In The language of Dreams
May 18, 2012
Singer Nora McCarthy and saxophonist Jorge Sylvester constitute one of the most creative duos in today's jazz scene. Their group, A Small Dream in Red (named after painter Vassily Kandinsky's 1925 masterpiece), made a deep impression with its eponymous 2005 Sundown Jazz debut. McCarthy and Sylvester continue to mine their rich vein of creativity with In the Language of Dreams, offering a powerful cornucopia of musical vision and spiritual aspiration.
Several factors make A Small Dream in Red distinctive. Both McCarthy and Sylvester are remarkably talented musicians with backgrounds in traditional and avant-garde jazz, and for them these two worlds are not separate; they use both structured sounds and joyful noises, and seamlessly harmonize composition and improvisation. They also have the humility to put themselves at the feet of the masters, to use the art of others as a springboard for their own creativity, which on this CD includes improvising lyrics to two songs by saxophonist Ornette Coleman, as well as creating five original compositions inspired by Kandinsky's artwork. Most of all, McCarthy and Sylvester are dedicated to using art as a means to elevate and celebrate the human spirit; their music is about joy and creativity, and cultivating the finer aspects of the human soul.
In a CD of excellent songs, two in particular stand out. "Morning Has Broken/Caged Bird" is a free-flowing integration of songs by Cat Stevens and Abbey Lincoln. Weaving throughout the tune are real bird songs, surely one of the most exquisite sounds on planet Earth. McCarthy and Sylvester intertwine naturally with the birds, and in fact sound rather like birds themselves: McCarthy's voice is pure and stunning; Sylvester's tone deep and true. It's a beautiful merging of music with the natural world, and the resulting song is fresh and lovely.
"Back to the One" is a tour de force, a highly original song about resilience in the face of disaster. Using a quote from the Persian poet Rumi as a catalyst, the tune incorporates a subliminal noise, which eventually grows louder and reveals itself as a newscast about a devastating tsunami. McCarthy and Sylvester sound like a choir of angels as they soar above this heartbreaking story, illustrating how the human spirit can ascend even in the face of tragedy. The song is a fine example of tastefully integrating jazz and electronics, and it's also a beautiful statement about the power of the human soul.
In the Language of Dreams is an explosion of imagination, a dazzling display of music and words, as well as philosophy. A Small Dream in Red has the courage to set itself high goals, and it has the talent and ingenuity to attain them. And because McCarthy and Sylvester are so inspired by creativity, they likewise inspire creativity, and thus the cycle of artistic endeavor goes forward.
Track Listing: Dizzy Bird; Morning Has Broken/Caged Bird; April in Paris; The Blessing; The Sphynx; Study in Compassion; Back to the One; Small Dream in Red; White Stroke; Composition VIII; Lyrical; Yellow Red Blue.
Personnel: Nora McCarthy: voice, lyrics, pedals, bodhran; Jorge Sylvester: alto saxophone; Birds: Canyon Wren, Northern Cardinal, Western Meadowlark, Wood Thrush, White-throated sparrow.
Record Label: Red Zen Records
Nora McCarthy - Jazz Vocal Artist, Composer, Poet: Press
Jorge Sylvester - The ACE Collective Brucknerhaus Linz, December 6, 2010 ******
"Ace Collective enthusiastically received in Linz"
Those who were expecting Calypso-singing Harry Belafonte clones must have been disappointed. The pieces composed by the Panamanian saxophonist use the rhythmic tradition as a basis for extended forays into the world of the contemporary. The young drummer Kenneth Grohowsky juggled the odd meters with exquisite ease. Sylvester's compositions are solid ground for exciting, improvisational excursions particularly by the singer and poet Nora McCarthy and the trumpeter Waldron Mahdi Ricks. The music could most readily be compared to Steve Coleman's Five Elements who made a big impression in St. Magdalena in October. In the next days the ACE Collective will record their new CD in Hagenberg. You have to look forward to that.
The only constant for Nora McCarthy is change, and that’s just the way she wants it. An original who continues to explore human thought and feeling in varying artistic forms and instrumental configurations, McCarthy most recently has chosen to record songs, as well as her own compositions, of her choosing accompanied solely by pianist John di Martino. McCarthy is a fearless singer who deftly refuses to be categorized as she explores personalized means for expressing ideas. She travels infrequently heard avenues for exploring thought and adapts vocal technique to fit the circumstances of her message. Circle Completing starts conventionally enough with an affecting performance of “Come Fly with Me,” complete with the seldom heard verse. The musical situation for Circle Completing is set. as di Martino’s comping allows for freedom and support for McCarthy, particularly during her comfortable, middle-range scat chorus. And so, it seems, Circle Completing will be a salon type of recital of standards, with McCarthy’s burnished alto carrying the tracks.
