August 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

Eva Cassidy: I Can Only Be Me
Cassidy, vocals, guitar; London Symphony Orchestra; six others
Blix Street G2-10121 (CD, available in download and immersive formats). 2023. Eva Cassidy, Chris Biondo, Christopher Willis, Bill Straw, Tom Norrell, William Ross, Jochem van der Saag, prods.; Nick Wollage, Neil Hutchinson, Jonathan Stokes, Jeremy Miller, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Eva Cassidy died of melanoma in 1996, age 33, almost completely unknown. She has since become a cult figure. The cult is large.

Cassidy left behind three self-released albums that appeared in her lifetime plus 127 unreleased tracks. Posthumous compilations assembled from this body of work have now sold 12 million copies worldwide.

The cult formed as soon as people heard Cassidy's pure, haunting, intimate, guileless, vulnerable human voice. She was that rarest of musical miracles: a natural. (Her producer, Chris Biondo, once said, "A lot of people take lessons to learn music theory and how to do harmonies. Eva could just doit.")

I Can Only Be Me is a stunningly ambitious project. It uses machine learning audio restoration technology developed by filmmaker Peter Jackson for his 2021 film The Beatles: Get Back. Cassidy's vocal parts (many of which came from live club recordings in 1996) were separated, then, recording in 2021, the London Symphony Orchestra became her accompanist, in arrangements by Christopher Willis.

Cassidy's extraordinary vocal instrument can make you hear familiar songs like "You've Changed" and "Autumn Leaves" for the first time. When she sings the line from Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Tall Trees in Georgia" ("The sweetest love I ever had I left aside ..."), she pierces your heart. What makes certain singers' voices magical is ineffable. Cassidy's soprano is much more than beautiful. It reaches in and steals your soul.

That voice has never been placed in a sonic landscape so rich, deep, and vast. Looming, sweeping strings create a majestic setting for her art. Eva Cassidy lives again.—Thomas Conrad

Dave Liebman: Live at Smalls
Liebman, soprano saxophone; Peter Evans, trumpet; Leo Genovese, piano; John Hébert, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums
Cellar Music Group CMSLF004 (auditioned as 16/44.1 WAV). 2023. Spike Wilner, Cory Weeds, prods.; Glen Forrest, Colin Mohnacs, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

In 1971 and '72, Dave Liebman got his first major gigs, entering the studio to record on Elvin Jones's Genesis and Miles Davis's On the Corner. Fast-forward about 50 years. Liebman is now an elder statesman, leading a band of much younger musicians.

Live at Smalls, recorded at the titular West Village club, is a fascinating document in an already impressive discography: a 72-minute free improvisation broken for convenience's sake into three portions titled, in Coltrane-esque fashion, "The Beginning," "The Middle," and "The End." Leibman is heard solely on soprano; of his partners—trumpeter Peter Evans, Argentine pianist Leo Genovese, bassist John Hébert, drummer Tyshawn Sorey—only Hébert has figured in a previous Liebman recording. These players are young but experienced, having collaborated with Evan Parker, Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, and Anthony Braxton.

Reasonably good sonics help appreciate the subtle variations in Liebman's and Evans's tone, though Genovese and Hébert are sometimes low in the mix. The frontline is diaphanous; Liebman and Evans both have inimitable sounds. Special mention should be made of the interplay between Evans and Sorey. That these two musicians have worked together before is wondrously evident just after the 18-minute mark, when they lock into a complex rhythmic dialogue. Such subgroupings are a compelling aspect of the sets captured here; as the pace slows and quickens, density gives way to air and novel textures emerge. The setting and the company obviously stimulated Liebman; check out his playful jousting with Evans over a stentorian Hébert near the end of "The Middle." It was fortuitous that a recording was made.—Andrey Henkin

Ralph Towner: At First Light
Towner, acoustic guitar
ECM 2758 (auditioned as 16/44.1 WAV). 2023. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Stefano Amerio, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

If Ralph Towner had not existed, ECM's Manfred Eicher would have had to create him, so perfectly suited is the guitarist for the producer's vision. Towner is one of the label's top-five most recorded performers. At First Light is his latest solo album.

This is Towner's first ECM date since 2016's My Foolish Heart. Like that record, it was recorded at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI in Lugano, Switzerland, by Stefano Amerio, one of Europe's finest engineers. Most of the music is Towner originals and standards, including "Make Someone Happy" by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, from the 1960 musical Do Re Mi; "Danny Boy"; and "Little Old Lady" by Hoagy Carmichael and Stanley Adams.

The album's 11 tracks take a mere 44 minutes. It has the feel of a live set, the set list decided on in the moment, each song given a lovingly pithy reading. The closing song, "Empty Stage," seems like a proper encore: solemn and reflective, energetic and generous. An early highlight is the second track, "Strait." Much of the album seems like a loving paean to John Abercrombie, Towner's longtime collaborator, most obviously when Towner quotes Abercrombie's tribute to him—Towner—on "Ralph's Piano Waltz." On "Make Someone Happy," the guitarist sounds positively buoyant on what is too often a syrupy tune. "Guitarra Picante" is a distillation of a piece Towner first recorded in 1991 with the second iteration of his collaborative group. The solo context emphasizes its spritely rhythms.

The album is at its most gorgeous in the middle, with the one-two pairing of the title track and "Danny Boy," which, like "Make Someone Happy," is brighter than usual.

Of Towner's new compositions, "Fat Foot" is the most compelling. It would have been ideal for his acoustic/electric duets with Abercrombie.—Andrey Henkin

Chet Baker: Blue Room
Baker, trumpet, vocals; six others
Jazz Detective DDJD-008 (2CD, available as download, LPs). 2023. Edwin Rutten, Lex Lammen, Zev Feldman, Frank Jochemsen, prods.; Jim Rip, eng.

