Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Al Muirhead's Canadian Quintet Undertones

Al Muirhead's Canadian Quintet
Chronograph Records

Western Canadian Jazz Icon, Al Muirhead, came to wider prominence in North America with the release of his JUNO-nominated debut album ‘It’s About Time’. At the age of 82 years old, he is making up for lost time with his fourth release in just three years. This recording features Al on the rare bass trumpet with his new Canadian Quintet, all Canadian jazz heavyweights: Kelly Jefferson (sax), Reg Schwager (guitar), Neil Swainson (bass) and Ted Warren (drums).

Muirhead, as trumpeter, composer, arranger, sideman and recording artist has been making listeners take notice for longer than jazz fans might realize. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1935, he was playing in the Regina Symphony and dance bands by age 12. Muirhead started listening to and being influenced by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. While Muirhead’s playing is infused with the indelible influence of the jazz giants, he brought his own flowing, melodic sound to a career in which he has worked with legends such as Diana Krall, Paul Anka, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Mills and Dizzy Gillespie.

The bass trumpet looks like an oversized version of that brass instrument with a sound like a valve trombone. There are ten songs, eight of them are standards and two originals with the overall tenor of the music being swing to bebop. It is a swinging ensemble and Jefferson is a fine solo foil for Muirhead's melodic trombone sorties with a clean tone and a driving style while guitarist Schwager has more than several occasions to display a fluid attack and thoughtful solos. His comping and the support of Swainson and Warren help generate the nicely paced swinging performances.

The album opens with this he easy bluesy stride of "A Tune For Cal," written for the memory his older brother. Muirhead has an ear for classics of the big band including "Rose Room" that opens with his attractive playing followed choice solos from Jefferson and Schwager with the bass and drums providing a sure foundation as well as a solid bass solo. I'm am most familiar with "'Deed I Do," from the Count Basie recording featuring Jimmy Rushing in which Muirhead delights with his slightly gruff lyricism. The relaxed swing of the rendition of "You're My Everything" is followed by Muirhead's "Take It To Bank Tom," dedicated to Canadian musician Tommy Banks, and also has a bluesy feel in the leader's relaxed solo. It is followed by a marvelous interpretation of the Mancini and Mercer classic waltz, "Charade," with Jefferson's driving, searching solo contrasting with the leader's raspy, yet lyrical, playing.

After a lovely "I Don't Stand a Chance With You," with a splendid solo from Muirhead, the album closes with a spirited rendition of "Four Brothers," a number chosen to honor his sister Elaine, with solo spots to the entire band. Muirhead and his quintet are an impressive, swinging ensemble that have produced a wonderful swinging release.

I received a download to review from a publicist. Here is an interview with Al Muirhead.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Grand Marquis Brighter Days

Grand Marquis
Brighter Days
Grand Marquis Music

Formed in the 1990's in Kansas City as a jump blues and swing band, Grand Marquis has established themselves as an institution in the region while morphing perhaps into a band mixing soul, New Orleans grooves and pop flavors that might be (as a reference point) likened to Blood, Sweat and Tears crossed with New Orleans brass bands. I say that because this writer would not describe this new release, their eighth album, as a blues album. But the description is not a comment on the merits of Grand Marquis or this recording.

The driving six-piece horn band is comprised of Bryan Redmond (lead vocals and saxophones); Chad Boydston (backing vocals and trumpet), Trevor Turla (backing vocals and trombone), Ryan Wurtz (guitar), Ben Ruth (backing vocals, uptown bass, and sousaphone), and Fritz Hutchinson (backing vocals and drums). While the publicity for this release likens Redmond's vocals to David Clayton-Thomas, I found his phrasing more in the vein of Van Morrison, although not quite as limber a singer. Still, there is much to enjoy whether in the opening "Another Love," or the title track with a strong trumpet solo as well as some shattering slide guitar. This is a well-rehearsed band with tight horns and a solid rhythm section.

