Album Review: Chuck Loeb’s “Unspoken”

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by Ernest Barteldes

On  Unspoken (Shanachie, 2017) , legendary  Fourplay and Steps Ahead lead guitarist Chuck Loeb explores various sonic  textures over a collection of ten originals he either –except for one –  wrote or co-wrote. He kicks off the album with the up-tempo “Cotton Club,” a funk-driven tune that he dedicates to the staff of the eponymous Tokyo venue, which he describes on the liners as “my favorite jazz club in the world.”  The track was co-written with Jeff Lorber, who also contributes piano – including a dexterous solo – to it.

Loeb plays various instruments throughout the track – on tunes like “Natural Light” and Way Up High” he performs virtually everything except drums.  Though the arrangements to these tunes are relatively sparse, he uses them as a fodder to improvise more freely – on the former, Andy Snitzer contributes a mellifluous solo, while Loeb adds interesting textures on acoustic guitar.

The title track has a more downtempo feel, and features fellow Fourplay member Nathan East on electric bass and Brian Culbertson on piano. It’s the kind of track that makes you appreciate light jazz – accomplished, beautifully written and accessible.

“Si Se Puede” – which he dedicated to Barack Obama – has more of a bossa feel, with a more subtle arrangement that gives guest trumpeter Till Brönner plenty of space to stretch.  Way Up High (written by his daughter, Lizzy Cuesta) also has a bossa feel, featuring gentle vocals by his wife Carmen Cuesta, who also appears on the samba-driven “Voramar” and the trippy  “Via Verde,” which also includes daughter Christina Loeb on vocals and ukulele (the only appearance of the instrument on the album).

Unspoken is a great offering from Loeb – a concise and yet intriguing album that feels fresh after multiple plays – which this writer recommends to any fan of smooth jazz guitar.

 

Music Reviews: The Rolling Stones’ Blue and Lonesome + Putumayo Presentsa

By Ernest Barteldes

The Rolling Stones

Blue and Lonesome

Polydor

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As any fan of the Rolling Stones knows by heart by now, the band started out as mostly a blues band – like the Yardbirds, Alexis Korner and other contemporaries, they fed on the American music and went from there. That is quite evident from their self-titled debut album, which relied heavily on covers; including “Route 66” and Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” (this was before they recorded Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man”).

Though they would often include blues themes in their subsequent records, they never really did a blues album until now. According to the liner notes on Blue and Lonesome, the idea came while they hit a snag while recording an original tune in December 2015 and decided to “clean the palate” with a rendition of Walter Jacobs’ “Blue and Lonesome,” and the idea was planted.  The band played live in the studio with wild abandon, almost sounding like a bunch of 20-year-olds as they went along.  In the studio next door was Eric Clapton, who was invited to contribute on a few tracks, and by the end of only three days the album was done.

The band – augmented by session musicians Darryl Jones (bass), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Matt Clifford (Wurlitzer) delivered one heck of disc – they sound energized and clearly happy to be doing this.  Jagger’s harp is second nature to him as well as his trademark voice.  Clapton contributed to “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” but he was subtle, mostly adding to Keith Richards’ lead guitar and doing his best to stay out of the way – you can hear this clearly on the latter, when you hear Richards on the left and Clapton on the right, both with their distinctive sound.

This is the essence of the Stones masterfully doing what they studied deeply for years and throughout their careers, not some opportunistic rock band trying to sell records by taking on the blues and failing miserably – examples abound out there without me having to name names.

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Putumayo Presents: African Rumba

Various Artists

Putumayo

 

When Angelique Kidjo took to the stage at Celebrate Brooklyn in the summer of 2016 for her Celia Cruz tribute, she stated that when she was in her native Benin, there were two artists that had superstar status:  The Queen of Salsa and James Brown – but she also said that Latin artists were highly respected, especially in the western part of the African continent.

As the liner notes of Putumayo Presents: African Rumba state, “in the 1930s a Cuban song called ‘El Manicero’ (The Peanut Vendor) became a worldwide hit reaching even in the heart of Africa The Ensuing popularity of Latin music and dance styles like the rumba, mambo and cha cha cha, which evolved into salsa, had a powerful effect on African music throughout the 1970s.”

