April/May edition – Part II

I. Spotlight Reviews

A. – Diane Marino
“Soul Serenade – The Gloria Lynne Project”
(M&M)

Though an outstanding interpreter of standards and the Great American Songbook, Diane Marino’s definitely has the versatility to excel outside that arena. Her newest release “Soul Serenade – The Gloria Lynne Project” provides ideal material that allows Marino to display that emotional flexibility, from celebratory fervor to sensuality, nostalgic reflection, humorous recollection, and straightforward repertory on this 14-song selection. The opener “Somewhere In The Night” is best known as the theme song for the superb late ’50s/early ’60s TV police drama “Naked City,” and Marino’s rendition nicely upholds the tune’s dramatic intrigue. She switches mood and tempo on her version of “Soul Serenade,” opting for a reggae feel, while “Blue Gardenia” and “The Jazz In You” will have the strongest appeal to fans of the traditional jazz interpretative approach, and “Happy Shoes” and “Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk” offer a lyrically lighter, but no less vocally formidable approach. A strong set of backing musicians intersperses strong solos and accompaniment, including the rhythm section core of bassist Frank Marino, drummer Chris Brown and keyboardist/pianist Brad Cole, who does triple duty as principal arranger/orchestrator and session producer. A host of top-flight guest instrumentalists, far too many to single out a couple, add heavyweight support to what proves not just a worthy salute to a very underrated vocalist, but a standout session for one of Music City’s best singers.

B – Lynn Lewis/The Joe Davidian Trio
“Back Home To You”
(LynnLewisMusic.Com)

Lynn Lewis also eschews the orthodox jazz vocal formula on her fine new release. Instead, she puts the focus on her own compositions, and on using the improvisatory approach to explore 21st-century gender relationships. Not that this is a stuffy or pedantic exercise; it’s far from that. But the lyrics to such tunes as “See Yourself Out Of My Life,” “Empty Places” or “Don’t Say A Word” have an emphatic, declarative bent, and are sung with expressive edge and force. Lewis effectively varies the disc’s pace and moods, with other numbers such as “Lovely Way To Say Good Night” and the title track taking the more upbeat, occasionally sentimental turn. The result is a session that capably explores all facets of romantic interaction, and is neither overly cynical nor hopelessly naïve or unrealistic. Besides Lewis’ consistently engaging leads, the backing trio is anchored by one of Nashville’s finest trios. Pianist Joe Davidian, bassist Jamie Ousley and drummer Austin McMahon do far more than simply underpin Lewis’ vocals. They embellish, drive and enhance them, with the threesome continually adding memorable flourishes, rhythmic subtleties and nifty enhancements that bring the final touches to a compelling and delightful session.

II. – Book Reviews

A. Will Friedwald
“The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums”
(Pantheon)

In the follow-up to his marvelous, comprehensive 2010 volume “A Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” the prolific Will Friedwald’s latest work “The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums” ranks as the definitive work on this subject, whether you share his enthusiasm for certain singers, eras or genres. My own preferences aren’t nearly as keen on musical theatre, nor do I share his fervor for such artists as Dick Haymes, Barb Jungr, Doris Day, Robert Goulet, Eydie Gorme/Steve Lawrence and Tiny Tim. Yet I fully endorse and recommend this book, because Friedwald makes eloquent cases for all 51 albums included, provides intricately detailed musical and historical analysis, and knows and loves the jazz tradition and the tunes that comprise its canon. My only other negative comment would be the absence of the more adventurous end of the jazz vocal spectrum. Such singers as  Leon Thomas, Joe Lee Wilson, Shelia Jordan, Andy Bey, Jeanne Lee, are missing, though in Friedwald’s defense I imagine he might consider some of the more vocal improvisers whose albums aren’t truly in the traditional jazz/pop mode. But that’s another minor quibble. His knowledge of the show tune/film/blues foundations of jazz singing, the fervor he brings to his descriptions and essays, and the generally broad scope of the book’s artists (within the previously stated limits) makes this THE volume to get for the jazz vocal fan.

B. – Ann Powers
“Good Booty – Love and Sex, Black & White, Body And Soul In American Music”
(Dey St./William Morrow)

National Public Radio’s top music critic Ann Powers presents one of the more provocative, as well as insightful, entertaining and sometimes controversial books in some time with “Good Booty – Love and Sex, Black & White, Body And Soul in American Music.” There are many folks who are uncomfortable with any musical discussions that veer off the subject of technical performance and into such areas as erotic and racial impact, which Powers examines over a century of various songs and genres. Whether she’s discussing artists whose sexual ferocity is well known (Beyoncé, Madonna) or those who have seldom, if ever been assessed in this fashion (gospel diva Dorothy Love Coates or the pioneering Florence Mills, a contemporary of Josephine Baker), Powers doesn’t shy away from frank analysis of racial and sexual issues connected to and/or raised by their performance style and personality. Whether it’s early jazz, first-generation rock and roll, punk/new wave or hip-hop, Powers is fearless in viewing how certain songs’ rhythmic frenzy, coupled with the desire of audiences to express their feelings on dance floors and other places is a critical part of cultural history. Few books have done a better job of weaving their way through complex musical, political and social territory than “Good Booty.”

C. -Robert Gordon
“Memphis Rent Party”
(Bloomsbury)

Acclaimed Memphis author/filmmaker Robert Gordon perfectly understands the Bluff City’s amazing, frenzied, often bizarre musical sensibility. It’s a great music city, but totally different from other equally important ones like New Orleans, Nashville, Austin or Muscle Shoals. It’s more personality driven than business or hit-oriented, even though it’s been the birthplace to a treasure chest of seminal tunes. Viewing it through a commercial premise totally misses the point, and Gordon has never let chart, popularity or radio play be the determining factor in the people he’s profiled, nor the songs he’s championed. Instead, he’s sought and found quirky and iconoclastic types without missing major names and familiar celebrities. His current volume captures the identical ethos in print that the soundtrack of the same name does on disc: the vibe and face of a fabulous, flawed metropolis. Gordon goes from blues and soul to rock and punk, profiling names that are legendary (Furry Lewis), extraordinary (James Carr, Townes Van Zandt), revered (Alex Chilton), tragic (Jeff Buckley), unfairly obscure (Junior Kimbrough, Mose Vinson, Calvin Newborn) and outrageous (Cat Power, Tav Falco). He also delivers the best portrait of what made producer Jim Dickinson so exceptional as well as perplexing. “Memphis Rent Party” spotlights artists who thrive on defying, frequently shattering convention, and whose music is what’s always made the city compelling and special.