Bluesy Christmas: Laura Cheadle’s “Ill Have a Blues Christmas” and Sheryl Crow’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

By Ernest Barteldes

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Move over, “Santa Baby,” the song made famous by the late, great Eartha Kitt in which the singer hits on Santa Claus – you are not the sexiest Christmas song ever anymore. That title now belongs to Laura Cheadle‘s “Giving You Me For Christmas,” a driving blues with provocative lyrics about being ready to be unwrapped under the Christmas tree that is part of her  self-released “I’ll Have a Blues Christmas,” and album that blends original tunes with Holiday classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”  and “The First Noel.”

Other highlights of the disc include “Red Ain’t Everything,” which tells  Rudolph’s story from his own point of view, and a live rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” (there is no information of where it was recorded, but the audience sounds responsive and enthusiastic).  It is a strong disc thanks to the well-written arrangements and solid musical chemistry that Cheadle has with her family, who is present on every track.

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Speaking of blues, I recently discovered Sheryl Crow’s own Christmas record “Home for Christmas” (A&M), which is highly influenced by the sounds of Memphis. Recorded in the same era as her “100 Miles from Memphis,”  it contains mostly covers of classics like “White Christmas”  and “O Holy Night”  with a solid backing from a tight brass-heavy band featuring none other than Booker T (of the MGs), one of the key figures of the Memphis sound throughout the 1960s and 70s. I was surprised that I had never even heard about that disc for years – one of the last from her now-former label.

Among the best tracks are “The Christmas song,” played with a Jorge Benjor-like flavor. “Blue Christmas” has a nice backbeat focused on the rhythm section, great horn solos and of course Crow’s sultry voice. The inclusion of Crow’s “All Through the Night” (a track from ” 100 Miles from Memphis” ) seems a bit out of place on the collection, but it closes the album with a funky feel.

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Capsule Reviews: John Basile. Calixto Oviedo, Ivete Sangalo & Criollo

By Ernest Barteldes

I know it’s been a while since I posted any  new disc reviews – during the summer I pretty much refrain from doing that because I am either out there attending concerts (reviewing either here or for All About Jazz), so when Labor Day comes along there is a pile of neglected records begging to be heard and reviewed.

Now years ago I would have had a number of outlets to write in-depth reviews of these wonderful works, but considering that way too many publications have either disappeared or hired so-called “music editors” who think they are the last bottle of Coca-Cola in the desert, I have created this labor of love in which I bring you some of the music that I have heard and appreciated.

Since summer is over and that means that I won’t be heading to concerts as often, I would like to offer you a selection of recordings that were released in the last few weeks and that I think deserve to be checked out. This is not in any specific order of preference – check them out:

A picture of a street sign for Liverpool’s most famous street greets you on John Basile’s Penny Lane (Self-released) ,a jazz tribute to the works of the Fab Four. Kicking off with the symphonic “Eleanor Rigby,” Basile works through some of the Beatles’ deep cuts while finding a new way to improvise around hits like “Can’t Buy me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the latter of which sounds nothing like what was played at the Ed Sullivan Theater thanks to the creativity around the arrangements. Sadly, Basile pulled a Sinatra and credited “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to Lennon/McCartney – I am assuming this was a typo since it is one of George Harrison’s most beloved and well-known songs after “Something”.

I first heard master drummer Calixto Oviedo at the Jazz Standard a couple of years ago, and was impressed by his creativity and dexterity, as you can see from a review I published on All About Jazz when he was in town as part of the New Dimensions in Jazz program, which continues to showcase new voices in Latin jazz.  We have stayed in touch on social media since then, and he was nice enough to send me a copy of his “Cuban Train: Como Suena,” which is like a party to the ears.  I expected to hear more traditional material, but here he expands the music into various directions, going from modern jazz to more traditional material

Last year Renata and I attended a free show in Fortaleza in tribute to the late singer-songwriter Tim Maia. The concert was part of a national tour sponsored by Nivea (the popular cosmetic brand) that featured singers Ivete Sangalo and Criollo, who did their own takes on the music, often sharing duets. I was not able to review that show because there was a large crowd and it was just impossible to take notes there.  The duo also released a studio album (I was hoping for a live DVD or something, but that has yet to materialize) with some of the songs included on the tour.  Among the most notable are Criollo’s take on “Chocolate” (a hit for Marisa Monte – I am assuming that is why Sangalo did not carry that one), which has a nice R&B feel, and “Corone Antonio Bento,” a song with strong northeastern Brazilian roots. The disc does a very good job of bringing Maia’s music to younger generations.

