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New Listen: Chris Potter’s ‘The Sirens’


It’s only April, but I suspect that The Sirens will be one of my favorite albums of 2013.

As mentioned here, I’ve been excited for its release for a while. The Sirens includes many wonderful ingredients: Chris Potter‘s first album as a leader on ECM (with Manfred producing, of course), supported by a heavy backing band – Craig TabornDavid VirellesLarry Grenadier, and Eric Harland – of a younger generation more akin to Chris Potter than ECM’s old guard. This lineup collectively spans a wide range of ECM’s output, from Charles Lloyd to Dave Holland to Tomasz Stanko to Evan Parker.

Chris Potter – soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet
Craig Taborn – piano
David Virelles – prepared piano, celeste, harmonium
Larry Grenadier – bass
Eric Harland – drums

As one might guess from the album title, The Sirens is evocative of Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey. In this New York Times interview, Potter clarifies that he wanted to capture moods and impressions rather than compose a programmatic suite à la Berlioz or Wagner. So, although the song titles make specific references, I don’t suggest scouring your copy of The Odyssey line by line with a red pen for each note’s meaning.

One of my favorite aspects of the album is how effectively the musicians paint the various moods and sonic landscapes. Integral to their success is the orchestration. Upon first glance, one could easily dismiss the inclusion of prepared piano, celeste, and harmonium as gimmicky. Virelles, however, couldn’t be more tasteful. He serves a primarily textural function throughout, appearing only when appropriate and rarely in the foreground. One piece in particular in which the orchestration stands out is the title track. Almost nine minutes long, “The Sirens” is without rhythmic pulse. Both beautiful and mournful – much as the Siren’s call and her victim’s fate – it begins with bass clarinet, piano, harmonium, cymbals, and bowed bass (played arco throughout this number). Tension builds in the middle as the bass solos over the ensemble (sans Potter), building in tension until the tenor sax emerges for the final, “Psalm”-esque calls, with Harland now incorporating his full kit. “The Sirens,” together with the following number “Penelope,” a beautiful ballad featuring Potter on soprano, are the centerpiece of the album (and my personal favorites).

All’s not slow and mellow, however. After a soulful full-group introduction, Grenadier then sets the groove for the band to plow ahead on the album’s moderate opener “Wine Dark Sea.” The rhythm section’s interplay, coupled with Potter’s funky, frenetic bursts help the album to set sail.”Wayfinder” continues to march along, featuring an engaging keyboard duet (with rhythm section) between Taborn on piano and Virelles on prepared piano and celeste. The first time I listened to this album, I knew I bought something special when I was halfway through this track. “Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers)” is the first ballad, preparing the listener for “The Sirens” and “Penelope.” “Kalypso” is the most straight ahead tune on the album. (Though with this band, and Taborn especially, things are never that straight ahead, even in calypso-esque territory.) Back on tenor, Potter’s trademark calisthenics really shine here, as his unparalleled altissimo skills come out to play. Again, as with the rest of this release, taste governs. He’s not showing off; he’s being musical. “Nausikaa” is a lovely gem. A mostly sparse rhythm section supports soprano, piano, and celeste in evoking a starry night sky. The orchestration is dreamy. “The Stranger At The Gate” is the band’s farewell as the musicians plod along on their journey. While a standalone piece, the tempo and rhythms are reminiscent of “Wine Dark Sea,” perhaps signaling the traveler moving on to the next stage of his journey. Finally, “The Shades” – a contemplative improvisation by Taborn and Virelles only – serves as a calm yet haunting coda.

I can’t recommend this album enough. Nor can I listen to it enough! If you’re looking for some new and different jazz, then you simply must purchase this.

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New Listen: Elton John & Leon Russell’s ‘The Union’

Artist: Elton John & Leon Russell
Album: The Union (2010)

For a little change of pace, this album is not only a new listen for me, but for everyone.  Being the Elton John fan I am, I had to go out and snatch it up on its release date last Tuesday.  (Note: I’m familiar with some of Russell’s work specifically, but mostly I’m coming at this from an Elton-centric perspective.)  I must say I was a little leery at first – this album received much hype over the last few months. That, coupled with Elton’s overall new material throughout the last decade or so, made me wonder if it could actually meet its expectations.  Luckily for this listener, it exceeds them.

