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Nikos Koulouris “…Dare To Dream”

06 Jan, 2012 Matt Warnock

Instrumental music usually falls into one of several categories including Jazz, New-Age, Smooth Jazz and Adult Contemporary.  But, there are some artists that are not content to sit in any one of the categories with their musical output.  Instead, they purposefully blur the lines between genres with their instrumental compositions and arrangements.  Greek born saxophonist and composer Nikos Koulouris is just such an artist, one that likes to float between genres, as evidenced by his album …Dare to Dream.  This collection of four instrumental works is a well-written EP that encompasses several instrumental genres of music, without ever firmly resting in one for an extended period of time.

The album kicks off with an atmospheric track titled “Rise of the Dreamer.”  Bringing in elements of World Music, acoustic guitar, recorder and rhythm section, this song is a great example of the open-mindedness that Koulouris possesses in his writing.  There is a distinct melody section, followed by improvised solos, as one would expect from a jazz tune, yet besides the formatting, this song is far removed from jazz both rhythmically and harmonically.  By taking inspiration from the jazz tradition in regards to form, and extending expectations with funky, slapped-bass, distorted guitar soloing and hard-driving grooves from the drums, Koulouris has created a highly-personalized track that can be called instrumental music, yet resists falling into one distinct category or genre.

The key to finding success with an EP is often how an artist programs their repertoire, and not necessarily the songs themselves.  Sometimes having four or five great songs is not enough when they all sound the same.  Koulouris avoids this by choosing a collection of tracks that are distinct, yet linked by their high level of musicianship and creative interpretations.  “Alone” is a track that moves in a new direction, leading the listener down a darker road, creating a more moody atmosphere than the up-tempo opening track.  Complete with screaming guitar melodies, an engaging harmonic progression and laid-back tempo, this track compliments the first by moving in a new musical direction, one that keeps the listener guessing as to what is coming next.

This trend continues with the Latin inspired “Dream-Walking.”  Here, Koulouris brings a Latin rhythm and melodic content to his writing.  Bringing back an up-tempo, the focus in on the tight groove elicited by the rhythm section and the melody lines that float over this beat.  By adding horn background figures to the mix, the saxophonist is also bringing in a new melodic texture to the track, adding a further level of interest and audience engagement.

The short EP finishes with the dance-beat track “Golden Sand.”  Again, we find Koulouris moving in a new rhythmic and textural direction, his fourth in as many tunes.  Bringing in a pop-dance beat may seem a bit out of place, until one hears the track and its infectious groove and catchy melodic line.  Pop tracks can sometimes stick out in an instrumental context, but when written well and programmed right, as is the case here, they can really add to the overall success of the release.  By featuring four different tracks with four different grooves and influences, Koulouris not only provides a window into his artistic tastes, but gives listeners of a wide background something to enjoy on this record.

Overall, …Dare to Dream is an interesting collection of four instrumental track that range from Latin, to dance and funk.  Instrumental music is not for everyone, but fans of the genre will find something to enjoy on this record.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Miki Campins “Les Mans Plenes D’Arena”

02 Dec, 2011 Matt Warnock

Originally trained in classical guitar, Spanish-born percussionist and composer Miki Campins (Miquel Àngel Campins Camacho), who currently lives and teaches in Norway, has brought together an eclectic set of influences for his recording project aptly titled Les Mans Plenes D’Arena (The Hands are Full of Sand). Bringing to mind long days on the beach, ocean breezes and even tropical storms, the album paints the landscape that Campins grew up watching day in and day out, and one that he still holds strong ties to in his adult years. Featuring well-written tunes, strong musicians and creative arrangements, the album is a musical journey through the mind and creative thoughts of this very talented performer and writer.

After the short intro piece “Overdrive,” the album kicks off with the Spanish/Latin influenced “Ab-Muhr.” Featuring a clave-groove in the bass, bringing to mind Cuban and Puerto Rican Salsa music, the song also features Spanish flavored harmonies and melody lines, drawing together two Spanish cultures from across the Atlantic in one musical output. The marimba solo, which is performed by the compose Campins, adds to the melodic material with a nice build up to the distorted, fusion-influenced guitar solo that takes the listener into the next section, which features percussion trading with the rest of the band. Not only is this song a strong outing for the improvisers, the arrangement is also full of detail, growing from one section to the next in a clear and precise manner, drawing the listener along the storyline in a way that is both engaging and creative in nature. This kind of forward thinking with the arrangements is one of the elements that helps to lift this album to the highest level of musicianship and creative self-expression.

Besides the softer, more moody pieces on the record, there are also harder, more rock-inspired tracks such as “Den Farlige Reven.” Here, the melody is played on the marimbas, surrounded by multiple layers of distorted electric guitar. The mixture of acoustic and electric, processed instruments really helps to bring the melody to the forefront, shining a light on the main phrases of the piece while allowing the guitars to build textures in the background. As is the case in other tracks, after the percussion plays the melody, the electric guitar takes center stage during the solo section with a strong, melodically based solo, complete with whammy-bar work and screaming bends when needed. Though there is a fair amount of effects and processing going on with the guitars on this track, as well as others on the record, it never gets to be too much. Instead, it only adds an extra layer of interest and tonal variation to the song, rather than sound over worked as some songs can when the engineers get too over the top with the effects. Campins uses just the right amount of processing to add to the mood of the pieces without taking away from the over musicality of the recording.

Overall, Les Mans Plenes D’Arena is a strong release for Campins. His talented group of musicians comes together to interpret his compositions with the utmost respect for the writer’s intent, as well as the highest level of musicianship. Instrumental albums can sometimes become monotonous or predictable by the second or third track, but that is not the case with this record. From start to finish the songs are well-written, lead well from one to the next while keeping things fresh and interesting, and the improvised solos are first rate. A world-class performance all around.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)

Laura Ainsworth “Keep It To Yourself”

01 Nov, 2011 Matt Warnock

It isn’t often that a musician who makes a living writing and recording some of the best comedy bits and songs during the day, steps up on stage at night in jazz clubs and venues with her ensemble of world-class jazz musicians.  But, this is just the scenario that Texas based Laura Ainsworth finds herself in, comedian by day, jazz vocalist by night.  Not the normal pedigree for a jazz performer, but one that works for the talented composer, arranger and songstress, giving her a unique sound and vocal quality that, though may not be the right mix for every jazz fan, it definitely helps her stand out among the crowd.

Ainsworth brings her unique approach to jazz to her new album Keep it to Yourself, which features a mixture of American Songbook standards, pop classics and new works written for the talented vocalist.  The album starts with the quirky, tongue-in-cheek, title track that showcases the adult contemporary side of Ainsworth’s artistic output.  The song has a deep groove, emphasized by the heavy bass sound that, at least rhythmically and harmonically, will bring to mind Sade and other pop-jazz vocalists.  The addition of the organ lines in the background, layering behind the vocals, is a nice touch that brings an extra layer of musical interest to the track, which is one of the highlights of the album, and one that is getting attention from AC radio stations at the moment, and deservedly so.

Though this track is more pop than jazz, there is plenty of swinging tracks on the album, including some lesser-known classics by the likes of Johnny Mercer, “Midnight Sun,” Cole Porter, “Love for Sale,” and the Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael fan-favorite, “Skylark.”  Each of these songs brings to light the sense of jazzy swing and melodic phrasing that Ainsworth inherited from her father, the well-known jazz saxophonist Billy Ainsworth.  Each song, as well as the other jazz influenced tracks on the record, is supported by a strong rhythm section, which includes John Adams and Mike Drake, helping to lay down a solid groove, keep the time moving forward and provide the perfect harmonic and rhythmic cushion for Ainsworth’s vocal melodies.

As a vocalist, Ainsworth floats between the pop and jazz worlds on each of the album’s twelve tracks.  Whether she’s interpreting a pop classic such as “Dream a Little Dream of Me” or Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” Ainsworth is consistently distinct with her approach to phrasing, articulation and vocal timbre.  One thing that may not appeal to traditional jazz fans is her sense of vibrato, which tends to be longer and more drawn out than one would expect from a purely jazz vocalist, but this is where the line is blurred in Ainsworth’s music, blending pop and jazz together to form her own personalized style.

Overall, Keep It to Yourself is a solid release from the Dallas based vocalist and arranger.  Ainsworth does an admirable job of bringing together a top-notch ensemble to interpret these twelve tracks that blend the pop and jazz worlds in a fresh and unique way.  Though the record may not totally appeal to traditional jazz fans, it will be a nice introduction to the jazz genre for fans of pop and adult contemporary music, something that jazz can use these days as its market share and audience sizes shrink on an almost weekly basis.  There is something very appealing about a musician with a sense of humor, and Ainsworth definitely brings that tongue-in-cheek approach to her music, which only furthers her relationship with the audience and allows her to stand out in the crowded vocal jazz arena.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating:  3 stars (out of 5)

Stefania Passamonte “Chopin Heroic”

20 Oct, 2011 Matt Warnock

Italian born pianist Stefania Passamonte returns with another world-class album full of emotional and technically brilliant interpretations of some of the most beautiful and engaging works by Romantic composer Frédćric Chopin.  Divided into two types of works, Scherzos and Polonaises (with a Walt and Andante included for good measure), the album is a showcase for both the talented composer’s output and the mature interpretation by one of the world’s brightest up and coming pianists.  As was the case with her album Beethoven’s Dramatic Sonatas, Passamonte’s decision to focus this recording on the works of one composer not only provides an added level of cohesiveness to the project, but also allows the listener a deeper view of the pianist’s love of Chopin’s music, and the results are absolutely first rate in every respect.

