By Mike Zwerin
14 May 2004A surprising number of recordings by musical vocalists
have lately been crossing this critic's desk. Coincidence or a trend? The
popularity of Norah Jones, who has all alone raised the sale of jazz records by
a couple of percentage points, helps explain the first two.
VIKTORIA TOLSTOY, "Shining On You" (Act): A Swedish singer billed as the
great-great granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy who resembles the young Debbie Harry
and is a very good singer indeed deserves a notice. The songs, in the Broadway
song-form tradition, are written and arranged by the Swedish pianist Esbjorn
Svensson, the leader of the group EST. The album's stylishness might be a bit
too self-conscious to be for real but it is better than it has to be and
Tolstoy is a hypnotic stylist and so that would be a quibble. Swedish
trombonist Nils Landgren and the Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans add
to the elegance.
ULITA KNAUS, "So Lost Like Peace" (Minor Music): It has been said that a
jazz quartet is "three musicians and a drummer." Like with drummers, Ulita
Knaus, who is German, is one of a minority of good looking female singers who
can sound as good as they look. She sings her own songs and songs by others in
English with a nuanced voice that is almost aggressively in-tune. She obviously
believes the lyrics. Accompanied by a more than competent rhythm section, she
adds discrete horns, guitar, backbeat and electronics from time to time. She
produced it herself, the production is excellent and her far-from-manic ballad
version of Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" might just be the cover of the
NORAH JONES, "Feels
Like Home" (Blue Note): Vapidity is too often mistaken for minimalism. Not the
case here. Simple but far from dumb, laid-back with a reassuring groove,
country edges and sustained organ and guitar chords, the refined ambience of
Norah Jones's second million-selling album is just the ticket for these days of
chaos and woe. That such a tasteful universality is still possible is good
news. Her under-stated voice is a perfect compliment to the airy textures that
producer Arif Mardin spins under it - a sustained mood as much as a series of
songs. The mood and the slow tempi recall Shirley Horne, who also accompanied
herself on the piano. Jones's good time is not the least of it (she is,
remember, the daughter of Ravi Shankar). "Feels Like Home" might work well in
an elevator, although you might not want to get off.
OTIS TAYLOR, "Double V" (Telarc): Sometime
antique dealer and bicycle fanatic Taylor writes and sings the blues and plays
the banjo, mandolin and harmonica as well as the guitar. He is one of the most
artistic, relevant and mellifluent blues artists at work today. The album's
title refers to African American veterans of World War II holding up both their
hands and making a double V meaning both victory in Europe and the right to
vote at home. His grandfather was lynched and his uncle was murdered and his
album notes explain the song "Mama's Selling Heroin:" "My mother served one
year in the state penitentiary in the 1950s after being convicted of selling
heroin." Taylor's 18-year old daughter Cassie is his bass player and back-up
singer. He has been voted blues artist of the year in Germany and France and
has won the WC Handy award in the US. Have you ever heard a blues record with
four cellists before?
PERU NEGRO, "Jolgorio" (Times Square
Records): Peruvian salsa is a mixture of West African roots and Afro-Cuban
branches with the traditions and instruments of the Andes. The African
influence had been on the decline in Peru and was only kept alive by elderly
descendents of slaves in private gatherings until an ethnic revival in the
1960s. Afro-Cuban percussion took charge of the mix with cajones (box drums),
bongo and conga drums and a cowbell playing powerful complex cross-rhythms. In
the 1970s, the music and dance group Peru Negro began to tour in South America
and Europe - their first tour of the US was in 2002. This is their second CD.
The track "Carnaval Negro" just might blow your mojo.
DAVID BYRNE, "Grown Backwards" (Nonesuch):
There's nothing wrong with the art song so long as David Byrne puts out records
like this. Printing the album notes in circles on the disc itself turns the
listener in its favor from the start. Ex lead Talking Head Byrne's latest is a
post-swinging-London update of bawdy Olde England ("civilization is all about
sex") including "Glad" ("I'm glad I'm a mess, I'm glad you don't mind") and
"Dialog Box" ("I'm ready to die in the dialog box"). Accompanied by a French
horn, his faux-troubador tone of voice singing "what's good for business is
good for us all" is just right. Collaborators include Rufus Wainwright, Carla
Bley, Giuseppi Verdi, The Tosca Strings, Georges Bizet and Alan Ford on "vacuum
MARVIN GAYE, "The
Very Best Of" (Motown): The lesson here is never ever fall for a mere "best of"
collection again. Insist on the "very best of." It can't get much better than
this one, which spans Gaye's career from "Hitch Hike" with The Vandellas,
"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Tammi Terrell, "I Heard It Through The
Grapevine" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" to "Sexual Healing."
If there is room for only one Marvin Gaye album in your collection, this is the
very very best.
& CIGALA, "Lagrimas Negras" (Calle54/BMG): A passionate musical
encounter between the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, 85, and flamenco singer Diego
El Cigala, who is 50 years younger. Bebo sings boleros with traditional
cadences and inflections with his grainy Gypsy voice. He ranges from flamenco,
rumba and guajiro to tango and Valdes's stately piano anchors it all in the
Caribbean. Guests include Caetano Veloso and Paquito d'Rivera.
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the
International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the
European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the
jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.