Over the last few years, Tennessee songwriter Jennifer Niceley has distilled a distinctive blend of noir torch song, Americana, Nashville gothic, classic southern soul and blues. Her latest album, Birdlight, is streaming at Soundcloud. In recent years, the twang has dropped from Niceley’s voice, replaced by a smoky, artfully nuanced, jazzy delivery. The obvious comparison is Norah Jones, both vocally and songwise, although Niceley has more of an edge and a way with a lyrical turn of phrase. As with her previous releases, the new album features a first-class band: Jon Estes on guitars, keys and bass; Elizabeth Estes on violin; Evan Cobb on tenor sax; Steve Pardo on clarinet and Imer Santiago on trumpet, with Tommy Perkinsen and Dave Racine sharing the drum chair.
The album conjures a classy southern atmosphere: imagine yourself sipping a mint julep in the shade of a cottonwood, the sound of a muted trumpet wafting from across the creek, and you’re in the ballpark. The opening track, Nightbird, sets the stage, a nocturne with Niceley’s gently alluring delivery over a pillowy, hypnotic backdrop livened by samples of what sounds like somebody clumping around in the woods. The second number, Ghosts, is a balmy shuffle lit up by Estes’ deliciously slipsliding Memphis soul riffs, and picks up with a misty orchestral backdrop. .
Niceley sings New Orleans cult legend Bobby Charles’ Must Be in a Good Place Now with a hazy late-summer delivery over a nostalgic horn section and Estes’ keening steel guitar, and a little dixieland break over a verse. The Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics in Land I Love, from the swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and the lingering pedal steel, are absolutely gorgeous, Niceley brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.”
What Wild Is This switches gears for a lushly arranged, bossa-tinged groove; then Niceley switches up again with a gently swaying western swing cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Hard Times. She keeps the jazzy-tinged atmosphere going with a restrained version of Tom Waits’ You Can Never Hold Back Spring.
But’s Niceley’s originals that are the real draw here, like Goodbye Kiss, a wistful lament that along with Land I Love is the most plaintive, affecting track here: “Unfinished visions keep hanging around like fog in the trees,” Niceley muses. The album’s title track is a brief inetrumental, Niceley’s elegant guitar fingerpicking against washes of violin and accordion. She winds it up with the hypnotic, surreal Strange Times, whose wary psychedelics wouldn’t be out of place on a Jenifer Jackson record. Lean back with a little bourbon and drift off to a place that time forgot with this one: what a great way to stay warm on a gloomy winter evening.
Jeanne Marie Boes first came to the attention of this blog back in the zeros. Back then, she’d play the occasional gig at places like Tavern on the Green or some bistro in Queens. Why was this singer with the wise, knowing, fortysomething voice and songs that blended cabaret, mischievous blues and big oldfashioned rock anthems not doing more shows? There was a reason: turns out, she wasn’t in her forties. She was a teenager then.
Which was something of a shock. Among her three albums and numerous singles, there’s one where a family member tells her that she’s an old soul – and is she ever. She’s got brass in her upper register, a pillowy, dreamy quality in the lows and a soaring range. She sings conversationally, intimately: you feel like she’s in the room with you. You have to go back a long ways to find a comparison: Shirley Bassey without the camp, maybe. It’s an urbane voice, one that’s seen a lot in a short time and internalized it. And much as she’ll confidently channel whatever emotion she wants, she seems to like the subtle ones. As nuanced as she is now, if she keeps growing, in five years she’ll be terrifying. She’s playing the release show for her new single, Strangers, at the small room at the Rockwood on Dec 10 at 6 (six) PM, as good a room as any for a voice like hers.
As a tunesmith, she also looks back to an earlier era, yet her mix of Rat Pack orchestral pop, torch song, blues, cabaret and occasional stadium rock bombast is uniquely her own. She likes a clever turn of phrase, yet she’s down to earth at the same time. Like Harold Arlen – someone she resembles thematically if not really stylistically – she’s created her own niche.