“Latin music was so popular in Africa,” the notes add, “that when a 1974 concert featuring an array of international stars was organized in what was then Zaire, it wasn’t James Brown or B.B. King who filled the stadium but Cuba’s Celia Cruz and salsa star Johnny Pacheco who elicited the greatest response.”

This is quite evident in this Putumayo compilation that brings together music recorded   over the span of four decades, which shows how Latin influence shaped the music in that continent. Kicking off with “Aminata,” a duet by Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and Senegalese bassist/singer Alline Wade recorded in 2015. The roots of the song are clearly African, but the beat and general feel is purely Cuban.  The same can be felt with Michel Pinheiro’s African Salsa Orchestra. A native of Benin, he found success later in life (he was a farmer for a long spell) in Abidjan, in The Ivory Coast. His “Paysan” has a slower tempo than most of the tunes on the disc, but it is very soulful thanks to his heartfelt vocal delivery.

Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loka were also supposed to appear at Celebrate Brooklyn in the summer of 2016, but the concert was cancelled for unknown reasons. A native of Congo based in Los Angeles, his music has a stronger Central African influence (especially on the guitars and percussion) with more low-key acoustic arrangements that focus more on the vocals and beat – perfect to dance while still enjoying the music, as can be heard on “Tata Masamba.”

Also notable is the earliest tracks in the collection – Orchestre OK Jazz’s “Micorasson,” which is basically misspelled  “Mi Corazón”  (“My Love”) dates from 1956 – the year Elvis made his first recordings for RCA.  The interesting thing is that they sing in phonetic Spanish even though none of them spoke the language but you can hear how hard they try – even if they slip in some of their native words.

This is a great introduction to a genre few Americans – except maybe for a die-hard World Music Fan – have ever been exposed to, and a fantastic starting point for those who want to get to know these musicians better.

George Michael : An Appreciation

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By Ernest Barteldes

I never paid much attention to George Michael during his early Wham! days – of course “Careless Whisper” was impossible to avoid during the mid-80s, but his stuff was not what I was into in the first place – but I had newfound respect for him when I saw him literally steal the show when he fronted Queen during the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert in April 1992 – the way he owned “Somebody to Love” was amazing to see and hear – and his duet with Lisa Stansfield on “These Are The Days of Our Lives” was also heartfelt and sincere.

For the next few years didn’t follow George Michael’s career much except for the songs everyone heard on the radio, but in 1996 I got into a relationship with a woman who was a die-hard fan of his music and thanks to her I got to know the music behind the hits – the ones that were part of an album but that were not necessarily well-known – tunes like “Waiting For The Day” from Listen Without Prejudice or “You Have Been Loved” from Older, which show a different side of Michael’s work – honest tunes written from the heart that he might have known might not have any radio play at all.

I was also amused when he collaborated with bossa nova icon Astrud Gilberto for “Desafinado” – an Antonio Carlos Jobim song released in late 1996 for the charity album Red, Hot & Rio (which also featured contributions from David Byrne, Marisa Monte, Caetano Veloso and others) – it was interesting to hear him softly crooning in Portuguese – a complete shift from his more electronic/dance floor stuff.

I also enjoyed listening to Songs From The Last Century, his Phil Ramone album of jazz covers from – my favorites being his playful take on “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and the depression-era tune “Brother, Won’t You Spare a Dime.”

After I relocated to the US I kind of lost touch with his music. I barely noticed “Patience,” but did listen to “Concert,” his live album recorded with the backing of the London Symphony Orchestra. Though his popularity waned in the US following his arrest for “lewd behavior” in the US, he remained popular in Europe – I recall being in Poland in 2010 and catching a TV special of a performance in support of “Patience” – which included “Shoot The Dog,” an anti-George Bush song I which he performed with a blow-up doll of the former U.S. president – quite controversial at the time.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/125719770″>GEORGE MICHAEL – Shoot the Dog</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user14102033″>MUSIC BOX CHANNEL</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I was saddened to hear of his passing via my CNN iPhone app notifications. At first I thought it was some kind of false alarm – but as the hours passed I realized it had been true. George Michael’s death adds to what has arguably been one of the worst years for the music business – after so many other legends left us.

Ernest’s Annual Christmas Music Roundup: Putumayo’s “Latin Christmas” and Bibi Ferreira’s “Natal em Familia”

By Ernest Barteldes

This is of course the time of year when you cannot walk into a store anywhere in the nation without hearing the familiar chimes of sleigh bells and the cheerful melodies of tunes like “The Christmas Song,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland” (which I think does not qualify as a Christmas song in the first place)” to questionable hits like “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk” or “Last Christmas.”

