Archive for jazz vocalists

Best Jazz Vocals of 2017 (Part 2): A Closer Look

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2017, CD Reviews, Video Vault with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by curtjazz

Happy New Year, everyone.

Well, this didn’t work out the way I intended.

ori dagan nathanielI posted my “Best of; Pt. 2”, list a couple of weeks ago, fully expecting to follow quickly with comments on each of the albums. This vicious strain of the flu that is out this season, had other ideas. The last thing I will say about Flu 2017/18, is I haven’t had any bug knock me out like that in at least 20 years. It’s real, it’s quick, and it’s strong; so please take care of yourselves.

Now back to the Music – The five best jazz vocal albums that I heard during the last half of 2017, in alpha order by album title:

 

Code Noir – Carmen Lundy (Afrasia)

Another brilliant work from this vocal master, Code Noir (which takes its title from the infamous French colonial slave laws) is a lush and dreamily soulful album. Don’t let the ethereal qualities lull you into a false sense of relaxation, lest you miss some of the most poignant lyrical messages of Ms. Lundy’s career. The marvelous Patrice Rushen is on the keys, reminding those who may have forgotten, that she is far more than just “Forget Me Nots”. The underrated Jeff Parker plays some dynamite guitar.  Listen once (or twice) for the lyrics, then let yourself get lost inside of the marvelous instrument that is Ms. Lundy’s voice. There’s not another one like it today in jazz.

Dreams and Daggers – Cecile McLorin Salvant (Mack Avenue)

I must keep reminding myself that she is not yet 30 years old. But that’s a frightening statement because it’s also a reminder that, as good as she is, Cecile McLorin Salvant, has still not yet reached her pinnacle. This is her first live album (mostly recorded at the legendary Village Vanguard), a two-disc set and there’s not a dud in the bunch. She is wondrously accomplished, self-assured, captivating and funny and often, she is all of these things, at once. I also loved the fact that there are very few tired old warhorses; Ms. Salvant mines the songbooks of Bob Dorough, Langston Hughes, (a hilariously raunchy) Bessie Smith, and the quirky, tongue in cheek sides of Broadway scores. And she makes them all her own. I will also no longer compare her, even favorably, to some of her legendary forbearers, for Cecile McLorin Salvant, has arrived, on her own terms.

Grace – Lizz Wright (Concord)

I would love this album, if only for the fact that it once and for all, reclaims Allen Toussaint’s wonderful “Southern Nights” from that crude and misguided megahit Glen Campbell version, after forty years. But there’s so much more here.  On her own work, Ms. Wright consistently delivers a beautiful and deeply personal amalgam of jazz, gospel and bluesy folk music. I’ve been listening intently since her impressive 2003 debut, Salt and she has never been better than she is on Grace. It is a starkly beautiful and majestic work of art, with songs by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you love the sacred or the secular, you will be completely filled with Grace.

Nathaniel (A Tribute to Nat King Cole) – Ori Dagan (Scat Cat)

There were higher profile vocal tributes to the great “King” Cole in 2017 but none were better than this surprising effort from the up and coming Canadian baritone. Ori Dagan keeps proceedings fresh by using his customary sense of humor and by adding 5 of his own compositions, most of which are quite good. In fact, a couple fit in so well, that I assumed that they were quirky, novelty rarities from the King Cole Trio’s heyday, until I read the liner notes. Mr. Dagan also wisely avoids anything that would even approach a perceived impersonation of one of the great voices and stylists of the 20th Century. So, what do we get? We have one of the unique talents of contemporary jazz singing, bringing us his interpretation of some tunes closely and not-so-closely associated with the legend. I like what he was going for, and overall, I loved how it turned out. Plus, he’s got the estimable Sheila Jordan, guesting on a delightful take of “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. Even a Cole fan like me, couldn’t ask for much more.

Rendering – Kellye Gray (Grr8)

This album by this husky-voiced vocalist has the most interesting backstory of any on this list: In 1989, Kellye recorded Standards in Gray, her debut album, for Justice Records, a small Houston area label (I loved many of their releases). It received good press and sold relatively well. However, when Justice fell on hard times, the album went out of print. In 2015, 25 years after Standards in Gray’s release, Ms. Gray gained ownership rights to her album. She decided to crowd-fund and produce a live concert/album, in tribute to the original album, including new recordings of some of the tracks on Standards… The result is the terrific Rendering, a 2 CD set, that includes the new live recordings and a copy of the first album.

Ms. Gray had escaped my notice, until this package arrived at my door. Suffice to say, I am very impressed. While Standards in Gray, is a portrait of a young, big voiced singer, with loads of promise, Rendering, shows us that in the ensuing 25 years, Kellye Gray has made the transition from earnest singer to jazz vocalist. That wonderful instrument of hers has developed nuance and a certain bit of inimitability. She has learned her way around and through a song; which makes the live album, very compelling and worthy of multiple listens.  The arrangements are first rate, as are her sidemen, including the late drummer Sebastian Whittaker, who played on the first date and poignantly, in one of his last recordings, on the live album as well. If your new to Ms. Gray (like me), my advice is to start with these two albums and work your way back. There’s a lot of fine music there.

