a bouncy triumph before returning to wistful wee-hours gleam.

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.