Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Dianne Nola’s Queen Bee: Gorgeous Purist Blues

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.

May 30, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Dwight & Nicole and Howard Fishman at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/11/08

Dwight & Nicole took the night from shithouse to penthouse (a putrid, suburban Lite FM act had preceded them) in the span of seconds. A cynic might consider them a lounge act, but a closer listen reveals them to be the real thing, a completely authentic, 1960s style soul act. Dwight Ritcher was battling a nasty cold, but he still managed to nail his harmonies and play his Flying V guitar with a virtuosic, purist touch, very reminiscent of Steve Cropper. Nicole Nelson is the real deal, a genuine soul singer with a subtle, jazzy touch, stylistically evocative of Sharon Jones at her gentlest, or Dinah Washington in straight-ahead mode. Tonight she didn’t use any melisma, and hardly any vibrato, and held back from belting until she really needed to go to the well. When she did, it was spine-tingling. Ritcher and Nelson have the kind of intuitive chemistry that comes with toiling night after night in dives of all kinds, and it was clear that she was making up a lot of her lyrics on the spot. Yet she sang them as if she’d been living in them her whole life. Exuberance, joy, sadness, heartbreak: every emotion she tackled, she nailed them all.

The duo also have a deep feel for the blues. They recast Slim Harpo’s Hip Shake as a slinky, seductive soul number, and did a spot-on version of the Muddy Waters classic Honeybee. The most delightful thing about the original is the counterintuitive, staccato way Waters used his low E string to punctuate the phrases. Ritcher obviously knows the song well: his playful, purist take would have made Muddy proud. At the end of the night (the duo played between the other bands’ sets and then again after pretty much everybody had left), Ritcher moved to piano and, after some urging, Nelson picked up his guitar. She ought to play more: with her impeccable sense of melody and good taste, one can only imagine how good she’d sound if she could work up a few songs, or a few vamps.

Blues guitarist Howard Fishman got his start in New York busking on the Bedford Avenue L train platform. He was the first artist to have a weekly residency at Pete’s Candy Store, and released two excellent albums of original songs (the second of which actually made our top 20 list a few years ago, in a former incarnation). He built up quite a following, and then, completely without warning, he turned into Dave Matthews. And immediately fell off the face of the earth. He’s back, if not exactly humbled, tonight accompanied by a first-rate crew including Roland Satterwhite on violin, Ian Riggs on upright bass and a superb trombone player who stole the show with his soaring, crescendoing solos. Fishman mixed older material with a few covers, including a subtle and soulful version of the brilliant Willard Robison obscurity Where Are You. Having left the rock and the jam-band stuff behind, he’s taken on a little bit of a gypsy edge in his chordal attack, giving his material considerable added bite. Each of the supporting cast took a turn on vocals, Satterwhite impressing the most with a Chet Baker-style take on Pennies from Heaven to close the set.

Fishman’s stage persona is indifferent, sometimes abrasive, qualities which can be admirable for a punk performer (John Lydon made a thirty-year career out of acting that way), but that could make it more difficult for someone more reliant on audience rapport. Which might explain why Fishman was at Banjo Jim’s tonight instead of headlining the Gershwin Hotel as he triumphantly did in his first incarnation as a bluesman. He still sings like your older uncle who only shows up for birthdays and seders, but the lyrical wit and understated, purist musical sensibility that were part and parcel of his earlier work are back and in full effect. As good as it is to be able to reinvent yourself, it’s just as useful to be able to return to a previous incarnation, especially as captivating as Fishman used to be and has become again.

January 11, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment