Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tyner's "Solo" full of warmth and depth

McCoy Tyner - "Solo; Live from San Fransicsco"
Half Note Records
-out today
4.5 / 5

With a legendary career like pianist McCoy Tyner's, there is always the nagging comparison between his latest release and his classic '60s and '70s albums. To clarify: yes, he is in his 70s, and yes, this album may not be as classic as "The Real McCoy." But is it worthwhile? Yes. Here's why: even in his advanced years, and even with a slightly lacking a bit of touch on his fingers, the solo work here is marvelous, deep, complex, intimate. It is as easy for a person inexperienced in jazz to get into as it is for an afficionado of his other work to enjoy. And that is the key word here, "enjoy." There is maturity and depth, but there is also a profound understated joy in his playing, whether it be in dense retake of Coltrane's famous "Lazy Bird," the lush "African Village", or his delicate "Naima," also a standard of Coltrane's. A worthy work in a worthy career. Recommended.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Heaven" is not quite...

James Carter - Heaven on Earth (Live)
Half Note Records
-due out Tomorrow

Not to editorialize, but the musicians here are fantastic: John Medeski of Martin, Medeski and Wood, Christian McBride with his own burgeoning solo career, and James Carter, a passionate and wild soloist in a live setting. Then what we have with "Heaven on Earth," I desperately want to say is a fantastic, must-get album: it displays musicianship, ability, and technical powers well beyond most musicians. But it lacks an ear, and what we get is half a fantastic album, restrained and gorgeous as on the bluesy "Street of Dreams," or thrashing and wandering as on the opener "Diminishing" and "Slam's Mishap." To be fair, Carter is know for his exploratory, often "un-melodic" improvisational style, but it bleeds into the set, and leaves the album too often without focus. A musician may not mind not having a "pay-off," but it would be remiss for the casual listener to sit down and try the often fruitless jams here. Try out Carter's down-tempo swagger on "Blue Leo," as well as the funky-fresh organ solo on the title track. Otherwise, save your cash for the more consistent "Live at Baker's."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book it to Glasper's "Double Booked"

Robert Glasper - "Double Booked"
Blue Note Records
- due out Aug 25
4 / 5

His third album on Blue Note Records has Glasper doubling his band; the first segment is his acoustic jazz trio, followed by his more electric and hip-hop group the Robert Glasper Experiment. Of the first six tracks, there is little wasted space, as the loping, upbeat strides of "I'm Country (And That's Okay)" and the dense and melodic treatment of Monk's "Think of One" proves themselves the highlights of the first half. A couple of phone calls segues Glasper for the second half, which, while not quite as exciting as the first, still comes as a fresh and welcoming set. Bilal's vocals on "Butterfly" is unexpected on a typical jazz album, but "typical" isn't why this is good music; check it out for a musician capable of hip-hop, and very talented in jazz. Recommended.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interview with a Guitar Fiend

This week, I'm all in favor of Catie Curtis, who not only has a new album out, but has taken it upon herself to start Aspire to Inspire, a program that gives guitars to kids who can't afford them. Props to that, Catie; here's the recent phone interview:

Did you do the cover art for "Hello, Stranger"?
No, I didn't. The woman who drew it is a good friend of mine who's also a best-selling author. She wrote and illustrated the book, "All I Needed to Know I Learned from my Cat." She's the real deal. We asked her to make up something for the cover and she did.

Is that you in the glasses and fake mustache?
No... it's sort of like the whole idea of putting on a disguise, for me, like trying on a new identity. I think that's what she was getting at.

And not that, literally, you go around like that.
No, I don't. (Laughs)

Who do you listen to right now?
I've been listening to Feist quite a bit. I love the melodies and the playfulness. The music that I always fall back on... is Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, a group called the Weepies. There's a new artist in the Boston area named Lindsay Mac, who I think is really outstanding. When I'm driving, I love public radio. I love hearing discussions about politics and that's the kind of thing that keeps me awake more than music, which relaxes me too much to drive to.

You're focused on more than music; can you tell us about "Aspire to Inspire"?
It's a really small, kind of personal endeavor that started with just me, but it's grown into a nearly $10,000 endowment. It's not huge, but it means that in the coming year, I'll be able to give away a handful of guitars (about 5-10). I'm allowed to... give a handful of guitars to kids who are affiliated with the Fresh Air camps in New York State. So kids who don't have the means to buy guitars, but are passionate about music, (can get one). I know how much it changed my life as one person being given a guitar. One thing I would really liked to do is solicit used instruments from people that don't play the instrument anymore.

Do you remember the guitar you were given?
It was a Yamaya, like, SG 30, something like that. SG something.

Do you still have it?
No, sadly. I traded up at some point.

Hay's "Sunshine" doesn't quite shine

Colin Hay - "American Sunshine"
Compass Records
-due out Aug 18

The opener to Hay's tenth solo album is a placid, someone stagnant celebration of his home state in his adopted country. "California," like other pieces in this album, just seems to lack a real excitement, and don't evince that necessary freshness that art is supposed to bring to its subject. The following "Prison Time" is a well-crafted, somewhat sunshiny feel-good track, and this is how this album stumbles, with one good, and one limp leg. Hay's laid-back, home-country groove seems to be either on or off, making for an uneven album. Hay's fans should find enough calmness and serenity in the instrumentation to enjoy this album, but the casual listener might not be as willing to forgive such tracks as "No Time," which comes off too poppy and bland and shallow. Try "Prison Time" and "There's Water Over Here," are a couple of the deeper of his tracks; otherwise, give "Sunshine" a pass.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blanchard makes good "Choices"

Terence Blanchard - "Choices"
Concord Jazz
-due out Aug 18

If you're unfamiliar with Blanchard's work, simply sit back and enjoy the unexpected twists and snakes of "Byus," the first track to his latest album. "Choices" is interspersed with spoken vocals by Dr. Cornel West about the choices people make in life: whether to go to school, whether to be a musician, whether to be good or not. This conversational tone to the album spices it up a bit and gives it a second voice; one that it can use, because it doesn't quite have the sweetness and light of his 2003 "Bounce," or the thunder of 2007 "A Tale of God's Will." But here are still excellent performances, especially in the extended acoustic set "Winding Roads," and the more fusion-funk of "A New World (Created Inside the Walls of Imagination)." These tracks showcase the depth of Blanchard's talents as a composer, and where he's lacking is in the general focus of this record; also, don't take this to mean his performances throughout aren't up to par. Not quite his greatest, but still an achievement. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Stranger" feels too familiar

Catie Curtis - "Hello Stranger"
Compass Records
-out now

Ms. Curtis' authenticity as a country voice is difficult to question in her tenth album. The Boston-based singer and guitarist has an excellent bluesgrass instrumentation in the backing banjo, fiddle and dobro; the musicians here create a pleasant and enjoyable country ambience throughout the album, especially in the opener, "100 Miles," and the Cat Stevens cover "Tuesday's Dead." The latter is upbeat and excellent, and a John Martyn cover "Don't Want to Know (No Evil)" performes well also, seemingly creeping upon the listener. The album overall, however, is a different story, and much of "Hello, Stranger" feels a bit flat (not pitch-wise), and not enough sticks out memorably; perhaps much of this can be remedied with more powerful vocals. Overall, the album doesn't receive a pass, though the songs listed here are certainly recommended.
Don't forget to check out the interview with Curtis coming out this week...

The Maine Drag

Hello viewers,
Apologies for the lateness, but I recently found myself bound and gagged on a flight to Maine. It was fun, there were steamers and lobsters galore, and I would recommend it for anyone who's a fan of five-hour car drives. I know I said "flight," but I also took a meticulous calculation of how long it would take via SUV.
As for the blog, expect more cutting-edge music. I know I've got more an indie thing going here, but this week and next should (hopefully) have a few fantastic jazz musicians up, as well as an interview that I have yet to transcribe. Also, if you sign up now, you can receive:
-A free MattKeefer.com hat
-A clap on the back *
-A julienne fry dicer

