Brad Mehldau; Freakwater; Steve Lacy…
Even though I live in the State of Washington, I'm pretty tough on the home state's wine. For one reason, our gargantuan producers (you know who you are) insist on running their wines through the flavor extractor before they slap on the dopey label and load 'em into the 18-wheelers. Meanwhile, Eastern Washington, over on the other side of the Cascade Range, has earned a growing rep for its upscale, French-style merlot. Unfortunately, this rep means every nouveau wine snob with a few copies of The Spectator stashed safely out of view simply must have a couple bottles of Leonetti for special occasions, a case or two of Woodward Canyon for show and at least a few Seven Hills empties in the recycle bin. What all this meansÉ prices been driven up absurdly. It also means bursting into fits of inappropriate laughter at the wine shop when the price tag reads $100 for a mere 750ml of musty grape juice from Walla Walla. C'mon!
At just over $20, Canoe Ridge isn't exactly a budget-priced bottle, but it's not so expensive that it's out of the "splurge zone." While many of Washington's premier merlots are heavily oaked and aspire to that undeniably Gallic "barnyard" flavor, dirt, mold and pig stink are not exactly what I'm looking for in a glass of vino. Hence my problem with the home team. The Canoe Ridge, however, comes out of the bottle sloppy with soft fruit (fresh sugar-dusted strawberries, tart wild plums). A few minutes of breathing room and the Canoe begins to show a sublime yet substantial backbone. While certainly not chewy, the Canoe does have enough tannin structure to stand up to the usual food pairing suspect -- a big juicy steak. There's also a surprising prettiness to this wine, a certain delicacy and nuance that lingers and leaves a quiet, thoughtful impression. Remember, it's okay to think about wine. Just not too much.
Art of the Trio Vol. 4
For a pianist who's built a reputation as "impressionistic," thoughtful and nuanced, Brad Mehldau can flat-out play. He also has the uncanny ability to wring new sentiment out of old tunes ("I'll Be Seeing You") while also recontextualizing interesting contemporary pop as jazz composition (Radiohead's "Exit Music for a Film). His two new releases, Elegiac Cycles and Art of the Trio Vol. 4, prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Mehldau's the most important jazz pianist of his generation. On his fourth "Art of the Trio" recording, Mehldau again finds himself in the friendly confines of the Village Vanguard for an evening of his mood-swept melodies and tangled bop knots. Starting with an up-tempo "All the Things You Are," the pianist concentrates on blistering right-hand solo work, taking only the slightest detours to wonder over the delicate soul of the tune. But this diversion's so subtle, so whispered that it would threaten to go unnoticed if Mehldau weren't meticulous with every melody he presses into the keys. Mehldau gives every song both the time and the permission to explore, change and mutate. One minute he's roaring up and down the keys on "Sehnsucht," the next he's turning the tune into a Brahms-like suite. With skills like that, we can only hope there's no end to Mehldau's Art of the Trio series.
Also new from Mehldau is Elegiac Cycle, his first solo piano outing. Here, Mehldau's melancholy meets up with his rather obvious classical influences (Brahms, Chopin) for a round of nine haunting, glowingly originals. Mehldau's touch has always been light and deft, and those qualities are brought to the front on these gently searching, melancholy compositions. Aside from simply being a piece of gorgeous piano music -- which it certainly is -- this album offers more. The wonder occurs when Mehldau introduces brief, glimmering bits of the other side of his persona -- a rambunctious improvisational mischief. In this context, that spark buoys these tunes and allows light to shine upon them. Rather than facing a set of dark, brooding compositions, Mehldau inserts that indefinable spirit known as jazz into the soul of these melodies, transforming the sullen into the warmly comforting and recasting the sadness of these elegies as tributes to the spirit. A wonderfully moving and human effort.
For the last couple of albums, Freakwater -- a couple of Chicago gals -- has spawned the best (goddam) country music in the U. S. of A. Not the Derailers. Not Dwight. Not Wilco. Not the Old '97s. Freakwater. (If country music makes you break out in hives, pardon me. Just remember, the guys who hump the barrels in the winery's back 40 -- and most of those hick-ass/genius winemakers -- are into country music. You trust them with your wine, will you trust them with your stereo?) Led by the two-cat howl of Janet Beaveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin, Freakwater's take on Appalachian country is filtered through a sensibility that's plain-speaking yet starkly modern. Musically, the forms are time-tested and classic. Lyrically, however, Bean and Irwin's words come across as if Raymond Carver were writing the lyrics, which, given the old-timey feel of the music, adds an interesting future/primitive perspective to the whole shebang. Freakwater's ace in the hole is the band's singing. Both Bean and Irwin have raw, powerful voices that plow deep, earthy grooves into the tunes.