A couple of songs take us musically to New Orleans with the Mardi Gras second-line feel of "Night Shift," where Redmond sings about not worrying about working on the night shift with the horns each strongly soloing as well as letting loose with some New Orleans polyphony with Ruth on sousaphone. After Boydston's strident trumpet, Redmond follows with some twisting clarinet and later some strong tailgating trombone from Turla. More New Orleans flavor can be heard on the brass band styled funk instrumental "It Don't Matter," where all the horns and Wurtz get to solo (Redmond wails on the baritone sax on this). "Ain't No Spark" is a funky number with a call and response between Redmond and the rest of the band with another burly trombone solo by Turla.

There is a reflective interpretation of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross," with a solid Redmond vocal and a nice arrangement of the brass to help frame his singing here (along with an imaginative trombone solo). A spirited take on the traditional "Down By the Riverside," is given a solid New Orleans brass band styled setting, taking out this very intriguing and entertaining recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. I have a few minor changes to the review that appeared in the September-October Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 380). Here is a recent performance of "Night Shift."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Blue & Lonesome Duo Pacing the Floor

Blue & Lonesome Duo
Pacing the Floor
EllerSoul Records

The Blue & Lonesome Duo is comprised of Richmond's Ronnie Owens on vocals, harmonica and foot drum and Gordon Harrower on vocals and guitar for an unassuming set of informal, stripped down blues performances that perhaps break new ground, but provides some very enjoyable listening. There is a mix of covers and some originals starting with a nice rendition of John Estes "Drop Down Mama" (wrongly credited to Honeyboy Edwards) with a nice vocal by Harrower with Owens providing some dynamic harp. It is followed by a traditionally based original, "Wine Headed Woman," with Owens singing through his harp mike (like Papa Lightfoot) and Harrower providing a strong bass line to anchor the performance.

"Mean Red Spider" is a nice take on a Robert Lockwood song that Muddy Waters covered. Harrower's attractive vocal is more in the vein of Lockwood. It is followed by a rollicking rendition of Jimmy Rogers' "Act Like You Love Me," with Owens playing superbly in the manner of the legendary Big Walter Horton. Another notable track is "Careless Love," with a heartfelt vocal and more fine harp from Owens. The title track is an original, easy rocking blues boogie with Owens upfront and Harrower providing simple, effective backing. There is even a blues duo cover of James Brown's lament "Try Me," along with a nicely rendered covers of Jimmy Rogers' "Out on the Road," and Slim Harpo's recording of "Raining in My Heart." On the latter song the two capture the feeling of Harpo's swamp blues Excello original.

While one would be hard-pressed to call this an essential recording, there is plenty to enjoy on this highly diverting recording.

I received a review copy from Ellersoul.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Vanessa Collier Honey Up

Vanessa Collier
Honey Up
Phenix Fire Records

After having her second album on Ruf, Vanessa Collier's latest is a crowd-funded, self-produced CD. The Berklee graduate (with degrees in Performance and Music Production & Engineering) is a threat as a singer, songwriter (she wrote 9 of the ten songs on this) multi-instrumentalist (playing various saxophones as well as guitar on this) and arranger. She has recruited quite a group of musicians for this including Nick Stevens on drums and percussion, Nick Trautmann on bass, Sparky Parker on guitar for several tracks, William Gorman on keyboards, Laura Chavez on guitar (8 of the ten tracks), Quinn Carson on trombone (5 tracks) and Doug Woolverton on trumpet (5 tracks).

Her website notes that she "weaves funk, soul, rock, and blues into every powerful performance," and that is quite evident on the varied musical program here which includes songs ranging from the opening New Orleans flavored "Sweatin' Like A Pig, Singin' Like An Angel," as she shouts about singing in the Southland. Vocally, she impresses with her presence while Laura Chavez blasts a some hot West Coast blues guitar prior to Collier taking a funky tenor sax solo in a King Curtis vein, and then trades fours with Woolverton. It isn't simply the performance of her and the core band, but her arrangement of the horns and the production, all of which is first-rate on this party track. There is more of a party mood on "Don't Nobody Got Time To Waste," with the brassy horns riffing in support set against a jubilant gospel-rooted groove. Gorman is very greasy on the organ while her sax soars against the rest of the band.

