Thursday, June 30, 2005

CHICAGO BLUES FEST WRAPUP, PART II (Scroll down for the scintillatin' Part I)

Saturday evening's bandshell shows more than held my attention. Another Wolf veteran, guitarist Jody Williams, performed an outstanding set. Backed by the Willie Henderson Horns, Williams laid down some beautiful jazzy jump blues and proved he'd lost little of his fat tone after a long lay off from the stage. Incredibly versatile guitarist Bob Margolin followed with the revue-type show with which he's been touring the past few years. Margolin generously shared the spotlight with fellow Muddy Waters alum Wille Big Eyes Smith, Wolf's right-hand axman Hubert Sumlin and the show-stealing Pinetop Perkins, another cat up around the 90 mark who, despite springing out of a wheelchair to the piano bench, still smacks the hell out of the 88s and sings strong and randy as a goat.

Then, it was star time as Koko Taylor hit the stage. Radiant in a sparkling silver gown, the blues shouter was in top voice as she belted out faves from her songbook such as "Come to Mama," "Evil" and the more-recent vintage "Ernestine" before knocking it out of the park with her classic "Wang Dang Doodle," which had everyone on their feet and yelling "all night long."

In contrast, headliner Buddy Guy, as usual, was more sizzle than steak. Of course, he pulled out all his tricks, including wading through the crowd as he played his cordless Strat, really not saying anything of interest. Perhaps some ritalin would help, too, as Guy never once finished a song, just flitting from one to the next with no focus; it grew tedious. To be fair, however, the crowd ate it up. Buddy Guy in Chicago can do no wrong.

I know this is getting long, so let me just mention a few more highlights: "mercurial son" Lurrie Bell, knocking out an appreciative hometown crowd with an excellent set featuring his searing guitar and then welcoming harp-legend dad Carey Bell to join him on-stage; pretty much all of the gospel performers who took over the Front Porch Sunday, but especially the brother-and-sister team of pianist Geraldine and vocalist Donald Gray, and sacred-steel virtuouso Calvin Cooke, whose grace and beauty and melding of old and new school make Robert Randolph look like a wanker; Howard Scott's Southside Revue, featuring outrageous soul singer Stan Mosely and a band tighter than church shoes; and last but not least, closing it all out, the wonderful Mavis Staples, returning warm feelings for her Chicago crowd and performing knockout renditions of Staples singers staples such as "Respect Yourself," "The Weight" and, of course, "I'll Take You There."

As I stated in my previous post, this year's blues fest was as good as any I've attended. Although organizers have been criticized in the past for the lack of big stars (at least by blues world standards), sometimes it's the obscure, overlooked vets and performers plugging away night after night in the clubs who make this event so special.

COMING UP: We hit some jazz and blues clubs, eat some pizza and a big-ass steak and spend hours happily flipping records at the incomparable Jazz Record Mart

Maybe it was my six-year absence, but I think this year's Chicago Blues Fest was as good as any I've attended (this was No. 11 for me). The 22nd edition of the event, which took place June 9-12, honored the centennials of Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Walker and Big Maceo, so there was plenty of rollicking piano music to be heard throughout the weekend. The festival also devoted generous stage space to the city's own blues treasures, so in addition to big-name hometown heroes Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor, festgoers were also treated to performances by Erwin Helfer, Little Sonny Scott Jr. with Dancin' Perkins (a personal fave) and Howard Scott's Southside Revue.

The action began each day on the Juke Joint Stage, tipping off with ripping piano performances by the classy Helfer, who perfectly captures the elegant rumble of Chicago boogie and blues; the extremely entertaining Piano Willie, whose amiable, laidback demeanor reminded me of Hoagy Carmichael; and the astounding Detroit boogie master Bob Seeley, who kept folks jumping even in the late afternoon swelter. The stage also hosted Little Sonny Scott Jr., who plays percussion with what he calls "house keys," a long chain containing just that, as well as other rattling elements. His phenomenal band included bassist Robert Dancin' Perkins, who lived up to his name as he juked and jived behind his instrument, and provided the solid rhythm he honed as the founder of the pre-Magic Slim Teardrops.

