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July & August Short Takes

Ross Milligan "Passing Places," 2006 On this debut CD, Scotsman Ross Milligan serves up a very tasty program of contemporary jazz. While Milligan plays some acoustic rhythm and banjo, his main contributions are on a warm-sounding semi-hollowbody electric guitar. His quartet includes pianist Paul Harrison, bassist Brian Shels and Alyn Cosker on drums. Martin Kershaw plays sax on 5 tracks and John Nichol sings on "Rivers Run," the set's only vocal. "Three Wishes" recalls the Pat Metheny Group, minus that group's synth sounds and sampling. "Wasp Dance" recalls the hard-driving post bop of Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley. The title tune begins with a fingerpicked guitar, which is soon joined by piano, light percussion and a lead bass line, before giving way to a great modal improvisation by Paul Harrison on piano. "Passing Places" ends with a mere 45 seconds of lead acoustic guitar, yet it all comes off perfectly. The brief "This is Just to Say" ends the disc with double-tracked acoustic guitars by Milligan. While this CD doesn't give prominence to Milligan's guitar, it is strong on many levels: great compositions, arrangements and blowing, all conveyed with clear, unmuddied sound. The music on this CD has a timeless quality and I recommend it without reservation. © Patrick Ragains

Jennie Avila "Naked in the Rain," 2005 Jennie Avila, one third of the folk trio Hot Soup, establishes the musical and thematic center of "Naked in the Rain" with its opening cut. Avila unabashedly appeals to the senses. She locks you in with rhythm (with percussion often played on esoteric instruments like the snake-like kokorikko), a sweet voice with emotional range that can really bite, and sensual lyrics ("I took the shirt you wore out of the laundry / And I put it on so I could smell you on me"). She's composes Tin Pan Alley-like standards ("Oblivious Moon"), blues tunes that Bonnie Raitt could and should cover ("Too Good for You," "Love Love the Chase"), pop ("Naked in the Rain"), and anthemic folk ("A Thousand Chances"). Ably assisted by some of Philadelphia's best (including members of Full Frontal Folk and Rolly Brown, a fingerpicking champion), Avila has crafted a sexy, musical, even daring record, and a songwriting tour-de-force. © David Kleiner

Art Turner "Sonora," 2006 In the early days of the acoustic music revival spawned in part by Windham Hill Records, artists like Alex DeGrassi and Will Ackerman brought a new kind of vibe into their music. It was organic, earthy, with unique sonic stylings. As the genre of acoustic guitar has broadened, those stylings have branched out as well. With "Sonora", Canadian guitarist Art Turner has returned to the trunk of the tree on his fourth CD, with help from a collection of powerful collaborators: Michael Manring on fretless bass, Hugh Marsh on violin, and cellist Anne Bourne. Like much of the guitar music coming out of Windham Hill, Turner uses alternate tunings to give sound to his inner voice. The album is composed of just two solo guitar tunes with varying textures, and the rest are ensemble pieces where the musical interplay seems effortless. The recording quality is excellent all the way through, and the songs have an airy, open sound. The music breathes in the spaces Turner creates. "The Cellarhand's Mistress" darts in and out of hammer-ons and tapping, wondering just what kind of relationship this was. On "Canterbury", Turner drives the tune by strumming, while letting Hugh Marsh carry the melody. Each song is its own glimpse into its creator's musical vision. The CD concludes with the reflective "The Blue Dome of the Sky", gently calling us to look up and see the music all around us. © Kirk Albrecht

Johnson, Miller & Dermody "Deceiving Blues," 2006 While the vocals on "Deceiving Blues" may be hit or miss, the playing is always dead on. Drawing heavily on tradition, harmonica player Grant Dermody, guitarist John Miller, and multi-instrumentalist Orville Johnson have delivered an album of blues and folk standards culled from the likes of Memphis Slim, Huddie Leadbetter, Charlie Patton, Son House, and the Reverend Gary Davis, to name a few. The entire album was recorded live, with all the players in the same room feeding off each other's playing and energy. What has resulted is an unapologetic excursion into acoustic blues and folk, which is both natural and unique. Very simply, "Deceiving Blues" is a superbly produced and performed collection of tried and true American music. © Chip O'Brien

John Sonntag, "Chasing Stars," 2006 On "Chasing Stars," singer-songwriter John Sonntag collaborates with several co-writers, yet the result is a cohesive whole that tends towards what you might call the observational voice. Paired with Sonntag’s -- I don’t know how else to say this -- pretty tenor, one is left with a package that is easy to listen to, but in some respects doesn’t quite deliver the goods. A good voice is a good thing to have, but the listener often needs something else -- a yearning, a keening, a blues edge, or a bit of grit, to convey the gravitas of emotion that matters. Sonntag’s band, or recording ensemble, does provide darker tones, and edgier edges, as in "One Whole Day," but, again, the effect is muted by a kind of vocal "lite." More effectively, he lays it out there in "Chasing Stars," which is propelled by a hooky acoustic guitar riff over a nicely textured instrumental arrangement. The vocal reminds me of Canadian singer-songwriter Greg Hoskins, or a young Paul Simon, a strategy that suits this singer’s voice. The musical settings on this CD are quite effective, and speak well of Sonntag’s arranging and production skills. "Hey Lou," for example, is a great basic rock setting driven by electric guitar and harmonica that recalls Neil Young. Money-track "Night After Night" features a beautiful refrain, almost a lullaby, built on acoustic guitar and sparse piano. The song’s raw simplicity admirably suits Sonntag’s voice through elegiac tones accented by what sounds like a bowed double bass. The dual vocal on the refrain points the way to vocal strategies that could make his work more powerful. Overall, "Chasing Stars" is a worthwhile effort that may best please fans of his live performances. © Steve Klingaman

Daniel Ho "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar," 2003 Hawaiian Slack key is often deceptively easy on the ears, since its soothing rhythms and melodies can obscure serious musicianship. Daniel Ho is a powerhouse of Hawaiian music, promoting and recording artists including Led Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui and ukulele whiz Herb Ohta, Jr. This CD gathers Ho's instrumental recordings into a pleasing 80 minute program. Ho plays all guitars, keyboards, percussion and drum programming. Some tunes have a clear connection to the slack key tradition, including "Kanka Wai Wai," "Maui Dawn," "Whee Ha Swing" and "Aloha Oe." A smooth jazz feel characterizes other selections, including "Lia" and "A World Away," Where Ho adds nylon string guitar, single-string lead lines, flute and saxes. As such, this is no purist representation of Hawaiian Slack key, but rather an amalgam of very listenable music, similar in feel to the recent Hawaiian revue tours that have given mainland exposure to Ho, Kaapana, Ohta and other island stars. The eclectic slack key tradition provides an excellent point of departure for Ho's musical vision, which he fully realizes on this compilation. © Patrick Ragains

Roland Chadwick "Native Tongue," 2006 Fans of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will, no doubt, appreciate the music of Roland Chadwick. Chadwick is a talented guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter whose music is steeped in the experimental blues spirit of early 70s hard rock. "Native Tongue" opens somewhat deceptively with "Baby Don't Bring the Law (Down on Me)," an electric jam, packed with all the requisite twists, turns, and complexities of progressive rock, but soon turns to mellower acoustic ground with the second track, "Tango." However, Chadwick seems to be of the school in which more is definitely more, evident in both his effect laden production and intricate arrangements. Chadwick, much like Page and Plant and their contemporaries, just can't seem to help himself. What results is a sonically interesting album which offers more with each listening. Give Chadwick a chance, he just might grow on you. © Chip O'Brien

Sugarcane Collins "Way Down the River," 2006 Hailing from Down Under, Andy Sugarcane Collins ventures a bit over the top on "Way Down the River," his collection of 13 blues-based compositions. On this, his third independently produced CD, Collins displays able fingerpicking ability, some nifty slide guitar, and a big, booming voice. Assisted by several backing musicians, he bends a variety of classic blues forms into more contemporary stylings. His work is strongest on tunes such as the scaled down "Sallie Mae," when he reins in his voice, and relies on simplicity and sincerity. Collins loses credibility with his first-person story tunes that relate life and strife of American historical blues figures and settings. Better, perhaps, that he work up story of Australia's musical roots, or even of his compelling upbringing in Australia's remote canefield pubs and waterfront bars. © Fred Kraus

