To Be Determined

Three Great Records and a “Good” One

Issue 114

Norah JonesPick Me Up Off the Floor

Norah Jones surprised a lot of people when she first burst onto the scene in 2002, sweeping most of the Grammy awards with her debut album, Come Away With Me. Though on the Blue Note label, it wasn’t really jazz, but most of the poppish tunes had something of a jazzy sensibility. Anyway, the record sold over 27 million copies worldwide, and laid the groundwork for all of her successive albums. The core performers on her first few albums were guitarist Jesse Harris and bassist Lee Alexander, who also wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, and gave those albums a very enjoyable vibe. Jones represents kind of a love/hate situation for me; while I actually liked the first couple of albums, I actually really liked the closing tunes on each album, which were covers of Duke Ellington and Hoagy Charmichael tunes. Each featured only Jones’ piano and her voice, and they really highlighted her remarkable vocal range and excellent piano playing — making me almost wish the bulk of the songs had been more representative of this style.

In 2018 Jones went into the studio to record a series of one-off “singles” of sorts; she wanted to record a variety of material, and with a variety of backup group scenarios. But not necessarily in an album format; the individual songs would be released digitally every few months or so throughout the year. Eventually, they were collected as the EP Begin Again, released in 2019. But early this year, she decided to take another listen to the literally dozens of discarded tracks laid down in the studio. And decided that there was enough sufficiently good material for a stand-alone album; Pick Me Up Off the Floor is it, and this new release represents her seventh studio album. Despite its origin from a bunch of castoffs, it’s a surprisingly cohesive album that’s probably her best effort from her last several albums.

The album kicks off with “How I Weep”; Jones’ piano is less prominently featured here as she sings along to a walking bass line and sparsely orchestrated strings: “I sing and I laugh…but inside…I weep…for a loss that’s so deep.” It’s a strangely infectious tune that mines that Smokey Robinson/clown on the outside/crying on the inside vein to very good effect. In fact, many of the songs here are imbued with a certain melancholy, but the clever arrangements and interesting instrumentation help prevent them from dragging the overall proceedings down. “Flame Twin” is a bluesy number with some really tasty (but uncredited!) electric guitar work, and “Say No More,” co written with Sarah Oda, adds a really nice horn section to one of the album’s more upbeat tracks. And Jones collaborated with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on two tunes, “I’m Alive” (Tweedy’s son Spencer plays drums here) and the album’s closer, “Heaven Above.” The latter has a very lilting quality that propels the song, and Jones’ sterling piano work really sparkles here.

The 24/96 Qobuz tracks sound pretty good, but not great; most of the tracks sound fairly compressed (I had to lower the volume level about ten notches below my normal threshold), and there’s a very noticeable amount of hiss in the background. I’m pretty sure what I’m hearing in the Qobuz stream is how it was captured in the studio, which isn’t bad, just not great. This is definitely not an audiophile listening experience, but there are some definitely good songs here, if not among Norah Jones best work to date. Recommended, but YMMV.

Blue Note Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, TuneIn)

 

John ScofieldSwallow Tales

In the early seventies, vibraphonist Gary Burton convinced bassist Steve Swallow to join him on the faculty at the Berklee College of Music, where Burton had already introduced a number of his students to Swallow’s growing body of work. One of the students, twenty-year old guitarist John Scofield, was quite captivated by Swallow’s compositions; in no time at all after joining Berklee’s staff, Swallow had become Scofield’s mentor and frequent collaborator in a number of musically diverse situations. With both frequently engaged in and out of Burton’s Big Band as well. Swallow soon ended up working regularly with longtime partner and collaborator Carla Bley; over the next couple of decades their outstanding work on ECM would go on to become the stuff of jazz legend. Swallow Tales is a trio date featuring Bill Stewart on drums along with Scofield on electric guitar and Swallow’s electric bass, and consists entirely of classic and a few less-well-known compositions by Steve Swallow; it also represents John Scofield’s first recording on the ECM label as a leader. The entire album was recorded in New York City in a single day in March 2019, but John Scofield recently joked that it required “more than forty years of preparation.” Scofield plays a variety of guitars; he’s equally comfortable with his Fender Strat as with a Gibson ES-175, but his primary axe for the last twenty-plus years has been a 1981 Ibanez AS200, and he alternates between amps from Vox and Mesa Boogie.

