Every week on Tuesday Reviewsday, our regulars bring us a selection of their favorite new music. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins Alex Cohen to talk about new sounds from Lianne La Havas, Forró in the Dark and Benjamin Clementine.
Artist: Benjamin Clementine
Album: "At Least For Now"
Songs: "Adios," "Nemesis"
Summary: Nina Simone, Edith Piaf -- those are not names to be tossed around lightly. But that's what we're aleady hearing with young London artists Benjamin Clementine, not because e sounds like them, per se, but because his sense of song and performance has the kind of distinctive individuality and emotional connection associated with them. With his debut album, let's add another, one who might seem more of a stretch: Glenn Gould. Yes, Clementine is an accomplished pianist, but it's the eccentricities of his playing, of his sense of time, something Gould was known for, that deepens the impact of his music.
As a singer, he's once conversationally straightforward and poetically dramatic. "Adios" could almost be Sondheim, an inner monologue right through a mid-song digression into a bit of spoken explanation, which gives way to a quasi-operatic passage (Piaf again), before a return for a coda of the song itself. "The decision is mine! Let the lesson be MINE!" he sings, perhaps addressing just himself, with insistent staccato.
There’s a certain feral quality to it, perhaps traceable to his time as a teen busking in Paris after a rough split with his family (Piaf again), but it’s never unapproachable. And then just when you least expect it, as in the middle of "Nemesis," and Iberian waltz with forceful strings behind his piano, he reins it all in and offers a soaring, moving, classic soul chorus.
Whatever comparisons one might make, let’s not toss the name Benjamin Clementine around too lightly either. It’s one to be reckoned with.
Artist: Lianne La Havas
Songs: "What You Don’t Do," "Unstoppable"
Summary: How good is Lianne La Havas? Well, last year Prince did a command performance for her — in her London living room. He then featured her as special guest in his "Saturday Night Live" performance in November, reprising her role on his "Art Official Age" album.
Seeing her recently in a Troubadour showcase previewing the release of her new, second album "Blood," it was easy to see the connection — her music and her presence have a dynamic that shows considerable Princely inspiration. But the concert, and the album, make it clear that she is a force in her own right. For one thing, she’s unguardedly charming, bubbly in her youthful enthusiasm and effusive in her joy of performing. "I played the TROUBADOUR!" she exclaimed, with an impossibly big grin, as she closed that show.
Those same qualities mark this album, her followup to the acclaimed arrival of her 2012 debut, "Is Your Love Big Enough?" But where that had a earthy, folky soul quality, the new one carries at once more sophistication and more confidence in its guilelessness. It’s art, without artifice. A lot of the feel reflects much of it being inspired by a visit to her mother’s native Jamaica, where she immersed herself both in family and the local music scene.
A lot of songs on this album, largely produced by Jamaican star Stephen McGregor, start with acoustic guitar giving an almost bossa nova feel, but from there they go in multiple directions: smooth soul, exuberant funk, story-song balladry, a range as diverse as her heritage (her father is Greek) but always with a strong, modern London accent. The opening song "Unstoppable," produced by Adele collaborator Paul Epworth, sends the message: While we may think of Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu with some of her music, she’s got sounds and styles all her own. And "What You Don’t Do" is a sonic and emotional tour-de-force that’s hard to relate to any other artist. That’s the kind of thing that likely impressed Prince the most.
Artist: Forró in the Dark
Album: "Forró Zinho — Forró in the Dark Plays Zorn"
Songs: "Shaolin Bossa," "Sunset Surfer"
Summary: "John Zorn’s Brazilian Beach Party"? That's pretty unlikely, at least without heavy doeses of irony. The New York composer-saxophonist is best known for music that is more often than not difficult, challenging, even prickly, not music that would lend itself to the engaging lilt of North Brazilian forró. Well, that’s just what we get here, as Manhattan’s Forró in the Dark, an ensemble that has merged that folksy music with an art consciousness, gets some quite winning takes of Zorn pieces in performances that at times evoke, of all things, sunny beach days, be it Ipanema ("Shaolin Bossa") or Malibu ("Sunset Surfer").
The group was formed in 2002 by Brazilian ex-pats Mauro Refosco (zabumba, percussion), Guilherme Monteiro (guitar) and Jorge Continentino (pífanos, flutes, saxophones) and has made two sparkling albums of original material. It was Refosco’s idea to explore the Zorn catalog and he reached out to the composer, who not only took the lead role in selecting pieces, but put the album out on his Tzadik Records label.
The result is something that stands out for its engaging charm even in Zorn’s long, varied history of interpretation — both his music interpreted by a wide range of artists and in a wide range of settings, and his own recasting of music of others. Of course, it you didn’t know this was Zorn music, you might not know it was, uh, Zorn music. The performances stand on their own and the source is almost incidental. Knowing that source, though, just makes it better.