· Brent Gallaher — Vanessa's Song
One of the great things about Jazz is that it's not necessary to assert oneself right away. Both in individual compositions and in a musical career, you get some time to establish a nice foundation before you're expected to launch. Saxophonist Brent Gallaher is on a sure and steady path, treading carefully and leaving impressive performances in his wake. A 1994 graduate of CCM's Jazz Department, Gallaher wields a very traditional approach to his instrument. He has toured with both the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras and currently plays in several Jazz combos in the Cincinnati area, including the Blue Wisp Big Band.
On his debut, Vanessa's Song, Gallaher demonstrates excellent composition skills and a fine-tuned ear for elegant improvisation shared by the rest of the quartet (drummer Tony Franklin, upright bassist Jim Anderson and pianist Jim Connerley). A couple of the hottest moments on the album are when the band rips into duets and solos, as during the title track and "Elvin's Lighthouse." A good portion of the disc is also subdued, very much chill-out music, but worthy of active listening. Whether the groove is gently simmering or at a full boil, Franklin and Anderson each have great sounds and are solid performers. Connerley's contributions are also some of the highlights of the disc, along with his arrangement of Steely Dan's "Razor Boy."
The pieces on Vanessa's Song are very enjoyable and well executed but also feel a bit safe in the final reduction. Gallaher's style throughout is tied to well-tread sax greats such as Shorter and Marsalis, leading one to ponder if this CD might end up representing Gallaher's climb onto the shoulders of Jazz giants, a perch from which he may soon fashion his own star.
Gallaher hosts a CD release party for Vanessa's Song Saturday at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club. (Ezra Waller)
· The Desert Crew — Facing East
The Desert Crew is the cornerstone of The Crescent collective (thecrescent.biz), which consists of poets, visual artists, MCs and DJs. Facing East is one of the best Hip Hop CDs with local ties (rapper/producer Seif Al-Din lives in Oxford, while the group is based in Cleveland) to be released in recent memory. Ethnicity seems to be less and less relevant in Hip Hop — the success of everyone from Fat Joe to Eminem have made it so — but there can be a fine line between using one's cultural uniqueness as a gimmick and smartly incorporating it, like any rapper, into one's lyrics and music.
Hip Hop is observational and, while The Desert Crew doesn't let their Arab decent dominate or overwhelm, their cultural background informs many nuances of Facing East, particularly in the many Middle-Eastern musical flourishes. But, plain and simple, The Desert Crew is a great Hip Hop group. The rappers have distinctive skills that rely on intellect and clever wordplay over false bravado, harking back to the glory days of "positive" Hip Hop (De La, Tribe, et al). But they pull it into a more contemporary (yet still wildly creative) production style, which suggests the Neptunes with a worldlier palette. Even the best non-gangsta, non-bling rappers seem to feel the need to come off as "street," but TDC are always refreshingly honest and real, admitting in "A Few Good Men," "I'm not a chicken/I just don't want no beef/I know a lot about Hip Hop/But nothing 'bout the streets."
The positive streak runs hard throughout the album, but because of their intelligence and deft abilities as lyricists it would seem hard for even the most murderous "gangsta" to make fun of them for being soft. This ain't no "Gospel Rap" — TDC tackle real issues and do so with the appropriate amount of vitriol, if called for. On "Bushkill PA," they archly criticize our current President, but, with their personal connections to the Middle East, it's far more passionate and their anger seems more than appropriate and reasonable ("Each time you smile you put my people in mud/But somehow it's hard to blame you/This shit is in your blood"). The song's menacing hook ("I'm moving to Bushkill, Pennsylvania") is tempered with reassurances that they don't want to see Dubya dead, they just want him out of office.
It's the rare Hip Hop album that will keep you hanging on every word from start to finish. Facing East is just such an album. The fact that the music is just as tight and crafty seals the deal. (Mike Breen)
· Helifino — Best Served Chilled
While Helifino is one of a slew of bands giving early Hip Hop the 311 treatment (Ska derivative with chunky guitar and piccolo snare), they distinguish themselves on Best Served Chilled with tight musicianship and creative arrangements that are reminiscent of They Might Be Giants' manic everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. Old-school Funk influence is knowingly referenced all over the band's music, as they lean heavily on wah guitar, bass slapping, horn blasts and soulful vox to counterbalance the slick rhyming of their MC/frontman, Boomshaka. On "Split," they throw down an up-tempo Funk/Rock groove the likes of which the Red Hot Chili Peppers haven't produced in a decade, suggesting Helifino have little room for improvement as songwriters.
All six hook-focused songs on this disc have lots of room for stretching out, either via jams or unexpected interjections such as the "which of these kids is not like the other" snippet and the Latin percussion break in "This Party's for You" or the riff from Raymond Scott's cartoon-assembly-line classic "Powerhouse" used liberally in "Dapper Dan." Even without these carefully cobbled interludes, the songs are different enough from one another to prevent aural fatigue. The recording isn't perfect (drums and some guitars are thin), but it's more than adequate to get the point across. A sophomore effort is said to be in the works, and with a few production tweaks, who knows — it could help to finally get Cincy's fine tradition of quirky, white-boy Funk more attention outside the region. (EW)
· Red Idle — Idling High
Multiple songwriters can be either a curse and cause for contention in a band or a source of strength and diversity. Because of the stylistic similarities of Red Idle's three — count 'em, three, all singing and playing acoustic guitar — contributors and the fact that they collaborate effectively, their collective work on Idling High flows nicely without a lot of "Oh, now the other guy is singing again" moments. That said, there's definitely a balance between traditional Rootsy flavor and Contemporary Rock going on, like Springsteen's Nebraska blended with Alice in Chains' Sap as a foundation, buoyed by a driving rhythm section.
As a whole, the writers deliver catchy Folk/Blues combinations and the vocals are decent, although some lean more toward suburban cheese than others, sounding trite rather than compelling. And, sadly, each writer fails to churn out anything but banal lyrics. But they easily pass through the performance and melody wickets, never sounding the least bit raw or pitch-challenged.
Despite all of the songwriters floating around, Red Idle's MVP appears to be drummer Skip Leeds, a regular Sly Stone. In addition to doing a helluva job behind the drumkit, he was the primary engineer and producer and also plays flute and added bass, lead guitar and vocal parts. Speaking of flute, Jethro Tull will strike most listeners as an obvious close comparison to the band's sound, even before the woodwind flutters in on track six. The slightly gruff vocals, acoustic foundations and creative electric guitar layering seal the similarity to the classic rockers. At least with the name Red Idle, they don't have to worry about being called "he." (EW)