Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Phil Kenzie - A Night With The Cat (2015)

Phil Kenzie is a veteran alto sax player who is well known in the music industry but the general public is mostly unfamiliar with him. His best known work is the sax solo on Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat." He also owns the solo on Poco's "Heart of the Night" and he's featured on an updated version of "The Long Run" from The Eagles Live.

Kenzie has also played alongside of some of the world's most famous rockers, including Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, Peter Frampton, Annie Lennox, Stephen Stills, Alan Parsons, and David Bowie.

Kenzie's new album, A Night With The Cat may or may not have been released yet. No date was given with the press packet I received. No cover art was available and no liner notes were provided either so it's impossible to know who wrote and played what. What we do know is that A Night With The Cat was recorded over a ten year period from 1998 through 2008 even though it's just being released for the first time.

According to the press material the album is an instrumental interpretation of Stewart's famous hit single and the titles of all ten tracks (including "Silk Dress," Water Color," and "Incense and Patchouli") are based on the lyrics to that song.

The saxophonist is assisted by smooth jazz guitarist Peter White, who worked with Stewart for twenty years, and the late keyboard player Larry Knechtel.

Unfortunately, for a work that has taken so long to create the listener should expect a whole lot more. Most of the tracks lack melodies. They sound like Kenzie is just noodling around. They're completely uninspired and virtually indistinguishable from one another. Boredom set in early and it's impossible to figure out what this set has to do with Stewart's classic tune other than taking the artist's word for it.

This album is a case where the concept is superior to the actual work. It reminds me of when Whoopi Goldberg played a nun in Sister Act. The idea was a lot funnier than the film itself.

Kenzie is much better as a highly regarded sideman.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Phyllis Sinclair - Wishlist (2013)

Little known Phyllis Sinclair is a singer-songwriter with four CDs to her name. The latest is Wishlist (2013), a Christmas album with eight originals and an adaption of "Silent Night" that takes a deeply personal and introspective turn.

Interesting songs abound. The bouncy "Evergreen" is a about a ragged, unloved tree not chosen to be in someone's house during the holidays and "Handwritten Christmas Card" is another upbeat entry on the thrill of receiving such a personal greeting in the mail.

Accompanied only by acoustic guitar, "A Lesson In Harmony/Silent Night" begins with a spoken word tale of how Sinclair's mother asked her to sing one of the World's most popular Christmas carols at home as a lesson in how to sing harmony and she closes the story with all three verses of the song.

I don't know Sinclair's religious beliefs but it's obvious she has given spiritual matters more than a cursory thought because of her unique song, "Mary's Letter To Joseph." Lyrically, it's the most interesting track on the set. The letter is Mary's sincere thank you note to Joseph for standing by her through a very difficult time, an unexplained pregnancy, a situation that could have taken a devastating turn against both her reputation and life if he had been a different man.

Sinclair is a member of the Cree Nation and a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The disc's first track, "Minoh Awasis (Beautiful Child)" was written in the Cree language featuring just rattle, drum, and traditional flute. It salutes her roots while telling the story of the first Christmas night. It's not anything you'll ever hear on the radio and it's the only song on the album that a listener may want to pass on, but once you know her cultural perspective it becomes a much more rewarding listen. Unfortunately, the English translation that she so generously provided to me is not included in the CD's packaging.

Sinclair is a pure folk singer blessed with a fine voice who uses her life as a basis for many of her compositions. Home, family, and Christmas mean a lot to her and the album mixes all of these themes together into a more than satisfying, thirty-seven minute program that tugs at your heart without sounding overly sentimental. Wishlist isn't rock 'n roll but, I like it.

You can buy Wishlist at Amazon and visit Sinclair's website for a detailed biography.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002)

The Brian Setzer Orchestra take their loud, rocking big band formula and apply it to some classic holiday music, revitalize it, and make it totally their own. If you missed this album upon its initial release in 2002 you must open your wallet and lay down your holiday green so you can start your Christmas party immediately.

Setzer’s flaming, frantic, greaser rock guitar dominates many of the hard rocking tunes while always meshing perfectly with the brass and reed sections on such seasonal standards as "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland" and "Jingle Bells." Setzer welds his leather jacket and tattoo persona perfectly into the lyrics of the latter track by changing the closing line to "Oh what fun it is to ride in a '57 Chevrolet." These songs are always overplayed every Christmas but the fresh arrangements Setzer offers up are a welcome adventure.

Not every track roars at breakneck speed. The pace slows down a bit for guest Ann-Margaret who can still act like a sultry vixen while singing a sexy counterpoint with Setzer on "Baby, It’s Cold Outside."

Another highlight is the most eclectic piece the orchestra has ever recorded, a seven minute, jazz-influenced arrangement of "The Nutcracker Suite" originally written for the Les Brown big band in the 1950s. Setzer’s version is more jazzy than classical and it even rocks a little too.

