By Frank Alkyer
Victor Gould is a pianist, composer and arranger with tremendous facility on the keyboard, and a big heart to match. Born in Los Angeles, Gould excelled in music from a young age, establishing his reputation while still a student at Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and earning accolades through the ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Award and the Monk International Piano Competition. His debut album, Clockwork, was voted top debut album in NPR Music’s 2016 Jazz Critics Poll. And since then, Gould has been developing from an emerging talent to into a full-blown, fantastic artist. This is especially true on his latest recording, In Our Time, on the Blue Room Music label. His music flows gracefully from thought to passage to statement with an elegant complexity that demonstrates his composer’s wit and charm. With his trio mates Tamir Shmerling on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums, Gould dances through a program of 11 tunes, including nine originals, with inner urge and sophistication. His intention is on display from the downbeat of “Blue Lotus,” the opening tune on this program. In just over five minutes, Gould delivers a virtual concerto of blissful sound — from the intricate melody to the interplay between Gould and Marshall’s drums to the legato of Shmerling’s bass, the tune takes unexpected twists that seem natural, logical and exhilarating in the hands of this group. It’s no wonder that the tune was inspired by a grant from Chamber Music America, but rest assured, this is jazz. Gould follows “Blue Lotus” up with two stunning tributes, first “Lord Wallace,” a tribute to the late trumpeter Wallace Roney. “I was a member of Wallace’s band for four years,” Gould said in press materials, “and we made the album Understanding. He had such a big impact on my life, hiring me right after I moved to New York.” In the second tribute, “Dear Ralph,” Gould pays homage to drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., who passed away in March, a former professor of Gould’s at Berklee who invited the young pianist to join his band when Gould was a freshman. Each beautifully captures the spirit of the honoree. “Lord Wallace” has the nuance and understated fire that Roney brought to the stage. “Dear Ralph” relays the take-no-prisoners approach of the bombastic drummer. As for covers, Gould chooses well on a few fronts. First, the songs, Gigi Gryce’s “Minority” and Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” are incredible tunes by two of the greatest composers to ever write for jazz. Second, the guest artist on those tracks, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, adds layers of lush to the proceedings with his velvety tone and fleet interpretations. In all, the entire recording delivers a thoughtful groove that’s thoroughly enjoyable from front to back. It’s a composer’s recording that lets the mind race and the toes tap. If you loved Clockwork, you’ll be knocked out by In Our Time. Gould takes a giant leap as a major voice in this music and beyond. Take the final cut, “In Memoriam,” as an example. Here Gould writes for the trio with a string quartet. It is beautiful. His ideas, and talent, cannot be tied down by genre. Victor Gould is an artist of big ambition, and even bigger heart.
By Daniel Margolis
On March 22, 1984, Bob Dylan appeared on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman to promote his album Infidels, released the previous year. Letterman’s show was only a couple years into its run, and the famously difficult-to-impress talk show host was so pleased with the appearance, where Dylan turned in a spirited take on the song “Jokerman,” that in shaking hands afterward Letterman asked, “Is there any chance you guys could be here every Thursday night?” Acting out of character, Dylan exclaimed, “Yeah!”
Not surprisingly, given that was the only promotional work Dylan did for that album, this didn’t happen. Some 31 years later, Letterman’s second-to-last show featured Dylan and acknowledged the 1984 appearance before his introduction.
Among a certain type of Dylan-ologist, that appearance is the stuff of legend. The reason isn’t just that Dylan was in fine form. It’s also because he was backed by the Plugz, a Latino punk band from Los Angeles best known for contributing three songs to the Repo Man soundtrack.
In recent years, on YouTube, not only is the televised performance from the show available, but also his entire rehearsal for it. Apparently, Dylan was really working with this band. This begged the question: Was there an entire Dylan punk album out there lurking the vaults? With every new version of The Bootleg Series that has come out in recent years, fans grumble to each other, “I wish it was just Infidels outtakes,” hoping to hear Dylan go punk.
Well, a version of that is now here — Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980–1985 — and just like anything with the often inscrutable singer-songwriter, it both exceeds and subverts expectations.
First of all, just to get it out of the way, there’s no Dylan punk album here. We only get one song with the Plugz, “License To Kill” from the Letterman taping.
Second of all, what we do get unfolds strangely. This box starts with a full disc of Dylan rehearsing. It’s interesting to hear him mixing cuts from his late-’70s albums like “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” with playful covers like “Mystery Train” and “Sweet Caroline” and true rarities like “We Just Disagree” and “Let’s Keep It Between Us.” The disc has a Basement Tapes meets Rolling Thunder Revue feel to it. But this is a disc of taped rehearsals. It’s not for audiophiles.
Things pick up from there, as disc two deals up an entire set of Shot Of Love outtakes. That album was considered Dylan’s last of a trilogy of Christian albums. A previous volume of The Bootleg Series, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 /1979–1981, convincingly made the case, over eight discs and one DVD, that Dylan’s much-maligned Christian period was actually great. Interestingly, though, he’s working on secular material here. He’s covering the Everly Brothers, the Temptations and Hank Williams, and putting together reggae songs on the fly, like the fascinating groove of “Is It Worth It?”
Discs three and four are all Infidels outtakes, exactly what some fans have wanted. This definitely isn’t punk, not with Mark Knopfler involved — though he’s always welcome. Some of this is not exactly new. For example, “Blind Willie McTell” has been a part of The Bootleg Series canon since 1991 — so long that it feels less like an outtake than a hit single.
