Lucid Culture


Smart, Sassy, Soulful Retro Sounds from Roberta Donnay

Chanteuse Roberta Donnay’s album A Little Sugar Music, a salute to some of her favorite Prohibition-era singers, is just out from Motema. Donnay is one of Dan Hicks’ Lickettes, and it shows on this album – her affinity and aptitude for oldtime blues and swing matches the verve and sassiness of the originals, while she puts her own stamp on them. Behind her, the Prohibition Mob Band – pianist John R. Burr, bassist Sam Bevan, trumpeter Rich Armstrong, multi-reedman Sheldon Brown, drummer Michael Barsimanto and tuba player Ed Ivey – rise to the occasion.

Donnay is a sophisticated singer. Her nuanced, uncluttered vocals remind a lot of Chris Connor or Bliss Blood. Unlike much of the current crop of moldy fig swing sisters, Donnay gets inside the lyrics and draws them out: she’s interpreting rather than just trying to be brassy. Every song is different; every line resonates. To kick off the album, Oh Papa reaches all the way back to Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Donnay really digging in when she hits the line “you’ll regret the day you ever quit me” as Burr goes for terse James P. Johnson inflections. A late 30s Ida Cox jump blues, Swing and Sway, provides a blithe contrast.

Fats Waller’s I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling benefits from understatement everywhere: Burr’s moody piano, Wayne Wallace’s trombone and some wry vaudevillian flourishes from the drums. You Go to My Head is even more intense and pensive, from Burr’s brooding introduction through Donnay’s resigned, practically clenched-teeth interpretation. And Donnay outdoes Sippie Wallace at coyly nuanced signification with Mama’s Gone Goodbye, making it equal parts escape anthem and kiss-off ballad.

While the slyly theatrical One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show has the feel of a Mae West tune, it’s actually from the 50s; Donnay channels her inner flapper up to a nimble handoff from Armstrong’s trumpet to Brown’s tenor sax. The most sophisticated yet most terse number here is Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So, Donnay’s low-key melismatics over allusive piano and a similarly minimalist but impactful bass solo.

Donnay’s jaunty, horn-fueled cover of Sugar Blues draws on Ella Fitzgerald, while the take of Tropical Heatwave here owes more to Ethel Waters than the infamous Marilyn Monroe version. Rocking Chair, which Donnay picked up from Hicks, gets an unexpectedly whispery, absolutely chilling arrangement, a vivid portrait of dissolution and despair. Her take on Sugar in My Bowl is more sultry come-on than risque party anthem, the balminess of Brown’s tenor matching the vocals. Of all the songs, the most interesting one here is You’ve Been a Gold Ol’ Wagon, an innunedo-packed, proto hokum blues song from the 1890s that brings to mind the Moonlighters. Donnay covers a lot of ground here and never once lapses into cliche, a feat more impressive than it sounds considering how many people have sung these songs over the decades. Fans of jazz, blues and steampunk sounds have a lot to enjoy here.


December 10, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Warm, Tuneful Album from Ron Miles

Anything Ron Miles and Bill Frisell do together is worth hearing. The trumpeter/cornetist has long played the role of deep soul sage to the guitarist’s high plains drifter, going back over ten years. While Miles’ latest album Quiver is not without its moments of unease, it’s as generally warm and upbeat as you would expect. It’s got the same conversational feel as their 2002 duo album, Heaven, although this time the group is expanded to include Brian Blade on drums, Frisell’s artful use of implied melody making it less obvious that there’s a bass missing.

While mostly a studio project, there are a couple of intriguingly shapeshifting live tracks, begininng with Bruise, the opening tune. There’s a lot of swing on this album, and there’s some on this tune, along with syncopated minimalism, a little catchy New Orleans funk, minor modes on the trumpet trading off against the blues of the guitar. For a group that goes as many places in the span of seven minutes or so, they hold it together with the kind of casual repartee that has defined their collaborations over the years. Likewise, the closing cut, Guest of Honor perfectly capsulizes the album’s appeal, equal parts Americana – sort of a bouncier take on Townes Van Zandt’s No Place to Fall – set to an altered Crescent City shuffle.

The spare, echoey, allusive jazz waltz Queen B gives Frisell a platform for his signature big-sky pensiveness: throughout the song, they allude tantalizingly to a well-known highway rock theme (the BoDeans? Matt Keating? Don’t you hate it when you can’t identify the song?). Mr. Kevin, a ballad, is classic Miles, soulfully resonant trumpet slowly leading the band into funkier territory where Blade finally decides to give it some boom before they take out with a jaunty dance. And the funky rhythms of Rudy Go Round quickly coalesce into a nonchalant, swinging, conversational shuffle that eventually expands to include the drums as it winds out.

There are also some intriguing covers. The early swing classic There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears warps and weaves slowly in and out of pulse, Frisell’s resonant minimalism contrasting with Miles’ expansive legato over Blade’s judiciously counterintuitive accents. Just Married rides Frisell’s Mystery Train allusions, moving toward rockabilly until Miles decides to take the whole thing a little further outside. In the same vein, Duke Ellington’s Doin’ the Voom Voom swings along bracingly on modernized guitar harmonies – it’s the one place on the album where the addition of bass would take it to the next level. And Days of Wine and Roses hangs on the offbeats, Frisell shadowing Miles for much of it until Blade breaks it up with a richly resonant cymbal interlude. It’s all good and out now from Enja Records.

December 10, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment