Archive for CD Reviews

Album Review: Americuba – Havana Maestros

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by curtjazz

Havana MaestrosSometimes, an idea will sound crazy on paper but the execution will be terrific. Like this one – dig through the vaults of Warner/Atlantic Records. Grab some of the label’s biggest pop hits; from the last five decades and strip away everything but the vocals. Now, bring a group of legendary Cuban musicians into Havana’s Abdala Studios, open the bar and then, have them lay down some new instrumental tracks behind the vocals. The result is Americuba by the Havana Maestros. I confess that when I first read the concept in the press kit, I cringed. When I popped the CD into the player, I expected disaster and in a couple of instances, I got it. But most of the tracks are, at worst, quirky fun and at best, downright terrific.

The album kicks off with Chic’s “Good Times”. Recast as a guitar infused Cha-Cha, this disco warhorse sounded different. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It wasn’t bad at all, it was just good enough to intrigue me into listening further. Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”, fell into that same category – pleasantly different but not enough to surpass the original. Then came Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On” and the party was ON! Harold Lopez-Nussa lays down a killer piano line, Evaristo Dario drops in a nasty bari sax, the horns (trombone on top, of course) are blaring and we are suddenly in midst of a sweaty night at The Palladium. Before that groove lets us go, we get the incomparable Janelle Monae. “Tightrope” was always a great tune but this arrangement takes it to another level. In this setting, Ms. Monae sounds like the celebrated salsa princess, La India, during her 1990’s heyday. If you’re not up and moving on this track, check your pulse. “Say a Little Prayer” is also surprisingly good, with Dionne’s cool, bouncy vocal stylings wrapping around the Maestros simpatico backing like a soft leather glove.

In addition, there are a couple of strong tracks from the Havana Maestros, sans the American vocals; a few members of the group are part of the Buena Vista Social Club and “Ritmo Cubano” and “Ven” sound like a couple of lost tracks from that venerable group’s classic albums. On the delta side of the ledger, Fun.’s “We Are Young” and B.O.B & Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes”, completely miss the mark, but hey, that’s why they invented the “Skip Track” button.

Havana Maestros Americuba isn’t a classic but if you love Afro-Cuban music and you have an open mind, give it a shot – it’s a surprisingly enjoyable ride.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars – Creative, refreshing Afro-Cuban fun

Album Review: Bel Hommage – Patti LaBelle

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , on October 7, 2017 by curtjazz

PATTI LaBELLE – Bel Hommage (GPE Records)

patti labelle - bel hommageLet me start by saying that I am a big fan of Ms. Patti LaBelle. I consider her to be one of the great R&B/Soul Vocalists of our time. What some have considered to be excesses, I’ve always thought to be part of her inimitable style. And she is from the generation of vocalists (perhaps the last one) who don’t just sing but who also know their way around many genres of song. I still thrill to her blues performances in the classic 1984 film A Soldier’s Story.

When I heard that this legend’s first album in a decade was to be a jazz vocal album, I was quite pleased. Because I figured that if anyone could make a smooth transition from pop to jazz, it would be this great diva.  So, now I will get to the point. Patti LaBelle’s Bel Hommage, though well-intentioned, is uneven and a bit of a disappointment.

Most of the problems here are not Ms. LaBelle’s fault. At 73, her voice is still powerful and supple. She is more than up to the task of handling the jazz tunes and pop standards that have been selected. If I must fault her for anything, it’s that at times, she is too mannered in her approach. She left behind her trademark earthiness, in exchange for the precise diction of an Ella Fitzgerald. But that is a minor quibble. What really undoes Ms. LaBelle are the arrangements and her musical partners. A respected legend like Patti LaBelle could easily draw the participation of some of the top arrangers, producers and musicians in the jazz idiom. Instead the arrangements are in many cases, anchored to adult soul and smooth jazz clichés, with synthesizer fills and overdubbing intruding in places where less would have been more. Instead of enhancing the proceedings, I feel that Ms. LaBelle is often fighting to be heard over the cacophony, which is a damn shame. She deserves better.

Bel Hommage has enough highlights to let you know what could have been, with a better support system. “The Jazz in You” gets things off to a great start – soulful, bluesy and swinging; this is Patti as sassy jazz chanteuse, and it’s a winning formula. It’s hands-down the best of the up-tempo tracks. Ms. LaBelle also shines on a trio of performances that allow her to access her subtle, philosophical side. “Don’t Explain”, Billie Holiday’s anthem of infidelity and understanding, is appropriately heartbreaking. “Song for Old Lovers”, is in the same vein as “Don’t Explain”, giving Patti a chance to give another wonderful, world-weary but resolute, performance. And “Here’s to Life” is a gorgeous valedictory statement – just the singer and the pianist, in glorious and proud reflection. Let’s hope that there’s more like these four performances in the future, because Patti LaBelle – Jazz Singer, is a fabulous concept; it just needs better execution.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars – Patti fights to rise above it all