Jazz and Blues Reviews

Spotlight Review

Dave Pomeroy
“Angel in the Ashes”
(Earwave)

Bass ace Dave Pomeroy not only been a prolific and versatile player (more than 500 recorded appearances in multiple genres), he’s also a noted writer and a longtime union advocate. But his first love has always been playing, and he demonstrates impressive technical acumen and idiomatic flexibility on “Angel in the Ashes.” A work that took over a decade to complete, it’s a showcase for both multiple bass instruments and Pomeroy’s brilliance as a player.

He delves into everything from mainstream jazz to classic soul, while alternating between acoustic and electric instruments, also utilizing several  unusual basses (Mexican acoustic, seven-string bass, ukulele, dobro and banjo basses), and adding even some vocal workouts. Perhaps his most conceptually challenging piece is the adaptation of Charles Mingus’ anthem “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which he reworks into a swaying bossa nova, this time on an electric upright. Another standout is the showcase number “Ball Of Money in the Cloud,” which links epic works from the O’Jays and Temptations into one eight-minute gem blending basses and vocals, all of it done by Pomeroy (oh and a brief interlude from his late dog Duke). No matter your musical or personal preferences, there’s something of flair and distinction for you on “Angel in the Ashes.”

 

Capsule Reviews – CDs

John Vanore
“Stolen Moments”
(Acoustical Concepts)

A mix of elegant and slashing tributes to the great arranger/composer/alto saxophonist and bandleader Oliver Nelson led by dynamic trumpeter John Vanore. Superb arrangements, crisp and disciplined section playing, and a wonderful mix of material from various Nelson LPs make this a standout example of both poignant tribute material and 21st-century variations on the big band sound.

Ignacio Berroa Trio
“Straight Ahead From Havana”
(Codes Drum)

Assertive and rigorous percussive support underlining an intriguing change of musical direction. Rather than re-interpreting bop and mainstream jazz into a Latin mode, Berroa and comrades reverse things, taking vintage Latin material and doing it in conventional (though far from derivative) jazz fashion. Flashy guest vocal from Ruben Blades on “Negro De Sociedad” adds even more spice to a surprising, but very effective, session.

Tyshawn Sorey
“Verisimilitude”
(PI)

This has been the talk of the jazz world all summer, a trio date that totally revises the form. Instead of the standard piano/bass/drum with keyboard settings establishing the pace and rhythm section responses, this is music with far more emphasis on interaction and group dynamics than individual voices, even though all three players are masters. But the way they craft and build these pieces, especially the half long “Algid November” is indicative of a different approach to improvisation, one no less challenging, but more interested in championing group dynamics instead of solo ferocity.

 

Capsule Reviews –  Current Books

Bernard MacMahon/Allison McCourty/Elijah Wald
“American Epic”
(Simon & Schuster)

The companion book to the acclaimed series combines incisive interviews and marvelous photos to show not just the origins of key figures in American roots music, but their impact, links to their communities and evolution of their styles and approaches. Also, includes a wonderful final chapter showing contemporary musicians using vintage recording technology to make current fare with a classic connection.

 

Elaine M. Hayes
“The Queen of Bebop – The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan”
(Ecco)

Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan was bebop’s reigning woman vocal giant, but musician/author Elaine M. Hayes shows why she was far more than just another band singer. Vaughan was a gifted pianist and extremely knowledgeable performer who could match any of bop’s male innovators in terms of harmonic sophistication and musical knowledge. She also wasn’t afraid to express herself, demand respect and fair treatment, and urge that she and her music be taken seriously. This is the most complete and comprehensive volume done on Vaughan, and one that puts both her personal and professional struggles and triumphs in their proper perspective.

 

Capsule Reviews – Classic books

Amiri Baraka
“Black Music”
(Da Capo, 1968)

The follow-up to “Blues People,” “Black Music” was every bit as combative, beguiling, and controversial as its author. Then known as Leroi Jones, Baraka was a take-no-prisoners advocate for (take your choice) free music, the new thing, freedom sounds, etc. His passionate and knowledgeable commentary about works that were then new but are now acknowledged gems by Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and others remains invaluable. Unfortunately, Baraka also felt the need to wage war not just on those critics who disagreed, but great musicians who didn’t embrace the avant-garde. But that aside, this remains among the finest books ever done on the free school and that era.

