Nora McCarthy and The People of Peace Quintet
By: Alex Henderson
Nora McCarthy’s versatility has been one of her strong points. The New York City-based jazz vocalist, originally from Cleveland, took a very straight-ahead approach on her promising debut album of 1996, red&blue. But subsequently, McCarthy explored jazz’ avant-garde because she was always a “free bird” at heart. In her collaborations with Jorge Sylvester that began in 2000, McCarthy has demonstrated that she is comfortable with both the inside and the outside. And whether she was getting into free-form outside improvisations or performing standards, McCarthy has been as expressive as she is unpredictable. McCarthy has a long history of giving 100%, which is what she continues to do on blesSINGS.
This self-produced CD is not an album of popular standards, although it doesn’t delve deeply into the avant-garde either. One of the album’s highlights is a memorable performance of Ornette Coleman’s “The Blessing.” But for the most part, blesSINGS is not an album of abstract avant-garde jazz, but rather, a highly melodic and accessible post-bop effort with a highly spiritual outlook. And McCarthy leads a cohesive unit called the People of Peace Quintet, which also includes Sylvester on alto saxophone, Pablo Vergara on acoustic piano, Donald Nicks on electric bass and Kenny Grohowski on drums.
Post-bop, of course, has a long history of spirituality. Heavily influenced by John Coltrane, great instrumentalists like Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean and Yusef Lateef thrived on spirituality during the 1960s and 1970s. So did singer Abbey Lincoln, one of the influences on blesSINGS. And with this album, McCarthy draws on both the spirituality of post-bop instrumentalists and the spirituality of post-bop vocal jazz.
That spirituality prevails on four songs by McCarthy (“Into the Middle of Something,” “Restless Mind,” “Listen Close to What the Trees Are Saying” and “Love Poem for the People”) and two songs by Sylvester (“Nimbus” and “Akara Moi Moi”) as well as Lucian Ban’s “Night on Earth,” Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ “Nowhere Everafter” and Tyner’s “Passion Dance.” The rapport that McCarthy enjoys with Sylvester, Vergara, Nicks and Grohowski on blesSINGS is consistently strong: instead of sounding like a mere backdrop for McCarthy’s vocals, they enjoy a genuine, honest-to-God dialogue with her. And thankfully, Sylvester and Vergara have plenty of solo space and room to stretch out. The spirit of improvisation prevails whether McCarthy is singing or other members of the People of Peace Quintet are taking a solo.
“Passion Dance” is a highly appropriate choice for blesSINGS given its rich history. Tyner (one of the greatest pianists of the last 55 years) unveiled that modal gem in 1967 on his classic album The Real McCoy, which was recorded for Blue Note Records and boasted Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on upright bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Tyner and Jones had played together in Coltrane’s quartet in the early to mid-1960s, and the deep spirituality that Coltrane was known for carried over after they left his employ and pursued their own projects. “Passion Dance” came to be recognized as a definitive example of spiritual post-bop, and it works undeniably well for McCarthy in a vocal context. Her lyrics fit Tyner’s melody perfectly, and as a lyricist, McCarthy fares equally well on Coleman’s “The Blessing” (which the trailblazing alto saxophonist recorded in 1958 on his Contemporary date Something Else: The Music of Ornette Coleman, an album that pre-dated his association with Atlantic Records and his work with bassist Charlie Haden).
McCarthy, in fact, wrote most of the lyrics on blesSINGS. The only lyrics she didn’t write on this album are the ones heard on the 11-minute opener “Love Poem for the People,” although she did write the composition for that selection (the poetic words are from James Akinwale Daniels). McCarthy also handles most of the arrangements on blesSINGS, although Sylvester is the arranger on McCarthy’s “Into the Middle of Something” and his own “Akara Moi Moi.”
The fact that McCarthy wrote so many lyrics for blesSINGS does not mean that she neglects scat-singing. McCarthy gets in plenty of memorable scatting on blesSINGS, and emotionally, she expresses herself in different ways on this album: as a performer and writer of lyrics, as a composer, as an arranger, and as a scat singer. McCarthy wears a variety of hats on blesSINGS and wears all of them well.
Some listeners might wonder what McCarthy’s preference is: standards, avant-garde free jazz, bop, or post-bop and modal jazz? And the best answer to that question is, “All of the above.” McCarthy is multi-faceted, and her ability to handle different styles of jazz equally well speaks highly of her. This time, spiritual post-bop is the main course, and blesSINGS is a fine addition to her catalogue.
Jazz Inside Magazine
Feb/March Issue 2016
A Small Dream in Red: In the Language of Dreams (2012)
Published: 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.
By: Scott Yanow
While her roots are in 1960s post bop jazz rather than the 1920s, Nora McCarthy can be thought of as a logical extension of Barbara Dane.
