Music Review: Gaby Moreno – Illustrated Songs

Hi all!

Recently I’ve been amazed by the seeming rebirth of a more classic sound – not quite Motown, but something close mixing R&B and soul with modern songwriting. Artists like Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Duffy and Adele remind me a bit of the soul music greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight. It was an era where you could feel the blues and gospel roots shining through and I think we’re starting to see that style again as new artists are gaining traction on the pop charts.

Gaby Moreno takes the bilingual skills of an artist like J. Lo and puts a bit of a Duffy/Adele spin on them without losing her own originality along the way. She’s capable of smooth ballads in Spanish and hot songs like “Mess a Good Thing.” Her new album, Illustrated Songs, is impossible for me to lump in one category however. It spans multiple genres and would sound just as at home in a French cabaret, a jazz club in New Orleans, or on “Top 40” radio. Though I compare her to Duffy and Adele, she both is similar and yet not at all similar to both artists.

To add to the confusion, I swear Moreno has one of the most genre-defying voices I’ve heard in a long time. In one song I’m reminded of the new soul movement, in another I’m reminded of Judy Garland, and in yet another I think her songs would seem at home in any Randy Newman-inspired Disney/Pixar movie soundtrack.

Of the dozen songs on the album, “Mess a Good Thing” is by far my favorite. The rocking soul guitar, strings and horn section behind her sultry voice just drive home that this woman has some serious soul. At no time did it feel like the song was out of her control, as can sometimes happen when you sing with such a large band. She knows she’s a good catch and her man won’t be leaving her: “Baby, you won’t be messing a good thing / Hurrying off with the break of day…” But though the lyrics may say he won’t be leaving her, her voice drives the point home hinting that if he does he’ll be in trouble!

But “Garrick” is one of those songs that just can’t leave my brain. The fact that she’s singing in Spanish makes no difference at all. It’s the amazing arrangement of strings, guitars, and clarinet that really makes this one groove. I can’t help but see her singing in front of a big band in some 1920s speakeasy or French cabaret. She’s just at home here as in her sultry soul mode, adding to the mysterious mix of genres she’s comfortable with.

And “Mean Old Circus” makes me think of some Judy Garland movie. The xylophones, circus organs, and her voice merge to provide yet another genre. She dons them as easily as changing hats. Beneath the kid-friendly sound however, there’s a darker purpose to the words – “A revelation …for conversation / A new permission for my religion / A sleeping lion’s lion dream /
In my forsaken evil schemes…” What is she really after here? Escaping to the circus may simply be a cover for more nefarious plans.

Evidently Gaby taught herself to speak better English by singing blues, R&B, and soul classics from artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin. “I learned English from blues records. I’d read the lyrics, then go to my dictionary. In school, we studied basic English, but the records made me interested in learning it and singing it.”

Moreno is backed up by a terrific band featuring Sebastian Aymanns (drums), Leslie Lowe (bass) and an ensemble of renowned musicians including Greg Leisz (electric guitar, Mandolin, Lap Steel), Big Band leader Bob Mintzer (bass clarinet), Larry Goldings (celeste, piano), Patrick Warren (piano, keyboards), Mark Goldenberg (guitars) David Piltch (upright bass), Conan O’Brien’s horn section – Mark Pender (trumpet), Jerry Vivino (tenor sax), Richard “La Bamba” Rosenberg (trombone), and Adam Schroeder (baritone sax) – and string, horn and woodwind arrangements by Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann, Grant Lee Phillips and Amy Correia ). It’s a huge band that reminds me of the big band era of the 1940s but has all the other genres and playing styles at their beck and call as well.

Gaby Moreno seems to be a lady out of time brining classic ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and other styles back to the people. If you’re looking for something to wile away a lazy Sunday, Illustrated Songs should be on your list to pick up. I love it when modern artists seek to rejuvenate the past and can’t wait to see what else lies in store for her. Illustrated Songs will be released on April 5, 2011 with a tour to follow. To learn more check out Gaby’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these great albums below!

