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CurtJazz’s Best Jazz Albums of 2015

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2015, Jazz in Charlotte with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by curtjazz

Well, well ,well…What a difference a year makes…

Eugenie Jones | Come Out Swingin'Last year this time we jazz lovers were once again fending off the usual spate of “Jazz is Dead” announcements from various “serious” publications and also from a satirical “writer” named Django Gold, who thought it would be funny to pen an article, purporting to be Sonny Rollins, claiming to hate jazz.

Now, perhaps because jazz has proven to have more lives than Freddy Krueger, there have been in the past couple of months, an article in The Washington Post and an article/pictorial in Vanity Fair, celebrating jazz and [gasp], the young musicians that represent its future.

This kind of national-level publicity, along with what is happening on  local scenes (such as right here in Charlotte, NC, with the Jazz Arts Initiative, led by my friends, drummer Ocie Davis and flutist Lonnie Davis) has given my cynical middle-aged heart, a smidgen of hope for what is ahead for the music that I love.

I was also greatly encouraged by the tremendous crop of first-rate jazz recordings this year. A major contributor to this is that the jazz world has all but broken free of looking for the approval of the major record label conglomerates. For new jazz recordings, indie labels and self releases have become the rule, not the exception. In fact on my list, only six of the 25 albums have some sort of tie to what would be considered a major label.

And the music itself, cuts across a spectrum of styles, influences and even chronological ages – from vocalists Cecile McLorin Salvant who is 26, to the legendary Tony Bennett, still relevant and vital at 89; from instrumentalists such as Albert “Tootie” Heath, the youngest of The Heath Brothers, at 80; to the exciting twenty-somethings who lead some of the tracks on the wildly creative compilation, Supreme Sonacy, Volume 1.

Yes friends, jazz is still very much alive and kicking some butt. And without further ado, here is a list of 26 recordings that kicked my butt in 2015, in alphabetical order by album title. As usual, we will follow this list with discussions and clips from each of the albums over the next few days. In each title is embedded a link to a place to purchase the CD or download of each recording.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Glorious Kwanzaa and Happy New Year, everyone!

CurtJazz’s Best Jazz Albums of 2013 – The Final List

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2013 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2013 by curtjazz

tim greenMerry Christmas everyone!

Here’s a compilation list of our choices for the Best Jazz Albums of 2013 from our three prior Best of the Year posts. A click on the links in each title will take you to the Amazon or CD Baby page for each album (a great way to spend those gift cards you may have gotten from Santa).

From Best Jazz Albums of 2013 (So Far)

From Best Jazz Albums of 2013 – The Second Half

From Best Jazz of 2013 – A Few More Good Things; Plus!

And 5 great 2012 albums that we missed until 2013:

Tracks from all of the albums listed here will be featured on Curt’s Café Noir WebJazz Radio, starting on December 27, 2013 and into January 2014 as part of our Year End / New Year programming. Click HERE to go to the station and listen. It’s Free!

May you all have a happy, prosperous and jazz filled 2014!

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013 (So Far)

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2013 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by curtjazz

cecile mclorin salvantOver the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a small but insistent wave in jazz. We’re seeing artists in their twenties and thirties playing music that does nod to the traditions but also shows the influences of what a lot of these younger musicians grew up listening to; hip-hop; crunk and other related styles. This style has evolved from the confused mess that some of the early cross genre attempts were, into something that is fresh and stands on its own, apart from either of its main musical parents.  As a result, I’ve begun to see a number of today’s jazz writers (and a few musicians as well) rise up and take arms against the “interlopers”. They have written page after page on why what the young musicians are doing “isn’t jazz”.

Whatever else it is, “jazz” will always be about evolution, improvisation and change. What the young cats are now trying to do, could represent the first really new thing in jazz in 50 years. I may not like everything that’s a part of it but I embrace the fact that someone is doing something new.

You’ll see a couple of those albums among my mid-term favorites. Disagreements and agreements are always welcome but spam is not. The albums are in alphabetical order by title.

The Bespoke Man’s Narrative – Aaron Diehl (Mack Avenue)

This was the first album this year to “wow” me. Mr. Diehl’s third album is an unabashed tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was the first jazz group to “wow” me, over thirty years ago. Mr. Diehl is an outstanding pianist with a strong sense of swing, yet a light touch, reminiscent of course, of John Lewis. And when label mate Warren Wolf sits in on vibes, the transformation becomes complete.

