October 2021 Jazz Record Reviews

Nina Simone: The Montreux Years
Simone, vocals, piano; Buck Clarke, Paul Robinson, drums; Leopoldo Fleming, percussion; Gene Taylor, bass; others.
BMG BMGCAT461D (2LP, 2CD). 2021. Nick Bonard, Fraser Kennedy, Thierry Amsallem, prods.; Tony Cousins, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Nina Simone was one of the most remarkable singers of the 20th century, but few albums capture her full range—heartbreak ballads, jazz, blues, rock, African rhythms, militant politics. Hence the value of The Montreux Years, which contains excerpts from all five of her concerts at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1968 and 1990 and comes closer to comprehensiveness than any other album. Her voice was pure and operatic, with deeply affecting emotion, dipping occasionally into sadness and anger. (The 1990 tracks show her in less-than-great health, wobbling a bit.) She was also a superb pianist who wanted to become America's first Black classical pianist.

The opening track, an instrumental of "Someone to Watch Over Me," reveals her virtuosity; the accompaniment to her singing shows her fine sense of rhythm, which no singer-pianist has matched except maybe Shirley Horn. There are songs here that make you shiver, especially "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" and Janis Ian's "Stars."

The sound is spectacular, thanks to Tony Cousins's restoration work and MQA digital mastering. The LPs sound considerably better than the CDs—richer with more dimension and depth. But the CDs include the entirety of the 1968 concert while the LPs contain just a few songs from that year (as both formats do with the other years). Could BMG release a 3-LP version so that we can hear all of '68 in the best sound? Better still, can they put out a multidisc box featuring the entirety of all five concerts? I'd pay a lot of money for that.—Fred Kaplan


Dmitry Baevsky: Soundtrack
Dmitry Baevsky, alto saxophone; Jeb Patton, piano; David Wong, bass; Pete Van Nostrand, drums.
Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 618 (CD). 2021. Dmitry Baevsky, prod.; Tom Tedesco, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

How time slips away. Dmitry Baevsky, that enfant terrible of the alto saxophone, is now 45.

The CD booklet for his ninth album contains a condensed, touching autobiography. Baevsky was born in St. Petersburg, entered the Mussorgsky College of Music at 15, and lived through the exciting, grueling aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. He came to New York at 19 to attend a two-week workshop and stayed 20 years. He now lives in Paris with his French wife and child.

Soundtrack is the musical score to his life story. It contains Russian and American and French popular songs, jazz standards, and originals. Their resonance within Baevsky's experience rings true. He renders Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York" and John Lewis's "Afternoon in Paris" with intimacy and also with assured, unerring grace. He still has the chops of his badass youth but now uses them to portray defining memories. He lets Michel Legrand's "La Chanson de Maxence" flow through him, riding the melody's life-affirming ascent. Yet he imprints himself on every moment of the song, with his luminous saxophone tone (beautifully captured here) and nuanced phrasing.

Complicated emotions attach to his memories. On "Autumn in New York," he glides through the streets of the city he loves. Sometimes he finds himself in concrete jungles. In his liner essay, he writes that New York can be "cruel and lonely." When he burns into place the jagged melody of Ornette Coleman's "Invisible," he must be thinking how strangers in a strange land can go unseen.—Thomas Conrad


David Helbock: The New Cool
David Helbock, piano; Sebastian Studnitzky, trumpet; Arne Jansen, guitar.
ACT 9927-2 (CD, also available as download, LP). 2021. Siggi Loch, prod.; Thomas Schöttel, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***

David Helbock of Austria is his own man on piano. He wears strange hats with keyboard themes and sometimes plays a toy piano. Poker-faced wit is central to his music, but his passions can be explosive. The New Cool is a departure. It is more measured, moody, and lyrical than his previous work. It introduces a new trio with unusual instrumentation: piano, trumpet (Studnitzky), and guitar (Jansen).

In contrast to many of today's younger jazz composers, Helbock is interested in interpreting works by others, from Jack Bruce of Cream to Chopin. In fact, the covers here prove his creativity more than the originals do. On Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford," Helbock's spare, pristine piano markings imply the melody. Studnitzky's trumpet makes that melody explicit, but in a whisper. Jansen's guitar enters and weeps. It is a hovering, dramatic rendering of one of the great jazz eulogies.

There are other strikingly fresh responses to previously existing songs. Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," smeared by Studnitzky's electronic effects, is dead slow and withholds the famous refrain until the very end. Chopin's Prelude in E Minor, Op.28, No.4, is one of music's most famous portrayals of despair; on Chopin's insistence, it was performed at his funeral. Helbock, ever the contrarian, plays it almost brightly, with a groove. "Angel Eyes" by Matt Dennis, that most wistful ode to love lost, becomes a powerful, sweeping processional. In service to Helbock the interpreter of diverse material, Helbock the arranger turns three instruments into an orchestra. The New Cool achieves its title.—Thomas Conrad


Roy Hargrove/Mulgrew Miller: In Harmony
Hargrove, trumpet; Miller, piano
Resonance Records HCD-2060 (2CD)/HLP-9060 (2LP). 2021. Larry Clothier, Zev Feldman, prods.; Larry Clothier, Timothy Frey, George Klabin, Fran Gala, Bernie Grundman, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

This is a wonderful record, Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller playing trumpet-piano duets at two live concerts in 2006 and 2007. It has never been released before, which is odd, as it captures them in peak form and very good sound. Both musicians influenced many colleagues but left a spotty legacy among listeners, partly because they both died young (Miller at 58 in 2013, Hargrove at 49 in 2018) and partly because their albums were rarely as good as their live performances. Which makes this album all the more valuable.

Hargrove dropped jaws when he arrived in New York at age 20, but illness diminished him in his final years. Miller was too often obscured as a sideman to such domineering bandleaders as Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Betty Carter. Such a treat, then, to hear them in duet, the most challenging jazz format: You have to keep up with what the other player's doing, no time to rest, no place to hide. They play mostly standards, unrehearsed, and the interplay is fresh and exciting but not showy: You have to listen closely to hear the intricacy of their crisscrossing lines. First, swoon at Hargrove's skylark spins, then listen for Miller's jangled rhythms, indigo harmonies, and spirited improvisations—shades of Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner but distinctively original.

The tracks from New York's Merkin Hall (Disc 1 and some of 2) convey a perfect blend of up-close palpability and ambient echo. Those from Lafayette, Pennsylvania (some of Disc 2) are a bit more distant and bright. The CDs and LPs sound very similar.—Fred Kaplan

shawnwes's picture

Pretty much agree with Fred's assessment. I'd have left Fungi Mama (last track on side 3 on the vinyl) off the recording as it's not very well captured and has mic overload issues. The SQ of most of sides 3-4 are not the equal of the first couple of sides. They are the real stars of this set. Definitely worth purchasing and not just a nice to have. Pressing was excellent.

Allen Fant's picture

Thank You - TC and FK.
Keep up the excellent work of reviewing Jazz.