The new single, recorded live at the Metropolitan Room, is streaming at Bandcamp along with the rest of her catalog. It’s a big, angst-fueled piano anthem, with a gothic tinge in the same vein as Kristin Hoffmann‘s darker material. And it’s a showcase for Boes’ powerful flights to the top of her register, ending with an unexpectedly jaunty blues phrase. Her albums are also worth a spin. Some of those tracks sound like demos, with drum samples and various keyboard textures substituting for a full band. Others have a directness that matches her voice; she doesn’t waste notes. Even if this is a solo show, it’ll be interesting to see how far she’s come in the time since she put out her first album in 2009.
[republished, more or less, from Lucid Culture’s more rock-oriented sister blog New York Music Daily]
Catherine Russell is the kind of jazz luminary you might discover at three in the morning, belting her heart out with an obscure funk band who later change their name and style and become a huge draw on the indie rock circuit. In the fourteen years since that initial sighting – true story -she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way.Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.
The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.
The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.
The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).
Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.
The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:
Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette
The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.
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.
When you think of downtown New York music, one of the first names that probably comes to mind is Elliott Sharp. The iconic guitarist and eclectic-to-the-extreme composer graciously took some time out of getting ready for his gig with his mind-warping Terraplane blues project tomorrow night at Joe’s Pub to shed some light on what he’s been up to recently, and less recently.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing Joe’s Pub at 9:30 this Sunday the 11th. Are you going to break out the sax or is this strictly a guitar gig this time? Any special guests we should know about?
Elliott Sharp: Though I played alto sax and bass clarinet on the new cd Sky Road Songs, I won’t be playing them on the gig, just for logistical reasons. Our producer Joe Mardin will appear with us playing keyboard, guitar, percussion, and on vocals.
LCC: You’ve written rock, and film music, and jazz, and synphonic works. At this point in your career, what else is there left for you to do? Is there a new passion that you’re looking to explore further in the coming years?
ES: Though I’ve written a number of operas already, it’s what I’m most interested now. My oepra “Port bou,” about the last day in the life of Walter Benjamin is in the works for 2014 through Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, and through a couple of presenters in Germany
LCC: As chameleonic as you’ve been, composition-wise, your music has a consistent edge. Do you find that edge missing in New York these days?
ES: Certainly it’s missing in Manhattan, though I do find a lot of younger musicians are hungry for that feeling and one finds an audience in some of the Brooklyn venues such as Zebulon, Death By Audio, Freedom Garden…
LCC: You came up as no wave was peaking, and have been a pillar of the avant garde since the 80s. And now there’s a new documentary about you. Can you tell us a little about that?
ES: The doc is by filmmaker Bert Shapiro and was made a few years ago – he covered aspects of my composing, performing, and conducting with my ensemble Orchestra Carbon and had crews in Venice at the Biennale in 2007 and during my tour in China in 2006 shoot footage. It also delves into my personal life – my wife Janene Higgins has all the best lines. Our twins make an appearance as well – they were two years old then.
LCC: When I hear you play, sometimes I hear a little Sonny Sharrock, or James Blood Ulmer…or Eddie Van Halen. Yet as I understand it one of your biggest influences is Hubert Sumlin, someone you’ve collaborated with – and studied with. You’re probably aware that he was also Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player. What did you gain most from working and studying with him?
ES: I loved Sonny Sharrock’s playing when I first heard him back in 1969 – we got to be friends and collaborators later. Jimi was also a huge influence and Hubert of course from before I even knew his name, just hearing him on Howlin’ Wolf records when I was seventeen in 1968 and just starting to play guitar. The country blues players as well. Van Halen not so much – I was doing finger-tapping starting from when I first began playing, influenced by John Cage, Harry Partch, Stockhausen, Xenakis. I learned a lot from Hubert – from listening to his recordings, about phrasing, vocalizing on the guitar, making noises. Then after meeting him, watching how he kept his right hand so loose!
