Gary Clark Jr.
Blak and Blu
Rating: 3 stars
Austin, Texas, musician Gary Clark Jr. releases his full-length major label debut at 28 years old, already a veteran of countless road miles, several independent releases and gigs both great and small. That’s a nice position to be in, frankly – most modern pop and rock acts are dropping their debuts while still wet behind the ears, and are considered old and potentially out of it by the time they get to be Clark’s age.
On the downside, Clark’s 2010 Warner Bros. EP generated so much buzz of the hyperbolic variety – he’s had the “savior of the blues” and “new Hendrix” nonsense thrust his way repeatedly over the past 18 months – that expectations for his “in the spotlight” full-album debut must have been considerable.
In several reviews published prior to the album’s release this week, the inevitable backlash was already apparent. “Blak and Blu” is not the album that self-appointed protectors of “the future of the blues” were hoping for from their man. Almost unanimously, these reviews claimed that the album is “eclectic,” as if somehow that was a bad thing, a betrayal of Clark’s supposed “authenticity” as a bluesman.
Whatever. This nonsense has been going on ever since Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, and sadly, it’s likely to go on forever. What matters is the fact that Clark has delivered a scorcher of an album in “Blak and Blu,” one positively brimming with gritty solos and even grittier riffs, all held together by Clark’s eminently soulful, R&B-based vocals. Two songs into the set, and we’ve already been treated to several killer hooks, and guitar solos that would make Neil Young & Crazy Horse grin in recognition. Clark sounds like a man on fire during “When My Train Pulls In” and like a defiant pilgrim in album opener “Ain’t Messin’ Round.” Both songs fully deliver on the scorching promise of his EP’s standout track, “Bright Lights.”
Things do change here, however, which may be why so many critics are being thrown off the scent. The title track incorporates elements of hip-hop and modern soul, and is a showcase for Clark’s stirring, if laid-back, vocals, with nary a fuzz-toned guitar in sight. “Bright Lights” is reprised here as well, in a slightly more polished, spacious version, but it smolders and smokes, like a more soulful B-side from the Black Keys’ “Brothers” album. “Travis County” is four-on-the-floor Southern-tinged rock ’n’ roll, and its rapid-fire tempo is welcome at this point in the album’s progression, following the more languid and sultry tempos of the opening quartet of tunes.
“The Life” is a ballad, and again, balances modern, hip-hop based production against the more organic post-blues of its neighbors. It works, though, because by this point in the proceedings, Clark has earned the right to do with us what he pleases. It’s apparent he has no desire to be typecast as some sort of savior for the blues.
“Blak and Blu” is a strong collection from a man who clearly plans to explore all aspects of his musical personality, with blues and R&B providing the connective tissue from tune to tune. Drop your preconceptions and dig in.
Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” Recomposed
Rating: 3½ stars
An exceptionally brilliant idea lies at the heart of this – an idea so brilliant that any possibility of this turning into kitsch is annihilated utterly.
The idea is this: The music of the modern minimalist composers, from Reich, Adams, Glass and Nyman on, is, in its way, a kind of modern update of the repetitiveness and rhythmic vitality of baroque music. So why not turn a young post-minimalist composer loose on a kind of wholesale “recomposition” of one of the most popular of all Baroque masterworks, Vivaldi’s “The Seasons?”
Or, as 36-year-old composer Max Richter puts it: “Vivaldi’s music is made of regular patterns and that connects with post-minimalism which is one strand in the music that I write. That felt like a natural link but even so it was surprisingly difficult to navigate my way through it.”
No problem, as you’ll hear on this surprisingly irresistible disc. That’s because the performance level by violinist Daniel Hope and the Konzerthause Kammerorchester Berlin is so extraordinarily high that you’ll be amazed at what a musical experience this turns out to be.
It goes without saying that it’s never going to replace Vivaldi’s great masterwork which is a warhorse so universally beloved that it hasn’t really had to go to “war” in centuries. But it’s a marvelous recording any way you look at it (or hear it), even finer an act of reverence in its way than the most dedicated and even fanatic “authentic” early music performance (which is, so often, an even more radical overturning of tradition).
– Jeff Simon
Introducing Letizia Gambi
Rating: 2½ stars
“Pretty” doesn’t begin to cover it. Look at the photos of young Italian singer Letizia Gambi on this disc and she seems to have the drop-dead gorgeous looks of an international supermodel. Drummer/producer Lenny White, though, quite properly needed to be sold on her as a singer, according to the disc notes. When she met him in Milan after a gig, he told her to “Send me something. If I like it, I’ll work with you.”
So she did. And he did, i.e., liked it and worked with her. The results are this fascinating introduction to a singer who couldn’t possibly have more of the necessary equipment for international musical pop jazz stardom. When White is your producer, you’ve got entree to some of the great living jazz musicians, which is why you’ll hear such “sidemen” as Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Patrice Rushen, Gil Goldstein and Wallace Roney. Not only that, when is the last time you heard hot Pampas tenor saxophone playing from Gato Barbieri on a disc, the way you do here on “The Question of U?” He didn’t need to quote from his music to “Last Tango in Paris” to remind us that it was he, but you can understand that he might feel forgotten after all these years.
Sadly, it hasn’t yet become an international felony to use an accordion or a bandoneon on a disc – especially on a disc introducing a European singer. But some of these other European musicians are so good – especially guitarist Nick Moroch and violinist Nick Danielson – that you’re less inclined to call musical Interpol on the results here than you might otherwise be. Imagine the career beginning of a jazz-hip Italian version of Linda Ronstadt and you’ve just about got it.
Voice From Assisi
Rating: 3½ stars
Friar Alessandro is the ultimate Father What-a-Waste – bearded, with dark, dreamy eyes. Misty pictures in the liner notes show him smiling, with his hands folded in prayer, another with him relaxing in his robes on a bench. The friar is 34 and he has a beautiful, natural, soaring tenor voice.
Reportedly this is the first Franciscan friar to get a major recording contract, and Alessandro seizes the day with 11 religious selections. It begins with Donovan’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” from the Zeffirelli movie about St. Francis of Assisi. Alessandro sings it in Italian, how irresistible is that? The collection ends with “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” the lovely modern Catholic hymn that a lot of people know because it was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral. In between is a mix of modern, classical and traditional, including the Cesar Franck “Panis Angelicus,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine.” There is also a corny “Our Father” there is really no excuse for that is balanced by a lovely treatment of “Sancta Maria” from “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
The orchestral accompaniments sound like the music that might accompany Susan Boyle. A beautiful and calming disc.
– Mary Kunz Goldman