June 14, 2012
(+++) AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Frank Unzueta: Thoughts Revealed. Sunstone Records. $12.97.
Junior Doctor: Clumsy Words and Bad Pickup Lines. Hubbub. $9.99.
Tae Phoenix: Rise. $7.99.
The music on Thoughts Revealed is not really “a new sound in jazz,” as pianist/composer Frank Unzueta considers it to be. It is, in fact, rather determinedly old-fashioned – in a good sense. The CD mainly focuses on Unzueta – not surprisingly, since he produced it and wrote all the music – but also showcases the talents of Gordon Peeke on drums and percussion, Larry Steen on acoustic and electric bass, and Eric Marienthal on soprano saxophone. The performers play well together and, just as importantly, play well off each other, handing tunes and themes among themselves neatly and pleasantly. The nine tracks on the disc meander through most of the moods that jazz conveys. The Me You Created is a nicely formed ballad that contrasts interestingly with the lyrical Angel Girl. Many of the pieces have a wistful, romantic sound to them, including Elisa’s Dream, Anything for You (For Cathy) and Love Me When Winter Comes. But Unzueta offers other emotions, too. There is, not surprisingly, a strong Spanish cast to Madrid, the longest track and in some ways the most elaborate. And the distinctly upbeat Happy Toes Rag is a real charmer, with swing rhythm and clear Scott Joplin inspiration. The two remaining works, The Apostle and It Means Nothing…It Means Everything, have charms of their own, with Unzueta’s piano usually dominant but plenty of opportunities for the other instrumentalists to shine as well. Fans of straightforward, moody but not depressive jazz, nicely arranged and well played, will enjoy this disc.
Enjoyment is harder to come by in the (++) Clumsy Words and Bad Pickup Lines by the Florida-based Junior Doctor. The band’s name comes from its four members’ medical-school history (they are all dropouts, presumably now pursuing a higher…well, at least different…vocation). Mark Hartman is lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Jarrod Kearney is on drums; Richard Peidro handles bass; and Terrence Donnelly is guitarist. Three of the dozen tracks on Clumsy Words and Bad Pickup Lines, the group’s second CD, are pretty good: Uh-Oh, Dancing in Your Dreams and Impressive. But most of the songs sound rather insincere, with a manufactured and polished veneer that is perhaps intended to be sophisticated but comes across as crassly commercial – as if the aim is to rock out, but not too much. What I Do and Wrong Place, Right Time seem intended as dark-side-of-adolescence tales, and they are certainly adolescent enough – but their effect is rather juvenile. In contrast, Back Home is apparently supposed to be sweet, but it sounds programmed and superficial. Leaving feels derivative, and the other tracks – Perfect Girl (Make Her Mine), Keep On, Beautiful and Blind, Alright and Not Now – all have a calculated feel to them, as if the whole CD has been carefully packaged to produce a snappy pop-rock mashup. Nothing really wrong with that, but nothing very individualistic or memorable, either. The CD is kind of OK, kind of emo scream, kind of energetic, kind of bouncy, but never really goes beyond “kind of” anything.
Tae Phoenix’s (+++) Rise, though, is actually kind of neat. Phoenix (Teresa Valdez Klein) has declared herself a singer-songwriter and pianist and also calls herself a feminist, geek and “subvertiser.” Oh, and she works for T-Mobile, because “every aspiring musician needs a day job.” Wise words, those. The words on Rise, an independent release, are perhaps not so wise, but they are certainly intense enough. In fact, “intense” pretty well describes Phoenix’s style. Yes, the eight tracks here (two being different versions of the same song) are all about the usual stuff – love, loss and so forth – but Phoenix delivers them strongly: she has a big voice, if not an especially distinctive one, and she uses it well in piano-driven music that has some flavor of Elton John and some of Christina Aguilera. That doesn’t sound like a very promising combination, but Phoenix almost makes it work. Wendy’s Tale, Beautiful Lies, Rise, I Loved You Then, You Raised the Bar and Set Me Free – the titles capture the ideas of the songs, and although the topics, like the titles, are pretty straightforward and fairly similar to each other, Phoenix delivers each one as if she really means it. Her sincerity overcomes the weakness of her topics. The two most interesting tracks on the CD are the “clean” and “explicit” versions of Does She Know Yet? – which starts with the line, “You didn’t need to lie to keep me in your bed” and goes on from there in entirely unsurprising directions to which Phoenix brings more sincerity than the words themselves would indicate. “You’re fake and you’ll break every promise you make, and excuse it with a smile” – come on! But what is good about Phoenix isn’t her lyrics – it’s the way she puts them across, giving them heartfelt meaning that goes beyond what the words themselves say. Rise is most notable for mixing a set of not-very-special ingredients together to create something effective and enjoyable, if not quite magical.