BEAUTIFUL BIG BANDS & CREATIVE JAZZ COMPOSERS

January 22, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 22, 2021

THE 8-BIT BIG BAND – “Backwards Compatible” – Teamchuck Label

Charlie Rosen, bandleader/arranger/musical director/producer/ background vocals; Natalie Tenenbaum, Steven Feifke & Jake Silverman, keyboards; Adam Neely, Dan Chmielinski, Julia Adamy, Charlie Rosen & Bobby Wooten, bass; Jared Schonig & Bryan Carter, drums; Kevin Garcia, percussion; Liann Cline, harp; Danielle Gimbal & Camelia Hartman, background vocals; Charlie Rosen & Dave Cinquegrana, guitar/banjo; WOODWINDS: Andrew Gould & Josh Plotner, Alto saxophone/flute; Steve Kortyka, Alto saxophones; Sam Dillon & Zac Zinger, tenor saxophone/ clarinets;  Jordan Pettay & Carlos Eiene, tenor saxophone; Adison Evans & Andrew Gutauskas, baritone sax; Judy Lee, Elizabeth Martignetti, Jordan James & Kyra Sims, French horns.  TRUMPETS: Bryan Davis, Jay Webb, John Lake, Chole Rowlands, Max Boiko, Danny Jonokuchi & Allison Phillips. TROMBONES: Jimmy O’Connell, Javier Nero, Rebecca Patterson, Ron Wilkens, Mariel Bildsten & Alex Jeun.  VIOLINS: Lavinia Pavlish, Meitar Forkosh, Tomoko Akaboshi, Daniel Constant, Kevin Kuh, Matthew Beauge, Yumi Oshima, Camelia Hartman, Audrey Hayes, Ally Jenkins, Josh Henderson, Maria Im, Mary-Jo Stilp, Erica Swindell, Ellie Goodman, Emily Gelineau, Eli Bishop & Danielle Breitstein.  VIOLAS: Laura Sacks, Kenny Wang, Jarvis Benson, Tia Allen, Brian Thompson, & Sarah Greene. CELLI: Susan Mandel, Alon Bisk, Jessica Wang, Kristine Kruta & Marta Bagratuni.

From the soaring horns and strings of the very first few bars of a tune titled, “Intro to Album 3,” I am drawn into this project like quicksand.  The “Chrono Trigger Main Theme” establishes the energy and excitement, featuring Steven Feifke on piano, who is supported by a grooving electric bass and beautiful, busy horn lines.  When the violins enter, the whole production reminds me of a scene from the 1971 Shaft movie soundtrack.  It has that kind of retro-energy. This album, “Backwards Compatible” presents a contemporary body of music using a symphonic, jazz/pop orchestra comprised of seventy of New York City’s finest musicians.  The arrangements range from funk to old-school, Frank Sinatra-type swing ballads.  On the composition, “Dire Dire Docks” Charlie Rosen is featured on bass and the arrangement is quite compelling.  Charlie Rosen has also arranged all of this music and is a multi-talented musician himself. 

Surprisingly, these are tunes extracted from popular video games.  If you’re a video game connoisseur, you will recognize the music from “Kirby Super Star” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.”  You ‘old-heads’ will recall the “Super Mario Land” theme or the “Super Mario Odyssey.”  Other’s will instantly relate to music from “Aeida: Ocarina of Time” or the “Metal Gear Solid” game theme.  Every song is creatively and symphonically arranged, featuring solos by some of the best talent New York has to offer. This is a unique project that’s fun and well-played.  Here is a listen full of joy and classical fusion orchestration!

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JULIAN SHORE – “WHERE WE STARTED” – Tone Rogue Records

Julian Shore, piano/synthesizers/composer; Dayna Stephens, tenor & soprano saxophone/EWI; Ben Monder, guitar; Caroline Davis, alto saxophone; Oded Tzur, tenor saxophone; Edward Perez, bass; Colin Stranahan, drums.

The cover of Julian Shore’s CD looks like winter, all soft gray, white with shades of blue.  I’ve said it many times; art work on CD covers is important.  In a stack of twenty CDs to listen to, I was drawn to this cover.  “I Preludio” opens this work in a very classically constructed way, featuring Julian Shore on solo piano.  When he is joined by his full ensemble, they build this piece by adding woodwinds, guitar, bass and drums.  On track 2, “II Winds, Currents” drummer Colin Stranahan is given free rein to ride his trap drums into the fade of the song.  On “III Tunnels, Speed” Julian shore stretches his classical chops into jazzy fingers dancing across the eighty-eight keys.  This becomes one of my favorite tunes on his album.  On his composition, “IV Marshes, Amphibians” the introduction sounds a lot like the Norah Jones song, “Don’t Know Why,” but quickly develops into its own melodic structure. 

Dayna Stephens’ has a breathy, beautiful sound on his tenor saxophone during their production of “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess.”  Throughout this album, you hear Julian Shore playing with synthesizer parts, as well as his brilliance on grand piano and Ben Monder adding his colorful guitar licks to the mix.

“The last few years have been about looking inward and recognizing that, while we perceive them as different, exploration of an emotion or a place can be one and the same.  All of our experiences shape us and we can’t really choose which ones we express.  True musical honesty requires self-awareness and, hopefully, acceptance,” Julian Shore shares his premise for this musical achievement.

This is Shore’s third release as a bandleader and together with his talented bandmates, they have created an exceptional tapestry of original compositions and interesting arrangements.  Stitched together with talent and raw emotion, they endeavor to help us return to old landscapes with new eyes.  It’s a great way to start the new year!

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YOKO MIWA TRIO – “SONGS OF JOY” – Ubuntu Music

Yoko Miwa, piano/composer; Will Slater & Brad Barrett, acoustic bass; Scott Goulding, drums.

Yoko Miwa is a powerful pianist, with tenacious ties to her classical training.  Her style of playing is with one foot rooted deeply in the blues and the other in contemporary and modern jazz.  At the same time, one hand is holding onto old-school jazz history and the other is elbow-deep in international cultures.  This album celebrates life, happiness and joy.

“When the pandemic started, I decided I would compose every day and as a result, I came up with five new original compositions which are all included here.  I also recorded six songs composed by other musicians, but in doing so, I chose them very carefully to fit with the feeling of the album.  … My hope is that you will hear the overwhelming feeling of JOY that I felt in making this music,” Yoko shares in her liner notes.

One of my favorite compositions by Yoko Miwa is Track 2, “Largo Desolato” that flaunts her bluesy side and gives drummer, Scott Goulding time to creatively solo on the fade of the song.  

Billy Preston wrote “Song of Joy” that has inspired the title of Miwa’s album.  It’s a pensive ballad, rich with gospel influence.  Track 4, “Small Talk” quickly becomes another one of my favorite songs on this production.  Yoko has written this tune.  It’s very melodic and swings nicely.  Ms. Miwa shows off her piano skills on this tune, improvising provocatively.  “No Problem” is a straight-ahead arrangement that shows off Yoko Miwa’s expert use of the 88 keys and her powerful chordal structure.  “The Rainbirds” is another original composition that delves into the Latin music realms and features her bassist, Will Slater dancing happily across the strings of his acoustic bass.  He also takes a very pleasing bass solo.

There is something for everyone on this trio album of fine jazz music.  She includes a Thelonious Monk song rarely heard, “Think of One” and Tony Germain’s shuffle blues, along with Anne Bredon’s composition, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” featuring Brad Barrett bowing his acoustic bass in a beautiful way. Perhaps Yoko Miwa summed it up best when she said:

“I made it my mission to connect directly with the listener in each song that I played and to go directly to their soul and touch their hearts.” 

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IRA B. LISS BIG BAND JAZZ MACHINE – “MAZEL TOV KOCKTAIL!” – Tall Man Productions

Steve Sibley, piano; Lance Jeppesen, bass; Charlie ‘Stix’ McGhee, drums; Melanie Medina & Robert Cartwright, guitar; Noah Ines, Latin percussion; Matt DiBiase, vibraphone. SAXOPHONES: Tyler Richardson, alto & soprano saxophone; Nicholas Hoo & Malcolm Jones, alto saxophone; Greg Armstrong, Josh Smitley & David Castel De Oro, tenor saxophone; April Leslie, baritone saxophone/clarinet. TRUMPETS: Randy Aviles, Mark Nicholson, Jeff Beck & Jack Houghton. TROMBONES: Gary Bucher, Carly Ines, David Barnard & Tim Hall. VOCALS: Janet Hammer & Carly Ines. GUEST ARTISTS: Nathan East, bass; Andrew Neu, tenor saxophone; Dan Radlauer, accordion; Mike Vax, trumpet.

This big band is a popular and well-respected Southern California music conglomerate.  It was formed by educator and musician, Ira Liss, in 1979 as a vehicle for his students to play and hone their talents.  Liss is a native of San Diego, California, and continues to be the bands conductor, producer and artistic director all these forty plus years later.  As their popularity grew, the student band soon became a community band, adding professional musicians to the mix of young people. This raised the bar of the band.  By 1994, the band had become a polished, professional organization and they released their first recording, “First Impressions.”  This was followed by four more album releases.

Six arrangers have contributed to this project.  The band includes three original compositions written and arranged by multi-instrumentalist, Dan Radlauer, who is also the Composer in Residence for the band.  Andrew Neu wrote and arranged their opening tune, “Gimme That.”  This song energetically pumps my listening room up with spark and swing! 

Each arrangement that peels off this CD is like a plump, juicy piece of sweet fruit. I enjoy the variety of jazz styles that they celebrate.  One minute they celebrate Duke Ellington’s popular “Love You Madly” and they follow that with “Bass, The Final Frontier” that features the funky, exciting, electric bass of Nathan East.  East has over 2,000 recordings under his belt and is considered one of the most recorded bassists in any genre.  His talent is richly celebrated during this arrangement.  Unlike the old-school, popular Ellington tune, this song is starkly different and very contemporary.  Then, the title tune celebrates klezmer.  This is one of the high-points of the Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine. They are amazingly proficient and victoriously versatile.

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THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC – “FINAL FLOOR” – Wide Hive Records

Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranging; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, Alto & tenor saxophones; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ synthesizer; Matt Montgomery, bass guitar/piano/composer; Gregory Howe, guitar/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ composer.

The Throttle Elevator Music group has returned, arriving at their Final Floor, and presenting music recorded from 2011 through 2014 and embellished in 2019 and 2020.  Here is a group of musicians, exploring the creative limits of their talent, when they were much younger and quite exploratory. They open with a composition called “Supralimininal Space” that delves into synthesized music and improvisational considerations.  Track 2, titled “Caste Off” is a smooth jazz production fueled by funk drums and a melody promoted by a free-wheeling saxophone.  “Daggerboard” is an ethereal arrangement, a sultry ballad, infused with synthesizer effects.  Much of this album is the product of the digital age in music, with the musicians and engineers sitting behind the scenes for hours, infusing synthesized sounds and computer techniques into this production.  Throttle Elevator Music grows each song, starting out with a melody and building upon each theme.  You will experience songs blossoming into a crescendo of creativity.  This project is both uniquely introspective and experimental.  It’s flush with memories of another time in the lives of these musicians.  Jump on board and take the Throttle Elevator music up to their “Final Floor.” 

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DAN BONSANTI AND THE 14 JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “CARTOON BEBOP” – Dabon Music LLC

RHYTHM SECTION:  Peter Erskine, Mike Harvey, Jack Ciano & Lee Levin, drums; Richard Bravo, percussion; Mark Egan, fretless elec. bass; Tim Smith & Nick Orta, elec. bass; Jamie Ousley & Matt Bonelli, upright bass; Lindsey Blair, electric & acoustic guitar; Randy Bernsen, elec. guitar; Mike Levine, piano/keyboards; Kemuel Roig, keyboard; WOODWINDS: Ed Maina, alto saxophone/alto flute/piccolo; Ed Calle, tenor & soprano saxophone/flutes/clarinet; Neal Bonsanti, oboe/English horn/clarinet/flutes; Tom Timko, tenor saxophone/flute; Peter Brewer, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/flute. TRUMPETS: Brett Murphey, Jason Carder & Cisco Dimas.  TROMBONES: Dana Teboe & Major Batley. Dan Bonsanti, tuba emulation. Dan Bonsanti, producer/arranger.

