Thursday, December 31, 2015

Allison Bencar. First Call.

Allison Bencar. First Call.
Self-released, 2014.  Allison Bencar:

You’d think a librarian would remember that thing about books and covers. I hesitated when I looked at the pictures on the CD from this fresh faced Cleveland-raised, Nashville-based singer. Never having heard her, I thought, “modern hippie, singer-songwriter. Not my thing. Hand her off to another reviewer.” But I decided to give it a listen. Boy was I wrong. I’ve kept the CD. It’s quite remarkable. Bencar is anything but what I conceived her to be. Her frame of reference is different from almost anyone else her age. This is a musician who grew up listening to Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, but sounds like this decade at the same time without falling into contemporary pop cliches. Her voice is a rich and strong alto, her songwriting is seriously sophisticated, and the variety of styles represented here suggests a breadth of talent that demands attention. Country, rock, ballads, pop, and stuff in-between make for a rather heady stew, and her backing band (including Clevelander Rob Muzick, with whom she co-wrote a couple of songs, and co-produced the album) is excellent.

While her influences are listed in her bio on the website, it was pretty easy to guess some of them while listening to the album. The first obvious one is Roy Orbison, in the track “Where Do the Lonely Go,” which seems like more of a tribute than an imitation. I think he would have been happy to sing along with this. “Before I Die” is haunted by Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac in her more bluesy vein, complete with keyboards, and Linda Ronstadt’s sound shows up in “Light It Up,” a song eerily similar to “You’re No Good” (which Bencar covers in a YouTube video). This is not to say she’s derivative. Lots of people are influenced by others (or maybe they wouldn’t have become musicians), and you can hear it in their songs. But nobody yells at the Rolling Stones for having tried to sound like Sonny Boy Williamson.

Other songs by Bencar are quite different, but clearly relate to sounds from other times and places, and that’s a good thing. This is part of her charm, because she sounds like nobody else around now. Her tunes are hook-filled, too country for rock, and too rock for country, which could damn her to the purgatory of Americana. “The Party” is a good example, part country, part cabaret. “Broken Porch” is another, a bit of a country weeper, but with chord changes that sound like indie pop. She starts to really rev up with “Before I Die,” and continues to rock out with “Won’t Be Coming Home,” country rock with a hard kick. The last two songs, “Anywhere with You” and “Who I Am,” have a gentle feel and soft flow that might make the hearts of older gentlemen melt. The band she has assembled is beyond reproach, adding just the right touches when needed, and playing well in any style.

Bencar shouldn’t be surprised to find a wide demographic for her music. I hope she gets some airplay on the radio for her songs. She deserves a huge audience. Her music is familiar but fresh, her voice endlessly listenable, and everything about this album is top notch.

Personnel:  Allison Bencar (vocals), Rob Muzick (guitar, pedal steel), John Senchuk (bass), Corey Hughes (drums), Eric Fritsch (accordion, toy piano). All songs written or co-written by Allison Bencar.
Tracks: First Call, Going Out, Where Do the Lonely Go, Sorry, The Party, Broken Porch, Before I Die, Won’t Be Coming Home, Light it Up, Anywhere with You, Who I Am.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Swap Meet. Trailer Hitch

Swap Meet.  Trailer Hitch.
Self-released, 2015.  Swap Meet:

This six-song EP is a most welcome holiday season debut. The Northeast Ohio Americana / country / gypsy jazz group has been making the local rounds lately, from Wilbert’s in Cleveland, to the Lime Tree in Warren, to the Regency Wine Store in Akron. It’s tough work for folks who have day jobs, but they seem to be managing well. They’re certainly a talented and skilled group with a different sound--multiple guitars, two women vocalists and four-part harmony, percussion delivered via rub board and washboard--with a mix of styles that fit together nicely.

“Gypsy Desire” starts off the album, with a sound reminiscent of an old radio broadcast, Michelle Reyna’s deliberately distorted vocals providing a 1930s nightclub atmosphere, leading to vocals by the others. They quickly switch to country music with a spiritual flavor with “Waters Blue,” with really sweet guitar work here (and that extends to all the other tracks), provided by the combination of Peter Nario-Redmond and Stuart Abrams. “Drunk This Morning Again” takes us in the other direction, with some surprisingly raw lyrics about drinking and sex (I don’t see one of those parental warnings on the CD). A Doobie Brothers riff begins the bluesy “Moon Beams Fall,” with sexy vocals by Kari Rutushin and great guitar solos. Back to country on “A Broken Heart Gets No Relief,” which despite its title, is quite a lot of fun with its great harmony vocals. They finish up with a rouser, “What’s So Good About Being Happy,” where the title refrain is shouted, and makes one wonder about irony. They seems to be having too much of a good time.

