Archive for February, 2015

feeling the liquid spirit

gregory porter.

gregory porter.

On the title song to his 2013 recording Liquid Spirit, which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album last year at this time, Gregory Porter compresses the remarkable distinction and diversity of his music into a three-and-a-half minute tent revival.

The lyrics address a sense of soulful need and eventual nourishment sung with churchy hipster reserve and punctuated with righteous hand claps. But the accompanying music (which, like the narrative, was penned by Porter) is all jazz flexibility peppered by Stax-style brass.

It’s a complete, sanctifying song with a message Porter has been happily spreading to global audiences. Throughout the 18 months since the album’s release, such gospel soul smarts have also elevated Porter to celebrity status within a jazz world where stardom often translates into commercial concession.

“In the year I’ve been performing these songs, the messages and ideas I had upon writing them became clearer to me in a way,” Porter said. “The poetry for the song Liquid Spirit – – ‘Un re-route the rivers/Let the dammed water be/There’s some people down the way that’s thirsty/Let the liquid spirits free’ …I remember the feeling and energy I had when writing the song, that I had something to express, something to get out, something to get off my chest musically.

“I’m really trying to open up people’s spirits and have them open up their own spirits. It’s just a release of energy, love and music. It’s happened definitely for me. When I perform this song, whether it be at the Berlin Philharmonic, whether it be at Town Hall in New York City or at the Royal Albert Hall, people are clapping their hands and releasing their own musical energy. I don’t mean to sound romantic or overly spiritual, but that’s the thing.”

As a child in a large family growing up in Bakersfield, California, sensing the spirits became second nature for Porter. His mother, a minister in the Church of God in Christ, saw to that

“She just encouraged me. It’s an interesting thing. She always worked two jobs, but I don’t ever remember her not being around us. She was always a present figure in our lives. There were eight kids – five boys and three girls. So as our main minister and our mother and our provider and our encourager, she was a really extraordinary person. Her encouragement to just sing very much encouraged me. Even today, in my writing, she comes up all the time. She’s in Liquid Spirit. She’s in the song When Love Was King and in the song Movin’ (both from the Liquid Spirit album). She’s marked quite well musically.”

Plenty of secular inspirations also came into play for Porter, as witnessed by Liquid Spirit’s loose limbed cover of the 1960s Ramsey Lewis hit The In Crowd. In fact, ask him about the giants that helped shape his singing and Porter’s reply is immediate.

“That would be both Nat King Cole and Donny Hathaway. They had two very different styles, both coming out of emotive expression that probably had some experience developing in church. They struck me as artists. Aside from what they were doing musically, which was deep and profound, their music really grabbed me emotionally

“People talk about the emotion in my jazz. I think that’s the way jazz first hit me. It was emotion and not just the lines and dots of the music and not the theory and the intellect, which is all there. But the emotion struck me first.”

While fans and critics alike may view the follow-up to Liquid Spirit as the next logical step in expanding Porter’s still-blooming musical profile, the singer and songsmith plans on making sessions for his next album, which should commence in the spring, as stress free as possible.

“I don’t put any pressure on myself. I’m not trying to match the Grammy win or the reviews or the acceptance of this last record. If it’s received the same way as the last record, cool. If it’s not, well, I hope to continue to work at this thing and do what I do.

“I am just trying to be an organic musician. I’m not trying to please ears or anything. I just try to make the music, and that’s what I will attempt to do naturally.”

Gregory Porter performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $35-$42. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

the matriarch of the festival

jean cornett outside her midway home in 2002. herald-leader staff photo by frank anderson.

jean cornett outside her midway home in 2002. herald-leader staff photo by frank anderson.

Jean Cornett was one of those life forces you never thought would leave us. Though she had bowed out a few years ago from official duties with the Festival of the Bluegrass, the landmark Lexington music festival she co-founded with husband Bob over four decades ago, her presence was never absent after retirement. She greeted patrons and performers last summer like family, which given the frequency of repeat appearances evident on both sides of the festival stage, seemed perfectly natural. It was truly like she had never left.

But retire? Jean? Maybe in some remote way that could be possible. But separating her spirit from the festival by such a simple and inevitable act was impossible. No single individual, musician or otherwise, did more to foster and further the visibility of bluegrass music in Central Kentucky than Jean Cornett. To take that a step further, no one has presented it (or represented it, for that matter) with more homespun dignity, either.