On End Times, Freakwater doesn't harmonize in the strict sense of the word. Instead, these women hunker down and belt it out, hoping their voices meet somewhere in the middle. When they collide, the moment ignites with a blinding white energy that makes tiny, prickly hairs stand up. I realize your townhouse/condo/ officemates may have some covenant restricting the owning and/or playing of country-inspired music, but if you buy only one twangy album before the end of the century, this is the one to grab.
I honestly don't know if there's an Australian equivalent to country music, but if there is, I can guarantee it's being played in the outbuildings and pickup trucks of the Jim Barry vineyard. Raw-boned, large and brawny, Barry's 1995 McRae Wood is something of an "outback" shiraz. Strong, unflinching flavors of bramble, raspberry and sage are tucked into a ruddy tannin skin, meaning this is a food wine. What food? Well, tough wine, tough food. Ribs. Mine. Par-boiled, garlic rubbed, slow cooked and lubed by nothing less than pornographic amounts of sweet-hot soul sauce. While it's difficult for a wine to cut through gallons of Big Mama's BBQ sauce, the McRae Wood did as good a job as could be expected. Duking it out with the ribs (and, 'course, French fries and cole slaw) this brawny wine softened -- a little -- but this is one bottle loaded for bear. Please take appropriate precautions.
According to jazz mythology, it was Steve Lacy's brief stint with Thelonious Monk's sextet that inspired St. John (Coltrane) to pick up the soprano sax -- a.k.a., the straight horn. Almost 40 years later, Lacy's still at it. His sensational new recording, The Rent, is an unexpurgated, two-set show with zippy, you-are-there audio; dynamic, in-the-moment improvisations and interplay; and an enthusiastic Portland, Oregon, crowd that senses and reacts to the jazz magic taking wing all around them. Recorded in its entirety and without interruption (set one fills the first disc, while the second set is contained on disc two), The Rent precisely captures the brilliant, in-the-moment creative lightning of live jazz music. With Lacy's reputation as an angular, minimalist player, the overflow of emotive blowing and chatty interplay between artist and audience may come as something of a surprise, but there's Lacy answering questions, announcing tunes and even reciting poetry. The crowd responds enthusiastically, and after the first tune (Monk's "Shuffle Boil"), the connection between performer and audience is cemented. From there things just get better. Lacy and longtime bandmates Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass) and John Betsch (drums) manage to increase the stratospheric level of their playing and still engage the audience as the evening rockets forward. While Lacy isn't gifted with a set of iron lungs, his music has never been about power. Lacy's strengths come from his ability to direct and articulate his speed-of-light idea flow. On The Rent he's remarkably precise and nimble as he darts from idea to idea only to return just in the nick of time to nail the chorus. Lacy's tone is unfailingly accurate and, even in the midst of the most demanding passages, remarkably consistent. No note's wasted. There's no filler. This is the Steve Lacy Trio at its absolute finest. Straight, no chaser.
I know sauvignon blanc. A total sucker for the New Zealand's grapefruit and California's lemon-lime zing, it's my favorite white. Since seafood's a huge part of the Seattle dining scene, it's been easy to fall in love with this grape's impeccable manners with fish. However, I still don't know the difference between my beloved sav blah and fume blanc. Fume may be left in oak a little longer (or not), but getting a straight answer from a wine geek can be a difficult thing. I do know for certain that Dry Creek Vineyard's 1997 Dry Creek Valley Reserve Fume tastes good. Great, even. In fact, it tastes like a sav blanc -- a richer, rounder and slightly sweeter version of sav blanc. This bottle of fume's a bit more forthcoming than one might expect from the austere and steely sav blanc. While this is still a wine with smartly defined edges, the Dry Creek's generous with large splashes of vanilla, melon and tropical (rather than citrus) fruit zing. Yes, you're giving up the mouth fireworks that an electric sav blanc offers. But consider this fume a more relaxed, easy-going version of the high-octane sav. Worthy of exploration.
