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    Ears New York

    BRIAN WILSON, SONGWRITER

    In 1999, when Brian Wilson toured without the Beach Boys for the first time and made his celebrated "comeback" from years of reclusiveness and stage fright, he opened his New York show at the Beacon Theater with "The Little Girl I Once Knew." An interesting choice, I thought, at the time. "The Little Girl..." is well known among Beach Boy enthusiasts; less so, among pop main-streamers. It is an unusually crafted song and record, distinguished by timely silences not favorable to mid-'60s radio programmers mandated to fill precious seconds with winning content. Here, on this special night, Wilson chose to re-launch himself with a song less connected to his reputation as hit-maker than songwriting craftsman.

    Jeff Levenson at the Barcelona Jazz Festival

    A first-time visitor to Barcelona experiences a city bathed in beauty, a shimmering jewel framed by the Mediterranean and Montserrat, the famous jagged mountain in Catalan. It is a city that massages the senses. Its fulsome architecture is matched by graceful gastronomy gleaned from the earth and the sea - regional signatures extolling tradition and innovation. In and around Barcelona, the palm prints of man compete with those of nature.

    Ears New York

    GEORGE BENSON

    Guitar Man

    (Concord)

    After a recording hiatus lasting two years, George Benson has issued Guitar Man,his third project for Concord Records. It is an oddly relaxed date (by all accounts featuring minimal rehearsal, and first- or second-take captures), yet distinguished by Benson's peerless authority. Few musicians command their moment as does Benson.
    But while the 12-tune offering offers a window into Benson's considerable talents as singer and instrumentalist, its main liability might be the casual nature of the recording. It features material drawn from the worlds of pop, jazz, and r&b loosely drawn and assembled with the stated intent of creating a live experience feel. The production strategy, however,  delivers unintended results - the tracks feel thrown together with an approach that conveys haste rather than spontaneity.
    Still, it is hard to find fault with a master whose clinical dissections of "Tenderly" and "Danny Boy" - solo reads rendered in a contrapuntal chord-melody style - showcase an indisputable level of greatness. Few guitarists could toss these off so effortlessly. A similar problem dogs the tracks featuring Benson's singing. While he flexes in the folds of his signature vocals ("My One And Only Love" and "My Cherie Amour" are excellent examples), one senses he can do this stuff in his sleep. The chops are there, the passion and conviction less so.
    Even with a strong track like "Paper Moon" - aided  by stalwart accompanists Joe Sample and Harvey Mason, joined by recent Monk Competition winner Ben Williams - Guitar Man fails to showcase fully the baddest string-slinger we've got. Instead, it catches him polishing his ax, assuming we’ll be blinded by the brilliance.

    BILL FRISELL

    All We Are Saying

    (Savoy Jazz)

    Recent media coverage of Living In A Material World, Martin Scorsese's biopic on George Harrison, piqued my interest in Brill Frisell's new album, All We Are Saying, the guitarist's homage to John Lennon and the Beatles. Frisell, we know, is a cross-genre specialist. He cares little for the labels or categories attached to his work. Instead, he freely melds his influences - staunchly American elements drawn from jazz, rock and country - into a singular style that he alone owns. He is an easy mark in a blindfold test.
    As a youth, by Frisell’s own accounts, the songs of the Beatles weighed heavily on his musical development. Here he hews close to the iconic records covering all stage of Lennon’s career, eschewing any urge to reinvent through abstraction, preferring instead to capture and distill the material's structural essence. It's a fooler: at first blush, it appears Frisell is handling with care, gingerly tip-toeing around sacred terrain. Further scrutiny reveals that he is exploring the song forms and familiar recorded arrangements with painterly dispatch, tracing their contours but then filling out his canvas with understated, signature distinction.
    The sound he creates on All We Are Saying is unique to his bands, a form of Americana equally at ease with popular musics of all stripes - from Burt Bacharach to Burl Ives, John Coltrane to John Lennon. Much of the credit belongs to his cast: violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Tony Scherr, fellow guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Kenny Wolleson.
    As if to underscore Lennon’s own musical inspirations - the muses in his life - the best tracks on All We Are Saying include “Julia,” “Mother,” and “Woman.” They are poignant songs, painful and sweet. Frisell gets it, bows and plays his guitar. The renditions speak well for all.

     

     

    altJeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

    VOICE

    This Time on EARS NEW YORK, Jeff reviews Eliane Elias' current record "Light My Fire" and Hiromi's "Voice"

    altHIROMI
    Voice
    Telarc

    At times Hiromi’s talent takes on a larger-than-life visage and she becomes her own Lichtenstein canvas – newsprint dots, comic strip thought bubbles, oversized everything. Even her music flirts with the urgency instilled in those pop art wonderworks ("I DON'T CARE! I'D RATHER SINK THAN CALL BRAD FOR HELP!")

    This is not meant to marginalize Hiromi, but to underscore the fact that she breathes rarified air. Among jazz pianists she bursts with bigness.

    On Voice Hiromi returns to a trio format with crankshaft musicians Anthony Jackson (bass) and Simon Phillips (drums) who enable her stunning play. Spanning nine tracks - each one a keeper - Hiromi sashays from ethereal to complex, seamlessly controlling dynamcs and mood, building on keyboard motifs and group exchanges that place her on a sliding scale between merely engaging and riveting.

