Tag Archives: jazz

John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once

22 Jul

A little historical context is probably worthwhile for this album. In 1963, John Coltrane was still fresh off the breakout success of My Favorite Things, which was the rare jazz album to have major crossover appeal, but had yet to create A Love Supreme, the magnificent distillation of self that is possibly his magnum opus and is unquestionably flawless. Somewhere in that year, Trane and his classic quartet recorded this session only to have it be lost for decades when Impulse! Records recorded over the master tape. A copy of that tape that had been held by Juanita Naima Coltrane was recently discovered and assembled by his son into Both Directions At Once

History aside, it is an absolutely excellent album. It’s much rougher than the full albums released around this time and a large part is multiple takes on the same theme, but it has so many ideas in there that it would be ridiculous to complain. However, between the roughness and the pace, this album can be exhausting to listen to. It may not be as challenging as his later work, but it’s still no walk in the park.

The effort is deeply rewarding though. The alternate takes of “Impressions” are fascinating and the solos there are sublime. Coltrane’s are naturally excellent, but the rhythm section of “Impressions Take 4” is also worth noting for the intriguing textures that they lay down. The different takes on “Untitled Original 11386” are similarly compelling. The themes of “Take 2” are felt throughout the album, but are more than good enough to sustain the space given to them. The playfulness of “Take 5” is wonderful. It goes to places that are completely unexpected and finds neater ways to return than should be possible.

Additionally, the more approachable “Slow Blues”, “Nature Boy” and “Villa” are all excellent. This was a period in which Trane was looking for a follow-up to the success of “My Favorite Things” and his reimaginings of the latter two are solid attempts. “Nature Boy” does much in the same space, taking the Nat King Cole classic to sounds as unexpected as they are apt, but doesn’t quite manage the accessibility or the ingenuity of “My Favorite Things”. Nevertheless, they are both well worth the time. “Slow Blues” in particular fills its eleven and a half minutes with ideas while maintaining a surprising amount of cleanliness and friendliness.

This is not Coltrane’s strongest work by any stretch and it would have benefited from the polish that an actual release would have had, but these complaints only hold water due to the brilliance of Coltrane’s best work. By any reasonable standard though, this album is a work of astounding quality and invention. This was very simply a genius in his prime and to get another album like this is a gift you would have to be foolish to ignore.

@murthynikhil

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Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference

20 Dec

Harmony of Difference is that strangest of creatures, a jazz album of intermediate difficulty. As a genre, it tends to high difficulty naturally. There are also plenty of approachable works, from the more friendly Louis Armstrong stuff to even the smooth jazz of Kenny G. Finding an album in the middle is very unusual and this album is quite the valuable find if you’re looking for something of its nature.

The centerpiece of the album is actually the closing piece. At thirteen and a half minutes, “Truth” is close to half of the length of the album and is good enough to justify the length. It’s challenging and shifting and takes full advantage of the space that it’s given to explore. It is also surprisingly gentle. The vibraphone playing around a couple of minutes in is the aural equivalent of a warm bath. It is somewhat undercut by the honestly overwrought vocals though, but not enough to severely mar a great jazz piece.

The other half of the album is similarly variable, but mostly good. “Desire” starts things off in a gentle manner and sets the stage perfectly for the opening descent and fiery solos of “Humility”, and then both are mirrored by “Knowledge” and “Perspective”. These are all acceptable songs and they each have their moments, but they also lean a little too hard on sounds established both by the work of other people and by the songs themselves. While they are well done, they would have greatly benefited from a few more ideas each. Even “Integrity” suffers from the same flaw, despite the initial promise of a South American tinge.

This is not an album for raw beginners however. Some knowledge of jazz is requisite to experience Harmony of Difference. However, I can’t fully recommend it for the experienced listener either due to a very slight paucity of ideas. If you’re somewhere in the middle though, this is the perfect album for you, and even if you tend to either extreme, the sheer ability of the musicians may be enough to justify the listen anyway.

@murthynikhil

Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

10 Dec

Moses Sumney is a 27-year-old from Los Angeles, but he doesn’t belong at that intersection of space and time in so many ways. While his fellow millennials are eager to jump in – and out – of relationships at literally the touch of a button, Sumney is hesitant to move forward even with someone who loves him. He’s introspective, melancholic and shy to the point of physical discomfort – clashing garishly with the showy extraversion of LA. Sumney doesn’t fit in, and he can’t bring himself to be vulnerable enough to love someone, despite his human need for affection. And worst of all, he’s aware of all of this. The culmination of these themes is his debut full-length album, Aromanticism.

Although the premise may sound too depressing to warrant a listen, Aromanticism is actually a gorgeous and immensely repeatable album. Sumney has an ethereal voice that is amplified in beauty by a moody guitar and a masterful falsetto. His gossamer-silky vocals twist, snake and turn, in line with the churning thoughts in Sumney’s deeply introverted mind. He’s also a great writer; Aromanticism is full of evocative metaphors, references, and a penchant for the dramatic.

Take, for example, the first single “Plastic”. Within the first minute, Sumney’s voice effortlessly flutters across half a hundred notes as he sympathizes with a fellow lonely soul (“I know what it’s like to behold and not be held”) over a barebones guitar strum. He reveals his secret at the end of the sole verse (“My wings are made of plastic”), sung a dozen times but each so nuanced that the message sinks in twelve times deeper. Orchestral drama then segues his other big reveal: “My wings are made up, and so am I”. Sumney is a present-day Icarus, complete with plastic wings to replace the wax of yore. His fragile attempts to connect to another human often end with the melting of his metaphorical wings – and himself, too.

“Quarrel” takes place during one of these wing-melting moments. It’s an achingly beautiful song – a choir of layered voices (all Sumney) blend quite luxuriously with the harp. “He who asks for much has much to give / I don’t ask for much, just enough to live” goes the opening doublet – Sumney tries to keep a low profile in relationships, because he can’t be vulnerable enough to give someone else a lot of love. Unfortunately for him, his lover seems to have put his fragile soul at edge. “If I don’t have tools to fight, calling this a quarrel isn’t right,” he laments, before sinking into the almost-indignant chorus (“Don’t call it a lovers’ quarrel”).

Experiences like these have made Sumney sort of anti-love over the years. In his own words, Aromanticism is a rejection of “the idea that romance is normative and necessary”. But it’s clear that he does wonder about what it means for him, long-term, as a human being that cannot love. “Am I vital if my heart is idle?” he wonders on “Doomed”, so plaintively that it’s impossible to not share his fear.

However, as we’ve stated before, don’t be disheartened by his melancholy, because this man literally has the voice of an angel. His languishing wails on songs like “Lonely World” are almost enough to make one weep, and his falsetto alone has more range than most artists’ singing range. Aromanticism is a flawless debut by a deeply tortured genius.

* In case you were wondering about the album cover, it seems to be a reference to Plato’s Symposium, in which Aristophanes posits that humans were once four-legged, four-armed, and double-sexed, but Zeus cut them in half. Since then, humans have been trying to find their “other halves”, but Moses is pictured on the album cover as a human that’s missing his complementary half. More info here.

Best songs: “Quarrel”, “Plastic”

Nick Finzer – Hear and Now

15 Jul

Hear and Now manages to perfectly walk the line between depth and accessibility. The pieces are all remarkably easy to listen to and effortlessly captivating. Despite that, they are all remarkably intelligent and greatly reward any effort that you sink into them.

In addition to the above feat, the album is remarkably varied. This version of “Single Petal of A Rose”, while not quite as clean or as challenging as the Duke’s original, would still have fit in perfectly with the music of the time. “Again and Again” on the other hand is pure modern jazz. The very human and very excellent “Love Wins” draws out beautifully clean notes while “We The People” opens the album by lighting the stage on fire. Finally, “New Beginnings” is a classic no matter how you look at it.

If you are listening to the jazz of today, you should be listening to Hear and Now.

@murthynikhil

Joey Alexander – Countdown

1 Dec

Joey Alexander’s second album continues the clean, proficient jazz that defined his previous one. The piano sparkles in tracks like “Smile” or “Sunday Waltz” with a sound that feels simple, but perfect. This holds true for “Soul Dreamer” where every note is individual and the music takes on a wonderful clarity. Even in the up-tempo “City Lights” and “Countdown”, the pace increases and the music constantly moves, but the sharpness of the notes keep you moving with it. This version of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” is also fantastic with superb work on the saxophone by Chris Potter.

This album lacks a little of the fire of the true jazz classics, but that’s really the only criticism that can be made of it. This is a fantastic album and worth a listen from anyone keeping up with present-day jazz. Joey Alexander is an incredibly promising young talent, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

@murthynikhil

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

11 Feb

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John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is that rare jazz album that is not only a classic, but is very approachable as well. Johnny Hartman has a rich, warm voice that draws you close to the album and John Coltrane focuses completely on the sound, getting a perfect, luxurious tone throughout. Their interplay and that of their rhythm section is fantastic. Solos flow into each other effortlessly and the backing music sets a loose, fluid structure for the solos to work in. The music takes no effort to get into, but is nevertheless one of the great jazz vocal albums. This is essential for all fans of the genre and a great starting point for those who are not.

@murthynikhil

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek

25 Jan

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There’s a lot of promise in an album like this. The old American standards are often fantastic and the combination of an old stalwart like Tony Bennett and a pop star like Lady Gaga getting together to record an album of just these tunes seems like an excellent idea. It probably even is an excellent idea, but this is not the manifestation it deserves.

Cheek To Cheek manages to neither revitalize the standards with a modern outlook nor to recapture any of their past glory. Show tunes require confidence, personality and chemistry and while the first is present in spades, the other two are only ever briefly seen. The two trip over each other constantly and both alternate between hammy and formulaic. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version of the title track and you can hear a warmth and humanity entirely lacking in this album.

It’s not all lows though, the backing band does a very solid job. They lay down an upbeat, joyful jazz that is a pleasure to listen to. Also, both Lady Gaga and, surprisingly given his age, Tony Bennett are technically proficient throughout. Both of them still have great voices and are willing to draw upon them. Lady Gaga in particular has a wonderful solo in “Lush Life” that most singers, even renowned ones from the song’s own era, would struggle with.

All told, this is an acceptable album, but the standards are such for a reason and have all been played enough times to have versions that are undeniably classic. With this material, merely acceptable is just not enough.

@murthynikhil

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