Arranger/producer, Dan Bonsanti, offers us a contemporary, but very ‘swinging’ take on jazz compositions by modern jazz masters, presented by The 14 Jazz Orchestra.  Bandleader, Bonsanti, is a saxophone plyer with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree earned at the University of Miami.  He has performed with some very famous bands like the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Orchestra and with the Doc Severinsen band.  He’s also worked with a plethora of iconic names including Nat Adderley, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jimmy Cobb, Bob James, Dave Liebman and Barbra Streisand.  From 1976 to 1990, Dan Bonsanti was Associate Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Miami.  He explained how this orchestra came together in the press package.

“I spent countless hours listening to music across a wide spectrum of styles to choose the music for this project.  I wanted tunes that I felt would stand up to repeated listening.  In fact, I listened to each song on this album by different artists at least 100 times before I felt it had enough color, passion and energy to engage the listener,” Bonsanti shared.

They open with the title tune, a solid swing number that Bonsanti composed, based loosely on two of his childhood cartoon characters, Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Cleverly, he uses piccolo and tuba to represent the characters and adds Charlie Parker flavor and Thelonious Monk motifs throughout.  This number features the awesome talents of Peter Erskine, Ed Calle, Jason Carder and Ed Maina.  Bonsanti engaged musicians from around the country to participate in this project.

“My goal is NOT to sound like a big band,” he expressed. “I like the lightness and colors you can get with less instrumentation.  I prefer to get orchestral flavors by mixing instruments from different sections of the band.  It allows for a softer, more fluid and less strident sound,” the composer arranger dissected his work.

He has arranged the music of Wayne Shorter (Infant Eyes), Chick Corea’s “Duende” and “Got A Match?” also Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’.”  The contemporary jazz arrangements reflect the brilliance of these American jazz composers and represent a younger era of jazz music.  On “I’m All Smiles” the orchestra waltzes through this arrangement and features Mike Levine on piano and Ed Maina on flute.  This is followed by a straight-ahead arrangement that rips through my listening room like a speeding locomotive. Titled, “Got a Match,” it features Ed Maina who shows off his skills on piccolo and Ed Calle shines brightly on tenor saxophone.  Lee Levin is spectacular on drums and Nicky Orta takes a notable electric bass solo.  The orchestra fires us up on this one!  “Driftin’,” squeezes the blues out of their melodic arrangement, while “When I Look in your Eyes” is a sexy, smokey ballad.  Each song included pulls out a rich array of emotions and the lovely arrangements by Bonsanti give perfect platforms for amazing soloists to take wing and fly. “A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet” closes this production out in a spectacular way!  I hear shades of “Night Train” and “Blues in the Night” with Lindsey Blair’s guitar soaring. This closing tune is pure pleasure.

Sadly, during the production of this album, woodwind players, Mark Colby and jazz icon, Ira Sullivan both passed away in august of 2020.  Dan Bonsanti tributes them on the CD jacket of this project. They both made unforgettable impacts on the Florida jazz community and their legacy will be celebrated worldwide.

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SYLWESTER OSTROWSKI & JAZZ FORUM TALENTS – JAMMIN’ WITH KC – Agora Records

Sylwester Ostrowski, saxophone; Kacper Smolinski, harmonica; Tomasz Chyla, violin; Maciej Kadziela, alto saxophone; Jakub ‘Mizer’ Mizeracki, guitar; Kasia Pietrzko, piano; Dominique Sanders, bass; Eric Allen, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Bobby Watson & Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Royal Chief, rapper; Laura Taglialatela, vocals; Daniel Hogans, drums.

This album is the result of a trip made in February of 2020 to Kansas City from Warsaw, Poland. Woodwind player, Sylwester Ostrowski was part of that expedition.  Just before the announcement of a worldwide pandemic infected the Earth, he and his musical friends came to Kansas City to celebrate the 100th birthday and music of Charlie Parker.  Ostrowski and his band of fellow musicians were selected at last year’s Jazz Forum Showcase and sponsored by Ostrowski’s organization, Szczecin Jazz.  That’s why they call themselves the Jazz Forum Talents. In fact, the accomplished tenor player, composer, producer and bandleader has earned the city of Szczecin, his hometown, the label, “Jazz Capital of Poland.”  Sylwester Ostrowski is also the ‘Honorary Ambassador of Szczecin City. Eager to seek out all the historical information on the iconic Charlie Parker, the Polish bandmates spent a wild week checking-out Parker’s grave, a visit to his childhood home, touring Jazz District 18th Street and Vine, visiting the American Jazz Museum and jamming with local musicians at various local nightclubs.  They had one day off.  This album is the result of that one, illustrious day, where they gathered at ‘Make Believe Studio’ in Omaha, Nebraska.  This album is a recording of that spontaneous get together.

Kansas City is quite famous for its bar-b-que, consequently the first two songs on this album celebrate that legacy with songs titled “Burnt Ends” and “Burnt Ends (Welcome to Kansas City).  Both titles reference the famed dish served at Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City called Burnt Ends.  Track 1 is a funk-based, contemporary tune featuring both Sylwester Ostrowski and Maciej Kadziela on saxophones.  The first tune is expanded on Track 2 with electronics and electronic effects, then adding rapper, Royal Chief.  Track 3 is a ballad.  Enter Tomasz Chyla on violin and special guest, Logan Richardson on alto saxophone.  The famed tune, “Donna Lee” features an impressive solo by guitarist, Jakub “Mizer” Mizeracki with Ostrowski soaking up the solo spotlight on his saxophone.  “Chief’s Kingdom” features the great Bobby Watson on alto saxophone as another special guest.  This composition was inspired by the hymn of Kansas City’s football team.  The Polish musicians experienced the city’s joyous celebration for their Super Bowl triumph during their visit last year.  “Dog’s Ducks” is a tune that showcases Kacper Smolinski on harmonica and “Once in Omaha” allows a mad alto saxophone duel between Maciek Kadziela and Logan Richardson.  “Confirmation” swings hard and Bobby Watson is back to get a piece of this familiar arrangement.  All in all, here is an interesting and adventurous blending of cultures and talents.  It just proves, from the Mid-Western United States to the European city of Szczecin, jazz reigns! 