Passamonte leaps out of the gates with her performance of Scherzo No. 1, which is both a technically challenging and emotionally filled work that takes a pianist of the highest caliber to properly interpret.  The rapid-fire melodies that define the first and last sections of the piece are performed cleanly and with the maximum amount of personality injected into each phrase, which is not an easy accomplishment when the notes are flying by as fast as they are.  One of the things that makes this piece, and a lot of Passamonte’s works, so enjoyable is her control of the time.  Knowing just when to slow down and speed up to fully engage the listener’s attention, the pianist has a sixth sense when it comes to moving the time around and pulling the utmost intensity out of each and every phrase, in this piece as well as all of the others on this enchanting record.

Though most of these works will only be known to classical music fans, Passamonte has included her interpretation of one of Chopin’s most recognizable pieces, “Polonaise Heroic.”  Performing such a recognizable work is always a tough choice for any classical musician to make, as immediately audiences will compare their version to the countless others they have heard, both in concert and on recordings.  While some versions of famous pieces fail to live up to their predecessors, Passamonte’s execution of this classic work is definitely worthy next to the most famous recorded versions of the Heroic.  Here crystal clear execution of each and every phrase only acts to bring out the intricate melodic and harmonic content in a way that allows the listener a closer glimpse of Chopin’s genius, while providing for a powerful performance at the same time.

Though she certainly has the technical virtuosity to perform difficult and flashy pieces all day long, Passamonte also shines a light on her more dramatic and slower side with her performance of Chopin’s “Waltz in C Sharp Minor.”  Here, there are fast runs that are executed with perfection, but it is the slower, more melodic moments that jump out and stick in the listener’s ear.  There are many pianists that possess the skill to perform fast and difficult works, but there are fewer that can also bring to life a slow, endearing melody in the way that Passamonte does on this work.  It is this duality that makes her standout and makes this album worthy of entering the library of any and all classical music fans.

Passamonte is quickly making a name for herself as a pianist to watch on the international classical music scene. With here majestic interpretation of Beethoven, and now Chopin, here audiences are left wanting more and wondering where will this talented performer take them next as her bright musical future continues to unfold on recordings and in concert halls worldwide.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)

Bud Buckley “In Denial”

28 Sep, 2011 Matt Warnock

In Denial, a four-song EP with two additional bonus tracks, is the latest release from singer-songwriter Bud Buckley.  Drawing influences from the likes of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, Buckley lets his influences breathe through his music while he steers each track into new directions by injecting his own personal touches as well as those of the world-class musicians that he has assembled together for this engaging project.

Kicking off the EP with the dark, bluesy rocker “Had to Pretend,” Buckley showcases his emotional side, as well as brings to light the strong guitar work of Steve Siktberg.  The combination of growling guitar tone, low vocals and the bass and drums locking in together produces a song that is both dark and moody, but that will get toes tapping and heads bobbing at the same time.  There is also some very fine organ work by Ross Rice, who duals with Siktberg in the song’s middle section, driving the energy and raising the band’s interaction and creativity to the next level of intensity.

Moving into more of a rock feel, complete with acoustic guitar and a softer guitar tone on the lead lines, Buckley lightens the mood with the second track “I Need.”  Though there are some harmonic and melodic moments that return to the darker tone of the first track, the overall vibe is lighter, shining a light on another side of the songwriter’s artistic output.  By using emotional contrast between the tracks, not just here but in others on the album as well, Buckley is thinking of the larger picture, being concerned with the overall programming of the album and not just the individual tracks.  This is one of the reasons that this album is so successful and why it feels for like a cohesive musical output rather than just a collection of individual tracks.

The third song, “It’s Been Fun,” has a bit of a Paul Simon, after Simon and Garfunkel, vibe to it, at least in the vocals and the chorus harmony.  Again, this track showcases the diverse background of Buckley’s influences from which the singer draws in his writing and performance.  The EP concludes with a slower track that is permeated with a cymbal groove that keeps the time moving forward.  Going with a cleaner sound, the guitars law down an harmonic pad that Buckley floats his lyrics over as he takes the listener through each verse and chorus throughout the length of the track.

Though the EP ends here, there are two bonus tracks that have been included in this release, “A Way” and “Keeping Secrets.”  The first is an acoustic based track that features some very haunting guitar work and a lovely bassline that really pulls the track together, lifting it to become one of the best on the release.  The latter is based on a driving rhythm that will bring to mind Bob Dylan’s early electric work, in both the music and vocals.  Both songs are welcome additions to the EP and fit right in with the overall mood of the release, as opposed to being tacked on as an afterthought.

Overall, In Denial is a strong album full of well-written songs performed at the highest level.  Though some of the moods tend to be similar, there is enough diversity to keep things interesting and move the music along from one track to the next.  With such a creative and engaging EP on the shelves, listeners are left waiting for Buckley’s next full-length release to hit the airwaves and store shelves worldwide.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)