Lady Madonna Storms Philly

As I write this Thursday night, I can hear Madonna singing from Yankee Stadium through the window of my Harlem apartment. In fact, the sound mix on “Girls Gone Wild” and “Papa Don’t Preach” gets so good that her vocals cut like a Samurai sword across a perfectly balanced backing track and the audible appreciation of the crowd. The concert seemed to start just as Vice President Biden ended his televised speech at the Democratic National Convention. Continue reading “Lady Madonna Storms Philly”

Live: Concha Buika Plays With Pronouns . . . and You

Concha Buika
Highline Ballroom
Sunday, June 24

Better than: Dreaming of her.

A 2009 performance by Concha Buika is on YouTube showing the Spanish singer in Lincoln Center’s Damroch Park backed by solo piano and performing a smoldering version of “Tu Volverás.” Even then, with minimal accompaniment, star quality oozes from every pore and note. It’s not just her flawless diction and phrasing; Buika’s intellectual command of her material makes each song she tackles hard to forget. You see the same showmanship when Aretha Franklin performs “Respect” in the original Blues Brothers movie: Acting out the words as she sings, ReRe’s personal authority makes you believe she wrote the tune on the spot. Continue reading “Live: Concha Buika Plays With Pronouns . . . and You”

Live: Kathleen Battle Does It Her Way at the Blue Note

Kathleen Battle and Cyrus Chestnut
The Blue Note
Tuesday, June 19

Better than: Never getting to see this lyric soprano perform live.

In 2010, Kathleen Battle chose a pianist and a repertoire of classical material to bring to Carnegie Hall for a formal recital. This summer, Battle decided to give the European composers a rest and instead brought a top jazz pianist to a small Manhattan supper club to help salute the roots of American popular music. Never let it be said that Battle doesn’t keep one foot firmly in two worlds: she can hold the high notes of any spiritual as if it were an aria, and bend the phrasing of a Mozart lieder as if it were a Shirley Caesar hit. But she’s also taken criticism from purists over the years for her willingness to collaborate across genres and performance styles. (One can only imagine what her critics thought in 2008 of seeing Battle on the American Music Awards performing “Superwoman” with Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys.) But if her two shows this week at The Blue Note prove anything, it’s that La Battle does what she wants, when she wants to do it, and Devil take the naysayers. Continue reading “Live: Kathleen Battle Does It Her Way at the Blue Note”

Live: Ljuba Davis Leads Her Masterful Combo at Drom

Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble
Friday, June 15

Better than: Getting bummed about the end of Al-Andalus.

For those of us who grew up hearing a lot of Yiddish, it can come as a nice surprise to discover that Hebrew modified Spanish as much as it transformed German. The resultant “Ladino” toungue is to Spanish Jews what Yiddish became to the Ashkenazim, but whereas witty Yiddish catchphrases are almost as familiar to mainstream America as a vaudeville pratfall, ladino humor and terminology remain less well-known. The Iberian flavor of Ljuba Davis’s Ladino Ensemble owes much to spicy North African percussion and the melodic sweetness of the fado, and it reaches all the way back before Columbus to the golden age of Moorish rule for inspiration. String instruments — in this case the cello, the bouzouki, the oud, and the acoustic guitar — play together as in Arab orchestrals, with each instrument adding distinctive ornamentation to the main melody. Live, this tight five-piece combo of master instrumentalists sounds like a much bigger unit. Continue reading “Live: Ljuba Davis Leads Her Masterful Combo at Drom”

Live: Imani Uzuri Brings the Gypsy Life to Joe’s Pub

Imani Uzuri
Joe’s Pub
Friday, June 1

Better Than: Being sad that Alice Coltrane and Cesaria Evora are dead and that Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill don’t make albums together.

The Gypsy Diaries is North Carolina homegirl Imani Uzuri’s second self-produced release, and it proves that major-label support can become irrelevant with shrewd uses of online tools like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, as well as a fanbase that include the likes of The Roots, Bill Laswell, and Talib Kweli. With a voice that would sound equally at home on an opera stage or a disco 12-inch, Uzuri is a constant surprise on record, seamlessly combining jazz, classical, country and blues motifs into highly personalized compositions. Continue reading “Live: Imani Uzuri Brings the Gypsy Life to Joe’s Pub”

Live: Yann Tiersen Gets Playful at Irving Plaza

Yann Tiersen
Irving Plaza
Friday, April 27

Better than: Most of the Philip Glass and Stephin Merritt music I’ve heard.