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COWBOYS & FRENCHMEN – “OUR HIGHWAY” – Outside In Music

Ethan Helm, alto saxophone/flute; Owen Broder, alto & baritone saxophones; Addison Frei, piano; Ethan O’Reilly, bass; Matt Honor, drums.

http://www.cowboysandfrenchmen.com/our-highway

The premise of this album is stringing together original compositions that represent the view of endless highway as the “Cowboys & Frenchmen” group gazed through the windows of their touring mini-van. Their music represents the nomadic life of touring musicians with tunes like: “American Whispers: Pines” and “Alice in Promisedland” inspired by Alice Coltrane. This is one of my favorite tunes on the album and liberally features Addison Frei’s piano talents and Ethan O’Reilly’s big bass sound.  Broder’s saxophone and Helm’s flute soar, brightly coloring the music.  Other compositions include the American Whispers theme, featuring “Streams – An Old Church” where the flute and saxophone chase each other around my listening room. Matt Honor is deliberate and outstanding on drums, offering serous support to Frei’s piano improv.  This is followed by “Gig Life – American Whispers: Mountains.”   A song called, “Where is Your Wealth” will be released as a video ‘single’ on January 26th.   A video album is scheduled to premiere February 26, 2021, to celebrate the landscapes and byways that connect America’s states, towns and cities.  Woodwind player, Ethan Helm has composed all the accompanying music.  He is one of the co-founders of this group along with Owen Broder. 

The inspiration for the band’s name comes from a short film by David Lynch.  It was a Western with a somewhat left-field interpretation of the classic genre of Cowboy movies, replacing the Indian part of Cowboys & Indian movies with the concept of ‘Frenchmen’.   Owen Broder and Ethan Helm, both saxophonists, hope that their music interprets this mindset by planting one foot into modern jazz and the other into straight-ahead; one hand beating the pulse of contemporary and fusion expression and the other hand wrapped around classical and traditional jazz concepts. This music, by New York City-based Cowboys & Frenchmen group, offers a new take on instrumentation, composition and orchestration for the jazz quintet.  Like many jazz groups today, these musicians have added a new dimension to their concerts by incorporating video expression. 

“For us, the traveling is not separate from the art.  It’s all part of one lifestyle.  Jazz musicians are really lucky because our art form allows us to place a frame around a snapshot in time.  The music is always in motion, which is a special quality that we want to highlight with “Our Highway,” Helms muses.

The accompanying film was made before the horrendous COVID pandemic, when the group was hustling from club to club; gig to gig.  It recalls what it was like in their musical life before the lockdown that has kept most venues dark for over a year.  Their music is rich with improvisation, imagination and incorporates the individual talents of five gifted musicians who challenge us with brilliant technique and exciting, creative solos that build upon inspired arrangements.

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JAZZY DUETS AND INTRIGUING QUARTETS

January 12, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 12, 2021

LUKE SELLICK & ANDREW RENFROE – “SMALL VACATION” – Independent Label

Luke Sellick, bass; Andrew Renfroe, guitar.

“Hills of Mexico” is a traditional American folk song, often played by banjo and made quite famous by Roscoe Holcomb.  Holcomb was born in 1912 and was a popular Appalachian musician.  It’s interesting to hear his rendition of this song and then to enjoy the smooth jazz sounding arrangement by Luke Sellick and Andrew Renfroe.  This creative production of Country/Western popular music transforms folksy songs into an updated jazz style.

Their duo also transports pop and rock tunes through a musical and unique time machine, offering us creative arrangements and jazzy instrumental techniques.  You will hear Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” song in a freshly painted way, with a colorful bass solo by Sellick.  Petty was the lead singer of the Heartbreakers in his early career.  The Sellick and Renfroe arrangement is easy-listening jazz.  They also tackle Neil Young’s popular “Tell Me Why” tune.  Canadian/American, Neil Young, was often referred to as a rock-a-billy guitarist and songwriter.  In the early seventies, he was also an activist and was an important part of the Crosby, Stills and Nash group.

Sellick and Renfroe get down and dirty on “Someday Baby” by Mississippi Fred McDowell.  He was an African-American bluesman who once coached Bonnie Raitt on how to play the slide guitar.  Mississippi Fred was pleased when The Rolling Stones included one of his original songs (“You Gotta Move”) on their ‘Sticky Fingers’ album.  I think he would be just as pleased at Renfroe and Sellick’s arrangement of his old blues song, “Someday Baby.” This duo also takes Dolly Parton’s hit song, “Jolene” to another level.

“Small Vacation” is this duo’s first album as a duet and it reveals their unique way of revitalizing some country/pop/rock songs of yesteryear into new, jazzy, easy listening arrangements.  They close with a wonderful reflection on Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” composition.   Jazz musician, Russell Malone, wrote the liner notes for this production.  He said, “sit back and enjoy.  You will not be disappointed,” and he was absolutely right.

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THE GENERATIONS QUARTET – “INVITATION” – Independent label

Dave Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones; Billy Test, piano; Evan Gregor, bass; Ian Froman, drums.

https://bethlehem.jazznearyou.com/billy-test-trio-at-17-00-on-february-23?width=1024

Recorded live at the Deer Head Inn, in Pennsylvania, The Generations Quartet opens with one of my favorite jazz tunes by Herbie Hancock, “Maiden Voyage.”   Excitingly, the members of this quartet represent three different generations of musicians.  This is their debut album and it captures the seamless merging of these generations into a very stellar package.  The young, talented pianist, Billy Test, won second place in the 2017 Montreux Jazz Pianist Competition.  Although he’s barely out of his twenties, Billy Test plays with high energy and brilliant technique.   He double-majored in jazz and classical piano and earned a Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.  He toured with Jaimoe Johanson, drummer with the Allman Brother’s Band.  They toured together for three years.  Test also worked with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and the New York-based Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. 

