Sunday, November 17, 2019

John Basile: “Silent Night” (2019) CD Review

It’s that time of year again, when department stores assault us with Santa displays, tinsel and “Jingle Bells,” when we must be cheerful or suffer the wrath of the mysteriously appointed holiday angels. It is enough to drive even the sanest of us into fits of rage and despair. But in the middle of the maelstrom, there is some peace to be found. Of the fourteen million new Christmas albums released each holiday season, some are actually quite good. Jazz guitarist John Basile’s new release, Silent Night, can be counted among them. Most of the songs that he chooses to cover are traditional fare, but he delivers good instrumental renditions. And he kindly avoids “Jingle Bells.” He also includes one original tune on this album. It is a solo album, with John Basile not only playing guitar, but also using MIDI guitar technology to fill out the sound. He also did all the arrangements.

The album opens with an interesting version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the pace just a bit faster than you might be used to. Still, it has a pleasant and fairly mellow vibe, and features some nice guitar playing, particularly when he departs from the regular line of the song. That’s followed by “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” It’s an instrumental version, so it won’t offend those idiots who want to change the song’s lyrics (yes, I’m talking to you, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson, you nincompoops). This version features a pretty introduction before getting into the body of the song. The vocal lines are performed by two guitars speaking to each other in duet. It’s an enjoyable rendition.

We then get the album’s sole original number, “Lulladay,” which eases in, and has a peaceful and somewhat mystic vibe, setting a certain mood. It also features some of my favorite guitar work of the album. John Basile follows that with “Silver Bells,” a song written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. This one moves at a fairly quick clip, and features a rhythm that is unusual for this song. “Silver Bells” is certainly one of the better Christmas songs, and I like this bright and joyous rendition. John Basile also gives us an unusual and pretty version of “Silent Night,” another track that establishes and explores a certain mood. That’s followed by “Toyland,” a song composed by Victor Herbert for the musical Babes In Toyland. John Basile delivers it with a different rhythm than is normally present.

“O Tannenbaum” (here presented as “Oh Tannenbaum”) is another of my favorites. This is a holiday song that I have mostly enjoyed over the years, and this version has a cheerful vibe, the guitar keeping things bright and clear. “What Child Is This?” follows. I’m always tickled when an artist delivers an instrumental rendition of this song and calls it “What Child Is This?” After all, the music is “Greensleeves.” “What Child Is This?” is a hymn set to the music of that song, and so any instrumental version is simply “Greensleeves.” But no matter. I’ve always loved this music, and this rendition is quite good. That’s followed by a more recent piece, “A Child Is Born,” composed by Thad Jones. This track has a pretty sound, with the guitar work at times uplifting.

I’ve said it before, but A Charlie Brown Christmas is absolutely the best television holiday special, and a large part of its appeal is Vince Guaraldi’s music. On this album, John Basile covers “Christmas Time Is Here,” delivering a rendition that has a happier sound than the original. It should fill you with warmth and good cheer and optimism. That’s followed by a really good version of “The First Noel,” which is at its best when it strays from the song’s usual line. The album concludes with “Auld Lang Syne,” because a new year closely follows Christmas. Let’s hope this will be a good year, full of joy and compassion and intelligence.

CD Track List
  1. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  2. Baby It’s Cold Outside
  3. Lulladay
  4. Silver Bells
  5. Silent Night
  6. Toyland
  7. Oh Tannenbaum
  8. What Child Is This?
  9. A Child Is Born
  10. Christmas Time Is Here
  11. The First Noel
  12. Auld Lang Syne
Silent Night was released on October 1, 2019.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Wayne Alpern: “Skeleton” (2019/2020) CD Review

Wayne Alpern is a composer and arranger based in New York. His new release, Skeleton, finds him mostly arranging the material of other composers, including some well-known and beloved pieces such as “Take Five,” “Blue Moon” and “If I Only Had A Brain,” and mixing in more modern tunes too. In fact, there is only one original composition on this disc, which also happens to be one of the best tracks. The group assembled for this album includes Noah Bless, Mike Boschen, Michael Davis, Nick Grinder, Jason Jackson, Matt McDonald and James Rogers on trombone; Sam Hoyt and David Smith on trumpet and flugelhorn; Billy Test on piano; Evan Gregor on bass; and Josh Bailey on drums.

The CD opens with a cover of “Domino,” a song by Jessie J. When the track begins, there is the noise of a crowd, and it seems like a live album, but that background noise soon dies away as the song gets going. This tune is a fun combination of jazz and disco, music to get your toes tapping and your body swaying. I love the way the horns fly over that strong disco bass line, particularly that section in the second half of the track. I hadn’t heard Jessie J’s original rendition before, but I have now, and I certainly prefer this version by Wayne Alpern. Toward the end, we hear the crowd again, which feels odd. That’s followed by a good version of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” which is basically all horns. It has a cool, loose, almost improvised vibe, which gives it a fun feel. There is some nice, unobtrusive drum work below the horns.

The first jazz album I ever owned was The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, which features that fantastic recording of “Take Five.” It’s probably impossible to beat Dave Brubeck on that tune, but Wayne Alpern’s arrangement here is excellent. The horns have most of the power in this version, driving things upward and outward at times, and there is also plenty of great work on drums. Something I’ve always loved about this tune is that intriguing beat, the room the drummer has to get a bit creative, and Josh Bailey delivers some wonderful stuff here. That’s followed by a completely delightful and unusual take on “Blue Moon.” It feels almost like a totally vocal rendition, except that the voices are horns. Seriously, it’s like an arrangement for an a cappella group. There are even finger snaps at times. I love this.

This group of musicians then delivers a seriously fun and groovy version of “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a tune written by Joe Zawinul and originally recorded by Cannonball Adderley. I really like this version. Everyone is grooving here, but it is Billy Test’s work on piano that really makes this rendition something special. It has a different ending than usual, surprisingly concluding with drums. Things take a romantic turn with a nice rendition of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.” Ah yes, this is how I felt when I met the love of my life. I thought I had known love, but it was nothing like this. Things were different, and still are now, ten years later. I’m still in “this helpless haze.” I particularly like the bass on this track. There is also a whimsical character to some of the work of the horns, which I enjoy.

We then get the album’s one original track, and it is an absolute delight. Titled “Blue Bones,” it immediately sets itself apart with its sense of humor and its style. There is something theatrical about it, like it should back a routine by some beloved comedian of a bygone time, or should be featured in a period film. This is one of my personal favorites on this album. It is followed by “Happy,” a song written by Pharrell Williams, and one I was not previously familiar with. Apparently, it was featured in a children’s animated movie. It has a rather cheerful rhythm and vibe, appropriate for its title, and includes a brief bass solo. Wayne Alpern chooses to follow that modern song with Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” a playful choice, as it begins with the line “I am not such a clever one about the latest fads.” I really like this rendition, its pacing, the way it progresses, and its energy. It has a sudden ending.

Wayne Alpern delivers a sweet and light and cheerful rendition of “At Last.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this song approached quite like this before, but it works surprisingly well. It has a rhythm that will likely have you smiling before long, and then the horns at times blast over that. This is a completely enjoyable rendition. “Life is like a song,” indeed! That is followed by another fun track, a goofy and playful take on “If I Only Had A Brain.” What a pleasure it is to listen to this rendition. The disc then takes another unexpected turn, toward the classical, with a track titled “Handle With Care,” music by George Frideric Handel. “I.G.Y.” is a song from Donald Fagen’s first solo album, released in 1982 (following the breakup of Steely Dan). This rendition has something of a reggae rhythm. The album then closes with a sweet rendition of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” featuring the horn section.

CD Track List
  1. Domino
  2. Anthropology
  3. Take Five
  4. Blue Moon
  5. Mercy Mercy Mercy
  6. I’ve Never Been In Love Before
  7. Blue Bones
  8. Happy
  9. I’m Old Fashioned
  10. At Last
  11. If I Only Had A Brain
  12. Handle With Care
  13. I.G.Y.
  14. Joy Spring
Skeleton is scheduled to be released on CD on January 1, 2020. It is available digitally now.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters: “Christmas On A Greyhound Bus” (2019) CD Review

Try as we might to deny it, the holidays are upon us. And so it is time for a new group of Christmas records and CDs to be released. But do not fear, for some of these releases are actually quite good. Such is the case with Christmas On A Greyhound Bus, the new EP from Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters. I was turned onto this band a few years ago, with the release of On The Ropes, an album that featured mostly original material and also an unusual take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That album was followed by a self-titled disc in 2017, and then a live album. And now we’re treated to this holiday EP, which features a mix of originals and covers. The band is made up of Amanda Anne Platt on vocals and acoustic guitar; Matthew Smith on pedal steel and electric guitar; Evan Martin on drums, keys and vocals; and Rick Cooper on bass, acoustic guitar and vocals.

One thing I appreciate about this album is the choice of cover material. You’ll find no blasted “Rudolph” or “Jingle Bells” here. The disc opens with “Pretty Paper,” a song written by Willie Nelson and originally recorded by Roy Orbison. Willie Nelson then released his own version, using it as the title track to his 1979 holiday LP. Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters’ rendition has a sweet and gentle country vibe, with some nice touches on pedal steel. What I really love about it, however, is Amanda Anne Platt’s beautiful and heartfelt vocal performance. “There he sits all alone on the sidewalk/Hoping that you won’t pass him by/Should you stop, better not, much too busy/You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly.”

The band follows that with an original number, “Christmas On A Greyhound Bus,” the EP’s title track, written by Amanda Anne Platt. There are few places I can think of that would be worse to spend a holiday, or any day for that matter, than a Greyhound bus. But this is a really good song, about leaving a marriage during the holiday and hitting the road. “Now I’m spending Christmas on a Greyhound bus/Drinking tequila from a paper cup/Put all my money on the sun coming up.” They then change gears with a cover of “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” a tune written by Buck Owens and Don Rich. I’ve been listening to a lot of Buck Owens music lately, what with the release of that ten-disc boxed set The Bakersfield Sound, and I haven’t quite gotten my fill yet. This is a fun, playful number, and Amanda Anne Platt gets the right tone, keeping things a bit loose. There is even a bit of a laugh in her voice at moments, which is perfect.

The band then delivers another original song, “One For The Ages,” a gorgeous and moving song that takes place on Christmas Eve. When people talk about that holiday spirit, this is the kind of thing I imagine. It has a warm and passionate sound. Cuddle up next to the twinkling lights, the fire, or whatever it is that gives you pleasure, that gives you that safe and secure feeling, and listen to this song. Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters conclude the EP with a good rendition of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding,” a song I’ve always associated with Elvis Costello, but which was actually written by Nick Lowe. It is a song that once again feels timely. If you’re not familiar with it, here is a taste of the lyrics: “As I walk on/Through troubled times/You know my spirit gets so downhearted sometimes/Where are the strong?/Who are the trusted?/Where is the harmony?

CD Track List
  1. Pretty Paper
  2. Christmas On A Greyhound Bus
  3. Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy
  4. One For The Ages
  5. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding 
Christmas On A Greyhound Bus is scheduled to be released on November 22, 2019.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Big Beat: “Sounds Good, Feels Good” (2019) CD Review

Big Beat is a big band that incorporates soul and funk into its sound, and into its style, with some incredibly enjoyable results. The group was founded by bassist Charlie Dougherty, saxophone player Phil Engsberg, trombone player Caleb Rumley and pianist Ryan Tomski, and has since grown into a nineteen-piece monster of a band, featuring a whole hell of a lot of horns. These guys have put out a couple of EPs, and now have released their debut full-length album. Titled Sounds Good, Feels Good, this disc features mostly original material, along with a few cool covers. And what an apt album title, for these tracks sound so good and make me feel good too. I’m guessing they’ll have the same effect on most people. Gather some friends, put this album on, and enjoy.

The CD opens with “I Wanna Talk With You,” a delicious, kind of funky dance tune featuring horns and positive vibes. It was written by the band’s vocalist, Allison McKenzie. She sings, “All I really want is to be with you.” Well, all right then! I dig that section with percussion and that horn, reminding me of Honk! Festival back in Boston. This music has that feel, you know, like a celebration of humanity. We could use some sort of celebration these days, right? Things then turn mellower with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” a soulful pop tune from his Songs In The Key Of Life album. Caleb Rumley did the arrangement for this rendition, which focuses on Allison’s vocal performance and includes some great touches on horns. That’s followed by a cover of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” It’s a good version, with some nice play between Allison’s voice and the horns. My favorite part of this track, however, is that instrumental section in the second half which features some great stuff from the horn section, particularly on saxophone, as well as some excellent work on drums.

“Just Too Much” is a delicious jam to get you on your feet, composed by trombone player Caleb Rumley, who also conducted the band on this release. This is groovy, funky, and a serious amount of fun. Tremendous playing by all musicians, and oh man, that bass is making my world better. Then we get this cool section toward the end that has a looser vibe. This track has some great drumming, even a brief solo at the end, helping to make it one of my personal favorites on this album. I could listen to this all day. Then “It’s Love” begins tentatively, like the song is sneaking in. The first line is, “They say I’m crazy,” and, yeah, that explains the sneaky vibe. This crazy woman is not supposed to be here. But then she tells us, “It’s love.” Maybe, maybe. But maybe a restraining order is necessary. “They say I’m losing it/Just can’t seem to keep my grip.” This track is a cover, written and originally performed by Jill Scott. “I’ll Be Burning For You” follows. The horns are in control at the start of this one, then ease back for the entrance of Allison’s smooth vocals. I dig that section with just vocals and drums; that sort of thing has appealed to me since I was a kid, when pop songs by law had to include such a section. This track was written by Allison McKenzie, and arranged by Charlie Dougherty.

“All The Love” is a mellower, romantic number, also composed by Allison McKenzie. It features some nice work on flute, and builds in energy toward the end. Things then get kind of funky with “A Penny For Your Thoughts,” composed by Phil Engsberg. This track has a loose, kind of playful style, like it’s ready to try different avenues, and it features more great drumming, which I love. And then at a certain point in the second half it starts to rock, to really come together and move forward with a wonderful force. It does then relax again a bit as the track goes in another direction. The album closes with “Miss America,” a song about the opposing ways we feel currently about the country, and an undeniable need for change. I like the comparison of a certain segment of the population with vultures. Allison McKenzie wrote this song. “And I don’t know what to say/I don’t even know how to change it,” she sings at one point, voicing the frustration so many of us feel these days. But the song is positive, optimistic: “America, you’re beautiful/You’ve got work to do.”

CD Track List
  1. I Wanna Talk With You
  2. Knocks Me Off My Feet
  3. I Want You Back
  4. Just Too Much
  5. It’s Love
  6. I’ll Be Burning For You
  7. All The Love
  8. A Penny For Your Thoughts
  9. Miss America 
Sounds Good, Feels Good was released on September 27, 2019.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Mike Zito And Friends: “Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry” (2019) CD Review

Sometimes I forget just how many great songs Chuck Berry was responsible for. But blues guitarist Mike Zito is here to remind us with his new album, Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry, which features twenty famous songs that Chuck Berry wrote (with one exception). Mike Zito, while playing guitar himself on every track, is also joined by guest guitarists on each song. Folks like Robben Ford, Luther Dickinson and Tommy Castro lend their talents to this project. The band backing Mike Zito includes Matthew Johnson on drums, percussion and vocals; Terry Dry on bass, percussion and vocals; and Lewis Stephens on piano and organ. Here is a chance to get reacquainted with some fantastic songs.

Interestingly, the album opens with the song that Chuck Berry did not write, “St. Louis Blues,” an older song that was composed by William C. Handy. This is a song that Chuck Berry included on his 1965 LP Chuck Berry In London. Here Chuck Berry’s grandson Charlie Berry III joins Mike Zito on guitar, which is cool, a great way to start this disc. That’s followed by a lively and delicious rendition of “Rock And Roll Music” that features Joanna Connor on guitar. She has a new album coming out herself, and Mike Zito is a guest on that release. Man, “Rock And Roll Music” is a whole lot of fun, and I’m having a good time revisiting it. We then get “Johnny B. Goode,” one of Chuck Berry’s most famous songs, one the Grateful Dead used to cover fairly often. On this version, Walter Trout joins on guitar, delivering some spirited playing, particularly during that instrumental section. Things are seriously rocking at this point.