I had annual conversations with Jean around Festival time for probably 25 years. Sometimes they were quick and to the point phone calls. Sometimes they were afternoon-long talks at her Midway home. There was at least one instance where we stood in the pouring rain a few days before the Festival opened, undeterred by the conditions at hand. She and her family weathered storms, oppressive heat, blackouts, brownouts and pretty much every obstacle nature and man could devise to present a music festival built upon string music tradition and innovation. Mostly, though, it was an event completely familial in design – whether it was with the children and grandchildren that followed her lead in the producing the event, the acts (specifically, the Seldom Scene) that would return year after year or the clans and fans that viewed the Festival as a rite of summer every year.

This is the magnificent gift Jean has given Lexington.

 “The Festival is a great source of pleasure for us,” she told me in 2009. “Every year – many times every year – we have old friends come over and introduce a new member of their family. And that new member often is a grandchild that is beginning to learn bluegrass much as the grandparent learned bluegrass at the Festival thirty-odd years ago. This makes us proud.”

in performance: cyrille aimee

cyrille aimee .

cyrille aimee .

When introductions were made last night for Cyrille Aimee and her band at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre, you got the idea you were sitting in on a United Nations summit. One of the singer’s two guitarists came from French and Italian parentage, her drummer was born in England but raised in Sri Lanka and her bassist possessed a purely Aussie heritage. Then there was Aimee herself, the daughter of a French father and Dominican mother who lived in Paris, Cameroon and Singapore before settling into her current home – Brooklyn.

As globally inclined as those backgrounds are, they paled last night next to the world music accents that went into Aimee’s music. Billed as a jazz vocalist (as appropriate a title as any given her exact but understated phrasing and the trombone-like timbre of her scat singing), Aimee scanned multiple countrysides for her repertoire and the musical accents that brought them to live.

The bulk of the program centrally placed the singer between two distinct guitarists –acoustic stylist Adrien Moignard and hollow-body electric player Michael Valeanu. The resulting balance combined lyrical elements of Euro-flavored gypsy jazz and Brazilian music. Such a mix also proved a flattering backdrop for the gentle huskiness of Aimee’s singing during Bamboo Shoots (one of nine songs performed from her 2014 album It’s a Good Day) and a springboard for the concert’s more playful instances, like the car chase tempo driven by drummer Rajiv Jayaweera and bassist Sam Anning during Love Me or Leave Me.

Band and singer matched wits as well as technique during a pair of dramatically retooled pop classics. The first, The Doors’ People Are Strange, allowed Aimee to slow the psychedelic slant of the vocals so the tune could morph into a noir-style confession. Later, the Michael Jackson hit Off the Wall surrendered to a warm, richly rhythmic melody geographically situated somewhere between Brazil and Mali. The gliding subtlety of Aimee’s singing then completed an arrangement that recalled The Rhythm of the Saints-era Paul Simon.

An Aimee original One Way Ticket (inspired by yet another port-of-call, India) and a loose, lively reading of Duke Ellington’s Caravan brought the journey home, certifying Aimee as a spry but fearless global music ambassador in the process.

critic’s pick 260: bob dylan, ‘shadows in the night’

Bob-Dylan-ShadowsOn paper, Shadows in the Night suggests a train wreck at bay. Imagine it. Bob Dylan, the pop poet laureate of several generations – whose singing, at least from a technical standpoint, is perhaps his least admired artistic trait – interpreting an album’s worth of standards recorded by Frank Sinatra, a stylist for whom vocal finesse was everything. But that’s what we have in Shadows in the Night. Now, get a load of this. The results are pretty righteous.

The reasons are two-fold. First, there is Dylan’s vocal work, which is a real jaw-dropper. Instead of the death rattle rasp displayed on his last few albums, Dylan sings here with astonishing and wholly unexpected focus. Ol’ Blue Eyes, he ain’t. But that’s not even remotely the intention. Still, there is a clarity in Dylan’s voice during tunes like Why Try to Change Me Now and especially Autumn Leaves that has been absent since the early ’70s. To hear such purpose stretched over an entire album, you would have to go back to John Wesley Harding in 1968.

Frankly, it’s hard to fathom Dylan even had this sort of subtlety and control as a vocalist left in him. Year after year, he concerts have descended into performance sketches where singing amounted to scribbling – highly emotive and immediate scribbling, mind you, but scribbling nonetheless. Let’s be clear, though, we’re not talking Michael Buble here. Place Dylan’s noir-like take on Full Moon and Empty Arms under a microscope and you hear all kinds of technical hiccups – a flat note here, an over annunciation there and a slight overall wheeze that reminds you of who is at work. But place Shadows in the Night next to latter day Dylan classics like Time Out of Mind and it sounds like the work of an entirely different artist.