Album Review: Badi Assad/Hatched

By Ernest Barteldes

I’ve been following Badi Assad for about fifteen years, from the time she was doing more avant-garde instrumental-oriented music right into her shift into the pop-jazz-fusion material she started putting on her records, going from 2005’s Verde up to Hatched (QuatroVentos),  in which she reinvents pop hits in her own way – the tunes are still recognizable, but her personal imprint combined with her signature acoustic guitar chops – are undeniable.

It was fortunate that I was oblivious of most of the tunes on the disc so I could appreciate the music without any bias, approaching them from a completely fresh point of view. She kicks off with Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” with a bossa-nova vibe that contrasts to the much faster paced original.  She transforms “The Hanging Tree” (from the Hunger Games soundtrack) into an acoustic funk that showcases her guitar and vocal chops, leaving the original recording as floundered Joe Cocker did to The Beatles on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

My favorite recreation was her take on Lorde’s “Royals” – Assad plays it double tempo, with Simone Sou’s strong percussion as a backdrop to the Assad’s fluid guitar and Rui Barossi’s upright bass.

I am looking forward to catching this material in a live format. The last time I saw her perform was during the Verde tour, when she played accompanied solely by her guitar – it was great, but I would love to see her stretching it live with a band behind her.

Not that she needs it at all – she is highly engaging on her own.

If you happen to live anywhere near where she’s touring, do not miss the opportunity to hear her live. I have already told my friends in Fortaleza – the only major Brazilian city she is playing in at the time of this writing – to go to the show.

And a note to my readers in Chicago – the publication there that I have contributed there for over a decade has a new music editor who thinks he is the last Coca-Cola in the desert. He is doing the usual house cleaning that commonly comes with change in the masthead, so you will not be seeing my byline there for a while. The solution? Subscribe to my feed, because I have not forgotten you.

Musical Blends: New Orleans Meets Brazil + Music of Turkey and Greece/ CD reviews

By Ernest Barteldes

Carnival Caravan

On the EP “Carnival Caravan”  (Self-released) the Scott Kettner-led Nation Beat embarks on a very interesting  musical trip that blends the sounds of New Orleans with  Northeastern Brazil ‘s traditional beat of Maracatu – that is immediately noticeable on the opening track “Casa Diamante/Sew Sew Sew,”  a mash-up between an original track in Portuguese with a traditional NOLA tune.

Like I have written in the past, there are many similarities between the cultures of  northeastern Brazil and Louisiana that putting them together is more natural than one might think. That is evident on  “Carnival Carnival” – just listen to “Vou Cantar Esse Coco,”  an original tune sung entirely in Portuguese with the backing of a typical New Orleans-sounding brass band.  The same goes with “Canto da Ema/All on A Mardi Gras Day,” a  very enjoyable mash-up of the two countries’ sounds. The track begins with with a traditional NOLA “call” and then Fabiana Masili jumps in with her native Fortaleza-accented Portuguese.

The EP is lots of fun and gets you moving from the very first moment. It sounds like everyone was having tons of fun in the studio together  – even if some of the musicians were in different locations.  I am  surely going have this one at hand to get the party started.

Going in a completely different direction is Dű-Sems  Ensemble’s “Music From Turkey and Greece,”  (Arc Music) a lovely collection of traditional sounds from the neighboring Mediterranean  countries. Like Brazil and New Orleans, both countries also share various cultural and culinary traits.

This disc blends original and traditional tunes from both nations. Most of the disc is instrumental, going from slow ballads to more uptempo tunes.  I especially liked the more improvised, seemingly off-the-cuff moments – two examples being “Oud Improvisation,” an inspiring two-minute solo piece by Osman Kirklikçi and Tanju Erol’s “Clarinet Improvisation,” which begins as a solo and then becomes an ensemble piece.

