Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Record Review: “From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project” by Ann Hampton Callaway

Chicago Artists, Jazz, Vocal Music No Comments »


On her live tribute to Sarah Vaughan recorded at New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the Chicago-born singer, composer and arranger (known by the general public for the theme of the popular sitcom “The Nanny”) assembled a topnotch band formed by  Ted Rosenthal (piano), Dean Johnson (bass), Tim Horner (drums), Randy Sandke (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Dick Oatts (saxes and flute). The repertoire included tunes that Vaughan recorded throughout her long career.

The disc opens after a brief introduction with a lively rendition of Al Hoffman’s “I’m Gonna Live ‘Till I Die,” which features a lengthy, highly inspired solo from Sandke (incidentally, Hoffman was the composer of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”). Steven Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” is played with great dramatic flair, a little reminiscent of Barbra Streisand’s version. Also notable are Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” performed in a downtempo bossa style and Adler/Rose “Whatever Lola Wants,” a sexy blues-tinged number that showcases the vocalist’s improvisations, while George Gershwin’s classic ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me” features its often-ignored introduction. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Billy’s Back on Broadway” by Billy Porter

Big Band, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Soul, Vocal Music No Comments »


There was a time when it was natural for show tunes to make their way to the pop realmsingers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra all borrowed songs written for the stage and turned them into standardsincluding “On the Street Where You Live” (from “My Fair Lady”) recorded by Nat King Cole; “Luck Be a Lady” (from “Guys and Dolls”), a hit for Sinatra; ‘Till There Was You” (from “The Music Man”) famously covered by  The Beatles; and of course  “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from “Evita”), a tune overplayed even before Madonna got her hands on it.

Nowadays it is unlikely for such songs to contribute to the Hot 100 even with the help of heavyweights like Bono or Elton John—the business has just changed too dramatically for that to happen (do you really hear anyone belting out “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” at your local karaoke bar?). That doesn’t mean that some tunes don’t deserve to be heard by non-musical theater fans, and that is where Billy Porter comes in. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Made to Love Him: Celebrating Love” by Nhojj

Chicago Artists, Indie Pop, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Vocal Music 1 Comment »


On an album comprised mostly of well-known standards (save for one original composition), Chicago-based singer-songwriter Nhojj celebrates the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in the United States and abroad. “I am deeply grateful,” he writes in the liners, “to be living in a time when an album celebrating same-gender love could be released and even applauded.”

The album opens with a pared-down version of “Over The Rainbow” done solely with the accompaniment of Marcelo Cardozo’s electric guitar. Nhojj’s vocal range resembles that of the late Michael Jackson–he has the ability to reach low notes but mostly sings using a higher register, approaching each song in a different way. On India.Arie’s “He Heals Me,” he takes more of an R&B approach, taking advantage of the full band behind him, while on tunes like the George & Ira Gershwin classic “Our Love Is Here To Stay” he sings with a quiet bossa-like sensibility. Nhojj also reinvents Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” going for a playful samba-tinged groove without missing out on any of the title’s double entendre. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Maria Rita/City Winery

Bossa Nova, Jazz, Pop, Samba, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


Brazilian singer Maria Rita built her career doing her best to be outside the shadow of her late mother Elis Regina, a legendary performer in her own right whose career was cut short by a cocaine overdose. It was not an easy task, since Rita’s voice is incredibly similar to her mother’s. Over the years, she stayed away from Regina’s material while making inventive, jazz-inspired albums accompanied by a simple trio of piano, acoustic bass and drums (the exception was 2007’s “Samba Meu,” which was recorded with various percussive instruments added to the band.)

It was not until 2012 that she finally agreed to work on a project with Regina’s music in commemoration of the thirty year anniversary of her passing. “Viva Elis” was originally planned to be a limited five-performance engagement, but due to public demand it later evolved into a national tour and a CD and DVD entitled “Redescobrir.” The album covers her mother’s greatest hits played in arrangements close to the original recordings (the audience is heard cheering at the opening chords of tunes like “Como Nossos Pais” and “Águas de Março”) while some of the lesser-known songs were given a completely different treatment under the musical direction of her brother, arranger and producer João Marcelo Bôscoli. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

Big Band, Holiday Music, Jazz, Orchestral, Pop, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.