A poet who also sings very well, she believes in every word that she interprets. She has a powerful voice (check out her last note on “Restless Mind”), wrote all of the lyrics and arrangements for Blessings (including for McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” and Ornette Coleman’s “The Blessing”), and also composed four of the ten pieces. She is joined by The People Of Peace Quintet, a group that includes her longtime musical partner altoist Jorge Sylvester (a brilliant player who is heard in top form), pianist Pablo Vergara, electric bassist Donald Nicks and drummer Kenny Grohowski whose playing is particularly catchy on “Passion Dance.”
There are many fine solos heard throughout the set with the singer taking her turn next to the instrumentalists. The music includes moody ballads and heated romps. Nora McCarthy’s adventurous improvising is on a high level along with the intelligence of her lyrics, making Blessings (available from www.redzenrecords.com ) one of her most rewarding recordings.
New York City Jazz Record
September Issue 2016
Nora McCarthy and The People of Peace Quintet
By: Donald Elfman
Walking into Cornelia Street Café last month for vocalist Nora McCarthy’s CD release celebration of blesSINGS, there was a positive vibe to the proceedings, a spirit that informs the new CD and, it seems, everything McCarthy does.
blesSINGS draws on a variety of traditions, including soul, R&B and avant garde jazz. The ethos of the recording is most clearly reflected on the opener, “Love Poem for the People”, with lyrics by late poet James Akinwale Daniels conveyed by McCarthy’s smoky voice.
The ensemble—Jorge Sylvester (alto saxophone), Pablo Vergara (piano), Donald Nicks (electric bass) and Kenny Grohowski (drums)—deftly colors McCarthy’s work as well as presenting distinctive personalities.
On Sylvester’s “Akara Moi Moi”, McCarthy scats over pulsing changes and rhythm. McCarthy wrote four of the compositions and most of the lyrics, including for songs by some of the masters of the music. One of the pleasures of the album is hearing how McCarthy negotiates the lyrics she’s written and how she integrates them into the overall sound. She laughingly suggested at the release concert that Ornette Coleman is “not gone but rather looking lovingly at all of us.” She then performed his “The Blessing”, infused with loving lyrics and graceful wordless vocalizing, which led into passionate and harmonically apposite solos by Sylvester, Vergara and electric bassist Gene Torres, subbing for Nicks. And then came a ritualistic “Passion Dance”, a McCoy Tyner gem, with fiery burning rhythmic intros from piano, bass and drums and then horn-like, rapid-fire singing and joyous scatting.
The album, seven tunes of which made up the CD release concert, closes with mysterious sounds introducing “Nowhere Ever After” by Butch Morris. McCarthy’s lyrics for the tune (from a music box!) serve as a paean to the late conductor, including, as intro and outro, excerpts from a 2007 performance of nine poets ‘chanting’. After the intensity of the recording, the performance was quiet but equally intense—harmony, love and creativity commingling.
NORA McCARTHY Reviews
"...A striking woman of unusually elastic voice, McCarthy infuses her music with poetry and theatricality that’s both stark and sensual." Carlo Wolff, Cleveland Scene
“...It’s delightful to hear music that plays so freely with the known and the unknown elements of jazz." Florence Wetzel, All About Jazz Magazine, NY
“…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." Bill Donaldson for Jazz Improv NY
"...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)”. 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." All About Jazz/ 31st Tri-C Jazz Festival, Matt Marshall
“…McCarthy’s, ‘The Light Of Truth’s High Noon Is Not For Tender Leaves,’ has a spirituality that recalls the late Abbey Lincoln, and McCarthy really soars with that Lincoln-ish mood.” Alex Henderson, Jazz Inside Magazine
“...Her shaping of pitch often foregoes the fluid note-bending of the jazz singer in favor of the full press of a sculptor’s touch against viscous clay." Ramsey Ameen/The Gathering Of The Tribes Magazine
"…The ballad "Too Late Now" (Lerner/Lane) from her CD, Circle Completing, is a charmer. Reminding me very much of the late lamented Irene Kral, Nora provocatively sings this melancholy ballad in full throttle." Dan Singer, In-Tune International Magazine-UK
"…McCarthy’s vocals are rich and subtle and laced with varying degrees of earthy blues and soulful phrasings." Sounds of Timeless Jazz.com
“…Nora McCarthy sings with an emphatic delivery. She interprets lyrics with fits of passion and relaxes casually with wordless sprees.” Jim Santella for Jazz Improv, NYC
“…Circle Completing is a moody suite that deals with the evolution of life, coming to a place of forgiveness, letting go, and ultimately moving on to the next level. Nora's adventurous singing, the spontaneous interplay with John diMartino, and the unpredictability of the music result in the innovative duets being full of subtle surprises." Scott Yanow, Jazz Critic & Author
