By Mike Greenblatt
There’s something about Svetlana’s voice that is as light-hearted and joyous as a mild spring day when you can walk through the park and hit an open-air bar to hobnob with the patrons, hug the girls and high-five the boys. That world may be gone but it’s what went through my head when I heard Svetlana’s gorgeous arrangement of Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful,” an outtake off her sumptuous No. 1 Billboard jazz album Night At The Movies with songs from some of the films she used to sit in the dark and watch back in Moscow, plus some newer ones that that she still kvells over. Svetlana, a heady, intellectual cineaste, picked Top Hat (1934), Pinocchio (1940), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Tootsie (1982), Sabrina (1995), Despicable Me (2010), Coco (2018) and others for the album (all had strong songs to anchor their message).
The just-released “Young and Beautiful” is from The Great Gatsby (2013) and can be streamed on all digital platforms. Here’s hoping I can one day go back to the greatest city in the world like the night I hit Manhattan running to meet her and thrill to her wild prohibition-era jazz. That night was so thrilling that I dare say it was one of the greatest club gigs I ever witnessed. Maybe it was the company I was keeping at the time but I look back at that particular night with a special kind of fondness.
Standard Deviation (Henri Elkan Music), the second album by composer/arranger Wayne Alpern, is a whirlwind of instrumental jazz-pop wizardry wrapped in a funky soundtrack-like box of pleasure that will only deepen your smile with every new listen. I knew it’d be cool when a Frank Zappa quote graced the inner cover: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” From that point, the music within is certainly not radical or experimental, as Alpern writes in his own liner notes, “…its vitality lies in the familiarity of genres, recollection of themes, and the unpretentious interpolation of the dance floor…I’m a musical kleptomaniac like Stravinsky…”
To that end, get ready for funky versions of songs you know that are now in new brightly-lit rooms: Michael Jackson’s 1982 “Thriller,” Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 “Ode To Billie Joe,” Bob Dylan’s 1967 “Hey Landlord,” Journey’s 1981 “Don’t Stop Believin’,” The Zombies’ 1964 “She’s Not There” and The Temptations’ 1964 “My Girl” are instantly recognizable. The others, especially twin highlights “As I Went Out One Morning” (’67 Dylan) and “Who Loves You Pretty Baby” (The Four Seasons, 1975), take a little longer to insinuate themselves into your cranium but when they do, the rush is palpable.
The Boss of The Blues Sings Kansas City Jazz (Bear Family Records) has Big Joe Turner swinging the blues in an even more dramatic way than on his classics like “Flip Flop & Fly” or “Shake Rattle & Roll.” This is a guy whose very presence signals the kind of rockin’ fervor reserved for the greats. Starting with boogie-woogie piano pioneer Pete Johnson [1904-1967] in the 1930s, he was signed by Ahmet Ertegun to Atlantic in 1951 for a strong string of great hits featuring that big booming voice. In ’56, he recorded this with members of the Count Basie Orchestra. At the peak of his powers, songs like “Cherry Red,” “Roll ‘Em Pete,” “Low Down Dog,” “Wee Baby Blues,” “You’re Driving Me Crazy” and “I Want A Little Girl” (highlights all) will steam-role your senses into submission. The accompanying booklet prose by one of the great music historians of all time, Colin Escott, is alone worth the price of admission. Big Joe Turner is, indeed, one of the greats.
It seems like all of a sudden, starting with his 2018 The Questions, vocalist Kurt Elling, after 12 albums in 25 years, is tackling subjects heretofore off-limits. To that end, on the new Secrets Are The Best Stories (Edition Records), he takes the words of author Toni Morrison, 19 Century abolitionist Frances E.W. Harper and poets Robert Bly/Franz Wright, puts them within melodies by Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Vince Mendoza, and sings like he’s never sung before.
The melodic structures tend to stretch into extended soliloquies that are the opposite of catchy. They demand concentration. They’re moored in a framework of words and images that require thought. Plus, it’s as much Danilo Perez’s album as it is Elling’s. The brilliant Panamanian pianist, composer, educator and social activist has his fingerprints all over this. Along for the ride is Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccato, saxophonist Miguel Zenon, guitarist Chico Pinheiro, Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz and in-demand session drummer Johnathan Blake, as well as Elling’s longtime bassist Clark Sommers. The result is a magnificent opus of startling proportions. Elling has made a 2020 Top 10 listen.
Rivages (ECM), by accordionist Jean-Louis Matiner and guitarist Kevin Seddiki, takes from classical, soundtrack, tango, folk, jazz and ambient to create a beautiful mélange of sound. The two spur each other on to heights of improvisation and the creative fusing of disparate elements to create a new whole, a sublime, romantic excursion into the imaginations of these two master musicians.
There’s no telling where they will go. And getting there is where the fun lies. This may be esoteric but it is, in a word, accessible. Gorgeous. Not limited to preconceptions stemming from the label’s history or the dictates of the avant-garde. If it’s not exactly “commercial,” it’s at least satisfying, comfortable and soothing. I wonder what Gabriel Faure, the French composer/keyboardist/educator, dead for 96 years, would think of their version of his “Les Berceaux.” The same goes for Belgian singer/songwriter/poet/actor/director Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (dead for 42 years). Matiner and Seddiki take from surprising sources (plus originals) in practically inventing their own genre. Is it because Seddiki studied the Iranian hand drum that his rhythmic excursions sound so exotic? German composer/pianist/critic Robert Schumann has been dead for 164 years yet I wish he could hear their opening salvo, “Schumannsko,” which sets the scene for what’s to come. No wonder they put this one first. It’s an eye-opening, head-scratching, stop-what-you’re doing moment in which they extrapolate his essence within the confines of a traditional Bulgarian folk song.
Rivages is very special. It’s Seddiki’s ECM debut. Matinier has been on a boatload of ECM releases. Let’s hope these two reconvene again because there’s a bit of magic going on here.
Ivo Perelman, 59, after playing guitar, cello, clarinet and trombone, found his pleasure principle in the tenor saxophone. Not content to emulate his early heroes like Stan Getz and Paul Desmond, he searched and searched for where his own heavily stylized brand of sax fit into the great canon of pioneers like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and David Murray. From Brazil to Boston to Los Angeles to New York City, this unique musician—also a celebrated painter—who suffers from synesthesia (he sees sound and hears colors) has released 92 albums in 30 years. Now comes album No. 93 with longtime 20-fingered pianist Mathew Shipp. Amalgam (Mahakala Music) writes new rules. Throw out any possible concept of structure, including standard melody, harmony, meter and rhythm. These two are so finely attuned to each other’s every tic and breath, they operate as one, and without drums/bass to anchor them, their flights of fancy are wondrous, exciting, abrupt, dramatic and—truth be told—do take some getting used to. It’s galvanizing. It’s another world. Ivo gets jittery, breathless, nervous and in-your-face with an artistic arrogance that swaddles the ear in a non-linear amalgam of schizoid proportions. Adventurous, all over the map, kinetic and abstract-to-the-max, Ivo remains a singular sax force on the planet. Squeaks, bleats, burps, yells and stop/start surprise are all in his arsenal. Do you dare?