Among my personal favorites were  “Nihavend Mandra,”  an instrumental tune that picks up tempo as it goes along, and “Abacilar Inişi,” one of the few tracks  with vocals by an unidentified female singer (they list various on their website, but I could not figure out who it is since they have various guest artists performing with them) who sings with great gusto.

As of this writing there are no scheduled dates for any shows in North America – I surely would love to have the opportunity to see them up close  – the music is highly captivating and beautifully played

Concert Review: DJ Sets by Quantic, Gilles Peterson and AFrika Bambaataa

Afrika Bambaata Singer

By Ernest Barteldes

Gilles Peterson + Quantic +

Afrika Bambaataa

Central Park Summerstage

New York, NY

August 8, 2015

I’ve  never quite  understood the point of featuring DJs at Summertage in Central Park. I say this meaning no disrespect to the profession –  I actually think that a good DJ can sometimes be even more entertaining than a band at times, but the atmosphere has to be right. At the Rumsey Playfield they are doing their thing in the middle of the day, when most clubbers are not even thinking about heading out. I understand having one at hand to warm up the crowd for a musical act, as DJ Greg Caz did a couple of years back when Bebel Gilberto was featured as part of the Brazil Summerfest Festival.

There was a celebratory mood at Summerstage when Renata and I arrived – the evening was promoted by Giant Step, the former label that now concentrates on event promotion and marketing. DJ Quantic was at the booth doing a mix of Latin, pop and even a few New Orleans-inspired cuts (specifically a brass version of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”) Most of the fans were clearly there for the headliners Afrika Bambattaa, but they followed the music attentively.

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Having nothing but a guy on the booth in the middle of the stage makes the stage feel a bit empty – I mean, this is a space that usually holds as many as 20 people. Sure, the music was quite intriguing but I did feel a lack of energy there.

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 Gilles Peterson soon followed and did a more uptempo set that included some Brazilian tunes with a concentration on psychedelic sounds. He had more of an upbeat groove and got the audience moving quite quickly – he got people moving with his smart selection.

Afrika Bambaataa  (born Kevin Donovan) was clearly more successful than the other two – he came on with several folks on stage that got things jumping – while he manned the equipment, rappers did their thing enticing the crowd to dance and follow the music.

It was certainly an enjoyable evening  – it was likely my last stop at Summerstage for the season (there still is  the Charlie Parker Festival late in August) since this year’s edition of the Brazilian Film Festival was canceled due to apparent financial constraints.

Concert Review: Tito Nieves at East River Park

Tito Nieves at East River Park

Tito Nieves at East River Park

By Ernest Barteldes

Tito Nieves

Summerstage at East River Park Amphitheatre

August 4, 2015

New York, NY

Playing before a filled to capacity East River Park Amphitheater,  salsa legend Tito Nieves took to the stage backed by a 10-piece band and kicked the set with a high energy number that had those standing next to the stage pairing up to dance. He paused briefly to thank the audience for being there and saying he was happy to be ‘back home’ to the Lower East Side.  He then followed with the English-language “I’ll Always Love You” (not to be confused with the Dolly Parton hit of the same name).  He also coached the audience to scream at the top of their lungs (“for New York”) during an up-tempo number that celebrated being part of this city’s community.

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Nieves then stepped back to the backing microphones as he brought his three backing vocalists to the spotlight as each sang lead in one number – something you don’t usually see with major stars. One of the tunes name-called several Latin American countries and got a screaming ovation when Puerto Rico was mentioned. When Nieves returned to the lead microphone, he briefly spoke of the various Latin clubs he performed in New York, and tricked the audience when he mentioned a place that was not a club but a popular hotel.

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Nieves is regarded as “The Pavarotti of salsa”, and deservedly gets that nickname.  He has great energy and a potent voice – he has great communication with his fans, and sings each number with great feeling. That is especially true with tunes that have something deeper to say – an example of this is “Fabricando Fantasias,” a mid-tempo ballad about a bitter breakup and a man’s refusal to accept the end of a love affair.