Another highlight was a dynamic soul-blues performance on the Crossroads Stage by Chicago favorite Tommy McCracken, a veteran entertainer with huge chops and rock star moves, which were just hilarious considering his considerable girth. McCracken hit some notes so high and pure, it raised the hairs on my arm; his version of Bobby Blue Bland's "I'll Take Care of You" was shiver-inducing.

Yet another highlight of the Crossroads Stage, Robert Lockwood Jr., who turns 90 this year, led a wonderfully jazzy octet, a nice change from all the solo performances and recordings on which he interprets his stepfather Robert Johnson's songs. While he did indeed play some of Johnson's legendary songbook, and appeared with his signature blue 12-string, Lockwood, dressed to the nines in a sharp suit despite the brutal heat, took them up from the Delta with citified renditions and an outstanding horn section.

Honoring Sunnyland Slim, as the festival does each year, Barrelhouse Chuck Goering performed a heartfelt set of classic Chicago blues piano, accompanied by a mandolinist, before welcoming to the Front Porch Stage yet another blues legend: Henry Gray. With a derby-like hat perched jaunitly atop his head, the Louisiana piano master and longtime Howlin' Wolf sideman performed an excellent set of blues, boogies and straightup rockers.

Each night of the festival caps off with performances at the Petrillo Band Shell, and Thursday began auspiciously with a 90th-birthday set from Honeyboy Edwards, who, like Lockwood, inherited the Robert Johnson legacy from the man himself. Edwards' strong, ghostly vocals floated out over the crowd, and his picking still resonated with echoes of his life and legend, bolstered by sensitive and simpatico backing from Earwig chief Michael Franks on harp, bassist Aron Burton and drummer Sam Lay. Unfortunately, Edwards' set was followed by an unlistenable one by Kim Simmonds, on hand to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Savoy Brown. The set seemed wildly out of place, like some classic rock bar band had clambered on-stage at a major blues fest; I made it through about three songs before wandering off.

COMING UP: Part II of Blues Fest wrapup, plus drinkin' and drinkin' in tunes in some of Chicago's jazz and blues clubs

Friday, December 31, 2004

Best blues CDs 2004

A nice variety of blues this year from several different labels. Here are my 10 best of 2004, from legends to relative newcomers to reliable favorites.

10. THE LEGEND LIVE by Robert Lockwood Jr. (M.C.). Sure, blues fans have heard the 89-year-old Lockwood perform many of these songs before, but it's remarkable how much passion and commitment he manages to invest in these gems, polished to perfection over many years rubbing together in his pocket. A formidable force on his blue-hued 12-string and still singing with great soul and emotion, Lockwood revisits staples such as Roosevelt Sykes' "She's Little and She's Low," Leroy Carr's "In the Evening" and of course, tracks by his most indelible influence, Robert Johnson. He also shows off his jazzy side with a light romp through the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields fingerpopper "Exactly Like You." A real treat.

9. BLOWIN' MY HORN by Mark Hummel (Electro-Fi). Harpoon master Hummel is a wonder to behold on-stage, and that's just how he's captured here, fronting a smart, good-rockin' band in a swing through Canada last year. Although there's certainly some blowin' goin' on — dig his raunchy tone and slow build-up to all-out frenzy on an instrumental romp through "Willie and Hand Jive" — Hummel is about more than mere flash. Here, the West Coast harper selects great material and puts it over with gusto, his distinctive nasal vocals filled with sly good humor.

8. BURY HIM AT THE CROSSROADS by Janiva Magness (NorthernBlues). Wow, can this lady sing. Magness brings a tough, sultry confidence to some excellent material on her debut for the NorthernBlues label. Producer and guitarist Colin Linden put together a top-notch roots ensemble to back her. Drummer Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, John Hammond) lends his special colors and textures, as does the versatile Linden. Magness' powerful rendition of J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale Swallowed Jonah," on which she's solely backed by Linden, is worth the price of the disc alone, but you also get superb versions of Magic Sam's "Everything Gonna Be Alright," the Rev. Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way To Get Along" and some very strong tracks written by Linden and bassist Jeff Turmes. A talent to watch; don't pass up a chance to catch her live.