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Music Review: Hello Tomorrow – Dave Koz

Hi again…

Once, many moons ago, I was a jazz alto saxophone player. I played for six years until graduating from high school and moving on to college. Some of my fondest memories from high school involved jamming on stage with the rest of the jazz band. Sadly, at that point I no longer had time for it, nor many opportunities to play.

But even though I no longer play my sax, I gained an appreciation for many of the jazz greats that keeps me on the lookout for great jazz music both past and present. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are on my list of course, but so were more modern musicians such as Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Jay Beckenstein (Spyro Gyra), and Dave Koz. Each of these brings something different to the field.

Dave Koz recently switched to a new record label – Concord Records – after nearly 20 years with Capitol Records and his own label Rendezvous Entertainment. He recognizes that it’s a big change, but realized that there are many other people in a similar situation. “Circumstances have led them to take a step in a different direction or reinvent themselves in some way,” he says. “Many of us are at the beginning of a new era, and I’ve found it’s liberating to embrace change.”

He’s definitely done that with his first album on the label – Hello Tomorrow. Koz managed to pull together some truly amazing folks to help him out. Herb Alpert, legendary musician, plays trumpet on the record and most of the songs were recorded at the former A&M Studios – now Henson Recording Studios – where Alpert recorded many of his own classic albums. Add to that Boney James (awesome sax player – “Here She Comes” on Pure) who plays on “When Will I Know For Sure”, and Keb’Mo (blues singer/guitar) who plays on “Think Big” and “There’s a Better Way.” But the hit parade doesn’t stop there… Others include Jonathan Butler (R&B/jazz singer/guitar), Brian Culbertson (jazz/funk keyboards and trombone who also co-wrote some of the songs on the album), Sheila E. (drummer/singer), Dana Glover (pop singer), Jeff Lorber (keyboards/composer), Ray Parker, Jr. (R&B/jazz/funk singer/guitar, Ghostbusters theme song), Lee Ritenour (jazz/blues guitar) and Christian Scott (jazz trumpet). Koz is amazing on his own – but to be working with all of these other talented musicians just raises his work to another level.

Back in 2003 on Koz’s Saxophonic release, he opened the album with “Honey-dipped” which has to be one of my favorite jazz songs of the last 10 years. He repeats the feat on Hello Tomorrow with “Put the Top Down” where his jazz licks are joined by Ritenour, Parker Jr., and Butler on guitar; Marcus Miller on bass; and Sheila E. on percussion. This song just rocks along with a funky bass and drum groove behind the scenes as it builds and builds the conversation between guitars and horns until it fades away.

But funny enough, like on Saxophonic, Koz doesn’t rest on his laurels. This album moves around fluidly from genre to genre. Another of my favorites that is passionately haunting was written and sung by Koz’s friend Glover – “Start All Over Again.” Speaking to Koz’s own journey of change from one part of his career to the next with a new label, this song reminds us that so long as our hearts are beating and we’re still breathing we can start all over again. Her smoky, emotive voice builds to offer a hope that often eludes us when things seem their worst. Merged with Koz’s sax, piano, building guitar and drums, it will hopefully provide some light in the darkness for someone needing a bit of inspiration to keep moving…

And Koz’s song “When Will I Know For Sure” which pairs his tenor sax with Boney James’ soprano was another of my favorites. There’s something about the way this song grooves along to a beat, but plays with melodies back and forth in a way that it seems like it could have gone on forever. I don’t know what it is that adds that feel of mystery, but it’s fun to listen to these two masters go back and forth with various themes as it continues on.

If you are a fan of modern jazz, Dave Koz’s Hello Tomorrow brings together so many great talents from blues, jazz, R&B, rock, and pop that you should find it easy to find something to like among the thirteen tracks. If this is a sign of what’s to come for Koz, I’m excited to see what the next album will bring. <em>Hello Tomorrow</em> is set for an October 12, 2010 release.