LCC: Your publicist says you can come up with a list of your five favorite moments onstage. I’m impressed: half the time I get offstage and I can’t remember a thing I just did. Can you give us a quick rundown of those moments?
ES: I’m cursed with an excellent memory. Can’t say “favorite”, but key moments include:
1. The first time really entering the void while improvising onstage at a rock festival in Ithaca, NY in 1971with my band St. Elmo’s Fire
2. Performing “samizdat” forbidden concerts in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1983 – this also extends to performing Hungary in 1985 and in the Soviet Union in 1989 the incredible intensity of the listeners! This was like life-and-death for them!
3. Performing my piece Crowds And Power for 21 musicians in 1982 at the Kitchen – my first chance to manifest some of my sonic ideas for large ensemble for a big audience at a historic NY venue
4. Performing for 15000 people outdoors at Pori Festival in Finland with a wild ensemble including Sonny Sharrock, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Edward Vesala, Bobby Previte, Connie Bauer, Tomas Stanko, and more
5. The first performance with Hubert Sumlin in 1994 backing him up with Terraplane at the Knitting Factory – we had met in Chicago in 1983 but this was different – an incredible honor and thrill.
6. The premiere of my orchestra piece Racing Hearts in 1998 by the RadioSinfonie Frankfurt conducted by Peter Rundel. An unmatched experience to hear my sonic ideas come to life in this way.
LCC: You’ve collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Deborah Harry…lots of people. Do you have a favorite among them? Is that even a fair question?
ES: Not really – every collaboration is different and to be savored for what it is. Ideally, you are each putting in equally and I usually find this to be the case. To improvise with Nusrat and his ensemble in a tiny radio studio was overwhelming. I enjoy a fantastic ongoing collaboration with the JACK string quartet – always challenging and stimulating. Improvising in duo with such old friends as Nels Cline, Frances-Marie Uitti, Bobby Previte, Reinhold Friedl, is like the continuation of a ongoing and wide-ranging conversation
LCC: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but I’m always curious how composers manage to keep a roof over their heads, and I know that royalties have dried up for lots of folks in recent years. What is your money gig these days? I know you do a lot of film and tv work…
ES: I still tour relentlessly – with two young children it’s difficult to say “no” to anything.
LCC: I always think of you as pushing the envelope and exploring new turf. To what extent is Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane at Joe’s Pub an oxymoron? Or is this a natural progression?
ES: Absolutely natural. Terraplane has played there before to good response. There’s not too many decent places to play in Manhattan plus Terraplane is an odd fit – we’re too weird for the blues clubs, too raucous for the jazz clubs, too unclassifiable for the rock clubs.
Tickets to the Joe’s Pub gig tomorrow night are $20 and are still available; the show starts at 9:30 sharp.
From their name, you’d think that Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires’ ambitions would be modest, and in a sense you’d be right: they’re there to serenade you casually rather than indulge in anything decadent. Frontman/tenor saxophonist Hefko sings with a deadpan, laconic, sometimes hangdog drawl over a generally laid-back, soulful backdrop provided by trumpeter Satoru Ohashi, guitarist Luca Benedetti, bassist Scott Ritchie and drummer Moses Patrou. Stylistically, they walk the line between blues, vintage 60s soul, country and jazz, often all at once, Hefko working the same kind of wryly clever, subtext-fueled lyrical vibe as Dan Hicks, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a mellow moment. Their album If I Walked on Water makes a welcome break from the legions of hot jazz combos blasting their way through one upbeat number after another: it draws you in rather than hitting you over the head.
They open as jaunty as they get, but with a wary minor-key cha-cha groove lit up by a stinging Benedetti guitar solo and a similarly apprehensive clarinet solo from Hefko. The second track, It’s Cold In Here is a jump blues, but a midtempo one, slinking along on Patron’s warmly tuneful piano. “The idea of lonely is getting lost in the crowd,” Hefko intones on the oldschool soul/funk number You’ve Gotta Take Steps. An electrified country blues done early 50s style with a clanging, period-perfect Benedetti solo, Color Me Blue has Hefko punning his way through; “Purple heart for bravery, red badge of courage makes you green with envy.”
