Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen’s Magical Upper West Side

What does the thought of New York’s Upper West Side conjure up for you? Homeless Iraq war vets panhandling at the subway station at 72nd and Broadway? Cops frisking teens for contraband twenty blocks north in order to meet the quotas of cheap arrests arbitrarily imposed by NYPD brass? Brand-new multimillion-dollar condos infested with bedbugs? Such is the state of the Upper West Side, 2012. For those who prefer a Woody Allen-style Upper West Side of the mind, pianist Ehud Asherie and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen have a new duo album by that title just out from Posi-Tone that conjures up a vastly more enjoyable, suavely urbane milieu. Imagine spacious prewar buildings, low lights, wood paneling, red wine and purist jazz and you are on the right track.

The two make a good team. Allen is the rake and Asherie is his wingman. Allen’s misty shtick works as well as it does because he happens to be a hell of a blues player, and will surprise you here and there with the occasional detour into gracefully edgy microtonal swoops and dives. Among the new breed of jazz organists, Asherie is a standout player with impeccable rhythm and an intuitive feel for melodic basslines. What makes this album different is that on all the midtempo and upbeat tracks here, he’s basically playing stride piano – but with a judicious, tight swing rather than a careening barrelhouse attack. After all, if you’re doing an album of standards, you have to put your own mark on them.

The opening track, Learnin the Blues perfectly capsulizes the appeal of the album, setting a mood within the first few bars with casually steady, precise piano providing a solid framework for Allen’s slinky, warmly melodic lines. It Had to Be You picks up the pace; O Pato is a caffeinated bossa tune with some jaunty, carnaval-esque, chromatic tinges by Allen that Asherie winds down with an unexpectedly whispery, starlit outro. Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here to Stay has some especially choice, impressionistic rubato piano that sets up a mutually relaxed, satisfied groove, echoed even more vividly on the album’s strongest track, Strayhorn’s Passion Flower, Allen reaching back for a Ben Webster bluesiness.

Richard Rodgers’ Have You Met Miss Jones has the duo reverting to assigned roles, picking up on I Want to Be Happy, Asherie’s righthand accents cleverly mimicking a pulsing, staccato horn arrangement. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams has a sly Brother Can You Spare a Dime reference and a practically imperceptible crescendo; they keep I’m in the Mood for Love on the straight and narrow as Allen goes breathy, with a nice impressionistic Asherie outro. Eubie Blake’s Love Will Find a Way blends smokiness into its ragtime tinges; they close with a brisk but measured take on My Blue Heaven, a terrific choice to end the album on a note that stops just thisshort of breathless. With its thoughtful if not radical rearrangements, solid playing and chemistry between the two musicians, this one’s for the purists from Lincoln Center all the way up to Columbia and probably a lot further uptown as well. And while we’re at it, make that the east side too

February 26, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Sly New Spin on Classic Sounds from Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner

“SHE’S GOT IT! Yeah baby, she’s got it! I’m your [muffled, incoherent], I’m your fire, your desire!”

You’ve heard it before, well-intentioned but clueless non-English-speaking European musicians of a certain age aping iconic Americana roots styles. A lot of those players were hippies and were probably so stoned at the time they didn’t realize how badly they were embarrassing themselves, so they get a pass. But if the idea of a Finnish version of Mose Allison or early Lou Rawls might sound icky to you, that’s ok. You just need to hear Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner’s More Than 123: it will completely change your mind about European bluesmen. These guys absolutely own what they do – they completely nail the idiom with just as much or even more imagination than the Americans who were doing it the first time around. To say that this album is a trip to hear is an accolade, not an insult.

Lindholm is the guitarist and singer in the band; what does Donner do? Well, he’s the conductor. OK – maybe the idea of a blues band needing a conductor might seem like a red flag, but in this case, it’s not – if the horn charts here are his, he’s a genius. Whatever the case, it’s an irresistibly fun record. It’s an absolutely original, unique blend of 60s soul and blues…but with arrangements straight out of 1948! Lindholm’s smoky baritone betrays his Finnish roots, but he’s completely on his game as sly oldschool blues crooner, and the band is coolly sensational. For example, check out the inventive, period-perfect conversationality between Tero Saarti’s suave muted trumpet and Manuel Dunkel’s tenor sax on the opening track, Why I Smile Again.

The second track, Oh Don, is an innuendo-charged murder ballad straight out of the Hazmat Modine playbook, with Lindholm’s guitar wailing over the cosmopolitan, hushed brushwork of drummer Mika Kallio. “They’re gonna take you to Yellowstone, but I can take you to the moon,” Lindholm croons on the briskly noir-tinged, Mose Allison-esque I’m Right, Dunkel spiraling down to Riitta Paakki’s rippling piano as the arrangement grows more suspenseful. The lushly gorgeous blues ballad Where You’re Walking Now artfully features Mikko Heleva’s Hammond organ taking over for the entire ensemble as Paaki’s piano goes unexpectedly terse and biting, and then back up again. An equally wry, bittersweet ballad, True Life works a methodically killer crescendo beginning with Pepa Paivinen’s baritone sax handing off to Dunkel’s tense, expectant tenor and then the trumpet to take it all the way up. The band channels Magic Sam circa 1967 on the shuffling I Know My Boulevard before closing the record with an unexpectedly dixieland-flavored march, Lucky Johnny’s Gone, a diptych of sorts whose centerpiece is a church organ processional. Without question, one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable and utterly original albums of recent years, in whatever style you choose to call this. It’s out now on the Finnish label Tum Records.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Torchy Jazz Reinventions from Catherine Russell

Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.

It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.

Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling  solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.

Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments