A Critic’s Grab-Bag

Pietro Tonolo
Your Songs: The Music of Elton John

The summer’s most accomplished animated film, Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, was rightly praised by critics for its critical edge — a jaundiced view of haute cuisine and a wise view of the relationship between artists and critics. The movie has two “heavies”: a petty and washed-up chef with a Napoleon complex, and a darkly cynical food critic who relishes burying a once-hyped restaurant started by a celebrity chef.

In the end, however, Ratatouille‘s critic is won over by great cooking, even though he learns it is the work of a rat. The critic, donning a beret, becomes — simply — a fan and supporter. The critic, redeemed! Ah, how that sat well with me, a man who reviews jazz records each week.

As a critic, you want to write positive reviews; you want to be a supporter of what’s great in the art form that you cover. Taking potshots at the bad stuff is easy — and fun — but it is makes you wonder what your purpose really is. Sure, you help the consumer decide what is worth buying or discovering in the art form, but why spend the time to bury the junk when there is always more gold to be uncovered? However, you feel your own critical judgment start to slip away if every record you write about is a five-star affair.

For me, the most rewarding work as a critic is not in evaluating the flow of big menu items from established artists but in sampling the little dishes that come along. The mailbox fills up with promo CDs that you didn’t necessarily ask for — and these unexpected listens can be the most nutritious morsels of the year. Other times, they merely educate or surprise. Often enough, they suggest the reasons that the artist is unknown. But they make my work come alive with discovery.

Here is a quartet of obscure, interesting stuff that has surprised me so far in 2007.

A Student’s Ambitious Reach: Fight the Big Bull

The best recording of 2006, for me, came from trumpeter and arranger Steve Bernstein. Bernstein loves jazz and plays squarely from that tradition, but his music often challenges the tradition in fundamental ways. If you haven’t heard Millennial Territory Orchestra, Volume One yet, then stop reading this now and order it.

But I did not have to order Fight the Big Bull from guitarist Matt White, the only arranging student of Mr. Bernstein. The band, actually, is called Fight the Big Bull, and it features a five-horn front line, guitar, bass, and two rhythm players, all amassed to make music that is beyond jazz and, as Ellington said, beyond category. All the Fight the Big Bull press is in Spanish first and English second, and the sound certainly approximates something like gospel-flamenco or Mingus-Meets-Machito-on-the-Pampas. There can be little doubt that Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a big influence, but there is so much else as well.

White and his various bands (too many to mention, except to say that there is also a three-piece called, simply, Fight the Bull) are based in Richmond, Virginia — a fact that accounts (at least in part) for the relative obscurity of the outfit. In today’s world, recording can be done inexpensively at high quality, and Fight the Big Bull is the best argument out there for small-market jazz innovation. Though it is a record of only four White compositions, it is also much-much music. The enterprise seems sonically gigantic, in fact, with the various moving parts both independent and coordinated. The textures are not glossy as is typical with jazz — they grind and shout more, with the example of Latin and flamenco music suggesting voicings and contrapuntal arrangements that populate the music raggedly.

Fight the Bull gets, simply put, a rapturously chaotic sound. White’s guitar is alternately guttural and flowing, tying knots in the music that make it catch on your ear. The rhythm feeling avoids easy swing in favor of marches and grooves and syncopated snap-crackle-pop. The horns play in massed choruses but the also play free and contrapuntal. The melodies grow out of the mass of sound. The music is always alive.

It makes you want to dance and it makes you want to film a crazy movie that this could be the soundtrack for. It makes you want to rush down to Richmond to take in the sleight-of-hand in person. It makes you wish for a more records like Fight the Big Bull that disregard questions of economics and questions of location and declare — through a loudspeaker — that great, messy, generous music can come from anywhere.

An Unlikely Pop/JazzTriumph: Pietro Tonolo Down the Yellow Brick Road

Much of what comes through the mail to a jazz critic is pro music by lesser-known artists, typically on independent labels. The jazz market (and market share) is now so small that even significant artists can go unknown and can seem marginal — and that certainly describes Italian saxophonist Pietro Tonolo for me. A veteran of Enrico Rava’s band as well as the Gil Evans Orchestra, Tonolo plays modern jazz with practiced grace and true adventure. And the “sidemen” on his most recent record are no slouches: Paul Motian on drums, Steve Swallow on bass, and Gil Goldstein on piano and accordion.

Still, when Your Songs: The Music of Elton John (ObliqSound) arrived at my door, I proceeded with caution. The Music of Elton John? Elton John would seem the most unlikely subject for a jazz essay. Despite being a first-class pop tunesmith, he would not seem to be on the level of Stevie Wonder for this kind of treatment. Would this be very good smooth jazz? Would this be a set of abstractions of well-loved tunes that become unrecognizable?

