Music Diary Reviews: Nothing Spooktacular Here!

Welcome to another edition of Music Diary Reviews! I am absolutely loving the variety of stuff I’ve been able to sample recently – there is pop, rock, fusion, jazz, and a couple of re-issues that have been thrilling my iPod for the last few weeks. There are young artists releasing new stuff, old artists with new material, an import, an interesting setting for an established player, a reissue of an out of print recording and a new collection by a great master!

And about the image at top? It IS Halloween week after all, and the folks at sheetmusicdigital have a funny sample scary sheet music image up that cracked me up!

So, with that … time for another quick look at some recent CD/MP3 album releases!

Jon Wirtz – Sea Level

Jon Wirtz – Sea Level

Summary: If you haven’t heard the name Jon Wirtz, that doesn’t mean you haven’t heard his piano playing before. He’s recorded and toured with folks like Melissa Etheridge, Matt Morris, and Justin Timberlake, and appeared with others on The Late Show with David Letterman, Ellen, and Lopez Tonight. Now he has released his first recording as a leader, and made the bold choice to release a solo piano recording for his debut!

After listening a couple of times I realized that I was drawing comparisons to other solo efforts from this year, including ones I featured here by Matthew Shipp and Vijay Iyer. And while Wirtz doesn’t quite yet measure up to these masters of the form, the fact that I was contemplating the comparisons should indicate the high level he HAS reached in his first recording. To be clear, I am saying this is really good stuff!

Wirtz plays covers of songs such as Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun and the standard Someday My Prince Will Come, as well as an array of original compositions. Black Hole Sun feels like a feature and it is obvious that Wirtz loves it (see the video below to here him play it), but as my family noted it feels somewhat out of place on the album and a bit over-wrought. The framework of the core song doesn’t seem to hold up to Wirtz’s ideas as well as something like Someday My Prince Will Come. To me Black Hole Sun was the low point of the record – and if you check out the video you will realize that if THAT is the low point … this is a pretty good recording!

Across the ten songs on the recording, there are some that are bluesy, funky, driving, poignant, and elegant. But the word I would choose to thread through everything is ‘beautiful’. I don’t recall which song triggered it in my mind, but at a certain point in my first listen I was reminded of some sections of solo piano by Keith Jarrett. There was a lyricism, a beauty and intimate melodic feel that really comes through in every song regardless of what else is happening. It makes it stand out as a recording and also makes it something that everyone I play it for enjoys and wants to know more about.

As an aside, the link above brings you to Jon Wirtz’s website. When this CD is released on November 3rd you will be able to grab it using a ‘pay what you want’ model from the site. Yet another thing I love about this! Be sure to check it out and if you like it, support the artist directly!

Choice Track (and why): Blue Ridge Drive – for me this just feels like a deeply personal song. I’m generally not a fan of ‘chatter’ around a song unless it serves an integral purpose (e.g. I love Jaco’s John & Mary but not Marcus Miller’s Nikki’s Groove), and here it feels like you have walked into a room with Wirtz and his family and as soon he starts playing this funky yet gorgeous song everyone goes silent as he shares something deep and intimate. It all just works and it is my favorite song as a result.

You Might Love This If: You are a fan of the beauty of Keith Jarrett’s ‘Koln Concert’ but are looking for a more compact, focused, song-oriented approach.

Here is a video of Jon Wirtz playing Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun:

Neil Young – Le Noise

Neil Young – Le Noise

Summary: Neil Young is interesting – on the one hand he has a rough voice and even back with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young wasn’t able to hold pitch at anywhere the level of his bandmates. Yet the songs he writes tend to have a melodic focus.

Through the years Young has gone back and forth between intimate acoustic recordings and full-on rock band efforts. This is both and neither all at once. It is a collection of songs featuring Young singing and strumming guitar, but in this case it is crunching distorted electric guitar. Sonically this immediately feels rough and discordantly uncomfortable – and at first it seems like this is what he is trying to do.

But regardless of intent, Le Noise fails to deliver – is it the lackluster songs, it is that the songs needed to go to either the full band or a softer treatment, or is the something in the overall production? I’m not sure, but whatever it is, this record falls flat, producing for me only a single semi-memorable song and no desire to listen to any of it again anytime soon.

Choice Track (and why): Walk With Me – with a harsh guitar opening leading into a plaintive wail and softer strumming, this seems to set up the dichotomy that you expect the remainder of the album to deliver. This song is intimate and personal and yet harsh all at once.

