By Robert Rodi
It’s hard to imagine it now, but a mere fifty years ago there were very few singer-songwriters beyond the folk milieu. Bob Dylan was still a relatively new phenomenon, and he not only owned the genre, he pretty much was the genre. These days, of course, you can’t swing a dead cat without thwacking half a dozen guitar-slinging bards (while Dylan, go figure, is covering Sinatra). On any given night, in clubs and pubs across America, countless brave-hearted balladeers climb atop stools and compete for the attention of the congenitally inattentive. And people say stand-up comedy is rough; try breaking through the noise of a bar in full clamor when you’re warbling about your last big breakup.
But, here’s the thing: a lot of these troubadours are pretty freaking fine. And in Chicago, I’m happy to report, we’ve got more than our fair share of them. A pair of recent releases prove my point: they’re both melodically original and lyrically ingenious, yet each one is a standout original.
Little Dave Merriman has long been a fixture on the scene, chiefly as a guitarist and vocalist for The Arrivals. “Odd Bird” is his first solo album—and when I say solo, I’m being almost entirely literal. He not only wrote all the tunes, he plays nearly every instrument as well. And these aren’t breathy, spare arrangements either; they’re full-throttle rock-band material—the better to support Merriman’s raggedly bravura, another-whiskey-will-kill-me-but-so-what vocals. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Stillness of Motion” opens with a guitar laying down a groove while a bassist takes the melody line. This is the reverse of how it’s usually done, and it’s a testament to Scott Hesse’s generosity and sense of ensemble. He’s one of Chicago’s most highly regarded guitarists, and yet in the first measures of his new record he gives the spotlight to a fellow player. Not that Clark Sommers, the player in question, requires charity; when Hesse steps back into the forefront, Sommers has no trouble maintaining his share of the musical dialogue. Ditto drummer Makaya McCraven, who manages to establish an intriguing voice of his own throughout the proceedings, especially on “Yardbird Sketch,” where he provides a percussive landscape as broad as a lawn, over which Hesse wanders searchingly, occasionally somersaulting into dreamily descending chords. Read the rest of this entry »
Louis CK has said that this is the age of the artist-entrepreneur, and he might have said it about Meagan Hickman. An incredibly driven Chicago singer-songwriter, Hickman partially funded her second album, “Sightlines,” through an Indiegogo campaign, and is now supporting it with highly polished behind-the-scenes videos on her YouTube channel. Fortunately, her artistic energy is equally supercharged; “Sightlines” is an explosion of talent, its eleven tunes ranging stylistically from a straight-ahead rock anthem (the fantastic opener, “Seize the Day”) to sweetly twangy country-pop (“Not That Girl”); there’s even an R&B ballad (“Time Moves On”) that Aretha could’ve recorded (and what the hell, might yet). Read the rest of this entry »
On his debut recording as a bandleader, the Chicago-based pianist and trombonist showcases his versatility and stylistic dexterity on a CD that includes straight-ahead, Latin, contemporary, big band and light jazz. He is in the company of an impressive array of musicians, including Bobby Shew (trumpet and flugelhorn), Dave Hiltebrand (bass) and Paul Zimmerman (vocals). Though the music goes in various directions, it gives us an idea of where Cline has been over his long career as a sideman (he has played with R&B legends like Aretha Franklin and The Temptations, as well as led various bands while working for the Norwegian Cruise Lines). Read the rest of this entry »
By Corey Hall
In his imagination’s ear (earmagination?), tenor saxophonist Chris Greene hears this when Brazilian vocalist Ed Motta sings: “He sounds like what would happen if Chick Corea, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stevie Wonder had a baby, raised him in Brazil, and made him listen to Gamble and Huff records. He’s got this Teddy Pendergrass voice, but he sings in Portuguese. He has these elaborate Chris Cross-Steely Dan arrangements, and he can get super funky, too.”