The group’s bassist, Evan Gregor, first met Dave Liebman when he was attending high school and the seasoned woodwind player became one of Gregor’s mentors. The bass player attended Berklee School of music and in 2007, Liebman hired him to join a quartet gig where they were playing standard jazz tunes.  This was around the same time, Billy Test was studying for his Master’s degree, with Liebman and Markowitz, at the Manhattan School of Music. 

Finally, there was the addition of drummer, Ian Froman, who was once a student of the great Elvin Jones and has a thirty-year working relationship with the elder statesman of jazz, Dave Liebman.  Liebman is iconic for his work with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Elvin Jones a half century ago.  This explains the group’s name, The Generations Quartet.

Theirs is the kind of jazz I live for.  Their music is straight-ahead, energy impacted and seriously innovative.  Dave Liebman is always a joy to listen to, with his exploratory approach to the music and his mastery of both tenor and soprano saxophones.  They play songs we know and love on this debut album including “Invitation” and “My Foolish Heart,” John Coltrane’s “Village Blues” and Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays”.  The tried-and-true “Bye Bye Blackbird” song has a new face in the way that these musicians perform it.  They make me freshly appreciate this song with their unique and admirable musicianship.  I know this composition, like I know the back of my hand, but this band absolutely reconstructs it in a wonderful way.   Here is an album high on my list of best music for 2021, even though the year has just begun.

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QUARTETTE OBLIQUE – MICHAEL STEPHANS, DAVID LIEBMAN, MARC COPLAND & DREW GRESS – Sunnyside Label

Michael Stephans, drums; David Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute; Marc Copland, piano; Drew Gress, bass.

Here is another example of the genius and fluid beauty of David Liebman on tenor saxophone. Master drummer and one of the executive producers of this session, Michael Stephans, described this project in his liner notes.

“What can I possibly say about my musical brother, Dave Liebman, that hasn’t been said before?  He is arguably the living embodiment of the jazz art.  Saxophonist, flautist, pianist, drummer, composer, it’s all there inside one person.  To play with Lieb and other great New York musicians is one of the reasons my wife and I moved East from the West Coast.  I was an avid fan way before actually meeting him in 2004,” Michael explained.

Stephans originally recorded with David Liebman in 2005 on his CD, “OM/ShalOM” along with the great Bennie Maupin, another iconic woodwind master.  On this more recent production, performed before a live audience, they kick off the set with the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Nardis.”  Liebman flies like a graceful eagle and Marc Copland takes a stellar solo on piano.

“Marc Copland’s music has been part of my life for at least 20-years,” Michael Stephans shares. …  “I first heard him back in the early 70’s in Washington DC at a jazz club called Childe Harold.  He was playing electric piano. …I never forgot how great Marc sounded and how much I hoped to have the opportunity to play with him someday.  His exquisite touch on the acoustic instrument and his harmonic sensibilities place him in a class by himself as a creative improvising artist.”

I enjoyed Marc’s ingenuity on track 2, “Vertigo.”  It’s a moody, melodic, ballad composed by John Abercrombie, that gives Copland an opportunity to show off his splendid technique and unique love affair with the piano.  Drenched in classical nuances and propelled by an exploratory right hand, Copland builds the tension and power of the song, along with the capable drum support of Stephans.

“To me, the most important person in any rhythm section is the bassist.  As a drummer, I may provide the zing, bang, boom; however, if the bassist is not happening, then a group’s resiliency can easily evaporate.  Drew Gress brings something uniquely personal to this music.  He has a big heart, a beautiful sound and is totally present and in the moment each time we play together,” Michael Stephans praised the bass player in their group.

You can hear the beauty and thoughtfulness of Drew Gress’s bass playing during “In A Sentimental Mood” and throughout this recording.  He knows how to lock-in and hold the rhythm tightly in place with Michael Stephans, but he’s also a sensitive and outstanding bass soloist.

They play “All Blues” at a super-speed, that gives Michael Stephans an opportunity to stretch out on the trap drums and match the intensity and excitement that David Liebman always brings to the bandstand. It was quite amazing to hear.  Stephans also explores a creative drum solo.

“Quartette Oblique exemplifies what the Native American Ojibwe people call, ‘mizeweyaa’ or a coming together of different elements to form a unification – a convergence of feelings, ideas, rituals.  In other words, human beings moving into an often mystical-oneness,” Michael summed up the group’s production.

Heaven knows we need more oneness in the world.  From the crazy, mad applause of their audience, I gather that during this awesome musical concert, a single and pleasing joy of spirit was absolutely present and shared by all.   

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MARTY ELKINS & MIKE RICHMOND – “TIS AUTUMN” – Elktone Records

Marty Elkins, vocals; Mike Richmond, bass/cello.

On “In A Mellow Tone” Marty Elkins shows that she is a sincere jazz singer by vocally horn-scatting her way through an improvisational solo without echoing the Ellington/Gabler melody.  I’ve heard a number of fledgling jazz vocalists, who call themselves scat singers, but make the mistake of repeating the melody without the lyrics.  Marty Elkins is no such novice.  She knows that scatting across chord changes is meant as a discovery project for improvisers, prospective composers and in-tune artists.  The idea is to find freedom in re-establishing a fresh melody and with a different song perspective.  Impressively, Elkins does just that.

Mike Richmond is a master on his 170-year-old Tyrolean bass and his 120-year-old Czechoslovakian cello.  He is a seasoned bassist who once replaced Charles Mingus in the Mingus Dynasty group.  He participated in the Miles Davis and Quincy Jones collaborative during their Montreux, Switzerland jazz concert.  He has accompanied a wide arch of vocalists from pop to folk; straight-ahead jazz to Avant-garde.  These include the great Eddie Jefferson, Mark Murphey, Janis Siegel, Chet Baker, Bette Midler, Lainie Kazan, Sheila Jordan, Engelbert Humperdinck and Richie Havens, to list just a few. 