7. WATCH YOUR BACK by Guitar Shorty (Alligator). Shorty's first joint for Alligator finds the veteran guitar-slinger sounding like a new man, strong, vital and very, very contemporary. With spanking and cranking production by Jesse Harms, who penned a good portion of the songs and plays keyboards, Shorty soars and scores on some of the hardest crunching blues rock he's ever laid down. Everything here is tight and feisty, but cue up the blustery "I'm Gonna Leave You" or the hammering "Get Busy" to hear Shorty at his fiery-fingered, barrel-chested best.

6. DOUBLE V by Otis Taylor (Telarc). The one-of-a-kind Taylor continues to make some of the most-interesting and unusual blues albums, which put the emphasis squarely on atmospherics and narrative. On Double V, Taylor mines the dark areas of history and humanity, his droning acoustic and electric picking backed by a trio of cellists, and providing a voice for the voiceless on powerful, on tunes such as "Took Their Land" and the autobiographical "Mama's Selling Heroin." Some lighter moments, such as the savagely joyful "Mandan Woman" and "He Never Raced on Sunday," about Lewis and Clark's slave York and a religious bicycle champion respectively, leaven the proceedings somewhat, but it just might be the beyond wistful album capper "Buy Myself Some Freedom," sung by Taylor's daughter Cassie, that haunts you most when the disc stops spinning.

5. REMEMBER ME by Charles Caldwell (Fat Possum). Coffeeville, Miss., resident Caldwell passed away in 2003, but left behind this rough-hewn and quite powerful final statement. Fans of the rhythmically insistent Hill Country stomp of Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside will find much to their liking here. Both solo and with drum accompaniment, Caldwell kicks up a mighty groove behind his strong vibrato vocals that conjure up the romantic disappointments and existential joys of the juke joint life. His raunchy, electric tone and superb picking display an effortless mastery. Many thanks, once again, to Fat Possum chief Matt Johnson for sharing an obscure artist whose music and passing might have gone unremarked outside Yalobusha County.

4. GOIN' HOME by Paul Rishell and Annie Raines (Tone-Cool). Beautiful and expertly crafted acoustic blues by master picker Rishell and harmonica blower Rishell, who revisit 1920s-30s classics by the likes of Charlie Jordan, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey. Rishell's read of "I Had a Good Mother and Father" is among his finest, most soulful vocal performances, his ghostly falsetto raising goosebumps while his old acoustic Koa gets crystalline accompaniment from Raines' picking on a Hawaiian mandolin harp. Equally affecting is a marvelously picked and sung version of Patton's "I'm Goin' Home," complete with subtle and lovely gospel background vocals. Raines shows off the toneful goods with a melancholy, sigh-inducing instrumental read of Big Maybelle's "Candy," backed by Rishell's late-night, sweetly strummed jazz rhythm.

3. LOVE, MURDER AND MOSQUITOS by Paul Geremia (Red House). Woefully unsung acoustic blues virtuouso Geremia simply makes great records, and this one is no exception. His wry vocals are perfectly suited to the material he expertly picks on six and 12-string axes, as he rags all over tunes by the likes of Pink Anderson, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Accompanying himself on rack harmonica, and getting some help on fiddle, banjo and mandolin, Geremia revives some obscure tunes from the classic blues era. Just can't get enough of his lovely and impassioned take on "Rising River Blues."