In all, a fine batch of songs sung and played with great enthusiasm and comraderie. I enjoyed every track, and recommend the band to anyone who likes Americana music. They’re having a CD release party somewhere in Cleveland Heights on January 12th. Check their Facebook page for updates.

Personnel:  Kari Rutushin (vocals, rub board, flute, ukulele), Michelle Reyna (vocals, washboard), Hoseff Garcia (stand up bass), Stuart Abrams (lead guitar), Walter Genutis (vocals), Peter Nario-Redmond (vocals, guitar). All songs by Peter Nario-Redmond.
Tracks:  Gypsy Desire, Waters Blue, Drunk This Morning Again, Moon Beams Fall, A Broken Heart Gets No Relief, What’s So Good About Being Happy.

[Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a colleague of one of the singers and an employee of the same college. But if I couldn’t be honest about the review I wouldn’t have done it.]

The Grand Wazoo

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rachel Brown & the Beatnik Playboys. Once Again.

Rachel Brown & the Beatnik Playboys. Once Again.
Self-released, 2014.  Rachel Brown:

This album had me confused at first, thinking that Rachel Brown had gone all Charles Ives on us, and was overlaying two songs at the same time. It would sort of make sense, then suddenly not, while she would sing two parts of different songs, then quick rhythms would come in over a slow beat. Very pretty, but dissonant and rather oddly modernist. Then I realized that while I was listening to her CD on my laptop I also had her website up, and it was playing her songs too. Nevermind. Pay no attention to my Saturday morning ravings.

We reviewed her previous album, Just Look My Way (2012) in 2013, so we seem to be right on time (or late as usual) with her 2014 release. Brown has the same band, and the combination of Watson, King, and Huddleston are more than able to keep up with their dynamo lead singer and pianist in the variety of styles she works in. Loosely described as Americana, she works in country, blues, jazz, gospel, and pop, sometimes all at once (although not in the way I described above), and approaches them all with a sense that is both casual and natural, like it’s no big deal, but still maintains the posture of a consummate professional. It’s hard to do both. She wrote all the songs except “Gone is Gone” (Nathan Bell), and “It’s Not Easy,” by bandmate Bill Watson. Thirteen out of fifteen ain’t bad.

The album begins with the title tune, a real cry-in-your-beer country ballad, showing off Brown’s sweet/sad vocals at their finest. “Mama & Daddy” harks back to the style of early Johnny Cash, (and even old folk songs) with Huddleston supplying deliciously ominous guitar. Classic honky-tonk is the style of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with some great piano by Brown, and a fine guitar break by Mr. Huddleston. “It’s Not Easy” takes us in a bit of a swing jazz direction, with Brown sounding a bit like Patsy Cline. A bluesier style appears with “Pretty Damn Damaged,” one of my favorites, and as you can see, we’ve covered a whole batch of styles in only the first half of the album. This versatility extends to the second half, with some Latin phrasings in “Mary Lynd,” a gospel number in “Bittersweet By and By,” a sweet duet with Alex Bevan on “When it Comes to You,” and delightful country/folk with “I Wish You Well,” Two tracks toward the end I found especially enjoyable. “Wind in My Hair” is a real earworm, with a really nice hook, a cool electric guitar break, and some great blues piano. The last track, “Gone is Gone (When You’re Dead),” is a fine driving closer, funny, thoughtful, and a great finish (no pun intended) to a great album.

So, the songs are excellent, the musicianship first class. But what holds the album together in all its variety is Rachel Brown’s riveting voice, strong, rich, and endlessly enjoyable. The band will be playing at the Music Box Supper Club on December 26th, and the Barking Spider in early January, while Ms. Brown will appear with some friends at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula a couple of times. Go listen.

Personnel: Rachel Brown (lead vocals, piano, acoustic guitar), Bill Watson (string bass, electric bass, vocals), Roy King (drums, percussion), Dave Huddleston (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, vocals), Chris Hannah (organ). With special guest, Alex Bevan (vocals, guitar, on “When It Comes to You”).

