Slightly Out of Focus
Singer/songwriter Gary Hirstius is often touted as New Orleans' answer to Bruce Springsteen, and for good reason. From his rugged voice and blue-collar lyrics to his physical resemblance to the Boss, it's hard to miss the similarities. On Hirstius' new CD, he manages to embrace the parallels and stake out some fresh territory of his own.
There are times on Slightly Out of Focus where the hallmarks of New Jersey's most famous rocker are so close it's eerie: the pithy Dylan-like harmonica blast that opens "Perfect Wings"; the breathy phrasing on "Heart Beat Away" (with a reference to "the ties that bind"); and the desperate growl and guitar lines on "Lies" suggest Springsteen's "The River." But Hirstius' vocals continue to grow, with nuanced shades that distinguish tracks like the wistful ballad "Long Shot." Hirstius occasionally softens the edges of his grizzled delivery, and it results in a moving country and soul hybrid suggesting the soulful grace of early Boz Scaggs. Throw in the percussion and acoustic guitar lines of "Time Slips Away," and it's as if the subdudes never broke up.
Hirstius only misstep is the generic rocker "Temporary Secret," which is easily forgotten when it's followed by the heartfelt stomp of "Trying to Get to You," a duet with his father. Longtime Robert Cray producer Dennis Walker gives the CD a major label sound -- which Hirstius deserves. -- Scott Jordan
Gary Hirstius plays a CD-release party at Vic's Kangaroo Café at 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15.
Portraits of Wonder
The concept behind New Orleans pianist Matt Lemmler's new CD is so appealing, it's a wonder no one else has thought of paying homage to Stevie Wonder. What's even more appealing is Lemmler's approach to the Wonder songbook -- instead of cover versions, Lemmler hits higher musical ground by recasting and rearranging 10 Wonder compositions into graceful pieces for a nine-piece jazz ensemble.
Drummer Brian Blade sets the tone early on "Don't You Worry About a Thing," with feather-light snare work and muted tom-toms providing the underpinning for economical horn charts and solos from stellar local brass men like saxophonists John Ellis and Jason Mingledorff. It's a template reminiscent of Count Basie's uncluttered small-ensemble sides, with blues-based melodies on "If It's Magic" and "Isn't She Lovely" stretching out into subtle Kansas City-style swing. That format is tailor-made for the warm vocals of George French, who sounds reminiscent of Lou Rawls on joyously subtle readings of "Ribbon in the Sky" and "You are Sunshine of My Life." Leah Chase's husky shades provide a nice counterpoint for French on a sunny romp through "Ebony Eyes," with Lemmler rolling out some syncopated New Orleans piano underneath. Chase also shines on a haunting version of "I Just Called to Say I Love You," with a longing vocal that turns the song into a requiem for love.
Throughout the CD, Lemmler's playing functions like an anchor, rooting the songs with lingering chords and grace notes that forsake flash to let the overall colors of the ensemble shine. Lemmler's inner vision should make Wonder proud. -- Scott Jordan
"I've learned that jazz is not a solitary art form," jazz pianist Peter Martin explains in the liner notes for Something Unexpected, his debut on the MAXJAZZ label. "It's a cooperative in which all members of the group are equal." It's that kind of humility that permeates this disc, a warm, sensual performance recorded over two days last November at Jazz at the Bistro in his former hometown of St. Louis.
Despite his own brilliance as a player, the 30-year-old New Orleanian seems perfectly at ease in a collaborative mode, and with good reason; his bandmates are trumpeter Nicholas Payton, tenor saxophonist Brice Winston and the rhythm section of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Adonis Rose. While tossing around a collection of Martin compositions and some choice standards, this feels like a casual musical conversation, a relaxed musical exchange of ideas. A live album, indeed, where jazz truly flows. It's so balanced, in fact, you almost want Martin to step out front a little bit more. When he takes off on a solo on songs like "La Pregunta," he seems remarkably grounded; no gratuitous trills or triplets here to show off his form.
Instead, in what should come as no surprise, Payton is the one who shines brightest here and without even trying. His smears and flutters that help announce the opening track, the swinging "Unusual Suspects," is an exercise in effortlessness. Winston, whose seductive sax was one of the highlights of Terence Blanchard's Let's Get Lost, matches Payton note for note.
Martin takes a mid-album break with two Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes, "Triste" and "Corcovado" to add to the sensuality of the evening, and finishes off with "Lotus Blossom" and an almost smooth-jazz rendition of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" for a final mark of subtlety. -- David Lee Simmons