Skylinef, Yann Tiersen’s seventh studio album, is only the second album of his current deal with Anti- and, like 2010’s Dust Lane, it pioneers sonic territory structurally different from the old-fashioned chansons that have been on heavy rotation in downtown Manhattan bistros for months. Gone are the sparse, folk-inflected dreamscapes people remember from 2005’s Les Retrouvailles or the twin 2001 releases of L’Absente and Yann’s score to the French film Amélie. Fewer acoustic instruments appear, and those that do are distorted or displaced by vintage synthesizer textures. Instead he gives us propulsive drums and wailing guitars hot enough to rival early Roxy Music. Continue reading “Live: Yann Tiersen Gets Playful at Irving Plaza”

Etta James, R.I.P.

Etta James used to tell a story about meeting Billie Holiday in which Holiday told her — fatherless wild child to fatherless wild child — not to let the bad men and drugs that were going to come her way destroy her. Something about that brief conversation must’ve stuck, because despite many misadventures with drugs and men over the years, James was sober by the time I met her in the early ’90s and carefully planning the comeback which won her new contracts, tours, awards, and laurels. James lived to see her role as a musical pioneer boldly re-inscribed in America’s public memory, then capped her legacy with a magnificent final album mere months before her death in Riverside, Calif., on January 20, just five days short of her 74th birthday. Continue reading “Etta James, R.I.P.”

Pazz & Jop 2011: Carol Cooper on Keny Arkana’s Rebellion, Chart Pop’s Disco Revivalism, and Voters’ Fear of Gospel

These days American pop music sounds too fat and happy, so full of its own global importance that would-be anthems like “Born This Way” and “Run the World (Girls)” come across as insular and petulant, rather than triumphantly universal. Even their companion videos look more like carnival rides than artistic expression. Which is not to say that contrived artistry never works — the country scene is notorious for overthinking how certain singers, concepts, and songwriters might go together. Acts like the novelty trio Pistol Annies hit a sweet spot between humor and truth that brought to mind the Roches and inspired longing for the Dixie Chicks. Big & Rich, meanwhile, gave teens their own hip-hop hillbilly theme song with “Fake I.D.,” replete with bluegrass fiddle and banjo riffs. I also love the typically country juxtaposition of soft voice/hard lyric as illustrated by Ronnie Dunn’s mournful pragmatism on “Cost of Livin'” and Sunny Sweeney’s deceptive bravado on “Drink Myself Single.” It’s hard for my r&b homegirls to match country candor when singing through so much routine signal processing, but Nicki Minaj’s Rihanna-assisted “Fly” proves how sweet two bionic babes can sound once they unleash their inner TLC on the perfect power ballad. Continue reading “Pazz & Jop 2011: Carol Cooper on Keny Arkana’s Rebellion, Chart Pop’s Disco Revivalism, and Voters’ Fear of Gospel”

Meshell Ndegeocello Gets Crafty on “Weather”

“Weather” isn’t the first Meshell Ndegeocello single to fall into the category of “freak folk,” but the album of the same name (Naive) is her first that can be comfortably filed under that genre. Classical and country elements have often enhanced Ndegeocello’s melding of jazz, rock, global funk and hip-hop; since 1993, her live shows have included acoustic string cameos and interludes. She used banjo loops and a harmonica on the jazz instrumental “Luqman” in 2005, and made Chris Bruce play country banjo over flanged keyboard pads and vocals on 2009’s “Crying in Your Beer.” Continue reading “Meshell Ndegeocello Gets Crafty on “Weather””

A Look at Pop Around the Globe, From Operatic Creole Harmonies to Riot-Grrl-Inspired French Rappers

The end of the year brings a flurry of world music albums with commercial intentions ranging from the archival to the optimistically opportunistic. Some, like the Creole Choir of Cuba’s Tande-La or Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales, accompany tours by the outfits that made them; others are heavily branded theme compilations — brain candy for collegiate introverts, mood music for bars and boutiques. Continue reading “A Look at Pop Around the Globe, From Operatic Creole Harmonies to Riot-Grrl-Inspired French Rappers”