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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1346

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The Peter Malick Group: Chance & Circumstance
by George Graham

(Koch 9509 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/3/2003

The music business is full of veteran musicians who have had illustrious careers mostly out of the public eye, working as sidemen or studio musicians. They are people who may have had a significant impact on music, or have worked with enough people over the years that some of the best-known music personalities have become their fans. Once in a while, such an artist will step into the spotlight, though such attempts have met with mixed success, both commercially and artistically.

This week, we have a new recording by a talented guitarist who has been on the scene for over thirty years, mainly in a supporting role, a recording that is interesting in that it features five different lead vocalists, all women. The CD is called Chance & Circumstance by the Peter Malick Group.

Peter Malick has long been associated with the Boston music scene. In the early 1970s, he was part of the James Montgomery Blues Band, attracting a lot of attention with his electric guitar work. Before that, he had put in stints backing Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, and Otis Spann, according to the CD's liner notes. The James Montgomery band had a long tenure, though the did not attract quite the commercial success as some of their blues-rock contemporaries, especially those from England.

In 2000, Malick was in New York, putting together a group to do some original music and go beyond the blues in sound. He recruited a then-unknown singer named Norah Jones for his band, and they recorded a six-song CD which was only released this past summer, after Ms. Jones had won all her Grammy Awards.

Now Malick is out with Chance & Circumstance which is at least partly a description of how the CD came together. Malick is not a bad vocalist, but for this project, he worked with five women singers, with some of whom he collaborated as co-composer. They run from the now multi-platinum selling Ms. Jones, to up-and-coming alternative rockers and folkies like Jess Klein and Kirsten Proffit, to Malick's daughter Mercy Malick. The remaining guest vocalist is German-born Los-Angeles-based Antje Duvekot. The tracks with Ms. Jones are essentially the same as marterila that was released earlier this year on that CD-EP.

According to its notes, this CD was recorded over "a few years" and on both coasts. Most of the recording was done in the Boston area, but Southern California was the venue for some of the sessions.

For a guitar player who established a reputation as a high-energy blues player, much of this CD is a long way from that. The material runs from ballads to rockers, with bits of Memphis soul and alternative rock. The bluesiest tracks, interestingly, involve Norah Jones, and hearing the singer, who established a reputation as a chanteuse, doing the blues and rocking out, is a pleasant surprise. The material is mainly original, but also included are three covers, from Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Magic Slim.

Because the recording of this CD was spread out in both time and place, the personnel, not surprisingly, varies quite a bit, further adding to eclecticism. Among the notable backing musicians is Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks, plus jazz bassist Marty Ballou, who is heard prominently on acoustic bass. But there are two other bassists and three other drummers. Keyboards are also present on several tracks, ranging from an old-fashioned Wurlitzer electric piano to a pump organ.

For all the different lead singers and varying personnel, Chance and Circumstance has a surprisingly coherent sound, which is all the more intriguing because guitarist Malick himself, the only person common to all the tracks, takes few solos, and generally works in a supporting role. But the original music is worthwhile, and the interpretations of the cover material are creative and sometimes puts a whole new spin on the songs.

Of the five singers on the CD, Ms. Jones is heard most frequently, with six songs. I infer from Malick's notes in the CD booklet that these tunes may have either been recorded or grew out of the six months in 2000 that Ms.. Jones was touring with Malick's band. But the CD starts with a track featuring Jess Klein, Immigrant, co-written by Malick and Ms. Klein. The sound and the lyrical style both run toward the folk, with Malick mainly on the acoustic guitar. <<>>

Also with a sound in common with contemporary singer-songwriters is the title track, Chance & Circumstance featuring Kirsten Proffit as vocalist and co-writer. Ms. Proffit is a California-based artist who has released a one CD. The song's title has added relevance, since Malick said one day he had arrived at the recording studio to work on his album, and happened to stumble into a session going on at the same time by Ms. Proffit. So Malick invited Ms. Proffit to appear. The result is a very appealing song. <<>>

The first of the six tracks featuring Ms. Jones is Strange Transmissions by Malick. Unlike some of the other pieces involving Ms. Jones, this song has her in familiar musical territory. In addition to Ms. Jones' worthy vocals, Malick puts in a lot of interesting guitar work, much of it appropriate for a song with such a title. <<>>

Another vocalist Malick invited onto his project after hearing her once is Antje Duvekot. The German-born singer-songwriter was performing at a folk club in Boston when Malick happened upon her. And as with most of the other vocalists on the CD, Malick shares composers' credits on the two songs featuring Ms. Duvekot, who has toured performed with the Celtic group Solas, who have also recorded two on her songs. The first of the two on Chance & Circumstance is called Opium and it again hews toward the singer-songwriter aspect with some added sonics atmospherics. <<>>

Peter Malick's daughter Mercy Malick appears on the Ray Charles cover What Would I Do without You. While Ms. Malick does a competent job with the song, her father really distinguishes himself on the track, with the bluesy context allowing Malick to get into his element. <<>>

Speaking of the blues, Ms. Jones gets a chance to belt out on the CD's cover of the Magic Sam Maghett song All Your Love. Though not many of Ms. Jones' fans have heard her doing an energetic blues like this, she handles the piece with her usual aplomb, while Malick puts in some of his best guitar work on the CD. The result is a definite highlight of the record. <<>>

Another cover involving Ms. Jones is the Bob Dylan song Heart of Mine which Malick and company give a kind of Memphis soul twist. <<>>

The CD ends with a Malick original, New York City, also featuring Ms. Jones. The laid-back soul-influenced setting and clever lyrics make for appealing listening. <<>>

The Peter Malick Group's new CD Chance & Circumstance is a pleasing and interesting recording involving five separate lead singers, not the least of whom is long-time Malick friend Norah Jones. From a gentleman who established a reputation decades ago as a guitar-slinger in the blues-rock field, this CD is quite eclectic, and not just for the presence of the different women who sing on the CD. Malick also wrote songs with the guest vocalists, and recruited some very tasteful backing musicians. And while there clearly is some blues and R&B influence, this is almost as much a kind of multiple singer-songwriter record, since the guest vocalists collaborated and presumably wrote most of the lyrics. Though he is a competent singer, Malick also resisted the temptation to sing everything, as often been the downfall of other talented studio musicians who were given the opportunity to put out a CD their own.

Our sound quality grade is about a B-plus. The mix is has everything in the right place, and the blend of acoustic and electric instruments is handled well. But the heavy audio compression in mastering sucked much of the life out of the recording. Of course, that's nothing new these days.

The music business is littered with albums by studio musicians and sidemen who decided to step out front, and then did not have a lot of say, or maybe said too much. Peter Malick's approach on his CD Chance and Circumstance sets him apart from many others and makes for worthwhile listening.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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