2. SECOND NATURE by Carey and Lurrie Bell (Alligator). Recorded in 1991 in a studio in Finland, harmonica great Carey and guitarist son Lurrie display an expected ease and comfort as they trade off on vocals and provide superb support for one another on this intimate, acoustic set. Lurrie churns up the rhythm, insistently plucking bass strings behind his dad and letting loose with bursts of exuberant picking. For his part, Carey was singing beautifully (cue up the original "The Road Is So Long") and playing with the great brio and soulfulness that mark him as one of the greatest living harp players. Second Nature is also a sad reminder of Lurrie's tremendous promise, hampered over the years by mental illness. Dig his excellent vocals on tunes such as "Trouble in My Way" ("I got so much trouble, I got to moan sometimes"), the autobiographical "Got To Leave Chi-Town" and the deeply felt, atypical jazzy soul ballad "Here I Go Again" that caps off the session; this cat could have been — might still be — a huge star in the blues world.

1. SIMPLE TRUTHS by The Holmes Brothers (Alligator). Sherman, Wendell and Popsy are in top form on Simple Truths, their sophomore effort for Alligator. After their critically acclaimed but disappointing debut for the label, the bros. return to stripped-down blues and soul, eschewing the electronica and the overtly churchy messages. Here, you get strong, gritty romps such as Wendell's opening "Run Myself Out of Town" and a bright and exuberant take on Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby," as well as an infectious and upbeat read of Collective Soul's "Shine." Best of all, Popsy Dixon gets a marvelous showcase for his heavenly tenor and falsetto on the gorgeous Gillian Welch/David Rawlings tune "Everything Is Free" and Bob Marley's song of hope "Concrete Jungle." Wendell's gravel-throated rendition of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is one of the best versions of the Hank Williams tune since Cassandra Wilson's.

QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS on this list or any of content on bobweinberg.com? Feel free to shoot an e-mail my way at bobweinberg@mac.com. Hope your New Year is filled with great music.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

10 Best Jazz Recordings of 2004

A highly subjective list, yes, and also limited by what crossed my desk or caught my eye at the store. Nonetheless, here is my annual attempt at summing up the 10 best jazz releases of the past 365 days.

10. WE IS by Kahil El'Zabar and David Murray (Delmark). Percussionist El'Zabar and saxophonist Murray team up for a live set of thorny yet hard-groovin' duets that veer from ear-testing avant-garde to deeply realized blues. Murray switches between tenor sax and bass clarinet, and El'Zabar trades sticks for skins and plucks some very lovely African thumb piano, as well.

9. FLY by Turner, Ballard and Grenadier (Savoy). The sidemen take center stage as saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard combine talents on this intriguing acoustic groovefest featuring original compositions from each member. Turner displays a sooty, textured tone while Grenadier and Turner creatively churn up the funk.

8. WHICH WAY IS EAST by Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins (ECM). A poignant farewell from master drummer Billy Higgins, who passed away a couple of years ago, captured here in a final session with reed man Charles Lloyd. Over the course of two discs, the pair invest a deep spirituality into the tunes, which make use of African, Middle Eastern and Asian textures, as well as instrumentation ranging from Tibetan oboe to Senegalese hand drums to Syrian "one string." Higgins rages against the dying of the light, his vocals on a few tunes simply heartbreaking, while Lloyd plays some of his spikiest and most emotional solos in years on tenor and alto saxes, flute and even piano.

7. STORYTELLER by the Marilyn Crispell Trio (ECM). Simply gorgeous, mysterious and introspective music from veteran pianist Crispell, whose avant-garde roots peep through even her most melodic work. Her trio of double-bassist Mark Helias and drummer Paul Motian could hardly be more sensitively attuned.

6. THE LIFE OF A SONG by Geri Allen with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (Telarc). There's nothing tentative about the vibrant, percussive attack of pianist Allen, who receives stellar support on this dynamic set of mostly original music from rhythm vets Holland on bass and DeJohnette on drums. Allen's compositions are full of fire and color, and she tips a hand to an obvious influence with a ripping read of Bud Powell's "Dance of the Infidels." Horns (including husband Marcus Belgrave's rich flugel) are added to the concluding track, a lovely take on Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," but the interaction of the trio remains the focus.

