My DownBeat chat w/Jacob Collier (@JCollierMusic) is out now. Jacob is a musical phenom who sings up to 12-part harmony on his own songs and insane covers of songs like “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Meet The Flintstones.” And he plays every instrument in sight. It wouldn’t matter if he wasn’t a genius arranger – but he is.
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This is 21-year-old British singer-songwriter, musical polymath and YouTube sensation Jacob Collier. Yesterday I spoke with him via Skype from London, for an interview to be published in DownBeat Magazine. He was charming and articulate, and offered many insights into his singular musical process. His first album, on Quincy Jones’s Qwest Records, is due out July 1 – and it’s killer.
Appearing with her band before a small but enthusiastic audience in a small club in Pittsburgh, Becca Stevens’s music sometimes sounded the way Appalachian folk songs might if they were given astute, philosophical lyrics suggestive of romantic yearning and nature’s magic, and reharmonized and played by jazz musicians of enormous skill and subtlety. Here’s my review from DownBeat.com on May 27, 2016.
“Mmm-hmm… mmm-hmm…” With that sensuous, murmured affirmation, repeated rhythmically, the singer-songwriter Becca Stevens began her song “I Asked” on May 23 at Pittsburgh’s James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy.
In her strong but vulnerable soprano, she sang: “I asked my love/what do you need/ to make your wild heart/beat,” accompanying herself only on the charango, an Andean 10-string lute, on which she played an intricate, beguiling counter-melody line before the members of her namesake band joined in.
Stevens has performed this song, from her critically acclaimed third album, Perfect Animal (Universal Music Classics), in many contexts over the last couple of years. It has an undeniable emotional urgency and pleasurable tension-and-release, no matter whether she plays it solo or with a large world-percussion ensemble and three back-up singers, as she does on Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner, Vol. 2. (The remarkable live-in-studio video of the Snarky Puppy version has been viewed nearly 400,000 times on YouTube.)
Stevens played the Pittsburgh gig before a small but enthusiastic audience, with a stripped-down version of her band: Chris Tordini on bass and vocals and Jordan Perlson on drums. (A fourth bandmate, pianist-accordionist-vocalist Liam Robinson, was unavailable that evening.)
In this performance, the music often sounded the way Appalachian folk songs might if they were given astute, philosophical lyrics suggestive of romantic yearning and nature’s magic, and reharmonized and played by jazz musicians of enormous skill and subtlety.
In a former era, Stevens might have been considered a “folkie.” But in the 1960s heyday of folk music, the idea of folk musicians going to a conservatory to study jazz would have been considered pretty far out; times have changed.
The band’s sound is strikingly original and flexible: On their second album, Weightless (Sunnyside), the folk roots are more obvious in the band’s acoustic settings; on Perfect Animal, the sound is just as quirky, but denser and more electric.
Notwithstanding the folk leanings of the band, all three of the musicians present at the Pittsburgh show are in-demand jazz players. In addition to her appearance with Snarky Puppy, Stevens has sung with Billy Childs’ Laura Nyro Reimagined project, pianist-composer Taylor Eigsti, bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and singers Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin, with whom she formed the group Tillery.
Bassist Tordini, in addition to his longtime collaboration with Stevens, works with drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Matt Mitchell; drummer Perlson has played with pianist Bobby Avey and alto sax master Rudresh Mahanthappa.
There’s an invigorating freshness and idealism in Stevens’ songwriting, in which twisty melodies, bleak and poignant, are illuminated by unexpected chords and shifting meters. Stevens is also one of the most fearlessly innovative writers of choral parts, with frequent use of call-and-response and fugue-like structures.
Her vocal harmonies favor austere 2nds and 4ths, sometimes resolving, sometimes not. Although the songs worked their usual magic in the trio format, with excellent backup singing by Tordini, Robinson’s third voice and evocative accordion were missed.
After opening with the lovely, nature-inspired song “Tillery,” with lyrics by American poet Jane Tyson Clement, they played “I’ll Notice,” an original from the 2011 album Weightless, featuring Stevens playing a charmingly off-kilter ukulele. The program also included the hypnotic “Imperfect Animals,” for which she switched to a reverb-laden Stratocaster, and her fervent, idiosyncratic takes on Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ ’Bout You” and Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna.”
She also featured new originals: “Both Still Here” (a love song from an upcoming project she calls “Regina”) and “The Muse,” a song she wrote with folk-rock legend David Crosby that will appear on new albums by both artists.