    Singling out tracks here might be construed a fool’s game, though my favorites include “Temptation,” “Labyrinth,” “Now or Never,” and “Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8.”

    At her most daunting Hiromi channels pianists as diverse as Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Jerry Lee Lewis and Glenn Gould - iconoclasts with clarity, focus and the chops to enact all. She’s that good.

    As a result she stands at the crossroads of Art, Entertainment, Show Business and Talent. Is she ready for Cirque du Soleil? Hanging from a trapeze, a Steinway clenched between her teeth, spinning, hypnotic, the greatest aerobatic pianist on earth?

    Probably not yet. But stay tuned. In the meantime, there’s Voice.

    altELIANE ELIAS
    Light My Fire
    Concord Picante

    Drawing from a deep well of composers - Paul Desmond, Stevie Wonder, Dorival Caymmi and Jim Morrison, among them - Brazilian pianist and singer Eliane Elias has crafted a winning tableau, an afterhours excursion, moody and lyrical. Light My Fire is an amber-hued record revealing Elias's penchant for simple arrangements and affecting vocals. Not unlike Karrin Allyson's Round Midnight, detailed in last month's Ears New York, Elias conveys authority through close micing. She shapes the contours of her songs with a firm hand. Her's is a breathy style - cool, understated, intimate - delivered with the effortless air of a balloon tracing a tradewind.

    Aided by Oscar Castro-Neves, Giberto Gil, and Randy Brecker, she showcases a knowing touch on the keyboard, using economically drawn lines to punctuate and embellish heartfelt narratives. This sensuous coupling of voice and keys - elements smartly complementary - signals Elias's arrival as a record-maker with a vision, her talents finally interlocking with puzzle precision.

    Standout tracks include "Take Five," imaginatively deconstructed to create a tropical travelog; her own "Made In Moonlight," crafted with jazzy concision; and the title track, which adds a bed of smoldering embers to the Door’s anthem of AOR radio.

    Elias’s career spans 20-plus recordings. Light My Fire, a warm-glow treatise on sensuous expression, might be her most artful effort to date.

    altJeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

    SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

    This Time on EARS NEW YORK, Jeff reviews Pat Metheny's current record 'What's It All About' and Karrin Allyson's 'Round Midnight'

     

    PAT METHENY
    What’s It All About
    Nonesuch

    With What's It All About (a title owing to the fertile minds of Burt Bacharach and Hal David), Pat Metheny lays bare the evidence for a compelling discussion: Is he the most thoughtful jazz guitarist of our generation? Could very well be.

    Best heard as a companion record to One Quiet Night, Metheny's 2003 collection of solo acoustic meditations, What's It All About traverses similar stylistic territory, though it delivers more.

    Relying heavily on a baritone guitar, distinctively tuned, he shuns original compositions for this record - a first in his career. Rather, he expands and reimagines the definition of the jazz songbook by examining tunes drawn from the AM/FM radio of his youth. (He's 56.)

    The result fortifies or emboldens tunes originating with the baby boomers who emerged at the close of World War II, the creators and consumers of culture whose influence on popular music was massive. These songs mean much to Metheny, quite obviously - "The Sounds of Silence," "Pipeline, "Betcha By Golly, Wow," "Rainy Days and Monday," "Cherish," "Alfie" (whose opening lyric titles this record).

    In sum we’re treated to strong melodies and rich harmonies - refracted, molded, newly invented. This most thoughtful guitarist caresses all, sharing his intimate miniatures.

    What's It All About is the question. It is also the music of life and breath, the sound of Pat Metheny’s gorgeous quest for answers.

    KARRIN ALLYSON
    ‘Round Midnight
    Concord

    Drawing from a similarly quiet place, Karrin Allyson’s latest is a soulful offering boasting echoes of vulnerability. ‘Round Midnight is a production decidely spare and unadorned. It is the musical equivalent of “Nighthawks,” Edward Hopper’s timeless canvas depicting diners lost in their own thoughts.

    Over a span of 11 tunes, Allyson paints her own picture, applying a moody wash to works by Steven Sondheim (“Send In The Clowns”), Bill Evans (“Turn Out The Stars”), Duke Ellington (“Sophisticated Lady”), Paul Simon (“April Come She Will”) and Thelonious Monk (the title track).

    It is a dreamy and romantic survey, meticulously crafted. Allyson’s individual essays are threaded by a haunting air of longing, detailed and nuanced by her vocal shadings and piano play.

    This may be key to the album’s overall feel – Allyson’s acoustic and electric keyboards, which she handles exclusively. As a result she actuates the subtle shifting of moods smartly - waxing bittersweet or sensuous, plaintive or etheral. Her piano accompaniment unifies all. It is a controlled performance, assisted by guitarist Rod Fleeman, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, harmonicat Randy Weinstein, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Matt Wilson.

    Is Karrin Allyson world-weary, a somber observor commenting on life and love? Perhaps so, but viewed otherwise she is experienced and knowing, deliberate and brave, a most accomplished jazz singer. “Round Midnight is a vocal record distinguished by its own design and execution. As she confesses in song, Allyson is “always chasing rainbows.” This disc is the pot of gold.

     

    Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

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