First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “After Blue” by Tierney Sutton

Jazz, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »


The music of Joni Mitchell has been praised by critics throughout the years for its lyrical beauty and musicality, and lately her songs have re-emerged as jazz standards, most notably with Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” (Verve, 2007), the first jazz album to be named “Album of the Year” by the Grammy Awards since “Getz/Gilberto” (Verve, 1965) four decades earlier.

West Coast vocalist Tierney Sutton, already on a run of theme-based albums, decided to do her own take on Mitchell’s music, and for this project she did not work with her longtime band. Instead, she worked with several musicians—most notably Peter Erskine, a drummer featured on many of Mitchell’s discs. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Mariza/Harris Theater

Folk, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


Arguably one of the lead voices of the current fado revivalist movement in Portugal, Mariza maintains the tradition of the genre while turning the spotlight on a whole new generation of composers that help keep her country’s most traditional musical style ripe for rediscovery by young generations who may have otherwise relegated it to the past.

Mariza has a dramatic singing style reminiscent of the late “Queen of Fado” Amalia Rodrigues. She brushes off those comparisons, as in the release of her 2007 live album “Concerto Em Lisboa,” where she states that, “there will be no next Amalia Rodrigues like there is no next Tom (Antonio Carlos) Jobim.” After all, new talents will always emerge but they will never be able to replace those who have passed. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Tales From The Grand Bazaar” by Bombay Dub Orchestra

DJ, Drum 'n' Bass, Electronic/Dance, Indian Classical, Orchestral, Record Reviews, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


On their sixth musical foray, the duo formed by Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay emerge with their trademark mix of electronica, orchestra and Indian sounds. During their career they have collaborated with luminaries like percussionist/composer Karsh Kale (who co-produced one of their earlier efforts) and sitarist Anoushka Shankar, all the while maintaining a tendency to focus on a dance-floor-friendly format.

This time around, they lean toward a more diverse direction by incorporating Asian-centric grooves. For instance, “Blue Mosaic” features wordless vocals and the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument, while “City of Amber” contains a fierce drum ‘n’ bass groove, much to the delight of DJs and remixers. Read the rest of this entry »

Work in Progress: Muti Reveals the Once and Future Verdi, Step-by-Step

Chicago Artists, Classical, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »
Chorus soloist rehearsal/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Chorus soloist rehearsal/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Dennis Polkow

“Buon giorno,” says a sweater-clad Riccardo Muti, seated on his podium at an eerily empty Symphony Center, to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra clad in street clothes assembled for its first rehearsal of Verdi’s “Macbeth.”

“This is a great joy for me, since Verdi is the only composer that I can conduct,” Muti says, poking fun at his reputation as Verdi’s greatest living interpreter. The orchestra laughs.

“Seriously, you gave me the best ‘Otello’ I have ever done from an orchestral point of view,” Muti adds, referencing the 2011 Muti-led CSO performances of one of Verdi’s last operas that like “Macbeth,” is also based on Shakespeare and that has just been released on the CSO Resound label.

“You may think that because ‘Macbeth’ is earlier that it is less difficult music, but it’s not. This work was very ahead of its time. In fact, the operas to follow will be a step back.” Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: Putumayo Presents “Acoustic America” and “American Playground”

Alt-Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

acoustic_america_chimp_0 RECOMMENDED

There is some great American music out there, but you just do not hear it on Top 40 stations. It’s a world where Justin Bieber or Katy Perry have zero significance—it is the world of American acoustic music that you can only hear on local stations or maybe on NPR if you are so inclined. This is the music played by folksy types you sometimes hear in coffeehouses, but it really is the roots of what we call “Americana.”

Two new collections from Putumayo explore this often-ignored music, which ranges from folk, bluegrass and country-folk to zydeco. On “Acoustic America,” well-known classics mix with original songs—highlights include Clay Cumbie’s gorgeous “Here’s to The Journey,” an ode to the open road and the joys of traveling and Red Horse’s take on “Wayfaring Stranger.” Also notable are Guy Davis’ downtempo “Everything is Gonna Be All Right,” (whose lyrics actually suggest otherwise) and the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s acoustic blues “I Was Born With The Blues.” Read the rest of this entry »