And those are my five vocal favorites for the 2nd half of 2017.

A reminder, these were my selections for the 1st half of the year:

You can click HERE to read my post about that Fab Five.

Now that the flu is almost behind me, I’ve got a lot of posting to catch up on. Next will be the Instrumental album for the second half of the year.

Tracks from these albums and more can be heard on the new CURTJAZZ RADIO, our 24/7 jazz radio station, on the new Live365.com.

Stay healthy, my friends!

Two New Jazz Albums To Warm Your Holidays

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , on November 29, 2017 by curtjazz

Each Holiday Season usually brings a few new discs in most genres, including jazz. Here’s our take on a couple that stand apart from the rest:

Champian Fulton – Christmas with Champian

Christmas with Champian final coverThis delightful Oklahoma native has had quite a year – She released a fine, all instrumental album (Speechless). This was followed by a terrific, live date, as a co-leader, with the great tenor saxophonist, Scott Hamilton (The Things We Did Last Summer). Champian Fulton now caps 2017 with Christmas with Champian, her first Holiday disc. It is another winner.

To be successful, Christmas albums, need to exude a certain joy of the season and this one does, from the finger-snapping backbeat of “White Christmas” (nice work by drummer, Fukushi Tainaka, throughout) to the closer, “Merry, Merry Christmas”, a lovely original number by Ms. Fulton. The rest of the album is filled with familiar songs of the season but thanks to Ms. Fulton’s first-rate piano work and the rock-solid backing of her sidemen; Mr. Tainaka, bassist David Williams and Champian’s dad, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, these tunes have new life.

Then there are Ms. Fulton’s vocals – to these ears, her sound is an amalgam of Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson, to which she has added a touch of Blossom Dearie’s playfulness and charm. Yet, it manages to be all her own. She has grown by leaps and bounds as a singer, in the decade that she has been a part of the jazz scene. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, opens with a cool, bluesy piano figure, which pulled me in, prior to Ms. Fulton’s sassy vocal, which was then followed by a rollicking piano solo…Nice. Papa Stephen is on board, with his flugelhorn, for a swinging “Sleigh Ride”, with dad being pushed a little by his baby girl during his solo. That brought a smile to my face. “A Child is Born” is the stronger of the album’s two instrumental tracks, thanks to Ms. Fulton’s sensitive piano and outstanding work on the bass by Mr. Williams.

Order through Ms. Fulton’s website www.champian.net

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars – Champian Fulton has produced a classic Holiday album that should be heard all year round.

 

Jason Paul Curtis – These Christmas Days

Jason-Paul-Curtis-These-Christmas-Days-CoverJason Paul Curtis is a Washington D.C. based vocalist and songwriter, who mostly works with a big band, called Swing Shift and a small combo, Swinglab. He is a pleasant, modern swinger, in the Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé vein. For this, his second Holiday themed album, he has concentrated on his own music, having written eight of the album’s ten tracks.

These Christmas Days, has a warm, family feeling, with most of the tracks referencing family celebrations and Christmas memories with his children. Curtis is in fact, joined by his daughter, Isabella, on vocals, on two of the album’s more memorable tracks; the lightly swinging, “December Again”, which will touch a soft spot in the hearts of any of us who have watched our kids grow up too quickly; and the bouncy, “I Want Snow”, with a warm alto sax interlude by Dave Schiff. “Came Winter”, a finger snapping piece, with a punchy big band arrangement, and good solos. It’s a winning tune but its lyrical content is more along the lines of Wham’s “Last Christmas”, with its topic of Holiday season bitterness against the treachery of a former lover. Not exactly one for decking the halls. “I’ll Feel Christmas”, with its Motown derived backbeat and the happy freneticism of “Christmas Breakfast” are more like it, as they celebrate, respectively, the start of the Holiday Season, in the city and the joy of Christmas morning with those you love.

The arrangements are sharp and tight and Mr. Curtis is in excellent voice, throughout. If you’re looking for a well-played, Holiday jazz album, with tunes that are not in the traditional vein, give These Christmas Days a try.

Order through CDBaby.com Click HERE

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. A Charismatic, swinging and warm Holiday album.

