01_Kenny_WernerMe, Myself & I
Kenny Werner
Justin Time Records JUST 248

Kenny Werner has been around for a long time, is a brilliant pianist, accompanist, composer and educator, and yet somehow has never received the public recognition he deserves. This album was recorded at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in June 2011 as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival and the choice of music ranges from such standards as Round Midnight, Blue in Green and Giant Steps, to Joni Mitchell’s classic I Had a King and the pianist’s own gem, Balloons. There is an ethereal quality to the music right from the opening bars of the first cut which is sustained throughout the album.

Balloons is literally inspired by the life and death of helium balloons. Balloons bought for his daughter’s birthday would float up and touch the ceiling, but eventually they’d come down. So the tune is sort of a musical joke — a balloon from the party to its end. If you recognize something familiar in the performance of Balloons, it has the recurring strain of Barbara Allen, a 17th century Scottish ballad inserted a couple of times, perhaps because the Werner original is about the life and death of a helium balloon and the ballad is about the death of a young love.

Giant Steps turns into a flight of fancy while A Child Is Born is a delicate, introspective voyage of sensitivity taken with haunting simplicity. There is nothing negative to say about this CD. I have been a Kenny Werner fan for many years and I have never heard him play better than he does on this recording.

02_Melissa_StylianouSilent Movie
Melissa Stylianou
Anzic Records ANZ-0036

On this, her fourth album, Toronto-born, New York-based vocalist Melissa Stylianou sings with endearing sensitivity and ample heart. Pleasing to the ear, her voice is higher in range than most jazz singers, occasionally soaring majestically but for the most part remaining understated, focused on the words she sings rather than the sounds she produces. Stylianou’s eclectic taste for repertoire here blends standards and originals with a range of contemporary material: James Taylor, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, avant-garde folk singer Joanna Newsom and Brazilian pop star Vanessa da Matta. Brilliantly arranged to suit Stylianou, these covers provide some exquisite musical moments.

Perhaps the only downside to recording such excellent covers is that the artist’s own originals do not shine quite as brightly. But the album has numerous highlights including Simon’s Hearts and Bones, da Mata’s Onde Ir, Newsom’s Swansea and a stunning take on one of jazz’s most sentimental standards, The Folks Who Live on the Hill, delivered here with supreme sincerity. All four tracks benefit greatly from the vibrant work of multi-reed player Anat Cohen, appearing here on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone. Guitarist Peter McCann is a sympathetic asset throughout, and cellist Yoed Nir is a nice added touch on a few tracks. That said, the entire band cushions Stylianou admirably throughout this beautifully produced, refreshing recording.

03_Halie_JorenHeart First
Halie Loren
Justin Time JTR 8573-2

Singer Halie Loren’s Heart First is what I think of as get-out-the-hammock music. The evocation of lazy hours on the porch in a sultry locale hasn’t so much to do with the origins of the recording — Loren and crew are based in Eugene, Oregon — as with the easy, back-pocket singing style and lightly swinging support of the band. Gifted with a sometimes breathy, sometimes throaty and always gorgeous voice, comparisons to Norah Jones are unavoidable. I even hear a bit of Aaron Neville in the way Loren plays with the break in her voice, in particular on her pretty take of Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain. It’s in these covers of newer standards and remakes of pop hits that the disc shines brightest, but Loren’s own songs fit in cozily with the classics and overall breeziness. The only time Heart First even comes close to what could be described as edgy is on the reharmonized All of Me, which cleverly blends tremolo guitar (William Seiji Marsh), malleted drums (Brian West) and a minor key for a Willie Nelson-goes-voodoo kind of vibe. Loren also occasionally unleashes a bit of French and Spanish to kick up the sex appeal a notch, but not so much to make you fall out of your hammock.

Julie Lamontagne
Justin Time JTR 8570-2

I’ve never been a big fan of the “crossover” — opera divas singing jazz; rock stars performing opera; classical artists playing Hendrix — ouch. To my ear, it usually hasn’t worked all that well (unless you’re Keith Jarrett playing Bach). So, it was with some trepidation that I approached pianist/composer Julie Lamontagne’s third and latest album, Opus Jazz.

Turns out I needn’t have been so trepidatious. Lamontagne’s efforts in “revisiting” favourite classical music pieces — “a meeting between the jazz world I currently inhabit and the classical repertoire of my youth” as she explains in her liner notes — have proved, by and large, quite successful in this CD of music for solo piano.

With an early and firm grounding in classical music, Lamontagne ultimately went on to study with Fred Hersh in New York in 2000. (Truthfully, that’s what made me look twice at the CD. I mean, the sublime Fred Hersh, for heaven’s sake — the jazz pianist’s jazz pianist, and exceptional composer.) According to Lamontagne, Hersh encouraged her “to learn the works of Brahms in order to make the connection between jazz and classical.”

Given Lamontagne’s well-executed “adaptations” of works by Fauré, Chopin, Bach, Debussy and Brahms, among others, it seems she paid close attention to the teacher; her Brahms/Hersh-inspired Waltz for Fred does him (Hersh) justice. Bach’s Prelude No.1 in C Major (WTC Book I) is given a fluid and beautiful treatment on track three. And in Chopineries, Lamontagne takes us on a brief, though mellifluous and moving, tour of a Chopin nocturne (Op. posth.72 No.1), ballade (No.1 Op.23) and waltz (No.1 Op.18).