What completes the vision of Shadows in the Night is its overall mood. All 10 tunes pair the primarily orchestral arrangements of the versions cut by Sinatra (and others, like Frankie Laine, who had hits with this material in another lifetime) down to fit Dylan’s combo-sized band. Even then, the group, augmented by occasional muted brass, plays at the level of a whisper. The sole dominating instrumental voice is the pedal steel guitar of one-time BR549 member Donny Herron. But this isn’t country music either. This is late night, off-in-the-distance blues speaking in a vintage pop dialect. It is half tradition and half Twilight Zone. Then, again, who else but Dylan could make Some Enchanted Evening sound so distinctively surreal?

Maybe half the thrill of the recording is its sheer sense of surprise. For a folk monument like Dylan, who you would think have played every stylistic card dealt to him by now, Shadows in the Night is the sound of something old made remarkably new.

aimee amore

cyrille aimee.

cyrille aimee.

Buried within the dozens of online video clips of jazz singer Cyrille Aimee in performance sits a quiet little treasure, a three-minute reading of something wholly unexpected.

It’s not a standard like You and the Night and Music, although she has frequently performed it with a quiet Latin-esque lushness. It’s not a show tune by Stephen Sondheim, although this French-born songstress brought a number of his songs to life in the company of Bernadette Peters and Wynton Marsalis with the 2013 revue A Bed and a Chair. It’s not even the more untamed intonations of Thelonious Monk or numerous other jazz giants that echo through her performances.

No, this clip is of the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Fortunate Son, an electric protest anthem from the Vietnam War era that its composer, John Fogerty, still performs with proper venom. But in the clip, Aimee makes the song seems like a tropical breeze, an exotic and cross-cultural incantation that is more Jobim than rock ‘n’ roll.

“I think when you cover a song, you have to give your take on it and play it different from when it was done originally,” said Aimee, who performs Feb. 5 at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville.

“It’s a combination of things, really. But for me, the lyrics are very important. I know when the music gets picked, I can do whatever I want with the arrangement. But I have to be really connected with the lyrics. I like to pick songs that I can relate to and, I hope, that other people can relate to – songs that I believe in when I sing them.”

Raised in Samois-sur-Seine by her French father and Dominican mother, Aimee became infatuated with what she heard at nearby gypsy camps assembled for the city’s annual celebration of the iconic guitarist Django Reinhardt. But her fascination went further than the music.

“At first, it was really the people who made the music that got me in love with it,” she said. “They really live every day like it’s their last. They are so free. The way they play their music is the same way they live their life.

“It’s not coming from the brain. They don’t read music. They don’t think about it. They just do it, from the heart. That’s what made me fall in love with the music.”

The gypsy inspiration then collided with a broader spectrum of sounds she was introduced to at home.

“My parents, they are not musicians, but they love music. Ever since I was little, they would play a lot of music in the house. My mom is from the Dominican Republic, so I heard salsa, meringue and cha-cha. Also, she loved country music and French chanson and Spanish music. My father loved classical music but Michael Jackson was always playing in the house, too. There were all sorts of music.”

That helps explain the influences that Aimee, now a New Yorker, brought to her 2014 album, It’s a Good Day. The repertoire runs from Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When to the Jackson pop hit Off the Wall to the Duke Ellington staple Caravan. But perhaps the most telling tune of the record is Aimee’s version of Love Me or Leave Me. While the singer said she was guided by epic renditions from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, her new reading purposely avoids comparisons to such legends by opting for a hushed but powerfully soulful update with a modest touch of gypsy soul.

“Is there a thread with all this music? Well, yeah. The thread is me. I love all these styles. I don’t think they each belong in a box. All of it is my story.

“Basically, the biggest challenge of the album was to make these styles all sound like one music for the whole record. It defines the sound for whatever we play. And that sound is ours.”

Cyrille Aimee performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Weisiger Theatre, Norton Center for the Art, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $38-$49. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to

the next yonder

yonder mountain string band: allie kral, jake jolliff, ben kaufman, dave johnston and adam aijala. photo by tobin voggesser.

yonder mountain string band: allie kral, jake jolliff, ben kaufman, dave johnston and adam aijala. photo by tobin voggesser.

How can a band remain so steadfast within its inner structure, from its personnel lineup down to its instrumental make-up, yet be so open to change and growth? Ask the members of Yonder Mountain String Band, and the answer becomes as intuitive as its music.

Since its Colorado formation in 1998, the group has employed traditional bluegrass instrumentation (guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass) for music that strays from string band tradition to embrace progressive Americana and a fearless improvisational and jam-savvy spirit.

In theory, the premise seems stoic and static – the same four guys playing the same four instruments. In performance, though, there is no end to what YMSB is capable of cooking up. They could spend 20 minutes dissecting an original composition into solos and rhythms that approach jazz. Then it might rewire a Talking Heads cover so its still heady groove sounds positively country-esque. And should the performance occasion call for guests, then the quartet would morph into something altogether different. Over the years, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas – all forefathers of their own modern string band sounds – have sat in with Yonder Mountain.