He and Elkins met half a dozen years ago, when she sat in on a gig he was playing. Richmond is an educator in bass technique with a method book published and a deep love for music.  Elkins is a vocalist who has been singing since the 1980s and has a huge following in New York City.  Sometimes her phrasing reminds me of Lena Horne and Billie Holiday combined, although tonally she sounds like neither.  Together they have picked songs popular as far back as 1926.  An example of this is “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” and jazz standards like “All of Nothing at All” that was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1939 and released in 1944.  The songs are old, but well established. 

It’s certainly a challenge to present an album with no rhythm section and only the bass to establish the rhythm and the foundation of what Marty Elkins builds upon.   Her voice become the melody keeper and focal point of the music.  The bass becomes the rhythm and the root of the chords.  With only these two musicians, there’s not much left to do with arrangements.  On the Red Robin tune, Elkins did trade fours with the Richmond bass and the duet exhibits great timing and no pitch problems.  After the first couple of tunes, I just kept feeling how Marty Elkins and Mike Richmond would have benefitted from the addition of a full group of musicians or even a string ensemble.  Richmond tried over-dubbing, but that just wasn’t enough to fill up the empty spaces.  On “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” Elkins’ voice sparkles with genuine, blues believability.  While I admire this duo for their creative endeavor and acknowledge their strong, jazz sensibilities and extraordinary individual talents, I wish they had added full orchestration or even a jazz trio to this production for at least five of these ten songs.  I think that would have greatly elevated their unique and creative musical offering.

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KASPERI SARIKOSKI – “3 + 1” – Outside In Music

Kasperi Sarikoski, trombone/composer; Simon Willson, bass; Francesco Ciniglio, drums; Christian Li, piano.

Trombonist, Kasperi Sarikoski, has composed all the music on this “3 + 1” album.  With just bass, drums and trombone, this trio plus one creates an open and compelling sound.  Sarikoski uses the quality bass of Simon Willson and the drums of Francesco Ciniglio to create a basement for his trombone to build upon.  On the composition, “Birchwood,” without guitar or piano instruments to root the track, there is an openness to the arrangement that encourages freedom in their musical movements.   As the bass solos, Sarikoski’s trombone creates descants with his horn melodies.  On track 5, Christian Li joins the trio on piano.  The trombone sounds as if it is announcing the arrival of royalty at some distant king’s castle.  I enjoyed the addition of piano, but it’s only on this one song titled, “Onward and Upward.”  Track 6 returns to the open concept and features the drum talents of Francesco Ciniglio, who creatively slips his rhythm patterns and solos into the fabric of this music. Unusually, the “Intro to Such Sweet Sorrow” is longer than the song itself, but very beautifully played by Sarikoski and group.  The tune, “Wide Lanes” is straight-ahead jazz and they have included two takes of this very upbeat composition.  This is an intriguing musical exploration that features the unique instrumentation of trombone, bass and drums, with the one exception of adding a piano on track five.  

Kasperi Sarikoski has created a distinctive and enjoyable sound that initiates fresh arrangement-possibilities in the jazz idiom.

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LARRY NEWCOMB QUARTET featuring JAKE NEWCOMB – “LOVE, DAD” – Essential Messenger

Larry Newcomb, guitar/composer; Dave Marsh, drums; Thomas Royal, piano; Jake Newcomb, bass.

This is Larry Newcomb’s third album as a leader.  He mixes six of his original songs with four well appreciated jazz standards on this production and is joined by his son, Jake Newcomb on bass, Dave Marsh on drums and Thomas Royal on piano.  They open with “You Stepped Out of a Dream” where the quartet swings hard.  Thomas Royal celebrates the moment during a noteworthy piano solo.

Guitarist, Larry Newcomb started his career in music as a rocker working in both rock and pop bands including backing up Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and vocalist, Leslie Gore.  It was during his study at the University of Maine that he became infatuated with jazz after hearing Jim Hall and Ron Carter’s duo album, “Alone Together.”

“When I heard that I said, that’s what I want to do!” Larry Newcomb expressed emphatically.

One of the senior Newcomb’s heroes was Grant Green.  He pays tribute to Green on the final track of this album.  Larry Newcomb explained:

“When I got to New York in 1999, I was transcribing a lot of Grant Green, including ‘The Song is You’, but I was also inspired by hearing Stan Getz play this song.  Later, I had a trio that played brunch for 17-years at ‘The Garage’ and we frequently played this tune.  I’m fascinated by it,” he reminisced.

They play the Jerome Kern song at a thrilling, up-tempo speed.  The title tune, “Love, Dad” is written for and dedicated to Newsome’s three sons.  It’s based on the chord changes of “Stella By Starlight.”  I enjoyed their arrangement of “Secret Agent Man,” a tribute to Sean Connery who originally played the part of 007 in that film series.  Every arrangement on this album is smoothly delivered by the quartet and features Larry Newcomb’s well cultivated style and mastery of his guitar.  

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MIKE SCOTT – “COLLECTING THINGS” – Independent label

Mike Scott, guitar/composer; Joe Bagg, piano/organ; Darek Oles, bass; Jake Reed, drums.

Mike Scott, opens this project with a composition called “Sol Minor Prelude,” playing solo and introducing us to his mastery of guitar in a beautiful way.  It’s a two-minute, fifteen-second glimpse into the mind and talent of this guitarist/composer.  I have always loved the clarity and tone of a nylon string guitar.  Scott brings out the best of this instrument.  The concept, explained in his press package, is that this composition grew out of the third open string on the guitar, tuned to a G.  Scott began to experiment with various harmonies to that one G note, which led him to a series of chord progressions, with the open G string ringing throughout the piece.  The result is a fascinating and relaxing concept.

Most of the music on this Mike Scott recording is laid-back and peaceful.  His guitar tone has a soothing, hypnotic effect. On Track 2, Scott is joined by his rich, Southern California trio of A-list musicians. Joe Bagg switches from organ to piano on various tracks.  His light, improvised touch adds much to Track 2, “Sol Minor.”  Darek Oles sets the time and groove on his bass when they play “Now and Later.”  Oles offers us an inspired solo on this tune, while Mike Scott shows off his deep classical roots throughout. 