First, it’s worth noting that I often take issue with fans or critics that constantly live in the past.  Overall this album has received quite positive reviews, but occasionally you’ll come across someone complaining it’s not the same as such early EJ efforts Tumbleweed Connection (1970, perhaps my personal favorite), Elton John (1970), or Honky Chateau (1972), or Russell’s early work.  Of course it’ll be different – forty years have passed for the performers!  Artists constantly evolve.  If you don’t like a new direction, that’s understandable, but I’m always amazed when people are disappointed by those who don’t constantly repeat the past.  (Yet, I’m sure those same folks would complain about just artists who only did one “thing.”)  Anyway, this album may not make you think it’s the late 1960s or early 1970s, but it does display a strong influence of their early styles, and it does so quite well.  That being said, for Elton fans reading this post, consider this album to be a nice combining of the styles of Tumbleweed Connection and The Captain and The Kid (2006).  [This topic of living in the past will likely come up again and again; it’s a source of great frustration.]

The major players here are Elton John and Leon Russell, obviously, and also Bernie Taupin – John’s career-spanning lyricist – and producer T Bone Burnett.  Without getting too much into the album’s lore, Russell was a great influence on Elton’s early career, both stylistically and in featuring him as an opening acts in the early ’70s.  Since then, Elton had wanted to collaborate and pay tribute to his idol.  The end result is a nice rock-country-gospel hybrid with a modern twist.  The ensemble here is substantial: standard rock rhythm section, two pianos (John, Russell), full horn section, various keyboards and guitars, and gospel choir.  Also, special appearances are made by Neil Young, Robert Randolph, Booker T.,and Brian Wilson.  Overall there’s a pretty big sound present, however the mix oddly buries the pianos at times.  (Unusual, considering they involved a very in-demand producer – you’d think someone would have caught that.)  For variety, the instrumentation changes somewhat throughout, and also John and Russell distribute vocal duties nicely.  While trading verses and sharing choruses on many of the album’s songs, they also each have “solo” numbers, with the other joining in on backing vocals for the chorus.  (Even though Elton sings at a lower octave nowadays, he’s the stronger voice here, and often takes over when it gets high or powerful.)

Though there is an overall aesthetic, the songs themselves vary stylistically.  They range from those on the far end of the country/gospel spectrum – “A Dream Come True” and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream” – to groove-based rock/gospel – “Hey Ahab” and “I Should Have Sent Roses” – to funky country-rock a la Tumbleweed Connection – “My Kind of Hell” and “Monkey Suit” – to more pop-based fare – “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody),” “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes,” and the über-ballad “When Love Is Dying.”  As for the special guests mentioned above, perhaps the best part is that there’s no real song and dance about it when one does appear.  It’s mentioned in the liner notes, but not next to song titles (e.g., “with special guest”).  As you listen to the album, occasionally you’ll hear a new/different voice or instrument (Young or Randolph, for example) and likely recognize it, but it won’t at all be jarring or take you out of the listening experience.  Each one fits; they’re only used when necessary, which is the best way to use musical guests.  As an Elton fan, perhaps the biggest issue with the album is that a few of the songs sound like chordal reworkings of a few numbers from The Captain and The Kid.  However, all I can say to that is that the songs on The Union are much better – consider them improved second drafts.

For the old-school “purists”/enthusiasts, perhaps this album is disappointing because there is a touch of modern Elton. However this is mostly laced with the styles that made him initially famous and solidified his status as a rock legend.  The best part of this album is that is sounds FUN.  Yes, I imagine there were many separate takes and overdubs (there’s often more science than magic in recording studios), but the end result sounds like one big ensemble having a genuinely fun time in the studio.  It’s an infectious feeling that’ll pull you in if you just let it.

(NOTE: I purchased the CD/DVD version, which does include bonus tracks.  FYI in case you come across an album missing a song title or two.)

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New Listen: Dave Liebman’s ‘Joy’

Artist: Dave Liebman, w. James Madison University Jazz Ensemble
Album: Joy: The Music of John Coltrane (1993)

I found this rare gem at Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart a couple months back. Being a big Dave Liebman fan, I was taken aback because I hadn’t before heard of this album. (That’s not surprising, though, considering the depth and breadth of his output.) This immediately stood out to me for two reason:

1. The album is the delayed companion to his earlier Homage to John Coltrane (1987), perhaps my favorite studio album of his. Most of the arrangements here are modeled after his combo arrangements from its predecessor.
2. The personnel includes Butch Taylor and John D’Earth, two Virginia-area heavy-hitters who at different points in time have been integral in the evolution of the Dave Matthews Band as sidemen. I was excited to hear both of them, especially Butch, play in a pure jazz environment. At the time this was recorded, DMB was still relatively unknown outside of Virginia.

