Gene Ess (With Nicki Parrott) – A Thousand Summers

Taking a day off to catch up on some things around the house – and frankly to catch my breath.  On the road three weeks of the last four – 12 timezones one way, six the other.  Tried to get back to good old EST today.  Ask me tomorrow if it worked.

Gene Ess (Featuring Nicki Parrott)
A Thousand Summers (SIMP Records)
Released – February 14, 2012

I hate those reviews that say, “If you like X, you’ll like this.”

So I’m going to avoid saying how much vocalist Nicki Parrott sounds like Stacey Kent.

Instead, I’m going to write for a moment about guitarist Gene Ess, and the group he’s assembled for this outing, covering ten mostly familiar tunes, from Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” from the 1939 Musical “Too Many Girls,” to Henry Mancini’s “Charade.”

And while the tunes may be old friends, the arrangements manage to be both accessible and forcing a steep learning curve, all at once.  Complex harmonies intertwine with the basic melody, but just when I think I’m lost, it’s all familiar once again.  Make no mistake – Mr. Ess and the gang are front and center here, with James Weidman on piano, Thomson Kneeland on Bass and Gene Jackson on Drums.  Mr. Ess Shares arranging duties with Mr. Kneeland, who takes the odd-numbered tracks to Mr. Ess’ evens.

For me, Ms. Parrott was the anchor, holding firm with the melody in these somewhat tumultuous arrangements.  Her gentle, but insistent way with the melody keeps the guys from straying too far off road.  Mr. Ess says he chose her because she’s an “accomplished musician,” who has a stellar career as a bass player, as well as a vocalist – a regular in both Les Paul’s group at New York’s Iridium Jazz club – and the tribute band that succeeded him after his passing.

Sometimes it seems she’s straining to be heard in this group.  I thought it was the mix at first – but after reading the liner notes, I’m convinced that Mr. Ess and Mr. Kneeland consider her just another of the instruments, who gets her turn for a solo now and then – but largely plays with the group.

I’ll have this one in heavy rotation on the ‘pod for a while, both for what it teaches me about the textures of good jazz, but also for Ms. Parrott, who – like the rest of the musicians – manages to be deceptively simple and complex, all at once.

And while I learn to live for her solo turns here – I’ll also be in search of smaller, quieter groups that better showcase her talent.

This disc is highly recommended.

Website (Mr. Ess) – Website (Ms. Parrott)

Another of the discs I picked up in the second-hand shop in Prague on this last trip was an Italian CD of Anita O’Day – “The Complete 1952 Verve Sessions.”

That’s another education in a whole different direction.

From a 1963 television special, here’s Ms. O’Day in Tokyo – with “Honeysuckle Rose.”

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Katie Guthorn – Why Not Smile?

Having a frosty beverage after work with a coworker in Prague, talking about second-hand record stores in the city.  He’s been known to write an occasional review in different genres, and he’s an avid collector of old vinyl.

It’s our theory that with the rise of digital music, the market for second-hand recordings is drying up.  Yet, I’d rather have a CD copy of something I can rip myself at a high-quality level – than the lower-quality stuff that comes from iTunes and the like.

I wonder if the Kindle will do the same thing to used book stores.  I noticed that the one near where I live is going out of business.

Katie Guthorn – Why Not Smile?
Released February 21, 2012

An eclectic set of a dozen covers make up this breezy, straight-ahead outing from San Francisco-area performer Katie Guthorn.

Ms. Guthorn has a backstory that’s equally eclectic – backup singer for the likes of Martha Reeves and Bonnie Raitt, actress in a Karen Carpenter tribute show – and voice teacher for the past 24 years.

Her choices here include everything from a jaunty version of Tony Hatch’s 1965 classic, “Call Me,” to an unlikely medley joining the haunting R.E.M. ballad, “Why Not Smile,” with “Smile,” the Turner-Parsons lyrical adaptation of the Charlie Chaplin instrumental.

There’s a freshness to Ms. Guthorn’s voice that’s gently beguiling – precisely because of it’s lack of affectation.  Some of the spice comes from husband Tim Haggerty on guitar, who also produces and arranges, and from Armen Boyd on tenor sax.

But all of that is the frame for Ms. Guthorn’s pure alto – proof that those who teach, also can.

They surely can.

No gimmicks, just fresh vocals, backed by a band that either sounds larger than it is – or has a whole bunch of uncredited horn players, this disc is highly recommended.


So killing that lunch hour today in Prague, I spent time at “Jazz CD Bazar,” going through second-hand discs.  No room to bring vinyl home, but did find a copy of the 2004 CD of Abbe Lane‘s 1958 recording, “Where There’s A Man.”

Called “The Swingingest Sexpot in Show Business” by “Adam” magazine in 1963 (Yikes!) – Ms. Lane is probably best known as Mrs. Xavier Cugat #3, just before Mrs. Xavier Cugat #4, Charo.  Anyway, the recording is just plain delicious – a guilty pleasure – with Sid Ramin’s orchestra backing her, in an over-the-top kind of way.

Here’s a 1966 appearance from the “Red Skelton Show” – a little too much of the dancers, and a little too little of Ms. Lane, but you’ll get the idea.

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Wanda Stafford – Something Cool

Five seconds.  I maintain that you’ll know if you’re going to like something after listening for five seconds.  The hook (that part of the song that sticks in your head) only seals the deal.  You’ll listen for the hook – if you like the first five seconds.

After five seconds of hearing Wanda Stafford sing, I turned up the volume.

Wanda Stafford – Something Cool
Released – January 2012

In Japan, where they know and really love female vocal artists – you can grab a copy of Wanda Stafford’s 1960 Roulette recording, “In Love For The Very First Time” for something like 40 dollars.  Arrangements by Bill Russo, piano by the legendary Bill Evans.

Billboard Magazine (Then “Billboard Music Week”) said, “…Russo’s arrangements are satisfactory, but the album belongs to the thrush.  Watch this girl, she’s good.”

From Ms. Stafford’s biography: “Eventually moving to the West Coast, she became part of the then-thriving North Beach jazz scene working at…the Hungry-I and the Playboy Club.”  And she’s been a Bay Area fixture since – as a fashion entrepreneur, voice instructor, and performer – and back into a recording groove with releases in 1997, 2004 and now – with “Something Cool.”

A dozen tracks of laid-back, west coast covers – my favorites include Cole Porter’s “Get Out Of Town,” a surprisingly up-tempo “The Man I Love,” and Rogers and Hart’s “Where Or When.”

Ms. Stafford’s plush stylings weave nicely in and out of the group she’s assembled here – Grant Levin on piano, Lorca Hart on drums, Noel Jewkes on Saxophone, Chris Amberger on bass and Bob Switzer on trumpet.  But the fact that she’s so willing to share the focus assures that when the attention swings back to the girl singer – the spotlight is on her.

Which is where it belongs.  Billboard said it.

The album belongs to the thrush…and is highly recommended.


More details about Whitney Houston’s death this morning from the BBC and elsewhere.  I’ll assume that you’re able to find more updated information on your own.  I was going back, trying to remember the performance by Ms. Houston that I’ll remember most.  I suppose it was Super Bowl 1991.  We were officially at war then – unlike a lot of other wars in my lifetime.

I don’t think there’s better a better rendition before or since.  I still get goosebumps.

Gone too soon, Whitney.  Gone too soon.

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Whitney Houston Remembered

Reports this evening say Ms. Houston died of (as yet) unknown causes, at 48.

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