Arthur Taylor
“Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews”
(Da Capo, 1977, 1993)

Drummer Arthur Taylor not only knew his way around a kit, but a typewriter. His credibility as a magnificent player and his friendship with a host of all-time greats gave him a comfort level and access that non-musicians couldn’t possibly enjoy, particularly non-black critics. The statements in this volume range from frank to scandalous, and there are some statements that will sadden and/or anger fans of those musicians who get vilified by others. But you seldom get this type of candor from performers in any idiom, and even now, 40 years later, some statements, contentions and admissions are mind-boggling.

Francis Davis
“Like Young – Jazz, Pop, Youth and Middle Age,” & “Jazz and Its Discontents”
(Both Da Capo, 2001 and 2004)

Francis Davis writes about the intersection of jazz, aging, and cultural politics about as well as it has ever been done, and these are two of his best works. The former profiles a number of performers and examines how their sound and style has evolved over the years, along with the inevitable changes brought about by aging, both to them and to him from the standpoint of his aging with them and the joint effect it’s had. The latter is a greatest hits of pieces from all his books, and also delves into some other areas, though in my view the jazz pieces remain the most enjoyable.

 

Jazz Plus Etc.- Section II

Spotlight review

The Grascals
“Before Breakfast”
(Crossroads)

The Grascals have had three Grammy nominations, and I can’t understand why they don’t have three wins. But that notwithstanding, they are a marvelous ensemble with a cohesive sound every bit as compelling and stunning as any jazz or blues group. Their newest LP broadens the stylistic horizon a bit as they also tackle some works on the country side like the Bill Anderson/John Randall number “Demons, with a powerhouse lead vocal from Terry Eldredge, or some masterful three-voice harmonies on “Pathway of Teardrops,” a Webb Pierce/Wayne Walker composition turned into a memorable encounter that melds the interaction of Eldredge, newest member John Bryan (guitar, banjo) and Terry Smith (bass). There are also exceptional covers of bluegrass anthems (the Flatt/Scruggs “He Took Your Place”) and more contemporary fare like “Delia,” supplied by the trio of Jon Weisberger, Charlie Chamberlain and Charles R. Humphrey, II. There are plenty more outstanding selections, and the contributions of Danny Roberts (mandolin), Adam Haynes (fiddle) and Kristin Scott (multiple instruments) are another key ingredient in what’s certainly a first-rate session well worth hearing anytime.

A.J. Croce
“Just Like Medicine”
(Compass)

J. Croce’s an excellent pianist, and also has the kind of naturally soulful, edgy voice ideal for the material on “Just Like Medicine,” his ninth release. Of course, when you assemble a cast that includes Dann Penn, Steve Cropper, David Hodd, Colin Linden, the McCrary Sisters and Vince Gill, it’s hard to go wrong and nothing here does. A special tune among many fine ones is “The Heart That Makes You Whole,” a tune Croce co-wrote with the late Leon Russell. Add Cropper’s always taut support, house rocking backdrops from the McCrary Sisters and on-the-money horn lines from the Muscle Shoals combine and that song alone would make the disc a winner. But it’s far from the only noteworthy selection.

Jeffrey Halford and the Healers
“Lo-fi Dreams”
(Floating)

Elements of blues and country converge with pointed observations and sardonic, yet compelling vocals on this 10-song set that opens with “The Jacksons,” then moves into “Elvis Shot The Television.” But don’t let the lyric titles throw you off. There’s humor here, but there’s also wit, anguish, musical savvy and some inspiring moments, especially during the choruses of such songs as “Looking For a Home,” “Great Divide” and “10,000 Miles.” These are tunes that don’t just wash over you, they make you think, react, and respond.

 

Capsule Reviews – Current books

Various contributors
“50 Years of Rolling Stone”
(Abrams)

I remember when Rolling Stone began and had a lot more coverage of lesser known, off-the-beaten-path albums than today’s slick edition. A surprise here is the absence of anything from founding father Ralph J. Gleason, but that might be due to the fact there are two anthologies now on the market with his music. There’s lots to enjoy here, though there’s also quite a bit that doesn’t have much personal interest, and ultimately as the book moves through the years, it becomes more and more what it is now, far more about celebrity and the latest songs, rather than a celebration and examination of the many genres and sounds that comprise a genuine and diverse definition of popular music. Publisher Jann Wenner’s intro offers his view on the publication’s evolution, and one thing that you have to concede is that even today there’s usually at least one or two things in each issue that go beyond the usual obsession with charts and trends, and remind you of its early groundbreaking days and legacy.