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Lee Abramson “Rumi Music”

10 Jun, 2010 Michael Diamond

It would be impossible to give an incisive review of composer/ recording artist Lee Abramson’s music without giving a bit of back-story on his life and creative process.  This 36 year-old musician received a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan before moving to Austin, Texas to pursue his musical aspirations.  During that time he played bass in a rock and roll band for three years.  Things changed however, in February of 2005 when he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  Although he began to lose his mobility and went from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair, he never lost his interest in music.

Despite his disability, Lee has managed to create music using a unique, although painstaking method. Utilizing a computer and music notation software he is able to compose using one finger and a touch pad.  There is also a video on his website showing screenshots of the software in action along with him explaining in detail how this process works.  The amount of time and effort required to create music by this means is incredibly extensive and his patience and perseverance are inspirational.

Thematically, Lee’s album is based on the poetry of the well-known 13th century Persian mystic Rumi, whose writings of spirituality and love have continued to inspire those seeking deeper meaning in life throughout the ages.  Collaborating with vocalist Abigail English, he has set the words of Rumi to his own brand of laid-back electronic music in what he describes as “mystical downtempo: Enya meets the Whirling Dervishes.” Downtempo is a sub-genre of ambient music that is mellow and atmospheric but with chilled out or “downtempo” grooves and beats.

While the lyrics may be from the distant past, Lee’s music is very contemporary in style and features complex layers of electronic textures, synthesizers, piano, bass, and percussion supporting the ethereal female vocals along with a little help from his friends on electric piano and guitar.  He has put a lot of attention to detail and it shows.  It was fascinating to watch on his video how he goes to great lengths, modulating the velocity of individual notes, to bring a more human and less mechanical feel to all these computer generated sounds.

The first track opens as a richly orchestrated piece with a march-like cadence providing solid ground for the reverberant female vocals to soar over.  Electric piano and a guitar/harpsichord-like sound fill in the melodic background.  This is also the first place of many that features some cool digital manipulation of the female vocals – an effect that is popular in contemporary music.  The Indian tabla drums that come in at interludes are a nice touch.  A surprising evolution into a reggae groove in the last movement completes the piece.  The next two songs explore a jazzy funky terrain – complete with sax and flute sounds.

Another element of Lee’s style is felt on track four, “The Rose Is Gone”.  A loopy electronic beat and Strawberry Fields-like calliope sound give this song a psychedelic carnival feel.  Different sonic elements coming in and out of the mix add to the atmosphere.  The carnival train picks up steam on the next song – a trippy extended groove that reminded me at times of a Grateful Dead jam.  On this song and on “Love”, the last tune on the CD, Lee adds his own voice to the mix.  To do this he relies again on technology to add a cyber-assist to his voice, which is limited by his physical condition.  A software program allows him to translate the lyrics into speech that sounds like his voice, although with an electronic edge similar to that heard in some techno music.  A vocoder adds to the spacey vocal effects.  Also available for viewing on his website are a number of mind-bending music videos featuring visionary art and special effects that a friend of his created to go with Lee’s music and are a perfect compliment to his sound.

Lee has a unique compositional style.  Some of his chord changes and progressions have this “out there” feel that takes the listener in unexpected directions.  There’s an interesting blend that incorporates some of the vibe of late 60’s experimental music with more contemporary electronica.  One of my favorite tunes is “Beauty Of The Heart”, which brings together an electro beat, sleigh bells, exotic percussive sounds, and an infectious electric piano riff punctuated by funky clavinet.  If I were picking a song to choose as the single off the album, this might be the one.

It is hard not to be inspired by the creative efforts of this uniquely talented musician who has managed, despite great adveristy, to produce a recording such at this.  In spite of the fact that most patients with ALS do not live more than five years after being diagnosed, Lee explains his longevity by saying, “God was just giving me time to focus on my music.”

Review by Michael Diamond

MHB “Sparks Are Going To Fly”

05 Apr, 2010 Michael Diamond

MHBAlthough guitarist and front man Matthew Henry Baron, whose initials comprise the band’s name, has played in a number of popular bands in the Chicago area, Sparks Are Going To Fly is his debut as a leader.  And sparks definitely do fly!  This is music that could kick any party into overdrive.  MHB is a smoking hot band that blends elements of funk, rock, blues, and reggae into a spicy soul-infused gumbo that smolders and burns.

It’s always interesting to read how bands perceive their music and the comparisons they make regarding it.  On the MHB website they describe it as having “the passion of Bob Marley, the groove of Jack Johnson, the energy of James Brown, and the feel of Eric Clapton.”  While I can see the validity of those references there are a few others that came to mind for me while listening.  Perhaps it is the tone of Matthew’s voice that reminded me at times of Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as Elvis Costello on occasion, and perhaps Dave Matthews.  There were also instances with the band’s horn section that recalled the furious funk of Tower Of Power.  But while there are various influences and reference points, the music is completely original with all of the songs written by Matthew Henry Baron.

Accompanying Matthew is a full band of highly skilled musicians that includes bassist James T. Bromley, Daryl Coutts on keyboards, drummer Rob Van Daal, Michael Whalen on drums, percussion, and backup vocals, Sean Kelly and Jason Litwin on percussion, Nicole Garza on back up vocals, Eric Koppa and Steve Kelly on saxophones, and with the coolest name in the group, on trombone, Johnny Showtime.  Lead guitar on “Someone Like You” was by Peter Muschong, and Jim Croke played the lead guitar on “Get On.”

In some ways, the album seems to unfold in chapters defined by geography or genre.  The book opens in Jamaica with a bouncy Ska groove on “Someone Like You.”  Slinky Middle Eastern-sounding guitar lines add an exotic flair to the tune.  The song had a cool ending where the tempo gradually slowed down and some spacey vocal processing was added, before things finally came to a stop, like a car running out of gas.

The next song, “I Better” continues the island flavor with an up-tempo reggae number that features a nice organ solo from Daryl Coutts.

With song three, “Get On,” things migrate north and start to get funky – very funky, as the horn section kicks off in a style that reminded me of the famous band that bears the name of the town that MHB calls home- Chicago.  The next song, the unusually titled “Blanket On Leather,” starts with a guitar and drum groove that had a vibe of Graceland-era Paul Simon, although comparisons to The Dave Matthews Band would probably not be too far off.  The funk and soul influences remain strong on the next four songs until we get to track nine, “The Best That I Can.”  From that point, the following three songs open another chapter in the MHB musical playbook with some boogie-woogie and jump blues style.  The album closes with “Here You Go,” an up-tempo rocker that admonishes: “This is your day; see what you can find, outside your window. Now, now, now, now don’t delay, pick yourself out of your misery won’t you. “  The aforementioned reference to Eric Clapton is probably most evident on this song with its stinging bluesy lead guitar and Layla-like slow ending.

It was hard not to be impressed with Matthew’s voice, which can best be described as “soulful.”  The band who is super tight provide him with groove after groove to showcase his vocal and guitar chops on, as well as producing many standout solos in their own right.  The MHB website offers a selection of live concert videos that show them in action – definitely worth checking out.

Review by Michael Diamond

Andrei Matorin “Opus”

29 Mar, 2010 Michael Diamond

andreimatorinWhen one thinks of the violin, the first genre that is usually associated with it is classical music, or perhaps the old time fiddle playing of country or bluegrass.  The violin is not as often found in a jazz context as other instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, piano, guitar, etc. However, there is a rich legacy of jazz violin that can be traced back to such artists as Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, and Stuff Smith, leading up to more contemporary electric violinists like Jean Luc-Ponty. What is surprising and yet gratifying in today’s world of sample-based music and electronics is to see someone as young as Andrei Matorin embracing the roots of jazz and bringing his prodigious talents to bear in a more traditional setting.

However, his love affair with the violin did not begin with jazz.  At the tender age of six, after moving to Boston from his native Brazil, Andrei began his studies of classical music.  He eventually went on to years of formal musical education at prestigious conservatories in Italy and Switzerland before returning to the United States.  It was at that point that he was exposed to the world of jazz and a new road beckoned.  After further study of this art form at the New England Conservatory’s Jazz Program and the Berklee College Of Music, Andrei won numerous scholarships and awards.  He has also garnered critical acclaim and was recognized as an “emerging jazz violinist” by The Boston Globe, who featured him twice in their “Critic’s Picks” column in recent years.

While Matorin is indeed the leader and focus of Opus, it is clearly an ensemble effort and he gives ample space and free reign to the rest of the talented musicians in the group.  Sporting equally impressive credentials, talent, and youthfulness as Andrei, the rhythm section includes Luques Curtis on bass, Dan Pugach on drums, and pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi – all impressive musicians in their own right.  Hearing them perform together, one would get the impression that they had honed their skills over decades of playing the club circuit, rather than being such relative newcomers.

One of the things that impressed me most about this recording was the fact that there was almost no editing done on it, something that is relatively rare in today’s computerized, “fix it in the mix” studio environment.  Andrei’s goal was to “capture the moment and feeling of our performances in the studio… so that the listener could feel a part of the experience.”  To that end, he has certainly achieved his objective.

Jazz is sometimes seen as intellectual or cerebral, and while there are those elements here, Andrei and ensemble also bring an emotive quality that is moving and soulful.  Acoustic bass kicks off the opening track, “Smile” and leads the rest of the group into a lovely mid-tempo tune that is as warm and inviting as its name implies.  At almost nine minutes in length, this song is the longest piece on the CD.  Unlike many bandleaders, Andrei lays back quite a bit for the first half of the song before showing his colors on a solo about five minutes in.  It is well worth waiting for and really grabs your attention when it first comes in, as well as in the way it evolves.  The next song, “Then And Now” continues on a similar energy level as it winds through some interesting and intriguing chord changes and motifs.  The pace slows down a bit on “Coming Home” which begins with a haunting violin solo and develops into a touching ballad.  One of my favorite tunes on the CD is “Silver Blue” with its mellow groove that makes it hard not to nod your head or tap your foot to the beat.  Another sweet ballad and a couple high spirited up-tempo numbers fill out the rest of the album that concludes with the aptly-named “Sunday Blues” which has an easy laid back feel and features a tasty duet of violin and acoustic bass.

Opus certainly lives up to its name and is an impressive achievement.  Andrei Matorin has come a long way in a relatively short time, and with the rest of his career ahead of him, I’m sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about this rapidly rising star.

Review by Michael Diamond

Michael Lee “Face Forward”

24 Feb, 2010 Michael Diamond

MichealLeeI suppose the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” holds true for CD’s as well.  Viewing the back cover with a pastoral photo of Michael Lee standing in a field with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder gave the impression of a laid-back singer-songwriter type offering.  However, I was quite taken by surprise upon first listening.  Although there is a bit of the aforementioned acoustic vibe, Michael’s music rocks.  At times classic progressive rockers such as Genesis, Yes and Rush came to mind although “Face Forward” has its own contemporary and melodic sound, featuring clever and intriguing chord changes and time signatures, and a lack of predictability in where it will go from one minute to the next.  These are all good things and add to the interest level, drawing the listener into its evolutionary arc.  There are also pop elements that would appeal to fans of artists like John Mayer or Sting, who Michael cites as a major influence.

Michael cites the first track, “Land Of Change” as being his favorite, and I would agree that it is probably my favorite as well.  I like the psychedelic sounds that set the stage at the beginning of the song before it breaks into a mid tempo groove, as well as the chiming rhythm guitars that help carry the tune along.  “Trust” is an excellent choice for a single and rocks a bit harder with catchy hooks and melodies.  Offering a bit of a change-up is “Mystery Of Life” which is a quiet ballad featuring just guitar and vocal and shows a more sensitive side of Michael’s musical spectrum.