Tracks: Once Again, Mama & Daddy, Maybe Tomorrow, It’s Not Easy, Jimmy C, Simpler Times, Pretty Damn Damaged, My Best Friend is My Song, Mary Lynd, When it Comes to You, My Namesake, Bittersweet By and By, Wind in My Hair, I Wish You Well, Gone is Gone (When You’re Dead).

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.
El Marko Records, 2014. Mr. Gnome:

This album is a year old, and so has already been reviewed in numerous places, including Consequence of Sound, Cleveland Scene, and even NPR. It made the Rolling Stone College Album charts, CMJ charts, and probably several others. They are now officially cool. The duo have a biography in AllMusic (surely a sign of having made the big time), where they’re described as alternative rock, indie rock, art rock, and sadcore. I’m not sure what these categories mean anymore, but I would describe their music as simultaneously hard and delicate, noisy and lovely, ever-shifting and hypnotic. We reviewed the excellent Madness in Miniature back in 2012, and so forgive me as I try to come up with new and clever things to say about this latest offering.

The band is consistent in both sound and presentation. Madness in Miniature was similar in some respects, but it seems that their musicality is a bit more sophisticated, as is their studio work. Layering is an important quality to their work, with multi-tracking of the vocals a major feature of their work. That is not to say that the music is less present, because it’s upfront in many tracks, and often the swell of guitars overwhelms everything else. They seem to like to alternate longer and shorter tracks, with a couple clocking at 4-5 minutes and others a minute or less. Combined with their tendency to shift rhythms and moods within songs, it’s difficult to tell without watching the time (I’m using a laptop) or reading the lyrics where we are. I like this. It makes for a coherent listening experience despite its pastiche approach that often disorients.

I hear a stylistic differences as well, particularly in the way they are now incorporating more  elements of folk and gospel into the psychedelic swirl. The last track, “The Sea,” is reminiscent of gospel music, and “Odyssey” takes a folky start before the electric guitars come in and add considerable fuel, ending up in a strange mix that suggests the Pogues on acid. “Rise & Shine” has a similar feel. “Follow” is one of my favorite tracks, with the layered vocals giving the song a 60s feel, combined with the anthemic qualities of arena rock, without being retro in the slightest. I also enjoy how it blends right into the next track, “No Place like Home,” as if it were a coda to the first song. This happens elsewhere, also to good effect.

But I’m at the end of the album. Let’s go back to the first track, “Melted Rainbow,” as it sets the tone. Echoing the lyrics, I can’t explain why this song reminds me of early Moody Blues, but there it is. Perhaps it’s the combination of spacey atmospherics and gently layered harmonies. Others will hear other things, and I betray my age and musical references. “Mustangs” has more of a dance feel to it, but specifically 80s dance music. “Star Stealers” is harder rocking, with an almost punk/metal quality to it, although the psychedelic elements are never far away and take over in the bridge (if we can identify it as that). Flamenco sounds build into a curious hard rock piece in “Storm,” which then fades to almost white noise. “Light” is the longest track, and one of the slowest tunes, with interweaving vocals and a drifting, hypnotic atmosphere.

I found this a rich and rewarding album, complex and gorgeous, one best listened to in its entirety, which I believe is what Mr. Gnome had in mind. A concept album in the 2010s?  Unbelievable. They are currently touring the Midwest and West, but will be back in town for a concert at the Beachland Ballroom on December 19th. I can’t wait to hear how they do all this live.

Personnel:  Nicole Barille (vocals, guitar, piano), Sam Meister (drums, piano, vocals), Jonah Meister (guitar on “Star Stealers”). Somebody does a lot of handclapping.
Tracks:  Melted Rainbow, Dark Star, Rise & Shine, Mustangs, Folk Lonely, Star Stealers, Storm, Light, Hangunder, Odyssey, Follow, No Place like Home, The Sea.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Michael Stanley. And Then...

Michael Stanley.  And Then...
Line Level Music, 2015.  Michael Stanley:

Quite some time back, Neil Young suggested that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I guess that could be good advice for some, but it seems that there are alternatives. Michael Stanley has found a third way, one that was followed by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin. In his later years, Franklin was Ambassador to France, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and wrote abolitionist works. Continue what you do, and if it’s good and honest work it will be rewarded and remembered. In recent years, despite more than 40 years in the music business, the Cleveland heartland rocker has produced such a consistently fine material that it reminded me of old Ben. One album after another, from The Hang, to The Ride, to The Job, he’s turned to an autumnal renaissance of excellent music. And Then… continues the annual feast.

