By Bobby Reed
Anyone who has paid attention to the blues scene of the past 20 years is fully aware that singer Shemekia Copeland can belt with gusto. Known more for her vocal gifts than her compositional skills, the key element that distinguishes Copeland’s good albums from her great ones is the quality of the songs she chooses. Her artistry has reached a new level with Uncivil War, thanks to Will Kimbrough, who produced the album, plays electric guitar throughout the program, and co-wrote seven of the 12 tracks.
The album opens with four remarkable, substantive Kimbrough tunes, making it clear that Copeland is not content to merely sing blues fodder about love gone wrong: “Clotilda’s On Fire” chronicles the horrors—and lasting impact—of slavery; “Walk Until I Ride” is a contemporary civil rights manifesto fueled by messages reminiscent of songs by the Staples Singers; the title track is a plea for unity during our divisive times; and “Money Makes You Ugly” is a protest song for environmentalists.
Toward the end of the album, there is a cluster of three songs that are just as weighty as those that open the disc: “Apple Pie And A .45” decries rampant gun violence; “Give God The Blues” is an existential exploration of similarities shared by several organized religions; and “She Don’t Wear Pink” is an LGBTQ anthem.
Copeland’s recordings often incorporate sonic elements from the Americana world, as evidenced here by bluegrass star Sam Bush’s mandolin textures on the title track, as well as Jerry Douglas’ exceptional work on lap steel guitar and Dobro on three tunes. Electric guitarists making guest appearances on the album include blues dynamo Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Stax icon Steve Cropper and rock ’n’ roll pioneer Duane Eddy.
Not every track on the album is a slice of social commentary; “Dirty Saint” adds a jolt of New Orleans funk to the proceedings. Penned by Kimbrough and John Hahn, the song is a fitting tribute to Dr. John, who produced Copeland’s 2002 disc, Talking To Strangers. The program closes with another type of tribute, as the singer acknowledges her familial and artistic roots by interpreting “Love Song.” It’s a sturdy composition by her father, Johnny Copeland, who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017, two decades after his death. Just as Johnny did, Shemekia Copeland’s work has expanded the audience for the blues.
By Dave Cantor
Even before clocking the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s origin story, it’s hard to shake its music, a collection of roiling big-band horn harmonies, hip-hop inflected rhythms, Afrobeat-styled percussion accents and wiry wah-wah guitar accompaniment. It’s almost the perfect summation of the past 70 years of brass and dance music.
The ensemble emerged from Chicago’s deep well of talent, drawn generation after generation from the AACM’s reservoir. Now split between its Chicago birthplace and New York, Hypnotic first came to fruition as an overwhelmingly engaging group of buskers, electrifying the Windy City’s “L” stops with stubbornly catchy performances. The group’s founders—all sons of multi-instrumentalist and Sun Ra affiliate Kelan Philip Cohran (1927–2017)—soon found their impromptu performances didn’t serve as a proper forum. And after self-releasing a handful of albums, the troupe lit out for New York, falling in with a growing contingent of performers discarding genre boundaries and working to encompass the breadth of Black music birthed of the fraught American experience.
Bad Boys Of Jazz is the group’s most recent effort to cover all of that terrain, “My Ship” adding in vocals that span rapped cadences and r&b grit, before downshifting into the blue funk of “Indigo,” a tune that effortlessly pulls from ’70s groove-based music and sterling brass harmonies—something that might bring a smile to Quincy Jones’ face. “Soul On Ice,” likely named after the 1968 book of essays Eldridge Cleaver published, offers a heroic horn melody, layered atop irrepressible percussion.
Like its musical DNA, drawing as much from party music as art, the band’s worked to distill every level of culture, from romantic numbers, like the closer “What It Is,” to the cerebral funk of “Art Comes First.”
By Bobby Reed
Tango tunes and Bix Beiderbecke compositions are two seemingly disparate ingredients that blend together beautifully on Candlelight—Love In The Time Of Cholera, the new duo album by classical violinist Juliet Kurtzman and jazz pianist Pete Malinverni. The 12-track program showcases exquisite melodic lines from both instrumentalists, as well as brilliant bouts of dialog.
Acclaimed as an educator and a specialist in the intersection of jazz and sacred music traditions, Malinverni takes a secular route for Candlelight, interpreting two songs by tango icons—Carlos Gardel’s “Por Una Cabeza” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”—and composing two tangos himself, “Pulcinella” and “Love In The Time Of Cholera.”
The program includes five songs by Beiderbecke, a DownBeat Hall of Famer widely revered for his work on cornet, but who also composed four works for piano: “In A Mist,” “Candlelights,” “In The Dark” and “Flashes.” In addition to spacious arrangements of those songs, Kurtzman and Malinverni apply their refined approach to “Davenport Blues,” a standard first recorded in 1925 by Beiderbecke’s sextet Bix & His Rhythm Jugglers.