And so it is. To a point. “To Be with You” and “Too Late Now” follow a similar format of mid - volume, mid-range descriptions of situations leading to evoked emotions. For example, “to be with you for just one hour of each day” leads directly to the point: “I need you so.” McCarthy deserves much credit for understanding the power of the song’s intended feelings and for delivering them softly, slowly, forcefully. However, things change after that song. Gradually. Almost imperceptibly. McCarthy sneaks in “The Hawaiian Wedding Song”—a song seldom heard recently—with the same modest charm applied to those preceding it. It turns out that McCarthy pays tribute to her three Hawaiian sons by singing it, and she brings out this previously unknown facet of her personal life by its inclusion on the album. Delivered with the same painstaking and straightforward attention to lyrics, in English and Hawaiian, by her unadorned elongation of notes, the song leads gradually into the freer and more adventurous remaining tracks, as if easing the listener into them.
McCarthy covers the blues with “Little Red Rooster,” backed by the earthiness of di Martino’s bar-room-style piano. More importantly, McCarthy starts departing from the melody with a brief ululating “oooo” after the word “howl.” Notes start to be bent. The even volume of the preceding songs gives way to hushed “yeah’s” contrasting with sudden shouts. The initial songs’ romance and matrimony lead to bawdiness. Strict adherence to words disappears as scatting happens. And so Circle Completing goes through a gradual progression from conventionality to improvisation, from standards to blues, from tonal adherence to form to freedom. Then she ignores all of the rules, and we’re in full Nora McCarthy mode, inimitable and original. Her own “In the Morning Light” emphasizes the melodic element of poetry, as she sings images with intervallic leaps, her wide range finally employed.
Obviously, di Martino is familiar with this side of McCarthy, with whom she has worked in the past, notably on her 1996 CD, Red&Blue. He supports the combination of verbal description and pitch by the use of harmonies at time borrowed from Bill Evans’s introduction to “So What.” McCarthy clicks and wails and sighs and hints at atonality, never resolving a phrase where one would expect and adding drama to observations like “and lies swept under the carpet all scramble like roaches in the early morning light.” (Sung in intervals of fifths with soft sonic imitations of scurrying.) Now we hear the fearless originality associated with McCarthy from past recordings. Then McCarthy goes back to standards, in this case “The Shadow of Your Smile,” sung darkly, deliberately in largo tempo, words cushioned with unembellished delivery—until she delivers her wordless chorus in her middle and lower range as if she were crafting a burnished lyrical trumpet solo.
The remainder of Circle Completing is completely McCarthy as she interprets her own compositions. The jazz waltz “Life Is a Song to Sing,” correlating McCarthy’s passion for music with characteristics of fulfilled living, is notable for its extended metaphor, presented voice particularly enhances her own song as she avoids extremes of pitch, establishing delicacy of feeling and felicity of thought about avoiding complacency: “For every dream to realize / You have to fly away.” McCarthy ends Circle Completing with yet another sung tribute, like her homage to Billie Holiday, “Billie.” This time her subject is the influential but long-struggling singer Jimmy Scott. McCarthy abbreviates Scott’s biography, mentioning in song his being a “motherless child,” “living his life in jazz clubs,” “happiness lost, then found,” “dead-end jobs,” “marriages and break-ups” and then “blessings came” after “thirty years come and went.” Written poetically, expressed in song, “Faith in Time” consists of a series of melodies stitched together to conform to the rhythm of the words in rubato style as di Martino follows her lead. Eventually, McCarthy concludes Scott’s artistry-from-hardship story with its “taking its place among the greats of all time.” Her point is well taken. Another Jimmy Scott enthusiast, I concur heartily. And heartily is how McCarthy approaches any song she sings, as she loses herself in it. Circle Completing provides further evidence of that virtue.
Nora McCarthy at Nighttown
The intrepid and experimental vocalist Nora McCarthy will make a rare hometown appearance tonight at 7 at Nighttown (12387 Cedar Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216.795.0550), performing material from her three independently released albums. A striking woman of unusually elastic voice, McCarthy infuses her music with poetry and theatricality that’s both stark and sensual. McCarthy left Cleveland for New York 16 years ago after working with talents like the late pianists Neal Creque, Willie Smith and Ace Carter. A devotee of classic jazz, global rhythms and the fine arts (one album was inspired by the paintings of Russian modernist Wassily Kandinsky), McCarthy is a musical colorist eager to push the envelope. On her newest CD, Circle Completing, she refreshes “Come Fly With Me” and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” converts Willie Dixon’s bluesy “Little Red Rooster” into a slow seduction, rolls out her own love songs and, in the philosophical “Faith in Time,” delivers an appropriately languid homage to a key influence, androgynous Cleveland jazz singer Jimmy Scott. Joining her at Nighttown will be pianist Dan Maier, acoustic bassist Martin Block and drummer Roy King. “I think about returning to Cleveland and miss the days when there was a more active jazz scene than I see now,” says McCarthy. “However, I always loved Cleveland, it is my hometown, and I have many great musical memories there and dear friends and family.” Carlo Wolff
RED & BLUE
Bedroom Eyes; Billie; Holiday From Love; Isis; Roads; My Dream; Something Red; I’ll Close My Eyes; Born To Be Blue.