“We’ve always been a band that said, ‘Let’s get this dude in here’ or ‘Let’s get this person up onstage,” said YMSB guitarist Adam Aijala. “All through our whole career, we’ve played a myriad of instruments, too – everything from drums and horns and all the bluegrass instruments, adding fiddle, dobro and/or other mandolins, banjos, guitars, basses, whatever. Adding new people and new sounds… that’s never been difficult.”

Then came a far more pronounced shift, one that went to the foundation of the band. Last spring, mandolinist Jeff Austin became the first YMSB member to break ranks and start a solo career. Admittedly, the remaining trio – Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjoist Dave Johnston – had already experienced road life on the road without Austin when he bowed out of a tour the previous winter after becoming a father.

“The most difficult thing for us was the transition away from a rhythm we had gotten so used to,” Aijala said. “Since the band works without a drummer, the bass is kind of like the kick drum and the snare is the mandolin. That’s kind of your drum set, so everyone plays rhythm a little bit differently.”

When YMSB played in Lexington a year ago, when Austin’s split was thought to be only temporary, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and fiddle Jason Carter were celebrity fill-ins. But since both have jobs in two major bluegrass outfits – The Del McCoury Band and its Del-less offshoot, The Travelin’ McCourys, YMSB had to look elsewhere when Austin chose to leave for good.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘It’s run its course’? Well, that’s kind of how everybody felt when Jeff left, and that’s okay. Still, with a four-piece, you take anyone out of that configuration, no matter what, and the music is going to sound a little different, not to mention that Jeff was kind of the focal point onstage. I wouldn’t say he was the band leader, but he was a frontman. Remove that element and of course the sound differs. It’s supposed to.”

Favoring the quintet sound it found with McCoury and Carter, YMSB enlisted mandolinist Jake Jolliff (from Joy Kill Sorrow) and former Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral for its current tour. Aijala said he is thrilled by the technical command, youthful drive and overall new blood spirit the two have brought to the band both onstage and on a newly completed Yonder album due for release late this year.

“We’re not trying to emulate the band we were, but one thing I think we still capture is the high energy and fun factor of what we do. It seems like the folks we know that have seen us for years, the reason they enjoy coming to the shows so much is simply because they have a good time. They enjoy the music and it makes them feel good. If that categorizes us as a traveling party, then I’ll take it.”

Yonder Mountain String Band and Horse Feathers perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E Main. Tickets: tickets: $22.50 in advance, $25 day of show. Call (888) 718-4253.

in performance: california guitar trio with tony levin

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya and bert lams.

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya, bert lams.

At the very heart of the California Guitar Trio’s music sits a happily unbreakable bond with prog rock mainstay King Crimson. Group members Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya met over 25 years ago while studying with Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp, were introduced to mass audiences as an opening act on Crimson’s storied 1995 comeback tour and have long maintained the exact and often cyclical nature of Fripp’s guitar work in their own playing.

While Fripp may have formulated the alliance, longstanding Crimson bassist Tony Levin continues to uphold it. He has produced and performed on several of the CGT’s recordings and, when time permits (Levin has also served as Peter Gabriel’s bassist since the late ‘70s and co-leads his own band, Stick Men), tours as an auxiliary member of the trio. Last night’s sold out performance at the St. Xavier Performance Center in Cincinnati was one of the increasingly few dates to feature all four players and, my, what a delight it was.

The CGT’s usual stylistic dexterity was again on full display, both in terms of repertoire (original works, classical pieces, rock covers, surf tunes and an especially captivating jazz surprise) and instrumentation (three acoustic guitars capably augmented by pedal effects that mimic electric string instruments). As usual, technique was executed in a manner that was completely unassuming, from the dizzying completeness of Bach’s familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the only piece of the evening performed without Levin) to the loosely animated surf favorite Walk Don’t Run to the very Fripp-eresque original Yamanashi Blues.

tony levin.

tony levin.

For all of the deep end power Levin has displayed onstage through the years with Crimson and Gabriel, he was a portrait of taste and understatement last night. On two beautiful CGT originals, Eve and the new What Spring Does With Cherry Trees, his playing on fretless upright electric bass eschewed the usual role of rhythm maker to become a fourth melodic voice for the group. Such harmony was seamlessly expressed on the gorgeously wistful Spiritual, a tune cut 15 years ago by another outstanding guitar/bass combination, jazz greats Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden.

The surf staple Misirlou brought the party to close with a cheery groove and a roomful of and syncopated handclaps. It was the sound of giants at play.

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