Would you like some free music -- like, ten songs worth? Ten good songs worth? Then Coal Train Railroad would like to be of assistance. They've offered up ten free tracks from their three albums -- two from their self-titled debut (which I liked), two from their latest album Coal Train Railroad Swings! (which I liked a lot), including "I'm Diggin' Me," and the whole 6-song EP Live in Monophonarma, which includes their take on the Jellydots' classic "Bicycle." The price of all this swingin' jazz goodness? An e-mail (preferably yours, otherwise some other random person's gonna get the download code) and a zip code (again, preferably yours). If you're not familiar with the band, it's definitely worth it.
There are not many artists who play jazz for kids, which is a sad thing. Sad not because Jazz Is The American Art Form and more kids should be aware of their country's musical heritage (even though that statement is true). Sad because jazz can be one of the most playful musical forms, and who plays better than kids? On their second album, Coal Train Railroad Swings!, Nashville's Coal Train Railroad are every bit as playful as their pint-sized primary audience, adding several musical exclamation points to that in the title. From the get-go vocalist Katy Bowser throws herself into the preschool-focused lyrics with abandon. On the swingin' leadoff track "I'm Diggin' Me," Bowser sounds hopped up on pixie sticks as she fully inhabits the bouncing-off-the-walls-let's-play-superheroes! narrator. On big band-inspired "Dirt," I love the way Bowser throws off the word "dirt" at the end of every line, a statement of fact mixed with "what-are-ya-gonna-do?" insouciance. And I think you can probably guess the vocal approach she takes on the gypsy-jazz "I Hab a Code." Which isn't to imply that the music is just jokey -- they come from a kid-centered focus. Bowser can turn in gorgeous vocals as well, as on "With A Box." And she's very ably backed up by her CTRR co-founder, producer and bassist Christopher Donohue, and the rest of the band. They provide great accompaniment, playful when necessary, solid through and through. The album is very preschool-focused lyrically, which may very well restrict the repeatability for folks when kids aren't around, though the album closer, the gorgeous "On Our Swings," is a worthy successor to the West Coast jazz sound Vince Guaraldi made famous to a broad audience via the Peanuts TV specials. The album is more appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7, though that's a lyrical distinction -- musically, it works for everyone. You can hear the whole 27-minute album via the widget at the bottom of the page. I liked Coal Train Railroad's debut, but I really like Coal Train Railroad Swings!. If it's not quite the all-ages classic that Medeski Martin & Wood's Let's Go Everywhere is, it gets close. It's musical, smart, and, most importantly, fun. Definitely recommended. Disclosure: I received a copy of the album for possible review.
Give New York's Oran Etkin credit for this -- his early childhood music education program, Timbalooloo, sounds little like other music program for youngsters. A combination of jazz, world music, with interaction thrown into the mix, it's not necessarily better than other such programs -- I'll leave that for the pedagogic experts -- but it draws deep from wells that are lightly touched. The first album from the Timbalooloo program is Wake Up, Clarinet!, and after listening to the CD (and watching the 10 minutes of bonus video), I have a decent idea of the program's strength. Its core is classic jazz, played artfully by Etkin himself. As you'd expect from a jazz album, there's a lot of playful give-and-take between Etkin and the other performers, particularly vocalist Charenee Wade. There's also a lot of interactivity expected of the listeners, asking questions, giving the instruments characters through how the musicians play their instruments. (It's a touch of "Peter and the Wolf," I suppose.) If there's a downside, it's that the album's pretty short -- just 22 minutes long, including one song ("High Low") given two interpretations. After the first few times, I gladly would trade some of that and the introductions for ten minutes more of the band jamming on 3 or 4 different tracks. The album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6. You can buy the album here, listen to the album here and watch the bonus video here. If Wake Up, Clarinet!'s brevity helps keep it from reaching the heights of all-time classic jazz-for-kids disks, it's still pretty good. I think Etkin's got the chops to be doing this for some time, and if he does, I fully expect his albums to reach that essential jazz for kids level -- maybe even essential, period. Recommended.
