Tag Archives: jazz

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

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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

David Bowie: Blackstar

18 Jan

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There’s a famous essay by Roland Barthes about separating an author from his work and on the futility of using the author’s identity to try to derive a single definitive meaning for a text. With Bowie, the persona was always a facet of the work, and an important one, but one that only furthered its enigma. Where some artists seem slaves to such direct analysis of their work, Bowie transcended it.

Bowie’s influence is everywhere, from the obvious trends in music and fashion to the art styles of movies, comics and video games, to even his direct influence in contemporary culture and mainstream acceptance of once-othered groups. Time and time again, Bowie pushed at the boundaries of what human culture had achieved. The world today is a far better place due to his work. His loss is tragic and heartbreaking, but his work and is influence are immortal.

Blackstar, his twenty-fifth and final album, is new territory even for him. This is a jazz album, not rock, and an excellent one at that. The music is challenging and more than deep enough to reward you for it. The variations laid down by his band are deep and interesting. The lyrics are cryptic, but highly evocative. The experience as a whole is direct and unsettling, but distinctly beautiful. His use of the form is deft and innovative, bringing in rock and spacey-electronica into a rich jazz foundation to create a work as claustrophobic as a dungeon and as difficult to escape.

His inversions of the form are fascinating. The sax solo of “Lazarus” centers the album. The slow, mournful chant of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is cleverly undercut by the whimsical jazz strains underneath it and the guitar solo that provides much of the real variation in the song. The clear horn opening of “Dollar Days” shifts smoothly into a traditional rock ballad. This is an intelligent album and courageous enough to revel in it.

Excellent, challenging and novel, Blackstar is the swan song Bowie’s career deserves. I highly recommend it.

@murthynikhil

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