Archives for the month of: December, 2011

Album Review: Another Day, Molly Johnson (Marquis, 2002)

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Molly Johnson is a prolific performer and vocalist that, with this outing, is finally fitted with an ensemble and song selection that she wears better than anyone could. Her vocal style is relaxed, casual, but enchanting. Many compare her to Billie Holiday but she doesn’t overplay that in the style choices she makes.

This album has a perfect mix of slow and upbeat tunes that showcase Johnson’s unique style. The percussion on “Summertime” was played on a cardboard box. It works and is telling of what this woman can do with the raw material around her. In the melee of female jazz vocalists trying to find a marketing niche, Johnson has quietly found her musical niche and made it inimitable.

As a footnote, I should refer you to Esther Phillips, who is more similar to Johnson than Holiday. Phillips is worth checking out for some classic 60’s era standards with big band arrangements. Her versions of “Crazy He Calls Me” and “Fever” are nice companions to Molly Johnson’s current work.

Album Review: Handful of Soul, Mario Biondi & The High Five Quintet, 2006

There are very few vocalists who captivate you simply with the texture of their voice. Sinatra, Holiday, Vaughan, and now Biondi. You could listen to this guy order pizza and be mesmerized. It’s fortunate that he found jazz because this record is a perfect showcase for his style. “This is What You Are” is as cool as a slimline grey suit, folded white handkerchief in the jacket pocket.

Although he is an Italian national and not a native English speaker, Biondi sounds authentically American, a brother to the greats of 50s and 60s jazz.

He makes a guest appearance on Incognito’s latest album, Transatlantic R.P.M, where he duets with Chaka Khan on a cover of Boz Scagg’s “Lowdown.” Biondi and Khan make a nice pairing on that track. Of course, with his voice, he’d make a nice pairing with a household appliance.

Album Review: Live at the Bijou, Grover Washington Jr., 1977

If you think of “adult contemporary” music when you hear Grover Washington Jr.’s name, you need to listen to this and stand corrected. Washington brings a driving funk sound to his jazz and is a virtuoso improvisor.

Without exaggeration, this is in my top 10 albums of all time, in any genre. Every track is strong in its own way and works perfectly in the sequence on the album. Even the 20+ minute opus midway through is thoroughly listenable. The opening track, “On the Cusp,” has one of the best intros ever, with an electric keyboard bursting onto the scene, completely upstaging the muted baseline that opens the song. “Funkfoot” is an exceptional finish that makes you leap out of your seat, just as the live audience undoubtedly did on that May night in Philadelphia. Oh to be at the Bijou when this magic was made!

I have to give credit to Toronto DJ’s Mike Tull and Paul E. Lopez for introducing me to “Funkfoot” on their community radio show, Vibes & Stuff, which aired on CIUT 89.5FM in the late 1980s. It took me 10 years to find this recording after I first heard it on their show. Oddly, it was in a strip mall in Dallas, Texas where I finally found the disc, well before the days of iTunes.

Playlist: Great recordings from the Canadian songbook

Canadian music through the years, like Canada itself, has formed a bedrock of classic songs. Reflecting on the calibre of songwriting that has come from Canadian artists, I created this playlist and was delighted by its depth and staying power. It’s not a profile of Canadian music…that would be a longer list. Rather, I made my selections primarily from the folk and rock genres that mingle so naturally to form a distinctly Canadian sound.

1. Going to the Country, Bruce Cockburn – From his first album, a really good, simple folk song.

2. Blackbird, The Beatles – The only import on the list. It blended so beautifully with the first track, I had to add it as a companion.

3. When She Loved Me, Sara McLachlan – Heartbreaking ballad, one of McLachlan’s best, but unknown unless you have kids and watched Toy Story 2

4. Pulling on a Line, Great Lakes Swimmers – Relatively new group with an appealing folk-rock sound

5. Try, Blue Rodeo

6. Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Barenaked Ladies – Still one of their best recordings,  I think. Their interpretation of this Bruce Cockburn song was original and introduced Canada to their own distinctive style that would launch their career.

7. Jolie Louise, Daniel Lanois – An old-fashioned ballad telling a tragic story. The song is constructed so simply and performed with a rustic minimalism.

8. Miss Chatelaine, K.D. Lang – Cinematically classic

9. Spot the Difference, Spirit of the West – A more mainstream sound from this group known for its classically celtic style.

10. Harvest Moon, Neil Young – One of the most beautiful compositions ever.

11. Save Me, K.D. Lang

12. Bobcaygeon, The Tragically Hip – The best Canadian song of the 1990s.

13. Hallelujah, K.D. Lang – Watch her Vancouver Olympics closing ceremony performance of this song. Incredible.

Concert Review: Sade, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, June 28 2011

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Sade is a group with unparalleled longevity and unrelenting quality. Since their recording debut with 1984’s Diamond Life, this band has released only 5 studio albums. While not prolific, they are one of the most musically discerning groups in contemporary music.

It was this reputation that drew me to their 2011 concert at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, an indoor arena venue. What they delivered that summer night was essential Sade. Fittingly centred around lead singer Sade Adu, the show opened with “Soldier of Love” from their most recent album. Adu emerged from a beam of white light shone from under the stage. With each riff of the opening snare drum and guitar, she took the steps one by one, arriving on stage to a frenzy.

The catalogue of familiar songs were nostalgically received, perfectly performed, and refreshingly accompanied by a video presentation that blended wonderfully with the live action on stage. The most striking use of the video screen was for the new song, “Love is Found,” from The Ultimate Collection (2011). A silhouetted Adu and male figure play out a courtship on screen with mesmerizingly original choreography. Meanwhile, in the foreground, silhouetted by the backlit video screen, the real Sade mimics the video moves and performs the song. The band are black shadows, almost unreal.

