CD reviews: Three sweet new releases | AspenTimes.com

CD reviews: Three sweet new releases

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colordo

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesSinger-songwriter Martin Sexton has released the new album, "Sugarcoating."

– produced by Gil Goldstein (Heads Up)

The early buzz about Esperanza Spalding was strong, and understandable. Here was a pretty young woman of mixed race with a huge Afro, who played bass and sang. The fact that saxophonist Joe Lovano had picked her to play in his band was all the confirmation one needed that she had talent; she also was teaching at the Berklee College of Music at the age of 20. But the idea of Spalding as a transcendent figure just didn’t seem confirmed by “Esperanza,” the 2008 album that basically served as her introduction as a recording artist.

Whatever “Esperanza” didn’t do, “Chamber Music Society” does. An album of mostly original compositions that swing and groove, point to Spalding’s Latin-jazz tendencies, and also touch on her classical background, “Chamber Music Society” is unique, gripping and announces the arrival of a new jazz voice. Spalding’s actual voice is great – she hums and scats and sings, and hits a phenomenal sustained note on the wild “Wild Is the Wind.”

But it is the bass playing that turned my head. The lines in “Winter Sun” are subtle but also propulsive, leading the group (drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Leo Genovese and percussionist Quintino Cinalli) into a glorious groove.

Or was it the prowess as a composer that did it for me? Spalding can jam off a bebop rhythm, then change directions to compose a soft ballad like the album-closing “Short and Sweet,” or the tone poem “Little Fly,” that, with its beautiful string arrangement, becomes a touching setting for the words of William Blake.

This is unforgettable stuff.

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– produced by Benevento (Royal Potato Family)

Marco Benevento’s combo on “Between the Needles and Nightfall” looks like a jazz piano trio: Benevento on piano and keyboards, backed by a rhythm section of bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Andrew Barr, with no vocals. But it is a jazz combo that discards jazz form, rhythm and sounds in favor of a swirling, trippy and often beautiful music. While it’s not jazz, it’s also not groove music, being too melody oriented and compositionally heavy for that, with a cinematic scope.

– produced by Sexton and Crit Harmon (Kitchen Table)

The title track to Martin Sexton’s “Sugarcoating” is ironic and critical: Sexton wonders if and when America will ever drop the endless distractions and look at itself and its actions in the wake of 9/11: “And no wonder why very few wonder why/ With all this sweet, sweet, sweet sugarcoating,” he sings. The song moves along at a breezy country romp, thickening the irony.

But the ultimate irony may be that, apart from the title song, there is no irony at all to the album title. Sexton, a 44-year-old Northeasterner whose chubby cheeks pretty much force a smile onto his face, fills the album with genuine sweetness. “Sugarcoating” opens with “Found,” in which Sexton says he’s “a man who seeks high places,” and the final soaring vocal notes – “to be a man found” – confirm that his aim is to transcend all those distractions. “Boom Sh-Boom” celebrates, in its bumping rhythm and sly lyrics, the pleasures of the body.

Over and over, on top of happy beats borrowed from country, gentle funk and soft rock, Sexton celebrates the anti-ironic: chasing dreams, sticking with friends and lovers for the long haul, finding happiness in endurance. The repeated theme of the album is uphill movement – there are images of heads in the clouds, climbing mountains, ascending. This isn’t just sugarcoating – this is sweetness down to the core.

stewart@aspentimes.com