Tag Archives: Ari Roland

“THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL”: YAALA BALLIN SINGS IRVING BERLIN (CHRIS FLORY, MICHAEL KANAN, ARI ROLAND: SteepleChase)

As they say, “I’m a fan.”  Not only of the wonderful, completely-herself singer Yaala Ballin, but of guitarist Chris Flory, pianist Michael Kanan, string bassist Ari Roland . . . and that Israel Baline fellow, Americanized to Irving Berlin, gleaming on a splendid new CD.

Here’s a quick video-audio tour:

and — to support the title of this post:

I can’t get enough — Yaala truly improvises! — here she is with Michael, last Valentine’s Day, telling the Ballin – Baline story in a few words:

That should convince anyone that this is music to purchase, to treasure, to share.  But a few words.

Berlin himself is — like some stocks — disgracefully undervalued.

His music has been perceived for so long as well-behaved.  No sudden shocks of the sort you find in Hart’s or Porter’s lyrics; he doesn’t always aim for the arching melodies of Kern.  Berlin’s curse is that, like Bing Crosby, he manages so deftly to appear simple.  “I could write a song as good as that.”  But you didn’t, we must point out.  Berlin can be sassy and witty: “Be careful, it’s my heart.  It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart.”  And how many of us know his arch but tender FOOLS FALL IN LOVE?  But his great strength is in his apparent plainness: the melodies that sound as if you could pick them out on the piano with one finger, the lyrics that sound like casual speech.  Of course his songs have “become part of the cultural landscape,” but that is why they get taken for granted.  Hear the singer stride into BLUE SKIES or CHEEK TO CHEEK and we may be forgiven for thinking, to quote Sammy Cahn, “It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.”  It’s easy to regard Berlin the same way one might look at the two slices of toast that accompany our eggs at the diner.  Familiar, not essential.  But his music is lit from within by a depth of feeling that makes his songs expressions of dear truths.  Think of HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN, that most passionate declaration of love couched entirely in questions, decades before JEOPARDY.

And — if we stop to listen to his songs with fresh attention, they sparkle with gentle daring.

Gentle daring also characterizes Yaala Ballin’s singing.  When I listen to her, I always wish I had a very astute companion next to me to whom I could say, “Did you hear what she just did with that tone, that pause, that phrase?” She is incapable of delivering the simplest line in a formulaic way.  Her gliding phrasing, so musical, is a kind of lively quirky speech.  A minute hesitation here, a startling rush there: she’s not locked in by the 1-2-3-4 although she keeps lovely time and swings from the start.  Her slides from one note to another summon up instrumental masters Vic Dickenson and Ben Webster.  She is a magnificently subversive actress, because we never feel that she is acting.  As you hear in the examples above, she is a quiet risk-taker.  You don’t come to one of Yaala’s songs on this CD and think, “Wow, she painted everything bright orange and nailed a chair to the ceiling for effect,” rather it’s as if a sly artist has moved one vase and two bowls in the room and everything is wonderfully improved.  Hear her second chorus of HOW MANY TIMES?  Or THIS YEAR’S KISSES, always thought of as Property of Billie Holiday — Yaala and Michael Kanan, in their first rubato duet chorus, say kindly to the Lady, “We bow low to you, but we have our own ways of getting that feeling” — rueful feeling with swing but not needing capital letters.

It would be cruel to not share it with you:

Describing Yaala’s co-equals (it would be demeaning to call them “accompanists”) — Michael Kanan, Chris Flory, Ari Roland — I find myself in the nicest critical quandary.  Are they a subtle muscular twenty-first century Nat Cole trio?  No, I think, they are the 1940 Basie band in portable form.  The tracks that began with brief instrumental introductions brought happiness from the first notes.  And their approach mixes respect and innovation.  Singers have occasionally taken Berlin very slowly: here, REMEMBER, HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? SAY IT ISN’T SO, and BE CAREFUL, IT’S MY HEART are taken at walking tempos, stripping away decades of melodrama to reveal the strong structures beneath.  Several of the songs have unexpected rhythmic underpinnings, adding freshness: for the first time ever, I was able to put Astaire aside while hearing CHANGE PARTNERS.

And the CD sounds the way these four people sound in person, so I had the dreamy sensation of having Yaala, Michael, Chris, and Ari in my living room.  Thanks to Chris Sulit and Nils Winther for making this happen.

The CD is deliciously varied: the compact performances feel just right, completely satisfying in their old-fashioned refusal to sprawl.  Little arranging touches — Yaala in duet with each of the players, split choruses and other variations — make this a splendid tasting menu.  I kept returning to some of the songs, as if it was too difficult to let go of the sensations they had evoked until I’d heard them three or four times.  I hope for a yard-length CD series of YAALA BALLIN SINGS THE __________ SONGBOOK.  (I vote for Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, but that’s just me.)

When I had finished my first hearing of the CD, I felt as if I had been given great gifts.  And then I played it again.  Deprive yourself of such pleasures at your own peril.  The disc and its digital contents are available in the usual places and the usual ways.

May your happiness increase!

Bunk Johnson FB

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WHEN LOVE LASTS: YAALA BALLIN and ARI ROLAND (2015)

Songwriters have always done well with the sudden romantic infatuation, the blinding green flash “across a crowded room.”  “And all at once I owned the earth and sky.”  But love that lasts when such mind-altering experiences have grown familiar is much more rarely a subject.  Oh, there’s WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, but MAGGIE is no longer around to appreciate the encomium; there’s THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL, but that couple is also apparently fairly sedentary.

THEN I'LL BE TIRED OF YOU

The song that I think of with great affection is the 1934 THEN I’LL BE TIRED OF YOU, music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Yip Harburg.  I heard it first in a rather irreverent version by Fats Waller (when the song was new) and later by Vic Dickenson and Joe Thomas — instrumental but deeply fervent.  The simple melody is memorable (Joe delighted in those repeated notes) yet for me what makes it complete is Harburg’s witty conceit: rather than attempt to revitalize “I will always love you,” he turns it on its head in the conditional: “I’ll weary of you when these improbable events happen, but not a second before.” High fidelity, and long-playing, too.

YAALA

Here’s a deliciously intimate version by the fine young singer Yaala Ballin and string bassist Ari Roland, recorded in December 2015 at The Drawing Room (video by the very gifted Neal Miner):

Even better than this video is the news that Yaala and Ari will be singing and playing on Sunday, June 19, at the pastoral hour of 3:30, at The Drawing Room (56 Willoughby Street, Brooklyn — right near a subway!)  Here are the details of that event.  And later on that same June 19, Lena Bloch, Russ Lossing, Cameron Brown, and Billy Mintz (the FEATHERY quartet) will be creating and improvising . . . from 7 PM on.

May your happiness increase!

THE REMARKABLE YAALA BALLIN: “LIVE SESSION”

Yaala Ballin knows how to share.  And that’s special in itself.  We first met her at a Marianne Solivan gig at Iridium, where the elegant Ms. Ballin was placed next to us.  She had ordered a dessert — which turned out to be a slice of red velvet cake — and although we had only known each other for a matter of minutes, she offered us half.  Old-fashioned style.

YAALA BALLIN

And then we heard her sing!  Frankly, her musical art is more gratifying than any dessert I could imagine.  Her new CD, LIVE SESSION, was recorded at Michael Kanan’s studio, The Drawing Room, in October 2012 — audio and video by Neal Miner.  On it, Yalla sings alongside Michael, piano; Ari Roland, string bass; Keith Balla, drums.

Here are the details and audio excerpts of each performance.  For those impatient with clicking, the songs are NOBODY ELSE BUT ME / AUTUMN IN NEW YORK / YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO / HOW LITTLE WE KNOW / FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE / I’M THROUGH WITH LOVE / ALWAYS.

Yaala Ballin stands out because of her artistic integrity — that gives great delight.  Her artistry is very plain: she does not “dramatize”; she does not obliterate the song with her own ornamentations; she does not coo or woo.  She does not impersonate any one of The Great Dead.

Rather, she has a beautiful voice, unerring rhythmic command, and courage: her rubato embellishments are both brave and sure-footed. Her singing is confident, assured, as if a great actress strode on stage, sure of herself and her lines, deeply informed about the music she wants to make and the effect she hopes it will have on us.  Nothing is studied; there are no faux-spontaneous gestures; her singing seems utterly natural and at the same time powerful, focused.  Although Yalla is not yet forty, her singing is mature; we listen to her and relax, secure in her mastery of music and lyrics.  She plays with the song while honoring it, as do her superb accompanists.

What she so generously shares with us is remarkable.

Here is her website, and her Facebook page.

But you don’t need to take any of this on faith.  Neal Miner has posted videos of LIVE SESSION on the Gut String Records YouTube channel.  You can see that my praise of Yaala Ballin is based on her deep musical knowledge, enthusiasm, and empathy.

Here are two of the seven performances:

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK (with the rare and moving verse):

and the witty and touching NOBODY ELSE BUT ME:

Convinced?  I thought you would be.  Yaala has a number of New York City gigs, but the one I have circled on my calendar is this: she and Michael Kanan will be performing in duet at Smalls (183 West 10th Street) on May 12, 2013, at 7:30. I’ll be there!

May your happiness increase.

“LIVE” AT SMALLS JAZZ CLUB

Although occasionally jazz clubs are uncomfortable — hard seats, noisy patrons, people jammed in — they provide an immediacy of experience that is unmatched by even the finest compact disc or video clip.  But you would need to live in or near an urban center (in my case New York City), have an independent income, be able to be in two or three places at once, and have a strong immune system to experience even one-fourth of what is happening any evening (and some afternoons).  And you’d have to be nocturnal — with the opportunity to sleep during the day, as many musicians do.

In the belief, perhaps, that if you offer something for free, people who love it will then follow it to its source, the people who run Smalls Jazz Club (on West Tenth Street) have been offering live video and “archived” audio of jazz performances at http://www.smallsjazzclub.com/index.cfm?itemCategory=32321&siteid=272&priorId=0&banner=a.

What does that mean?  As far as I can tell, you could sit in front of your computer, click on the address above, and get to see and hear — in real time — what the musicians are playing at Smalls.  True, the video is somewhat limited in its visual range; the image is small.  And it can’t be recorded for playing at a later date.  

But it’s vividly there, and for free.

And the other half of the birthday-present-you-didn’t-know-about is that the site is also offering audio of past performances (by those musicians who don’t object to having their work distributed in this fashion).  I didn’t check everyone’s name, but I saw dates were available featuring Dan Block, Ehud Asherie, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Sandke, Terry Waldo, Orange Kellin, Joel Frahm, Ari Roland, Stepko Gut, Matt Musselman, Will Anderson, Dmitry Baevsky, Lee Konitz, Teddy Charles, Jesse Gelber, Charlie Caranicas, Kate Manning, Kevin Dorn, Danton Boller, Joel Forbes, Lee Hudson, Rob Garcia, Howard Alden, Neal Miner, James Chirillo, Chris Flory, Eddy Davis, Conal Fowkes, Scott Robinson, Steve Ash, John Bunch, Jay Leonhart, Dick Hyman, Ethan Iverson, Olivier Lancelot, Sacha Perry, Rossano Sportiello, Mark Lopeman, Michael Blake, Harry Allen, Andy Farber, Tad Shull, Grant Stewart . . . and these are only some of the names on the list I know.  So many pleasant hours of listening await you!  And everyone hopes that you will someday go to West Tenth Street and climb down the narrow stairway to Smalls.

SMALL CLUB, BIG JAZZ

Flip and I went to see Ehud Asherie last night at Smalls, where his duet partner was the Russian-born altoist Dmitry Baevsky, someone you should know.  I’ve heard Dmitry shining through Joe Cohn’s RESTLESS (Arbors), but was even more impressed by him in person.  The interplay between the two musicians — they’re long-term friends — should surprise no one who’s been reading this blog.  Ehud, modest about his own playing, listens deeply, thoughtfully commenting, answering, anticipating, smoothing the way.

Here’s the duo on Bud Powell’s STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL.

Dmitry is a special pleasure.  Many alto players born in the last sixty or so years have fallen under the great avian enchantment of Charlie Parker.  Even if they don’t adopt his familiar repertoire, they work towards his brilliant tone and great facility — which translates into rapid flurries of notes aimed at the listener.  More recent altoists, perhaps falling under Coltrane’s and Ornette’s spells, have chosen to break out of bebop’s conventions — often with a harsh tone, a nearly aggressive approach to their material.

Dmitry is well aware of what has taken place in jazz, and he’s no reactionary, tied to ancient points of view.  But he loves the sound of his instrument, and he enjoys its singing possibilities without falling into sticky-sweetness.  In his playing, I hear the bounce of Pete Brown in some turns of phrase, the pensive quality of a Paul Desmond — but mostly I hear Dmitry, which is a wonderful thing indeed.  That tone!

And both of these players know how to convey deep feeling through their instruments.  Here they approach POOR BUTTERFLY with tenderness, even reverence.

Smalls is reminiscent of someone’s suburban basement or “rec room” in the Seventies — but the casual intimacy of the place inspires the musicians who play there, as you can hear.  I couldn’t stay on for long after Ehud’s duet set, but he was followed by Tardo Hammer, then by Sacha Perry and Ari Roland — a cornucopia of world-class jazz for a $20 cover.

MODERN MASTERS: SACHA PERRY, GRANT STEWART

Since many of the jazz musicians I revere are now dead, my musical immersions have a touch of necrology: this, I say, to someone, is the last recording ever made by Kid Lemon’s Happy Pals before the fatal club fire. Art blends with mourning and mortality — we can never hear Charlie Christian alive again! — to intensify the beauty of the music and our feeling of loss.

So it is both a pleasure and our responsibility to praise the living while they are still with us. The living, in this case, are pianist Sacha Perry and tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, both often found playing at the darkly congenial Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls.

But my subject is two performances, found on separate CDs, less than fifteen minutes of music of a rare intensity: Perry’s trio exploration of the Depression lament, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime”?” and Stewart’s “You’re My Thrill.”

Perry’s trio session (where he is joined by bassist Ari Roland and drummer Phil Stewart) came out on Not Brand X (Smalls Records srcd-0022). Perry has composed and recorded many originals, but this CD is devoted to standards by Porter, Rodgers, Gershwin. But these aren’t the same old jazz tunes-to-blow-on, nor are they treated in formulaic ways. “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” was a song rooted in a deep social awareness — Yip Harburg’s lyrics spring from the pageant of World War One veterans who were destitute in the early Thirties — and Jay Gorney’s strong melody verges on the operatic, as in Bing Crosby’s contemporaneous version, powerful and sad.

Perry takes this song at a properly elegiac tempo, reharmonizing its simple chords into granitic blocks, dense, weighty, and mournful. It becomes both dirge and angry protest: how could you have abandoned us? There are hints of Herbie Nichols, but Perry is blazing new trails, creating an intensely moving performance, serious, nearly grief-stricken.

Dark beauty of another kind comes through from the first notes of Grant Stewart’s “You’re My Thrill,” from his new CD, Young At Heart (Sharp Nine 1041), where he is joined by Tardo Hammer, Peter Washington, and Joe Farnsworth. Most listeners associate this song with Billie Holiday’s late-Forties Decca recording (I was astonished to learn that the song was written in 1933, also by Jay Gorney — are we on the verge of a Gorney renaissance? It wouldn’t be a bad idea: Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, and Ruby Braff did great things with another Gorney song with a political edge, “It’s The Same Old South.”)

I heard this performance — without knowing the players — coming through my car radio while I was on my way to work — courtesy of WKCR’s longtime Tuesday “Daybreak Express” man, Sid Gribetz, the latter-day Symphony Sid. It held me spellbound, or as spellbound as I could be without driving off the road. Stewart takes the song at a steady slow pace, from his rubato duet with pianist Hammer, creating something that is half paean, half prayer. His tone is mahogany and port wine; his timbre is deep-hued fabric, passionate and rich. And he refuses to rush: he lingers over his notes — in a way that suggests a combination of Ben Webster and Pablo Casals.

Both of these performances are music to marvel at, music to savor. Bless Perry and Stewart: may they continue to create masterpieces that can stop listeners in their tracks in astonished surprise and joy.

As an aside: Grant’s CD has the additional boon of fine straightforward notes by writer Marc Myers. If you haven’t visited his blog, JazzWax, where he writes about a jazz record –78 to CD — every blessed day, you have missed out on a real pleasure. He’s also interviewed many of the great masters (Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter!) in addition.