Tag Archives: Leonard Cohen

ALEX BELHAJ’S CRESCENT CITY QUARTET: “SUGAR BLUES”

ALEX B playing

Photograph by Jocelyn Gotlib

You may not have heard of young guitarist / singer / composer Alex Belhaj, unless you live near Ann Arbor, Michigan.  And for some readers, “guitarist / singer / composer” may be slightly unsettling, suggesting a musician more like Leonard Cohen than Leonard “Ham” Davis. But these sounds should quell any anxieties:

and the same band, live in 2011:

Both of these performances were the work of Alex’s CRESCENT CITY QUARTET, which has released its debut CD, “SUGAR BLUES,” on the Raymond Street Records label.

The quartet is Alex Belhaj, guitar; Jordan Schug, string bass; Ray Heitger, clarinet; Dave Kosmyna, cornet — each of them adding “vocal refrain” or backgrounds as noted below.  Yes, the tunes are familiar, but these performances are deeply felt and vivid: WEARY BLUES / MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT [RH] / SUGAR BLUES [AB] / CARELESS LOVE / VIPER MAD [RH and the Quartet] / HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW [RH] / FOUR OR FIVE TIMES [AB / DK] / MY MAN ROCKS ME (WITH ONE STEADY ROLL) / TIGER RAG / SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD [AB] / YOU DON’T LOVE ME [DK] / TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD [RH].

ALEX B cover

I confess that when I first saw this CD, I felt a mild skepticism: I admire Ray Heitger, but he was the only player I knew.  I had no idea that Alex had connections with a number of my heroes and friends, James Dapogny, Michael Karoub, Erin Morris, Laura Wyman among them.

But hearing the music was a wonderful conversion experience.  It’s not as if there aren’t other New Orleans-imbued small improvising jazz groups, and there are other versions of the songs on this disc.  But the CCQ understands and inhabits the music in the best way — not turning each song into a nearly violent joust in the fashion of the hallowed Spanier-Bechet sides, or choosing to offer only a series of solos . . . but making each selection its own entrancing emotional drama, with an emphasis on sweetly rocking ensemble interplay.  Each of the four players is a convincing instrumentalist (and singer) so I floated from track to track, from spiritual to swinging multi-strain instrumental, in a satisfying music-dream.

The disc is one of those rare creations that seems too brief.  I’ve heard new things every time I’ve played it.  SUGAR BLUES feels genuine: these musicians know and feel what this music is supposed to sound like, simultaneously rooted in tradition and as fresh as the moment.

SUGAR BLUES is also beautifully recorded, with liner notes by “arwulf arwulf,” an Ann Arbor music scholar and broadcaster, that I would have been pleased to have written myself.

In his closing lines, he refers to VIPER MAD as a defiantly hedonistic number premiered by Noble Sissle and Sidney Bechet in 1938.  The CCQ’s realization of this ode to Mezz Mezzrow’s favorite herbal analgesic features a spirited group vocal similar to what Ann Arborites have come to expect from Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings.  Impressionable souls may feel the need to stand up and strut around with one index finger in the air.

I’m impressionable and proud of it.  Here’s VIPER MAD:

Now, JAZZ LIVES does not officially espouse the use of such substances, but in the words of that song (slightly altered) I urge you to “wrap your chops / around this new CD.” Here is Alex’s site and his Facebook page.

May your happiness increase! 

HILARY GARDNER SINGS: “THE GREAT CITY”

The-Great-City

In a city full of stirring, individualistic jazz singers, I invite you to welcome Hilary Gardner to the great stage.

This isn’t to presume her a new discovery — hardly!  But her debut CD is powerful, vivid, and emotionally varied.

She can sing, in short.

If you go immediately here (her homepage), two things will catch your attention.  One is the praise of Hilary written by Twyla Tharp — someone who knows music deeply.  The other is the sound of Hilary singing AUTUMN IN NEW YORK.

Delve a little deeper into her homepage (click on “music”) and you can hear more.

What I hear in THE GREAT CITY is a singer in full command of her lovely vocal instrument.  Hilary has a mature awareness of the bonding and bending that goes on between singer, melody, and words.  She offers us no melodrama, no vocal acrobatics; she honors the notes and the syllables, but she is not constrained by them.

She has chosen to retell the stories that the songs embody, each song a different story.  I hear an elegant restraint lit from within by feeling and understanding.  Hilary is wise enough to let the song carry her, wise enough to have absorbed great singers and instrumentalists, but especially wise enough to be herself.  No Billie, no Betty, no Sarah, no . . . .

The CD is a ripe pleasure — each track its own vignette, so the listener never feels bored by sameness or startled by rough jumps of subject and mood.  Hilary’s range is broad: there are the beautiful AUTUMN IN NEW YORK (verse and two choruses), WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG, a jaunty BROOKLYN BRIDGE, and a swaying YOU CAME A LONG WAY FROM ST. LOUIS.

But her imagination doesn’t limit itself to “the Classics of the Great American Songbook,” and she reaches for Leonard Cohen, Nellie McKay, Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell, making this CD an appealing anthology of short tales.

Hilary also has a deep awareness of the music’s foundations — without turning the disc into a repertory project.  So her accompanists (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) include Tatum Greenblatt, trumpet; Jason Marshall, tenor saxophone, Jon Cowherd, organ; Randy Napoleon, guitar; Elias Bailey, string bass; Jerome Jennings, drums, and the invaluable Ehud Asherie, piano.  Often the prevailing mood is neo-Basie.  Could that be wrong?

It’s a wonderful debut from an artist who offers us a great deal.  And I predict she will continue to delight us.

If you live in the tri-state area, the news is even more exciting.  Hilary and Ehud will be performing in duet at Smalls (183 West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, New York) on Sunday, April 7, beginning at 7:30.  Details here.  I am looking forward to it . . . please leave a few seats for me in the front row!

May your happiness increase.