Towards the end of the set, the pace picked up and became almost relentless – Nieves had a burst of energy at this point – songs just came one after the other with no pause.  At the encore he did a very up-tempo song in which he jumped and stopped the band for several fake endings that made the audience scream.

I was half hoping that Nieves would include a couple of songs from Unity (Universal Music), the Michael Jackson salsa tribute album he participated in earlier this year. That didn’t happen, but the choices were clearly crowd-pleasers for his core fans.  It was a lovely evening of Latin Music in just the right atmosphere.

Preview: The Latin Alternative Music Conference 2015

By Ernest Barteldes

It is no secret that I am a fan of outdoor concerts during the warm summer months, but there is one event that I eagerly wait to come around: The Latin Alternative Music Conference, the annual event that takes place all over the city, including shows in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn and other select venues. Though some of the concerts are for participants only such as the various showcases, most are open to the general public – a treat for fans of Latin Alternative artists.

But what exactly is Latin alternative in the first place?  A few years ago, one editor included in an article of mine that it is basically about Latino artists that ‘don’t play salsa.’ Though for most readers back then that might have made sense, I did not really like that definition because rhythms like mambo, cumbia and salsa are actually part of the genre, just not in the traditional sense.  After all, reggaeton is the ultimate blend of a quintessentially North American genre with the sounds of the Caribbean. Aterciopelados is a rock band that incorporates traditional Colombian music into their songs, and Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux (who was by the way first showcased in America at LAMC before she broke out internationally) does not hide her home country’s influence in her rapping.  At least they are no longer calling it “rock en español,” a dreadful label that came to be in the 90s when some Latin bands broke into the pop scene in America.

The LAMC is more than just music – it’s an opportunity for musicians to network with label executives, journalists and ultimately their own peers. When I first attended about a decade ago (has it been that long?) the conference had what I would describe as more of a party atmosphere, but it has since grown up and become one of the principal opportunities to exchange ideas and try to find the answers for questions about the state of the music business today – which has been changing in breakneck speed.

During the entire conference, several panel discussions are held to look at the state of music today and how to stay current in it – I recall sitting at one panel that included professionals involved in crowdfunding, then a novel idea that not many in attendance could understand.  This year, streaming is one of the topics up for discussion. Sure, it is not exactly a new idea, but now that large companies like Amazon and Apple are embracing it, what does it mean for a struggling independent artist who can no longer rely on downloads to make a living? Their music might be featured on NPR, but that is not going to pay their bills – new music comes out at a crazy pace these days, and it’s becoming harder and harder to focus on what the next thing might be (believe me, as I write this I am trying to go through my never ending pile of music to review).

For music fans, this year’s attractions are indeed a treat. The fun begins tonight (July 8) at Central Park Summerstage, where three up-and-coming bands will showcase their music – Starting with Electronic music artist Helado Negro (Roberto Carlos Lange, who I’m guessing changed his stage name because of another popular artist called Roberto Carlos), an Ecuadoran native who now calls Brooklyn his home. His sound bears a lot of influence from his former Miami home, but you can hear a lot more in what he does.

Following him is Systema Solar, a Colombian electronic collective that (as I mentioned before) blends lots of their native sounds with more contemporary sounds – it’s not for everyone, but it is certainly innovative.  Closing the evening is Compass, a collaboration between Camilo Lara  –  a frequent collaborator to the LAMC – and Toy Selectah, a DJ and producer with a large resume that includes Morrissey and Calle 13, to name a few.  On Friday (10/7) we go to Celebrate Brooklyn for a three-part set that includes veteran Argentinean band Los Autenticos Decadentes, one of the great luminaries of their country’s pop scene for over thirty years – who apparently are enjoying a comeback.

On Saturday we return to Central Park for another great afternoon that will feature Ximena Sariñana, a Mexican breakout singer who has been crossing over thanks to her efforts in English-language songs such as “Different,” an infectious song about not conforming to expectations.

There is much more going on – just check out the schedule for further details. It is a great opportunity to get out of the American pop box and discover some new sounds. I always have a lot of fun there and am always reporting – so please follow my Twitter feed @ebarteldes for more.