“…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.” Dan Bilawsky/Jazz Improv Magazine’s New York Jazz Guide
“...Nora McCarthy shines on “Do Something” – a groove piece whose melody and arrangement is reminiscent of a Horace Silver kind of energy; and on the hip lyrics to “In My Own Way” – an ‘electric’ medium groover. McCarthy’s contributions add a shimmering magnetism to the vocal pieces by Brandon. Other highlights include the soft Bossa “Friend In Need.” The album wraps up with the title song “Toward the Hill of Joy” – voice and piano, out of tempo, deep, contemplative and brilliant.” Clark Griffin, Jazz Inside
"…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." Mark Saleski/Jazz.com
“…Nora is a wonderfully focused musician, singer composer. Her original compositions are splendid examples of modern and traditional jazz song. I highly recommend her as a fellow artist.” Dom DuVal, musician / composer / bassist
"…You can hear this woman's life in her voice…" Walter Kolosky, Jazz.com
“…Nora McCarthy has a deep voice, with the timbre and range of Sarah Vaughan….she uses ever-so-subtle pitch-bending and straight tones and just a lovely touch of vibrato.” Julianne Carney/International Society For Improvised Music
"…Nora is a musical flurry of passion, soul, emotion, soothsaying, truth telling and jazz poetry that takes you on flights of improvisational abandon with grace and wit. She is a force to be experienced!" Sarah James, Musician, Poet, Vocalist
"…Nora McCarthy, the diva, one of the top singers who shaped the jazz vocal, a superb artist!" João Da Penha ("Jazz & Bossa Nova", Brazil, 2009 )
“...A non-generic and exciting vocalist to be aware of." Alex Henderson/All About Jazz And L.A. Jazz Scene
“…A voice that is alternately liquid, breezy, and lustrous. Sophistication in the same vein as Chet Baker." Mark Keating, Editor, Sound Views Magazine
“…She plays her tender voice like a musician trying to get the best out of some favored, old horn.” Edward Hill/The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“...Yet another voice in the retro-cool school—almost at times, as cool as Julie London, but with a serpentine edge". Gary Giddins/The Village Voice
“...Continental and sophisticated, McCarthy is as much chanteuse as jazz singer.” Carlo Wolff/The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“…Nora McCarthy delivers with the improvisational intuition of Betty Carter and the compassion of Billie Holiday. McCarthy tackles harmonically complex material of Thelonius Monk with relative ease then easily slips into a relaxed Latin style that owes much to Brazilian samba queen Astrud Gilberto.” Edward Hill/The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"...The first set featured Jorge Sylvester's Conceptual Motion Orchestra and they were grand; great writing and superb singing from Nora McCarthy." The Vision X Festival, June 14th - June 19th, 2005 - Review By Bruce Lee Gallanter
A Small Dream In Red Recorded at the Sundown Jazz Concert Series at Cleveland State University Released: 2004
“…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.” Florence Wetzel, All About Jazz
“...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." Cadence Magazine for Creative and Improvised Music, 2005
“...Nora McCarthy has a deep voice, with the timbre and range of Sarah Vaughan....she uses ever-so-subtle pitch-bending and straight tones and just a lovely touch of vibrato." Julianne Carney, International Society For Improvised Music, 2007
“...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 is fluid, giving energy, direction and depth." International Society For Improvised Music, 2007
“...It's delightful to hear music that plays so freely with the known and the unknown elements of jazz." All About Jazz Magazine, NY 2005
“...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 recitals, which include self-penned songs as well as several highly original interpretations.” Ramsey Ameen, musician, scholar, educator formerly with Cecil Taylor
“...Nora McCarthy sings with an emphatic delivery. She interprets lyrics with fits of passion and relaxes casually with wordless sprees." Carlo Wolfe, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“...Alto saxophonist Jorge Sylvester brings a character of virtuosity 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. " Jim Santella for Jazz Improv, NYC
“...Dreamy musical interplay mixed with fitful segments of dramatic tension." International Society For Improvised Music
“...McCarthy uses her fluid delivery to jump effortlessly to the highest and lowest regions of her vocal range, while Sylvester 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." All About Jazz, 2006
“...The two artists combine intuition with a love for their music and it shows." Jim Santella for Jazz Improv, NYC, July, 2007
“...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. " Florence Wetzel, All About Jazz, NY
“... 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." All About Jazz, NY, 2005
“...Sylvester coats the pathways McCarthy carves with freelanced and fully open interpretations of the tunes, hitting high and low notes in juxtaposition or in contrast with the vocals." Cadence Magazine for Creative Improvised Music, 2005