5. LIVE AT YOSHI'S VOLUME ONE by the Mulgrew Miller Trio (MaxJazz). Superb hardbop pianist Miller seems to be best appreciated in front of an audience, and that's just how he's heard at the Bay Area jazz institution, Yoshi's. With his trio of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Karriem Riggins, Miller muscularly rips into a thoughtful and exciting set that includes Donald Brown's "Waltz for Monk" and Woody Shaw's "Organ Grinder," as well as a devastatingly beautiful read of Horace Silver's "Peace." Miller's one original tune, the concluding barnstormer "Pressing the Issue," is simply a tease, making us wish that more of his own material will be featured on what we hope is an inevitable Volume Two.

4. BUZZ by Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel (Palmetto). Bass virtuouso and composer Allison creates yet another wonderfully textured album of exciting, original new music alongside colleagues from his New York-based Jazz Composers Collective. Saxophonists Michael Blake and Ted Nash and pianist Frank Kimbrough again lend their talents to the session, featuring evocative tunes and sensitive ensemble dynamics. Allison and drummer Michael Sarin keep the mix simmering.

3. TRICYCLES by Larry Coryell with Paul Wertico and Mark Egan (Favored Nations). Jazz guitar innovator Coryell takes listeners on a tour of his vast career, from his still-fresh-sounding fusion compositions of the 60s and 70s through his more bop-inspired work. Caught live in Germany, the trio with bassist Mark Egan and drummer Paul Wertico has to rank among Coryell's best, and the threesome simply dazzles with its simpatico interaction. Highlights include "Good Citizen Swallow," Coryell's affectionate, tuneful tribute to a former bandmate; Egan's jewel-like title track, which has a mysterious, Bill Evans-ish, "Blue in Green" feel; and a delicious, late-night rendition of "Round Midnight." Coryell concludes with an unaccompanied, classical acoustic take on The Beatles tune "She's Leaving Home," a perfect capper to this excellent sampler of an often overlooked jazz great.

2. ENROUTE by the John Scofield Trio (Verve). Guitarist Scofield has worked for years with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, which is more than evident on this exceptional live recording. Veering from the jam-oriented discs he's been releasing over the past few years, Scofield gets back to the dynamic interaction that is the cornerstone of jazz, as his vivid, angular leads receive stellar support from this fully engaged rhythm section. Stewart whips the excitement into a frenzy with snaky snare and effervescent cymbal work, as Swallow lays down slippery, resonant and tuneful bottom. For the most part, the trio keeps the pedal to the metal, ripping and running on bop-inspired tracks such as the opening "Wee" and Swallow's "Name That Tune," and Scofield's own complex yet accessible compositions, such as "Hammock Soliloquy" and "It Is Written," never fail to swing. An almost surgical deconstruction of the Bacharach gem "Alfie" is breathtaking.

1. THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS by Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette (ECM). The Standards Trio creates magic once again, this time in front of an appreciative audience in Munich. The longtime bandmates stretch out on jaunty reads of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" and "I Love You," Jarrett's rippling fingers dancing with muscular grace. The musical telepathy shared among the trio is especially evident in the bluesy title track, a 20-minute improvisation around a central vamp that never loses its sense of playfulness. Jarrett's concluding solo version of "It's All in the Game" seems like a love letter to his fans.

Runners up: Pictures of Soul by Omar Sosa and Adam Rudolph (Otá); Anything Goes by the Brad Mehldau Trio (Warner Bros.); Lift by the Chris Potter Quartet (Sunnyside); Unspeakable by Bill Frisell (Nonesuch); Coral by David Sánchez (Columbia); Eternal by the Branford Marsalis Quartet (Rounder); Mean Ameen by Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble (Delmark); The Lost Chord by Bley, Sheppard, Swallow and Drummond (ECM); With All My Heart by Harvey Mason (Bluebird); Terminal 1 by Benny Golson (Concord).

GOT A QUESTION OR COMMENT about this list or any other content at bobweinberg.com? Feel free to drop me a line at bobweinberg@mac.com. Have a happy holiday!