So They Say It’s Christmas" is Setzer’s only original contribution on the set and it's a welcome ballad after all the bombast, and never in his entire career has he sounded as genuine and serious as he does on an emotional take of "O Holy Night" recorded with a thirty voice choir. You could play this version in church!

This is a great CD from start to finish. Mostly it is fun but it is also frequently very moving.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Great Cover Versions: Do You Hear What I Hear?

One of the few Christmas songs written in the post-World War Two years with a religious theme that also became a mainstream hit is "Do You Hear What I Hear." Despite the subject matter it's not a hymn or a carol, it's a pop song. It's been recorded by literally hundreds of artists although in recent years, as things have become more and more politically correct, vocalists have become increasingly afraid of singing religious holiday songs, so today, it is heard less frequently.

The reason I'm writing about this classic has nothing to do with religion. Instead it's because I accidentally discovered "Do You Hear What I Hear" has a short, simple, but very interesting origin. It was written by the married songwriting team of Noel Regney and Gloria Shane Baker. According to Wikipedia Regney wrote the lyrics and Baker the music, a situation that was opposite of how the two usually worked. They also wrote songs for a host of others including Bobby Vinton, Doris Day and Perry Como. Regney also wrote the English lyrics for The Singing Nun's "Dominique" (1963).

What makes this Christmas tune interesting is that it was written in October 1962. Readers old enough to remember should recall how close the World came to nuclear war that month of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regney and Baker wrote the song as a plea for peace during that sad October and it became a hit record for the Harry Simeone Chorale who also released the popular "Little Drummer Boy" in 1958. The next year Bing Crosby issued his version of "Do You Hear What I Hear" which eventually became more popular than the original.

The song's lyrics tell the tale of Jesus's birth in sort of a "whisper down the lane" manner. The "night wind" tells a "little lamb" who tells a "shepherd boy" and so on until it reaches the "mighty king."

The song has even been recorded (for better or worse) by Bob Dylan. Here are two versions including the bard's recent cover from 2009.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Forgotten Music Thursday: Crosby, Stills & Nash - CSN (1977)

By 1977, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash had not released a studio album as a threesome since their eponymous debut in 1969 or together with Neil Young since Deja Vu in 1970. When they finally issued CSN during the Jimmy Carter Administration it became a major hit even though it's never been held in as high esteem as their two earlier LPs. However, it was good enough to prove there was still a demand for the kind of music they made almost a decade earlier.

CSN, with the smiling trio on the cover masking their ever present behind the scenes turmoil, was the last album for seventeen years that would show them to be a functioning, self-contained unit. So, it's amazing that with just three LPs from their golden era (nothing they ever did together after this album would come close to matching the artistic achievements or popularity of these three) that this band became legendary as one of the greatest in rock history. Why? Because the trio is so supremely talented that when they fired on all cylinders the quality of their work was often unsurpassed.

Subsequent albums were marred by Crosby's drug problems and their inability to overcome their differences with each other. Five years later, on Daylight Again, Stills and Nash were often forced to use outside composers and vocalists due to the former Byrd's frequent absences. Timothy B. Schmidt and Art Garfunkel added harmonies to compensate for what they lost with Crosby.

It's not that CSN is a totally forgotten record but when people think of the supergroup it's almost never this album that comes immediately to mind. By 1977 disco & punk were cultural and musical forces to be reckoned with, the Woodstock era was winding down, and just three years later Ronald Reagan would be elected President so there was the belief by some that the group was already becoming a hippie anachronism. Even so, the twelve song platter reached #2 on Billboard's pop album chart, only kept out of the top spot by Fleetwood Mac's blockbuster, Rumours.

Crosby, who always wrote the least accessible music for the trio turned in some of his best work: "Shadow Captain," "Anything at All," and "In My Dreams." All feature stellar vocal harmonies but, as usual, they lack the hooks needed for radio.

Stills was on fire, contributing the very fine "See the Changes," and two entries that did get some deserved radio time, "Fair Game," and "Dark Star." In addition to the outstanding group singing the latter two show off Stills' love of percussion. He also wrote the more Crosby-like "Run From Tears" and his "I Give You Give Blind," the only true rocker on the album, percolates despite the addition of a string section.

Nash's contributions were not as melodic as usual, as "Cold Rain" and "Carried Away" prove, but he also came up with "Just a Song Before I Go," perfection that went to #7 and became the band's highest charting single ever. He also contributed one of the album's more colorful entries, the mind-blowing "Cathedral," about an acid trip he took in Winchester Cathedral on his 32nd birthday.

The songs on CSN are often less straightforward than the two classics that came before it, and this proved the group was still thinking out of the box and operating at full capacity but, overall, the music is only at a four-star level rather than the five-star peak of their earlier work. This, when taken in consideration with the era it was released in, probably contributed to CSN not quite being the A-List classic it could have been.

Nevertheless, CSN is a great record. When you want to listen to intelligent music with great arrangements and singing pull this one out of mothballs, especially if you're tired of the overplayed classic rock staples.