To honor this musical love child, Greene and his quartet—which includes pianist Damian Espinosa, bassist Marc Piane and drummer Steve Corley—recorded Motta’s tune “Papuera” for their independently produced double CD, “Music Appreciation,” their eighth album in ten years. The title is a reference to a sound bite from the seventies sitcom ‘What’s Happening!!,’ in which Raj, the lead character, tutors an athlete. Read the rest of this entry »
By Robert Rodi
In the last twenty-five years, women in music have made tremendous strides, building bodies of work that showcase the kind of empowerment, control and sexual bravado that would’ve been unimaginable just a few decades earlier. But for all their power and strength, they rarely manage to project intellect—the quality of being aware of themselves in context; of understanding not just who they are, but what they mean.
Thankfully, we’re beginning to see some cracks in that particular glass ceiling. And one Chicago-native, female-fronted alt-rock band is most definitely doing its part. Honey & the 45s’ new EP, “Mad,” features seven songs that all turn standard love-and-longing narratives on their heads—starting with the title cut, which is a razor-sharp dissection of a woman’s attraction-repulsion complex, in the form of a long screed directed at the guy in the equation. “I hate that you know me, you know me so well,” sings front woman Kristina Cottone, “I hate that you caught me before I fell.” With lyrics like that, you know you’re in fairly literary hands. Read the rest of this entry »
On the solo piano “Raindrop,” Witkowski, a former Chicago jazzer, approaches Chopin’s music from a creative point of view—not so much reverent as playful. She begins with a straight take on the downtempo Romantic piece “Nocturne in E-Flat Major,” employing her classical training to convey her interpretation, rather than relying on embellishments. But immediately afterward she launches into “Walking the Labyrinth,” an original composition inspired by the nocturne and created on the spot—a complete improvisation. Read the rest of this entry »
By Robert Rodi
Let a hundred-thousand critics give their thoughts on My My My and there’s still one phrase you’ll never read: “stripped-down.” On the night I most recently saw them (November 21 at Double Door, the release party for their new album, “Tigers On the Dance Floor”) there were nine performers on the stage. Their sound—beautifully reproduced on the album—features complex rhythms, multilayered harmonies and a thick synth frosting; yet there’s nothing bloated or mannered or self-conscious about it. This is downright muscular pop music: driven, delirious and out for a goddamn good time.
The band is fronted by two vocalists, Russell Baylin and Sarah Snow, who also write all the lyrics. The music itself is a collaborative effort on the part of the entire group, which includes Ante Gelo on guitar and string synth, Jake Bartolone on bass and Moog, John Sorensen on drums, and John Szymanski on keys and percussion. The only members who don’t seem to do double duty are the backup vocalists, a.k.a. The Peoples, unless you count looking lethally glam while they sing as double duty.
Baylin and Snow are a great match: he growls, she howls, and in their solo numbers their sheer sonic majesty makes you stand up and take notice. But when they duet (as in “Sirens of Soft Persuasion”) they can lift you right off the floor and dangle you there. The tunes are incredibly polished and stuffed with so many hooks they’re like harmonic velcro. A few of them—like “Bleeding” and “When We Kiss”—perform that rarest feat of pop alchemy: sounding utterly fresh and yet also giving you the impression you’ve known and loved them for years—that they’re already bonded to your DNA. Read the rest of this entry »
“Sketches of Spain” is a masterful collaboration by Miles Davis and Gil Evans that has been deconstructed, imitated and recreated by countless musicians over the years, but few have had the audacity to create a new adaptation that would include new material arranged for a philharmonic orchestra. But Chicago-born trumpeter, composer and arranger Orbert Davis (no relation to Miles) stepped up to the plate with a fantastic take on the classic.
The album begins with a seventeen-minute version of “Concierto de Aranjuez” that is faithful to Evans’ original arrangement but completely revisited for an orchestra format. The bandleader performs an accomplished solo that does not copy Miles Davis’ take but retains many of its sonic elements. Read the rest of this entry »
“The music, history, food and culture of Brazil and New Orleans have so much in common that it just seems logical to put them together,” writes keyboardist Charlie Dennard on the liner notes for the independently released “From Brazil to New Orleans.” The same has been said by various Crescent City musicians I have interviewed over the years, because the liveliness and musicality of cities like Rio de Janeiro and Salvador makes them feel right at home. Read the rest of this entry »