Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Doug Webb’s New Renovations Takes It Up a Notch

Last summer, jazz saxophonist Doug Webb released an entertainingly trad album titled Midnight. This new one, from the same session, is called Renovations. If we’re in luck, maybe we’ll live to see them reissued together as Midnight Renovations. Intriguing title, huh?

This one is a lot more upbeat, occasionally pretty intense. Buckle your seatbelt – bet you’ve never heard as energetic a version of Satin Doll as the one that has the band jumping out of their socks as animatedly as they do for seven minutes and change here. Besides Webb on tenor, there’s Joe Bagg on piano, Stanley Clarke on upright bass and Gerry Gibbs on drums. Larry Goldings’ casually rippling, summery piano provides an apt backdrop for the languid soprano sax lines on a swaying midtempo version of Then I’ll Be Tired of You – and his organ background comes through fluid and concise, a long solo taking everything up to a crescendo that holds back just thisshort of joyous. An especially amped version of Vernon Duke’s hit I Can’t Get Started, from the long-forgotten film Follies of 1936, has Webb charging hard alongside Mahesh Balasooriya’s express-train piano.

With Goldings manning the throttle again, a tensely swinging I’ve Never Been in Love Before contrasts with Webb’s long, comfortable runway landing, and then brings in some genial blues with the piano. They take Nat Cole’s You’ve Changed doublespeed at just the right random moment; Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away from Me, the bluesiest tune here, is also unsurprisingly the most rustic.

Toots Thielemans’ Bluesette is reincarnated, stripped down to what’s basically a rapidfire two-chord jam, Webb’s soprano sax taking a clarinet-like tone, Balasooriya spinning off some wildfire cascades to Webb who takes them even higher: it’s a triumphant pinnacle in an unlikely setting, more than hinting at how much further outside they might be capable of going if they went on longer. The album’s closing cut, Henry Mancini’s Slow Hot Wind – now there’s a title for the moment, huh? – is sort of the mirror image of that, slowly pulsing and sultry, with a geniunely fluid, relaxed solo by Clarke where he doesn’t overvibrato it, Webb’s tenor pushing the caravan along with a stream of eighth notes, Goldings’ dynamics refusing to let the suspense go too far one way or another, Webb finally joining him and they tumble into the vortex. It’s another welcome out-of-control moment – Lisa Simpson, eat your heart out. If you’re wondering what that’s all about, Webb voices her sax parts on the tv show. This one’s out now on Posi-tone.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment