Lucid Culture


Name That Tune with the International String Trio’s Help

Old habits die hard. If you go back as far as the radio-and-records era, you were probably used to having a cd – or if you were lucky, a vinyl album – to refer to for song titles and now-archaic things like liner notes and musician credits. As fast as all those things are disappearing, jazz bloggers are obsessive about them. But sometimes it pays to resist OCD and leave the news release and the promo copy out of sight and just get a handle on the music. That’s the approach that everybody ought to take with the International String Trio’s new album Movie Night. Just listening to Slava Tolstoy’s nimble gypsy jazz guitar, Ben Powell’s elegantly nuanced violin and Ippei Ichimaru’s terse bass will get your head bopping and eliminate any prejudices that might arise from a peek at the credits.

Here’s why – this is a concept album, a collection of the band’s favorite movie music. It’s not known what opinions the band have, if any, about the movies themselves. Which is why it’s best just to catch the lively, carefree violin and gypsy jazz allusions on the breezy first track and ask yourself, what on earth is that? It’s too straightforward to be a pop song and you probably won’t recognize it, and here’s why: it’s the Feather Theme from Forrest Gump. In case you’re wondering, there’s nothing from Xanadu, or any of the Friday or Elvis movies here – although those flicks, forgettable as they were, all had some good tunes.

If gypsy jazz is your thing, you will enjoy the trio’s versions of the two Django Reinhardt classics here: the group gives them both the groove and the bite those songs deserve. What is that sad waltz with the biting violin solo out? That’s I Will Wait for You, a Michel Legrand composition from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And what’s that jaunty early swing number? Singing’ in the Rain? That’s right – these guys transform that moldy old schlockfest into something actually listenable.

Track six is a pensive, pretty ballad: could this be French? No, it’s the Schindler’s List Theme, by John Williams. That other understatedly moody, pretty waltz? Stephen Flaherty’s Once Upon a December, from the film Anastasia. And that sprightly Irish reel? That’s an acoustic cover of the Dropkick Murphy’s I’m Shipping Up to Boston and it’s way better than the original, Sox fans be damned!

Is that other waltz Haydn? No, it’s Shostakovich, done nonchalantly as gypsy jazz with Powell out front and center. David Raksin’s Theme from Laura is well-known, as is Maurice Jarre’s Somewhere My Love – but who knew that one had a laid-back, minor intro before the syrupy theme kicks in? The album closes with a matter-of-fact version of the Tennessee Waltz – wait a minute, that’s Ashokan Farewell. Aw heck, all those old folksingers ripped each other off. Who is the audience for this? Gypsy jazz fans may find these takes inspired but some of the source material on the weak side; otherwise, fans of the more accessible side of chamber and folk music won’t go wrong giving this a spin.

November 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, folk music, irish music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gypsy Jazz and Beyond with Ben Powell

Jazz violinist Ben Powell has an impressively diverse new album out, New Street. Pitched as a tribute to Stephane Grappelli, it’s exactly that, not a homage, a mix of originals and gypsy jazz classics. Powell has a distinctive sound, a glistening, pure tone and the precision of a classical player whether he’s spinning off glissandos, bending blue notes or going way up into harmonics and shows off an impressive command of a lot more than just gypsy jazz. The big news is that a handful of tracks feature Gary Burton and Julian Lage: the rest of the band includes Tadataka Unno on piano, Aaron Darrel on bass and Devin Drobka on drums, along with Adrien Moignard guesting with some aptly Django-esque guitar, and Linda Calise singing in fluently nuanced French on an imaginatively reinvented samba version of La Vie En Rose.

The album opens with a rather counterintuitive choice, an expansively reminiscent Powell ballad, Judith, done as a violin/bass/piano trio with a Georgia on My Mind vibe and a glistening piano solo from Unno. The carefree, dancing title track is a two-parter, beginning with a trip to Brazil via Joe Jackson and then morphing into a briskly swinging gypsy tune that ends up looping a phrase out of Grieg. They follow that with Monk for Strings, vividly evoking that composer but with an animated, scurrying rhythm and a playful series of gypsy swoops and dives at the end. Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love is transformed into gypsy jazz, Moignard adding spiraling, spiky energy on the frets, Powell’s penetrating, intense solo taking the energy up even further. They do the sentimental old ballad Sea Shell as a jazz waltz, Powell’s flights to the uppermost registers so clean and fluid that it’s almost as if he’s playing a saw. The most intense number here is Swinging for Stephane, a Powell original that recalls Grappelli but doesn’t ape him, with a couple of absolutely searing, bluesy violin solos and a neat false ending.

The cuts with Burton and Lage here are also choice. Interesting, Lage seems largely relegated to rhythm, which he keeps simple and elegant. Grappelli’s Gary – a gesture of appreciation from the late violinist to the vibraphonist – has a bucolic, summery sway, silky violin and smartly judicious, warmly bluesy work from Burton. Next is a steady, bittersweet take on La Chanson Des Rues, seemingly a prototype for Just a Gigolo (which Jenifer Jackson once covered and knocked out of the ballpark). Burton’s artful interpolations, peeking from behind the guitar and violin here, are absolutely luscious. The trio wind up the album with a richly sonorous romp through Grappelli’s Piccadilly Stomp, vibes and electric guitar blending into a lush bell choir, Lage showing off an impressive fluency in Django-style spirals: who knew he was also into this kind of music? It’s a treat for anyone who loves gypsy jazz (meaning pretty much everybody).

July 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment