Daily Archives: February 1, 2013

IN THE MAIN STREAM: THE MORGANVILLE FOUR (DAN LEVINSON, BRIA SKONBERG, NICKI PARROTT, GORDON WEBSTER)

You have to like a CD whose cover puts the players — at their ease — in a Rousseau painting.

Morganville Four

But the charms of this disc go deeper than the cover, because the music is stylish and lovely.  The CD appeals in so many ways.

For one, it is Mainstream jazz of a kind not always encountered in recordings and performances.  Although the four players are often spotted at “traditional” “jazz” events — whatever the words in quotation marks mean these days — this is a session that celebrates the music, affectionate, melodic, with rhythmic lilt.  No tricks, no gimmicks, just feeling and mastery.

For another, the cost-conscious almost-purchaser can know that (s)he is getting good value.  Although this is billed as a FOUR, it is one of those magician’s tricks — a quartet that seems infinitely expandable.

Consider: two men, two women; two singers, four instrumentalists, string bass, piano, trumpet, clarinet, C- melody sax, tenor sax (with friends stopping by to offer the appropriate percussion).  I grew weary just typing (or is it “keyboarding”?) all of that.

And the four players / singers are marvelously first-rate jazz stars who know how to blend, to be supportive, to create delicious ensemble traceries.  Dan Levinson plays all those reeds; Bria Skonberg the trumpet; Gordon Webster, the piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass — and Bria and Nicki sing, together and singly.

I couldn’t fit that foursome in my car, but their expansive music fills the room very sweetly.  And that music!  I call it “Mainstream,” thanks to Stanley Dance, and although I distrust all of those boxes and labels — the critical blurt we call  DixietradNewOrleansbigbandbeboprevivalisthardbopswingretrofreenewthing — “Mainstream” still has a good deal of validity.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and only obsessive classifiers will say, “Is this hot jazz or cool?”  “Is that modern or traditional?”  “Is that a terrifying be-bop phrase I just heard?”

What is immediately audible on this disc is a deep love of melodic improvisation over swinging rhythms, with lyricism allied to an unhackneyed harmonic awareness.  To put it another way, although there are Twenties tunes here — THE ONE I LOVE and I WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE — the approach is free and friendly, detached from the shackles of convention and cliche, but not attempting to “freshen up the old stuff.”  No striped vests but nothing self-consciously esoteric, either.

The spirit I imagined most frequently as the spiritual overseer of this music was Ruby Braff: lyrical, surprising, imaginative, someone who made great creative use of “unorthodox” combinations.  (No drums, no trombone — just four pals floating along happily down the Main Stream of jazz.)  And there’s a certain witty lightness animating everything but we are always in touch with the deep feeling beneath the notes.

The CD has all the right elements: a variety of songs and approaches (essential to make it into a concert rather than a test of stoic endurance); lovely recorded sound, thanks to Peter Karl; nifty liner notes from Will Friedwald and Jon Hill.  The latter fellow deserves truckloads of credit: the M4 played at a private party of his in 2011, and he thought, “Wow, let’s make a record!”  And he did.  (You can find Jon to congratulate and thank him at Jazz_Rules@yahoo.com.)

I’d buy / play this CD for someone worried about THE DEATH OF JAZZ or THE VANISHING AUDIENCE.  I’d also be delighted to play it for someone who looks at me quizzically when I suggest that “my” music is not rooted in KIND OF BLUE.

You can check out the CD in all the usual places.  Hear samples here.

May your happiness increase.

DELICACY AND STRENGTH: NATE NAJAR’S “BLUES FOR NIGHT PEOPLE”

Guitarist Nate Najar knows what that wooden box with strings is for — to fill the void with lovely, surprising sounds.  And he continues to do so on his new CD, a tribute to Charlie Byrd, BLUES FOR NIGHT PEOPLE.

Nate Najar cover

I write “continues,” because I was immediately impressed with Nate and his music when he came and sat in at The Ear Inn some time ago.  Ear-people know that 326 Spring Street is a hot place for guitarists: Matt Munisteri, Howard Alden, Chris Flory, James Chirillo, Julian Lage, and some other notables.

But Nate stands out as he did that Sunday night: a sweetly melodic player who didn’t let sweetness get in the way of swinging.  “Delicacy” and “strength” may seem an odd combination — a writer’s contradiction designed primarily to catch the eye — but they live happily in Nate’s playing.  His sound is beautiful, subtle, full of shadings — but he never is content to provide pretty aural wallpaper, the guitarist’s version of Laura Ashley for the ears.

No, his notes ring and chime; his phrases have meaning and depth on their own, and they fit into the larger compositions he creates.  And “strength” is evident in several ways on this disc.  In its most obvious manifestation, it comes across powerfully in the opening blues — not harsh, but not music for people who “play at” the blues.  But strength, we know, is also a kind of wisdom: knowing where to take a breath, where to be still, so that the music created resonates powerfully even after the performances have ended.

Come on and hear.  Here.

The CD, as you can see, is Nate’s respectful but lively tribute to another down-home poet of the guitar — where he remembers but does not imitate.  It offers a variety of moods, tempos, and sounds — from lovely ballad playing to rocking Latin expressiveness to barbecue-flavored blues.  Nate is accompanied by the wonderful bassist Tommy Cecil and the indispensable Chuck Redd — on vibes as well as drums.  Beautifully recorded.   And the CD has very plain-spoken yet elegant notes written by Nate and by Charlie’s widow, Becky.  The songs are MUSIC FOR NIGHT PEOPLE (the last movement, called 4 AM FUNK) / DJANGO / DESAFINADO /SWING 59 / O PATO / A SINGLE PETAL OF A ROSE / CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ / HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES? / WHO CARES? / SOMEONE TO LIGHT UP MY LIFE / SI TU VOIS MA MERE / REMEMBERING CHARLIE BYRD.

It’s wise, subtle, and genuine music.

May your happiness increase.