You Might Love This If: You like mashups of rock and folk … and if not, you might want to check out his Greatest Hits.

Here is a 40 minute video of Neil Young’s Le Noise features loads of clips and other stuff:

Esperanza Spalding – Esperanza Chamber Society

Esperanza Spalding – Esperanza Chamber Society

Summary: I am generally not a fan of vocal jazz … and yet I found myself immediately enjoying everything about this recording! Spalding at 26 is only on her second recording as a leader, but after the huge success of her first record feels very much in control.

She calls it Chamber Music in reference to the historically intimate feeling of chamber music – meant to be played in a room in a house with a very small audience. And that is how every single composition feels. The instrumentation includes Spalding singing and playing bass, with drums, piano, light percussion and a pair of string artists accompanying her. Arrangements are sparse, with seldom more than a few instruments playing at once.

There are a couple of covers here, but mostly these are Spalding’s compositions, showing her strength across singing, playing bass, composing and as producer for this recording. This is one that is destined for a place on loads of ‘top 10’ lists at the end of the year, and truly deserves a spot. Each year I am finding great new young artists like Spalding (and Iyer and Wirtz and Chris Potter and More), and enthusiastically waiting to see what they come up with next!

Choice Track (and why): Knowledge of Good and Evil – wordless vocals used as an instrument along with a superbly powerful composition just hooked me into this and never let me go! There is a subtle undertone that flows and builds before exploding with the full ensemble including the strings playing a strong figure on top. Very satisfying song!

You Might Love This If: This is one that will have appeal across boundaries – it is clearly jazz, but appeals to non-vocal fans like me, to pop fans, and there is something pleasing to just about everyone.

Here is a video of Esperanza Spalding talking about her music including plenty of music:

John Scofield & Metropole Orchestra – 54

John Scofield & Metropole Orchestra – 54

Summary: I remember Vince Mendoza from his time with drummer Peter Erskine’s group (and Erskine from Weather Report), but had never tracked him as a solo artist. More than five years ago, Mendoza took over leading the Metropole Orchestra, and for his latest project brought in former collaborator – and one of my favorite guitarists – John Scofield for a project with a 54 member large ensemble … and arrangements that feel at times huge and other times intimate.

All but two of the compositions are from Scofield, ranging from his early angular post-modern jazz work through his early electric jazz into his more flowing and lyrical works straight up to the super-funky Polo Towers. Yet none of them pass through Mendoza’s hands without becoming something completely new. Polo Towers is a great example, as it is highly guitar driven funk, but the orchestra brings a whole new dimension to the small ensemble piece without sacrificing any of the power. In fact, halfway through the song nearly stops and completely changes tone for a period, before slowly building to a powerful return!

The Metropole Orchestra, aside from a powerful rhythm section, is dominated by horns to the point you might think of it as just a big band … but then along comes ‘Honest I Do’. After that you wish there was even more string focus on the recording!

I bought 54 for the simple fact that it was a Scofield recording – yet I haven’t been a huge fan of his last two specialized projects (the Ray Charles music and Piety Street), so I was a bit wary. However, this is my favorite album of his in several years and what I consider his best work outside of a small ensemble ever!

And much of the credit belongs to Mendoza and his amazing arrangements. He is doing stuff similar to Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue – taking a huge band and making it extremely flexible and versatile and wringing surprising sounds and taking it in new directions. I have started digging back into more stuff by Mendoza as a result … great stuff!

Choice Track (and why): Carlos – a classic Scofield composition, this version is at once familiar and alien. The opening hits highs and lows and leaves the middle harmonic space empty, which has an immediately intriguing impact. Scofield plays and you think you know … and then things set into motion. You know this is going to be good – but it just keeps getting better across the nearly nine minutes!

You Might Love This If: You like guitar-centric compositions by a great master accompanied by modern and interesting large ensemble arrangements. If you are a fan of Scofield or modern jazz guitar, this is a must-have.

Here is a video of ‘Carlos’ … just the recorded video with some images:

Tetsuo Sakurai – Vital World

Tetsuo Sakurai – Vital World

Summary: I generally shy away from imports because , well because they are expensive! But when someone sent me a message saying that Tetsuo Sakurai’s new record was like Jonas Hellborg’s trio meets Stanley Clarke from Return to Forever … I just had to check it out!

