Archive for jazz vocalists

Best Compliment EVER!!!

Posted in The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , on August 18, 2014 by curtjazz

Lou Rawls - All Things in TimeYesterday my teenage son John (usually known in these posts as “Jazzy John”) and I were hanging out at home. My radio station, Curt’s Cafe Noir was playing softly in the background and John was playing a video game. A recording of the great Lou Rawls singing “You’re The One” came on. John stopped and casually asked me, “Hey Dad, is that you?”

He looked at me with a straight face, which let me know that this was not an attempt at getting a raise in his allowance but an honest inquiry.

Now I haven’t raised my solo voice in any kind of serious attempt at vocalizing since before John was born. All he has ever heard is me around the house and the occasional church solo.

But for John to even for a brief moment to entertain the thought that one of the most singular voices in soul/pop/jazz (and one of my vocal idols) could actually be ME, was one of the best compliments that I have ever received!

Even though I told him the truth, I had an ear to ear grin for the next hour and my son thought that I was nuts even more than he usually does.

Hmmm…maybe Jazzy John’s allowance is a little paltry…

Album Review: Nicole Zuraitis – Pariah Anthem

Posted in CD Reviews, Who's New in Jazz with tags , , , on February 11, 2014 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Nicole Zuraitis

nicole zuratis

PARIAH ANTHEM – Self Release www.nicolezuraitis.com  Stinger; Watercolors; Try, Love; Secret; Staring Into The Sun; To The Hive; Dagger; The Bridge; If Only For Today; Pariah Anthem

PERSONNEL: Nicole Zuraitis, vocals, piano; Dan Pugach, drums; Scott Colberg, double bass; Julian Shore, rhodes, organ; Victor Gould, piano; Ilan Bar-Lavi, guitar; Billy Buss trumpet, flugelhorn; Jon Paul, acoustic guitar; Nandini Srikar, vocals

By Curtis Davenport

In my younger days, I used to frequent what we called “Wine and Cheese Cafés”, where you could usually find some very good and reasonably priced wines, a diverse assortment of cheeses and more often than not, an eclectic assortment of some of the best music around, setting the atmosphere. It was generally a mix of soft rock, mellow but funky R&B and tasty contemporary jazz of the type that was popularized by CTI Records. Often, I would hate to leave because the music mix was more intoxicating than any alcoholic beverage being served. Invariably, there would be an artist that captured that perfect mix of the genres and I would ask the waiter “Who is that playing now?” If now was then, I would have certainly asked about the music of Nicole Zuraitis.

Nicole Zuraitis is a young New York based singer/songwriter/keyboardist.  The NYU graduate has performed or recorded with Winard Harper, Jane Monheit and Don Braden. Her own music as evidenced on Pariah Anthem, which is her second album, is a well crafted hybrid of rock, jazz and R&B, which fits very well around her impressive voice. And that voice is hard to ignore. On most selections, Ms. Zuraitis hangs out in that corner of the alto range that was once so well occupied by the great Angela Bofill. Then just as soon as you’ve gotten comfortable there, Ms. Zuraitis will suddenly sweep into a glissando through several octaves that places her close to Minnie Riperton territory. I couldn’t help but stop and take notice.

The songs on Pariah Anthem were all written by Zuraitis and many of them are quite good. “Secret” is sweetly soulful, with a swirl of jazz chords and a dreamy rhodes backdrop by Julian Shore. It sounds like a lost track from Ms. Bofill’s Angel of the Night album. “Staring Into the Sun” is a lovely duet between Ms. Zuraitis and Victor Gould’s piano. It gives her a chance to show off her remarkable range to great effect.  “To The Hive” starts as an insistent jazz-rock tune that takes an unexpected turn with the addition of a Hindi verse by Indian singer Nandini Srikar. When Srikar and Zuraitis rush toward the coda in an English/ Hindi counterpoint, it is exhilarating. On “Dagger”, Ms. Zuraitis and company drop a nice neo-soul groove, led again by Julian Shore’s rhodes. This cat knows how to pull an atmosphere out of his keyboard. “If Only for Today” is a torchy ballad, performed again as a duet between Ms. Zuraitis and Mr. Gould. They are so good together that I would gladly listen to an evening of them playing duets.