At this point, we’re firmly in the years when Dylan had an unfortunate tendency to hold back the best song he’d written for his albums, wanting to really nail it later, which he’d rarely, if ever, do. This meant these box sets, decades later, would be great, but his albums at the time weren’t. Springtime In New York doesn’t fall back on that, though, getting creative in giving us alternate and sometimes multiple takes of album tracks that shed light on what could have been. Of particular interest is a subtly better take on “Neighborhood Bully,” a defense of Israeli security policy that made critics nervous at the time. Another clear highlight here is “Death Is Not The End,” a song Dylan released five years later on the terse 1988 album Down In The Groove. This version is rawer and longer by two minutes, and Dylan is backed by the r&b group Full Force. This was definitely the ’80s!
The decade’s sway over these recordings is further felt on the last disc, as Dylan is backed by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein) on “Seeing The Real You At Last” (Dylan and Petty would soon fully occupy the same orbit in the Traveling Wilburys). By now, we’ve moved into outtakes from Empire Burlesque, an album that sees Dylan pulling in musicians as far afield of each other as legendary reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare and Rolling Stones guitarists Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, as well as members of Letterman’s house band. But the whole box wraps with “Dark Eyes,” a terrific, acoustic number — complete with Dylan’s tell-tale harmonica — Dylan wrote in one night at his producer’s suggestion to get away from the album’s slick production for at least a song.
Every volume of The Bootleg Series takes a portion of his career and proves there was much more going on there than was released at the time. This does that, wonderfully. It just doesn’t have Dylan going punk, at least not much of it. It seems that only happens when a young David Letterman is sitting at his desk.
By Ed Enright
Italian-born guitar virtuoso Pasquale Grasso continues a winning streak with this classy take on the music of Duke Ellington — joining the ranks of such archtop devotees as Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell and John Pizzarelli, each of whom has recorded notable tributes to the iconic big band composer. Consisting of five solo guitar performances, six trio tracks and two compelling vocal features, Pasquale Plays Duke is the second of three albums Grasso is putting out on Sony Music Masterworks this year and next. An expertly produced project, it measures up to the high standards the master guitarist set for himself on a spate of recent recordings he has dedicated to the repertoires of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Billie Holiday. It’s also a bit of an eye-opener for anyone not yet familiar with the esteemed guitarist and his quickly expanding discography. Grasso is a brilliant jazz improviser whose elegant melodic lines and speed-demon runs reveal the ever-present influence of historic jazz pianist Art Tatum. When he’s not dazzling listeners with technical feats and creative spark, Grasso enraptures them with oceans of smooth harmonic motion and all-enveloping sonic auras. Like a one-man big band, he keeps Ellington’s familiar melodies afloat on rivers of counter lines, inner voices and bass movement that virtually pour out of his instrument. A more conversational vibe emerges on tracks featuring Grasso’s working trio with bassist Ari Roland and drummer Keith Balla, two spirited, simpatico players whose tasteful contributions keep things swinging and popping. The album’s two vocal tracks — one featuring the youthful Samara Joy (“Solitude”) and another by the nonagenarian Sheila Jordan (“Mood Indigo”) — further elevate the program by bringing to the surface some of the complex emotions that dwell deep in the heart of Ellington’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) music. An active presence on New York’s jazz scene, Grasso can be heard in various settings both in and around the Big Apple and out on the road. Upcoming performance dates include trio gigs backing Joy at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey, on Oct. 1; Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York on Oct. 17; and Walton Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Dec. 10. He will also accompany Joy on a nine-gig European tour that begins Oct. 30 at the Flame Festival in Turku, Finland, and concludes Nov. 12 at Duc des Lombards in Nice, France. Grasso will play his standing duo gig with bassist Ari Roland at New York’s Mezzrow on Oct. 4, 11, 18 and 25, and Nov. 15, 22 and 29. And, he will take part in an Oct. 5–10 run of shows with singer/actress Laura Benanti at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York.
By Frank Alkyer
Black Acid Soul is the sensational new recording by Marley Munroe, aka Lady Blackbird. This is heady, haunting, sexy, soulful, heartbreaking stuff. With a voice that suggests a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, Lady Blackbird tears your heart apart and puts it back together again on this 11-song set. The ease, growl, coo and convincing nature of her voice come naturally as she has been singing in front of audiences since childhood, and was signed to a Christian music label as a teenager. She has long since left that side of her career behind, but the soul of that music is always close by. When she pleads, “Come back, come back, come back/ I’ve had enough,” on Allen Toussaint’s “Ruler Of My Heart,” there’s a piercing search for love that can only be delivered by a very few. The great Irma Thomas made the song a classic back in 1963. Lady Blackbird matches the authenticity and originality in this remake. Her voice is an old friend confessing her secrets, drawing you into her world. Take, for example, the new but timeless nature of “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” written by artist-producer-songwriter Chris Seefried, who worked with Andra Day on her debut recording. It’s a beautifully touching ballad that could fit easily into the catalog of an icon like Burt Bacharach, packed with forlorn lyricism, punctuated by a sweet trumpet solo from Trombone Shorty. Lady Blackbird is best when dishing out torch songs like “It’s Not That Easy,” “Five Feet Tall” and “It Will Never Happen Again,” or instant jazz noir classics like the album’s opener, “Blackbird.” This is an album of smart wordplay, amazing song choices and elegantly understated musicality. Floating above it all is the voice and artistry of this new and incredibly exciting artist. We’ll be talking about this debut for many years to come.