Something Different: Roberto Negro – “Loving Suite Pour Birdy So”

April 30, 2014


Roberto Negro - "Loving Suite pour Birdy So"Art can speak to us.  Creativity is a method of communication.  The craft of various arts often has established lexicons, accepted foundations on which creativity can take shape.  It’s exciting and it’s a joy to hear musicians that present a mastery of their particular language by presenting it in a state of perfection.  Also true that it’s exciting and a joy to hear musicians present a mastery of their particular language by skillfully distorting the rules to present new visions of old vocabularies.  And then there are instances, like Roberto Negro‘s Loving Suite Pour Birdy So, where a new language is built from the ground up.  It is a moment of dramatic inspiration and resounding poetry.

Your album personnel: Roberto Negro (piano), Elise Caron (voice, flute), Théo Ceccaldi (violin), Valentin Ceccaldi (cello), Federico Casagrande (guitar), Nicolas Bianco (double bass), and Xavier Machault (lyrics).

Pianist Negro doesn’t subscribe to any one particular school of music on this massively imaginative recording.  He walks a fine line between jazz and classical without ever stepping into the territory of either.  Vocalist Elise Caron imbues the words of Xavier Machault with a liveliness and a resonance that every author wishes for.  Guitarist Federico Casagrande, who has displayed an envious trend at appearing on the most creative projects around, brings a searing heat to the recording, but even those moments when Negro unleashes him on a song, Casagrande delivers his part with a masterful precision that gives a satisfying sense of form and shape to even those moments of unbridled ferocity.

The bass of Nicolas Bianco isn’t one that gets much separation from the rest of the pack, and yet there are times that his contribution can be felt like the disconcerting, profound rumble of the tiniest earthquakes felt just below the surface of things.  The violin and cello of Theo and Valentin Ceccaldi offers up beautiful harmonies of heartbreaking proportions and the most delicate expressions of melodic intent.

The songs each have their individuality, yet are strongly tethered to one another via a shift into a familiar tempo or the referential accents on Caron’s vocal cadence.  Common fragments of melody pop up at delightful moments.  The album builds a familiarity across the breadth of the songlist, and on an album that is so very different in what it is presenting, that is a quality that can’t be esteemed too heavily.

The urgency of “Tout de toi” yields the prettiest wind-downs of intensity with swells of string harmonies, whereas “Champagne,” drenched in a rising tide of strings and percussion, never turns back.  Retaining the stately elegance of classical music, it matches the Velvet Underground’s terrific surge of rock ‘n roll intensity on “Heroin.”  And then there’s “”Comme un livre d’Erri de Luca,” which blends the two of these approaches to intensity, building oh so slowly that it doesn’t even seem like a build until a certain elevation is attained and the rush of perspective is as thrilling as the music itself.

Caron’s vocal delivery has a persistent edginess to it, even as it comforts the ears.  The acrobatics of “Bal(l)ade volée de Birdy So” has her paired with strings, and transitioning from concentric loops of melody to rhythmic lateral scrambling.  “Bicyclette” is her personification of sunlight flitting through the cool shade of wavering leaves.

The refracted melody and hint of dissonance on “M’avez-vous dit vous?” and the odd groove of “Pivoine Shichifukujin” provide horizon lines of perspective to an album that trades in singular visions.  This is further evidenced by “Toi, moi, oie,” which begins as lullaby before waking up to dance as folk song.  There is a sense of dream to this entire recording.

An album of massive imagination, and that it can also be so simple to engage is just more proof of the masterful touch applied to this thrilling album.

Released on La Curieuse.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon MP3

The Something Different review series highlights albums that are unlike anything else, and which embrace the best qualities of creative vision.

Masaa – “Afkar”

April 14, 2014


Masaa - "Afkar"Showing the kind of development one hopes for in the wake of a promising debut, the quartet Masaa came out strong on their sophomore effort Afkar, and created one of the more intriguing albums, thus far, in 2014.  Forging a bond between modern European jazz and Lebanese vocals, Afkar is in the enviable position of pairing traits not so easily combined… of being both engagingly cerebral and possessing a beauty that is just plain heartbreaking.