Nicole Zuraitis is a gifted performer and Pariah Anthem is an album that will grow on you with repeated listening as the nuances reveal themselves. It’s music that doesn’t easily categorize itself.  And you know what? That’s not a necessarily a bad thing.  Keep an eye on Ms. Zuraitis, for I think that she has a bright future ahead of her.

Album Review: René Marie – I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , on January 13, 2014 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the January 2014 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s JazzInside Magazine

René Marie

Rene Marie - I Wanna Be Evil

I WANNA BE EVIL (With Love to Eartha Kitt) – Motéma Records MTM-129 www.motema.com  I’d Rather Be Burned As a Witch; C’est Si Bon; Oh, John; Let’s Do It; Peel Me a Grape; My Heart Belongs to Daddy; I Wanna Be Evil; Come On-a My House; Santa Baby; Weekend

PERSONNEL: René Marie, vocals; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Adrian Cunningham, tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Etienne Charles, trumpet, percussion; Kevin Bales, piano; Elias Bailey, bass; Quentin Baxter, drums, percussion, washboard

By Curtis Davenport

Leave it to René Marie to wreck my plans. At this point in the year, I felt fairly comfortable with my personal list of the best jazz albums that I’d heard in 2013. Now along comes Ms. Marie with I Wanna Be Evil, a tribute the immortal Eartha Kitt.

Most serious jazz fans are by now familiar with much of René Marie’s back story. The Virginia native did not sing professionally until age 42; after raising her sons who encouraged their mother to finally pursue her dream. Singing represented freedom for Ms. Marie in many ways. She married young and spent many years feeling oppressed in her marriage and by the strict conservatism of the religion that she practiced during those years. I’ve watched Ms. Marie since she first came on the scene and it has been fascinating to watch her artistic growth, from the tentative joy of her debut album, How Can I Keep From Singing to the unexpected brilliance of Vertigo; to her arresting “comeback” after some controversy, with Voice of My Beautiful Country, to this new album where she demonstrates that any of her past shackles have been cast aside as she revels in her hard-earned personal and artistic independence.

Ms. Marie had sworn to never do a tribute album but the lure of Ms. Kitt, who not coincidentally also courted a bit of controversy in her day, was too great to resist.  To her credit, Marie has avoided impersonations of the legendary diva but instead has taken a fresh look at some of the tunes associated with her. She is aided by stellar work from her musicians, especially the horn section of reedman Adrian Cunningham, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and trumpeter/arranger Etienne Charles, whose charts are consistently on the money. “I’d Rather be Burned As a Witch” sets the table perfectly as the lyric practically gives Ms. Marie’s rationale for everything that follows it on the album, with a hard swinging vocal, a horn arrangement where three do the work of a big band, punctuated by a growling statement by Mr. Gordon. “Let’s Do It” after a sedate reading of the rarely heard verse, turns on the bass riff from Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues”, set by Elias Bailey and a driving beat from Quentin Baxter. Marie then mines this usually sly and sedate Porter tune for all the soul that its worth as she sings with grittiness that she has rarely displayed on record. She is pushed there by Gordon who makes his ‘bone talk like a preacher telling the truth on Sunday morning. The other Porter chestnut, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” gets perhaps the most Kitt-like reading as Marie slinks through the lyric, raising temperatures during the coda as she repeats increasingly intense variations on the phrase “…’cause daddy treats it so well…”. The title track is tongue-in-cheek fun where Marie has a ball with the lyric and the musicians drop some great solo turns (Mr. Charles’ gifts as a horn arranger are a revelation). Marie and company even tackle that most indelible of Kitt songs, “Santa Baby”. They slow it down to a sensual crawl, with just Bales, Bailey and Charles’ trumpet accompanying the vocalist’s breathy smolder.  If I’m Santa, I would answer this request first.

