Violette, Cocetta Abbate, Gino Sitson, Bill Gable: ALL THAT JAZZ


You’d never know that jazz is America’s least popular musical genre based on the number of recent releases that have crossed my desk. Here are four:

The most intriguing of the lot is from a young singer named Violette. To say her background is eclectic is an understatement. She was born in Paris and eventually studied at the Parisian Academy, though she spent most of her youth on Ars-en-Ré, a small island about 5 miles offshore in the Poitou region of France. Then she came to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her self-produced CD Falling Strong is a bilingual effort produced by Brian Bacchus, who also produces Nora Jones. Like Jones, Violette isn’t terribly concerned about genres. She’s in the chanteuse tradition of jazz, but her inspirations include everyone from Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel to Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Jackson. Among her dozen original compositions are ones that blur pop/jazz borders (“All My Life,” “I Heart New York”), those with Fitzgerald-like heavy staccato (“Falling Strong”), small combo numbers (“Coming to You”), and those with Brel-like fragility (“Annabelle”). It’s also an album of two distinct moods. When Violette sings in English she’s competent and confident, but when she switches to French, the emotions pop through with more drama. You can hear this in the swingy “Moi Pour Moi,” the catchy “Envol,” and the bouncy “Musique d’Amérique.” The English pieces are bon, but the French are trés bon.

I’ll call Concetta Abbate a jazz artist simply because she plays in jazz venues, but there really isn’t any clean category for her Falling in Time (Waterbug). She’s a classically trained violinist, but she calls this14-track selection “pocket-sized songs,” which is both intriguing and enigmatic—like her music. There’s nothing on this album longer than 4 minutes and several are two or shorter. In addition to her violin, Abbate also performs on harp, charrango, homemade box percussion, and glockenspiel. Guests add viola, cello, guitar, piano, bass, percussion, and trumpet. Her songs are frequently poetic and sometimes downright weird. I can’t promise you’ll love everything on this CD, but you’re unlikely to be bored!

Abbate gives us a Latin flair, but Gino Sitson is a voice of Africa (Cameroon). More precisely, Africa is among his voices. His VoiStrings (Buda Records 4707155) is aptly named and Sitson’s is a four-octave voice that can be as smooth as burnished wood or as taut as a violin string tuned to its breaking point. The band behind him is generally centered on piano, though double bass, percussion, cello, and viola help construct polyphonous arrangements that serve whatever Sitson pulls from his bulging bag of vocaltricks: scat, falsetto, wails, wounded cries…. Some of the tracks border on experimental, others pulse with African soul, and along the way we hear influences from gospel, the blues, and maybe some Papa Wemba and Bobby McFerrin.

Members of the rock band Steely Dan love the songs of jazzman Bill Gable and his album No Straight Lines (Autograph 502) explains why. As the title suggests, this is an album of departures and curves. It’s laid-back, but you name it and Gable weaves it into a song for his trademark counter-tenor voice: flamenco, pop, world jazz, Caribbean influences….  His lyrics don’t mince either: “Everybody sees/what they want to see/Every sinner finds his god/At the end of the day/no one comes to show us the way/No one gives a nod or a hand/judgment isn’t rendered/Bodies lie in state/overwhelmed by fate.”

Rob Weir  



Michael Cunningham's Snow Queen: Prose All Dressed up with Nowhere to Go

Michael Cunningham
Picador, 258 pages, 978-1250067722
* * 1/2

Is there genre for writing that's too good for the novel that contains it? If so, The Snow Queen goes to the front of the class. This is a beautifully composed book whose prose soars so far above its characters one wishes Michael Cunningham had saved it for a better book. Cunningham's literary chops are well-established due to books such as The Hours (1998), which won a Pulitzer Prize; and Specimen Days (2005). Those books contained complex characters adrift in thorny situations, and were inspired by literary giants such as Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman. Alas, The Snow Queen is Hans Christian Andersen as filtered through Woody Allen's obsession with love, sex, and death, and Bret Easton Ellis' portraits of bourgeois bohos behaving badly. Cunningham gives just enough to inspire is to plow through this book and admire its gem-like sentences, but it's a toss up as to whether these justify what is, at the end of the day, a pretty lame narrative.

Those who recall Andersen's Snow Queen will recall that she rules over snowflakes that look and act like bees. Her kisses pack sting as well–the first warms, the second brings forgetfulness, and the third kills. Cunningham's book is set in 21st century Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn in the midst of uneasy and incomplete gentrification–a warren in which one can find backbiting hipsters and blood-soaked hooligans. Tyler Meeks is a 43-year-old failed musician still dreaming of a hit in his idle moments he's not wallowing in self-pity. He shares an apartment with two seeming soul mates: his wife, Beth, who is mortally ill with cancer; and his chubby gay brother Barrett who, at age 38, struggles with his own string of failures–one failed love affair after another. Toss in 56-year-old Liz, the owner of the chic secondhand shop at which all four occasionally work, and you've got a collection of people whom one holds in both pity and loathing. It would easier to feel sympathy if Tyler weren't a coke fiend, Beth a passive dishrag, and Liz an amoral cougar. Barrett is the linchpin. During a stroll through wintry Central Park that was intended to jolt him out of despair, he sees an eerie blue light in the sky that he perceives as sentient. Has he just had a religious experience? Beth's seeming miracle recovery suggests this, but is Barrett cut out for the life of mystic? The book's action toggles between 2004 and 2008 as characters seek to address anxieties ranging from trivial—Tyler's inability to write a tribute song for Beth–to more substantial, such as Beth grappling with whether she's more comfortable in near-death or sleeping walking through life.

