Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 9/26/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #856:

Betty Carter – The Betty Carter Album

This album was so far ahead of its time it’s not funny. Then again, Betty Carter herself was way ahead of her time: she could say more in a single minute inflection than a lot of singers could in a career. The former Lillie Mae Jones did an Iggy Pop, adopting a nickname she once hated (jazz players in her native Detroit in the 1940s called the irrepressible teenager “Betty Bebop” because her singing was so more imaginative and complex than the simple scatting her bandmates wanted her to do). She was also one of the first jazz stars to go independent: having abandoned the tour circuit to raise a family, her label dropped her. This one was her big comeback, the 1972 debut release by her own Bet-Car label. And it’s characteristically surprising, considering how much quieter this is compared to how joyously intense she could get onstage. Yet while Carter could wail with anyone, it’s her subtlety that ultimately set her apart from her contemporaries, and that nuance really cuts through here, in a mix of standards like You’re a Sweetheart and Sunday, Monday or Always, along with originals like the suspenseful, intense What Is It, Sounds (Movin’ On) and a very brief take of Tight (a live showstopper). The band behind her – Danny Mixon or Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Louis Hayes on drums – follow her lead, keeping it smart and simple – not an easy job, considering what a legendary hardass she was to work with. Rhythm and meter take a back seat to emotion: Carter’s voice leads and everyone follows. And yet it’s not self-indulgent: she dives into these lyrics, especially her own, whether they’re celebratory, plaintive or wary, particularly on the cautionary tale Children Learn What They Live. Carter peaked late in her career: pretty much anything she did after 1980 is worth hearing. Good luck finding a torrent (the title doesn’t exactly make it easy to search for): you may have to grab a bunch of other stuff in order to get this one.

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September 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Sara Serpa Make the Ultimate Noir Vocal Jazz Album

This is what David Lynch was going for with Angelo Badalementi and Julee Cruise but never quite managed to nail. Sara Serpa’s expertise is vocalese, a style at which the Portuguese-born chanteuse is ideally suited, yet it’s something she only utilizes on a couple of numbers on her new album Camera Obscura. Her English accent may not be perfect yet but her interpretation of the arrangements here, and her teamwork with her former New England Conservatory teacher, the legendary noir jazz pianist Ran Blake, is extraordinary. She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability: her delivery is completely unadorned, yet absolutely resolute and ultimately fearless. This is arguably the best album so far this year in jazz, or for that matter any style of music, every bit as original as Blake’s landmark 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. A cynic might say that it’s what Hilary Kole should have done on her album with Brubeck and Hank Jones and all those other legends but didn’t.

Nat King Cole’s When Sunny Gets Blue gets a characteristically understated, minimalist treatment. As she does throughout the album, Serpa brings the most minute details of the lyrics vividly to life, particularly the disquieting ones. When she sings, “She lost her smile, changed her style, somehow she’s not the same,” a subtle downturn takes on the weight of an earthquake. Janet McFadden’s playful Our Fair Cat introduces a furry friend who is a murderer in theory – and in practice as well, Blake juxtaposing a blithe bounce with a grim gleam, Serpa taking it solo all the way up to the top of her range, completely deadpan, then Blake launches into a twisted little waltz. Folhas (Leaves), an original setting of a poem by Eugenio de Andrade offers something of a respite from the brooding intensity.

The Short Life of Barbara Monk is a spellbinding noir jazz waltz by Blake. Serpa’s wounded vocalese makes a chill-inducing contrast with Blake’s sinister music-box tinges – and takes the anguish up a notch when Blake turns on a dime and shifts into a fast Mingus-esque swing groove. A second Nat Cole cover, I Should Care, clocks in at a brief minute forty-two, dedicated to Monk and as to the point as it can be considering its murky ambience. A tune by Monk himself, Nutty has Serpa carrying the rhythm over jagged incisions by Blake. Driftwood is a terrifically apt Chris Connor homage, Serpa warmly remembering the beach in summer – and suddenly Blake hits an ominous chord, then leaves her out to dry, and the result is spine-tingling. The version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town follows in the same vein. “I care for you much too much” is laden with regret rather than a celebration, Serpa’s voice taking on a desperate tinge as the piano picks up the pace. “Be good to me please -” she stops just short of imploring. “We touch too much,” she asserts with a knowing roll of the eyes. They end the album with April in Paris, which starts out more like the dead of winter and stays like that most of the way, a far cry from the conventionality of the Sinatra hit. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment