Thursday, May 19, 2016

Juli Wood: Synkkä Metsä

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Synkkä Metsä

Folks understandably may not be familiar with Juli Wood and her group, aside from those who live in the Chicago area; she’s a regular performer there, but apparently doesn’t wander far from home. Well, this release is a gem, and Wood definitely deserves  our attention.

She plays tenor sax; her cohorts are guitarist Alejandro Urzagaste, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Mike Schlick. The song titles are almost unpronounceable — unless you’re Finnish — because they’re all in that language. But their content is presented in the common language of jazz, which is recognizable around the globe.

Synkkä Metsä is one of the most relaxing and listenable releases I’ve heard in a long time. As with many folk tunes, the melodic lines are simple, yet beautiful; the arrangements swing quietly, tastefully and smoothly. Wood gets a subtle tone out of her instrument, and her supporting cast members are equally elegant. 

The tunes are a varied mix of balladic and up-tempo melodies; all are explained briefly in Wood’s liner notes. You’ll want to listen to this disc again and again.

Congratulations to OA2, for recognizing the talent and value of these artists, and for sharing them with the wider world outside of Chicago.

Amina Figarova: Blue Whisper

In + Out Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blue Whisper

Pianist/composer Amina Figarova was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, where she initially studied to become a classical artist. She switched to jazz and came to the States, where she studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. During that time she met her future husband, flutist Bart Platteau, who also is featured on this release.

Figarova has recorded about a dozen albums. She’s an outstanding composer and keyboardist, and she always surrounds herself with top-notch musicians. As a result of the early training, her style goes beyond straight-ahead jazz and into post-bop, classical and impressionistic; as time has passed, the latter forms have become more prominent. Such is the case with this album.

Almost a dozen artists contributed to these 10 songs; only Figarova and Platteau are constant throughout. She often bases her music as “responses to social turmoil, personalities encountered and transitions of life.” The results are intense, at times complex melodies, often balladic in tempo. It often doesn’t swing, and seldom excites the listener ... but that’s not to say it isn’t great music.

Figarova’s compositions are classically founded and played: quite sophisticated, harmonious stuff. Several of the charts — notably “Pictures” and “The Travelers” — were commissioned by Lincoln Center, for its New Jazz Standards series. 

The performance feature excellent ensemble lines and instrumental solo work. One tune (“Hewa”) has vocal passages sung in Swahili; Figarova’s many interests include that country’s customs, music and people.

This album may not swing like some of her previous work, but it’s deeply moving music: certainly worth your attention.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lyn Stanley: Interludes

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Interlude

This is a beautiful album, first-class in every way, starring a multi-talented woman graced with a flawless voice. 

But it isn’t true jazz.

Lyn Stanley is quite exceptional. She’s a college graduate with a PhD in communications, and a successful career in business. She has won championships in USA DanceSport, and placed third in a World ProAm event. She also has studied voice under coach Annette Warren Smith — famed jazz pianist Paul Smith’s wife — and is an audiophile fanatic. Stanley’s recordings have been released on high-end vinyl, SACD stereo and reel-to-reel tape.

(Incidentally, Stanley dedicated this album to Paul Smith.)

Interlude has a lot going for it, starting with 14 classics from the Great American Songbook, with excellent arrangements by some of the music world’s best. Additionally, the two bands supporting Stanley include some truly great artists: among others, pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Chuck Berghofer, trombonist Bob McChesney and guitarist John Chiodini.

Stanley’s voice is flawless: Her tone, range, enunciation, warmth and phrasing are superb, and she “sells” a song as well as anyone alive today. No surprise, she’s quite popular. Her albums sell in the tens of thousands globally, which — considering the relatively limited “buying audience” that exists for jazz today — is exceptional.

So, why the caveat regarding her style? Well, Stanley doesn’t swing like artists such as Anita O’Day, Kim Nazarian, Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday. Stanley is more like Sarah Vaughn, although she could swing like crazy, when it suited her. (Remember her cover of “Cherokee”?)

Still, anyone who collaborates with the range of arrangers, producers and musicians assembled for this album — and her earlier releases — surely has a passport to the jazz genre, as far as I’m concerned. Call it what you will, this much is certain: Stanley is in a class by herself.

Brian Fielding: An Appropriate Response, Volume 1

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: An Appropriate Response, Volume 1

Some background is in order:

A Google search on the name “Brian Fielding” yielded numerous results: one for an attorney, another for a business network, and others for a petitioner, a partner in a law firm, a sports executive, a new business company, and still more. And, yes, one for a pianist/composer. Guess what? They’re all the same individual: a living Walter Mitty. 

Fielding was living in Montclair, New Jersey, when drummer Ali Jackson — taking a pleasant walk — happened to pass his house. Jackson heard some tasty jazz piano emanating from within, stopped to listen, then decided to find out who was responsible. He and Fielding chatted, and then Jackson returned later with some musician friends, including tenor saxist Mike Lee and bassist Andy McKee. Just like that, a quartet was formed.

Fielding composed all the charts featured on this release, which also demonstrates his chops as an accomplished jazz pianist. The music is Zen-like — a term used by Jackson — as opposed to straight-ahead jazz: contemplative, light, soft and swinging stuff that’ll make you smile (and quite happy). Some of the charts are balladic; others are more up-tempo. The arrangements provide a lot of space for solos, after a basic theme is established; each musician delivers some wonderful passages.

I wasn’t previously familiar with the musical Mr. Fielding and his friends; this album has changed that. Give this group a try; you’re bound to enjoy the result.