Monday, November 01, 2004

Return of the man with the blue guitar

After more than a year's absense, singer-songwriter Chris Smither returned to the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth last month, picking his often melancholy and philosphical reflections on his signature blue Ibanez acoustic. Singing in his impassioned, care-worn croak, Smither played a good portion of the tunes from his excellent 2003 album Train Home, including the metaphysical and moody title track, his wonderful covers of Dylan's "Desolation Row" and Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man" and his own whimsical "Never Needed It More" and "Confirmation," the latter filled with sure-to-get-laugh-and-a-whoop lyrics such as "Cuz I don't pick no cotton, I never pick my nose/I couldn't pick a pocket in a pile of dirty clothes." He also won over the packed house with his story of his car going "missing" in a parking lot in England by way of a preface to "Let It Go," a tale of a man having difficulty coping with the theft of his car.

Smither also performed a few tunes from earlier recordings, such as the evocative and deeply forlorn "No Love Today," which he introduced by shouting out the cry of the street vendor he recalled from his childhood in New Orleans. Returning to the stage for an encore, Smither wrapped up the evening with a cover of J.J. Cale's sigh-inducing "Magnolia," which he called one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. It's cheering to see Smither draw capacity crowds down here, and it gives me hope for the future of South Florida's music scene.

CHICAGO BLUES ON HARRISON. Despite a nearly constant drizzle, the first Chicago Blues on Harrison street party drew the blues faithful to downtown Hollywood two weekends ago. Attired in a typically glittery outfit, his Indian headdress perched on a mike stand behind him, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater proved once again his old-school credentials. He and his band (including former South Floridian Heather Tackett on bass) kept festgoers dancing in the rain to his signature mix of Chuck Berry duckwalkers and West Side Chicago blues. Some of the tunes hailed from Rock 'n' Roll City, Clearwater's Grammy-nominated, seriously jukin' 2003 recording with Los Straitjackets. Highlights included the countrified "Back Down to Earth" and the slowburning "Slow and Easy," which all but defines the West Side style The Chief helped pioneer. Clearwater also invited up on stage the event's organizer, saxophonist Kenny Millions, who owns Sushi Blues Cafe and Blue Monk Lounge and who provided some greasy, honky-tonk riffage.

The hugely talented and charismatic Alvin Youngblood Hart fronted his Muscle Theory trio for a crunchy, electric set that might have dismayed those expecting something bluesier. I recognized a few tunes from Hart's Start With the Soul recording, including the bitter "Manos Arriba," which he explained was written after he was hassled by the cops while walking his baby in his stroller, and the hilarious and dead-on country rocker "Cowboy Boots." He also romped through "Joe Friday," his ode to TV detectives, and performed an excellent cover of the Stones' "Sway." Much of the other material, I imagine, will show up on Hart's next recording, which, judging by this show, should nudge him even further out of the blues comfort zone.

Big backpats to Millions and his wife, Junko, for undertaking the event, and the city of Hollywood for underwriting it. With any luck, they'll do it again next year, perhaps under more cooperative skies.

COMING SOON: Previews of Hollywood Jazz Fest, with McCoy Tyner, Stanley Clarke and Bobby Hutcherson, and Riverwalk Blues Fest, with Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Hot Tuna.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Welcome back, blogger

Sorry for the delay between posts, jazz and blues lovers. Over the past six months, I have been kept busy freelancing for the Sun-Sentinel and Jazziz magazine, as well as plugging along in my day job at City Link magazine. Anyway, it's season once again, and there have been some excellent shows in the South Florida area (at least the ones that didn't cancel due to all the recent meterological hoo-ha).

DAVE LIEBMAN. Ever-creative saxophonist Dave Liebman picked up a gig at Alligator Alley, having come down from his home in the Poconos to conduct a free-jazz clinic with Coral Springs-based drummer Abbey Rader at FAU. For his show at the Alley, Lieb was joined by local musicians Silvano Monasterios on piano, Leo Brooks on bass and former bandmate Jimmy Strassman on drums.