The set concludes with the album’s only original composition, “Weekend” a compelling piece by Ms. Marie that touches on some very adult issues. It is made more interesting by the fact that it does not pass judgment on any of its characters nor does it offer a definitive conclusion. Marie tells the story and then leaves it to the listener to answer the questions, which makes the track all the more memorable.

I Wanna Be Evil may have come late to the 2013 party but it was worth the wait. It’s easily one of the best albums of the year and perhaps the best of René Marie’s relatively short but consistently impressive career.

Male Jazz Singers – Hope for the Future

Posted in The Jazz Continues..., Video Vault, Who's New in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2013 by curtjazz

Ori DaganIn 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Hendricks for Jazz Inside Magazine. The legendary”James Joyce of Jive” was extremely generous with his time (we talked for over two hours, including his impromptu, a capella performance of his classic lyric to J.J. Johnson’s “Lament”).  He was also not shy about sharing his opinions.

One of the topics we touched on was the dearth of young male jazz singers coming up through the ranks. While we acknowledged the formidable gifts of Kurt Elling and Kevin Mahogany, we lamented the fact that there didn’t seem to be a lot of others. The young women singing jazz seem to outnumber the men by a 20:1 margin.

Mr. Hendricks offered the theory that in our 21st century culture, jazz singing is not considered a “serious profession” even in the entertainment world and that men of all stripes are pushed toward vocations that will “bring home the bacon”. Whether that is the case or not can be debated. The paucity of guys under 40 who are truly singing jazz, cannot.

However as the title of this post indicates, there is hope on the horizon. Over the past three years, there have been a number of younger men that have showed up on the scene who are quite good. Many are as versed in hip-hop as they are in the standards and they bring to the stage a sound that is fresh and promising.

Here are five that I find interesting. These are not the only five good young male jazz singers, just a few who have my ear at the moment. I have also cheated a bit in that one is slightly over 40 but he is too good to pass up because of that minor technicality.

In alphabetical order:

Ori Dagan

Born in Israel and raised in Toronto, Mr. Dagan is also a classically trained pianist. He is the best scat singer of this quintet and his improvisations, which have at times taken him from English to Hebrew and back again, are often a joy for these jaded ears. He has two albums out, which put the fun back in jazz singing: S’Cat Got My Tongue and Less Than Three

José James

The likely breakout star of this group, Mr. James has dropped successful albums on the jazz and the hip-hop sides of the street. His appearances on Letterman, Leno and other mainstream shows have helped to juice his rise. But make no mistake about it. This cat can SANG. Think of the crooning ability of Al Green mixed with jazz sensibility of Bill Henderson and you’re on the right track.  His latest album, No Beginning No End on Blue Note, is a strong mixture of multiple genres. However to really hear José James the vocalist, you should also check out For All We Know, a duet album of standards that he did in 2010 with pianist Jef Neve, on Impulse! Records.

Gregory Porter

Mr. Porter has become an “overnight sensation” at age 41. Though he doesn’t have the mainstream profile of José James, he has turned the jazz world on his ear and with his powerful yet vulnerable tenor voice, he has even made some inroads into the adult R&B world, as evidenced by his 2013 R&B Grammy nomination. His two albums 2010’s Water and last year’s Be Good are standouts, that earned a place on their respective year’s Curt’s Cafe “Best Of” list.

Milton Suggs

Chicago born, Atlanta bred and now living in NYC, Milton Suggs has garnered attention not only for his powerful baritone voice but for his impressive gifts as a lyricist, which he fully  displayed on his latest album, the appropriately titled Lyrical, Vol. 1 ( a Curt’s Cafe Best Jazz of 2012 selection).  Mr. Suggs lyrics evince a fearless creativity that is reminiscent of Jon Hendricks but with a hip-hop undercurrent that should help to keep those of his own generation listening. Definitely someone to watch. Also check out his previous album Things To Come.