Performance ****½
Sonics ****

It would be easy to think that we don't need any more Chet Baker records. His career has been voluminously documented. In constant need of drug money, he recorded often. That also meant that the body of work he left behind is wildly uneven.

The latest Baker title is Blue Room, a two-CD set. It comes from tapes found in 2020 in the archives of Dutch radio station KRO. They were recorded for broadcast in April and November of 1979, nine years before Baker was found dead on a street in Amsterdam. (He had fallen from his hotel window, or jumped, or was pushed.) In April, he played with his working band that was touring Europe at the time (underrated pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, drummer Charles Rice). In November, he used a local pickup band.

On both sessions, Baker is on fire. It is amazing to discover that as late as 1979, when he was on a long downhill slide that ended on that street in Amsterdam, he could still have nights like these. (In one of several fascinating liner note essays, Baker biographer Jeroen de Valk speculates that Baker's drug mix on these two occasions contained more methadone than heroin. "Methadone was great for his chops," de Valk wrote.)

Baker plays with the qualities that made him a star: Precision. Economy. Breathtaking, crystalline melodicism. His natural aesthetic domain was always theme-and-variation. His variations here uncover new layers of emotion in the familiar themes of great composers like Rodgers, Berlin, and Shorter. Even his singing is clear and clean, and the golden glow of his trumpet sound is beautifully rendered by engineer Jim Rip.

Blue Room makes you embarrassed for ever entertaining the notion that we have enough Chet Baker records.—Thomas Conrad

Various Artists: The Jazz Room, Vol.2
BBE BBE678CLP (LP). 2023. Peter Adarkwah, Paul Murphy, Julie Deimann, prods.; many engineers.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Many listeners, old and young, think of groove-heavy compilations as throwaways, something to be streamed in the background. Those who actively dislike compilations often flash back to the deep-track dilemma: shelling out hard-earned cash just to get one track. Add to that the fact that today most self-proclaimed, self-impressed DJs only have a handful of unknown bona fide hits in their trick bags, and it's easy to see why compilations aren't especially respected.

Jazz hasn't been a dance music since WWII. Not coincidentally, that was also the last time jazz was the popular music, what the kids were listening to.

The idea that jazz can still be groovy, can still make hips grind or be a party soundtrack, is effectively realized via the 13 licensed tracks of Jazz Room, Vol.2. Compiler Paul Murphy, an incredibly straight-looking older cat from the UK, has assembled a very worthy collection of singles. Mixing recent sounds from Europe, some with Latin and African tinges and all fitting loosely in the jazz genre, this is an uncommonly fresh, undeniably jazzy listen with a richer, more balanced sound than most varied compilations.

Like a DJ set, part of the art here lies in keeping the segues smooth, and in that way Murphy excels throughout. The groover "Rebel No. 23 (7" edit)," by UK tenor/flute player Chip Wickham, is followed by Finnish drummer Teppo "Teddy Rok" Mäkynen's "Roll Call," a spoken list of great drummers of popular music, opening with "Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, ..." Other highlights here include the Dave Brubeck–like "The Hipster" from France's Florian Pellissier Quintet and the closer, a boogaloo guitar/organ trio take on The Human League's 1980s hit, "Don't You Want Me." Solid from start to finish, Jazz Room, Vol.2 brings jazz, or something like it, back to the party.—Robert Baird

jimtavegia's picture

I was knocked out when I first heard this release as prompted from a AVS forum member. I have been a fan since Live At Blues Alley and this album with members of the LSO is a tremendous engineering project and showcases the benefits of what digital can do when called upon.

I have recommend this to many friends and acquaintances and they are knocked out as well. A tremendous achievement.

I will be checking out the Chet Baker release within the week. Your writers have hit some homeruns lately.

I have also landed upon a pair of KEF Q 350's as my new speakers as they are clarity champs and just what I need. The audition of the Meta's was great, but way more than I needed considering I use headphones 90% of the time. But it was time to retire my old 25+ year old AR 15's. I will gift them to a new home.

cgh's picture

Really appreciate that you have Towner here. I was a bit too young to know Oregon but was introduced by a former classical guitar teacher back in the oughts. I added a number of his solo works to my personal repertoire and really fell in love with his work. I was really thankful that he popped back to the US from Europe a few years ago and I could catch him in Manhattan. He's lost some of his dexterity but it was amazing and he was still Ralph. Love his entire ECM catalogue.

jond's picture

I've got the Chet Baker and Jazz Room Vols 1 & 2 queued up for later.

jtshaw's picture

My wife and I have enjoyed Chet Baker's "Blue Room" this summer. While not related, the sets were recorded early during the run of seven albums he recorded on the Steeple Chase label between 1979 and 1985. As Mr. Conrad notes, Baker's work during this period was wildly uneven, but I recommend "The Touch of Your Lips" (1979) and "Diane" (1985) from the Steeple Chase series as additional examples of Baker hitting late career peaks.

"Diane" is an album of duets with Paul Bley on piano. I don't recall hearing another session where two musicians melded so perfectly.

The valleys can be distracting as you listen through Baker's last decade, but in June 1987, less than a year from the very end, Baker toured Japan and gifted the world with "Chet Baker in Tokyo," a recording I hold dear to my heart and consider one of the finest performances in the history of jazz.

One wonders how many peaks were missed while Baker struggled with his addictions, but he still left a remarkable legacy.

jimtavegia's picture

I am really enjoying this double CD and will look up finding "Diane". I love his trumpet work and less of a fan of his singing, but still a great artists trying to fight his demons.