It slices, it dices, it even makes... is that reference too old? I hope not; it slips into casual conversation with me sometimes. Later,

*"A clap" may or may not constitute the heinous disease

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hard to believe Castro's this good

Tommy Castro - "Hard Believer"
Alligator Records
-due out Aug. 11

My title means no offense to Mr. Castro, but in defense of it, a title's got to be nimble, catchy, and good to grab your attention. While I purport to none of these, Castro's eleventh album is all of these and more: his soulful album here does credit to blues jam with hard-knock vocals and lush big-band orchestration. Try out the well-paced opener, "Definition of Insanity," and his cover of Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody"; if you don't see yourself sipping Southern Comfort at a worn barstool under the spell of the band onstage, then just enjoy "Gotta Serve's" bass funk and soul-styled chorus. And if those don't float your boat, the keyboard boogie to "Monkey's Paradise" ought to; if not, then maybe you weren't meant to get the blues. Strong enough for the fan or curious listener; recommended.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Bottle Rockets don't quite rock-it

The Bottle Rockets - "Lean Forward"
Bloodshot Records
-due out Aug. 11

There is a lot to like on the Bottle Rockets' ninth studio album: the straight southern-rock songwriting, the instrumentals, solid hooks. But there's equally as much that pulls down this album, including the toneless quality of the vocals, and how straightforward these songs play. The slight southern swagger just isn't enough to blanket over these imperfections, nor is it enough to hook in casual listeners, though for fans of the band or just general rockers, this album should suffice. With just a few memorable moments on the album (try out "Give Me Room" and "Slip Away"), "Lean Forward" just barely ekes itself out of a passing grade. On this one, you might want to wait on the Rockets' next release.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Newport Folk Fest's Fifty: Celebrating the newcomers

Tift Merritt takes to the stage, wrapped in a light, summery flesh-colored dress. She sits at the piano with a harmonica neck-rack, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival begins with her original "I Know What I'm Looking for Now." Dreamy-eyed and diffuse, she comments on a plane swirling in the sky.
Across three stages and two days at Fort Adams in Newport are several of the latest folk, country and indie acts. Saturday brought a particularly strong line-up, including indie/folk phenomenon Iron and Wine, and Britain's veteran punk Billy Bragg. Whether it was Gillian Welsh asking for extra reverb for Jefferson Airplane's classic "White Rabbit" ("I want to be in the batcave," she told the sound engineer) or the Decemberist's rendition of Dylan going electric (including an innocent, woodland squirrel), the most exciting about George Wein's festivals are the new discoveries, bands that have only hit the national stage for a year or less, such as the Low Anthem (June of this year) and Fleet Foxes (June 2008). Surprisingly, these two acts drew large and devoted crowds to their respective stages.
As soon as the Fleet Foxes came onto the main stage, the largest standing crowd waited impatiently through two announcers; the ground was alight with expectation for their set. Starting with their album's opener, "Sun it Rises," the Seattle-based band shook the festival goers, with both their gorgeous layered harmonies and unfortunately loud low-end bass. With only the one self-titled album to their credit, several audience members mouthed the complex lyrics to their radio-played "White Winter Hymnal." Following Gillian Welsh's fantastic set, the Foxes kept a strong momentum, carried by the Decemberists, making these three performances one of the highlights of the day.
Off on the smaller Waterfront Stage, Providence's the Low Anthem prepared their clarinet, baritone, and pump organ for several soulful off their first national release, "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin," as well as some new songs added to the repertoire. The tent was packed, second only to the throng which surrounded Sam Beam's at the Harbor Stage, and overflowed with avid listeners to their alternatingly soft and harsh vocals. After the opening of "Charlie Darwin," the crowd was silent, but the feeling of true roots was palpable. Passing from electric jam to haunted melody, the Anthem's performance was a hidden, though thankfully not unobserved, jem.
In its semi-centennial, this festival still brings a mix of the old and the new together, meshing different styles and ideas under its ever-widening definition of "folk." And for those unable to attend, don't forget to check out NPR's coverage on the anniversary at: http://www.npr.org/music/newportfolk/index2.html. Enjoy!