Their 2013 debut album Freedom Dance is certainly a nice enough work.  But the joints holding it together were a bit loose, the edges murky, and the concepts a bit untamed and wild… as if the ensemble knew they had something special and knew what they wanted to accomplish, but just weren’t sure how to wield it.  The downside to this scenario is that the album feels a bit incomplete and unformed.  On the other hand, the upside is that it often leads to the kind of risk-taking creativity that provides all kinds of rewards.  It also builds suspense for the next release.

For Masaa, “next” is Afkar, and on it, Masaa sound like they’ve discovered the answers they were searching for in their debut.  Afkar is a confident recording, evidenced by the continuance of their creative trajectory and their ability to bring it all together cohesively into a singular, multifaceted expression.

Your album personnel:  Rabih Lahoud (vocals), Marcus Rust (trumpet), Clemens Pötzsch (piano), and Demian Kappenstein (drums).

This is an album of sudden and thrilling changes in pace and emotion.  The album gets right to it on “Aruz,” as Lahoud’s soulful vocals join hands with silence and the murmur of piano… and then, quite unexpectedly, the song takes flight, with Pötzsch leading the charge on piano, and Rust stepping in soon after to help with propulsion on trumpet.

Second track “Afkar” also has some delightful surprises up its sleeve.  The rapid fire spoken word of Lahoud’s delivery forms a crosshatch of lines with drums and trumpet… and then Louhoud shortens up his delivery and lets the notes hang until suddenly erupting in a shout to the skies, with the rest of the quartet following right along beside him.  It then cuts back to the rapid spoken word percussion games, before starting the pattern all over again.  The tuneful “Hiwar” adopts a similar pattern, beginning as a whisper, and ending as a roar.

Some tracks are as they seem.  The smoky ballad “Mira” is a flickering candlelight, accentuated by Rust’s use of mute.  The love song “Hlam,” wears its heart on its sleeve, unabashedly fragile.  The spoken word “Revolution” toys with some interplay between the Lebanese and German languages, laying the groundwork for a display of rhythmic eccentricities.

Those rhythmic eccentricities are put to the test on other album tracks, too.  The tide of “Layali” surges forward, battering the shore.  Lahoud’s voice twists in tight circles as the quartet develops an insistent cadence.  “Beiruti” follows a similar path, but with a tempo that’s more persistent and a little less dance-like.  For all their dynamic layers of sound, both tracks are remarkably catchy.

On “Baladi,” Lahoud gives way for Pötzsch to get in a nice piano solo, remaining in the background with some sporadic, though effective accompaniment via wordless harmonization.  And on “Hyper Edita,” Lohoud steps out entirely, with Rust filling the vacuum with an evocative solo, Kappenstein’s cymbals adding brightness to the edges of trumpet’s song.

Possessing the most song-like form of all the album tracks, “Reflexion” emanates intensity simmering just below the surface, of emotions that imply the totality of their strength rather than through a blunt display of fireworks.  Lahoud switches into the French language for this moody song, offering up yet another facet to the quartet’s atypical sound.

The album begins its wind-down with “Nissjan,” a tune that smolders with passion, as the contrast of Lahoud’s quavering voice and the calming tones radiating from the rest of the quartet pull the song in both directions.  The quartet says farewell with the jubilant “Dabke,” a song that dances and stomps and bounces around, and leaves nothing in the tank for its grand finale.

Just a thrilling album, and one of the brighter spots of 2014.

Released on Traumton Records.

Jazz from the Dresden, Germany scene.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


Other things you should probably know:

Masaa - "Freedom Dance"In the opening paragraphs, I refer to Masaa’s debut album Freedom Dance.  I remember when it came out.  It made one of my various follow-up reference lists.  It wasn’t an eMusic Jazz Pick, but only just barely.  Armed with more time, I might’ve gotten it included in my eMusic column before the filing deadline.  It’s a good album, and if you like Afkar, you should think about giving it a shot.  You can stream three album tracks on Masaa’s Soundcloud page (LINK).