The new album is in some sense typical for Stanley, but unusual in the world of popular music of the moment, in not having been written by a stable of Swedish songwriters. No cheap pop here. Stanley wrote most of the songs, with credits for one shared with Marc Lee Shannon and one other borrowed from David Grissom. There’s a lot of variety--anthemic rockers, power ballads, softer ballads, a bit of Americana--but it all fits nicely within his aesthetic and musical sense of the world. Lyrics speak to separation and loneliness, love and loss, hope, and more than one political comment. It feels a bit more uptempo than The Job, but less so than The Ride. Most of the rockers are in the first half of the album, with the more pensive material towards the back, but it’s a good mix.

I’m a fan of uptempo songs so I tend to concentrate on those, but I have to mention “Long Ohio Winter,” a beautiful ballad on a subject many of us relate to, which of course he uses as a metaphor for missing someone he loves. Bob Pelander does some gorgeous piano work here. A couple of the other ballads are heartbreakers too, especially “In Your Kiss,” with Ed Caner on viola in the background. Of the rockers, I particularly enjoyed “Snakes,” and “Don’t Say Nothing,” both of which I interpret as social commentary (although I’ve been know to be wrong). Both have a hard edge that shows off the power of the band. He throws some R&B flavor into the mid-tempo songs where the whole band shines. “All Together Now” is anthemic, with a singalong part that will be a big hit in concert. “Shifting Gears” is one of my favorites, partly because of the vocals (nice trick with the background vocalists finishing the verses), and the prominence of Pelander’s organ work. The odd song out, but not in a bad way, is “Sweet Spot,” which has a country flavor courtesy of Ed Caner’s violin.

The ensemble is strong, nearly a big band except for horns, and the guitar work is great throughout. There are no weak tracks. The only weird thing is the cover, which as you can see is a bit creepy. It was not photoshopped, which is even more creepy, but appropriate for the Halloween season. Fans of Stanley need not be convinced, but if you like solid rock & roll, give this music a try. As for concerts, he’ll be playing Hard Rock Live at Northfield later in December. Get your tickets now, because he always sells out.

Personnel:  Michael Stanley (vocals, guitar, bass), Tommy Dobeck (drums), Bob Pelander (piano, organ), Danny Powers (guitar), Jennifer Lee (vocals), Marc Lee Shannon (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Rodney Psyka (percussion), Ed Caner (violin, viola), Don Dixon (vocals).
Tracks:  All Together Now, Radio Waves, Sound of a Train, Shifting Gears, And Then, Snakes, Sweet Spot, Long Ohio Winter, Hang on to this Heart, Don’t Say Nothing, Good Day for the Blues, In Your Kiss, Circadian Rhythm.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, October 26, 2015

Quire Cleveland. The Land of Harmony

Quire Cleveland. The Land of Harmony: American Choral Gems from the Bay Psalm Book to Amy Beach.  Quire Cleveland, 2014.  
When the Editor asked me to review this CD, I balked a bit. My experience with Quire Cleveland involves, as stated on their website, music from “distant lands and ages past,” and this collection is certainly a different direction for them. However after listening to this album several times, I was captivated. They have brought to life songs that many may have either heard of or have heard and forgotten. This elegant and lovely collection of American songs dating from 1640-1920 begins with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” to which some of us would irreverently say, “ho-hum.” But this is a rousing version sung as it would have been in 1815, with all the verses. Listen closely to the third verse since it is hardly ever heard. While the “Banner” is not my favourite patriotic song (“Het Wilhemus,” the Dutch national anthem, remains in my heart), I found this rendition far exceeded the usual version. Rather than being overly dramatic, Quire Cleveland makes it a very special piece; smooth, flowing, and tuneful.

I won’t mention each selection, but will assure the reader that the variety will not disappoint--sacred songs, love songs, and whimsical pieces abound. Stephen Foster is undoubtedly the most well known composer in this group. As for title recognition, anyone who hasn’t heard “Amazing Grace” has probably never listened to radio or television, as everyone from Garrison Keillor to Arlo Guthrie has sung it. Poetry lovers will recall Robert Burns in “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” while church choir members will remember singing “When Jesus Wep’t,” a haunting choral round. I thought the parlour songs were especially captivating, even though not one of them was familiar to me.