Sachal Vasandani

Blessed with boyish good looks and a smooth, crooning vocal timbre. Mr. Vasandani could have easily opted to go the route of slicksters like Michael Bublé. Instead, the fact that he has toured and recorded with Mr. Hendricks and he has appeared as a guest vocalist on recent albums by artists such as Gerald Clayton and Don Braden, says a lot about Mr. Vasandani’s artistic integrity. Yes, he can sing “The Very Thought of You” in a style that is swathed in velvet but then he will turn right around and bop his way through an impressive rendition of “Monk’s Dream”; something that the Bublés of the world wouldn’t even try. Check out his two most recent albums, We Move (2009) and Hi-Fly (2011).

2013 Jazz Grammy® Preview #2 – Best Jazz Vocal Album

Posted in 2013 Grammys with tags , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by curtjazz

To borrow from Maddux and Glavine in those classic Nike commercials, “people dig the singers”. So the next category that we’ll cover in our 2013 Jazz Grammy Preview always draws a great deal of public interest, whether it’s warranted or not.

Here are the nominees for Best Jazz Vocal Album, along with a few of my opinions:

Soul Shadows – Denise Donatelli (Savant)

This is the second nomination in the past three years in this category for this former CNN reporter turned jazz vocalist.  When Lights Are Low, her previously nominated disc, stuck to the straight ahead side of the street; however Soul Shadows mixes things up a bit, leaning heavily on African, Brazilian and Latin poly-rhythms  The overall result is an album with a lighter, more contemporary sound than its predecessor. Ms. Donatelli is a very fine singer, with an engaging voice and Geoffrey Keezer’s production hits all the right notes. However, because she is still relatively unknown and Grammy voters love familiarity, Soul Shadows is a long shot on February 10.

1619 Broadway (The Brill Building Project) – Kurt Elling (Concord)

Kurt Elling has become a perennial nominee in this category – this is his tenth nomination. He deservedly won in 2010 for his excellent Coltrane/Hartman tribute Dedicated to You. However his last two discs, including this one, though nominated, have been a bit of a disappointment. 1619 Broadway has a marvelous concept and it does have a few bright spots but overall, it misses the mark. It’s another long shot on Grammy night, due mainly to the presence in this category of a couple of Big, Shiny Names that are going to draw a lot of voter attention.

Live – Al Jarreau and the Metropole Orkest (Concord)

Say “hello” to Big, Shiny Name #1. The legendary seven-time Grammy winner (and thirteen-time nominee) looms over this category on awards night like the proverbial 800 lb. Gorilla.  Live is a good album but it’s not a great one.  Like Sinatra in his later years, the 72-year-old Mr. Jarreau is not what he used to be but he can still hit the high points occasionally and he knows how to use what he’s got left to his advantage.  Because of who he is, Al Jarreau stands an excellent chance of taking home his eighth Grammy in February, with his only likely competition coming from the other Big, Shiny Name.

The Book of Chet – Luciana Souza (Sunnyside)

Here you have it folks, the best of the albums nominated in this category but it stands very little chance of winning the Grammy. Ms. Souza, the fine Brazilian jazz singer is one of the least known of the nominees in the U.S. and that is going to hurt her with the voters; which is a shame, because this album, one of two of hers that were nominated this year, is sublime.  This Chet Baker tribute is appropriately spare and consistently moving.  Ms. Souza and her pianoless trio meld ten songs closely associated with the vocal side of the jazz icon, into a seamless, haunting statement. Is it melancholy? Yes, but it is also gorgeous. Under different circumstances, The Book of Chet would be a favorite. But now, it is a likely also-ran.