PERSONNEL.: Nora “Red” McCarthy, vocals; Sato Takeishi, percussion; Alvester Garnet, drums; Essiet Okon Essiet, bass; Mike Lee, saxophone; John di Martino, piano.
Nora “Red” McCarthy has been a steady fixture on the New York music scene for quite some time. Red & Blue, an album that McCarthy recorded in 1996, is heavy on sultry sounds and vocal styling that could be described as, both, cool and comforting. McCarthy, who works in every setting from a bass and vocal duo to a twenty-piece orchestra, demonstrates that she is not one to simply serenade with the usual mix of standards. “Bedroom Eyes,” which is the first of many McCarthy originals on the album, introduces us to her slightly hushed, yet hypnotic, vocal stylings. McCarthy, who never gets above a moderate volume level, demonstrates a great deal of finesse and control from the get-go and the band instantly provides the firm accompaniment that she deserves. Mike Lee’s saxophone work, and McCarthy’s voice, briefly dance around one another and create some musical magic. “Billie,” which is McCarthy’s “ode to Billie Holiday,” is a tribute, not an imitation, and she remains firm in the stylings and trappings that worked so well on the opener. “Noir-ish” is a term that has been applied to this singer and this can clearly be heard on this track. “Holiday From Love” begins with a slight musical punch, provided by the band. McCarthy contrasts this powerful entrance with some slight and whispery, yet sassy and firm, declarations. “Isis,” which takes lyrical direction from the work of D. H. Lawrence, features some of McCarthy’s best music writing on the album. Her modern sensibilities, harmonically and melodically speaking, make a great showing on this track.
“Roads,” an original with a light and airy waltz-feel, features some nice bass soloing from Essiet Essiet and some nice musical coloring from percussionist Sato Takeishi. A bit of Brazil, both in spirit and style, sneaks into “My Dream.” This is the clear highlight of the album – and McCarthy, with her musical comrades, turns in a flawless performance. Alex Henderson, who is quoted in McCarthy’s liner notes, used “impressionistic” as a word to describe this album. “Something Red” might have been the song that was playing when that very word came to mind. This song, performed at a slumbering tempo, is a precise encapsulation of that word. While McCarthy spends the majority of the album flexing her compositional muscles, in addition to her vocal skills, she chooses to close the album with two well-known standards. “I’ll Close My Eyes,” the first of the two standards, receives a lovely interpretation from McCarthy and some fine saxophone solos from Lee. “Born To Be Blue” transmits late-night musical sentiments and gets the general bluesy treatment that it deserves. John diMartino’s piano glides beneath, and around, McCarthy’s voice and this duo performance serves as a fine ending to a solid outing.
Those who like their jazz vocals intimate will love this simply produced collection of originals and standards, which matches the well known veteran New York jazz singer Nora McCarthy with pianist John diMartino for a set that, in addition to being a graceful tribute to legendary singer Jimmy Scott, also turns the neat trick of paying homage to Nora’s roots in standards while capturing her own colorful life story to this point. While the critically acclaimed vocalist has been an integral part of the NYC music world since the mid-90s, her story goes back much further. In the 70s, while raising her family, she took some gigs singing background in an R&B group and a pop-rock-soul band. Then in 1978, she wandered into a jazz club in Cleveland and began dedicating herself to becoming part of the local jazz scene. Soon she was leading her own gigs and quickly became one of the busiest singers in the area.
While she’s worked in a wide variety of settings over the course of her career, what sets Circle Completing apart is the spontaneity of it all—it was recorded in only four hours, as if it were just two friends, intuitive to each other’s creative and improvisational vibes, having a conversation in their living room. She’s known diMartino since she recorded her first CD red&blue in 1996. “No matter who he plays with, he always sounds different,” she says. “He is extremely creative, has a great rhythmic concept, and can do it all. He knows how to be an accompanist without sacrificing his own artistic integrity. We have our own sound together.” That’s evident from the first notes of her soaring, sparsely arranged take of the Sinatra classic “Come Fly With Me,” which gets the too-short nine track set off to a lovely start. Circle Completing also includes the dreamy, thoughtful ballad “To Be With You” and a hauntingly charming take on the Lerner and Lane song “Too Late Now.” Just when you think it’s going to be a Great American Songbook styled session, Nora helps us escape to the sunshine via a tender reading of “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” in which she pays homage to her three Hawaiian sons in English and Hawaiian; it’s time traveling at its best, as one of Nora’s earliest professional situations was singing with her father-in-law, a Hawaiian musician.