Chuck Berry is known for being a pioneer of rock and roll, but he also gave us some fantastic blues tunes. “Wee Wee Hours” is one of those blues tracks, and here Joe Bonamassa joins Mike Zito for a powerful rendition driven by their guitars. These guys seriously jam on this one, and it’s great. That’s followed by the always-fun “Memphis, Tennessee” (here titled “Memphis”) with Anders Osborne. I still remember the first time I heard this song when I was a kid, and being surprised by the song’s final lines. It’s one of Chuck Berry’s best, and this version is really good. We get another tune from Chuck Berry In London, “I Want To Be Your Driver,” featuring Ryan Perry. And then Robben Ford joins Mike Zito for “You Never Can Tell,” a song that is sometimes listed as “C’est La Vie,” a tune that regained popularity after it was featured in the film Pulp Fiction (who doesn’t love that dance scene?). This track is certainly one of the highlights of this release. In addition to some wonderful work on guitar, it features some delicious stuff on keys.

Eric Gales joins Mike Zito for a dynamic rendition of “Back In The USA.” These days you don’t hear a lot of folks saying “I’m so glad I’m living in the USA,” but this song will take you back to the days when it made some sense to say that. That’s followed by “No Particular Place To Go,” one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs. This rendition features Jeremiah Johnson on guitar, and is a lot of fun. Also fun is this version of “Too Much Monkey Business,” which features Luther Dickinson. It is another of the disc’s highlights, and is one to get you dancing and bopping, wherever you may be. I dig the playful vocal delivery. Things then slow down just a bit for a cool version of “Havana Moon,” with Sonny Landreth on guitar.

“Promised Land” is another song that I saw the Grateful Dead perform several times. This is a great, solid rock and roll tune, and this version moves along at a perfect clip. Tinsley Ellis joins Mike Zito for this one, and they both are clearly having a good time with it, and I’d be shocked if anyone listening didn’t also have a good time. That’s followed by “Down Bound Train,” one of Chuck Berry’s coolest songs. Alex Skolnick joins Mike Zito on this bluesy version. Then Richard Fortus joins Zito for “Maybellene,” which was Chuck Berry’s first single and another of his best. This version rocks and features plenty of good stuff on guitar. That’s followed by another great rock and roll song, “School Days,” featuring Ally Venable. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this one performed as a duet before, but it totally works. “Drop the coin right into the slot/You gotta hear something that’s really hot/With the one you love, you’re making romance/All day long, you’re wanting to dance/Feeling the music from head to toe/Round and round and round we go.”

Both Kirk Fletcher and Josh Smith join Mike Zito for a good rendition of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Then Tommy Castro performs on a groovin’ version of “Reelin’ And Rockin’.” That’s followed by “Let It Rock,” featuring Jimmy Vivino. And, hell yeah, this version certainly does rock. Albert Castiglia plays on “Thirty Days,” another of Chuck Berry’s best songs. This track is a hell of a lot of fun, another of the disc’s highlights. They really let loose here. The album concludes with Chuck Berry’s silliest and most suggestive song, “My Ding-A-Ling,” this rendition featuring Kid Andersen. What an interesting choice to wrap things up. I love it. “Once I was swimmin' across Turtle Creek/Man, them snappers all around my feet/Sure was hard swimmin' across that thing/With both of my hands holding my ding-a-ling-a-ling.”

CD Track List
  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Rock And Roll Music
  3. Johnny B. Goode
  4. Wee Wee Hours
  5. Memphis
  6. I Want To Be Your driver
  7. You Never Can Tell
  8. Back In The USA
  9. No Particular Place To Go
  10. Too Much Monkey Business
  11. Havana Moon
  12. Promised Land
  13. Down Bound Train
  14. Maybellene
  15. School Days
  16. Brown Eyed Handsome Man
  17. Reelin’ And Rockin’
  18. Let It Rock
  19. Thirty Days
  20. My Ding-A-Ling
Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry was released on November 1, 2019 on Ruf Records.