It is also the time when everyone from Celine Dion to Ann-Margret attempt to give their own take on the music of the season – and it’s not only about artists desperate for the spotlight but many who don’t actually need it: for instance, all four Beatles released Christmas music during their solo careers (the worst being Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and the best John’s “Merry Xmas – War Is Over”), and Queen did a Christmas single at the height of their fame (the dreadful “Thank God It’s Christmas”).

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As someone who writes about music, I am usually inundated with new Holiday-themed albums starting from as early as July (one year I got one before Memorial Day) but things were slower this time around – I guess the gods of music realized that my time has been a bit limited for this stuff, and from the ones I did get, here are two that I do highly recommend.

The first one is Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas, a highly enjoyable album because it doesn’t really sound like a Christmas album in the first place: it opens with a bossa version of “Joy to The World” performed by Arizona-based cover band Nossa Bossa Nova, a group that has adapted everything from the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley into bossas – some with pretty good results. My favorites, however, were the tunes that went completely outside the box. Poncho Sanchez offers a swinging n Afro-Cuban take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that gets you immediately moving, while UK-based Dave Stephens offers a bolero-inflected instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Also notable are “El Año Viejo,” a cumbia celebrating the birth of the new year and also Susie Antoli’s s “La Peregrinacion,” a gentle Argentinean ballad that narrates the biblical story in which Mary and Joseph tried to find a place to sleep at the end of their journey to Bethlehem.

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Bibi Ferreira is one of Brazil’s greatest living legends – at 94 years of age as of this writing, she is actively performing throughout the Americas and Europe while still finding time to go into the studio to record new music.

Natal em Familia” (originally released in Brazil in 2012) brings together many traditional mostly performed as duets. The album kicks off with “Sinos de Belém” (Jingle Bells) done in an American Gospel/jazz style featuring samba singer Alcione and plenty of improvised instrumental solos from her touring band. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Estrada do Sol” is a bit unexpected for this album but it ultimately makes sense since the lyrics speak of hope for better days to come. “Um Novo Tempo” is a Marcos Valle/Paulo Sergio Valle/Nelson Motta composition that was for many years used as Globo TV’s Holiday theme, but here it receives a more serious treatment as a more devotional feel featuring the voices of Ferreira, Joyce Candido, Ana Cristina and Mayra Freitas.

There are a few throwaways – it’s hard to understand why anyone thought having Ferreira and former kiddie show host Xuxa Meneghel duet on “Vem Que Vai Chegando o Natal” (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) would be a good idea, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy even if it has a nice swinging jazz backbeat. Also the late Emilio Santiago;s vocal chops are under-used in the beautiful ballad “Feliz Natal” – he had such a great range but here is reduced to singing in unison with Ferreira.

Other notable tracks are Schubert’s “Oh Noite Santa” (Oh Holy Night) performed by opera singer Max Wilson and of course the beautiful duet that Ferreira and pop singer Ronnie Von do on Schubert’s Ave Maria – gives you goose bumps even after repeated hearings.

Music Review: “Fio da Memoria” by Luisa Maita

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By Ernest Barteldes

Six years is a long time to wait between albums for a new artist, but Sao Paulo-born Luisa Maita seemed to have made the right choice in this case.  Since the release of her much acclaimed debut album Lero Lero (Cumbancha), she did a lot of touring (including many stateside appearances), collaborated with various Brazilian musicians and collected various awards in recognition of that first album.

The formula of Lero-Lero was quite simple: a modern take on bossa and samba-inspired tunes with a creative edge.  When I heard that album, she reminded me a bit of Marisa Monte, who does a lot of experimentalism with her music but keeps a firm grip on more traditional beats.  She could have simply stayed the course and done more of that, but she clearly decided to go into a completely different direction with her second album.

Fio da Memoria” is more of a rock-fusion album:  distorted guitars are front and center, but the rhythm is pure Brazil. For instance, “Olé” has a lot of electronics going on, but the percussion is clearly influenced by the sounds of Northeastern Brazil, while “Porão” has a Maracatu feel. The title track is a refreshing electric samba (close to the work of +2 , the leaderless music collective formed by Moreno Veloso, Kassin and Domenico Lanceloti), while “Folia” is pure Bahia samba, with a full percussive group behind Maita’s voice – and little else.

