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Archive for September, 2009

Michael Olatuja – Speak

molatuja-speak

British/Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja certainly has his heart in the right place, stating “The language of music is one that we all speak.  It unites diverse cultures.”  The same can’t be said for his head, however.  Olatuja’s debut recording Speak, for Backdrop, a sub-label of ObliqSound, finds the composer wavering between genres undoubtedly related [funk, neo-soul, R&B, Gospel and jazz] – but difficult to execute on record into a single cohesive musical statement.  While Speak may be a bit uneven, don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to enjoy about this disc.

Olatuja, who opts to remain in the background [with some very tasty electric and acoustic bass playing], has his drums ‘n’ bass ‘n’ keys band charging out of the gate on opener “Ma Foya,” echoing the trance-like grooves of his native West African musical roots.  The spoken word/hip-hop in the title track bounces along with an extremely catchy groove – but tracks like “Little Sister” and “Unconditional,” while pleasant, are hindered by the worn-out feelgood lyrical turns.  There’s nothing wrong with making uplifting music oozing with positive vibes like the ones found on this record – but the words here venture down paths well-traveled.  Regardless, there’s a lot of good stuff here for fans of neo-soul and R&B to gobble up.  For you Kansas City readers, this is what Soul’s Poem could sound like in a few years.

However, the standout here is closer “Mama Ola,” a nine-minute work of exceptional modern jazz, with brilliant, shimmering piano and tender saxophone fills throughout.  Despite the genre-jumping that defines Speak, I do applaud the leader for tucking away a keeper of a jazz nugget at the end of the disc.  The India.Arie and Erykah Badu fans who pick this up will love the gentle, melodic groove, and jazz just might gain another curious listener or two.

[listen to Michael Olatuja’s Speak here]

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freesongsuite

The Fay Victor Ensemble: The FreeSong Suite Reviews | PopMatters

* yet another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

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*To readers of punkyjunk, I apologize for this continuous stream of cross-posts of my reviews for popmatters.com.  Between the move and starting the new gig, I haven’t had much time lately to sit and compose anything.  There will be several more of these to come, but I hope to resume “regular” commentary soon.  For now, enjoy.  Cheers/AZ.

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Fay Victor’s second recording of original material, The FreeSong Suite, peers into the NYC-based vocalist’s challenging and rewarding world of captivating vocal work and stirring spontaneity.  Ripping through the sutures of established song forms and structures, Victor and her exceptional band at points come across like a well-oiled machine. At others, it seems to completely unravel when taking a tune, dicing it up, and stitching it back together.

“Bob and Weave” oscillates between ominous, fractured free-associative passages and tight, groove-oriented instrumental interludes, and the gentle, bluesy, and mellow sway of “Night Ties” emerges at the end of the first of three long-form compositional sections that make up the disc, emitting a sigh of relief after the scarred selections preceding it. The remainder of the Suite is as grating and jarring as it is refreshing, further augmenting Victor’s status as a musician and composer who is rewriting the rules of vocal jazz.

*This is my second post about Fay Victor, the alluring and mysterious vocalist who continues to mesmerize this author with strange twists on familiar tunes and highly enjoyable original material.

[click on artist/album title at top of post for video content]

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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: One Day in Brooklyn

*another punkyjunk popmatters review*

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Featuring founding members Brian Haas (piano) and Josh Raymer (drums) alongside new members Matt Hayes (upright bass) and Chris Combs (lap steel and guitar), the Tulsa, OK-based Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey further cements its status as one of the most forward-thinking units in jazz with its new EP, One Day in Brooklyn. Recorded live in the studio without overdubs, this disc is sure to be snatched up by fans of jazz groups, jam bands, and beyond with its warm tone and rootsy twang.

The medley of “A Laugh for Rory” and “The Black & Crazy Blues (For Joel Dorn)” provides a rousing opener, while “Country Girl” fuses Tulsa and ‘Trane, and a cover of the Beatles “Julia” shows off an impressive, dynamic range. “Imam” and “Drethoven” explore the musical worlds of Middle Eastern, classical and hip-hop, and Thelonious Monk’s “Four in One” playfully and confidently looks ahead to the promising future for this compelling and original group.

[click artist/album link at top of post for audio and video content]

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Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan: In Session

*a punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

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The pairing of Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) is a blues guitar enthusiast’s dream.  With terrific support from a tight backing band, the two six-string legends trade licks and stories for 60 minutes on the digitally remastered In Session, a solid release from Stax Records documenting the passing of the torch from the label’s reigning blues master to the Austin, TX native whose white-hot playing would bring blues back into the charts and on the radio.