Lieb hefted tenor for most of the first set, putting his idiosyncratic phrasing to standards such as "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Body and Soul." For the second set, he switched to soprano, the instrument on which he's rightly considered a master, and the quartet welcomed James Brown's former, and Van Morrison's current, tenor player Pee Wee Ellis to the stage. Turns out Ellis played in bands in the '70s with Lieb and Strassman, and was in town for gigs at the Alley the following nights. Not quite as creative as Lieb, Ellis nonetheless offered a big, beautiful tone, and the band took a lenghty excursion through "All Blues" that proved a hightlight. With Lieb's huge album out on Telarc, Saxophone Summit with Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano, you might have expected the place to be jammed, but it was a Thursday night, and there was a presidential debate, and so turnout was light.

PATRICIA BARBER. What an unexpected treat! I had heard a couple of singer-pianist Barber's recordings and was unimpressed with what I thought was an overly mannered delivery and not particularly pleasant vocal. But she had been garnering raves from fans and critics whose opinions I respect, so I decided to check out her show at the Amaturo Theater a few weeks ago, and was completely blown away.

A completely unpretentious performer, Barber looked somewhat disheveled as she strode onstage, kicked off her sandals and bent low to the piano keys as if listening intently. Her face was a constantly changing canvas, her mouth agape with delight one moment, her eyes squeezed tight with emotion the next. As she sang, her fingers fluttered furiously in the air, involuntarily I imagine -- you can almost imagine her instructors over the years telling her, "Patricia, darling, that's sooo unflattering," and indeed, at times she tightly clasped her hands behind her back as if hearing the voices of those pestering pedagogues. The old couple sitting next to me voiced their exasperation. She: "Why does she have to make those faces?" He: "Maybe she's on something." Me, I was mesmerized.

Oh, yes, and the band was excellent, too. Barber brought along the same crew from her most-recent recording, Live, a Fortnight in France. Guitarist Neal Alger was a standout, going from angular Bill Frisell-like lines to airy acoustic strum à la Pat Metheny. Barber played most of the songs from the recording, including the lovely "Dansons la Gigue!" with lyrics adapted from a Verlaine text, and a slow, almost surreal version of "Laura" that made use of a whispery, Dietrich-like contralto. She also performed a few of her originals, bitter reflections of romance gone wrong such as "Gotcha" ("Are you surprised a battle-ax has an ax to grind?") and the staccato "Pieces" ("The jigsaw in you has left me asunder all over the room"). A take on the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" proved fascinating, all but unrecognizable in its reharmonization as the band stretched out in intriguing directions.

Wedged in between a tribute to Tommy Dorsey and Fats Waller and the Duffy Jackson Big Band on the Gold Coast Jazz Society's calendar, Barber was something of an anomaly for the organization, which tends to skew older. Nonetheless, accidental or not, Barber was a breath of fresh air and a good reminder that sometimes you have to see a performer live to truly appreciate her art.

COMING UP: Reviews of Chris Smither at the Bamboo Room and Chicago Blues on Harrison in downtown Hollywood. Plus, previews of Hollywood Jazz Fest and Riverwalk Blues Fest.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Eric Crystal was the first to take the stage Wednesday night. The lone saxophonist cried out an invitation to his bandmates in the Omar Sosa Quartet and let the audience at Little Havana's Manuel Artime Theater know it was in for an exotic and exciting experience. He was soon joined by upright bassist Geoff Brennan and percussionist Mino Cinelu, the latter a veteran of the Miles Davis Band and Weather Report.

Then, emerging from the wings came Sosa himself. Carrying a candle in a red glass holder, the lanky, towering Afro-Cuban pianist was attired in an ankle-length white linen robe and leather sandals, crowned by a white cap of concentric circles and sporting white-framed glasses. As otherworldly as his appearance may have seemed -- Sosa is a serious devotee of Santería, a religious practice of his native Cuba that he adopted seven years ago -- as soon as he set the candle atop the piano and unfolded himself atop the cushioned bench, Sosa attacked the keys with unbridled joy, fervor and nonstop creativity.