Lamontagne is an accomplished and creative musician, no — uh, make that “yes” — two ways about it.

05_Ori_DaganLess Than Three
Ori Dagan
ScatCat Records ODCD02

In the follow up to his well-received 2009 debut, S’Cat Got My Tongue, Israeli-born Toronto jazz vocalist Ori Dagan has imbued his latest recording with a healthy dose of intriguing material, cool musical sophistication and superb musicianship. The title, Less Than Three, refers to the online symbol of a heart — illustrating Dagan’s theme of “love” in its many guises.

Recently named “Canada’s Next Top Crooner” by CBC Radio, Dagan’s rich and sonorous baritone plumbs a depth of feeling above and beyond what his title would indicate. The CD boasts a line-up of gifted musicians, notably the Bill Evans-influenced pianist Mark Kieswetter and recent Order of Canada recipient, the luminous Jane Bunnett on soprano sax. All of the impressive arrangements are by Dagan and Kieswetter, including eclectic takes on tunes from Madonna, Elton John, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lady Gaga, as well as two original compositions — the entertaining and witty Googleable, and a moving ode to peace, Nu Az Ma?, sumptuously rendered in his native Hebrew.

Noteworthy is a rhythmic and wickedly sensual version of Madonna’s disco-era hit Lucky Star, as well as Eretz Zavat Chalav — sung with energy and authenticity (as only a “Sabra” can) and elevated to a thrilling level by Jane Bunnett’s stirring improvisations. Other tasty tracks include a scat-o-riffic roller coaster ride on Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and a pure and elegant rendering of Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s first big hit, Your Song. No doubt there will be many more treats in store down the line from this talented and inventive vocalist.

06_Frere_JacquesFrère Jacques: Round about Offenbach
Gianluigi Trovesi; Gianni Coscia
ECM 2217

Writing about opera in 1856, composer Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) ascribed verve, imagination and gaiety to Italian composers and cleverness, good taste and wit to French ones. Who better then to provide a new take on the music of the father of the French operetta than two veteran Italian improvising musicians?

Accordionist Gianni Coscia and Gianluigi Trovesi on piccolo and alto clarinet create stripped-down reconfigurations of 12 of Offenbach’s familiar themes. They often meld those lines with their own droll commentaries producing tracks that are post-modern yet jaunty and swinging, with the gaiety implicit in the French composer’s best work. Trovesi especially, known for his membership in the Italian Instabile Orchestra, can interject blues tonality in such a way that his echoing glissandi reflect the 21st as well as the 19th centuries. Intensely pumping, Coscia’s squeeze box not only provides tremolo rhythms throughout, but adds dance-like slides and jerks which link Offenbach’s favoured Belle Epoque can-can to the rustic Italian tarantella.

These affectionate homage-spoofs are frequently expressed in title juxtapositions as well. For instance, Offenbach’s lilting merry-go-round styled Et moi is coupled with the duo’s No, tu, no, which includes flutter-tongued reed slithers, while their Sei italiano encompasses wide-bore reed cadenzas and comic bellows timing that plays up the thematic lyricism in Offenbach’s No! … Je suis Brésilien. The piece also links his operettas to what will become musical theatre songs.

By including staccato tongue flutters and polyphonic glissandi in their renditions, Trovesi and Coscia confirm that their languid and lyrical extensions of Offenbach’s themes are treated as seriously as they would the work of any composer or improviser. This impression is fortified on the original Galop … trottrellando when the clarinetist’s virtuosic trills only attain decisive bel canto expression alongside the squeeze box interpolating distinctive can-can rhythms.

07_Oscar_PetersonOscar Peterson’s Easter Suite
Oscar Peterson; Niels-Henning Orstedt Pedersen; Martin Brew
ArtHaus Musik 107 063

The music on this DVD was recorded in 1984 for London Weekend Television, commissioned by the BBC and broadcast on Good Friday, April 24, 1984. It is one of the least known compositions by Oscar Peterson, even though virtually all sources mention it as one of his major works. The eight movements follow the events related in the gospel story. Long-time associates, bassist Niels-Henning Orstedt Pedersen and drummer Martin Drew, accompany Peterson and, as might be expected, the playing is of an exceptionally high standard.

The DVD also features an interesting interview with Peterson in which he admits to an initial scepticism about interpreting such a topic in the medium of jazz and his relation to spiritual music. He also describes in detail the various motifs of the work and I recommend playing the interview before listening to the Suite

The passion and resurrection may seem surprising topics for a longer jazz work, but Oscar Peterson with his Easter Suite joins a number of significant other jazz greats — artists such as Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck introduced religious themes in their later works as a way of expressing their spiritual beliefs. But religion-inspired jazz has been around for some time. In fact one could present a case that there has been a connection right from the early days in New Orleans with the street parades and the interplay of musical and religious traditions.

The Easter Suite will make an interesting addition to your Peterson collection and we have to thank BBC for making it possible. It is hard to imagine an American network producing such an event.

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