Tag Archives: new listen

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.

Amazon link
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New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘Antiphony’

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: Antiphony (2010)

This album is “newish” for me as I got it a few month ago, however I wanted to shift away from jazz for this post, and I was recently able to give this album the careful listen it deserves.  In case you’re unfamiliar, PRISM is arguably the premiere classical saxophone quartet in North America.  The ensemble  has not only championed new music for saxophone quartet (largely outside of France), but it has done much to promote the saxophone within the classical community.  Antiphony (2010), the latest release, features PRISM in collaboration with Music From China, a quartet focusing on both traditional and contemporary Chinese music.  This (at times) double quartet features mostly new music blending Eastern and Western styles.

From the liner notes:
“Representing profound contrasts of timbre and culture, this ‘odd couple’ of traditional Chinese instruments and saxophones bridges remarkable distances of space and time.  The instruments of Music From China…have been played for a millennium or more.  The saxophone, in contrast, bears a French patent dating from the Industrial Revolution.” -Alyssa Timlin, p. 5

(While I don’t/won’t make a habit of quoting liner notes, it’s appropriate in this instance.)

Overall, the two ensembles gel nicely within each composition.  There are only a few instances, for me, in which I’m caught off guard a bit.  All but two of the compositions feature a mixed ensemble. (Lang’s Yuan features saxophone quartet only, and Dun’s Shuang Que for Erhu and Yangqin features only members of Music From China.)  The multi-movement works which bookend the album – Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet and Chinatown, respectively – are the most accessible, helping to ease the listener (especially the layperson) into and out of the more abstract selections.  Songs is one of this album’s many highlights, as its ethereal, almost filmic first movement, “Pastorale,” serves as a wonderful introduction to the album’s materials and overall concept.  PRISM and MFC are introduced separately, but quickly combine into a single lyrical soundscape.  Yuan, however, is arguably the collection’s most abstract composition.  (I attended one of the first public performances of this work by PRISM and experiencing the work in context with the rest of the pieces, it made much more sense to me.)  Many extended techniques are featured throughout – this should be of particular interest for saxophonists – such as multiphonics, slap-tonguing, and playing the mouthpiece alone.

Without going into great detail about each composition individually (that’s not the purpose of these entries, but rather a “quick review), suffice it to say that there’s much variety in this album, featuring many different avenues of the general “East meets West” motif.  What I like most about Antiphony is that the music is organic and genuine, as opposed to the forced “third stream-esque” nonsense that is often the result combining disparate styles (a serious pet peeve of mine).  In fact, the successful blending of both instrumentation and styles make one wonder if the album’s title is a misnomer.  This would make a great investment for any serious classical saxophonist, or anyone interested in new/contemporary music.

Innova (record label) link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

New Listen: Jan Garbarek’s ‘Dresden’

Artist: Jan Garbarek
Album: Dresden (2009)

This week I’m actually discussing a new listen.  I didn’t intend for my first two “new music” entries to be about albums from the same label, but that’s how it goes sometimes.  The last few months I’ve been on a mission to add new names/groups to my collection.  I tend to go “deep” when I really like a person/group, and attempt to be somewhat of a completist with their output.  However, every now and then I’ll realize that I need to add different artists and/or styles.  This was the case with Jan Garbarek.

Being an ECM fan, I was surprised to realize a few weeks ago that I’ve never really listened to Garbarek.  He, along with Keith Jarrett, is the label’s big draw.  I have quite a bit by his associates (Jarrett, Katché, etc.), but nowhere is his horn to be found.  So, upon finding his recent live double-disc release, Dresden (2009), at the store, I decided to give it a try.  The personnel is as follows:
Jan Garbarek – soprano and tenor saxophones, selje flute
Rainer Brüninghaus – piano, keyboards
Yuri Daniel – bass
Manu Katché – drums

I will say that, on the surface, I have a few gripes with this record.
1. First, Garbarek’s soprano tone is largely shrill/nasally – sort of a Michael Brecker-Lenny Pickett-Renaissance shawm hybrid.  Not always, but much of the time.  One factor is his preference for the small curved soprano, something I’ve never warmed to.  Overall his tenor tone is very nice (for me – some may consider it too “harsh” or “pop”), but sometimes the upper register gets some of those soprano-esque qualities.
2. The mix. ECM records usually have a dynamite mix, and there’s almost always a definite “ensemble sound.”  For this record, however, Garbarek often shouts above the rest of the group.  Very top-heavy.
3. Fretless bass – Daniel plays this throughout.  The fretless definitely has its place, but I think this contributes some to the record’s mix issues.  There’s just a lack of a good sonic foundation for a good portion of it. Nowhere near enough low end for my taste.

The above comments, however, aren’t necessarily musical.  They’re definitely musical factors, but they’re more technical than anything.  Sure, they affected my inaugural listen, but once I got past them and listened to the music, I found the album quite enjoyable.  The first disc is much more “world music”-heavy.  (I hate using that term, but there are a lot of vamps and folk melodies/rhythms featured; more so than the second disc.)  Even with some of the tunes having quicker tempos, the overall feel of the first disc is pretty moderate, at times slow.  However, after the first cadenza – each of the sidemen get a few minutes to shine as a soloist – by bassist Yuri Daniel (which is very good – sort of Wooten-esque but without the fireworks), the disc finally kicks into high gear with the Metheny-esque final track, “Milagre Dos Peixes.”

The second disc is more “straight ahead” than the first.  (“Straight ahead” is definitely not the correct term, but there’s more consistent rhythmic interest throughout – definitely no rhythm changes on either of these discs.)  It also features piano and drum cadenzas. (Brüninghaus nearly steals the show on “Transformations,” and Katché offers an energetic transition between the band’s final two pieces of the set before the encore.)  The first 1.7 discs of build to the set’s barn-burner finalé, “Nu Bein’.”  Garbarek opens with a virtuosic selje flute solo before switching back to saxophone for the melody, and each member gets at least a few seconds to shine here. The second disc ends with the show’s encore, “Voy Cantando.”  It’s a piece more akin to the first disc (moderately paced, free-flowing), but with the energy of the second.

(As a side note, Katché’s playing on this album is a stark contrast with that of Third Round. He’s quite intense and aggressive here, and it’s great to hear him excel at both styles.)

After giving this album a few solid listens, I can safely say I’m glad I made the purchase.  However I’ll likely be giving the second disc a bit more attention in the long run. Having not previously experienced Garbarek, I feel like there’s a nice bit of variety in this release, covering the gamut of his output.

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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.

Album links:
All About Jazz