Border Free – Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers (Jazz Village)

The great Cuban pianist just gets better with age. This album  is a deeply personal statement, filled with tributes to his family members and others who have influenced his musical direction. But you never forget that this is a Chucho Valdés album, so these tributes are carried out in the midst of killer Afro-Cuban rhythms and piano statements of astonishing brilliance. You can read my full review HERE.

Grace – J.D. Allen (Savant)

After recording in the sax, bass, drums trio format for five years, J.D. brings a pianist back into the group on Grace. Not just any pianist but Russian-born wunderkind Eldar Djangirov. Instead of altering the group’s style, Djangirov blends in nicely adding a rich texture to Allen’s group that was missing in some of the previous outings. The pianist has made a good thing even better. You can read my full review HERE.

In A World of Mallets – Jason Marsalis (Basin Street Records)

The youngest of the musical Marsalis brothers, Jason made a committment to playing the vibes full-time a few years ago. While he was a world-class drummer, Marsalis struggled a bit on his first album after making the switch four years ago.  He seems to have put those troubles behind him on this album, which is a rich, quirky and mature musical statement. It also takes my award for the punniest album title so far this year,

Live Today – Derrick Hodge (Blue Note Records)

Derrick Hodge, who was a major presence on Robert Glasper’s Grammy Winning Black Radio in 2012, has made an even stronger musical statement on his debut as a leader. The big name guest stars are not here but the music is denser and more complex than Black Radio’s. Finally, an artist has nailed it in the search for a hip-hop/jazz hybrid. This is “Real Jazz” for the 21st Century. You can read my full review HERE.

Magnetic – Terence Blanchard (Blue Note Records)

Hard to believe that Terence Blanchard has been on the jazz scene for over thirty years. While he has done everything from score films, to write operas, when you get right down to it, he is never better than he is when he fronting a group and reminding everyone that before all of the Hollywood accolades, Blanchard was one of the best jazz trumpet players around; period. He reminds us again here, with his working group and stellar guest spots from Ravi Coltrane, Lionel Loueke and the incomparable Ron Carter. You can read my full review HERE.

No Beginning, No End – Jose James (Blue Note Records)

The vocal love child of Al Green and Bill Henderson, Jose James struck pay dirt on this album, his Blue Note debut. It’s not as straight ahead jazzy as his Impulse! album from a couple of years back nor is it as club ready as some of his first efforts. It’s a blend of jazz, hip-hop and R&B that fits like a glove around James’ unique voice.  It is absolutely irresistible. No Beginning No End hasn’t left my CD Jukebox since its release and there’s a good chance that it will remain there until the end of the year.

Songs From This Season – Tim Green (True Melody Music)

This Baltimore native first drew attention with his second place finish in the 2008 Monk Saxophone Competition. He has recorded with a litany of jazz and Gospel artists from Warren Wolf to Andrae Crouch. But it’s Songs From This Season which has brought Mr. Green to the attention of most of the jazz world. It’s easy to see why. The album’s selections are mostly traditional post bop and Green is on fire throughout; be it on introspective ballads such as “Psalm 1” or burners such as his trio take on “Pinocchio”. This young man has musical ideas to spare. Something tells me that he will be on this list numerous times in the future.

That Nepenthetic Place – Dayna Stephens (Sunnyside Records)

A “nepenthe” is a fictional medicine for sorrow, a “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology. That ancient word is an apt description for the music performed by tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and his quartet on this album. Though the selections are not decidedly upbeat, when taken as a whole, they leave you feeling terrific when they are done. Add in contributions from Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and the third album proves to be the charm for Mr. Stephens. This is his best and most well-rounded recording to date.

Cecile McLorin Salvant – WomanChild (Mack Avenue Records)

This is the most talked about album from a female jazz singer this year. Why? Because it is also the best album by a jazz vocalist so far this year, hands down.  The requisite comparisons to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae and a number of other vocal greats have already begun. Ignore them. For though this is only the second album from this Miami native, she has established enough of her own style already to make most of those comparisons unfair and fairly irrelevant. Cecile won the Monk vocal competition in 2010 and if you want to know why, listen to this album. It’s not the work of a neophyte finding herself but of an established vocalist who knows exactly where she is going.

Again, this list represents my favorites among the jazz albums released this year that I’ve heard to this point. There’s much more that I will hear, including the stack of new recordings on my desk now. In December we will post the final list for 2013, which will include these albums plus the ones that I will be privileged to hear over the next four months. Until then, The Jazz Continues…

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).