The standout track here is Greyhound Coach, a gorgeously bittersweet countrypolitan swing tune, Hefko adding an absolutely morose solo over guest Neil Thomas’ accordion. But it ends well: “Picking up the pieces when this winter ceases,” Hefko insists, going out with a flourish from the sax. Likewise, Trust My Gut – a long life-on-the-road narrative – blends vintage soul with a sophisticated Willie Nelson-ish country vibe. This Song Won’t Sound the Same shuffles along with a downcast matter-of-factness, picking up with a soulful muted solo from Ohashi and then Hefko taking it out with a crescendo. The last song here, Get on the Train and Ride is typical of the songs here in that Hefko chooses his spots and makes them count: there’s the LIRR, and the Harlem line, and the Path…and the dreaded 3 AM trash train crawling through the subway. “You wanna get on and ride,” Hefko adds: no snarl, no sneer, just the basic facts, and he lets them speak for themselves. The album winds up with a pensive instrumental, You Took Away the Best Part, featuring some clever allusions to a couple of standards and a memorably misty Hefko tenor solo. Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires play a lot of gigs around town: this Sunday the 19th they play the jazz brunch at half past noon at the Antique Garage at 41 Mercer St.; on the 29th they’re at LIC Bar at 10.
Blues pianist/chanteuse Dianne Nola has a gorgeously purist album out titled Queen Bee, after the Slim Harpo song, which she imaginatively covers. Nola is oldschool: her playing is judicious. It’s clear that she knows Otis Spann and James P. Johnson, and she’s got a jackhammer left hand – we’re talking McCoy Tyner power here – and a sense of melody that likes the occasional wry flourish to drive a phrase home, but stays within the song. You won’t hear any endless volleys of Professor Longhair licks here, or for that matter, any cliches. Nola has a message to get out and that message is soul. Vocally, she’s a jazz singer at heart, but she doesn’t clutter the songs: her approach to the lyrics mirrors how she plays the piano, tersely and purposefully, as informed by gospel as it is the blues.
Most of the songs here are solo piano and vocals; multi-reedman Ralph Carney serves as a one-man dixieland band on the slow, torchy opening track, Down in the Dumps, and the closing cut, a tongue-in-cheek original, Garbage Man, which adds bluesy double meaning to the exasperated story of a woman trying to get some rest during the usual morning rattle and clatter. And blues harpist Jimmy Sweetwater adds some thoughtfully crescendoing work, notably on the sultry, swinging Do Your Duty, which hitches a restrained gospel joy to a New Orleans groove.
The covers here get an imaginative reworking: See See Rider is reinvented as languid boudoir ragtime, while a hard-hitting version of Leadbelly’s Grasshoppers in My Pillow plays up the lyric’s bizarrely surreal angst. Sippie Wallace’s Mighty Tight Woman is the most straight-up, matter-of-fact number, punctuated by a washboard solo. The title track hits with a resolute force, while Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me gets a twinkling, suspenseful approach, appropriate for a blueswoman who refuses to settle. But the originals here are the best. Free showcases Nola’s soaring upper register: this carpe diem anthem wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez songbook. By contrast, Pocketful of Blue comes together slowly, like Nina Simone would do in concert, and then works a dangerous, darkly sensual soul groove. It’s the most overtly jazzy track here and a quietly moody showcase for Nola’s ability to mine a subtly brooding phrase.
At her New York gig last week with the reliably charismatic LJ Murphy, Nola proved to be every bit the match for the noir bluesman, scatting her way cleverly through an a-cappella number and then joining him for a memorably careening duet. Watch this space for future shows.
“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.
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.
American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.
Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.
The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.
My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.