Tag Archives: jazz

Rob Mazurek / Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust

4 Mar

Dimensional Stardust seems like the kind of album that would enjoy a good paradox and so it’s lucky that it brings one to the table itself. It is, at one and the same time, wildly novel and numbingly familiar. The album is a parade of fantastic soundscapes. Not only does it accurately evoke space, but it evokes space as interesting. This is not the untouched void. It is instead an explosion of shapes and colors. You can see the comets and nebulae and galaxies all whorling around with even the occasional life form drifting through.

“Sun Core Tet,” for instance, keeps a simple foundation, albeit complicated by shapeshifting instruments, but then puts so much color into the space left open. It is somehow strongly reminiscent of Saturday morning science fiction, especially due to the vibraphone and flute work. I’ve heard many musical representations of the wonder of space, this is the only one that really brings in the childishness of wonder. The good dynamic energy of the later “Parable of Inclusion” further builds this feeling.

There’s also a strong classical vein to this album. The sparse leading instruments and heavy use of polyphony do a lot to build this and there’s no real soloing here. It’s a very crafted album, which is a strength for how clearly the album speaks but a detriment as well. There’s a lot in this album that could use the inspiration that comes from the improvisation that defines space jazz.

“Autumn Pleiades” for instance, sounds like post-rock more than anything else, and as often happens with that genre, falls too far into repetition. It could have really used a little surprise somewhere. Similarly, “The Careening Prism Within” is just too predictable and it feels like the voiceover in “Abstract Dark Energy” never ends.

It’s a shame that this strain of predictability mars what would otherwise be an excellent album. In fact, if you’re looking for something in the vein of your favorite post-rock album, but with parts significantly more challenging, this album is tailor-made for you. If your tastes are more general, this album still paints some very vivid visuals, even if they could use some additional variety as well.

Celeste – Not Your Muse

24 Feb

This review is for the 12-track international edition of Celeste’s Not Your Muse. The international deluxe edition features an additional nine songs that we highly recommend you check out.

British pop singer Celeste’s star has been on the up-and-up for the past couple of years. Starting off her career providing vocals for the likes of Avicii, Celeste built a name for herself in the British music press with a pair of well-received EPs – The Milk & the Honey (2017) and Lately (2019).

By the time Lately made its rounds around the world, the singer pretty much became an unstoppable force. Tastemakers of all swathes, from GQ to the prestigious BBC Sound of… poll, named Celeste as a breakthrough act for 2020, and she didn’t miss.

In January last year, she released “Stop This Flame”, a rambunctious jazz-pop number centered on her powerful and impassioned vocals. Her second single of the year, “Strange”, is a beautiful, downcast ballad that falls somewhere between an emotive Paul McCartney-penned Beatles track and – on the modern end of the scale – the whispered stylings of one Billie Eilish. And we’re not the only ones who thought that, for the track seemed to have brought in the talents of Billie’s Grammy-winning producer brother Finneas on the next single “I Can See the Change”.

If you thought that was the extent of Celeste’s star-making year, then you would be wrong. She then went on to perform three songs for The Trial of Chicago 7, a star-studded Aaron Sorkin-directed venture focused on the tumultuous anti-Vietnam war years. One of those three songs – “Hear My Voice” – is now nominated for Best Song at this year’s Oscars. Celeste closed off the year with a duet on the latest Pixar film Soul (“It’s Alright”) for which her soulful, playful vocals are perfectly suited.

So, yeah, Celeste has had one hell of a breakthrough year.

With so many well-known singles that have had their time in the sun, there was always a risk that Celeste’s Jan. 2021 debut album Not Your Muse would not hold up in its entirety. Luckily, that’s not at all the case. We’ve already spoken about the alluring “Tonight Tonight”, a poppy-yet-pensive track that sounds like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” set to an alt-rock drum beat. Another stand-out track is “Beloved”, where Celeste’s deft vocals and the romantic strings bring to mind a dramatically broken heart in, say, snow-covered Christmastime Paris. (Or something equally bittersweet.) The more rock-infused “Love is Back” sounds like it could be a hidden B-side to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” – and really, could there be a greater achievement for a young British jazz-soul singer?

As we wrote in our song review for “Tonight Tonight”, Celeste feels like an artist who’s just on the precipice of household status – think Adele the year before 21 was released, or Lizzo right before “Juice” came out. Not Your Muse is an ode primarily to Celeste’s magnificent voice; but also to her genre-bending sensibilities across jazz, soul, R&B, pop and even rock. It’s early, but we can see this being one of the best debuts of 2021.