Whether Biblical, patriotic, or parlour, it seems remarkable that one group of musicians can be so versatile. This was recorded in concert in 2014 at Historic St. Peter Church in Cleveland, but I have not heard of a repeat of this repertoire since then. If you want to hear this program, you will have to settle for the CD for now.

Personnel:  Quire Cleveland, Ross W. Duffin, artistic director.
Tracks:  Star-Spangled Banner (1814) (John Stafford Smith, arr. R. Duffin), Psalm 98 (1640) (Thomas Ravenscroft), Psalm 23 (1698)(John Playford), The Lord Descended (1761) (James Lyon), When Jesus Wep’t (1770) (William Billings), The Dying Christian’s Last Farewell (1794) (William Billings), I Am the Rose of Sharon (1778) (William Billings), Down Steers the Bass (1786) (Daniel Reed), Modern Music (1781) (William Billings), O Look to Golgotha (1843) (Lowell Mason), Amazing Grace (1847) (arr. William Walker), Flow Gently, Sweet Afton (1857) (J. E. Spilman, arr. J. S. Warren), Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming (1855) (Stephen Foster), Hymn of Peace (1869) (O. W. Holmes, Matthias Keller), Minuet (1903) (Patty Stair), Through the House Give Glimmering Light (1897) (Amy Beach), So Sweet Is She (1916) (Patty Stair), The Witch (1898) (Edward MacDowell, writing as Edgar Thorn), Don’t Be Weary, Traveler (1920) (R. Nathaniel Dett), Hymn to Music (1877) (Dudley Buck).

Dietlinde Klaas

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Kerry Kean. This Song is for You.

Kerry Kean.  This Song is for You.
Kerry Kean, 2015.  Kerry Kean:

The latest release by this guitarist, singer, and songwriter feels like putting on a pair of old but treasured gloves. It’s comfortable music, friendly, fitting easily over the mind, and most welcoming against the cold.  Kean, raised in southern Ohio, lives in the Kent area, having been the piano technician for Kent State University for many years, and runs a piano service business. Oddly, he doesn’t play one here, but we can forgive him. His guitar work will do just fine. In the past he’s worked in rock, jazz, bluegrass, and just about everything else.

This album features ten songs, seven of which are his, two oldies in the public domain, and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a jazz tune from 1925. “Some Days Are Like That” is a live recording (and a funny one to boot). There’s a lot of variety, ranging from ballads (“Just One Dream”), to chestnuts (“Shady Grove”) to jazzy instrumentals and talking blues. What keeps the whole affair together are the intimate feel of the music and Kean’s sparkling guitar work. He won’t win an award for singing, but one doesn’t need to be Pavarotti to get a song across in folk music, and his soft-spoken tenor works just fine, and has an emotional quality that is very effective.

I have a personal preference for faster and jazzier tunes over ballads, but the slower songs are certainly well done and a pleasure to listen to. “Lose or Win” is one of these, with lovely harmonies by Kathy Camille. I really enjoy his take on “Shady Grove,” with a slightly loping rhythm, and “Sweet Georgia Brown” is, well, sweet. Both display his remarkable guitaristry, especially the latter, and I think he does his best vocals on the former tune. Another instrumental, “Blackberry Blossom,” is also a fine showcase for Kean’s instrumental work. His talking blues song, “Playin the Blues,” is a great story about learning from the masters.

I found this a very enjoyable album, and if you like folk music I expect you will as well. Kean plays around the area quite often, especially the Tasting Room in Wadsworth. Please go see him and enjoy his spectacular playing and good-time feel.

Personnel:  Kerry Kean (guitars, bass, violin, banjo, vocals), Brad Bolton (bass on tracks 6, 7, & 10), Kathy Camille (harmony vocals on track 2), Warren Henry (bass, electric guitar on track 4), Bobby Patetta, harmonica on track 5), Samuel Salsbury, violin on track 5), Mike Stroffolino, banjo on track 3).
Tracks:  Just a Little Crazy for You, Lose or Win, Shady Grove, Sweet Georgia Brown, Just One Dream, Playin the Blues, Blackberry Blossom, Mother Bear, Some Days Are Like That, For You.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, October 5, 2015

