Jazz CDs bring the action of good music to your home

There's plenty of good jazz to listen to while in lockdown.

A musician plays a trombone during the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana April 25, 2014. (photo credit: JONATHAN BACHMAN/REUTERS)
A musician plays a trombone during the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana April 25, 2014.
Songs You Like A Lot
(Flexatonic Records Flex 001)
Back at the tail end of 2019, I caught drummer John Hollenbeck weaving his magic in the Strenge Krammer intimate performance space at the famed Porgy & Bess jazz club in Vienna. It was one of those gigs when you come away with a warm tingling feeling, that you’ve just witnessed something special.
That night, Hollenbeck was a powerhouse of creativity, at once dynamic, lyrical and inventive behind his drum set, powering and seducing the other four like-minded members of the Claudia Quintet onto ever higher plains of improvisational chemistry.
So, when a new Hollenbeck record comes out, one may be forgiven for expecting more of the adventurous jazzy same. Then again, Songs You Like A Lot is the final chapter of a trilogy with a very different mindset. And, while the drummer has his firm seasoned hands on the sonic tiller, he is the artistic directorial guiding light behind the three-parter rather than anchoring the instrumental end result.
In addition to his silky percussive skills, Hollenbeck proves to be a dab hand as an arranger too. That is demonstrated amply across all eight tracks on Songs You Like A Lot which features Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry on vocals and Gary Versace on various keyboards, with contributions by a motley crew of other instrumentalists, and heftily underpinned by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.
As the titles of all 3 discs infer – parts one and two of the trilogy are called Songs I Like A Lot and Songs We Like A Lot respectively – the majority of the cuts feed off tried, tested and generally beloved numbers more readily associated with the pop and rock worlds. This record has Joni Mitchell’s signature Blue, James Taylor’s equally iconic Fire and Rain, Peter Gabriel’s hit Don’t Give Up from 1986 and God Only Knows put out by The Beach Boys in 1966 on the familiarity roster.
Hollenbeck clearly let his hair down on this outing, as he did on the previous two. His arrangements are sumptuous, occasionally left field, but almost always fundamentally melodic and enticing. Refashioning well-known material can, of course, be something of a double-edged sword, and you have to be careful how far you bend the rules.
Some arrangements work well and add dimensions to the original material that the average music fan would probably not have envisaged, while others are a little more abstruse. The avant-garde leaning intro to Blue sounds a little overly detached from Mitchell’s original emotive intent, while the Bee Gees’ hugely successful 1977 pop ballad How Deep Is Your Love? gets a serious makeover as the theme meanders through densely orchestrated strata underscoring the suitably celestial vocals. There is also some bluesy-jazzy and funky intent in there too.
In short, Songs You Like A Lot may not be one for the jazz purist, or for out-and-out pop music fans, but there is plenty of action there to dip into and flow with, throughout.
Data Lords
Those of us looking to renew and/or rejuvenate our relationship with Mother Nature, in the wake of this ongoing pandemic mess, could do a lot worse than to lend an ear to the latest release by fêted composer-bandleader Maria Schneider, Data Lords, which, like all her output for the last decade and a half or so, has come out on the ArtistShare label. The venture was established by Schneider to help preserve and advocate artists’ rights to their own work, and try to ensure they get a fair crack of the revenue-generating whip.
Data Lords follows an oxymoronic ethos that is patently imparted by the contrasting base styles of each disc, and by the visual artwork, which is simply gorgeous.
The epithet soundscape generally springs to mind in the context of her work. And this double album has plenty of expansive sonic panoplies and departures peppered with some captivating individual instrumental lines. This really is a veritable opus, and with plenty of spiritual, emotional and intellectual intent.
The first disc is called The Digital World, and serves Schneider as a means of expressing her distaste for the ever-invasive effects of an estranged virtual existence. We are, accordingly, treated to dense, cascading, spatial effusions of sound that at once jar and charm. This is certainly not armchair listening, but it is compelling stuff.
The evocative ambiance is maintained into the second disc, One Natural World, and the mood lifts appreciably in the opening track, Sanzenin, named after a Buddhist temple near Kyoto in Japan which has a millennium-old garden. The bandleader goes on to note that, when visiting a nearby temple’s 700-year-old grounds, she found herself “smiling amidst playful gardens that appeal to the child inside of anyone.”
That delightful sentiment is deftly conveyed by Gary Versace on accordion – better known for his piano and organ work – supported by murmuring underpinning from the rest of the gang, particularly the velvety wind instrument players.
The joy Schneider clearly experiences when she connects with the natural elements around her comes across, palpably, in practically every note and phrase across the second CD. And the lighter exultant mood continues on into the insouciant sounding Stone Song, with Steve Wilson on soprano sax.
The ensemble captain spells it all out in describing the personal backdrop to the number, renowned potter Jack Troy’s wood-fired creations, one of which inspired Stone Song. She says that her orchestra members, like Troy, “are risk-takers, willing to dive wholeheartedly into such a whimsical idea.” That just about sums up the whole explorative project.
Budapest Concert
It seems that Keith Jarrett has always been with us. That surely applies to the wealth of jazz pianists who have, wittingly or otherwise, gained inspiration from the whimsical genius. That, and much more, comes across in the latest release by an artist who long ago achieved iconic status, Budapest Concert.
You can detect the influence of Jarrett’s touch, harmonics and lyricism in many a pianist who has come through the jazzy ranks over the past half-century or so, but the man himself has generally occupied a higher plane of devil-may-care adventurousness all his own.
The temporal curtain-dropping implication references the recent sad announcement that Jarrett suffered a second stroke in 2018, that left him unable to walk and without the use of his left hand. The concert in the Hungarian capital was recorded two years earlier, just days after his previous release on ECM, Munich 2016, which came out in 2019.
The opening track finds Jarrett in his characteristic meandering, undulating mood and, as to be expected, there is plenty more where that came from elsewhere on the record. But it is not all jagged edges and suddenly angled departures. “Part VII,” for example, is a far more mellifluous and accessible effort, awash with sequined chords and lush harmonics.
By Jarrett’s stratospheric left-field standards – that borders on the commercial – and that “populist” mindset reappears with Blues, a sort of rock and roll number which, while it serves to demonstrate Jarrett’s chops, is not entirely convincing. Honeyed lyricism remerges in Answer Me, which has been recorded numerous times over the years by the likes of Nat King Cole, Petula Clark, Bing Crosby and Bryan Ferry. Jarrett’s reading veers, surprisingly, towards the saccharin, but his peerless touch on the keys always comes through loud and clear.
Playing solo is the most demanding of formats, especially when, basically, you have little or no conscious idea of what you are actually going to produce, from your instrument ahead of time. There is nowhere to hide if you suddenly run out of creative juices, but there are few, if any, artists who produced such glittering gems from the ultimate risk-taking setting as Jarrett.
Whether or not Budapest Concert ranks among Jarrett’s finest live solo outings is debatable – many would point to his legendary mid-seventies effort Köln Concert, and Munich 2016 might be in the running – but there is no doubting his mastery of dynamics, color, texture and spontaneous inventiveness in this darkly-spirited 14-cut offering.
No doubt, if Jarrett’s physical condition does spell the end of his stellar singular live and studio career, we will be treated to more releases from his bulging back catalog in the years to come.