According to the liner notes by journalist Lee Hildebrand (one of three sets of new liner notes accompanying the disc), In Session was a television program conceived by independent station CHCH in Ontario designed to pair stylistically related musicians who rarely had opportunities to perform together.  This session featuring King and Vaughan would surely prove to be one of the best of the series and a smart move, considering it’s their only known recording together.

Fans of Vaughan know that his style was heavily modeled after King’s stinging tone and attack.  In this setting, Vaughan’s playing is much more restrained than what listeners are accustomed to as he defers to the blues master in the room, demonstrating his deep respect for King and only cutting loose when encouraged to do so.  The elder statesman is clearly in charge but noticeably takes delight in hearing SRV rip apart some of his own guitar lines and churn out pure classic blues.

True aficionados of the guitar will also love digging into this disc, as Vaughan’s trademark Fender Stratocaster squares off with King’s signature upside-down Gibson Flying V.  The call-and-response conversations and exchange of extended solos between the two axes must have left the studio in a smoldering heap.  The congenial clashing of Memphis and Texas musical approaches generates some of the nastiest, down ‘n dirty blues ever laid to tape.

While the two titans share a similar vocabulary and overall approach to the guitar, it’s easy to pick out the individual lines from each as they possess noticeably different tones from their instruments.  Set opener “Call It Stormy Monday”, signature tune of blues legend and pioneering electric guitarist T-Bone Walker, is lead by King and features a head-bobbing beat laid down by bassist Gus Thornton and brothers Tony and Michael Llorens, on piano/organ and drums, respectively.  It’s a nine-minute romp through a blues standard that gives the musicians an opportunity to warm up for the aural onslaught to come.

Next up is the hit that broke Stevie Ray Vaughan into the mainstream, “Pride and Joy”, which is introduced by King as he recalls his first encounter with “Little Stevie”, a skinny kid who was “straight up like a popsicle”, sitting in at one of his gigs in Austin.

It’s also heartwarming to hear King tip his hat to the young musician, complementing the up-and-coming guitarist for possessing both “speed and soul”.  The only track with Vaughan on lead vocals, it’s interesting to hear “Pride and Joy” with a second guitar, as King is heard stretching out in a role as rhythm guitarist – something not often heard on his own recordings.

“Ask Me No Questions” is clearly more of a King-style number (the elder guitarist introduces it as BB King’s), with its heavy Stax vibe and jazzy piano chords.  Vaughan’s reverb-drenched leads, while impressive here, are better suited for his slow-burning Texas blues than funky Memphis soul.

“Blues at Sunrise”, a 15 minute tour-de-force that lies at the center of the recording (and is the best track here), is preceded by another spoken word intro from King, where he first gives Vaughan a few pats on the back and as the band launches into its deep groove, recalls recording the tune with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore West (where’s that recording?).  He then asks Vaughan to take on the role of Hendrix, which wouldn’t be an issue, as SRV paid tribute to Hendrix by recording and performing several of his numbers throughout his career.

With that command, SRV finally unleashes his inner Jimi and tears through his jaw-dropping, rapid-fire runs that the listeners have been waiting to hear.  As Vaughan’s playing catches fire, one can hear King gleefully laughing – he’s simultaneously recalling the magic of the night at the Fillmore and taking joy in the pure, unabashed blues genius slashing through the tune right in front of him.  King takes quite a few leads himself and is equally rousing, punishing and pulverizing his strings, rendering them out-of-tune by the track’s end.

Instrumental “Overall Junction” shuffles along for eight minutes with inspired playing from both guitarists, and “Match Box Blues” bumps along at the same pace for another eight minutes, with Vaughan’s leads interlocking with Lloren’s drum pattern to captivating rhythmic effect.  Set closer “Don’t Lie to Me” finds the ensemble stretching out again for nine minutes of tight grooves, swelling organ fills, and scorching six-string work as the master and the apprentice trade a dizzying blend of solos in the upper and lower register of the instrument.

Featuring gut-wrenching guitar playing peppered with King’s stories and fatherly advice to the young star, In Session captures an incredibly important musical moment as two of the most revered blues guitarists lock horns in a friendly battle, demonstrating an unparalleled mutual admiration and respect.  More importantly, it provides a common ground for blues lovers of all ages to partake in the same sentiments as their heroes yield to the powerful, generations-old magic of playing great blues.