“Classical guitar playing involves extensive use of your right hand.  Each finger plays a different sound, allowing you to control the dynamics and expressive quality of each note individually,” Mike Scott explains.

On “Jack’s Dilemma” you hear Scott’s blues roots creeping through.  You cannot be an extraordinary jazz player if you can’t play the blues.  Bagg brings his organ chops to this arrangement.  The funky drive of Jake Reed pushes the music forward on drums.  Reed is brightly featured on Track 5, “Boom Diddle It” with the staccato introduction by the band, letting the drums shine.  Mike Scott swings hard on this tune and bassist Darek Oles gets a big piece of the action.  This becomes one of my favorite songs and arrangements on this production, along with the familiar “On A Clear Day” that features a wonderful and creative bass line that runs through their arrangement, glistening like a gold thread.

The compositions and band presentation on Mike Scott’s “Collecting Things” album are both strong and entertaining.  Every tune is well-played and the musicians richly improvise and support Scott’s lyrical compositions in the best possible way.  Most importantly, Mike Scott shines as a composer, arranger and guitarist, like the jewels in a king’s crown.

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THE JUSTIN ROTHBERG GROUP – “HURRICANE MOUSE” – Independent Label

Justin Rothberg, guitar/mandolin; Todd Groves, tenor & soprano saxophones/flutes/melodica; Jon Price, bass; Hiroyuki Matsuura, drums; Andy O’Neill, percussion.

If you are prone to a more contemporary jazz excursion, sail over to the Justin Rothberg Group.  With Hiroyuki Matsuura laying down funky drum licks, along with Don Price on electric bass and Andy O’Neill adding percussion, they create strong tracks to support the solo work of both Justin Rothberg and woodwind player, Todd Groves.  Group leader, Rothberg, has composed all the songs except for one by Bob James, “Piece of Mind.” Their arrangement of this Bob James composition features Todd Groves and was quite entertaining, using various effects and melodica.   Justin Rothberg has a good sense of songwriting.  However, more than once his improvisational development veered off the melodic path during his guitar solos.  He’s a strong composer and colorful, rhythm guitar player.  My question is, does he need more focus on his blazing guitar improv techniques?  His arrangement on “Hotel Show Repeat” sounds very East Indian and gives Todd Groves an opportunity to introduce us to his flute talents.  Jon Price offers an energetic bass solo that dances across the solid drum rhythms of Matsuura.  I enjoyed the addition of Rothberg on mandolin.  Track 5, “Bad Apple” starts out sounding very bluesy but quickly changes directions and becomes a reggae arrangement.  These two tunes issue in a more world-music approach to Rothberg’s production.  “South Beach Banjo” is a shuffle blues that invites all the players to get loose and take advantage of solos full of freedom and fun.   Track 7, “Tom G” goes back to a smooth jazz characterization of their music. Here is a group that obviously can play many styles and genres of music and jazz, with emphasis on fusion.  This album reflects their wealth of talent, versatility and innovation, provoked by Justin Rothberg’s well-written compositions and an obvious love of what they do. 

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In closing this column, I am adding a group slightly larger than a quartet for all of you Avant-garde music lovers.

JUNK MAGIC – PSEUDONYM FOR CRAIG TABORN – “COMPASS CONFUSION” – Pyroclastic Records

Craig Taborn, piano/keyboards/synthesizer/producer/composer; Chris Speed, saxophone; Erik Fratzke, bass; Mat Maneri, viola; David King, drums.

If you are a music lover looking for repetitive, Avant-garde, experimental music, the Junk Magic group plays just that.  For more than a decade, Junk Magic has been honing a collective sound that relies on individual expressions, imagination and subversion.  Inspired by pianist/composer Craig Taborn, Junk Magic has transitioned into a sonic identity of electronic sound design, production techniques and elements of improvised music.  Says Taborn:

“You’re still trying to capture things in a moment; in a certain sense.  But then also, because of how the process works, you’re not.  There’s a lot of time to craft things after the fact.”

When I listen to this “Compass Confusion” album, I am transported to space, in an eerie setting of an empty space ship, with just the creepy sounds of silence and the groans and moans of wind and weather against hard steel.  This music places me in a strange state of being.

“There are different methods of attending compositionally.  If I were writing a traditional tune, it would be melody and some chord changes.  If I were writing a hip hop track, I would focus more on beats, loops and sound design.  If I were writing strictly ambient music, I would focus on the sound relationships; how the shapes are evolving with certain sonic elements.  On a lot of these pieces, I’m really playing with the foreground and background of all those things,” Craig Taborn explains.

This journalist gets bored quickly with repetitive loops and sounds.  It’s kind of like listening to the drip, drip of a leaking faucet in a perfectly quiet room.  Eventually you want to get up and call a plumber. 

NOTE:    The video posted with this review is from an earlier album release of Junk Magic.  I could not locate a more recent video to represent the Compass Confusion album.

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NEW YEAR! NEW MUSIC FOR 2021

January 2, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 2, 2021

DIANA KRALL – “THIS DREAM OF YOU” –  Verve Records

Diana Krall, piano/vocals; John Clayton Jr., Tony Garnier & Christian McBride, bass; Jeff Hamilton & Karriem Riggins, drums; Anthony Wilson, Russell Malone & Marc Ribot, guitar; Stuart Duncan, fiddle; Alan Broadbent, piano; Randall Krall, accordion; STRING SECTION: VIOLINS: Charles Bisharat, Mario DeLeon, Kevin Connolly, Neel Hammond, Tamara Hatwan, Natalie Leggett, Songa Lee, Katia Popov, Michele Richards, Kathleen Sloan, Marcy Vaj, Ina Veli & John Wittenberg. VIOLA: Andrew Duckles, Kathryn Reddish, Colleen Sugata & Michael Whitson; CELLO: Jodi Burnett, Alisha Bauer, Jennifer Kuhn & Cello Soloist: Vanessa Freebairn-Smith. CONCERTMASTER: Joel Derouin.

