good listening, vol. one

Here's some excerpts from my weekend piece on new jazz CDs in The Wall Street Journal, in case you missed it. What did not make it in -- a matter of timing, not taste -- is Herbie Hancock's latest, River: The Joni Letters (Verve): This is truly rewarding listening. Hancock recasts Mitchell's songs as sung by vocalists ranging from Tina Turner to Luciana Souza with invention and grace. But the best singing on the CD comes from Wayne Shorter's tenor and soprano saxophones; there's deeper humanity in Shorter's hushed tones and more conversational meter to his phrasing than nearly any vocalist can muster. This CD may center around Hancock's (and Shorter's) relationship with Mitchell and her songs, but more significantly and rather gloriously, it extends the four-decades-plus bond between Hancock and Shorter.

Dee Dee Bridgewater
Red Earth: A Malian Journey (DDB Records/Emarcy/Universal)

Despite her place in the top rank of American jazz vocalists and her crossover success, Dee Dee Bridgewater has often felt displaced. "I'm always trying to fit in somewhere," she once told me. This new disc, which finds Ms. Bridgewater and her band in collaboration with a cast of Malian musicians and singers, is no further pose: It's the manifestation of a new sense of self, thanks to Ms. Bridgewater's alliance with multi-instrumentalist and producer Chieck Tidiane Seck.
With Mr. Seck as guide, Ms. Bridgewater began her immersion in Malian music by sitting in at jam sessions, singing wordlessly in the company of harp-like koras, lute-like ngonis, and calabashes (drums made from gourds). She penned English lyrics to traditional Malian tunes, and found rapport with some of Mali's leading instrumentalists -- ngoni virtuoso Sékou "Bassékou" Kouyaté (here, on "Children Go 'Round/Demissénw") and kora master Toumani Diabaté ("Bad Spirits/Bani"). On several songs she shares the spotlight with leading Malian female singers, including African superstar Oumou Sangare; the contrast of vocal styles is fascinating. Though Malian music lends itself comfortably to blues, "Red Earth" mostly transcends this connection. Yet on the title track, when the blues do take hold, Ms. Bridgewater delivers them with bite and nuance, in tandem with griot Fatomata Kouyaté: They sing of the red earth of Bamako, in Mali, and of Bridgewater's birthplace, Memphis, Tenn., conflating the two into a single fertile soil.

Luciana Souza
The New Bossa Nova (Verve)

It's become de rigueur to translate pop tunes into jazz vernacular. And Brazilian bossa nova has long been a part of both traditions. But what about treating pop songs as bossa tunes? And who better to tackle that task than singer Luciana Souza? Born in Brazil, the daughter of bossa composers, she's also a graduate of American jazz academies, with degrees from Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. And she's a strong conceptualist, with fine albums of her own design, including two Grammy-nominated projects.
The soft strums of guitarist Romero Lubambo, Ms. Souza's frequent duet partner and countryman, support this "bossa-fication" of songs written and previously recorded by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. James Taylor's "Never Die Young" seems stiff to the form's natural lilt, but most tracks work, showcasing Ms. Souza's confident yet still advancing skills. The least likely song choice, Elliot Smith's cryptic "Satellite," ends up the clearest realization of her theme. Far from the aloof trifles that often caricature bossa, Ms. Souza's vocals are direct and always informed by the drama of the lyric. She weaves a narrative about love, romantic and mystical, that reaches its climax with a cleverly syncopated version of the 1966 Beach Boys hit "God Only Knows."

Mathew Shipp
Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear)

Since his arrival in New York more than 20 years ago, Matthew Shipp has become a darling of the downtown improvised-music scene. Much of his recent work for the Thirsty Ear label has explored new terrains -- hip-hop and electronica -- with mixed results. But last year's "One" found him alone at the piano, with stirring, sometimes hypnotically satisfying results.
Here, Mr. Shipp returns to the piano-trio format. Joe Morris, better known as a guitarist, plays bass; though he lacks the authoritatively woody tone and propulsion of Mr. Shipp's usual bassist, William Parker, Mr. Morris nonetheless crafts lyrical low-end lines that ably anchor Mr. Shipp's spidery improvisations. Drummer Whit Dickey rises to the task of managing Mr. Shipp's ebb-and-flow approach to rhythm, swinging overtly on just two selections.
Mr. Shipp has crafted a distinct language out of knotty phrases (like the title track's figure, which suggests both "Caravan" and "Night in Tunisia"), dense chords, emphatic crashes and bright accents: All of it draws on free-jazz and insider-bebop, and on the mood shifts and energy flow of alternative pop. This is his personal sonic universe, and, somewhat unexpectedly, it achieves a goal elusive to most free-jazzers and alt-poppers: Accessibility.

Marty Ehrlich & Myra Melford
Spark! (Palmetto)

Two versions of Marty Ehrlich's "Hymn" frame this duet recording with pianist Myra Melford. The first begins with clipped tones from Mr. Ehrlich's alto saxophone, answered by Ms. Melford's staccato stabs; Mr. Ehrlich's tone grows fuller, his notes slowly forming phrases, with Ms. Melford sliding gently into two-hand gospel form. On the second, Ms. Melford plays the tune outright for nearly two minutes until Mr. Ehrlich find a sidelong entry note; from there, the two begin something of a deconstruction. These musicians, each insider heroes of jazz for well more than a decade, can find many avenues in and out of a given musical situation.
This disc is dominated by savvy original pieces, especially two powerful linked tunes by Ms. Melford, and mines the work of other undervalued composers. Robin Holcomb's "Up Do" proves a showcase for Mr. Ehrlich's technical mastery and expressive range. Andrew Hill's "Images of Time" offers an example of the duo's ability to express balladry and bebop without convention. Throughout, glorious details abound: A note grows gnarly, then flute-like near the end of "Images of Time"; drone-like piano overtones color the start of "Night," helping to frame Mr. Ehrlich's clarinet melody. Mr. Ehrlich and Ms. Melford both play in and lead numerous groups of varying instrumentation; this pairing, documented previously on 2000's wonderful "Yet Can Spring" (Arabesque), is an important home base.

October 8, 2007 12:21 PM |


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