In a DownBeat Players profile in January 2015, Stevens said that, despite her frequent collaborations with jazz artists, she wants to make sure she doesn’t get pigeonholed as a “jazz vocalist.” As long as she continues to write such blazingly original tunes and sing them wholeheartedly, she can rest easy.
(Note: To see a video of Becca Stevens performing “I Asked” with Snarky Puppy, click here.)
Pristine-voiced @JaneMonheit joins forces with trumpeter/composer Nicholas Payton @paynic to pay homage to Ella on her first album on her own Emerald City label. An abridged version of this review appears in the May 2016 @DownBeat. Here’s the more expansive version.
Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald
Emerald City Records ECR-001
★ ★ ★ ★
Nobody brought more joy or pathos to jazz singing than Ella Fitzgerald, inspiring generations of jazz vocalists. One of them was Jane Monheit, who grew up learning the American popular song canon from Ella’s “songbook” albums, as well as from her other idols like Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, and Judy Garland. Now Monheit repays the debt, singing favorite Fitzgerald tunes in an album filled with moments of startling invention and beauty.
Monheit’s pristine tone and formidable jazz instincts were recognized as a natural wonder when she won first-runner-up at the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. She doesn’t just sing a song, she ebbs and flows with it, breathing, sighing, moaning and caressing every syllable until it becomes her own. Over the years, however, Monheit has often had to prove that she was more of a serious jazz artist than the sexy image promoted by a series of record labels. Now on her own label, she has used her new-found freedom not only to record this long-gestating homage to Ella, but to do it her way, with help from the superb trumpeter-keyboardist-composer Nicholas Payton, who produced, as well as arranging eight of the twelve tracks.
The world didn’t need to hear Monheit or anyone else reiterate Ella’s definitive performances of these songs. The album’s opening notes – an odd, but alluring bass ostinato that paves the way for her sultry cooing of Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” – announce its intention to design adventurous new settings for these classics. The arrangements remain true to the indelible melodies and lyrics but roam freely around their harmonic structures.
Payton originally intended only to produce and arrange but ended up playing throughout the album, creating a fascinating melodic foil for Monheit. Their two voices entwine in gorgeous melody in a pairing of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” with “In a Sentimental Mood.” A brisk, carefree version of “Where or When” finds Monheit swinging in full Ella mode.
No singer could wish for more simpatico backing than Monheit gets from her longtime trio, Michael Kanan on piano and keyboards, Neal Miner on bass, and Rick Montalbano on drums. In particular, Kanan’s art as an accompanist is in full flower in a moving voice/piano duet of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” in which the pair elevate the Cole Porter standard to the level of art song.
Songbook Sessions/Ella Fitzgerald: All Too Soon; Somebody Loves Me; Chelsea Mood (Chelsea Bridge/In A Sentimental Mood); Something’s Gotta Give; I Was Doing All Right/Know You Now; Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye; Where Or When; Ill Wind; All Of Me; I Used To Be Colorblind; I’ve Got You Under My Skin; This Time The Dream’s On Me (58:42)
Personnel: Jane Monheit, vocals; Nicholas Payton; trumpet, piano (11), organ (11,12), arrangements; Michael Kanan, acoustic and electric piano, arrangements (3, 6); Neal Miner, bass, arrangements (7, 10); Rick Montalbano, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion; Brandee Younger, harp (5, 12).
Ordering info: janemonheitonline.com
My January 2016 DownBeat interview/profile of the terrific, genre-defying singer-songwriter, in which she discusses her near-death experience, her roots in Southern gospel music, and her transcendent new album, Freedom and Surrender.
In November, DownBeat published a condensed version of my conversation with the brilliant young pianist Aaron Diehl, who some of you may know best as the accompanist and musical director for singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. A pianist of extraordinary refinement like, say, Ahmad Jamal, he can also swings as hard as Oscar Peterson, who was also an influence.
Aaron and I talked music for nearly three hours in his Harlem living room, as he sat at his Steinway grand illustrating his remarks with musical examples. DownBeat.com has just published an extended version of this Q&A, along with a sidebar about his exploits as a private pilot. Enjoy, then check out his playing on his recent album Space Time Continuum (Mack Avenue) and on Cecile’s recent album For One To Love (Mack Avenue).
Thanks to the delightful singer/pianist Karrin Allyson and her husband, conductor and radio host Bill McGlaughlin, for welcoming me to their home on the Upper West Side yesterday. We talked about her terrific new album of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs – with the great Kenny Barron on piano and John Patitucci on bass – for an interview to appear in DownBeat soon. Check out this promo video.