Nick Bewsey, May 2015
Nick Bewsey has been writing about jazz for ICON since 2004 and is a member of The Jazz Journalists Assoc. He also participates in DownBeat’s Annual International Critics Poll.
Joanna Pascale ★★★★
Listening to Joanna Pascale sing is like getting a big hug.
Her voice is warm, wise and easy to love. The Philly
native has put out fine solo albums previously, but
nothing like Wildflower, a deeply felt record that freely
mixes pop tunes, blues and outlier standards. Running
through the set list, her influences are quick to spot —
from J.J. Johnson (“Lament”) to Ray Charles (“Drown
In My Own Tears”) and Shirley Horn. In fact, her band’s
tight, delicious groove on the shimmering opener, “Forget
me,” sets a seductive mood and you can imagine Pascale
cozying up to the mic, confident as all get out. She spins
the lyric with Horn-like shading and a swinging tempo
that makes you want to dance. It’s the start to a great
listening experience produced by pianist and longtime Pascale friend, Orrin Evans.
Certainly, with any vocal recording the heavy lift is pairing the right tunes with a great interpreter, and Pascale’s choices effectively do that by hitting emotional touchstones on every track. While the core trio features Evans, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Obed Calvaire, the singer imports ace guest talent like Christian McBride and Cyrus Chestnut, who shake up a saucy “Do It Again” and later with the extraordinary harmonica player, Gregoire Maret, on a delightful “Overjoyed.” Pascale’s singing is the stuff of dreams, whether on the achingly beautiful “I Wanna Be Loved” or the reliably uplifting “Ill Remember You,” where she shines with halogen brightness. (11 tracks; 62 minutes)
Ben Williams ★★★★1/2
Coming of Age
It was easy to see why Ben Williams debut, State Of Art (Concord, 2011), made such a splash. It had a deserved buzz around a rising talent, and remains a primer for how to make a modern jazz record. Since then, besides heavy side gigging and touring with his Sound Effect band (Christian Sands, Marcus Strickland, Matthew Stevens and John Davis), the 30-year-old Williams had a key role in Pat Metheny’s Unity Group—the band played over 150 shows internationally in 2013. That’s a lot of experience in a compressed time frame, so it’s not surprising his follow up, Coming Of Age, is a rush of pleasure from beginning to end.
The highly disciplined Williams, a Julliard graduate and winner of the 2009 Monk Institute Competition, weds fresh jazz to pop and R&B on seriously engaging tunes that hum and heave from his nimble bass whether he’s on acoustic or electric. The record is backboned by tracks that electrify (“Strength and Beauty”) and groove (“Half Steppin’”) and his vocal collaborations with soul singer Goapele (“Voice Of Freedom”) and a reprise of a track called “Toy Soldiers” with Washington, DC, rap/spoken word artist W. Ellington Felton, satisfy the de rigueur groove revivalism and album’s crossover appeal. Instrumentals like “Black Villain Music” and the sweet gloss of strings and muted trumpet by guest Christian Scott on “Lost And Found” will satisfy on multiple spins, but it’s the keyed up guitar solos, funky electric piano, sonorous sax and wicked beats that give Coming Of Age it’s more-than-just-jazz appeal. It’s a contagious hang, fueled by virtuosity and vision along with Williams’ canny sense of music making. (11 tracks; 67 minutes)
Joe Alterman ★★★★
Pianist Joe Alterman is a preternaturally gifted musician who, at 26, seems to have absorbed the soulful style of Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis without impinging on his own tasteful straight-ahead arrangements of easy listening standards. On his sophomore release, Georgia Sunset, he’s a polished pro—turning melodic chestnuts and post-bop standards into feel-good, finger-snapping winners. Produced by and featuring his mentor saxophonist Houston Person (with Gregory Hutchinson on drums and Rueben Rogers on bass), Alterman smoothly swings through “Blue Moon,” “Hard Times,” and a Motown gem, “For Once In My Life.” He takes a couple of impressive solo turns (“How Deep Is Your Love,” among them) and offers up one original (the title track) that’s a soulful twist on “Canadian Sunset,” which highlights the pianist’s sensitivity, disarming technique and most of all, unpretentious charm. (12 tracks; 57 minutes)
E. J. Strickland ★★★★
The Undying Spirit
E.J. Strickland is an artist with a clear and sensible vision: that a drummer-led jazz record should give listeners an opportunity to get their groove on. The all-original program on his The Undying Spirit isn’t infused with long, indulgent percussion solos—snuff out any recollection you have about drumming from the movie Whiplash—because Strickland has a gratifying knack for hip melodies and a soulful strut that clicks frequently on this highly listenable album. The date leads with a groove tune called “Ride,” a track with a memorable theme and an arrangement that salutes the gifts of his tremendous quintet—brother Marcus Strickland on tenor, Jaleel Shaw on alto, phenom bassist Linda Oh and the accomplished Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo. As a group, they ground the drummer’s music.
On tunes like “Transcendence” (a tribute to Nelson Mandela) and “For My Home Folks,” the music has a beating heart, literally and figuratively. The songs are pleasantly long and Strickland’s charts give his band the freedom to exercise with harmonics and rhythms, stretching solos and phrases for maximum feeling. You get a sense there’s a lot of love here—all the tunes relate to Strickland’s life, brother, friends, family and his greatest love of all (“for SC”). A striking record by a remarkable musician, Strickland brings all his game to The Undying Spirit. (10 tracks; 70 minutes)