Brian Charette Tour

We thought that our devoted readers would like to know that Brian Charette, jazz organ player extraordinaire, will be touring the Midwest, with stops at Blu Jazz in Akron on Wednesday, October 21st, and Nighttown on Thursday, October 22nd.  We've heard him play before, and he's definitely worth hearing.  With him will be Bobby Ferrazza on guitar.  For more information, check out his website:

From Brian's bio:  I'm a Grammy Nominated, Hammond endorsed, Posi-Tone recording artist. I won the "Rising Star" award in Downbeat Magazine last year and have climbed up to #4 in the Downbeat Critic's Poll in the Organ category this year. I just won "Best Organist" in NYC by one of our magazines, Hot House. I also write regularly for Keyboard Magazine, Downbeat, NYC Jazz Record, and a Czech Magazine called Muzikus. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Upcoming Hingetown Hoedown Festival

While we're patiently waiting for more reviews to appear, here is a notice about the upcoming Hingetown Hoedown Festival.  Sounds pretty cool!


For more information, contact: Adam Reifsnyder
2820 Detroit Avenue #404
Cleveland, OH 44113 (513) 207-4371
Grab your boots, friends and family and get ready to stomp at the first annual Hingetown Hoedown!
Cleveland’s first ever folk and bluegrass music festival will be held October 3rd in Ohio City’s Hingetown neighborhood at the intersection of West 29th Street and Detroit Ave.. This event fills a void in Cleveland’s music scene, making it more diverse than ever, and will be complemented by food trucks, vendors, beer and family-friendly activities. Admission is free and open to the public.
Hingetown’s main stage will feature a slew of Ohio’s finest musicians. Among the many scheduled to perform are:
 The folk rock trio Shivering Timbers visiting from their hometown of Akron, where they were voted ‘Best Musician/Band’ by the Akron Empire in 2014.
 Local newgrass band Honeybucket , fresh off their second album release (Stompin’ Grounds) will share with the crowd their modern twist on traditional bluegrass music.
 Hailing from Zanesville, Ohio, The Wayfarers are known for their upbeat performances and are sure to play a high-energy set of traditional American roots music.
 The Gage Brothers straight from Akron, will form a well-rounded mix with their blues inspired folk sound.
In addition to the Hoedown music, there will also be an array of local vendors, food trucks, and craft beer from Great Lakes Brewery. The Hingetown Hoedown also strives to be as environmentally friendly as possible, using sustainable products and practices.
The Hoedown is a family friendly event and welcomes all ages. With this in mind there will be children’s activities such as face painting, sidewalk chalk, and henna tattoos. Also, The Music Settlement’s Bob Stop is generously providing instruments for children to try out, hoping to spark an interest in music and the community.
The day long festival runs from 1:00 PM to 10:00 PM on Saturday, October 3. Hingetown, a division of Ohio City, and one of Cleveland’s coolest up-and-coming neighborhoods is located at the intersection of West 29th Street between Detroit and Clinton Avenues.
To help make this first-year festival a success, and to ensure that it continues future years, donations can be made through Hingetown Hoedown’s Kickstarter campaign.
For more information please visit, Facebook, and Twitter.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Billy Hart Quartet. One is the Other.

Billy Hart Quartet.  One is the Other.
ECM, 2014.  Billy Hart:

I don’t know if his students at Oberlin College call him Billy or Professor Hart, but casual or not, they’d better give him some serious respect. A master of post-bop, but comfortable with nearly any style of jazz, Hart has worked with Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, and Stan Getz to name a few, and been putting out releases of his own since the late 1970s. He has led this particular group since around 2005, the group changing its name to make him the honorary leader, and it’s clear that they are extremely comfortable together. Complex harmonies, intricate rhythms, and remarkable playing are the order of the day. Recorded in 2013, it is the second release of the group on ECM, and fits nicely within the overall vibe of the label--contemporary, deep, cerebral, singular in vision, and sometimes out on the edge of jazz.