Markus Stockhausen - "Eternal Voyage"Also, Lahoud was a member of the Markus Stockhausen project “Eternal Voyage,” a sextet whose members came from different backgrounds to create a contemporary world fusion that delivered some interesting results.  You can stream an album track on Youtube (LINK).

The Safety Net: Refuge Trio – “Refuge Trio”

January 16, 2014


Refuge Trio - "Refuge Trio"Comprised of vocalist Theo Bleckmann, percussionist John Hollenbeck, and pianist Gary Versace, Refuge Trio was originally formed as a vehicle to perform at the 2002 Wall-to-Wall Joni Mitchell concert in NYC.  Their named drawn from the Mitchell tune “Refuge of the Road,” the trio continued to collaborate after the festival, and became something much more than the original inspiration.  The 2008 recording Refuge Trio remains a compelling session, an expression of a singular sound quite unlike anything else on the scene.

The music is typified by a minimalism that sometimes manifests as a comforting ambient drone, but sometimes kicks up some stones, a few at a time, just enough to scatter ripples across the surface of the serenity.

Your album personnel: Gary Versace (piano, keyboards, accordion), John Hollenbeck (percussion, vibes, crotales), and Theo Bleckmann (vocals, electronic effects).

No better example of this album in its best light than the dreamy “To What Shall I Compare This Life.”  The song has an ethereal melody that floats on the softest of percussion and harmony.  Versace provides a comforting hum on accordion, which is balanced with the slight murmurs of Hollenbeck on vibes.  Meanwhile, Bleckmann’s phrasing repetitions possess that peculiar and epically vague wisdom of the very best lullabies.

“Pinwheel” switches things up only slightly, with a skittering cadence that develops into harmonic glide, as voices overlap like ocean tides before slipping back into a groove to see the song out.

“Rural Bliss” is a quietly ambling piece, with bright keyboard notes carrying the tune, followed by the accordion interlude of “Edges.”

“Bright Moon” displays the trio’s versatility, as the song begins as gentle ballad, shifts into something ominous and free, then ends on an upbeat note with some chipper work on keys, electronics, and drums, accompanied by Bleckmann’s wordless harmonics.

The trio, then, in successive tracks, performs renditions of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk compositions.  You wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t written it here first.

The first of the pair of covers is a rendition of Coleman’s “Peace” (from The Shape of Jazz to Come).  The trio takes Coleman’s rather straight-forward, but loose blues tune and channel it as ambient minimalism.  Softly phrased notes on keyboards and accordion, angelic vocal harmonies, and restrained drum and cymbal work, like the gurgling of a softly flowing stream, all combine to produce a beautiful tune that only hints at the original.

They take a similar approach of hide-and-seek with the Monk tune “Misterioso,” which is presented as a disassembled bundle of kinetic activity.  Piano notes go sprawling in all directions and with no pattern to its flow.  Meanwhile, the impatient dings of percussion are the polar opposite in their predictability and direction.  Bleckmann cuts a middle ground between the two, with guttural sounds that seem aimed at both his trio mates.  It isn’t until the song’s conclusion that, when Bleckmann voices the song’s melody, that Monk’s original vision pokes its head out.

“Child’s Play” has a folk music disposition, with that particular mix of whimsical expressionism and salt-of-the-earth soulfulness.  Versace’s work on accordion is especially effective in seeing this through.  Meanwhile, Hollenbeck’s percussion work on “Yang Peiyi” is a mesmerizing affair, bringing the album from earth to water.

The catchy melody of “Hymn” is the echo of pop songs never sung, whereas “Happiness” is shaped in ways that pop songs never dare, yet is no less pretty than its predecessor.

The album begins with “Refuge of the Roads,” the sole Joni Mitchell cover on the album.  It is Bleckmann singing the lyrics unaccompanied, and, most appropriately, is the most straight-forward album track.