Check out Koz’s website – DaveKoz.com – to listen to a few tracks from Hello Tomorrow and information about upcoming tour dates and more!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these great albums below!

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Music Review: Night Train – Keane

Hey…

Keane is one of those bands I would sometimes hear on the radio that simply became part of the background. Songs like “Somewhere Only We Know” gained so much air play locally that I just changed the station without really listening. Little did I know what depth was there beneath the surface…

Keane’s three members – Tom Chaplin (lead vocals), Tim Rice-Oxley (piano, backing vocals), and Richard Hughes (drums, percussion) – have been making music together since the late 1990s. With only limited success up to then an early bandmate – Dominic Scott – left in 2001, but the band pressed on. When their single “This is the Last Time” was released in 2003, they started to gain some traction, which paid off handsomely with the success of Hopes and Fears a year later.

After Hopes and Fears, the band released Under the Iron Sea (in 2006) and Perfect Symmetry (in 2008), both receiving immense praise and encouraging throngs of fans worldwide to attend their live shows. For the Perfect Symmetry tour, they visited 28 countries’ worth of packed venues – Russia to Australia, Columbia to South Korea, Lebanon to Switzerland… And somehow they had time between dates to slip into the studio to record a few tracks.

It’s those tracks you’ll find on their new album – Night Train. And I have to say that I don’t know why I didn’t latch on to Keane’s rich melodies and deep lyrical meaning in the last 6 years. I doubt that they’ll continue to fade into the background when they’re on my radio.

With only eight tracks, Night Train doesn’t have a lot of time to grab your attention, so it doesn’t waste any. From the opening beats of “Back in Time” to the amazing “My Shadow”, the album rises and falls effortlessly across a varied musical landscape. And while I may not personally appreciate all of their genre-defying collaborations with fast-rising Somali/Canadian rapper K’Naan or Japanese baile funk MC Tigarah, I applaud the band taking chances to broaden their already impressive appeal.

Among my favorites on the album are “Back in Time,” which to me sounds like a plea to stop the world… “Time, I wait for you / Hibernating hoping life will start again” evokes an image most of us have struggled with in life from time to time. The feelings of loss and sadness after a particular loss forcing someone to hide away for a while while the pain fades. The driving synthesizer and drum beats, like a heartbeat, keep the song pumping as Chaplin’s vocals evoke that painful plead.

As a band that I always associated with synthesizers and rock guitars, the acoustic guitar and percussive claps that open “Clear Skies” caught me a bit off guard. The almost upbeat music almost hides the sadness of the lyrics – wanting to feel the certainty of those who survived. “And I wish that I could be / Everything you are, everything you are / And I wish that I could state / My faith the way you do, as certainly as you…” Like the passing of a storm, “Clear skies gonna fall on you…” This definitely evoked television news memories of the Katrina aftermath for me.

“Your Love” sounds like it came right out of the 1980s with its drum machine-sounding beats and background keyboards, with a dash of today’s darker romantic vibe. As the singer lay on the floor, fallen to floor under the influence of the drug that is love… “The chemicals react, the molecules collide / The poison works its way somewhere down inside…” – what a dark, almost technical description of the effect of love’s drug set to the innocuous, happy beats of an earlier age.

But by far my favorite is “My Shadow,” with it’s haunting message of love and new beginnings. Like an exploding universe, “And you will see my shadow on every wall / And you’ll see my footprint on every floor…” as the spark of lust and love that kick off the start of new possibilities. “It only takes a spark / to tear the world apart / these tiny little things / that make it all begin.” And beneath it all, the driving keyboards and harmonies to drive the point home.

Keane’s new album Night Train takes no prisoners as the band experiments with ideas, styles, and collaborations that will find their way onto the radio once again to become more than simply notes in the background. Even if you’ve not heard Keane before, give this album a listen.

–Fitz

p.s. Check out this and other Keane albums at Barnes & Noble below!

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