Despite this emphasis on Beiderbecke tunes—as well as the inclusion of Scott Joplin’s “Solace”—Kurtzman and Malinverni don’t play ragtime music. Their shared aesthetic is one born in the 21st century, an approach that dually exploits the emotional resonance of jazz and the keen precision of classical music.
On the duo’s reading of “In The Dark,” Kurtzman’s playing evokes the intricacy of human speech. Elsewhere, a lively interpretation of Brazilian choro master Jacob do Bandolim’s “Dôce De Coco” finds Kurtzman gracefully breaking out of the confines of classical performance, while still showing off the chops that landed her onstage at Carnegie Hall. The rendition of “In A Mist” demonstrates both players’ ability to intensify the impact of a melody by handling tempo with a wondrous elasticity. Malinverni, who cites Piazzolla as a key influence, has teamed with Kurtzman to craft an album that has a degree of the irresistible, heart-piercing emotive quality of his hero’s finest works.
By Bobby Reed
Pop-culture aficionados who recognize the name Loudon Wainwright III might know him as a wry singer-songwriter, an actor, an acclaimed memoirist or a musical patriarch with numerous children who are performers, including Rufus Wainwright. But few fans view him purely as a vocal stylist, a role that he enthusiastically embraces on I’d Rather Lead A Band, a collaboration with retro practitioners Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks. The program features songs from the 1920s and ’30s—typical fare for Giordano’s talented crew.
Wainwright and Giordano have known each other for years, having worked together on music for Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator, and then again on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Here, the Nighthawks coax charming vocal performances out of Wainwright, who is well suited to sing witty ditties like the title track (penned by Irving Berlin). Wainwright does a fine job eliciting smiles as he sprints through a razzle-dazzle rendition of “How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ The Birds, Tellin’ The Bees)” and uses growls for punctuation in the comedic “You Rascal You (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead).”
More revelatory and satisfying, however, is Wainwright’s sincere treatment of heartbreaking lyrics. “More I Cannot Wish You” (from the musical Guys and Dolls) packs an intense, emotional wallop that few would expect from the man who scored the 1972 novelty hit “Dead Skunk.” Listeners will reach for a tissue as Wainwright sensitively interprets Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s ballad “A Perfect Day,” elongating vowel sounds as he croons, “Memory has painted this perfect day/ With colors that never fade/ And we find at the end of a perfect day/ The soul of a friend we’ve made.”
Wainwright offers a straightforward version of “A Ship Without A Sail,” the tale of a lovelorn protagonist. Reflecting on the Rodgers & Hart tune in the liner notes, he writes, “Check out the 1959 Tony Bennett black-and-white TV clip on YouTube. Tony is singing the song in a spiffy Italian tailored suit, but the director has him situated indoors on the deck of some kind of simulated, fully rigged windjammer. At the very least Mr. Benedetto should have been sporting an eye patch.”
In his musical performances and in his prose, that mixture of quirky quips and emotional depth is part of the reason that Wainwright, 74, still has the ability to surprise us.
By Dave Cantor
A near-religious ardency resonates throughout “Song For Soft-Serve,” the closing track of Recipe For A Boiled Egg.
Macie Stewart’s violin and Lia Kohl’s cello gently coax waves of calm, mirroring the feel of Pauline Oliveros’ The Wanderer, or any number of other deep-listening exercises. Vocals layered atop their strings further a chorale concept suited to a season when we’re all longing for a communal, uplifting note. But the decidedly placid music that closes out the pair’s follow-up to 2019’s Pocket Full Of Bees (Astral Editions) contrasts with its playful title, merging tongue-in-check panache and the seriousness of art music.
“Right Before Dinner,” a gnarled swirl of bowed strings perhaps mimicking the churn of a hungry belly, works the same way—pushing avant-expectations on the moment when hunger makes our guts emit croaking and gurgling noises. All of Boiled Egg works that way, in fact: “Scrimble-Scramble” and “Screaming Tea” get new music-y, despite their playful titles; and the long tones of “Rich, Sticky, Sweet” render both performative endurance and the suspended time of inhaling something delicious.
If improvising is the comity of lightning-fast ideas springing from collaborators’ minds, Boiled Egg might be thought of as a confluence of Stewart and Kohl parsing their concurrent work in the jazz, pop and free worlds—in real time. Regardless, it’s more filling than a five-course meal.
By Dave Cantor
Australian pianist Chris Abrahams—a founding member of The Necks—started issuing solo dates prior to recording with the avant-trio he’s most associated with. And while his contemplative touch on Appearance, as well as across a raft of solo dates reaching back to the mid-’80s, is almost immediately recognizable, there’s less twitchy energy at work on the two new tunes here than Necks aficionados might expect.
The instrumental, slowly paced offerings—enduringly placid, appealing and contemplative—arrive as untouched clay, waiting for listeners to etch their impressions on the surface. But there’s form here, to be sure: “As A Vehicle, The Dream” gently floats its melody up and lets it wash away. Abrahams retains the easily accessible sound at the keyboard here that’s helped The Necks merge shimmering calm with angsty rhythms for decades. Even shorn of company, pianist still manages to burrow deeply into ideas on Appearance, gently churning up shifting embellishments to each extended cut comprising the album.