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Of All Places…

bluesalley

So much has happened since The Arrival that I’d love to squeeze it all into a single post here, but I’ll be delivering it in several smaller chunks.  For now, I’ll start out with Friday night.  After realizing that Kenny Garrett was in town – for four nights – I knew that I couldn’t pass up the chance to see one of the most compelling saxophonists working in jazz today.  After all, I know we (meaning my former employer) tried to book him a handful of times in Kansas City over the last three years, to no avail.  Plus, I’d heard nothing but great things about Blues Alley, the hip, out-of-the-way jazz club in Georgetown that’s been hosting some of the best names in the genre since the mid 1960s.  I do wish they had a more compelling website, but you can check it out here.

At any rate, my first live jazz outing in DC was a great one.  Although Garrett’s brilliant 2006 release Beyond the Wall is one of my absolute favorite discs within the genre, the awe-inspiring Eastern-influenced sounds of that release won’t be heard by anyone attending one of his shows in support of his latest release, Sketches of MD.   Supported by a top-notch band, Garrett took us on a 75-minute journey through the nooks and crannies of 70s-influenced, head-bobbing jazz-funk [I attended the 8:00pm show; another show was scheduled for 10:00pm but I opted to move on…]

The evening’s music met at at the intersection of Head Hunters and Bitches Brew, as played by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ rhythm section who in an alternate universe, had extensive jazz training.  [Note: I am aware that that RHCP bassist Flea did start out playing jazz trumpet in his youth].  My only complaint?  Lose the cheesy synth-washes that were going on during various parts of the set – and keep the B3 pumpin’.

At other points, it was like a cross between the organ-blast of a gospel/revival tent and a Sly and the Family Stone jam session.  Garrett must know, as my friend over at Plastic Sax has pointed out several times, that the future of jazz just might lie in the hands, eyes and ears of the groove-oriented, jam-band youth that would gobble up a set like this in a minute, then make 20 copies of it on CD and hand ’em out to their buddies.

This doesn’t mean that the evening was short on melody.  Each of the extended tunes [four in 75 minutes] shone brightly through Garrett’s expressive, lyrical work on the alto sax.  He even took a seat at the Fender Rhodes during one tune, answering his organ player’s [failed to find names of sidemen except one…story in a moment] jaw-dropping runs with prickly lines of his own.  The four-fisted funk on the keys was delightful, and the bass was right in the pocket for the whole set.  Nothing was overplayed.

But perhaps, at least in the opinion of this writer, the unsung hero of the evening was drummer Nathan Webb, a Wichita native who shouldn’t be judged by his youth or skinny frame.  With hands and feet a blurry fury of inventive cymbal splashes, thundering tom-toms and percussive drumstick-tricks, Webb played with a no-holds-barred style that came up through the floor and into the chairs.

A particularly rousing back-and-forth jam between the drummer and saxophonist/bandleader built into an intense climax where it seemed like both musicians were about to collapse with exhaustion, only to explode into a completely different direction and leave the audience a whoopin’-and-a-hollerin’.  It was refreshing to not only hear such outstanding musicianship, but to see an audience [and a younger, diverse one at that] enjoying it so much.

See?  Jazz can be fun.

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ADDENDUM: If I had another $15, I would have stayed for the second show – but after a day’s work, a hearty dinner, a glass of wine and an electrifying set of music, I don’t think I could have handled any more.  But I didn’t leave Blues Alley without another immensely gratifying experience.  I had to stay back and at least offer my compliments to Webb for such an impressive display behind the drumkit.  He asked me if I was from the area, and I explained to him the story of my recent relocation from KC to DC.  With warm enthusiasm and excitement upon meeting another Midwesterner on the east coast, he then explained to me that he hailed from Wichita; upon hearing this, and recalling the name “Webb” from my days in the jazz community in KC, I asked: “Are you related to Jacob Webb?”

Jacob is a 16-year old jazz bass prodigy [give or take a year or two] that frequently appeared with one of my former colleagues, saxophonist Dennis Winslett, in gigs at the Blue Room at 18th & Vine.  It turns out that Nathan Webb, the drummer jamming with Kenny Garrett, is Jacob’s older brother.  After making this connection, I then learned that after finishing his four-night Blues Alley residency with Kenny Garrett, Nathan is “Goin’ to Kansas City” to sit in with his little brother and Dennis at the Blue Room next Saturday, September 19, 2009.  If you’re in the KC area and are looking to hear some great music that evening, the Winslett-Webb unit is a sure thing.

Who would have known that after making the 1300 mile trek out east, I would run into a jazz musician from Wichita, who also happens to share the same connections as I do?

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