Archives for the month of: September, 2012

Album Review: Devotion, Jessie Ware, August 2012 (Universal Island Records)

Jessie Ware is a UK-based vocalist who, before this album’s release, performed vocals with SBTRKT, a.k.a. UK DJ and Producer, Aaron Jerome. Her debut album, Devotion, stands astride both the pop and electronic genres, serving up a variety across its eleven full-length tracks. Her voice is versatile as well. She uses it differently across the tracks, projecting more on some than others.

Although the pop and R&B influenced tracks on this album are good, Devotion’s best moments are those that are carried by electronic beats and synth melodies. “110%” and “Running” in particular are more readily accessible on early listens and will have a longer staying power. “Sweet Talk” is a R&B/dance cross-over that works well: early Mary J. Blige meets Inner City.

Of the more conventional tracks, “Wildest Moments” is a hit, featuring the strength of Ware’s vocals and a tribal drum backbeat that will play well on the radio. But like most pop songs, it will shine brightly and fade quickly.

Unlike other solo albums I’ve reviewed of late, the star here is not the vocalist or even the songwriter. Instead, the producers win the day. Dave Okumu, Julio Bashmore, and Kid Harpoon are noted as the Production team. Of the three, it is likely Bashmore’s influence on the electronic-centric tracks that will make this album memorable.

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Album Review: Brooklyn Butterfly Session, The Rongetz Foundation, September 2012 (Brooklyn Butterfly Sound)

Yes this is modern jazz and yes this is cool. But don’t spell cool with a ‘k’ or new with a ‘u’. The Rongetz Foundation pulls off modernity and coolness with class and credibility.

Founder and namesake Stephane Ronget is a French ex pat who makes his musical home in New York City. Formerly the maestro behind the Metropolitan Jazz Affair, Ronget is said to have assembled the crew on this album to explore the intersections between jazz, soul, and hip hop. But he achieves so much more.

The magic of this album is that the seams between these genres don’t show. The influences are so nuanced, so natural, that it feels like you’re listening to a great contemporary jazz record. This is cool jazz all grown up. There are no contrived verse overlays or jarring electronic transitions. Rather, the tone and theme remain grounded in jazz. The musical spurs Ronget and his collaborators explore are blended artfully within the overall arc of the record.

The most outward expression of hip-hop / jazz fusion is found on the track, “A Composer of Modern Day” featuring John Robinson. The band adopts a tight hip hop accompaniment and resists injecting unnecessary improvisations, which are aptly left for Robinson to handle through his verse.

Similarly, “Eunice K” featuring Renee Neufville of Zhane fame, is a soul hybrid with velvety Rhodes accompaniment by Jeremy Brun. The pairing of Neufville’s vocals and the band’s backing track is so natural that it ebbs and flows between R&B and jazz without you really noticing the transitions.

The more straight-ahead jazz compositions, including “The Bolshi Drunk Ghost,” “Freaking Sunshine,” and “Sam’s Intro” are mature, well played tracks that rightfully show off the musicianship and jazz composition that gives this album some weight. “Sam’s Intro,” in particular, has an easy going groove reminiscent of Ellington’s Caravan and offers an utterly listenable tableau upon which talented improvisors like Bruce Williams (alto sax) and Ronget himself (trumpet) can play.

Gregory Porter brings his swing and his inimitable vocal timber to bear on the upbeat and danceable opener, “Go Go Soul.” This would be a crossover hit if there were any music broadcasters left on our airwaves with the courage to give jazz another chance with the masses.

The Brooklyn Butterfly Session is, as financial analysts might say, ‘wholly accretive’ to today’s jazz. It may very well be the wedge that opens the door to a new normal for jazz. One that embraces soul and hip-hop not as accents but as fundamental elements of a genre that is so good at absorbing its surroundings.

Players:

Stephane Ronget (trumpet, compositions, arrangements, production), Ronnie Cuber (baritone saxophone), Bruce Williams (alto saxophone), Jeremy Brun (keys), Corcoran Holt (acoustic bass), Jerome Jennings (drums), Gregory Porter, Renee Neufville, John Robinson, Ansel Matthews, Marvin Parks (vocals)

Book Review: The Low Road, Chris Womersley (Scribe, 2007)

Chris Womersley has an Ian McEwan problem. Worse can be said for a budding novelist. But if you know what I mean about McEwan, you’ll understand why this is a begrudgingly mixed review.

The Low Road is a very good novel about two men whose lives intersect just as each is at their nadir. Families long since alienated, caught up in a gritty and decidedly unromantic underworld, they find each other, and in their travels on the run, they give each other reason for hope.

The writing here is adept, like McEwan’s. Imagery is Womersley’s strongest suit. An example,

  Of acquiring his own tattoo, he had no memory, not even of the scabbing that occurred afterwards. It was as if – like the skin itself – it had always been there and sometimes as he rubbed at it, he believed it had just floated to the surface, some thin wreckage washed up on the shores of his body.

Womersley’s prose often paints a cinematic picture. One could argue that he is prone to using what Salman Rushdie recently called “filmic devices” that resonate with readers who have been trained by film-makers to imagine in a certain way. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, several times I found myself musing at how good a film this story would make, doing my own armchair casting.

However, the story is where the ‘McEwan problem’ begins and ends. I should explain that I hold a grudge against Ian McEwan for his novel, Saturday (Random House, 2005), which was beautifully written but really had no story in my opinion. It’s unfair to say that The Low Road has no story. There is great promise of redemption in the set up. Would each of these men indeed be the other’s salvation? They are flawed but their humanity drew my compassion. I invested fully in their relationship and I wanted it to unfold more than Womersley allowed.

Still, it was a good read and I’m glad I discovered this Australian author. His skill at imagery reminds me of modern masters such as Rushdie, Peter Carey, and yes, the very talented Mr. McEwan.

Womersley’s second novel, Bereft (Scribe, 2010), won the Australian Book Industry Award for Literary Fiction.

A short rant about airport bookstores…

I picked this book up in an airport bookstore in New Zealand after having been disappointed with the title selection at airports in Toronto, Chicago, and LA, where my journey began. At some point in the last year or two, someone wrongly decided that the only fiction airport bookstores should carry are books that inspired hit movies (Moneyball anyone?). I’m glad Asia Pacific is ahead of this curve. As for Womersley, some discerning screenwriter may yet make him a fixture on the shelves of LAX.