Rating: 8/10

Best songs: “Love is Back”, “Tonight Tonight”, “Stop This Flame”

Hiromi – Spectrum

20 Feb

It’s very hard not to understate just how impressive Spectrum is. This is an overview of the past decade of musical learnings by Hiromi, an impressive enough conceit, but to tell you that misses the point. The incredible thing about the album is not the range of music here, but how the whole comes together. It’s not just that her familiarity with all of these threads, it’s that she has internalized them and, having digested them all, can now synthesize something wonderful. This is not just an album more than the sum of its parts, it is an album that developed new building blocks and then made a cathedral from them.

“Kaleidoscope” starts the album out in a Baroque manner, but then goes everywhere it can imagine. There are some threads in there that feel like they escaped from an action movie. “Rhapsody In Various Shades Of Blue” doesn’t stop at mixing in Gershwin and Trane, but even fits The Who in there. You can even see the namesake’s walk in “Mr. C.C.”

It almost goes without saying, but Hiromi is a highly accomplished pianist and this album makes full use of her ability. “Spectrum” is a tour-de-force of dexterity as the song hurtles through intelligent and challenging counterpoint at a breakneck pace. She then balances that with an incredible warmth that radiates through the piano in slower pieces like her take on “Blackbird.” Her rendering of the refrain here is lovely and her excursions express a beautiful wanderlust.

Spectrum is unquestionably the work of a visionary and a virtuoso. It is absolutely masterful jazz and a delight to listen to. It’s even an album that I would recommend to beginners. Due to its assimilation of showtunes, swing and even classic rock, it gives the novice plenty to latch on to. More simply though, it is just a delight to listen to and an album that you are richer for having heard.

Tommy Flanagan – The Cats

11 Feb

1957 was one of those hot periods for jazz. It was a time when you could throw together a bunch of jazz players who happened to be in Detroit and you would get something like The Cats. This is an album chock-full of clever, engaging solos. It’s never aggressive and very listenable no matter who you are. It’s also as sharp as you can ask for.

The album shows you its quality right from the opening of the excellent “Minor Mishap.” It’s a good opening. It’s fun and open-ended and immediately sets you up for interesting things to come and then Trane’s solo is excellent. Coltrane is not as aggressive here as he would very soon become, but you can see him reaching toward it and he’s just having fun with this album anyway.

That fun follows in “Ecypso” where his solo adds to an already great song. The upbeat refrain here is a great way to set the tone and then the noodling piano solo at the start follows it really well. Together, they give the song a good club jazz vibe and the rhythm really bolsters that. Idrees Suleiman is bubbly and having fun here. His solo puts a smile on your face, but there’s intelligence to spare with it and Kenny Burrell puts down a very cool solo as well. It plays things a little predictable in parts, but it’s enjoyable enough for that to be only a minor burr.

Later, “Tommy’s Tume” is just very jazzy jazz. Jazz is already inherently very cool and some jazz is cooler still. This is that jazz and fun to boot. Burrell speeds up in the middle of his solo for a very clever touch, the bass gets a chance to shine and finally Trane comes in for a very smooth touch.

The Cats is not the best that hard bop has to offer. “Solacium” does miss the mark a little, even if it is still music that I’m always glad to have on. The album is just a little too relaxed to really hold its own at the highest level. However, it’s still just wonderful music and one that can be approached from any skill level. This is a collection of jazz masters doing what they do best and it’s no surprise that they are some very cool cats indeed.

Immanuel Wilkins – Omega

14 Dec

This is the kind of jazz album that I love to review. You can’t get away from the fact that jazz is forbidding. The more that you give to jazz, the more that jazz gives back to you and so it can be hard to start. That’s why albums like Omega are so great to see, this is the kind of album that can start the virtuous cycle of jazz. It’s approachable, it’s very listenable and yet still smart and able to reward any kind of listener.

Despite simple, accessible foundations, the tracks quickly become clever, intricate pieces. “Warriors” opens the album in a very straightforward way, but then goes into a lovely, thought-provoking piano solo. It’s in the next song though that Immanuel Wilkins really takes flight. “Ferguson – An American Tradition” is fiery and filled with agony. It returns to a simple, but stimulating off-kilter refrain about 6 minutes in that gives a bit of respite from the emotion of the rest of the track, but ends with a heartfelt cry of pain. It’s a magnificent statement and, after “The Dreamer” as a nice bit of softness in between, the album goes into further injustice with “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” This is a more muted track than “Ferguson,” but persistent. About two and a half minutes, there’s a straining horn that’s excellent and then returns to the persistent noodling of before and that journey makes for a very powerful statement. The song suffers a little from my one complaint with this album, I would have liked to see the musicians cut free a little more and really push their ideas as far as they would go, but this is a minor quibble and a choice that brings benefits as well.