The title track is a funky song where she sings about being held up in her relationship and another who wants her to "honey up and kiss his behind." She takes a punchy sax solo while Gorman takes a keyboard solo set against Stevens' driving drumming. "Percolatin'" is a funky instrumental that showcases her funky R&B sax playing. Bassist Trautmann is spotlighted here as well. One of the most interesting, and enjoyable songs here is "Icarus," an imaginative telling of the Greek mythological figure. She plays acoustic guitar (providing an effective sparse backing) behind her melodious singing and a strong short saxophone solo. It is a change of pace from some of the more hard-hitting songs, including "The Fault Line," with more searing guitar from Laura Chavez. There is the effective employment of resonator guitars by Collier and Parker, along with Chavez's focused fretwork on "Bless Your Heart." For variety, there is a touch of country in her vocal on the horn-driven shuffle, "You're a Pill." Again Chavez shines while Collier's booting solo helps ride this track out. "Making lemonade out of lime can get a little crazy… " opens up the New Orleans-Ray Charles flavor on "You Get What You Get."

The album closes with a nice rendition of Chris Smithers' "Love Me Like a Man," that opens as a duet with just Parker's backing before the full band joins in to add punch behind her heartfelt singing and saxophone solo. As a matter of taste, there are a couple songs that I might have preferred a slightly slower tempo or a tad lighter touch on the drums, but I am again impressed by Collier as a singer, saxophonist, songwriter, and a producer. "Honey Do" is a striking recording that will have strong appeal to many.

I received my review copy from a publicist. I have made stylistic changes to the review that originally appeared in the September-October 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 380). Here she performs "Sweatin' Like A Pig, Singin' Like An Angel."

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Sullivan Fortner Moments Preserved

Sullivan Fortner
Moments Preserved

I was aware of pianist Sullivan Fortner from recorded accompaniments to vocalist C├ęcile McLorin Salvant. The New Orleans-bred pianist and composer has a gem of a new recording that certainly should delight many. With a career that has already had him playing with Ms. Salvant, as well as Roberta Gambarini; trumpeters Roy Hargrove (in whose band he was in for 8 years), Etienne Charles, and Ambrose Akinmusire; and guitarists John Scofield and Peter Bernstein, he sparkles on this recording with a trio that includes bassist Ameen Saleem (who played with him in Hargrove's band for seven years) and drummer Jeremy "Bean" Clemons. It also includes a couple of numbers with Hargrove.

There is a range of material including standards, imaginative interpretations of themes from television shows and poignant originals, starting with the lively rendition of "Changing Keys," the theme of TV's "Wheel of Fortune." Fortner's touch, inventiveness and his articulation might suggest Barry Harris who he studied with, but he is no Harris clone. He also benefits from the splendid rhythm section. Bud Powell's influence, through Barry Harris' mentoring, is evident on Fortner's original "Pep Talk," that also places the spotlight on Saleem and Clemons. "Elegy For Clyde Kerr" is an alluring ballad that was dedicated to the late New Orleans trumpeter and educator. Fortner's thoughtful, restrained playing is complemented by the rhythm. Bassist Saleem composed and kicks off "Beans and Cornbread," with its jaunty melody, Fortner's spirited playing and Saleem's own strongly played solo.

Roy Hargrove, on flugelhorn, joins the ensemble for a hauntingly lovely rendition of Elmo Hope's ballad, "Eyes So Beautiful As Yours," followed an exquisite reading of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Fortner's original "Barbara's Strut," displays echoes of Monk and Bud Powell. He follows it with a dazzling, Tatum-esque rendition of "Just in Time." Saleem and Clemons both also are featured on this breakneck performance. Then Fortner takes us to the Caribbean with the jubilantly performed calypso, New Port," followed by his solo impressionistic interpretation of Earth Wind & Fire's "Fantasy," with his mix of cascading passages and dissonance.

Other performances include a marvelous duet with Roy Hargrove "Monk Medley" which was comprised of Monk's "Ask Me Now" and "Monk's Mood." Fortner's beautiful solo rendition of a traditional gospel hymn, "The Solid Rock," also displays his taste as well as technique. It is another wonderful performance on a terrific recording.

I received a download to review from a publicist. I have made some minor stylistic edits to the review that originally appeared in the September-October 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 380). Here is a performance of him at Blues Alley in Washington DC for "Beyond Category with Eric Felton."