Radio Music Society – Esperanza Spalding (Heads Up)

And last but not least, we have Big, Shiny Name #2. Radio Music Society is Esperanza’s first album since her upset Best New Artist Grammy win in 2010 (which sent many of us jazz pundit types running through the streets in various stages of bet-losing undress).  Whether this album is “jazz” or not has been argued ad infinitum, so I won’t rehash that here. The bottom line is that it is nominated in this category and Esperanza Spalding is now almost as well-known as Al Jarreau. Therefore she stands about as good of a chance of winning this year’s Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy as the old scat master.

These tracks and others from Grammy nominated jazz albums can be heard on Curt’s Café Noir, our 24/7 web radio station, right up until February 10. We feature these tracks daily, from 4 pm – 6 pm on “The Grammy Show”. Click here to listen.

In our next Grammy related post, we will discuss the nominees for the other “big” jazz award – Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Until then, The Jazz Continues…

Grammys 2012 Nominees – Best Jazz Vocal Album

Posted in 2012 Grammys, The Jazz Continues..., Video Vault with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2012 by curtjazz

Okay Jazz Peeps, the Grammys do feel a bit empty this year, after the purge of many categories, including jazz.

However, there are still some fine artists, who did great work over the past year, and whose work has been nominated. These people had nothing to do with the shortsighted decision-making of the NARAS, so I want to take a few posts to recognize them, with a track from their nominated work.  I’ll also include a few brief thoughts about each work. 

We’ll start with Best Jazz Vocal Album

The nominees are:

Karrin Allyson – ‘Round Midnight (Concord Records): Track “Goodbye”

IMO this is not Ms. Allyson’s best work, but she is still one of the best around today.  It’s well sung, as always but the Only The Lonely vibe wore thin after a while.

Terri Lyne Carrington – The Mosaic Project (Concord Records): Track “Transformation” [Vocal by Nona Hendryx]

My hands down favorite among the nominated albums, it’s a mostly vocal effort by Ms. Carrington and a number of other ladies.  One of our picks for Best Jazz Albums of 2011.

Kurt Elling – The Gate (Concord Records): Track “Golden Lady”

Mr. Elling is a perennial nominee in this category, who finally won on his prior nomination for his strong Coltrane/Hartman tribute Dedicated To You.  Though The Gate had some fine moments, I found it overall, to be just “okay”.

Tierney Sutton – American Road (BFM Jazz): Track “Wayfaring Stranger”

This album was a big favorite among the critics and it just may take home the prize on Sunday. Excellent musicianship; I just wished that it swung a little harder.

Roseanna Vitro – The Music of Randy Newman (Motéma): Track “Mama Told Me Not To Come

This is another personal favorite in this category. I’ve long been a fan of Randy Newman’s sardonic wit and wondered when a jazz vocalist would mine the Newman songbook to great extent.  Ms. Vitro seemed at first like an unlikely choice, but she sings the songs as if they were written for her and the arrangements are first-rate. She is a longshot in this category but it would not be at all disappointing to see her win.

A Video Tribute to Oscar Brown, Jr.

Posted in The Jazz Continues..., Video Vault with tags , , on November 11, 2011 by curtjazz

Oscar Brown, Jr. (1926 – 2005)

This piece was originally intended as a birthday tribute to Oscar Brown, Jr. I couldn’t move fast enough to get it out last month, but the tracks were too good to languish in the draft file, so here it is a month later.

Many know Mr. Brown for “But I Was Cool”, one of his lighter pieces, which achieved some fame when a deodorant company used it (with Brown’s vocals) to advertise their product.

Oscar Brown was the natural predecessor to Gil Scott-Heron and other spoken word music poets. He composed over 1,000 songs, at least a dozen plays and recorded 12 albums, including the classic “Sin and Soul”; during his lifetime. He was also a political activist, who ran for the Illinois State Legislature and Congress.

I usually keep the text to a minimum during these video tribute posts and this one will be no exception, so here now are some great performances by a legendary griot.

Let’s start with this terrific overview:

Here he adds a heartfelt touch to Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere”

“The Snake” – with that irresistible refrain

And one of his best, IMHO, “Mr. Kicks”

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