This is not an opinion that you should let cut too deeply though. This is a very clever album. “Grace and Mercy” is delicate and soothing, but has a flair for the unexpected. It’s quick to surprise and filled with sharp ideas. “Saudade” is a nice shot of energy and change of pace. “Guarded Heart” both demands and rewards attention. It has aggressive saxophone riffs that are compelling and clever and a wonderful, minimal ending.

If you’re looking to pick up a recent jazz album, this is the one you should look to. If you’re new to jazz, this is a great place to start with. It’s just easy to appreciate that this is very good music. If you can invest in it though, it pays you back in spades. I highly recommend you give this a spin.

Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet!

11 Oct

You only get an album like this once or twice a year. It’s no mean accomplishment to make music this varied and Jyoti makes it with consummate skill. She skims across genres without a ripple, selecting pieces to meld into an album wholly her own. 

She’s at her best in pieces like “This Walk.” It’s a slow, meandering song, but one where every path is interesting and filled with tiny, rewarding diversions. It’s very laid back, but so dense with thought that it’s very compelling nonetheless. It takes the ambient sounds that she uses throughout the album and cuts it to great effect with the clarity and jaggedness of her voice.

The serrated songs do well. “Ra’s Noise” is similarly jagged and unexpected, but moves further into jazz with a prominent and energetic saxophone. The barbed funk of “Hard Bap Duke” is noteworthy in the same way. This is not to disparage the other tracks here. The traditional jazz of “Swing, Kirikou, Swing” and the ambient of “Quarrys, Quarries” are both very good and the screeching guitar in “The Cowrie Waltz” is fascinating. However, while “Bemoanable Lady Geemix” is interesting for feeling like something out of a hip-hop producer’s album and makes for good background listening, it’s a little shallow. “Ancestral Duckets” is similarly listenable, but could have used more thought.

Mama, You Can Bet ends up with a lot going for it. The range and ability on display here is astonishing. A couple of the pieces here fall short of what one would hope and there’s no single piece that truly stands out, but those are minor blemishes in an album of excellent quality and singular execution.

Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

7 Sep

It’s on the title track that you can really feel the talent that Nubya Garcia brings to the table. It’s the longest track on the album at 12 minutes, but it packs those twelve minutes full of action. There’s an excellent solo from Nubya Garcia there and it’s followed by an equally spectacular keyboard solo. It’s a fiery track and absolutely top level jazz.

She has the same quality in “Pace,” where the music has a good, frenetic energy. “Before Us” keeps that fast pace and takes the sound close to noise and benefits greatly from that. The jagged horns are an absolute treat, even if the opening veered a little easy listening for my taste.

However, there a couple of places where it takes things too slow for its own good. “Stand With Each Other” takes too long to get where it’s going. While “Inner Game” and “Together Is A Beautiful Place to Be” both have a nice tone to them, they lack brilliance. They’re satisfactory, but they don’t do anything interesting.

“La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” has genius to spare though. The Latin sound that pops in and out through the album comes to the forefront here and its melding with the jazz is fantastic. Nubya Garcia has the talent to pull off any kind of jazz she chooses, but it’s in this style that she is most exciting.

SOURCE has a little more air than I would prefer, but there’s plenty here to reward jazz aficionados of any level. This is a very impressive debut and completely justifies the anticipation it commanded. I’m excited to see what Nubya Garcia does next.

John Coltrane Quartet – Africa / Brass

17 Jun

It’s easy to latch on to the monkeys and elephants that show up partway through the first piece and hear the clear jungle noises there and think that this album is less than it is, but this is first and foremost excellent, inventive jazz. Like Olé Coltrane, which was released in the same year, the theme comes through strong and the jazz is richer for the flavor, but the soul of the album is in the superb hard bop that it’s built on.

Most interesting though is the big band that backs the quartet throughout. Adding the larger band of older styles of jazz adds a lot of swing, both in “Africa” and in “Blues Minor” and also shows what big band jazz could have been had the genre not shifted to more intimate groups. Between that and the jungle themes, “Africa” comes off as very reminiscent of possibly the best known verdant jazz of all, Louis Prima as King Louie in Disney’s version of The Jungle Book, something I’m always glad to be reminded of.

“Greensleeves” is another classic Coltrane pop track, taking as it does a British folk classic and effortlessly reimagining it as post-bop and “Blues Minor” is fearlessly improvisational. However, it is “Africa” that is the clear highlight. Elvin Jones has a stellar drum solo in there and as always, Trane’s sax work is unparalleled.

This is something a bit out of left field for Trane and he never did revisit the ideas he played with in this album, but that should in no way be taken to imply a misstep. This is, if anything, more special for its uniqueness. It’s a legitimate masterpiece and an essential album for any fan of this style of jazz.