Vital World is a rock-centric fusion power-trio effort with Sakurai on bass, Greg Howe on guitar, and Dennis Chambers on drums. Clearly a talented group, the focus here is laying down tight power structures and intricate unison lines for the leads to improvise over.

The musicianship is never in question – from start to finish this is highly accomplished and polished fusion playing at the highest level. There are two issues: compositions and improvisation. The compositions are … well, mostly a terrible blend of trite hard rock / metal and mid-70’s ‘show off’ fusion. A Tear of the Clown initially feels like mid-80’s hair metal … and when the lead guitar states the melody you can practically see Tawny Kitaen on the hood of the car! Then you have these ultra-fast unison runs that are exciting but lack any direction or purpose other than reminding us just how talented the trio is.

Perhaps because of the very weak underpinnings, most of the improvisations are a series of clich├ęd licks and runs and ultrafast races around the fretboard. Exciting stuff, but as musically nourishing as cotton candy! Even the single ballad – Father – feels like it was done before and better by guitarists like Jeff Beck and bassists such as Jaco Pastorius. Neither one can simply play a ballad without showing their chops, and just when I started to connect with Tetsuo Sakurai’s lyricism in his solo, in comes Howe raining notes all over the place.

Needless to say, this was a disappointment for the $30 it cost me. When I look back to the 70’s fusion era, so much of my record collection has never been digitized because it amounts to really talented musicians showing off and trying to be rock stars. Tetsuo Sakurai looks like a badass dude on the cover, and apparently that is what is attracting fans and selling records for him. Sadly the end result is a very shallow and forgettable recording.

Choice Track (and why): Another Kingdom – this feels like it could be right out of the Return to Forever era but with much better audio production, with a monster unison run to start the song that leads into a unison melody that is completely searing. Gratuitous? You betcha, but this is the only song that really knows what it is trying to be … and actually accomplishes that goal!

You Might Love This If: You love listening to seriously talented musicians in a rock-centric instrumental format with their skills on full display.

Here is a video of the trio playing Another Kingdom:

OK, since the comparison was brought up, here is a 1996 recording of Jonas Hellborg’s trio with the late Shawn Lane on guitar and Jeff Sipe on drums playing Time is the Enemy, another version of which was later released on the excellent Personae recording … I would definitely recommend that over Vital World 100% of the time.

John McLaughlin – The Promise

John McLaughlin – The Promise

Summary: One reality with jazz recordings is that the small labels producing the majority of them go out of business on an annual basis and records go out of print – even from legends like John McLaughlin!

Originally released in late 1995, The Promise has long been out of print. So when I heard it was coming back in print on November 2nd I decided to pull out my original CD and see what I thought after all these years. I found his work in that era hit-or-miss, and hadn’t ever put any of it on my iPods … so I had to dig it out of my ‘CD overflow box’, digitize it and listen once again.

All I can say is wow! I am amazed first that this was allowed to go out of print, and second that I didn’t keep this on heavy play! I would easily rank this in my top five McLaughlin recordings. Perhaps what put me off was the diversity of content – he shows bits of everything he was doing past, present and future here – from straight fusion to his Shakti work to the more lyrical and contemplative directions to his more recent modern looks at the world of electric jazz.

There is something here for just about everyone – and it seems everyone gets a chance to join in here … but without it ever feeling cluttered with guests like a certain recent Herbie Hancock record. The songs from the gorgeous Django to an organ trio read of Thelonius Melodius with organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Dennis Chambers (yes, same guy as above), to the late great Michael Breaker in peak form on Jazz Jungle, to intimate songs such as Amy and Joseph and The Wish and El Ciego. We even get a song that could have been on his late 80’s Mahavishnu incarnation in No Return.

I was enthusiastic in my review of McLaughlin’s recent To The One as his best effort in years, and while comparisons are not very useful I find that The Promise is even better. McLaughlin is playing at an incredible level, as are all of his collaborators. The compositions soar, the variety keeps you guessing, and everything works extremely well.

Choice Track (and why): Django – what makes a song a standard is a composition that is distinct, a melody that is unique and memorable and a harmonic structure that is robust to a variety of styles. This was written by John Lewis and originally recorded by the Modern Jazz Quartet … yet in the hands of two modern guitar masters, McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, it feels fresh and modern. It is a gorgeous song that really shows the best of these two giants!

You Might Love This If: You are a fan of … well, just about any style of guitar-centric jazz and have missed out on this classic. I am not sure what the reissue will include over and above the original 11 songs, but even at that it is very much worth grabbing … in case it disappears again!