It turns out that Your Songs is a perfect amalgam — a challenging example of modern jazz that uses recognizable tunes to ground the exploration in pleasure.

The rhythm team here, of course, is nearly incapable of making a bad record. Motian and Swallow play both loose and tender with the material. It has been said a million times that Paul Motian does not play the time as much as he implies it then colors it. But listen to “My Song” here, with the pleasant pop groove transforming into a slightly funked jazz tune. Swallow improvises on electric bass (like a mellow jazz guitar) and Goldstein thoughtfully plays piano, and then Tonolo enters with the familiar melody on soprano sax. But because Goldstein and Swallow never really stop soloing, the whole is a kind of pop Dixieland — as if Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman had recorded a particularly well-known melody.

Some of these tracks reveal the excellence of John’s art. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” turns out to be a question and answer song, with the two elements being both highly differentiated and melodically strong. This freely swung version brings the two elements of the tune into high relief and forces the players to invent actively. “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” features Goldstein’s accordion out front, mixed with Tonolo’s tart soprano sound. It turns out to be a textured masterpiece, with the melody standing easily and properly without any words. Swallow doubles the accordion line in some places and the two wind sounds also double to create overtones, making the four musicians seems like a sextet or larger.

To my considerable surprise, Tonolo’s Your Songs is capable of repeated and extended listenings, a jazz record to please purists and pop fans alike. Thus, it is a rarity — particularly when it arrives unsolicited on your doorstep. Being a critic is cool…

The Acquired Taste of Nanette Natal

Being a critic is cool…but challenging. Sometimes the work that arrives challenges your assumptions and still disappoints.

Nanette Natal is a jazz singer based in New York — hardly an under-populated category. There are plenty of fine singers I’ve never heard (or never heard of), and so the arrival of Natal’s I Must Be Dreaming — apparently the singer’s sixth record for her own record label — could go just about any direction. According to Natal’s official “bio”, she started as a classical singer, then played folk-rock at the Bitter End, only discovering jazz later in her career. More curious: the photo section on her web site contains several photos of her — ??? — as some kind of Bollywood Indian film figure. Talk about getting a critic curious…

I Must Be Dreaming is a short album of only seven tunes, all of them written by Natal in an angry response to the recent policies of the Bush administration. On my first listen, I was struck by the simplicity of the tunes — blues variants and two-chord vamps containing little in the nature of choruses, hooks, or strong melodies. Political subject matter does not often make for great art in my experience, and this was certainly not a modern We Insist! Freedom Now Suite from Max Roach and Abby Lincoln. Rather, it was a bunch of surface meandering about war and materialism over some notably dull music.

Nanette Natal

A closer listen was no antidote. On this most recent record, Natal’s singing is out of control in every respect. Though her press material touts her huge range, she expresses it here in a series of odd, affected sonorities. In her lower register she affects the basso throatiness of Sarah Vaughan; in her midrange she uses a confessional tone that brightens into the pinched, feline snarl of Nancy Wilson or — I kept checking my ears — Eartha Kitt; her soprano sounds girlish and flutey. On almost every track here, she shifts between these sounds with peculiar abandon — twisting individual words and even individual notes across pitches and sounds. The sound of the record, to me, suggests an artist who thinks she is being edgy and creative but is, in fact, in the midst of wild — and pitchy — self-indulgence.

The title track and first “single” contains lyrics such as: “Look on the streets of America / See what you find / Look on the streets of America / You won’t believe your eyes / The muddy waters, the old, the dying / The hungry children, the muddy waters.” This kind of stuff is sung in a series of swoops and slides as Natal shifts from her throaty shout to her nasal whine, all over a vamp between A-minor and G that never seems to end. Other tracks are no redemption: a faux-Bo Diddley blues or two, a meandering folk-ish track, a long piece featuring a harmonica. It is tough listening. It is too often out of tune.

Can this album really be as terrible as it sounds to me? I played it for friends who, one after another, asked me to stop torturing them. On top of it all, the recording seemed extraordinarily weak to me — all vocals, with the guitar and rhythm buried in a muffled mix.

I was haunted, however, by the extraordinary notices that Natal seemed to have gotten, at least according to her press materials. Somewhere between the Bitter End, Bollywood, and Seventh Avenue South (a once-great NY jazz club where she allegedly “exerted a strong influence on the downtown jazz scene”), Natal had impressed some people. The puzzle made no sense to me.

And here is where the story intrigues. Much of the music streaming on Natal’s web site is fantastic. Set to a swinging rhythm section and given a strong melody like “Crazy He Calls Me”, Natal seems less like a confused set of “jazz” affectations and more like a successor to Nina Simone. On these tunes, the singer was relaxed rather than sloppy and her pitch — rather than seeming like it was always vaguely off as it scooped up and slid down on every other phrase — landed with precision within the song’s harmony.

Not every song held up, though. Natal’s treatment of “Moon River” is bold and different — slow and with all the Henry Mancini polish taken off and given a gospel/folk vision on solo piano. This might have been a genius move, but the vocal here exhibits all the erratic miscalculation found on I Must Be Dreaming. The harmonica solo by Gary Schreiner is gorgeous, but when Natal reenters the tune, singing “Two drifters off to see the world”, it all goes wrong again — too much affected vibrato, that weird bass sonority, everything sung with unearned drama and weirdness.

It struck me, ultimately, that Natal is really a cabaret artist — someone who might work well in a certain kind of club or dinner room — who was capable of fine jazz singing when the conditions are just right for it. Her ear for plucking the sound from Sassy or Nancy Wilson or Cleo Laine is impressive — and her craft in the abstract is lovely — but the mark of a fully successful artist is matching material, personality, and ability into a whole vision. Jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Cassandra Wilson, or even Diana Krall not only produce art that is consistently them and consistently excellent, but it is also them whether they are singing Cole Porter, Lennon/McCartney, or an old blues. Natal, even at her best on something swinging like “Love Signs”, is grabbing snatches of Miles Davis (rhythm licks from both “Milestones” and “Seven Steps to Heaven”) and Carmen McCrae, cobbling together something capable of admiration but little affection.

And the recent collection of political folk songs — nearly all unlistenable — catch a capable singer at her worst angle, repeatedly. As a critic, I didn’t want to dislike it and I tried (literally for months) to reconcile her talent and this disaster. My ultimate conclusion: even among the significantly talented, there are very few good jazz singers.

The Last Record I Expected to Enjoy: Janice Friedman’s Modest, Lovely Vocal Debut

Many records come through the door by local artists putting out their own work on small or self-owned labels. They might be legitimately talented and well-trained, but a critic’s skepticism would seem well-earned when he receives the vocal debut of a local New Jersey pianist who appears, at first glance, to be a suburban lady with a hard case of wishing she were Marion McPartland.

A critic’s skepticism is even more valid when the disc in question is the pianist’s debut as a singer. Oh, no.

If Natal — a singer with range and craft but no real vision — disappoints, then what hope is there for Janice Friedman, a 47 year-old from the Bronx and North Jersey via the Indiana U jazz program? With a title like Swingin’ for the Ride and cover art that suggests a low budget, I expected the worst.

But I was wrong. First things first: Friedman is fluid modern jazz pianist of imagination and driving swing. She plays beautifully on ballads, up-tempo numbers, and bossas, easily digging the chords for improvised gold. She not only compares favorably with best pianist you’ve ever heard playing jazz in a local restaurant or bar, but she should be playing regularly in New York — and it’s pleasing to report that she is playing at Sweet Rhythm on 7th Avenue South in September with Judi Silvano and others. Friedman, relegated to an Italian restaurant near Giants Stadium too much of the time, is the real deal.

But what about the singing? That could still be horrific, and you know it.

But it is not. It is modest singing in the hands of a terrific musician, which means that it is used with musical care and success. Unlike Natal, who has a real instrument in her throat and tries injudiciously to use it all over the place like Jackson Pollock run amok in a paint store, Friedman sings narrowly and directly. On a classic such as “Don’t Blame Me”, Friedman does not try to out-sing the masters. Largely vibrato-less and merely pleasant but somewhat dry in tone, her vocal does little melodically to embellish what is already as good as it gets. But, a jazz musician, Friedman works with the rhythm of the tune to create tension (and, thus, genuine swing) by lagging slightly behind the beat.

The best comparison, perhaps, is to guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli. Pizzarelli is a world-class guitarist, a master of the rare seven-string guitar who plays with virtuosic flash. As a singer, however, Pizzarelli uses wit, rhythm, and personality to let the songs he chooses shine. Friedman takes a similar approach, letting the singing sit at the center of the disc without calling flashy attention to itself.

The bonus of Swingin’ with the Ride is the body of original songs offered amidst the classics. “The ‘I Do’ Song” has a hip, harmonically complex melody that manages to make falling in love seem sophisticated again, and “A Fairytale” pulses with gentle Latin groove while moving through a set of inevitable harmonic shifts. I don’t care as much for the title track’s slightly corny lyrics (she calls her husband “my monkey” throughout the lyrics — an inside pet name that couples should keep to themselves), but it has a funky jazz groove that would not shame either Horace Silver or Eddie Harris.

Here’s how good Swingin’ with the Ride turned out to be: I could imagine catching a Friendman gig the next time I’m in Jersey visiting my mom. The scampi might be great and — no cover!

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With 2007 more than half-gone, I find myself already cheering for the more obscure records that await my discovery. Sure, Bruce Hornsby has made a jazz record with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette, but I’m eager for the surprises that are ahead — the next batch of unknown or local talent that has a trick up its sleeve. Bring it on!

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