Sade’s guitarist and saxophonest, Stuart Matthewman, is the unsung musical soulmate to Adu’s diva persona. Throughout their recording history, Matthewman’s saxophone defined the smooth, easy-going flow to their music. It is hard to think of any popular music group whose sound is so distinctly yet subtely defined by a saxophone. Then, with Lovers Rock and again with Soldier of Love, Matthewman’s use of a hard edged distorted guitar breathed a new aural aesthetic into their work. Suddenly, Sade was ‘edgy’ while still being the smoothest sound around.

The beautiful thing about Sade live is that all this musicianship and the iconic vocals are perfectly reproduced in high fidelity. Their sound is simple and lends itself to a high quality performance. Like their recorded work, the calibre of Sade’s live performance is unparalleled.

Setlist:

1. Soldier of Love; 2. Your Love is King; 3. Skin; 4. Kiss of Life; 5. Love is Found; 6. In Another Time; 7. Smooth Operator; 8. Jezebel; 9. Bring Me Home; 10. Is It a Crime; 11. Love is Stronger Than Pride; 12. All About Our Love; 13. Paradise / Nothing Can Come Between Us; 14. Morning Bird; 15. King of Sorrow; 16. The Sweetest Taboo; 17. The Moon and the Sky; 18. Pearls; 19. No Ordinary Love; 20. By Your Side; 21. Cherish the Day (Encore)

Album Review: Arias & Symphonies, Spoons (Ready Records, 1982)

1982 was an exceptionally good year for music. Duran Duran had released Rio, Simple Minds were in their prime, and countless other eighties acts were peaking musically. It is remarkable that this little band that never got really big produced the definitive record of the 1980s. The Production, arrangements, use of drum machine and synthesizer, and compositions on this album make for an end-to-end submersion into the ethos of new wave music breaking out all over the world at that time. Combine this with the vocal chemistry of Gord Deppe’s lead and Sandy Horne’s romantically haunting backing. Finally, and most remarkably, the synthesizer performance of Rob Preuss is absolutely legendary. Listen to the layered tracks on “Blow Away” and be amazed.

It would certainly strike most readers as hyperbole to call this the best album of the 80s. Yes, there were classics like U2’s War, Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream, Prince’s Purple Rain, and even MJ’s Thriller. But the 80s weren’t about rock or R&B. They were about a completely new genre of music that employed new instrumentation, unconventional lyrics, and a commitment to style in both musical form and function. These are the measures of a great 80s album. And Arias & Symphonies wins, easily. What’s more, I’ve been listening to 80s music since, well, the 80s, and this is the only album that consistently comes back with something fresh on every listen.

Album Review: Magic Ensemble, Quasimode, 2011

This snappy quartet can push out driving, frenetic jazz in the vein of the 60s masters. Some tracks are reminiscent of those classic Blue Note reissues of geniuses like Hank Mobley and Art Blakey. This album has loads of fast-paced, thrilling tunes that are technically perfect in timing and musicianship. But something is missing…perhaps the ebb and flow of more seasoned jazz performances that take the listener on a journey. These guys take you on a drive in a supercar and never slows down.

There are down tempo tracks but they are not as strong melodically or instrumentally. The guest vocals are hit and miss but there is something endearing about the blend of Japanese and English lyrics on “Music Can Change the World.”

Still, this album is worth checking out, if only for the instant thrill you get from some of the turbo-charged tracks. “Naghol Jumping” could have been a 70’s TV show theme song a la Hawaii Five-O. Good for a few laps around the island in your Ferrari!

Album Review: Headhunters, Herbbie Hancock, 1973

This album is one of the most important in jazz music. It was among the first to fuse a funk sensibility with jazz arrangements and improvisation. The keyboards are innovative and foreshadow the legendary status Herbie Hancock would achieve. The opening of “Watermelon Man” is genius in its use of unconventional instruments, resetting the jazz audience’s expectation of how rhythm and melody can be rendered. “Chameleon” is to bass players as “Smoke on the Water” is to guitarists. With more structure than a traditional jazz composition, “Chameleon” made the pop crossover conceivable, although the length of this track allows for long, luxurious improvised solos by Hancock’s talented collaborators.

With Headhunters, Hancock expanded the jazz genre. Years later, with “Rockit” he continued to innovate new ways to present jazz to new audiences. It can be said, in fact, that Hancock helped open the door of the 21st century so jazz music could walk through it.

 

Single Review: The Story, KING, 2011

The three tracks on this single release pack more musical talent and freshness than most full albums. KING has created a sound that has the soul of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu and the sonic innovations of some of the better electronic music out there. A full length album is eagerly anticipated and will likely rock the underground charts when it hits the street.

Album Review: All For You, Diana Krall, 1996

It didn’t take long for recording studio executives to play up Diana Krall’s looks and cool-factor to turn her into a jazz “product” they could sell. In her many incarnations, Krall has run the gamut of the latest trends in contemporary jazz, the most conspicuous of which has been the love affair with Brazilian sounds.

All for You is different. It is a sincere homage to the music of Nat King Cole and the excitement a piano, guitar, and bass can deliver in the right hands. The musicianship on this album is as remarkable as the fine collection of songs. Seeing her on tour for this album many years ago, what struck me most was her mastery of the piano. Her style is reminiscent of the older masters, probably due in part to her mentor Ray Brown’s influence. Seeing her live proves she’s not just a pretty face pushed into the jazz genre because there was room. She’s the real thing, when they let her be.