The album ends, on the other hand, with a rendition of the very fusion-y Alan Holdsworth composition “All Our Yesterdays” (which, also, has a big Star Trek tie-in, which really isn’t worth getting into right now).  The thing of it is, hiding behind all of that awful over-processed syrupy fusion of the 80s were some solid melodies, often quite pretty if you just hummed them to yourself.  Refuge Trio culls the melody from the Holdsworth original, adding some tasteful harmonic development and organic rhythms, and end their album with this little sonic diamond.. a last bit of evidence to the singularity of their approach to music, both their own compositions and that of others.

Released in 2008 on Winter & Winter.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series that highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.

Mike McGinnis – “Angsudden Song Cycle”

December 10, 2013


Mike McGinnis - "Angsudden Song Cycle"Creativity is an energy with an unending motion. It inspires, generating more of its creative energy, art resulting in more art, sometimes similar, sometimes quite indistinct from its source.

The beauty of the Swedish archipelago Ängsudden inspired visual artist MuKha. She began with a series of poems about this spot on the planet where the sky meets the sea with stunning visual images. MuKha wrote those poems in the Philippine Tagalog language associated with a small Palawan tribe, slowly disappearing. From there, she developed those poems into paintings. And those paintings inspired a new friend, clarinetist Mike McGinnis, who had recently moved to New York City from Maine, a place of visual beauty that connected with him not unlike the source of MuKha’s poems and paintings. That new generation of creativity resulted in the Ängsudden Song Cycle, McGinnis’s new album. It’s one of the more compelling album released in 2013.

Your album personnel: Kyoko Kitamura (voice), Mike McGinnis (clarinet, bass clarinet), Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), Khabu Doug Young (cavaquiño), Sean Moran (acoustic guitar), Jason Kao Hwang (viola), Dan Fabricatore (bass), Harris Eisenstadt (percussion, vibraphone), and guests: Jun Kitamura (voice), Davalois Fearon (percussion), and MuKha (percussion).

These are the poems of MuKha put to music.

The album opens with the striking harmonic beauty of “You Were With Me.”  Viola and bassoon transform from thick beautiful brush strokes into refracted harmonies. Kitamura’s voice begins with a sharp tongue, similar to the original disposition of the viola-bassoon duo, before she, too, undergoes the same transformation, slipping into a comforting tone, soft with her words.  Viola and percussion continue to roil, simmering nervously.

It continues into “Last Night the Wind,” with viola and percussion agitated and urgent, and Kitamura’s words sometimes masked within the sonic cloud, sometimes rising above it.  And then, like a sun lifting up over the horizon and dispelling the nighttime frights, McGinnis’s clarinet sends out warm notes, backed by a resurgent harmonics of Hwang’s viola and Moran’s acoustic guitar, which itself leads to the infectiously happy song “You Are Morning,” a tune bubbling over with unguarded enthusiasm… an anthem for the sun.  Young’s cavaquiño’s rustic charm springs to life in this cheerful song.

Angsudden- EncircledRepeated“Encircled, Repeated” is a crosshatch of skittering sound and darting words. It’s not quite a dissonant sound, but it does serve as its precursor.  “Even the Pillow” begins as a slasher movie soundtrack, with strings and guitar as the sharp ends of the blade and Fabricatore’s bass the ominous tolling of the arrival of doom. Eisenstadt contributes some icy vibraphone notes, which actually add warmth to a very cold song.  Moran’s acoustic guitar notes meet those of the vibraphone as they splash against the ground, becoming puddles of indistinguishable melody.  Bassoon and bass clarinet rise with warm harmonies above it all, though just briefly, before returning to the darker tones.

That harmonic beauty hinted at in the previous section comes back strong on “It’s Still Warm.”  The sound of bassoon and vibes are heavenly, lifted up high by viola.  Kitamura’s vocals are soft and inviting.  Moran’s guitar like the glittering of stars, set against the enfolding darkness of Schoenbeck’s bassoon.

