If you don't have the time to keep up with the latest in new music, we've got the perfect solution for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts come by to talk about the best new tunes in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins host A Martinez for a chat about new music from a rising star in contemporary jazz, an afro cuban composer and a upbeat keyboardist from New Orleans.
Artist: Jon Cleary
Album: "GoGo Juice"
Songs: "Pump It Up," "Boneyard"
Summary: As you’ve certainly been made aware, the 10th anniversary of the New Orleans flood is coming up. So in New Orleans tradition, let’s mourn who and what was lost, but at the same time celebrate what we have. And that means have a parade, dance and knock back some, well, gogo juice.
That’s the approach for New Orleans keyboard man Jon Cleary, who kicks off his new album, titled after that high octane beverage, with the boisterous "Pump It Up," which alternates between jumpin’ ska and NOLA street music as if drawing a line from London’s two-tone movement through Jamaica to the Gulf Coast. Well, that fits — Cleary was raised in England, entranced by music from those regions before at age 17 in 1980 skipping to New Orleans and making a beeline to the side of such piano wizards as James Booker and Dr. John and songwriter-producer Allen Toussaint. One of his first gigs came when the owner of the Maple Leaf club pushed him on stage to sub for a truant Booker.
He learned his lessons well. You may have seen him in his long-time gig playing keys for Bonnie Raitt, or perhaps on David Simon’s HBO series "Treme." And through the years he’s become one of the go-to guys in the city’s great music scene, a keyboard ace in a town of keyboard aces, both in jaw-dropping solo performances and funking it up with his backing band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
The title song is bouncy funk, there’s sweet soul in "Brother I’m Hungry," some Memphis-style simmer in "Beg, Steal and Borrow." "9-5" is a bluesy, organ-centric smolder, "Love On One Condition" echoes classic Rufus in its horns and step-climber beat. As is often the case with such things, the good times are never really far from the bad times, the worries and concerns — put aside, defied, mocked even, but still there. There’s depth through that, an acknowledgment sometimes merely hinted at, sometimes explicit. But the key song may be the most upbeat, a brass-band, gogo juice-fueled parade strider (in which he showcases his considerable guitar chops) that’s laughs at mortality, both for himself and the whole city: not ready for the "Boneyard."
Artist: Cécile McLorin Salvant
Album: "For One to Love"
Songs: "Stepsister’s Lament," "Wives and Lovers"
Summary: In recent performances, Cécile McLorin Salvant — the rising star in what for lack of a better term we’ll have to call contemporary cabaret jazz — strung together a sequence that served as something of a tuneful tutorial on women’s images in song. Very tuneful. And anything but pedantic while always delightful.
Two of those songs, both now featured on her bravura second album, "For One to Love," stood out in particular, both for what they say and how she sang them: "Stepsister’s Lament" and "Wives and Lovers." As in concert, they are touchstones on an album that runs from Bessie Smith ("What’s the Matter Now") to Judy Garland (a sparkling take on "The Trolley Song") to "West Side Story" (a jaw-dropping, extended "Something’s Coming," showcasing her fantastic backing trio, notably inventive pianist Aaron Diehl).
"Stepsister’s Lament," as you may recognize, is from Disney’s original animated "Cinderella," sung by one of Cindy’s jealous, entitled mean-girls tormentors, sort of ‘60s Kardashians. "Ugly" is the word usually used to preface any reference. Well, Salvant from first viewing of the film as a kid (she’s only 25 now) found herself keying on a sympathetic side of the lament. Not the entitled part, but the frustrated aspect, the dejected wondering as to why oh why it was this supercilious wisp of a blond that got the attentions of the prince rather than the more, uh, robust she.
Well, Salvant is anything but ugly, but she’s also anything but supercilious, not to mention anything but blond. Half French, half Haitian, the Miami-born singer is a substantive force, an exemplar of unaffected individualism with her close-cropped hair, feathery adornments and most recognizably her thick-rimmed, canary-yellow glasses, though you don’t have to see her to get that she’s special.
It’s as a singer that she makes her most forceful stand, her voice brimming with equal measures of talent and personality as it swoops from girlish tweet to honeyed seduction to guttural growl. There’s a casual, comfortable confidence to her, both in her appearance and her performance, allowing her to present such songs as these as commentary without sacrificing a bit of artistry and entertainment. Even when being ironic and critical, she really digs INTO the song with earnest gusto — more effective and subversive than getting goofy or preachy could ever be. And as such, she invests it with unexpected richness and depth.
That might be even more true for "Wives and Lovers," a 1963 Burt Bacharach/Hal David song originally sung by Jack Jones in connection with (but not appearing in) a movie of the same name. The message even back then was kinda cringe-worthy — essentially it says, Ladies, no matter what else you’ve got going in your favor, you’d better keep yourself gorgeous and run to greet your man when he comes home from work or else he’ll leave you for that pert secretary of his. Today it’s very "Mad Men," which maybe gives it a context, but doesn’t make it any better.
And yet, Salvant lets context take care of the commentary. She sings it for what it is, a great pop melody with clever, layered turns of phrases. In doing so to convey an archaic standard of womanhood, she sets some new standards of her own.
Artist: Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Album: "Cuba: The Conversation Continues"
Songs: "All the Americas," "El Bombón"
Summary: In 1947, American be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie brought Cuban conguero Chano Pozo into his band and started a musical-cultural conversation that had a profound impact on both jazz and Afro Cuban music, even though the partnership lasted just a year, with Pozo shot to death in a Harlem bar in 1948.
Now New York pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill has not just continued but renewed that musical discussion with a breathtaking, consistently inventive array of Afro-Cuban jazz over two CDs. Obviously, a lot has changed since the original conversation. In fact, O’Farrill was in Havana at work on this album the day last December on which President Obama announced plans to "normalize" relations with Cuba. So while this music takes in all the history — the classic Havana days, the Guevara-Castro revolution, the Cold War standoff, the refugee flotillas, and so on — the latest turns of history help make this music of a new era, an optimistic embrace of both the Cuban and American spirits of openness.
To make this happen, O’Farrill tabbed nine composers to offer musical statements, five Americans and four Cubans. The former roster has Earl McIntyre, Dafnis Prieto, Michelle Rosewoman and both O’Farrill and his drummer son Zack. The commissioned Cubans were Alexis Bosch, Bobby Carcassés, Cotó and Michel Herrera. Each brings rich imagination to the project, fleshed out by scintillating broad-palette arrangements and the supreme talents of several dozen musicians from both countries.
The centerpiece is Arturo O’Farrill’s "Afro Latin Jazz Suite," a four-movement set that covers a wide scope: the roots-impressionistic "Mother Africa," the sweeping, ultra-inclusive "All the Americas," a short, lovely "Adagio" and the key closing question, "What Now?" Furthering the cultural statement behind it is the presence on the sequence of featured guest Rudresh Mahanthappa, an American saxophonist of Indian heritage whose own music is among the most engagingly creative being made in jazz today. Mahanthappa reappears on Zack O’Farrill’s album-closing "There’s a Statue of Jose Martí in Central Park," which kind of suggests what George Gershwin might have done had been of Cuban rather than Russian-Jewish heritage.
It’s a varied journey, taking in modern be-bop (Bosch’s "Guajira Simple), modernist big-band (Herrera’s "Just One Moment"), current musical streams (O’Farrill’s "Vaca Frita," with some turntable scratching by DJ Logic fully integrated with the percolating Cuban drums) and the New Orleans-Caribbean connection (McIntyre’s parading "Second Line Soca" with vocalist Renée Manning).
And with Cotó’s "El Bombón," we’re right back at that Havana-Harlem matrix of 1947, but relocated to the brand-new embassies of 2015.