She then tackles the blues wistfully with a spirited roll through “Little Red Rooster,” which sets up the dark, melancholy mood of her graceful original “In The Early Morning Light,” a spoken word piece (she’s also a poet) about infidelity, heartbreak and facing new realities. Nora’s approach on this is unconventional but unforgettable. After returning to the realm of the very familiar (“The Shadow Of Your Smile,” which is always a welcome addition to any jazz set in any context), she concludes with two more originals, the philosophical “Life Is A Song To Sing” and her heartfelt, poetic tribute to Jimmy Scott, “Faith In Time (Jimmy’s Song).” Taken as a whole, Circle Completing is a moody suite that touches on the fascinating evolution of life, coming to a place of forgiveness, letting go and ultimately moving on to the next phase of the journey. Because of the sparse intimacy, fans of more swinging jazz arrangements may require patience to enter the Nora experience. But once their heart is hooked, it will be hard to let go. Jonathan Widran/Jazz.com/Jazziz (May Issue, 2009)
SINGER'S SINGERS - Dan Singer from New York City turns the spotlight on some overlooked singers of the past and some bright newcomers. Amongst Dan's picks this month include Billy Eckstine and Nora McCarthy.
NORA McCarthy: CIRCLE COMPLETING
Nora is heard here to great advantage on nine songs. She does wonders with only the all knowing pianist John di Martino. I never heard the verse to "Come Fly With Me" (Cahn/Van Heusen). It creates brand new meanings for this charming Sinatra workhorse. Nora hits all the proper notes to a tee. I fact, midway she has a swinging fun filled heck of a scat. The ballad "Too Late Now" (Lerner/Lane) is a charmer. Reminding me very much of the late lamented Irene Kral, Nora provocatively sings this melancholy ballad in full throttle. A real surprising treat is her take on the song "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" (Hoffman/Manning/King). Nora's version is moist unlike the remembered 1958 Cadence Records hit by Andy Williams. Her Hawaiian language vocal is unexpected making her take more meaningful. Her "Little Red Rooster" (Dixon) exhibits her knowledge of the blues. This is a wonderful blues allowing Nora to let it all hang out mid-song in a scat that will have you shouting and screaming right along with her. Finally she sings an emotionally laden "The Shadow of Your Smile" (Mandel/Webster) from the 1965 film "The Sandpiper". It's a crowning glory to a wonderful original CD.
This is my kind of jazz singer-middle aged, seen the world as it is, hasn’t put much due to other distractions, and uses the music as a means of reflecting on life. She’s got a mature, friendly voice, with a gentle vibrato, and gives a convincing delivery of the lyrics. Best of all, the songs are not the usual gang of suspects, but mostly a collection of obscurities, originals, with even a few free form poems thrown in for good measure. The only accompaniment is John diMartino’s piano, and he is deferential without being subservient throughout the 49 minutes of soul baring. The improvisational poetry of ‘In The Early Morning Light” is a high wire act, while “To Be With You” and “Too Late Now” are intimate and vulnerable, yet without victimhood. She does wonders with the intriguing take of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” (I told you she had moxie!), giving it the feel that your listening to the last song of a long night, with the chairs being stacked on the tables. Patient, holding notes like a last embrace as on “The Shadow Of Your Smile”, she is stark without being jeering, and free formed without the abrasiveness. Good stuff.
May 2010 • Jazz Inside™ Monthly • www.jazzinsidemagazine.com
CIRCLE COMPLETING – Web: http://www.noramccarthy.com
Come Fly with Me; To Be with You; Too Late Now; Hawaiian Wedding Song; Little Red Rooster;The Early Morning Light; The Shadow of Your Smile; Life is a Song to Sing; Faith in Time (Jimmy’s Song).
PERSONNEL: Nora McCarthy, vocals, producer, arranger; John di Martino, piano
By Alex Henderson
Standards have long been a part of the repertoire of veteran jazz vocalist Nora McCarthy, whose sultry, torchy approach has a strong jazz noir appeal. But the expressive New York City resident/Cleveland native has been wise enough to avoid the “all warhorses all the time” policy that is all too common among both singers and instrumentalists in jazz. McCarthy’s 1996 debut, Red and Blue, contained a few standards but was dominated by her own songs; 2003’s A Small Dream in Red (a collaboration with saxophonist Jorge Sylvester) also ranged from standards to original material. Circle Completing, it turns out, is her most standards friendly album to date – and yet, this isn’t just another “jazz singer performs The Great American Songbook” outing. McCarthy is more far-reaching when it comes to selecting material, and she has provided an excellent album that takes its share of chances but is generally quite accessible.