The Aluminum Group is neither easy-going nor very relaxed. A serious, literary-minded pop group, their music borders on orchestral with fits of romantic confusion tossed in to keep everyone on edge. With singers Frank and John Navin name-checking the likes of Calder, Thomas Hardy and the extended Sinatra clan, the band's uptight, love-worried lyrics run straight into the sweeping, propulsive cocktail rock. It's easiest to compare the Aluminum Group's smarty-pants rave ups to Scotland's Belle and Sebastian. Both bands look to the sixties for inspiration while adding wry lyrical updates and doses of modern instrumentation. And while Belle and Sebastian tend to be folksy, modest and retiring, the Aluminum Group is sophisto, extravagant and expressive. On Pedals, their songs build slowly and from the ground up as guitars, pianos, vintage synths and other keys, horns, flutes, strings, even a banjo, weave into a bona fide art pop event. Songs rise into grand gestures with dramatic cliffs, lovely vistas and an irony nothing short of glamorous. Drink up, jaded Gen Xers!
Like the Aluminum Group, there's a certain "fake glamour" to Moscato d' Asti -- that sweet n' fruity bubbly from our Italian pals. Moscato d' Asti, as regular readers know, is a fave rave for a couple simple (tastes great, cheap) reasons. But what's this? A moscato without the d' Asti? To make the situation even more inviting, it's brewed up by St. Supery, an American producer with good distribution and a decent track record. The folks at the winery are considerate enough to print "Sweet White Wine" right on the label, apparently to scare off the deadly serious white wine snob. I however, am attracted like buzz-bee to blossom at such a warning. And, to their credit, the farmers at St. Supery ain't fibbing. This stuff's sweet -- and since it's not carbonated like Moscato d' Asti, there's no effervescence to cut the viscosity. Flavor-wise, this wine's stacked and packed with life's most enjoyable fruit sensations mingled in an almost-sexual juice swap. Dig the bountiful melon, tangerine, papaya, a little splash of coconut and the lightest touch of vanilla. Yeah, it's tropical. Yeah it's sweet. It also tastes like a million bucks and looks great as the moisture condenses on the outside of the glass on a sultry, sexy afternoon. That's glamour!
| Rudy Van Gelder Reissue Series|
In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the Blue Note label has re-released some of its classic titles as the Rudy Van Gelder Reissue Series. All the titles have been spiffed up and remastered in 24-bit digital, significantly improving the sound on some. These titles have also been beefed up. Alternative tracks have been added, never-before-released material "newly discovered" and new liner notes penned. The best thing about the Van Gelder series? It's good shit, friends: Somethin' Else by Cannonball Adderly, Moanin' by Art Blakey, The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan, Cool Struttin' by Sonny Clark, Go by Dexter Gordon. There are also titles without the instant recognition of the above. Stuff like Johnny Griffin's A Blowin' Session, a tremendous three-tenor showdown with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley attempting to bust out the windows. Joe Henderson's fab Page One features Hendo's nimble horn thinking matched up against Kenny Dorham's big-hearted trumpet for a gorgeous, sweet session. My favorite of the bunch so far (they release them in batches every couple of months) is a relatively unknown title by the great organist Larry Young. Unity, released in 1965, is the sort of shit-hot album that one feels lucky to find. Aided and abetted by the reed chewing of saxist Joe Henderson and the multi-limbed drumming of Coltrane vet Elvin Jones, Young turns in a blistering soul-jazz-funk stew that still sounds like the future funk without the nasty junk, y'all. While this album is as deft and quick-moving as a great jazz record must be, it's also capable of plowing through brick walls as if jazz music was the empty lot and Young was digging the foundation. If this album doesn't appeal to anyone who's even considered buying a Medeski Martin and Wood LP, I'll eat my God damn beret.
I'm not shy in pronouncing my love for the Godzilla-like red wines squeezed up by Ridge. They're fully inflated, rounded, supple, ballsy and full of big, screaming life. So what about their whites? Now that's the question. Could they possibly be good at both red and white? There was one bottle of 1996 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay behind a bottle of rather crummy (and anonymous) Washington State chardonnay at the ol' wine shack the other day. I had $20 burning a hole in my debit card. I laid it down and signed the slip. $20. Gone into the bitstream. Chilled and in a nice big glass, it was time to download the Ridge into the bloodstream. Rich, spicy, mouthfilling -- Tony Bennett lush. Chet Baker smooth. It's large and in charge like the Chairman of the Board. And since it's teleported straight down from the Ridge mothership, it boasts its own unique slant on current events. The cinnamon and the vanilla hit first, followed by the melon fruit. That oughta be enough, but the Ridge lingers like a late summer day, slowly fading and just getting more and more scenic. The flavors roll and stretch out, filling the slow-moving backwaters of the taste buds. It fades as softly as the flat glide of a meadow creek. $20? Worth it. Very.
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