The pianist was in almost constant motion, a dervish of activity beneath all that linen as he kicked one or both long, bony legs in the air, gestured extravagantly and kept-time with his busy feet, which also worked pedals that triggered electronic loops. The samples lent an even eerier feel, as a man's voice intoned the names of orishas, or saints, over and over and crackled with the texture of a phonograph needle skipping over the dusty grooves of an old record. Sosa used the samples, which also featured turntable scratching and odd, unintelligible voices, almost like overhearing a television newscast from another room, as just another percussive device in his arsenal, and it didn't seem gimmicky nor detract from the dazzling interplay among the musicians.

Like most of the audience, bassist Brennan watched Sosa intently and could hardly suppress an ever-present smile as he provided beautiful, resonant tone throughout. Cinelu, who resembles former Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, was simply a wonder, switching between his standard kit and hand-drums, playing with great sensitivity and color as well as athletic drive. Saxophonist Crystal also well realized his role, never overplaying and providing fine melodic counterpoint. As opposed to the standard jazz ensemble, the Sosa Quartet's playing did not screech to a halt so each member could solo before returning to the head melody, but rather each man was given an extended solo as his bandmates quietly exited the stage, and then returned and joined in.

The audience at the Manuel Artime was sparse at first, but expanded exponentially as late-comers filled the historic, converted church in Miami's Little Havana. Sosa addressed the audience for the most part in Spanish, and its enthusiastic response indicated he needed no translator. A standing ovation brought the pianist and his band back to the stage for an encore, a lovely piece that featured a sample of someone repeating the phrase "Another world is possible." Sosa then extinguished the candle with his fingers before leaving the stage.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Omar Sosa is a font of creative energy. In a little less than a year, the Cuban-born pianist and composer has released three exceptional recordings (a total of 10 for the Otá label since 1997), the most recent of which, Pictures of Soul, pairs him with percussionist and world-music pioneer Adam Rudolph.

With the exception of a pair of Sosa compositions, the music on Pictures of Soul was improvised by the two instrumentalists. The communication between Sosa and Rudolph is so seamless and sensitive that it's hard to believe that they made most of it up on the spot. On pieces such as the opening "Portrait" and "The Call," the pianist's nimble, thoughtful playing evokes images of quiet and solitude (not loneliness), like sunlight filtering in through the trees of an isolated glade. Rudolph shadows Sosa on a variety of hand drums, adding exotic accents such as gongs and cymbals which echo and shimmer and tease the ear with sense memories, as the compositions gradually build in intensity before quiescing to a state of calm.

The twosome picks up its feet on the swift-moving "Kachirumba," which begins with hand drums and a bird-call-like flute, before Sosa enters, plucking the strings of his piano and then issuing spiky, staccato bursts of notes from the keys. Taken at a quick tempo, the tune becomes increasingly agitated as Rudolph shouts along with Sosa's swiftly darting piano, and then ends as it began with just hand drums.

A handful of miniatures provides textured appetizers and keeps the pace of the album brisk. Rudolph pipes a lovely toned cane flute that dances atop Sosa's gorgeous countermelody on "Eye of the Blackbird," which clocks in at just over two minutes. "Dreams" and "Intermezzo," each lasting just over a minute, and "Kiss of the Rain," at a minute and a half and featuring plinking thumb piano, shakers and "prepared" piano, paint spiky, surreal tonescapes.

Rudolph utilizes a light but masterful touch on a variegated pallette of sounds, from softly splashing gongs that recall waves lapping at the shore on the tender "Winter of the Flower," to the resonant drone of his multiphonic vocals, or "throat singing," which contrast with Sosa's crystalline piano on the minimalist, Asian-sounding "Green Silence."

Sosa's combination of Afro-Caribbean influences that bristle with the mystery of ancient ritual, and the introspection and embrace of dissonance often associated with modern jazz, make for an intriguing and original voice. And when that voice is heard in conversation with an equally fascinating artist like Rudolph, the results are nothing less than spellbinding. Sosa will be performing at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami with a full band, including percussion great Minu Cinelu, in April. More details to come.

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