Here is a video of the song Django from The Promise:

Louis Armstrong – Hello Louis

Louis Armstrong – Hello Louis

Summary: If you ask ‘hardcore’ modern jazz fans about Louis Armstrong, they will likely heap praise on the innovations of the 1920’s and 1930’s while completely ignoring the so-called ‘hit years’ of the late 1950’s through 1960’s. While the jazz world was embracing modal music and free jazz, Louis was appearing in music, fronting Dixieland ‘trad jazz’ groups, singing more and more and playing the trumpet less and less, and appearing more and more in the popular media. Early this month Hip-O Select released a 2-CD set of songs from the period 1963-1969, essentially right up to his final recordings.

While I had a ‘Verve Silver Collection’ of stuff from the late 1950’s, until getting this 2-CD collection I only had three songs from his later period on my iPod: What a Wonderful World, Stormy Weather, and I Go a Right to Sing the Blues. What this collection reminded me is something many jazz fans need to remember: just because he was no longer the visionary and innovator in the 1960’s that he was in the 20’s and 30’s doesn’t mean he stopped making great music … there is a load of excellent stuff here!

There are 39 songs spread across 2 CDs, with some from ‘Louis Armstrong & the All Stars’ and other from ‘Louis Armstrong & Orchestra’. Some highlights include the title track, Moon River, A Kiss To Build A Dream On, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, and of course What a Wonderful World. The arrangements are mixed nicely between small group (All Stars) and large ensemble (Orchestra). There are plenty of ‘trumpet first’ such as a rollicking version of When The Saints Go Marching In along with the great vocals.

If there was a concern it would be about the overall content in terms of being a ‘box set’. Largely what we get are the Hello Dolly and What a Wonderful World records along with some songs he did for Mercury records and a few bonus tracks. However, those 13 Mercury songs have been long unavailable and were remastered for the first time according to one Armstrong historian. Those tracks along with two rare Kapp singles from 1968 add greatly to the value, especially for the $18 you pay for this at the Amazon MP3 store.

In a time when so much music – from Miles to Ornette to Coltrane and more – seemed to be very serious and at times filled with a heavy darkness reflecting the serious events of the 1960’s, Louis Armstrong once again filled his songs with a pure joy and abounding spirit filled with hope and love. It is a great thing to hear, and makes this collection simply a pleasure to hear.

Choice Track (and why): What a Wonderful World – look, I danced with my mother to this song at my wedding, and it is just such a beautiful song.

You Might Love This If: You like What a Wonderful World but don’t own it and want more of the great last works of one of the greatest and most important figures in 20th century music.

Here is a video of Louis performing Someday live on TV:

Here is a video of Louis performing What a Wonderful World live:

At the beginning of this review I made it clear that we would cover a lot of ground, and between jazz, rock, fusion, classics, reissues, repackaging, new material and debut recordings I think this review lives up to that promise! There is something here for just about any fan of music to latch onto and enjoy, and I hope you go out and support these artists as much as you can!

I was thrilled to be able to preview the upcoming debut recording by Jon Wirtz, Sea Level. I have talked often about how difficult it is for new artists, especially in music like jazz with an inherently smaller audience. I have enjoyed seeing the way Jason Parker has worked diligently to self-promote and spread the word about his music in a variety of novel ways, so it is great to see Jon Wirtz adopting many similar methods. Of course, as someone who also supports small video game developers, I was nervous because sometimes you want to support someone but the end product isn’t very good. So I was thrilled and relieved that Sea Level is such a high quality debut recording that I was comparing it to some of the top releases of solo piano music in recent years!

It is also nice to see great artists who don’t suffer a ‘sophomore slump’ – as a society we seem to love seeing artists ascend and quickly fall, so I am glad that Esperanza Spalding is succeeding. It is always great to just happen upon music such as John Scofield’s 54, and I am happy that ‘Hello Louis’ re-opened my ears to the fact that Satchmo had many decades of greatness to offer. And sadly, there were a couple of things I couldn’t recommend, but in each case I offered an alternative – one by the same artist and one by someone else!

As always, as I close this set of reviews I already have some new stuff I’m collecting and trying to hold off listening to until I’m done with these. There are loads of great music being made all the time … so get out there and listen to something that challenges your ears today!

Until next time, enjoy the great joys of whatever music you love!

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews


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