“Fio da Memoria” takes a few plays to totally sink in – though most of it is fun to listen to, it is also music that makes you think thanks to its clever arrangements and the way the instruments are played – there are quite a few surprises as the music plays. An example of this is “Volta,” a tune that begins with layered vocals and a curious line –  until the drums come in behind a three-part harmony  that take you into a 70s-influenced slow funk.

In a year filled with so much music that made little sense, “Fio da Memoria” is quite refreshing – the music is both smart and enjoyable, and makes this one of the best World Music releases of 2016.

 

Preview: Mariza At Town Hall and NJPAC

Mariza

Saturday, October 15 at Town Hall

Sunday, October 16 at NJPAC (featuring Bebel Gilberto)

For more information visit Mariza.com

By Ernest Barteldes

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Back in 2009 I was fortunate to be in the audience at Carnegie Hall to hear Mariza sing in support of Terra, (2008) an album that was a bit of a crossover for her – in addition to the traditional fados that caused her to be called “the next Amalia Rodrigues,” she included songs like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” (backed by Gonzalo Rubalcaba) and The Beatles’ “Yesterday” with a jazz-inflected treatment that was quite different from what you hear on the streets of Alfama.

At the time I was not aware that she was about to embark into a half-decade hiatus to dedicate herself to starting a family . I was glad that to hear she was ready to go back on the road when I was assigned to write a preview of her Krakow debut earlier this year, and was eager to hear her in the US again.

I guess I am getting my wish.

Mariza returns with “Mundo” (Nonesuch, 2016), a disc that  takes her music to yet a further direction, embracing pop, jazz and other genres with a little help of several guest artists who sometimes take the spotlight entirely away from her.

Produced by Javier Limon, the album blends more traditional fados with more modern grooves – the first example being “Paixao,” a ballad that begins with a more classical feel then incorporates electric bass and percussion – something not very commonly heard In an album of this genre – the impression I had was as if Queen’s Brian May had decided to produce the tune then decided not to multi-track his legendary Red Special guitar into it. Another great moment is “Padoce de Ceu Azul,” a ballad with a laid-back feel that gives a chance to hear Mariza outside of the usual dramatic sound of fado.

Fans of Lisbon’s signature sound should not worry – most of the tunes keep into the format, but I agree that Mariza should go beyond their comfort zone as Cristina Branco, Ivete Sangalo and others have done before her. But she is not just expanding, but bringing fado to the 21st Century – “Sem Ti” is clearly inside the genre but cleverly brings other elements to it – without completely breaking away.

I am not sure how Mariza is going to bring all the music together on a live format, but am certainly curious. She always has the ability to surprise audiences with unexpected surprises – at Carnegie Hall she had all the mikes turned off and did a few songs acapella the way it is done back home.

I can assure everyone in the audience – wherever they were – heard every note.

Music Preview: Bibi Ferreira at Symphony Space, New York City

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By Ernest Barteldes

Bibi Ferreira

Tuesday, Sept. 20 & 23

Symphony Space

8 PM

I have known about the legendary Brazilian diva Bibi Ferreira for a very long time – she has a long history as a singer, producer, actress and director going from the 1940s to present. She is still active in spite of being 94 years young – and gives no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

I did two interviews with her for The Brasilians over the past few years and was surprised not only by how articulate she was on the phone and also by her fantastic memory – she can remember details of shows she did generations ago as if she had walked out of stage five minutes ago. I was even more amazed to hear her live at Alice Tully Hall – hard to believe is was her New York debut – and heard her sing an array of hard tunes ranging from Verdi to Chico Buarque and Piaf – as if they were nothing.

And then there was Liza Minelli’s hilarious surprise appearance, when they shared the mike for a snippet of “Theme from New York, New York” – a tune made famous by Frank Sinatra but actually introduced by Minelli (go ahead, Google it) in 1972.

On her current show Four Times Bibi, she pays tribute to fado queen Amalia Rodrigues, Piaf, tango legend Carlos Gardel and none other than our own Frank Sinatra – an evening that will bring together various genres together in what promises to be nothing short of amazing – a show that is not to be missed.