The songs deal with a range of subject matter, much of it being personal and drawing from Michael’s own experience.  The lyrics, which are well written and often compelling, are enhanced by the lovely timbre of Michael’s voice, which can go from soft and sensitive to more assertive and soulful, sometimes slipping into a well-placed falsetto.

Besides vocals, he also proves himself to be a skilled multi-instrumentalist covering just about everything here including electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano, synthesizers, mandolin, percussion, and even drums on two tracks.  The rest of the songs feature the stellar drum work of Will Gates.  As a guitarist myself, I am always attuned to other guitar players tone and technique, both of which impressed me greatly on this CD.  In addition to playing most of the instruments and writing the material, Michael arranged, mixed, and did a great job of producing the music, which is quite an accomplishment for someone at such a relatively early stage of his career.

The inspiration for the album’s title, Face Forward comes from the artist’s recent perceptual shift from previously focusing on life’s dark clouds to now searching for silver linings and accentuating the positive.  This is sage advice for all of us.  Interestingly, the title track is the only instrumental piece on the album.

Trying to find the highlights on this CD is difficult – but only because there are so many of them.  There is no filler – every song is excellent!  It’s just a matter of which elements of his artistry appeals to the individual listener.  While I was most drawn to the more adventurous arrangements and progressive side of Michael’s music, others may favor the introspective pop aspects.  But whatever dimension of his sound you resonate to there is no denying the incredible talent of this gifted UK-based musician.  I’m sure that Michael Lee is a name we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the future.

Review by Michael Diamond

Hawk and Dove “Rocking Chair”

27 Jan, 2010 Michael Diamond

HawkAndDoveRocking Chair is a four song EP, and a prelude to a full length CD by the band Hawk And Dove who record and perform in the New York City area.

Elijah Miller, a singer-songwriter who left his work as a Union Organizer to pursue his passion for music, fronts the group. The first to join him on this journey was guitarist John Kleber, who adds a bit of banjo as well.  Adding to the group is Stephanie Sanders, who although she has a degree in jazz and a background in piano, is playing bass here. Another interesting instrumental voice in the mix is the sweet and haunting violin work of Rachel Lyon, who also plays mandolin. Keeping time and rounding out the ensemble is veteran drummer Dave Butler. Although Elijah is the principle vocalist all the members of the group sing as well.

The music of Hawk And Dove has elements of alt-rock, folk, country, and a psychedelic flashback or two. Elijah’s deep, personal, and poetic lyrics are conveyed in a sometimes-laid back, sometimes-forceful style that shows him as a storyteller as much as a vocalist. There were moments where his music brought to mind that of another once young NYC songsmith – Bob Dylan. There is an enigmatic quality in the lyrics that invites repeated listening to get inside them and glean the meaning and depth of the stories they tell. The group perfectly supports these tales by providing texture and musical context with dynamics that range from rocking to melodic and melancholy.

Although slow in tempo, the rock influence is felt on the first tune, “Furious Armies” where an insistent beat and electric guitars drive the song along to its feedback-laden conclusion. The second piece, entitled “Stain”, provides an interesting juxtaposition in that it starts off musically as a folk-inflected waltz while painting lyrical pictures of urban imagery. Picking up steam in the middle section it evolves into a very nice instrumental interlude featuring interplay between violin and guitar, adding other instruments as it goes.  On the next song, “Boy On The Moon”, a sparse guitar and vocal introduce the song and carry it along for the first couple minutes as it slowly moves into a mid-tempo groove with the rest of the band joining in. The rock influence is very present again towards the end of the song with high-energy lead guitars and Elijah delivering his vocals with passion and conviction. The final tune, “Muscle Breaks”, shows the more acoustic folk-influenced side of the group. With a bit of a back porch Americana feel, guitar and violin open the front door for us to come and sit a spell. I especially liked the unusual counterpoint of banjo and bells later in the song.

This four song EP certainly piques my interest to hear what will follow from this talented group. Audiences in NYC can hear what they are up to in various venues around the city. The rest of us will have to wait for their next release – I hope it’s not too long.

Reviewed by Michael Diamond