Best Jazz Albums of 2017 (So Far) – Closer Look Pt. 1 – Vocal Albums

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2017, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by curtjazz

Taking a closer look at my five favorite vocal projects, so far, in 2017:

  • Dance of Time – Eliane Elias (Concord) – It’s still hard to believe that in her early years on  the American jazz scene, Eliane Elias was known strictly as a pianist. I liken her at this point to a Brazilian Diana Krall – she is still a first rate pianist but her vocal gifts, especially in her native Portuguese, have at this point, overshadowed her keyboard skills. On her latest album, she pays tribute to 100 years of samba. It is a sheer delight, with guest spots by Toquinho, Mike Manieri, ex-husband Randy Brecker, Mark Kibble and many others. Dance of Time is a true celebration and a great place to start for those introducing themselves to Ms. Elias’ work.

  • Nightintales – China Moses (MPS) – The daughter of legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ms. Moses has been on the scene now, for a few years. On Nightintales, she nails down a perfect mix of modern R&B and passionate soul-jazz. The sound is like nothing else on the scene today and that’s precisely what makes it irresistible.  The angular, hypnotic “Running” and raw soul of “Hungover”, make this album worthwhile, all by themselves. But there’s much more here and all of it needs to be experienced.

  • Petite Afrique – Somi (OKeh/Sony Masterworks) Somi, the American vocalist, of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage, has gotten better with each successive release. I thought she had reached her peak with 2014’s impressive The Lagos Music Salon.  Petite Afrique, however, feels even more personal and is more captivating than the previous project. Named for the section of Harlem around 116th Street, which is home to a gorgeous mosaic of African immigrants, the music captures, the rhythms, the passion, the joy, the fears and the frustrations of that community, in some cases, simultaneously.  With top flight co-production by Keith Witty and the brilliant trumpeter Etienne Charles, this is an album that you’ll remember long after the final note.

  • A Social Call – Jazzmeia Horn (Prestige) I was first exposed to this amazing young vocalist when I decided, without previewing, to drop her version of Betty Carter’s “Tight”, into my radio show one night. The hair on my arms stood at attention, my mouth fell open and by the time she begins to trade fours with the saxophonist a third of the way in, I was an unabashed fan. I then listened to the rest of the album on the way home from the studio and by the time I got to my front door, I was on a jazz high. Ms. Horn brings us a little Betty, a little Sarah, a little Ella, a little gospel and a whole lot of herself on this stunning debut project. Jazzmeia won the right to record this project as a prize for winning the 2015 Monk Vocal Competition. I’ve taken issue with the Monk judges in the past but not this time. They got it 100% right.

  • What Time Is It? – Giacomo Gates (Savant) I was first introduced to Mr. Gates around 20 years ago, at one of the earliest incarnations of the Litchfield Jazz Festival. His set was ridiculously truncated, due to curfew rules and a previous artist running overtime. Giacomo expressed mild annoyance, which greatly displeased the festival organizers. But I dug what little I heard and vowed to keep up with this “regular guy”, baritone, with loads of charm, who exuded the cool soulfulness of Mark Murphy. Gates has released a number of very fine albums over the years and his latest is another in the series. It’s a nice mix of jazz standards, originals and a few surprises (such as “Silhouettes”, the ’50’s pop classic). Now in his sixties, Mr. Gates still doesn’t get the attention, even within our insular jazz world, that I think he deserves. If you haven’t heard him before, What Time Is It?, is a great place to start.

I haven’t heard everything released so far this year and I’m sure that there will be more to come over the next few months. I can’t wait to be back with more in December.

Up next – a closer look at my favorite instrumental albums, so far.

Until then, the jazz continues

A Little Love for Joe Williams

Posted in The Jazz Continues..., Video Vault with tags , , , on December 16, 2015 by curtjazz

Francis Albert Sinatra is not the only great singer born on December 12. Born that same date, three years later (1918) in Crisp County, GA was a boy named Joseph Goreed. Three years after his birth, his mother and grandmother would take him to Chicago, where he would grow up.

By the early 50’s, Goreed was calling himself Joe Williams and struggling to make ends meet singing in Chicago area clubs, when he met Count Basie, who was in the process of putting his band back together. Williams, cool urbane baritone was the opposite of Basie’s prior vocalist, blues shouter Jimmy Rushing but he was perfect for the new Basie sound.

From 1954 to 1961, Williams was known as Basie’s “Number One Son” and recorded hits such as “Alright, Okay (You Win)” and “Every Day I Have The Blues”. Williams officially left Basie in ’61 but their musical partnership continued of and on the rest of the Count’s life.

In the ’80’s Williams gained fame with a new generation, as he played “Grandpa Al”, Claire’s father, on The Cosby Show. But he never stopped singing and recording. Unlike Sinatra, time (and care) had been kind to Williams’ vocal gifts and he continued to make critically acclaimed, relevant jazz albums well into his seventies.

Joe Williams died in Las Vegas in 1999. And of late, time seems to be forgetting one of the great jazz vocalists of all time. Hopefully, three years from now, there will be at least a few Williams centennial celebrations on December 12.

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.