Neil Jacobs "Secret Places," 2005 Few acoustic guitarists (excepting Richard Gilewitz and early Leo Kottke) are bold enough to create an entire recording of 12-sting guitar. Neil Jacobs has not just had the cajones to do just that, but to take on some pretty formidable material in the process on "Secret Places," his fourth CD. Jacobs gives enchanting renditions of Ravel's "Bolero", "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" by Tchaikovsky, and the traditional "Misirlou". The entire disc resonates with an eastern European flavor, with a dash of Gypsy and other ethnic tastes. It's a delightful mix. On "Song of Vojvodina", Jacobs plays with dervish fervor the G & D prim while backed by the wonderful "Zivili" tamburica orchestra. "Sympathy for Salieri" must be dedicated to the court composer so tragically portrayed in the film "Amadeus", who lives in the shadow of the bawdy but brilliant Mozart. It's a gentle piece, touching the soul (which maybe Salieri tried to do with his music as well). For a slice of Americana, Jacobs serves up "My Norman Rockwell", a straightforward tune which nonetheless offers more upon closer inspection, like much of Rockwell's seemingly simple creations. We hit the rails on "Train to Zanzibar", winding our way across a landscape painted in shimmering octave hues, while the pounding of simple percussion drives us along. The title cut "Secret Places" finds Jacobs picking out his sparse melody over the stark droning of harmonic bass tones, leaving the listener wanting for more. Jacobs does so many things on this record that it's like a smorgasbord of textures and colors, but a pleasant one at that. © Kirk Albrecht

Lara Herscovitch "Juror Number 13," 2006 Rich lyrics and engaging melodies weave through this excellent collection of songs. The arrangements are clean and tasteful with just enough instrumentation (hand percussion, bass and more) to showcase her lovely warm voice and solid acoustic guitar. Lara is a social worker who's worked all over the globe and the compassion needed for a job like that shines through in her songs. With a strong rhythmic presence and some lyrics in Spanish, there's a bright Latin feel too. I love the variety here, from the seriousness of "Decisiones" to the lighter "Blah Blah Blah (A Love Song)." "Fine Line" has one of the best opening lines to a song that I've ever heard: "He was an exclamation point in a world of question marks." There's a jazz cool electric guitar in the mournful "Sylvia's Eyes." "Ddembe" is an emotional a cappella piece a la Sweet Honey in the Rock. Highly recommended. © Jamie Anderson

Jeff Eaton "Wish You Were Here," 2006 Sure, he sings of pathos and longing on this all-to-brief debut collection, however Jeff Eaton's buoyant melodies are a pure joy to experience. And there are plenty of them too, brimming from his vocal melodies, arrangements, and acoustic guitar playing. Anthemic in its scope, "Flood" is supercharged with multiple harmonies that amass into a symphonic whoosh. The motif of "Your Love" seduces within the first four measures, it's a "can't miss" hit for any number of VH-1 divas. Eaton's voice, which echoes Roger McGuinn to my ears, sits comfortably atop the funky back-beats of "Outside Your Door and the dreamy passages of "Back to You" and title track as the artist paints pictures via his airy chord inversions, multi-tracked vocals, and low-lying string keyboard pads. If the quality of Eaton's voice is an acquired taste (some folks think Bob Dylan can't sing), then there are scores of major recording artists that could turn any one of these seven songs into a hit. "Wish You Were Here" is a music publisher's wet dream come true. © Tom Semioli

Here's some other great music we received this month:

Szabó/Major/Isbin Trio - Constellation
El McMeen - Amazing Grace
Kyte - Outside In
Rich Barnard - STFU
Michael Mucklow - Clearly
Zoe Mulford - Roadside Saints
Rick Spreitzer - From the Bottom
John Meldrum - Long Live Love
Nathan Montgomery - 2-5 Jive
Art Sulger- 12String
Royce Campbell - Gypsy Soul
Tim Pacheco - A Gathering of Guides
Darren Smith - Last Drive
Joel Kraft - Big Ideas
Sophie Barker - Earthbound
Tena Moyer - Shining Through
Julia Lau - In the Wildflowers and Weeds
The Mad Dukes - Sing and Play for You

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