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Jazz and Pop CD Review: Vocals A Go Go


By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 14 May 2004—A 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 year.


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 cleaner."


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.


BEBO & 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.

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