Without doing a “double entry,” it’s worth noting that this album is most fully appreciated if you’re familiar with Homage to John Coltrane. Liebman, a strong champion of Coltrane, especially his later work (1964-7), often features creative, original arrangements of Coltrane pieces, especially of the lesser-known works. (In both albums’ cases, the combined “Joy/Selflessness” is a prime example.) In the spirit of homages and champions, it’s also worth noting that the band here is led by Gunnar Mossblad, a strong proponent of Dave Liebman’s musical contributions. Now that you have an idea of this album’s somewhat convoluted “bloodline,” I can discuss some of the music.

The album opens with ominous percussion and rain-like effects, going a few extra steps to set the mood for the first piece (“After The Rain”). However the first number doesn’t feature big band, but rather flute choir (JMU Flute Choir, including bass clarinet) featuring Liebman’s soaring soprano (which he plays exclusively throughout). It may look odd on paper but it works nicely. (It’s also fitting if you’re aware of Liebman’s penchant for flute.) The big band kicks it into high gear on the next selection, almost as if they’d been waiting in the wings for the flute choir to finish. They plow through an engaging arrangement of “Untitled Original” (an unnamed Coltrane tune caught on several recordings before he died). It’s worth noting that while this is mostly a student ensemble, the rhythm section is “stacked” here with local pros (including Butch Taylor on piano), with John D’Earth filling in the trumpet section. Gunnar also is featured on tenor saxophone as occasional dual-soloist with Liebman on the dark, unsettling “Alabama.” They two wind men also display their skills on wooden flutes in “India.”

For those familiar, this album is classic Liebman – complex, intense, eclectic, equal parts soothing and inaccessible, and original. For those looking for a more traditional “college big band” sound, the only thing that comes close is the arrangement of “Naima.” Otherwise the arrangements aren’t your typical big band pieces. My personal favorite is the closer, “Joy/Selflessness” (a combining of two Coltrane numbers), the arrangement of which – done by Liebman and Jim McNeeley – is modeled closely after Liebman’s on Homage. They take an already altered chromatic progression for “Joy” and add even more color, with the winds providing a nice counterpoint to Lieb’s soprano. Including the “help” in the rhythm section really helps to keep this album from seeming like just another jazz artist sitting in with college students. (The students do a fine job of handling these difficult ararngements.) Instead the ensemble works as a whole, and it’s a nice end product.

For those DMB completists (like myself – this album was a dream find, combining my two Daves, Liebman and Matthews), Taylor and D’Earth do get their time to shine. Keep in mind, however, this is Dave Liebman’s album. Butch gets decent solo space on “Untitled Original” and “Naima.” It’s great to hear him play changes, divorced from a more rock-based setting. As for D’Earth, he helps take “India” into another realm, hanging with Lieb every step of the way.

I highly recommend this for any fans of Liebman, late Coltrane, or progressive jazz in general. (And any DMB completist looking to widen his/her palette, of course!) It’s quite difficult to find physical CD copies, but it’s easily accessible via purchased download online.

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New Listen: Duke Ellington & Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Blue Rose’

Artist: Rosemary Clooney w. Duke Ellington
Album: Blue Rose (1956)

I love standards.  It can’t be denied.  Yes, the Great American Songbook can often be a contentious issue, especially for younger, more “progressive” musicians (of which I classify myself).  Like many other young jazz students, I once found myself heavily frustrated with the aforementioned “Songbook.”  However, I eventually took to heart some great advice offered by both Dave Liebman (a personal idol) and Christian McBride at separate masterclasses: standards are better internalized and understood – and, often, conveyed – when the performer knows the words.  Starting a number of years ago, I decided to seek out vocal renditions of my favorite standards.  Even if the renditions weren’t ideal, I’d have a good lyrical reference.  Blue Rose is the latest stop on this journey.

Like a number of other albums in my collection, I purchased this purely on a whim.  It happened to be in the bargain bin at the local Borders, and oddly enough I had recently been thinking that I wanted another album of old-school, vocally-interpreted standards.   (Also, for reasons I don’t know, I’d also been hunting for a something 40+ years old featuring a female vocalist.  Again, I’m not sure why…)  It turned out to be a worthwhile purchase, and quite a steal (worth more than the discounted price I paid)!

The story behind this album’s production is pretty involved and a bit of a nightmare. Basically, Ellington and his orchestra had to record their parts separate from Clooney, who was unable to travel to the session due to illness.  As a result, Strayhorn had to play more of the man behind the curtain than usual.  Yet, this segmented approach is undetectable for the listener – it sounds as if Rosemary and the boys were all in the same room.  A few disclaimers:

1. For those wanted Ellington barn-burners, this likely isn’t for you.  (If you want something similar to that, I recommend the historic Sinatra at the Sands or the lesser-known Basie Swing Bennet Sings.)
2. Similarly, this disc rarely shines the spotlight on the wealth of strong soloists in Ellington’s orchestra.
3. Clooney, of course, didn’t build her lengthy career on jazz interpretations.  There’s definitely a “pop” element to her approach, however I find it a nice change of pace when mixed with Ellington’s deft orchestral abilities.