Monday, October 15, 2018

Ran Blake Christine Correa Streaming

Ran Blake Christine Correa
Red Piano Records

This is the latest recorded collaboration between Blake, the celebrated pianist and educator who is the founder and long-time chairperson of the Third Stream Department (currently called Contemporary Improvisation Department) at the New England Conservatory in Boston, MA, and Correa, the Mumbai born avant-garde vocalist who is on the faculty of The Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University. Consisting mostly of duets on material ranging from standards to Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," there are also three improvised piano solos and one solo vocal.

This is not one's usual piano-vocal duet although it starts with "Don't Explain," with Blake's spare, dissonant chords providing a foundation for Correa's haunting mix of half-spoken, half-sung vocal with Blake's own solo having an evocative quality. Correa's vocal on "Out of This World" is arresting as Blake's chords and short single note runs are more a response than a simple accompaniment. Correa sounds almost like a Cantor at the beginning of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," followed by Blake's spare statement of the theme and then she explores Margo Gunyan's lyrics with horn-like phrasing and a vocal having the passion of a raucous Sidney Bechet soprano sax. After this, the first of three interpretations of George Russell's "Stratusphunk" with unusual voicings and use of silence is a relief.

The bouncy "Bebopper" is comparatively mainstream with hints of the "I Love Lucy" theme and "Lullaby of Birdland" in Blake's accompaniment and solo. The brief "Ah, El Novio No Quiere Dinero," stands out with the minimal see-saw accompaniment and a wordless vocal that evokes the Mideast. A haunting rendition of Ivan Lins "Love Dance" is the longest performance here, while "Wende," composed in part by Blake, is a striking unaccompanied vocal. This album closes with "No More," which again displays both Correa's vocal and expressive range as she opens in a defiant manner before singing more traditionally. It is set against an intriguing accompaniment. One may wish to preview a few selections, as some may not be enamored by Correa's singing. Others, including this writer, will find the performances here compelling.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is a performance of the two from an earlier recording.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Lucky Losers Blind Spot

The Lucky Losers
Blind Spot
Dirty Cat Records

This is the third recording by the San Francisco band fronted by singers Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz (who also plays harmonica), backed by the core and of Ian Lamson on guitars, Chris Burns on keyboards, Endre Tarczy on bass and Robi Bean on drums. Kid Andersen, who produced this at his Greaseland Studios with Lemons and Berkowitz, adds his guitar to several tracks while other guests include guitarist Laura Chavez, saxophonist Nancy Wright, and violinist Annie Staninec. All the songs are originals by the two, mostly in conjunction with one-time Charles Brown guitarist Danny Caron.

Blues and classic soul are infused in these eleven rocking originals which display the strong vocals and ensemble playing of the prior recordings. There is plenty of solid, danceable grooves and plenty of treats in the backing whether the vocal duet on the opening "It's Never Too Early," with sound effects and solid harmonica. Laura Chavez adds her shattering guitar break behind Lemons' vocal on "Take the Long Road." There is a nifty lyric along with deep riffing horns on "Alligator Baptism" with a fine Berkowitz vocal against an insistent groove, a striking Kid Andersen solo, more solid harmonica. It is a performance that oddly suggests Sheryl Crow to this listener, perhaps because of the casualness that the vocal is delivered.

Lemons' "The River" has a swampy feel behind a pleading vocal with Lamson on slide guitar. "Supernatural Blues" has hints of Sonny Landreth's "Congo Square," and is an original twisting rocker with more shattering Chavez guitar and a nice harmonica solo, "Make a Right Turn" has a country-cajun feel with Staninec's violin standing out along with the strong singing here with Lemon being particularly robust.

The other songs all have their own charms and hooks with "Last Ride" standing out with Andersen's carefully employed sound effects adding to the atmosphere behind Lemons' vocal while "Love is Blind" has a swampy blues feel with Andersen adding a taut solo followed by Berkowitz's crying harp. "Blind Spot" is another fine recording from The Lucky Losers with fresh material, wonderful playing and first-rate vocals.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here are the Lucky Losers in performance.