News Column

New jazz discs excel with less-is-more attitude [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

September 29, 2013

YellowBrix

'Infinite Blue'

Patrick Cornelius (Whirlwind)

'Live at the Jazz Cafe'

Joe Davidian Trio (Self-produced)

Alto saxophone player Patrick Cornelius and pianist Joe Davidian accomplish more in small settings than many do in bigger ones. Cornelius' "Infinite Blue" is based mostly on the work of a quartet featuring him, piano, bass and drums. They are joined on six of the album's eight tracks by a trumpet and/or trombone. Even those expanded settings are not always bigger. "Waiting," a pensive ballad, is basically a quartet number, but the two brasses join in for the last chorus. Numbers move from the bounding "My Green Tara" to the brooding "In the Quiet Moments," and all are well done. In an even smaller way, pianist Davidian gives new life to a collection of mostly well-worn songs. On classics such as "All of You," "Emily," "If I Were a Bell" and "Secret Love," Davidian and his trio offer imaginative interpretations that make each virtually new. Too often, trios playing such material become as boring as corn flakes and skim milk. Davidian and his crew avoid that nicely on this session recorded in a Nashville club.

-- Bob Karlovits

'Dreams in Apartments'

Nancy Harms (Gazelle)

Nancy Harms is far from a classic Ella Fitzgerald-like singer who captures fans with a remarkable voice and style. But there is an intriguing nature to the simplicity of her voice and concept of song. "Dreams in Apartments" presents her versions of jazz standards such as "Mood Indigo" and "It Could Happen to You" as well as some originals that manage to grab attention. All of them are done with a simplicity that is ultimately honest. Instead of trying to add newness by twisting phrasing, Harms adds freshness by paying attention to the lyrics and melody. Her concentration on the lyrics of "Never Let Me Go," for instance, makes a listener pay attention. She also does a vocal version of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1." Her efforts get good support from pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist John Hart.

-- Bob Karlovits

'The Diving Board'

Elton John (Capitol)

Eager to make a relevant record at age 66, Elton John sought a return to his roots on "The Diving Board," advertised as piano trio music in the vein of his marvelous early albums. But while they have energy, humor and good songs in abundance, "Board" is dull. The 15 cuts suggest John and producer T Bone Burnett weren't fully committed to the trio concept. Bass and drums remain subdued throughout, and several songs are dressed up with strings and backup singers. Meanwhile, John plays polite piano in starchy renditions of generic ballads. There's no "Bad Side of the Moon" here. Longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics, which read as if he mailed them in. "I went to Paris once, I thought I had a plan, I woke up with an accent, I wound up in quicksand," goes the chorus to "My Quicksand," which does create a sinking feeling.

The hourlong album is heavily back loaded, and the final three cuts are the best. "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" swings with a gospel feel, and the inventive instrumental, "Dream #3," offers more surprises than anything else in the set. On the autobiographical closing title cut, Sir Elton is supported by warm horns and is convincing as a cabaret singer. It's a better role for him than trying to reclaim his youth.

-- Associated Press

'The Bluegrass Album'

Alan Jackson (ACR/EMI Nashville)

Veteran country star Alan Jackson ranks among the most tradition- based singers of his generation. Most of his influences are on the surface: honky-tonk, swing, blues and songs both romantic and social that draw on details from his personal life. Jackson's new "The Bluegrass Album," much like his two collections of gospel hymns, brings out another form of American roots music that he loves. With characteristic laid-back charm, Jackson applies his sweet baritone to the hot acoustic picking and soaring harmonies that characterize bluegrass.

What Jackson brings to the table is outstanding songwriting -- an area where contemporary bluegrass can be lacking. The 54-year-old contributes eight original songs, including the standouts "Blacktop" and "Let's Get Back to Me and You," along with two by his nephew Adam Wright, who co-produced the collection with Jackson's longtime studio collaborator, Keith Stegall. Jackson tips his hat to bluegrass history by covering Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and the Dillards' great "There Is a Time." To Jackson's credit, he doesn't aim any of these songs to fit country radio's format. Instead, he concentrates on making a solid string-band album for the ages -- and succeeds.

-- Associated Press

'Yours Truly'

Ariana Grande (Universal)

Ariana Grande has taken an unconventional path to becoming a pop princess, in that she isn't a Disney Channel ingenue. Instead, she starred on a Nickelodeon sitcom, "Victorious." But make no mistake: Girl can sing. She's got a full-bodied voice, a mature sense of phrasing, and, as displayed on "The Way," a vertiginous range that will draw comparisons to Mariah Carey. On her slick, if superficial, debut, she wields a throwback R&B vibe that recalls singers like Minnie Riperton and Stephanie Mills. (Or even farther back on "Tattooed Heart," all the way to Ronnie Spector.) Impressive showing for a 20-year-old studio novice.

-- Philadelphia Inquirer

'Mechanical Bull'

Kings of Leon

Three years after the Kings of Leon's last record, the edgy, gravely rock foursome return in top shape with "Mechanical Bull."

The album takes the band's unique sound -- the recognizable longing guitars and Caleb Followill's growl -- and adds a hint of melancholy and a stillness that gives the songs an aura of contentment.

Nervy desire and wildness is still present in their music, most prominently in "Tonight," with its sexy vibes of earlier hits that hinted at mad tumbling into lust, and in the obsessive strummings of "Wait for Me." The playful notes of the first single, "Supersoaker," set the tone, adding a sense of giddiness to the proceedings.

Despite tackling the familiar themes of drunken nights and tentative love, the songs weave the story of a man who knows the meaning of being lost and who has finally been found. "Mechanical Bull" isn't the anguished edgy ride you'd expect from Kings of Leon but a fun, stirring experience you don't want to end.

-- Associated Press

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