The only person accompanying McCarthy on this 2007/2008 recording is acoustic pianist John di Martino, and that intimate vocals/piano format serves her well on standards as well as on three McCarthy originals: “Faith in Time (Jimmy’s Song),” “In the Early Morning Light” (which walks a fine line between jazz singing and spoken word and is easily the disc’s most abstract offering) and the reflective “Life Is a Song to Sing.” A few of the standards have a Tin Pan Alley connection, including Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn’s “Come Fly with Me” and A.J. Lerner/Burton Lane’s “Too Late Now.” But McCarthy also finds the jazz possibilities in everything from Charles King’s “Hawaiian Wedding Song (Ke Kali Nei Au)” to Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.”
“Come Fly with Me” is a prime example of how strong McCarthy’s interpretive powers can be. The song is closely identified with Frank Sinatra, but instead of trying to emulate Sinatra’s swagger and bravado, she successfully takes the song in a more subtle, understated direction. And the fact that McCarthy manages to surprise us on a tune that has been performed as many times as “Little Red Rooster” also says a lot. Recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in the early 1960s, “Little Red Rooster” has been performed by countless Chicago bluesman and by many rock & rollers as well, including The Doors, Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead. McCarthy, however, doesn’t approach “Little Red Rooster” as either blues-rock or electric Chicago blues but rather, as acoustic jazz-blues along the lines of Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson or early Dinah Washington. “Little Red Rooster” has seldom been brought into the acoustic jazz realm, but McCarthy has no problem finding its jazz possibilities.
“Faith in Time (Jimmy’s Song)” is an insightful ode to jazz vocal icon Jimmy Scott, who turned 84 in 2009. McCarthy, much to her credit, doesn’t bore us with the type of dorky, pseudo-intellectual “edutainment” lyrics that some jazz singers have had the bad taste to record. Instead of offering a mind-numbingly technical analysis of Scott’s work, McCarthy’s lyrics tell his story in a way that has considerable human interest appeal; they’re poignant, compelling lyrics even if one doesn’t know much about jazz. And although McCarthy doesn’t gloss over Scott’s struggles and hardships, she ultimately depicts him as a survivor – not a victim.
From standards to originals, Circle Completing paints a consistently attractive picture of Nora McCarthy.
As a prominent member of the New York jazz scene, Nora McCarthy continues to enjoy the well-deserved acclaim she is receiving for her latest recording CIRCLE COMPLETING. The recording offers listeners 9 duet renditions of your favorite jazz standards and several new songs penned by McCarthy. Joined by pianist John di Martino, the duo swings on “Come Fly With Me,” gets down right bluesy and gritty on “Little Red Rooster,” and soothes the soul on ballads such as “Too Late Now,” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” McCarthy’s vocals are rich and subtle and laced with varying degrees of earthy blues and soulful phrasings. This CD will be enjoyed by those who appreciate a set filled with quiet moods and laidback emotions.
CIRCLE COMPLETING - THE SHADOW OF YOUR SMILE
"The Shadow of Your Smile" is the best cut on this album from songstress Nora McCarthy. Accompanied ably by pianist John di Martino, McCarthy presents a collection of standards and self-penned numbers. The well-regarded McCarthy is not a jazz singer in the traditional sense. Rather she is a balladeer who veers toward jazz interpretation, as on this cut, where she offers up an expressive slow scat section. You can hear this woman's life in her voice, cracks and all. That's what life is about. Music is communication. You don't need to be Jenny Lind (the 19th-century "Swedish Nightingale") to get your point across. After listening to Nora McCarthy, you sense that you know her. I don't think we could ask more of any artist.
31st Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland
April 18: Nora McCarthy
While not actually part of the JazzFest schedule,the return of this Cleveland-native singer (and former stalwart of the city's jazz scene) from New York for a performance at Nighttown fit in well with the hometown spirit the festival always exudes. Featuring several songs from her latest release, Circle Completing (2008), McCarthy's vocals often recalled the soft, strained desperation of another Cleveland vocalist, the great Jimmy Scott. The album is, in fact, something of an homage to Scott, ending with the McCarthy original, "Faith in Time (Jimmy's Song)."
But McCarthy skipped that one on this night. Instead, Scott's influence shown through on another original composition, the one she calls her theme song, "Life Is a Song to Sing," and on "April in Paris," her vocals fluttering with an acceptance of loss and regret, yet insisting that the road stay open before her; she the more able of treasuring it for her backlog of experiences. Elsewhere, she swung through Van Heusen's "Come Fly With Me" and the original "Into the Middle of Something" with a relaxed cabaret swagger, and pounded out piano-like scatting on other standards. She was backed by the fine local trio of pianist Dan Maier, bassist Marty Block and drummer Roy King. Block, in particular, added a deep, invigorating second voice that countered McCarthy's vocals with slippery yet punching solos on nearly every number. The singer closed with a barn-burning version of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" that left the crowd crowing for more and nicely "upset, in every way."