First of all, this is a highly cooperative venture. Hart may be the leader, but three of the four members contributed compositions, and Hart never hogs the spotlight. If anything, he gives a great deal of time to Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson, who, at first listen seem to dominate the recording. However, upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Hart has his finger on everything from the first track.  He and bassist Ben Street are like the bedrock on the tree-covered mountain. You might spend a great deal of time looking at the pretty trees, but there’s a reason the landscape is shaped the way it is. Of course, Turner’s tenor sax and Iverson’s piano are out front with a combination of sweet and tart that provides both a yearning quality and a warm, inviting sound. The first two songs on the album show the strengths of all of the musicians. “Lennie Groove” showcases Iverson’s piano, then Turner’s gorgeous sax, but Street holds the rhythm down while Hart adds to the melody and makes the tune an amazing workout.  Hart’s contributions become more evident as time goes on, with “Theule’s Redemption,” where he solos extensively and maintains a high presence throughout with an insistent rhythm aided by Street and Iverson. “Amethyst” and “Yard” continue to expose more of this work, along with the wonderful interplay among the musicians.

One of the best aspects of this album is the ability to hear everything--every note, every beat, crystal clear. I attributed this to both the fine ECM recording sound but also to the spacious playing. There’s no mud here. My favorite tune may be “Sonnet for Stevie,” written by Turner, a lovely piece where you can hear everyone contribute out front, and it brings some blues along with it. “Big Tree” reminds me of the old Gillespie tune, “Salt Peanuts,” with its jumpy melody and rhythm changes. Hart is strong throughout, and the others get to go a little wild. My only disappointment is “Some Enchanted Evening,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, which I have frankly never cared for in any manifestation. Others may find it a charming piece.

The rest of the album displays a masterful, quiet intensity that is delightful in so many ways, and an easy place to get lost in. I look forward to hearing more from these fine gentlemen, as well as checking into more of their back catalog.

Personnel:  Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Ethan Iverson (piano), Ben Street (double bass), Billy Hart (drums).
Tracks:  Lennie Groove, Maraschino, Teule’s Redemption, Amethyst, Yard, Sonnet for Stevie, Some Enchanted Evening, Big Trees.

Jeff Wanser

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Total Babes. Heydays.

Total Babes.  Heydays.
Wichita Recording, 2015.  Total Babes:

Dance to this.  Shake your rear. Bop your head. At least keep time with your foot or hand, or other appendage if you can’t otherwise move. Do something for this extra fine band and their new EP. Well, maybe it’s an EP.  Eight tracks isn’t a full album unless they’re all like, seven minutes long, and nothing clocks over five minutes here. It doesn’t matter because the music is really great, except that there should be more of it.

Total Babes was started by Christopher Brown and Jayson Gerycz in Medina back in 2010, apparently as a side project that has a life of its own. And after all, somebody has to start bands in Medina. Brown was (is?) in Swindella, Gerycz is the drummer for Cloud Nothings (which Baldi fronts), Nathan Ward is from Smooth Brain, and John Elliott was in Emeralds. Wow, talk about cross-pollination. The music is power pop/punk with synthesizers and jangly guitars and distortion, or something like that, with hints (are we wine-tasting?) of Emeralds, Cloud Nothings, R.E.M., and probably other stuff if you listen hard enough. Nearly everything is high energy and fun, with speeds ranging from pretty fast to breakneck. Harmonies hit just the right spots (who’s singing harmony?) for garage rock (check “Circling” and “Repeat Gold”). The guitar is cool, the drums dominate (no surprise), and it all comes together. I like the fact that almost nothing here is a love song. Thank you! “Sunny Side” is a piano track, sort of like Jefferson Airplane doing “Embryonic Journey,” but sounding nothing like it. “Repeat Gold” is as close to a ballad as it gets, and it’s a catchy tune with a nice vibe.

Since I have the advantage of seeing other people’s reviews of the album (Metacritic shows eight), I can critique those too. Sorry, Consequence of Sound, but this rates higher than a C+, and isn’t just Cloud Nothings lite. DIY and the 405 are closer to my opinion, and therefore entirely reasonable. We just missed their concert at the Happy Dog, but they’ll probably pop up somewhere. In the meantime, groove to this.

Personnel:  Christopher Brown (guitar, vocals, bass, piano), Jayson Gerycz (drums), Nathan Ward (bass (sometimes), John Elliott (synthesizers), Dylan Baldi (saxophone on track 4, and maybe some vocals).
Tracks:  Blurred Time, Heydays, Bone Dry Eyes, Circling, We’ll Come Around, Sunny Side, Repeat Gold, Can I Turn You On.

Ron Yoyek

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Vinyl Note

While we await somebody or other to come up with a new review, here's a link to a really great article on the FreshWater Cleveland site about the popularity of vinyl in Cleveland and the unique density of record stores. Go vinyl!