“You Said One Day” is a rare up-tempo piece, and it carries a simply defined melody on its shoulders.  Eisenstadt’s contributions on the vibes continue to draw rewards. Kitamura and McGinnis engage in some wonderful interplay, as if joining hands and twirling about, existing outside the ongoing cadence.

Album ends with “We Ate the Wood.” Moran’s acoustic guitar leads out, sets the tone and keeps it there.  Kitamura’s vocals walk beside Moran’s guitar along the same path, with the clarinet and bassoon and viola of McGinnis and Schoenbeck and Hwang sticking nearby, sending harmonic washes across interludes of silence.

This is one of those albums that, initially, presents itself as challenging, but after spending some time with it, becomes as easy to converse with as a very best friend.  It’s also one of the most original works I’ve heard in 2013.  And it’s always nice when a recording of such great differentiation is also so magnanimously personable.

Released on 482 Music.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at: eMusic | Amazon LP+CD & MP3

Or you can buy the LP/CD pack directly from the label, at the 482 Music store.

Angsudden- YouAreMorning

Nancy Harms – “Dreams In Apartments”

December 3, 2013


Nancy Harms - "Dreams In Apartments"The voice of Nancy Harms has the power to light cigarettes and make ‘em smolder all night long. Following on the heels of her inspired performance on Jeremy Siskind’s Finger-Songwriter, one of 2012′s best releases, Harms returns with a quartet date that highlights her casual, seductive delivery.  And though a couple album tracks on Dreams In Apartments do allow her vocal cords to raise their heart rate a bit, ultimately, it’s those songs that behave like moonlight that are most likely to draw the ear in and never let it go.

Your album personnel: Nancy Harms (vocals), Aaron Parks (piano), RJ Miller (drums), Danton Boller (bass), and guests:  John Hart (guitar) on about half of the album tracks and Wycliffe Gordon (trumpet) on one track.

Tracks like “From My First Moment” and “It Could Happen To You” glow strongest of that moonlight.  On the former track, Parks and Hart send out glittering notes on piano and guitar, an enchantment greatly enhanced by the entrance of Boller on bass arco.  And the latter of those two tracks highlights the ability of Harms to deliver a heartbreaking verse with the fluttering lightness of doves.

Her rendition of “Mood Indigo” further illustrates her way of putting heartbreak to song.  Voice heavy with emotion, she lights a path for the quartet to stroll pleasantly down.  There is a togetherness here stronger than any other album track.  It’s a different feel on “Out Of Comfort,” a song that has the disassembled presence of a dream.  Harms’s cooing voice is accompanied nicely by Hart’s electric guitar, which remains unobtrusive in the background while adding orange sunset to the blue horizon of Parks’ piano contribution.

“While We’re Young” is a chipper tune, bolstered by some nice brush work from Miller.  “Something Real” is, also, an up-tempo tune.  It lets the volume rise, though not without getting in a catchy melody to hang onto for the ride.  The only weak spot on the album is another faster piece… “Weight of the World” is all pop song, and doesn’t really provide the space which Harms so deftly is able to fill on her own, with succinct, evocative phrases.  But that’s a small criticism for what remains an enjoyable, solid new recording from the vocalist.

Here’s a video for the album track “Mood Indigo”:

Released on Gazelle Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at: eMusic | CDBaby CD & Digital | Amazon MP3



Other Things You Should Know:

jeremysiskind_fingersongwriterHere’s a link to my review of Jeremy Siskind‘s Finger-Songwriter, a trio album of pianist Siskind, vocalist Harms, and reed man Lucas Pino.  It got a top ten slot on my Best of 2012 list.  I highly recommend it.



Portions of this review was originally used in my Jazz Picks weekly article for eMusic, so here’s some language protecting their rights to that reprinted material as the one to hire me to write about new jazz arrivals to their site…

New Arrivals Jazz Picks,“ reprint courtesy of, Inc.
© 2013, Inc.

As always, my sincere thanks to eMusic for the gig.  Cheers.