Autumn is here, Christmas is practically around the corner, it is time to start serious consuming again. Here are some early gift suggestions.
DIANA KRALL, “From This Moment On" (Verve): It’s kind of ironic that the Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett Broadway song-form crooner tradition is being extended by a woman. There are also some young male imitators, but they are merely clones. Sinatra could have programmed the album (“Little Girl Blue," “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams"). Krall’s texture, diction, phrasing, intonation, and commitment are exceptional - you rarely find all five strengths in the same singer. Accompanied by a fat, shouting big band, she puts new twists on some old assumptions. Plus she can really play the piano. A pleasure.
ROBERTA DONNAY, “What’s Your Story?" (Rainforest Records): Krall notwithstanding, it is safe to say that the world does not desperately need any more female jazz singers. Not to sound condescending, but I get a lot of new CDs featuring good-looking women who can’t sing their way out of paper bags. It doesn’t take a music critic to hear that Roberta Donnay is not one of them. She covers such songs as Johnny Mercer’s “Drinkin’ Again," and Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman’s “Small Day Tomorrow" in much the same manner as she covers her face on her photo on the cover of the album, with a wide-brim. Her engagement with the lyrics, her supple sense of time, and her soulful-little-girl timbre remind you of Billie Holiday. She is elegantly accompanied by the pianist Eric Reed and a discreet rhythm section.
MIKE STERN, “Who Let The Cats Out?" (Heads Up): Stern is one of the best electric guitarists of the generation that came to maturity in the 1980s. He played for extended periods with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and Steps Ahead. The best thing about him is how much he loves to play. On stage, wearing his fly-eating grin, it’s almost as though he’s trying to physically step into the music; to go to the mat with it. That positive attitude comes through here. Within his framework of jazz-rock fusion, and even outside of it, he remains one of the best improvisers around. With such guest stars as Richard Bona, Roy Hargrove, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Bob Malach playing Stern’s exciting jagged lines such as “Leni Goes Shopping," this may be one of the best new jazz recordings of the year.
ORNETTE COLEMAN, “Sound Grammar" (Sound Grammar Records): This one certainly is. In the 1950s, Coleman began to play what would come to be called “free jazz," and “freebop," although he protested: “I never said I was playing free anything." He can say mysterious stuff. For example: “Not many people are aware that there is a song form that is no different from the way people talk. That’s got to be some advanced grammar. The grammar of a song keeps you grounded. If you could play free of grammar you wouldn’t have that problem. If only you could find someone to play with."
Whatever that means, and however you call it, he has tried to free himself from musical grammar, to play beyond the notes, from the beginning. The way he stretched and bent that seemingly limitless form called the blues, it can be argued that Jimi Hendrix learned a lot from him. It was while giving birth to this kind of music that Leonard Bernstein famously embraced Coleman on the bandstand of the Five Spot Café in New York. With “Sound Grammar," almost 50 years later, he seems to have taken it a step further, beyond music itself. Floating on top of his current quartet – with two contra-basses, one plucked one bowed, and his son Denardo on drums – his precise and loving alto saxophone evokes the voices of angels, fallen and otherwise, talking. It’s pure, it’s ageless, it goes right to the heart. One might quibble about a quartet with two contrabasses in it, but that would be quibbling.