During a recent conversation with a friend, we got into the worth of poetry. He wondered why anybody would bother with a "clever" rendering of something when a more direct description would suffice. I tried to steer him to the fact that most poetry attempts to distill a particular idea to its essence (something lost on most high-schoolers, who are drowned early on in things like rhyme schemes and other poetic minutiae). A good poet can tell a story with a minimum of text. So when Nora McCarthy tells the story of lies that have been "swept under the carpet / all scramble like roaches in the early morning light," she extends the idea in a couple of directions at once – with a kind of vocalese, aided by skittery piano bits. The presentation says far more than a couple of paragraphs could, that's for sure.
A SMALL DREAM IN RED
Nora McCarthy & Jorge Sylvester
Recorded during a 2003 concert performance in Cleveland State University’s recital hall, this album documents the adventures of a superb, contemporary jazz duo that forges its own trail. You can’t sit back and say that she recalls this or that singer or that he recalls this or that alto saxophonist. They’re both soulful, dramatic and highly original in their intimate recital, which includes two self-penned songs as well as several highly original interpretations. Nora McCarthy sings with an emphatic delivery. She interprets lyrics with fits of passion and relaxes casually with wordless sprees.
The program includes periods of tension mixed with areas of leisurely release. Alto saxophonist Jorge Sylvester brings a virtuosic character to the session, conversing with his musical partner in an equal balance of their two voices. There’s closeness in their duo performance that you don’t find in some ensembles. McCarthy and Sylvester have given a name to their duo, A Small Dream In Red, which amplifies several of the characteristics from their session: dreamy musical interplay mixed with fitful segments of dramatic tension.
Miles Davis’ “All Blues” is one of those standards that we can recognize without even trying. It lovely melody and comfortable rhythm can make for a pleasant afternoon. Here, McCarthy and Sylvester adhere to the song’s familiar waltz pattern while going off on tangents that instill a serious tone. She uses her fluid delivery to jump effortlessly to the highest and lowest regions of her vocal range, while follows her cues in empathy. McCarthy’s Miles Mind” carries a significant impression, as her voice recalls the frailty found in Davis’ horn through the years. Punctuation the piece with vocal and saxophone surges, the duo delivers a thoughtful tribute. Sylvester’s “Akara Moi Moi” swings with a relaxed jazz frame of reference, as wordless vocals combine with soulful alto fun to close the concert on a comfortable note. The two artists combine intuition with a love for their music and it shows.
The duo of Nora McCarthy and Jorge Sylvester presents contrasting contours stepping into and out of dissonance, with hints of tunes weaving in and out, far more scat than lyric in the vocals, and saxophone fluid, giving energy, direction, & depth. The five tracks offer a flowing, meandering walk, with occasional glimpses of recognizable melody, and otherwise a wonderful blend of shapes, colors and textures. Nora McCarthy has a deep voice, with the timbre & range of Sarah Vaughan, but without the quick vibrato. She uses ever-so-subtle pitch-bending, and straight tones, and just a lovely touch of vibrato on occasion. Splashes of color are drawn into play with the saxophone. Jorge Sylvester plays with virtuosity and artist's subtlety. Seemingly in the background, the listener is then surprised to notice the fascinating punctuation, melodic fragments, and extrapolated melody or harmonic contrast. McCarthy's comradeship with Kandinsky (whose painting Kleiner Traum in Rot gives this CD its name) is certainly presented well in this recording.
Vol. 7, pg. 123
Read the Interview
Nora McCarthy has never been in better form than she was in her performance on March 28 at Sweet Rhythm. McCarthy, backed for the second time by her group, The Nora McCarthy Qu ’ART’ et (which made its debut last fall at the Kavehaz), showed a new level of poise and confidence singing and leading bandmates Pablo Vergara (piano), Jeffrey Carney (bass), and Derrek Phillips (drums). Also appearing were guest artists Jorge Sylvester (alto sax), McCarthy’s long-time collaborator and, in the second set, Waldron Ricks (trumpet).
The Qu’ART’et, whose members also perform together in McCarthy’s and Sylvester’s 20-piece big band Conceptual/Motion Orchestra, displayed a familiarity and mutual understanding of each other that allowed for plenty of unrestrained blowing on a daring program that surpassed the expected throughout. They played truly as a group, feeding off each other through a first set that served to provide the listener a small-scale overview of jazz history, encompassing standards, bebop, and gospel, all filtered through McCarthy’s unique avant guarde interpretation.
The performance opened in a bebop-inspired mood, with McCarthy’s original composition “Into the Middle of Something”. Based on Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House” McCarthy cleverly reconfigured the piece, playing freely with it’s original structure to deliver her take on it’s underlying theme about the pursuit of happiness and adventure and the motivations and the mishaps that take place. With Vergara’s energetic support, and the solid foundation of veteran musicians Carney and Phillips, McCarthy drew in the audience with her clear voice, which was both smooth and strong.