Ah, Putumayo Kids, you compiler and purveyor of music from around the world, you must be running out of themes, right? Rock & Roll Playground? Isn't there another region of the world you need to unearth some musical treasures from? What's next - Pop Playground? Hip-Hop Playground? (Actually, please get on that, stat.) Most regular readers have heard many of these tracks (or at least the artists), but credit Putumayo for having the sense to string 'em together in a happy-happy pop-rock mixtape with few if any duds. For example, Taj Mahal -> Dan Zanes -> Charity and the JAMband = win. (Or, Rhythm Child -> Rosie Flores -> Uncle Rock = win.) Best for kids ages 3 through 8 (samples here), you could probably put together your own 34-minute playlist, but why bother when they've already done the work for you? Recommended. Having said all that, Jazz Playground is my favorite of all the Putumayo "Playground" series disks, and that's saying something. The nature of jazz is such that it covers lots of styles and permits fresh interpretations of songs we've heard dozens if not hundreds of times before, and as a result, there's a nice mix of new and old, providing new perspectives -- and isn't that one of the major points of the Putumayo concept anyway? The album deftly navigates the line between over-reliance on English language voices (which you can get anywhere) and non-English language songs (which can be hard for English speakers to fully appreciate, no matter how funky the liner notes are). Beyond that, it's just plain fun through and through, from Zooglobble favorite Lewis Franco & the Missing Cats doing his swing original "Stomp, Stomp" to Chris McKhool's fiddle-based take on "Spider-Man" to the Latin jazz of Jose Conde's "Cumbamba." And on down the line. Best for kids ages 2 through 8, the 31-minute album (again, samples here) goes onto my shortlist of essential jazz-for-kids albums. Definitely recommended.
I finally had a chance to listen to the first Coal Train Railroad podcast this week. Good stuff that I think'll keep the kiddos interested -- they played "Bicycle" by the Jellydots, talked with some Nashville-area kids about bikes, and then wrapped it up with a really cool version of "Bicycle" performed by Coal Train Railroad themselves. (Now how about having Coal Train cover another kids artist with a video from Readeez? -- there's precedence for it.) More of that, please. Anyway, listen here or subscribe via iTunes here. Podcast #2 is due out this weekend. To get you in the mood for CTR's jazz ("short sets for the short set"), why not listen to the debut disk right here...
New York's Hayes Greenfield is the most vital person in the kids' music jazz subgenre. Through his Jazz-A-Ma-Tazz program, he brings his saxophones and a love of jazz to kids in concert. (And his 1998 CD of the same name which inspired that program is, with the possible exception of the new Medeski Martin & Wood disk, the best kids' jazz album out there, period.) So clearly Greenfield's latest project, Music For A Green Planet, released yesterday, Earth Day, had the possibility of being another excellent album. Certainly many of the characteristics of his Jazz-A-Ma-Tazz disk appear here -- the never-dumbed down playing of Greenfield and his fellow instrumentalists, the broad range of jazz styles (a New Orleans strut on "This Little World of Ours," the South American jazz of "This Little World of Ours"). And once again, Greenfield brings aboard a bunch of fine vocalists, with Joe Lee Wilson and Melissa Stylianou getting the most lead vocal time. The kids' chorus is fun and never cloying (the hopping "The Sun" is a particular high point.) In sum, the jazz is first-rate. What keeps this from being an absolutely necessary CD are the lyrics, which are set to familiar kids' tunes (e.g., "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" becomes "We'll Be a PArt of the Solution"). Please don't misunderstand me -- the lyrics are generally witty and it's hard to argue with the need to reduce, reuse, recycle. The difficult part is that it's 53 minutes of the same thing -- it's all a bit too much, frankly. And while there isn't much talking down or straight lecturing, I'm not sure the concept of the carbon footprint is going to make much headway with the target audience. While not dull, the album isn't as fun as it could have been. I think the album would've been served better by a few more instrumental tracks or lyrics that just celebrated nature or being outside rather than stressing the message all the time. Less would have been more in this case. I think kids ages 5 through 9 will most appreciate the messages here. You can hear samples at the album's CDBaby page or here. I do think Music for a Green Planet will be popular with (and I would recommend it to) any ecologically-minded class or family, plus jazz fans. While I'd recommend Jazz-A-Ma-Tazz over this album for an introduction to Greenfield's work, I do certainly hope it'll be less than 10 years before he makes another album for kids and families.