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Nick Bewsey, April 2015

Nick Bewsey has been writing about jazz for ICON since 2004 and is a member of The Jazz Journalists Assoc. He also participates in DownBeat’s Annual International Critics Poll.

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José James ★★★★1/2

Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday

Blue Note

Singer/songwriter José James has a fluid baritone that smolders as

much as it seduces. His original albums veer easily from jazz to

soul and pop to grinding rock and rhythm and blues, which tells

you he’s not especially hemmed in by labels or genre. As a com-

poser and narrator, he croons as a friend, brother, a confidant or a

lover. On stage, he works a persona that’s vulnerable and often

sensual, with an effortless charisma and natural charm. He’s

relatable—which makes him an ideal interpreter of the songs of

Billie Holiday.

Yesterday I Had The Blues is a tour-de-force record by a musician who reveals in the liner notes, “her music spoke to me on a much deeper level. Her work was mastery—of pain, of trauma, of faith in music and the power of transformation. I had found my teacher.” That absorption of joy, heartache and the otherwise indescribable quality that made Holiday a timeless performer gives James an edge that’s vacant on most tribute albums to the singer.

Over nine tracks, mostly ballads, the album’s focus is on quality not quantity as James pares things down, relying on a close collaborative process with his pianist, Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer/percussionist Eric Harland—a team of like-minded musicians with astute improvisational skills.

What makes his version of “Good Morning, Heartache” so effective is that James lets the song breathe and take shape as a love letter to one’s own soul. It’s sung delicately and beautifully performed, highlighted by Moran’s slow, shimmering solo. Equally fine, his “Fine And Mellow” is a deep blues tune, dressed with gospel-tinged piano and thick, insistent groove. The wily romp, “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” is the most up-tempo tune, and soulful gems “Lover Man” and “God Bless The Child” sport more modern contours. The record ends with the spiritual “Strange Fruit,” as haunting as ever, the timbre of James’ voice bereft and righteously full of judgment. (9 tracks; 47 minutes)

 

Billie Holiday ★★★★★

The Centennial Collection

Sony/Legacy

Is Billie Holiday the ultimate jazz singer? You might think

so listening to this commemorative anthology that draws

from Lady Day’s early period, performing tunes recorded

between 1935 and 1945, either fronting pianist Teddy

Wilson and his Orchestra or leading her own, on timeless,

defining tracks that continue to feed into the myth, magic

and tragedy that is Ms. Holiday. Released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Holiday’s birth (April 7, 1915), these essential tracks showcase the singer at her peak. As a cultural icon, she has no modern day equivalent (Amy Winehouse deserves her own story) and hearing Holiday sing these pop tunes, jazz songs and jukebox tracks on this artfully prepared collection is both a gift to music fans of all stripes and a paean to a singer that ultimately transcends genres. (20 tracks; 60 minutes)

 

Russell Malone ★★★★

Love Looks Good On You

HighNote

Strong melodies and tight rhythmic interplay distinguish the guitarist Russell Malone, and the memorable music on Love Looks Good On You, glows with a charismatic halo.  He knows how to put a recording together and the playlist has an involving flow, starting with a robust original by Mulgrew Miller, the swinging “Soul Leo.” Malone reaches back to the ‘70s, arranging two unexpected movie themes he knew as a youngster, including an obscure music cue from Shaft called “Ellie’s Love Theme,” written by Isaac Hayes. It’s a very pretty tune played with unbridled sensitivity.  As a ballad player, Malone takes his time by concentrating on single notes and melodic choruses; it gives the title track a dimension that’s simply gorgeous.

Malone has an indispensible band on board. The savory sound of pianist Rick Germanson, the nimble plucks by bassist Gerald Cannon and tight beats from drummer Willie Jones III, give this group its pulse. The bounce on Thad Jones’ “The Elder” and the resonant groove on George Coleman’s jazz standard, “Amsterdam After Dark” lets the quartet shine and tasty solos abound. A master of styles, you’ll catch a Chuck Berry lick here and a Wes Montgomery run there, Malone is foremost an original and with Love Looks Good On You, he’s back in the spotlight.  (9 tracks; 52 minutes)

        

Duchess ★★★★

Duchess

Anzic Records

The notion that “everything old is new

again” blossoms like spring on the

charming self-titled debut record by the

trio Duchess, and it’s altogether refreshing. With a sound inspired by songs sung by Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters, albeit with classy,

updated arrangements to charts that date

back to the 1930s and ‘40s, Amy Cervini,

Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou,

three strong jazz and pop vocalists with their own solid careers, serve up sophisticated humor (Cy Coleman’s “A Doodlin’ Song”) and café society swing (Peggy Lee’s “Love Being Here With You”) with the cleverest wit.

Up close and personal, I heard them during their March CD release gig at the Jazz Standard in NYC, where the sold-out crowd was seduced by ballads like “Que Sera, Sera” and Johnny Mercer’s “P.S. I Love You,” where their warm, earthy harmonies hit you like Cupid’s arrow.  That original blend of sauce and swing deservedly make Duchess stand out. With a fine band in tow anchored by pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Paul Sikvie and ace drummer Matt Wilson, this completely delightful trio hearkens back to the era when performers like Bobby Short sang songs and entertainment was the priority.

 

Ben Wolfe ★★★★

The Whisperer

Posi-tone

Bassist Ben Wolfe keeps a low profile on The Whisperer and his subtle presence clues you in to the album’s title. It’s as if he’s inviting you to listen to how good his band sounds. A refined musician, Wolfe stealthily defers to the vibrant soprano and tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard to voice his compositions while rounding out his quartet with an essential Orrin Evans on piano and the surefire drummer Donald Edwards. The quartet shines as a unit, deftly navigating the changes on sharply edged tunes—the excellent “Heroist” has a surging groove and features an arresting solo by Evans. Among several strong ballads, the best is the graceful “Hat In Hand,” a deliberate and lovely number with a fulsome melody and warm late-night glow. This excellent album makes for a rewarding listen. Fine writing, superlative improvisation, experienced leadership and Wolfe’s steadfast bass gives The Whisperer its juice.  (12 tracks; 60 minutes)