We'll be posting soon, I hope!


Friday, July 31, 2015

Ray Anthony. Young Ideas/Moments Together.

Ray Anthony and His Orchestra.  Young Ideas/Moments Together.
Phono, 2014  (Originally released 1957).  Ray Anthony:

You have probably heard Ray Anthony’s music without realizing it.  He made top-selling recordings of “The Bunny Hop” and the “Hokey Pokey” in the early 1950s that are still played at weddings. He had other big hits with TV show themes from the period, including Dragnet and Peter Gunn. His influence is wide-ranging in both television and movies. Anthony, born Raymond Antonini in Bentleyville, PA in 1922, moved with his family to Cleveland and there he took up the trumpet, starting his own band as a teenager. He joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra by the age of 18, then did a later stint with Jimmy Dorsey, as well as having a Navy band during World War II. After the war he signed with Capitol Records, and eased into a long career of touring and recording, intermixed with television and film work. If you’ve read this far, you may want to know that Anthony is still alive and working, at the age of 93.  He and his orchestra have released 126 albums.  Beat that.

For those of us who are of the boomer generation, easy listening music (as it has been characterized since the 1950s) is anathema. The movie Good Morning Vietnam’s verbal exchanges between the disc jockeys over what music to play were real, about massive shifts in aesthetic taste between those who lived through World War II and those who came after. Growing up, most of my friends despised all music that came before rock, but I had a few differences with them. Secret differences. I was exposed to easy listening through my parents, through the radio stations they listened to, the albums my mother owned (or borrowed from my Aunt Emily). I found the style interesting, sometimes enjoyable, and just one more genre that was worth pursuing in some measure, depending on my mood and inclination. The category itself is a construction (like all others) that includes non-jazz/non-classical orchestral music, some pop vocalists, and a range of other artists who were popular sellers in album format in the 1950s-1970s but didn’t fit other categories. Ray Anthony has come to fall into that category by default, being a bit too sweet to be considered big band jazz (although he has his moments).

This recent import combines two albums, both released in 1957, that show two sides to Anthony and his orchestra.  Young Ideas is all instrumental, a collection of standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and others, all played in a style that Glenn Miller would have found perfectly suitable. The album title is odd, considering that it’s all middle of the road big band material, at the sweet but classy end. No novelty tunes, no long solos, and no jive. Anthony displays his strong trumpet playing and the arrangements are tasteful, never gaudy. Four cellos are included for a more mellow sound than a big band is commonly known for. I could listen to this for hours.  

The second album, Moments Together, removes the cellos and replaces them with the Ray Anthony Chorus, a cloying group of vocalists who sing partial lyrics, echo refrains, punctuate stanzas, run overtop of the melody, and make themselves a general nuisance. I wish he had kept the cellos. This style of vocalizing was popular for a period in the 1950s, but went out of style fairly quickly. Percy Faith and a few other easy listening stalwarts used it as late as the 1960s. Here it sounds dated, limiting to the music. The band performs a dozen more standards, Rodgers, Gershwin, and others, none of whom need the “woo--woo” and “ah--ah” of the Chorus for improvement. Now, in a different context of the same period, doo-wop, background vocals were vital to the style, often the most important part in simplistic music with few chords, insipid lyrics, and little instrumentation. Here it seems like syrup poured over ice cream. Too sweet by far.

Thus, Phono Records, a European label, has given us a mixed bag, and one that will not fully appeal to all. You can tell which half of the album I prefer, and you can decide for yourself if you like the vocal stylings of the Ray Anthony Chorus. As for Anthony himself, he should keep doing what he’s doing, since it seems to be working for him.

Personnel:  Ray Anthony (trumpet, bandleader), with orchestra, the Ray Anthony Chorus, and unnamed cellists.
Tracks:  Young Ideas: Moonglow, Why Do I Love You?, I Love You, Nice Work if You Can Get It, Lonely Night in Paris, Button Up Your Overcoat, You Turned the Tables on Me, Just One of Those Things, That Old Feeling, Coquette, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, Young Ideas.  Moments Together:  Love is Here to Stay, Careless, Everything I Have is Yours, Many Faces, Goodnight Waltz, No Other Love, Please Mr. Sun, The Things I Love, With You in Mind, Oh! What It Seemed to Be, In Time, If I Ever Love Again, Cello-Phane*, The Lonely Trumpet*.

Jeff Wanser