By the fourth bar of the second selection, “Wanting Memories” (by Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Ysawe Maria Barnwell), heads throughout the audience were bobbing in time to Carney’s fat bass groove punctuated by Phillips’s drumwork. Sylvester’s saxophone added a joyful exuberance, leading one to wonder if the mood could be sustained throughout the rest of the set.
Any fear of a letdown was quickly dispelled on McCarthy’s recent composition, “Faith in Time”, her extended Valentine to jazz vocal legend Jimmy Scott, which once again displayed McCarthy’s ability to look back and give credit to the past without having to get stuck in it or grow stale. Jorge Sylvester joined in here, and again on McCarthy’s other tribute piece, “Grover’s Groove”, penned for Grover Washington, Jr. On both pieces, the interaction between him and McCarthy was reminiscent of a conversation between friends, embodying the feeling of respect that McCarty shows in honoring Scott and Washington.
Between these large-scale works, she sang a heartfelt version of the old standard, “My Foolish Heart”, on which she slowed down the tempo and let the audience enjoy the fullness of her melodic voice and sensitive phrasing, showing the fullness of her stage presence and her interpretive strengths.
The set closed most impressively with another McCarthy original composition, “Study in Compassion”, a duet for vocal and drums. Based on saxophone exercises, this exuberant selection allowed McCarthy to show off her full range of pitches, rhythms, and timbres, ranging from a near perfect alto sax sound to scat singing evocative of Ella Fitzgerald. Derrek Phillips’ intuitive accompaniment and counterpoint was nearly telepathic, ensuring a climactic conclusion to a terrific performance filled with surprise and artistic honesty.
A Small Dream in Red
Nora McCarthy/Jorge Sylvester (Sundown Jazz)
by Florence Wetzel
A Small Dream in Red is a new CD as well as the name of the group composed of vocalist Nora McCarthy and alto Saxophonist Jorge Sylvester. Inspired by painter Wassily Kandinsky’s 1925 master piece of the same name, A Small Dream in Red is a joy of dynamic interplay between two diverse talents. McCarthy’s roots include the American songbook, R&B, Brazilian music, Hawaiian folk and in recent years she’s embraced – and been embraced by – the avant garde. Sylvester who studied at Karl Berger’s legendary Creative Music Studio, has played with everyone from Stefon Harris to Oliver Lake to David Murray and is best know for his integration of Afro-Caribbean rhythms into mainstream and avant garde jazz.
The CD captures this formidable duo live at a 2003 concert at Cleveland State University. The five cuts include a beautiful medley of “Afro Blue/My Romance”, Miles Davis’ “All Blues”, “Wanting Memories” by Ysawe Maria Barnwell and an original composition by McCarthy as well as one by Sylvester.
The line-up may be minimalist, but the music certainly isn’t; both McCarthy and Sylvester have extensive palettes and their nuances of color and conception are a pleasure to behold,. McCarthy’s voice stretches and soars and whether she’s singing straight ahead, scatting, or simply vocalizing, her voice rings true and clear. Sylvester has a gorgeous tone and a sure touch, plus a wonderful ability to weave in and out of melodies.
It’s delightful to hear music that plays so freely with the known and the unknown elements of jazz. McCarthy and Sylvester show the utmost respect for the formal elements of music while also possessing the daring to dissolve borders, making A Small Dream in Red an aural adventure of the highest order.
Vision Festival X - Day One, June 14, 2005 Jorge Sylvester-Nora McCarthy Conceptual Motion Orchestra
By: John Sharpe
The first set by the Jorge Sylvester-Nora McCarthy Conceptual Motion Orchestra was actually one of the more conventional in the Festival. This band is one of several joint projects under their dual leadership and has been going since 1999. The set started with an alto saxophone soliloquy by Sylvester, soon cushioned by broad fat chords from the nineteen-piece orchestra. A section for Vincent Chancey’s French horn over a lush orchestral background led to big band and vocals from McCarthy. Sylvester conducted the imaginative and varied arrangements for the orchestra from extensive scores (which he struggled to control in the confined space) and held up cards, sometimes several at a time, signaling different sections.
The orchestra’s intersecting lines, jazzy vamps, and funky riffs with freeish solos brought to my mind other past NYC aggregations, such as Saheb Sarbib’s Multinational Big Band. Brief features for orchestra members included stirring moments from trumpeters Waldron Ricks and Michael C Lewis, in duet with the alto of Hayes Greenfield. For the final number, McCarthy’s “Life is a Song to Sing,” the songstress’ lyrics gave way to impassioned scatting over inventive piano comping from Pablo Vergara. The piece was graced by a fine tenor sax solo from Salim Washington, replete with split tones and squawks, and a lyrical piano spot. A final section for orchestra and voice ended with an improvised horn cadenza before the band swung into the closing theme.
