News Column

Jazz players avoid cliches on new discs [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

September 1, 2013

YellowBrix

'Wake an Echo'

Matt Ulery (Greenleaf)

'For We Have Heard'

Steven Lugerner (No Business)

Bassist Matt Ulery and reed player Steven Lugerner know how to avoid cliches in music. The remarkable thing is that both do it with small groups that are given many colors and sounds through creative arranging. Ulery's "Wake an Echo" features a quintet of trumpet, bass clarinet, piano, drums and bass and explores seven songs that all have subtle, almost classical-style arrangements. On "Over Other Under," for instance, Marquis Hill's trumpet, Geof Bradfield's clarinet and Rob Clearfield's piano dance around the short melody, creating more than there seems to be. Clearfield also offers color by playing accordion on "My Favorite Stranger." Lugerner's "For We Have Heard" is more of a contemporary bit of concert music than a pure jazz outing. But when trumpeter Darren Johnston gets into his solo on "When a Long Blast Is Sounded," the album certainly is jazz. The jazz suite is played by a quartet of trumpet, piano, drums and many reed instruments. It tends to be contemplative and demands and rewards listening. Many things happen that will escape -- or not interest -- the casual listener, but its play is too good to ignore.

-- Bob Karlovits

'Paradise Valley'

John Mayer (Columbia Records)

Even those of us who have yet to date and break up with John Mayer may find "Paradise Valley" unlikeable. Kids are apt to spend some time with the hummable tunes before moving on to more fulfilling relationships. Predictably, Mayer's in love-'em-and- leave-'em mode. "Sure was fun being good to you," he sings. And, "I was made to chase the storm." And, "Some nights I throw it all away." On "Who You Love," Katy Perry weighs in, singing, "Some have said his heart's too hard to hold." Best is the summery "Waiting on the Day," which layers lovely vocal harmonies over a reggae pulse, and "Paper Doll," a gentle shuffle with darting guitars. Elsewhere, the songs are slow and slower fizz and froth, and there's nothing here to make us think, laugh or understand Mayer better. Don Was co- produced Mayer's sixth effort, which makes the hodgepodge arrangements a surprising disappointment. There's a bit of flute here, some pedal steel there and a tiki-bar mood that neuters Mayer's guitar playing, usually his strong suit. Mayer can still write a pretty melody, and his singing's fine following treatment on his vocal cords. But nearly half of the songs include wordless vocals, probably because on "Paradise Valley" Mayer doesn't have much to say.

-- Associated Press

'Rhythm & Blues'

Buddy Guy (RCA)

On "I Go By Feel," Buddy Guy uses the title phrase to explain, among other things, his approach to playing the blues. But even the greats, like Guy, can use help along the way in melding inspiration with craft and enhancing the artist's gifts. And Guy gets that from producer-drummer-writer Tom Hambridge. The result is a focused, hard- hitting two-CD set of 21 tracks that clocks in at just over 80 minutes total. The 77-year-old Guy gets plenty of chances to flash his prodigious guitar chops, but he does so in the context of taut, well-structured songs that don't stint on feel as they range from driving straight blues to swaggering roadhouse R&B and ballads brooding and soul-tinged. Guests are on hand, including Kid Rock, Keith Urban and Steven Tyler, but they just complement the main attraction, whom Hambridge supplies with songs that, at times, resonate with references to the singer's own life. And with "Meet Me in Chicago," there is also a welcome alternative to the well-worn Windy City anthem "Sweet Home Chicago."

-- Philadelphia Inquirer

'Push Any Button'

Sam Phillips (Littlebox Recordings)

Although she had been putting out albums since the early '80s, Sam Phillips retreated from the corporate music business after 2008's "Don't Do Anything," choosing instead to make songs available via a private subscription program she called the Long Play and to serve as music director for Amy Sherman-Palladino's TV series "Bunheads," as she had for "Gilmore Girls." In 2011, she released a sampler of a dozen of the 44 Long Play songs, but the self-released "Push Any Button" is her first publicly available new album in five years. Clocking in at 29 minutes, it's a compact set of 10 fun, barbed, clattering songs that integrate upbeat rockabilly guitars and sweet countrypolitan strings into the artful torch-song style she has mined since 2001's "Fan Dance." "When I'm Alone" and "You Won't Know" rock more than anything she's done since her baroque- pop period in the '90s, and ballads "No Time Like Now" and "Going" rank with her best.

-- Philadelphia Inquirer

'My Favorite Picture of You'

Guy Clark (Dualtone)

"The high price of inspiration/ Always leaves me broken/ But I keep comin' back for more ...," Guy Clark confesses near the end of his new album. If the creative process is a debilitating struggle for the Texas-bred, Nashville-based troubadour, you'd never know it from the results here. With "My Favorite Picture of You," the 71- year-old Clark's storytelling skills remain as tersely sharp as ever, and the delivery as effortless. As usual, the songs are placed in acoustic folk-country settings that fit the craggy contours of Clark's voice and his conversational style. The "you" in question is Clark's late wife, Susanna, who is pictured on the cover, and the title song is one of the album's most moving. But Clark writes just as affectingly about others, whether it's the stranded illegal immigrants in "El Coyote" or the scarred war veterans in "Heroes." And in "Good Advice," he offers just that, for fellow songwriters, in his own ornery way: "Don't give me no advice that rhymes/ I've heard it all a thousand times/ Don't start preachin' between the lines/ Give me something I can use."

-- Philadelphia Inquirer

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