Ross Hammond & Grant Calvin Weston – “Blues and Daily News”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Blue Teeth” “Aquarium Salt”

“Blues and Daily News,” a collaborative album between jazz guitarist Ross Hammond and drummer Grant Calvin Weston, came about by Weston recording improvised drum parts and mailing them to other artists. Hammond’s contributions led to the track “Little Melon Head,” which led to a full album recorded in the same vein. The 10 tracks are all short blasts of improvised guitar and drums, spiraling through jazz, funk and country rhythms, amongst other influences.

Hammond’s guitar is virtuosic throughout, as he improvs his way through many different styles. We get glimpses of rock, in opener “Huff, Puff, and Blow It All Down” and “Blues and Daily News.” “Aquarium Salt” is led by an ambient, minimalistic rhythm in the background. And “Blue Teeth” is centered around very twangy, slide-heavy country rhythms. “Little Melon Head” even has a Latin flare to it. Hammond’s musical knowledge of genres, and his ability to bounce through and around them is impressive. “The Big Dipper” is also a noteworthy track, simply because Hammond hits an intensity higher than any other track. Hammond’s improvisation style is structured, as much as improv can be. He feeds off his own rhythms and ideas, maintaining a consistent sound in each track without falling into doing anything actually repetitive.

But one of the album’s most interesting qualities is how the two musicians vary in their improv styles – Weston’s drumming is much more unfiltered and manic. It is impressive and technical from start to finish, and it’s more unstructured style provides a stark contrast to Hammond’s guitar. It adds a chaotic balance. Weston also shines on “The Big Dipper,” his strongest track. His drumming complements the quicker-than-normal guitar of the track. Weston is prominent on “Aquarium Salt,” as Hammond takes a backseat and lets Weston work. Weston often adds rock drumming to his jazz, as much Ginger Baker as Buddy Rich.

As mentioned, the album blends influences together. Country, ambient, rock, jazz and others are explored. The final track, “Get Ready to Meet God,” is even centered around a snippet of an interview with Muhammad Ali. There are a number of interesting ideas on “Blues and Daily News,” and although some of them could have been extended more, it makes for a unique listen. Hammond and Weston play off each other nicely, and the combination of non-jazz styles in a jazz platform makes for some fun and independent songs.

This album is especially surprising, given how it stands as a stark contrast to Hammond’s “Humanity Suite,” which I reviewed in March. Stream and download “Blues and Daily News” here.

-By Andrew McNally

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – “Cheek to Cheek”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Cheek to Cheek” “I Can’t Dance”

I left my heart in an interdimensional meat planet.

So let’s just get it out of the way that a small part of me hoped this album would fail, so I could write “I Left My Heart in San FranciscNO.” Okay? Moving on.

This is a strange collaboration, and it might seem like a flash in the pan for two singers who are struggling to stay relevant – but it makes a lot of sense. The younger, Lady Gaga, has a history of professional jazz singing, and getting to try her hand at some jazz standards is a branch she could never explore solo. This isn’t Lady Gaga, this is Stefani Germanotta singing. She’s exercising a side to her music that Lady Gaga won’t allow for, and she’s coming back from a relatively terrible album. And the former is a singer who was forced to reinvent himself for a younger generation in the 90’s, and has managed to stay in the public light since then – despite always performing almost entirely covers. What better way to stay relevant than to record with Lady Gaga? The biggest recording artist of ~2009-~2011, trying to stay relevant herself.

So, reasoning aside. Does this album work? Yes, pretty much throughout. The standard version of the album is 11 tight songs, not quite hitting 35 minutes. It’s quick, melodic, and fun. All eleven tracks are jazz standards, a plus since it results in two relaxed musicians having fun in the studio. A majority of the songs are quick hoppers, so the album never drags at all. The album’s best quality is that Bennett and Gaga, products of two very different generations, are clearly enjoying working on standards older than both of them.

Gaga’s and Bennett’s harmonies don’t always work on the album, sometimes they’re just two singers singing at the same time. On standards like “Cheek to Cheek” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” though, their interplay resembles that of a jazz club in the 40’s, singing through some energetic, fun, early dance songs. Each singer gets one solo song, too – Bennett handles “Sophisticated Lady” while Gaga nails the incredibly difficult “Lush Life,” a song that’s plagued jazz singers for generations. It’s worth noting that, in many of the harmonies, Gaga takes the lower registers. When given their moments, both singers shine as much as you’d expect them too. And even when their interplay isn’t at it’s strongest, the tracks are still fun.

One notable surprise is some strong music in the background. The duo step aside for a lengthy sax solo on “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and the band is allowed to flourish throughout the album. Jazz is about the music, and Bennett and Gaga give the musicians their due space, not taking up all of the light themselves. The band sounds tight, adding a briskness to the songs that’s sometimes missing from them.

Tony Bennett’s entrance into professional music is cited as being in 1949, six years before Lady Gaga’s mother was even born. But the beauty of these jazz standards is that they never get old. Any singer can put their mark on a jazz standard. A song like “I Can’t Dance” can sound as fresh in 2014 as it did when Sinatra did it in 1957. These eleven songs are inter-generational, and hearing two extraordinarily different singers tackle them together is a pretty unique listen. Bennett isn’t really stepping out of his normal territory, but Gaga really is – and it’s refreshing to hear, especially after the questionably re-tread routes of her last album. “Cheek to Cheek” may not be ‘great’ per se, but it’s a fun, upbeat and surprisingly successful collaboration – essentially, if you’re a fan of any part of this machine, you’ll find something to enjoy.

-By Andrew McNally

Ross Hammond – “Humanity Suite”

Grade: A-

It’s important to think of “Humanity Suite” not as a live piece of music, but as performance art, or even a score. Acclaimed guitarist Ross Hammond was invited to play at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. His performance coincided with an exhibit of the work of Kara Walker, whose honest works were largely known for black and white silhouettes, sometimes even over other artists’ works. Hammond did not know which works would be on display during the performance – so “Humanity Suite” acts as a score to exist alongside Walker’s broader themes. The free-form jazz album does not get as dark as some of Walker’s works, but it is every bit as diverse and frayed.

Unfortunately, I always stream music to review, so I was unable to fully appreciate what the physical LP is like, but I can imagine that it has a reluctant crispness to it. Releasing the Suite on vinyl (and with the cover, pictured above) was a throwback to jazz albums of the 70’s, the best of which had a very loose feel similar to Hammond’s.

The album’s loose feel is very intentional. Hammond scored outlines for six pieces, that were thematically consistent with both each other and Walker’s art. But many of the contributing musicians were not based in Sacramento, so each movement was left with a large amount of room for improvisation. What follows is two pieces, each in the 23 minute range (perfect for an LP), that are grounded in writing but take a new and stronger form through inviting and free improvisation. The beauty of this is that “Humanity Suite” has the right amount of restraint – the improvisation is based off pre-written rhythms, so it never goes off-the-rails, but it doesn’t just stick to a formula, either.

The musicians picked by Hammond are multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, saxophonist Catherine Sikora, bassist Kerry Kashiwagi, trombonist Clifford Childers, and drummer Dax Compise. They sound fluid together, working off each other during improvisation, not against each other. Sikora gets a nice, extended feature around the nine minute mark of the first side, and everyone is given their moments to shine. Hammond himself isn’t always to be found on the first side, letting the other musicians have their moments. (The second side is more guitar-centric, though, at least at first).

“Humanity Suite” was recorded in front of a live audience, at the Crocker Art Museum. Having an audience present and audible helps the album have a smooth tone. “Humanity Suite” might be based around Walker’s art, but you don’t need her art to appreciate it. It is a standalone album – two winding compositions that know where to start and not where to end. Each side brings the listener through chaos and stability, loud and soft. “Humanity Suite” may have been composed as a companion piece, but it takes on a life of it’s own.

The album will be available on vinyl and as a digital download through Prescott Recordings on May 9th.

-By Andrew McNally