A very personal and expressive voice, Nora “Red” McCarthy has a sultry, sensuous, noir-ish approach that fuses Sarah Vauhan, Abbey Lincoln and Billie Holiday with the 1950s “cool singing” of Chris Connor and Julie London And yet, red&blue has an impressionistic, poetic quality that shows an awareness of post-bop developments of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. One of the impressive things about this CD is the fact that Red does most of her own writing, and she demonstrates how much potential she has as a lyricist on everything from the seductive “Bedroom Eyes”, and the Wayne Shorter-esque “Isis” (written from a D.H. Lawrence poem “Don Juan”, 1912) to her poignant ode to Billie Holiday “Billie”. With “the glut of female jazz singers out there”, Red is a non-generic and exciting vocalist to be aware of. Alex Henderson, All About Jazz and L.A. Jazz Scene
McCarthy knows exactly how to capture an audience. She uses here quality voice, a solid array of musicians, and original materials to do it. On red&blue, she assembled an excellent group of artists who support her silken style to perfection while getting plenty of improvising space to enhance the rich melodies. For material, she elected to feature primarily her own moody tunes that give the recording a very fresh sound with their pensive lyrics. Ballads are McCarthy’s forte. She develops them into love songs with effortless guile, gliding smoothly through her lyrics to set the requited or unrequited love stage. Her tunes have the quality of becoming familiar quickly, capturing your attention from the start with their attractive melody lines. Her smooth tone and delightfully sounding voice are the traits that make her music a pleasure to hear. McCarthy displays the gift for being both a composer and lyricist. She is equated in the liner notes with a number of great vocalists, yet I found her voice unique with its sullen overtones and sensuous quality. ......Frank Rubolino, Cadence, April, 2000 "The Review of Jazz & Blues: Creative Improvised Music
NORA McCARTHY and JORGE SYLVESTER combine talents on an intimate vocal/saxophone duet on A SMALL DREAM IN RED (McCarthy 264) (Afro Blue/ My Romance/ Wanting Memories/ All Blues/ Miles Mind/ Akara Moi Moi. 52:12, 1/19/03, Cleveland, OH). McCarthy reinvents several all-time Jazz classics by scatting, singing, and intoning over the free improvisations pouring assertively from Sylvester’s alto. McCarthy delivers with absolute clarity, adding engrossing touches to the melody lines but primarily constructing original versions of the tunes. The performance was captured live at a recital hall, contributing to the great sound on the disc. McCarthy’s interpretation of “My Romance” is filled with new ideas that only use the original Rodgers & Hart melody as an occasional guidepost. Sylvester coats the pathways she carves with freelanced and fully open interpretations of the tunes, hitting high and low notes in juxtaposition or in contrast with the vocals. The two closing numbers are original tunes by each artist and really show off their very personal way of communicating. CADENCE 2/05/05
…red&blue is a reissue of a 1996 release that could have been recorded in 1960. Sung and mostly written by NYC-based Nora "Red" McCarthy, this is acoustic jazz in the classic American mold--when every female singer was obliged to walk in the footsteps of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Red is backed by a first-rate quintet who work in a mellow be-bop framework, providing an open field for counterpoint without grandstanding. Special note goes to John di Martino on piano, whose timing and phrasing is ideally suited to the daring approach Red takes to the nine songs on the record. Whereas most singers establish the main theme first and save the vocal dazzle for the variations, Red deconstructs the melody almost immediately, using (and hitting) every note that is reasonably at the song's disposal with a vocal that is alternately liquid, breezy, and lustrous. She neither wails nor belts, and often steps aside to provide the piano, bass, sax and percussion a place in the sun. This even-handed strategy towards each song's melodic possibilities creates a jazz record that is blue yet sophisticated in the same vein as Chet Baker -- Mel Torme, whose "Born To Be Blue" (which Torme co-wrote with Bob Wells) concludes the package. A coolly oblique record that somehow manages to warmly engaging, too. ….Mark Keating, Editor, Sound Views Magazine, March, 2001
..."yet another voice in the retro-cool school—almost at times, as cool as Julie London, but with a serpentine edge (she has a charming CD called – what else – red&blue". Gary Giddins, The Village Voice
…”Her heartfelt performance of “Meaning of the Blues” was as convincing as it was polished, and she draped her mesmerizing alto effectively over a pretty medley of “Waiting for You,” Touching” and “On My Way to You”. That medley of tunes by, respectively, Toninho Horta, Neal Creque and Michel Legrand encapsulates McCarthy’s aspirations. The tunes are continental, sophisticated, and McCarthy is as much chanteuse as jazz singer.” Carlo Wolf, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jazz Preview