@murthynikhil

Jimmy Greene – While Looking Up

4 May

Jimmy Greene has made something of a name for himself in jazz circles since 2014’s Beautiful Life and while the sequel wasn’t quite as brilliant, it’s still always exciting to see new music from him. Unfortunately though, While Looking Up leaves too much to be desired.

There are some definite stand-out moments. “While Looking Up” has a very nice sax solo and some unexpected diversions in the piano solo and there’s good energy in “Always There.” I always like a vibraphone solo and the one in “April 4th” is a delight, even if would have benefited from some tightening. Jimmy Greene’s sax work is also excellent in the slower “Good Morning Heartache” and the equally heartfelt “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” He’s good at getting emotion through, but the song stays too long without enough to say.

This happens with some regularity in the album and it pushes the whole thing too far into easy listening for my taste. There are some clever bits, but the album tends to predictability, a trait made worse by a number of songs refusing to end. It’s an often beautiful album, but one without depth and one ultimately that’s hard to recommend.

Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

21 Oct

Over the past decade and a half, India has seen a remarkable growth in the sheer number of independent, non-Bollywood music. From electronica to indie rock to hip-hop, we now have it all. But as the scene develops, many homegrown artists understandably sound a lot like the global artists they’re trying to emulate. There are a few exceptions, of course – artists who are truly, unmistakably, confidently homegrown; and Peter Cat Recording Company easily rules over them all.

Delhi-based quintet Peter Cat have been a beloved part of the Indian music scene for nearly a decade; Sinema (2011) especially was all the rage for a particular cross-section of indie fans that came of age in that era. They’ve always been ahead of the curve, but perhaps by too much – fully-formed and original in a nascent and sometimes derivative industry. In many people’s opinions (including ours), they deserved so much more than the tiny listening audience and a four-city gig circuit that the country could afford them.

Luckily for all of us, Peter Cat seemed to have been thinking along the same lines. Recently, they signed on to French label Panache Records, which promptly released a nine-song anthology of the band’s greatest hits (Portrait of a Time, 2018). Happier still was the news this year that the band would be releasing a full-length album – the official “debut” – with Panache. Peter Cat were finally getting the management and international exposure that their brilliance deserved. Would they live up to it?

The short answer is: yes.

Peter Cat Recording Company is not just a great band; they’re a great Indian band. Their sound blends easily across jazz, gypsy, disco, you name it – but at their core, Peter Cat is undeniably desi. On Bismillah, that thankfully doesn’t change.

Take, for example, “Where the Money Flows”, which opens the album with diegetic sounds of the homeland – the birds, the distant honks, a spluttering engine. Between gentle guitar strums and handclaps, the lyrics paint a picture of trade-offs between money (bad) and love (good). But the music video makes their intent much more explicit: they’re talking specifically about that great Indian experiment, demonetization. The fact that the music video was released days before the final stretch of India’s historical general election made the link even clearer.

Other songs on Bismillah reference India in decidedly less political terms. With its Technicolor throwback and old-world croon, “Heera” could be an erstwhile filmi hit (barring the English-language lyrics). Disco jam “Memory Box” is would fit right in on a best-of-Bappi-Lahiri special issue with the busy guitars and dramatic violins. “Floated By” is a nod to the celebrated big-brass sounds of Indian weddings; you could almost imagine the trumpets and the melancholy vocals serenading the wee hours of a wedding reception somewhere. Indeed, the music video is set in a real wedding – Sawhney’s own, in fact.

Of course, the brilliance of Peter Cat lies in their ability to seamlessly fuse their Indian sensibilities with great music from elsewhere. One touch-point, especially, is the minimalist vibe espoused by the likes of the xx. “Remain in Me” is built mostly on the Sawhney’s lilting voice and a sparse drum-guitar line, joined by forlorn horns in the chorus. “Vishnu ❤” is a hypnotic, chillwave gem, interspersed again by Peter Cat’s signature brass. Moody psychedelia, a la Tame Impala, is another key influence, especially on the expansive album closer “Shit I’m Dreaming”.

Peter Cat’s strongest suit, however, is Sawhney’s rich, emotive voice. He is fully in control of his considerable talent: perfectly complementary to the instruments in one moment, a sublime falsetto on the next, and maybe a quick aalap here and there. His voice sways, croons, reaches and swoons; but always adding to that iconic Peter Cat sound.

Bismillah is a kaleidoscopic journey through genres and time periods; experimental, creative but always on brand. It’s their best work yet and, honestly, one of the best albums we’ve heard all year (Indian or otherwise).

Best tracks: “Where the Money Flows”, “Heera”, “Floated By”

Check out Peter Cat Recording Company’s website for more information.

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