The musical dialogue between the three men here offers a remarkably entertaining musical conversation that weaves back and forth and in between the musicians. The album opens with nine-plus minutes of “She Was Young” in waltz time, where Scofield’s guitar maintains a warm and lyrical tone in a rendition that’s totally reminiscent of a vocal presentation of the tune; Steve Swallow, in fact, based it on a poem (by Robert Creeley), and the lyrics to the song were sung in his 1979 version by Sheila Jordan. Bill Stewart’s shimmering brush and cymbal work here totally complement the dulcet tones of Swallow’s custom Citron AE-5 bass. One of the best songs on the entire record is the sprawling “Awful Coffee,” which is a bluesy, Monkish, post-bop number that lopes along with Scofield’s crunching guitar chords; Steve Swallow’s quirky but always tuneful bass line provides perfect counterpoint, while Stewart’s impeccable drumming keeps the tune moving in a constantly swinging groove. “Eiderdown” was Swallow’s very first composition, but it’s been reworked here, giving it a much more uptempo, more swinging rendition; the tune loses none of its glowing melodicism, it’s just offered at a much faster clip, and there’s a midpoint drum break by Bill Stewart that’s perhaps his best work on the entire album. The album stands up well to repeat listenings; while I often found myself focusing on John Scofield’s excellent guitar runs and fills, later I’d be absorbed by Swallow’s mellifluous bass lines, and then again, by Bill Stewart’s solid drumming.

The 24/96 stream from Qobuz sparkled at every point during playback; Steve Swallow’s bass was deep, but not overpowering, and Scofield’s guitar tone offered a perfect mix of melodicism and tasteful distortion. Bill Stewart’s drumming was definitely one of the highlights here; he and Scofield have played together for almost thirty years, and their styles blend effortlessly. Stewart’s brush and cymbal work absolutely shimmers, and his exceptionally creative stickwork behind the kit provides the perfect underpinning to the proceedings. This album is very highly recommended!

ECM Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, TuneIn)

Steve HackettGenesis Revisited Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2020 Remix/Remaster

I have very mixed feelings about former members of high-profile bands strutting it out there decades later, seemingly desperate to try and remain relevant. And I especially despise when various factions within a band try to tour as separate acts under the original band’s name — i.e., “the real band, featuring….” It invariably ends up in a lawsuit, or at the very least, a cease-and-desist order from the party who actually owns the rights to the band name. That’s not what’s going on here, but the Steve Hackett/Genesis Revisited act featured on this remix/remaster initially smacked to me of the very stuff that drives me so crazy — like the current situation with two competing versions of the group Yes still touring.

All that said, I have a great deal of respect for Steve Hackett, especially in the context of the classic lineup of Genesis; the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, of course, and maybe the first couple of albums post-Gabriel. And while anything resembling a reunion of Genesis featuring Peter Gabriel, Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Phil Collins seems exceptionally unlikely, I’d probably find the entire concept of Genesis Revisited a bit more genuine and excitedly embraceable if any of the above parties were involved in addition to Steve Hackett. That’s obviously not the case, but the original 2014 release of Genesis Revisited Live at the Royal Albert Hall featured two CDs plus a DVD or BluRay of the sold-out live event. And I have to admit that, at the time, it barely even registered as a blip on my radar.

Well, someone apparently close to the project has now decided that a remixed/remastered 24-bit version is warranted, so at least the audio tracks have been released on CD and for streaming. When I first saw this available on Qobuz, I didn’t really give it much thought, but then decided to take a bit of a listen — and quite nearly sat through the entire album! Steve Hackett’s involvement with Genesis stretched over a pretty broad swath of albums, so he can rightfully give claim to most of these songs, which cover Genesis’ most fertile period as a band. He either wrote or co-wrote all the songs that appear in this performance, with the exception of “Afterglow,” which was written by Tony Banks, but offers the logical conclusion to the “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers/In That Quiet Earth/Afterglow” medley.