There are several intriguing twists in the narrative, but I was left with three feelings, that left me underwhelmed by The Snow Queen. The first is that it's hard to imagine Barrett as a holy man of any more substance than a doe-eyed sophomore dabbling in crystals; the second that Beth is passively uninteresting, Tyler a jerk, and Liz a joyless opportunist. Mainly, though, the book feels more like we are reading about Cunningham writing about writing about his characters rather than giving life to them. At best I give The Snow Queen a tepid endorsement. On the plus side, at just 258 pages Cunningham gives us a book in which we don't invest a lot of time if we reach the end and feel unfulfilled. I can also imagine it would be a good read for a book group. If nothing else, Cunningham leaves his title tantalizingly ambiguous. Who is the titular snow queen: pallid Beth, icy Liz, or cocaine? Or is she a metaphor for metro New York's seduction and dangers? If that sounds like enough, by all means read this novel. Just don't expect Woolf or Whitman.

Rob Weir  


Glen Campbell's Sad (and Insipiring) Farewell

Directed by James Keach
PCH Films/Virgil Films 671075
103 minutes, PG
* * * * 

Toward the very end of I'll Be Me, we see Glen Campbell in a studio crooning the lines to the very last song he ever recorded: "I'm Not Gonna Miss You." There could hardly be a more poignant title; Campbell suffers from Alzheimer's disease and both stage and personal lights went out shortly thereafter. Campbell sounds great on the track, but he only got through it because one of his closest crew members—whose name Campbell could no longer recall—stood beside him at the microphone pointing out the words for him to sing.

I'll Be Me is simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. In 2011, Campbell got his diagnosis. We see he and his family at the Mayo Clinic, where he jokes about the fact that he can't recall four simple words or the name of first president of the United States, but there's nothing funny about the MRI scans or his prognosis: advanced Alzheimer's. But rather than roll over, Campbell set off on a farewell tour that lasted nearly a year—buoyed by a crew of longtime associates and employees, plus his wife, Kim, and three of his children: Cal, Shannon, and Ashley—a Julia Stiles lookalike who is an amazing musician in her own right. It began on a high note with a spot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and ended in Napa, California, on a bad night made tolerable only by a very forgiving audience. In between there were shows in dozens of towns, an appearance before Congress, and a spot at the Grammys.

A performer of Campbell's stature certainly earned some slack: solid sessions work, a stint as Brian Wilson's stand-in for The Beach Boys, multiple Grammys (including his 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award), film credits galore, his own TV show, decades of good-as-gold shows, and enduring hits such as "Gentle on My Mind," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," and "Rhinestone Cowboy." (None of which he wrote, by the way.) One of the more remarkable things about the film is how well Campbell managed on the tour, as long as technology worked. At no less august place than Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the teleprompter failed and he simply couldn't go forward until it was rebooted. Still, aspects of Campbell's stage persona confounded much of what we thought we knew about the brain. Campbell couldn't remember words or faces toward the end, but he remembered how the tunes were supposed to go. Is melody more powerful than language? It's hard to say, but body memory certainly is. Put a guitar in Campbell's hands and the notes simply flew off the strings as if they bypassed thought altogether.

Keach's film is filled with cameo tributes from legions of performers: Sheryl Crow, The Edge, Steve Martin, Kathy Mattea, Paul McCartney, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Chad Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Urban, Jimmy Webb…. There are also political tributes, including one from fellow Arkansasan Bill Clinton. Some of the praise would seem mawkish were it not for the fact that many of Campbell's admirers were there because Alzheimer's has also ravaged their families. Brad Paisley delivers one of the more poignant lines. After informing us that his family has been hit several times by this horrifying disease, he turns to the camera and says simply, "I'm next. I'm 41, so let's figure this out, okay?" Kudos to Keach for not sugarcoating the story.

Campbell was no saint in his heyday. He was, in essence, a Southern good old boy—with all its virtues (charm, corny sense of humor, good manners) and its vices (Baptist faith preached but not practiced, chauvinism, rightward political drift). He has been married four times and, by his own admission, was often an absentee father to his eight children. He battled both cocaine and alcohol addiction, and was such a carouser that he took up with Tanya Tucker when she was 21 and he was 44. Much of his life followed the all-too-familiar celebrity-behaving-badly arc. That we feel great sympathy for him despite his shortcomings is another measure of Keach's documentary skills. And we should feel sympathy.

As inspiring as the tour was, the story cannot end well and does not. We see Campbell spiral into paranoia and witness his social graces dissolve one by one. The tour was the last hurrah and things have gone down hill since. The 79-year-old Campbell is now in a long-term facility and, as a final tragic footnote, several of his children have sued Kimberly, accusing her of isolating him. Alas, this too is a predictable story arc. You should watch the film, drink in its brief triumphs, and then contact your representatives to tell them to take up Brad Paisely's challenge.
Rob Weir