That Abrahams might be considering an overarching thematic concept is totally possible—perhaps hinted at by the title “Surface Level,” the album’s second track. But the allure of his performance here is that the listener can project their own ideas and predilections across the backdrop of beautifully wrought sound.
By Ed Enright
Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s sophisticated compositions long have served as fuel for jazz artists who find inspiration in the alternate tunings and complex rhythms she has employed since her emergence as a folk-pop visionary in the 1960s. As her art matured in the 1970s, she began working with some of the top jazz players of her time, including Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. Her songs have been covered and reinterpreted countless times by musicians representing a wide range of genres—Hancock, Judy Collins, Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Tori Amos, Prince and Diana Krall among them.
Now comes a sparkling new recording by Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele that consists entirely of Mitchell repertoire, sparingly arranged for jazz quartet. Steele is reverential in his approach to the Mitchell songbook, his Harmon-muted trumpet evoking the singer’s distinctive, expertly controlled mezzo-soprano voice. The nine songs on Joni were written and recorded by Mitchell in the ’60s and ’70s, before her range began to descend into a smoky alto. With the sensitive support of bandmates Dave Milligan (piano/arranger), Calum Gourlay (bass) and Alyn Cosker (drums), Steele honors the familiar melodic contours and unrushed phrasing of classic songs like “Blue,” “Both Sides Now,” “A Case Of You” and “River.” These new arrangements leave Mitchell’s masterpieces wide open for smooth, soothing flights of jazz improvisation.
By Ed Enright
The 11th album by the Boston-based Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra adheres to a tradition that dates back to 1985: presenting original works by some of the most forward-looking and innovative writers and arrangers of the times. Recorded live at the Berklee Performance Center, the new album is a diverse program of compositions by JCA members David Harris, Darrell Katz, Bob Pilkington and Mimi Rabson, played by a large ensemble that puts a modern twist on traditional big-band instrumentation with the inclusion of strings, French horn and EWI.
Violinist-composer Rabson’s “Romanople” alludes to the disparate historic cultures of Constantinople and Rome, starting with a simple melodic statement (played by violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies) inspired by the Turkish folk tradition that takes flight and lands smack-dab in the middle of a Roman military brass band. Rabson’s other contribution, “Super Eyes–Private Heroes,” is a soundtrack-worthy nod to spy thrillers and superhero flicks, brimming with excitement and suspense. Harris contributes two pieces as well: “The Latest” is rooted in the pentatonic world of traditional Thai music, while “Orange, Yellow, Blue” builds Latin, funk and rock grooves upon a busy, buzzy background of free-improvisation that manages to maintain a sublime sense of coherence and order under the composer’s direction.
On trombonist Pilkington’s “The Sixth Snake,” braininess meets beauty as cool calculation and trial-and-error experimentation result in a warmhearted celebration of dazzling color combinations and complex timbral textures. “A Wallflower In The Amazon,” composed and conducted by JCA cofounder Katz, is an extended interpretation of a poem by Paula Tatarunis (Katz’s late wife), featuring a compelling melodic narration by vocalist Rebecca Shrimpton. The compositions themselves are the stars of this program, brought to life in a live-performance context featuring several remarkably inventive instrumental solos.
By Ed Enright
John McLean and Charles Barkatz don’t fit the profile of typical blues artists. But they sure as hell can write, play and sing with genuine greasy-sack conviction as demonstrated on Shadow Man, a collaborative recording produced by Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff with true-blue support from The Texas Horns, an ace Austin, Texas-based rhythm section, and other special guests.
Octogenarian McLean, featured here as a vocalist and songwriter, is a jack-of-all-trades performing artist who was born in New York, grew up on a Texas ranch, studied in Boston and built a lifetime’s worth of experience in theater, cinema and music. He has been a leader of several jazz groups in Paris (including the Fairweather Quintet) and recently appeared in New York at the Cornelia Street Cafe with his quartet. Barkatz, schooled in classical and jazz guitar and fluent in bossa nova, performs and records regularly in the States and his native France. Influenced by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, the 61-year-old taught himself how to play the blues at a young age. Together, these two transatlantic collaborators cut right to the heart of the blues on 10 original, emotionally charged tracks tinged with elements of jazz and American roots music.
Recorded with everyone in one big room, the music on Shadow Man conveys a communal experience, where spontaneity rules the day and collective moods range from sorrow and regret to flirtatious whimsy and liberating redemption. Highlights include the punchy opener “Leaky Shoes Blues,” the horn-heavy “Brooklyn Blues Cafe,” the dreamy minor-key meditation “Lucia” and the soul-cleansing “Bathtub Blues,” with its filthified blend of amplified harmonica, riffing guitars and honky-tonk piano.