And even though I didn’t recognize virtually any of the names of any of the other players involved, from the first note I was pretty much hooked. With the exception of the singers — who obviously aren’t Peter Gabriel, and on the later tunes, Phil Collins — Hackett’s band gave virtually note-perfect renditions of classic Genesis tunes from every Hackett-era period of the band. When I closed my eyes during “Fifth of Firth,” I could have sworn that Tony Banks was at the keyboards, and when the group launched into sprawling, early-period classics like “The Musical Box” and “Supper’s Ready,” I was simply astonished by how close the performances were to actual period Genesis. These guys must have rehearsed this material for ages to get it this right, and the performances were nearly note-perfect on every song.

I noticed that the 16-bit original release version tracks were also available on Qobuz; I didn’t bother taking a listen, because what I heard with the current 24-bit release was stunningly good. And as much fun as I found simply listening to the music, I’m now pretty curious to take a look around the ‘net and see if I can find any of the original set’s video content. Genesis Revisited Live at the Royal Albert Hall is a very entertaining listen, and is very highly recommended.

InsideOutMusic, 2 CDs (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, TuneIn)

 

Brad MehldauSuite: April 2020

Pianist Brad Mehldau has played on an absolute scad of recordings over his career; his talents at the keyboard are constantly in demand, and he’s played with just about every jazz luminary extant, and also in notable non-jazz settings, with artists as diverse as opera singer Renee Fleming, Willie Nelson, Daniel Lanois, and alternative rock singer Scott Weiland. Two of my favorite jazz records of all time are a pair of trio settings from the mid-nineties on the Blue Note label with saxophonist Lee Konitz and bassist extraordinaire Charlie Haden. Mehldau’s tasteful pianism seems to always enhance any session he’s ever taken part in.

Like most of us during the Coronavirus crisis, Mehldau sheltered in place with his family at home in the Netherlands, and ended up writing the music for this new solo piano album, Suite: April 2020, which offers his personal take on life during the pandemic. The album was recorded using social distancing in an Amsterdam studio, and the main thrust of the recording is the twelve-part “Suite: April 2020,” which offers impressions of the many emotions felt by most of us during the lockdown. Subsections have titles ranging from “Waking Up,” “Stepping Outside,” “Keeping Distance,” “Remembering All Before This,” and “Uncertainty.” Which covers a whole lot of the territory that just about everyone else in the entire world has occupied over the course of the last few months, where we’ve all suffered the mundane, boring existence of sheltering in place, along with plenty of thoughts of how things once were and the uncertainty of the future. It’s not all bad news, however, there’s “In the Kitchen,” which is a really uptempo and uplifting tune that documents the experiences of so many who did any and everything — including some exotic gourmet cooking — to combat the dullness of their daily routines. And also “Family Harmony,” which extolls the joys of actually being able to spend some extended quality time with your family, which has been one of the handful of upsides to the whole pandemic experience.

The album is rounded out with three cover tunes, which offer Mehldau’s optimism for the post-pandemic world. He gives a really emotionally charged reading of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” which is then followed by an equally intense take on Billy Joel’s classic “New York State of Mind.” Closing the album is Jerome Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining,” which offers a ray of hopefulness that somewhere inside all the darkness of the pandemic, there’s got to be a little light at the end of what’s been a really dark tunnel. We can only hope.

All my listening was done with Qobuz’s 24/96 stream, which is really good, with one small caveat; there’s a tiny trace of hiss noticeable when listening at reference levels on my big system. It sounds to me as though it may have been recorded on analog equipment, so the Qobuz stream for me is roughly equivalent to listening to a good LP. Regardless, the recording offers a really good impression of Mehldau’s Steinway sitting right in the middle of your listening room! The album is also being released on a limited edition 180 gram LP, which — while priced at an exorbitant $90 for the album — all the proceeds are being donated to the Jazz Foundation of America COVID-19 Musician’s Emergency Fund. The record pressing plant in the Netherlands pressed the LPs with no costs involved, and most distribution and fulfillment fees are also being waived to assist in helping get as much of the money as possible to those in need.

Bottom line: it’s a great album, with the really great intent of actually trying to help people in need, and god knows right now, musicians are definitely among the needy. Very highly recommended!

Nonesuch Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, TuneIn)

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