Consider this album a nice “other” to John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman.  Tight arrangements, scat- and acrobatic-free singing (which I like), and more lighthearted than Trane’s release.  It’s also a bit more vanilla.  Like Miles’s work with Gil Evans on Columbia, this record was probably quite popular in 1950s white suburbia.  However, it’s not simply glossy pop.  The band does have one instrumental, with Johnny Hodges taking a crooning lead on “Passion Flower,” letting his alto wail above the band. Jimmy Hamilton takes a lively clarinet solo on the up-tempo “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goombye,” and of course the ever-popular “It Don’t Mean A Thing…” lets loose with Jimmy Hamilton (this time on tenor), Clark Terry, and Harry Carney.  Another notable song is the title track, a nearly impressionistic ballad featuring a wordless Clooney melody (written for the occasion).  I suppose one could consider it scatting, but the use of vocables here isn’t to fill out space or improvise a solo, but rather to let the melodic line speak for itself.

Overall I’m quite satisfied with this find.  Not only did I not have this in mind when walking into the store, but I didn’t even know this album existed – a pleasant surprise!  Not only would fans of the Ellington songbook enjoy this album, but also most any fan of the Great American Songbook.

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New Listen: Manu Katché’s ‘Third Round’

MK 'Third Round'

Artist: Manu Katché
Album: Third Round (2010)

This disc, for me, is relatively new – about a month old.  However with this being the first post, I figure I’m allowed to fudge it a bit, especially considering how I haven’t been able to put this album down (even through more recent purchases/listens).  I blindly purchased this album on a whim, having never heard of Manu Katché.  What did catch my eye was the record label, ECM. ECM is arguably my favorite record label. Though it features a variety of artists from a wide array of both classical and jazz genres, there’s a consistency in attitude and ambience that has yet to let me down.  I’m sure I’ll discuss this company more in the future.  For now, Katché…

In brief, Katché has one foot planted firmly in jazz and another in pop, something I definitely relate to.  While I didn’t know that going in, I did notice on the CD’s  sleeve (ECM often features the cardboard sleeve) that the personnel include electric bassist Pino Palladino.  The usage of a regular rock/pop figure was intriguing for me. The full personnel lineup is as follows:
Tore Brunborg: saxophones
Manu Katché: drums
Kami Lyle: vocal (1 track), trumpet (2 tracks)
Pino Palladino: bass
Jason Rebello: piano
Jacob Young: guitars (3 tracks)

Following suit, this album walks a fine line between jazz and “pop” (in the broad definition of the term).  Most tunes are under five minutes and feature a great mix of catchy melodies, organically-abbreviated solos, and solid grooves.  As with most ECM releases, the mood is overall subdued, introspective, and relaxing.  However, a number of very infectious grooves also inspire dancing. 🙂  There’s no ego to be found on this record.  What you hear is the ensemble, with no one stepping on another’s toes.  In fact, you’d never know it was led by the drummer just from listening – not one drum solo is present.  Furthermore, a couple tracks feature no solos (or, rather, no full solos) – they serve more as transition pieces.  There’s a lot of nice work between Brunborg and Rebello, as a number of the melodies feature unison lines between sax and keys.  And Brunborg seamlessly transitions between tenor, alto, and soprano, offering nice changes in color throughout.  As indicated above, there are vocals on one piece, a song written by Katché and Lyle.  It’s a precious little pop ballad, and Lyle’s high, playful voice fits in just nicely.  Perhaps my favorite aspect of this album is the continuity.  While I do like each piece individually, the album as a whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.  I largely only listen to this album in its entirety, at times consecutively.  It is seamless.

I’ve often considered this album a hybrid of the aesthetics of ECM and Marcus Miller.  While this album is nowhere near as in-your-face or “smooth” as Miller’s work, it does offer a rather “pop” take on the ECM vibe.  In doing so, this album could also serve as a great introduction to jazz – or simply instrumental – music for those who don’t know where to start.  (As for the latter, there is one tune with words to help cleanse the palette!)  For jazz fans, this offers something “pop-ish” without the brashness or cheese.  For fans of music in general, this is a great find, and I look forward to digging deeper into Manu Katché’s catalogue.

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