There is something that churns within Regina Carter’s frisky violin playing that always tells a fascinating tale: sometimes of bitterness and anger; sometimes of lyrical refinement or a radiant glow; sometimes of simple dance and joy. In the company of her astonishing band (and captured in beautifully warm and muscular sound by veteran engineers Joe Ferla and Mark Wilder), Carter’s new recording, Southern Comfort [Sony] (www.reginacarter.com) is one of those brilliant recordings that never lets up on its full throttle creativity and in its musical leaps and bounds.
On Southern Comfort, Carter has returned to her family’s Appalachian and Southern roots (combing through field recordings made by Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III) to craft an album that takes traditional American folk music gems and piles them into a creative hayride through jazz, blues and gospel landscapes to be transformed anew.
Every twist and turn on Southern Comfort rewards with new musical delights. There are the luminescent sounds of “I’m Going Home” and “Hickory Wind,” instrumentals with slow rhythmic sway and unfurling, dignified melodies. On “Going Home,” the golden hues and silence surrounding Carter’s amorous violin tone is beautiful to hear, as is her roving ability to strike her highest string notes light and crisp (like the bright sliver of the moon burning against the stark night sky). Carter moves through the thickets of Chris Lightcap’s soft bass lines with a carefree ease. Lightcap’s solo on “Hickory Wind” is pungent and you can hear how he plunges and plucks to move the swaying rhythm along into the waiting arms of Marvin Sewell’s warm twisting guitar lines and Will Holshouser’s sharp accordion accents. Holshouser’s buoyant accordion takes center stage on the spritely “Shoo-Rye,” all sharp and sparkling with airy plunges and colorful holds next to Jesse Murphy’s big bass plunges. Keep an ear out too for the brilliance of drummer Alvester Garrett (who is also an accomplished audio equipment reviewer for the publication, The Stereo Times-www.stereotimes.com). On “Shoo-Rye,” Garett lays down a sparkling pitter-patter of wood rims and light snare to accompany Carter’s shimmer-and-shake violin solo and then later bursts forth with a driving solo of big drum hits to drive the dance home.
The dance continues in the Cajun influenced “Blues de Basile” with Carter swirling effortlessly with lithe slips and slides up and down her violin. Garrett takes another bright drum solo here as well, moving from snare to cymbal with a greasy, well-oiled slip and slide of his own invention. On the swanky “Honky Tonkin,” its Sewell’s guitar that takes center stage.
Sewell blasts out curlicues of frisky and funky guitar licks that spar with Carter’s light violin leaps and bounds. There’s more rocking to be done on “I Moaned And I Moaned,” when the full band takes to full-throttled rock, with Sewell’s electric guitar dancing with Carter’s violin in a sinuous sway. All of this great action is snared in great audiophile quality sound, with each intrepid instrument (including the crack of handclaps) captured natural and resonant in a layered and airy soundstage. Those handclaps, heard fleshy and crisp, propel the final cut, “Breakaway,” where Carter and her inventive compatriots spin another simple thread of a bright melody into a textured tapestry of intricate and contrasting instrumental colors and textures, embroidering upon the elemental sounds of another era.
The blues are storytelling personified and there is no one as agile and wily in telling the blues as Doug MacLeod, 2014 winner of the Blues Music Awards for Acoustic Artist of the Year and perennial favorite here at bostonconcertreviews. Macleod has just released his latest recording on Reference Recordings, entitled Exactly Like This [referencerecordings.com; www.doug-macleod.com].
And it is exactly, precisely, what we expect from this gifted minstrel of sass and deep blues spirit plying his expressive vocals in the rollicking company of his National acoustic guitars. Macleod makes a wise choice to return to the site of his 2013 release, There’s A Time [Reference Recordings] to re-snare the gorgeous, radiant sound space of Skywalker Studios for this new release. Every bold guitar stroke and vocal is heard propulsive and resonant in this stellar recording, with Reference Recording’s legendary recording engineer Keith O. Johnson at the controls. The recording, like There’s A Time, is an audiophile reference in every way: from the layered soundstage awash with natural air and bass string plunges down to the smallest detail of the crackling sound of a scrape on washboard. Macleod also brings back his magnificent backing band with longtime compatriots Denny Croy on bass, Jimi Bott on drums and Mike Thompson on piano for this glorious outing. These guys know how to “Rock Till The Cows Come Home” (the first cut that pulls out all the stops with its gentle sway on breezy snare and Thompson’s impeccable piano solo). They also know how to playing to the deepest of blues righteousness, as on the dignified original ballads “Find Your Right Mind” and “Heaven’s The Only Place.” Here, Macleod’s spare and coiled vocals are wrapped in meditation around his sparkling guitar attacks and Croy’s pungent acoustic bass bowing.
Macleod is a great storyteller with his guitar in hand: from the comic and cruising “Vanetta” (“you got legs that reach up to the sky”) and “Raylene” (about another delectable encounter with swing and shake) to the flashy punctuations of “Ridge Runner” (with Croy busting out on bass and Bott carving up some percussive wonderment) and the deep swing of “New Morning Road.” With all of these high and low tales, it’s a wonder where Macleod’s brilliant narratives and craft will take him next. For sure, we’ll be listening.
And, speaking of more inspired storytelling with strings, two young violinists are making their mark (this time in the classical tradition) with their own beautiful command of their instruments to tell tales of great emotion and drama.
At the Tanglewood Music Center last August, young Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a concert of 20th century composer Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.2, with French conductor Stephane Deneve. In playing Szymanowski’s challenging cadenza, (which works up to a furious pace involving perilous “double stops”-playing two notes simultaneously- and other meter shift challenges), Kavakos played his violin with a dazzling combination of crispness and suppleness.
Kavakos’ special way with expressing deep emotions on his violin also shone forth when he took the stage for an encore, performing a short Greek composition that sung like a sweet lullaby. Swaying to and fro, Kavakos spun a slowly evolving folk tale on his solo violin, with little lurches and light high trills. The capacity audience hung on his violin’s every soft sound and quiet nuance. The lullaby concluded with Kavakos crafting one last sweet note that hung like a wisp of smoke and then decayed into the warm Berkshire night air. Kavakos is a virtuoso with lots of vivacious stories to tell on his violin. Keep an ear out for him as he returns to Tanglewood this coming summer on August 7th in a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. (For the full 2015 Tanglewood season schedule, see www.bso.org)
Like Kavakos, Jennifer Koh is also that rare violinist who spins beautiful narratives with her own technical brilliance and creative insights. Her recording, Violin Fantasies [Cedille Records- www.cedillerecords.org] is a highlight of her discography.
This recording is worth every moment to savor Koh’s explorations of compositions that range widely, from (jazz master) Ornette Coleman’s “Trinity” to the shadowy glow of Franz Schubert’s ruminations. On Coleman’s spiky “Trinity,” Koh’s playing is ethereal sweetness one moment, deep attack the next. Her violin hovers and sings effortlessly, with a liquid string tone and great expressiveness. (Coleman’s intricate little narrative ends with a rising note that is left hanging in the air, and Koh nails this mysterious ending with her own solitary bright inflection). On her performances of Fantasies from Frantz Shubert and Robert Schumann, Koh is joined by pianist Reiko Uchida, and the two of them create music of great emotional power, glowing lyricism and passion. The recording is stellar in capturing all of the surrounding air cushioning Koh’s highest light frolics and the harmonic richness and full image of Uchida’s piano. This is storytelling at its best: shimmering, engrossing phrases and melodies spun by two master musicians at the height of their (collective) expressive power.