Born and Raised
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
This is not the next move many would have predicted for John Mayer. A man capable of crafting immaculate -- and often immaculately boring -- pop music, Mayer has also spent much of the past several years wrestling with his blues-prodigy tendencies. He has seemed to flip-flop between the two styles as the mood took him, perhaps with the aim of hanging on to his more mainstream pop fan base while simultaneously grasping at a more lasting musical integrity. But a record of rootsy folk music with a jam-based underbelly and a Crosby, Stills and Nash obsession? It was tough to see this one coming.
Happily, Mayer sounds relaxed, comfortable and genuinely engaged in the sometimes sublime, sometimes so-so melange of Laurel Canyon, early-1970s vibes that comprise "Born and Raised." The key factor is Mayer's talent as writer, player and singer -- traits that have rarely deserted him over the years, and have earned him the grudging respect of listeners who wouldn't necessarily like to be considered part of Mayer's target market.
From the opening moments of "Queen of California," during which Mayer makes like a hippiefied acoustic troubadour (the melody even echoes the verses of the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider"), Mayer sounds like he's growing into his own skin at last.
The album was produced in warm, rustic tones by the more-than-able Don Was, and this setting suits Mayer's warm, mumbly tenor well. When he harmonizes with David Crosby and Graham Nash during the title tune, Mayer sounds like he's found his musical home -- somewhere between "Harvest"-era Neil Young and a less laid-back James Taylor.
Longtime Mayer devotees shouldn't be too put off by the long hair, beard and slacker-ware, nor the turn toward a more reflective musical strain. Mayer still delivers the pop-based swoons that made him loved by so many. He just seems less concerned with coming off as adorable. That's a good thing.
-- Jeff Miers
Steve Smith & Vital Information
Live! One Great Night CD and DVD
Review: 4 stars
Steve Smith sure has invested his "Journey money" wisely. Though he found mainstream fame playing with that band during its commercial peak -- yeah, that's his drumming on "Don't Stop Believin' " -- Smith has always been a jazz musician at heart. He launched Vital Information in the late 1980s, and though the band has changed guitarists and bassists often, Smith's virtuosic drumming and former Santana keyboardist Tom Coster's soulful lines have remained a constant.
"One Great Night" documents an exhilarating 2007 performance, with Smith and Coster joined by bassist Baron Browne and then-new guitarist Vinny Valentino. Smith is clearly the leader -- his grooves sit at the heart of all proceedings, and his ability to celebrate the "melodic drumming" of a Tony Williams or Max Roach while simultaneously adding the heft of a John Bonham is consistently dazzling -- but Vital Information is all about musical dialogue conducted in real time.
Nowhere is this more mind-blowingly displayed than during the thematically linked pieces "Interwoven Rhythms -- Synchronous" and "Interwoven Rhythms -- Dialogue." The pieces are built upon the polyrhythms of Indian classical music, but are approached with a jazz ethos, and they serve as the cornerstone of an album that ably proves Smith's prowess as bandleader. What's also readily apparent is the strength this quartet boasts in the composition department -- all four musicians can write.
The pristine live recording and warm, grainy black and white companion DVD reveal Vital Information to be a more than vital force. Raw, visceral, sophisticated, grooving, swinging, burning hard or playing laid-back and sensitive, these guys are the real deal.
Elora Festival Singers and Noel Edison
"I Saw Eternity"
Review: 2 1/2 stars
I saw eternity, too. It happened while I was listening to this disc. I'm sorry for the bad joke -- though they were asking for it -- but where does scripture state that new religious choral music must be so dull? Can't choral music be rousing or entertaining or melodic? These pieces groan along, cheerlessly, dissonantly.
Some, true, are worse than others. Timothy Corlis' "To See the Cherry Hung With Snow" is deadly, whereas his "Gloria," part in Latin and part in English, has some melody. Paul Halley's "Bring Us, O Lord God" gets momentum from quoting from the old hymn "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need." In general, though, these Canadian composers seem focused on carrying out their own mathematical calculations, the heck with the rest of us. The Elora Festival Singers are a tremendous ensemble, doing a marvelous transparent job of this music, even if it does not deserve it.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
David Linx, Maria Joao and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra
A Different Porgy & Another Bess
Review: 4 stars
One of the great jazz discs of the year.
If anything, in fact, it proves conclusively that Europe is now the home of the great jazz orchestras, it's this one, coming as it does on the heels of the recent Kenny Wheeler masterpiece "The Long Waiting."
The great meetings of jazz and George Gershwin's surprisingly hardy and dominating opera in American music came when Samuel Goldwyn's film of "Porgy and Bess" came out in 1959, by some lights the greatest year ever in modern jazz. That's when jazz got one of its greatest masterpieces in Miles Davis and Gil Evans' version of Gershwin's score. Much was made of the large orchestral version by Bill Potts but, in retrospect, much finer was the elaborate set with Mel Torme and Frances Faye singing Porgy and Bess with arrangements by Russell Garcia.
"A Different Porgy and Another Bess," more than 50 years later, is an altogether original version of the score performed by the Brussels Jazz Orchestra playing arrangements by a platoon of some of the best arrangers in Europe and sung by David Linx and Maria Joao.
There are times, regrettably, when Joao's voice has some of the girlish, even pixieish quality of, say, Blossom Dearie which really makes no sense at all with someone singing music written for one of the most womanly characters in American musical theater. (It would be different, of course, if Dearie or, say, young Kat Edmonson, were to sing selections from it. Singing best of the score on one disc is another dramatic matter.)
With that one reservation, this disc turns out to be absolutely spectacular, with fresh voicings in virtually every arrangement and vocals by Linx, especially, that aren't all that far from the masterly versions of Mel Torme.
A great jazz record, as so many of the 21st century European discs seem to be -- seemingly out of nowhere.
-- Jeff Simon