Her husky voice glides across the space like a lovely bird in flight singing, “But Beautiful.”  Diana Krall has a way of inviting you into the story of her song lyrics, as if she’s your best friend, whispering secrets across the table as you both sip drinks.  Her all-star band is complimented by a full string ensemble.  Track two features another sincere delivery on “That’s All” that shows her vulnerability vocally, while showcasing her jazzy piano playing.  On these first two songs her rhythm section is composed of John Clayton jr. on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums and Anthony Wilson on guitar.  Then comes “Autumn in New York” arranged with Russell Malone on guitar and Christian McBride on bass. The flavor of the rhythm section changes.  During the first part of this tune, Diana Krall steps away from the piano and her voice soars.  Then, the string ensemble joins them.  The guitar solo by Russell Malone is stunning.  On Track 4, “Almost Like Being in Love” the pace picks up a wee bit with a shuffle rhythm.  Jeff Hamilton is back on drums and John Clayton Jr. mans the bass. During this arrangement, Diana Krall’s piano excellence takes the opportunity to stretch out and show-off her technical talents.  On “More Than You Know” Ms. Krall is joined by the iconic Alan Broadbent on piano.  She introduces us to the verse that prefaces this familiar American Standard tune and once again sells the song.  This is an album perfect to play during a romantic evening by a roaring fireplace or cuddling beneath the covers.  On Track 6., “Just You, Just Me” she once again switches up the players.  Now Tony Garnier is on bass, pumping the rhythm and locking in with Karriem Riggins on drums.  Marc Ribot is on guitar and a very country/Western sounding fiddle player named Stuart Duncan is featured.  Drummer Riggins takes stage center during this arrangement and is given ample time to solo and trades fours, displaying his chops.

Diana Krall pays tribute to Nina Simone’s historic song, “Don’t Smoke in Bed” as a duo piece featuring Alan Broadbent on piano.  Another duo she includes on this project is one with bass master, John Clayton Jr., on “I Wished on the Moon,” a straight-ahead piece where both musicians excel at doing what they do best.  The title tune, “This Dream of You,” is very folksy and it’s an odd fit with the jazz theme of this album.  It’s got a pretty melody and would have made a nice jazz waltz arrangement or even a rot-gut blues.  Instead, Krall stepped out of the realms of a jazz album and into a Country/Western, folksy production.  For me, it compromises the theme of this album.  Another disappointment was “How Deep Is the Ocean,” enhanced by mallets on the drums.  The muted rhythm sets a sultry mood, but then, to my surprise, Krall takes liberties with this breathtakingly beautiful melody.  Her arrangement moves so far from the original melody that it really becomes a new tune with the same lyrics. I found this very disappointing, because it destroyed the original beauty of Irving Berlin’s lovely composition.  On the whole, this is an easy listening, well-produced experience, with the exciting assistance of some of the best jazz names in the business, as well as a lovely string ensemble.  Diana Krall’s accomplished piano playing and sultry, singing style are always an entertaining and exploratory experience.

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MIGUEL ZENON AND LUIS PERDOMO – “EL ARTE DEL BOLERO” – Miel Music

Miquel Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano.

In September of 2020, during the raging pandemic that took so many innocent lives worldwide, Miguel Zenon picked up his alto saxophone and joined pianist, Luis Perdomo to record a concert at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.  That concert was livestreamed in November and this album release is the result of that amazingly beautiful music played to an empty space, with all the heartfelt emotion that these two iconic musicians could muster.   The song “Como fue” opens this artistic experience.  Their interpretation of this song stopped me in my tracks and made me sit quietly and listen to this entire album.  It was a spellbinding experience.  Track two, titled “Alma Adentro” is another pretty ballad that is caressed and cradled in the bell of Miguel Zenon’s horn.  The piano of Luis Perdomo is equally brilliant, not only adding spice and support during his accompaniment, but additionally expanding on their theme and improvising freely during his solo. 

I found sweet solace in this music.  During a time of such drama and trauma, it was wonderful to hear comfort music that was not only beautifully performed, but also music that offers tranquility and peace.  Miquel’s tone on his alto saxophone is smooth and soothing. He balances contradictory poles of jazz innovation with Latin tradition. Luis Perdomo’s piano playing is rich with emotion.  Every song on this duo production is entertaining and technically astute.  Clearly these are two master musicians.  Settle back in your favorite lounge chair and enjoy.  The digital-only release will be available January 8, 2021.

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HENRY ROBINETT – “JAZZ STANDARDS, VOL. 2: THEN AGAIN” – Nefertiti Records

Henry Robinett, guitar; Joe Gilman, piano; Chris Symer, bass; Michael Stephans, drums.

Henry Robinett has a light, precise touch on his guitar strings.  His bebop style skips along at a brisk pace on their opening number, “Yours Is My Heart Alone.”  It’s a great way to open this album and to introduce us to the players.  Joe Gilman steps into the spotlight with a bright, intriguing piano solo.  Michael Stephans, an extraordinary drummer, keeps the pace solidified and ever-moving.  He ‘trades fours’ with Gilman and Robinett, showing off his technical skills and strength.  Back in 2020, I enjoyed and reviewed the first release of Robinett’s 20-year-old recording project that he called “Jazz Standards, Vol. 1.”  At the time of this recording project, Henry Robinett was working as an engineer at ‘The Hangar’, a recording studio in Sacramento.  The quartet managed to record enough material in two days to create two volumes of exceptional music.  Although Robinett has gone on to make his mark as more of an electric jazz player, when he re-listened to these dynamite tracks, Henry recognized the brilliance and beauty he had overlooked in his younger years. 

“After listening to it again, after so many years, I like it.  I think it stands up well and shows another side to my playing,” Robinett explained in his press package.

Henry Robinett is not only a jazz guitarist, bandleader, composer and artist, but he’s also an educator.  He’s been in love with the guitar since age thirteen.  His diverse and extremely different musical influences were Jimi Hendrix and Charles Mingus, who was his father’s first cousin.  When Robinett isn’t performing, you may find him teaching in Vienna, Austria at the American Institute of Music or on the faculty of the University of the Pacific and Consumnes River College.

As a lover of ‘swing’ and bebop, I am drawn to Henry Robinett’s music like a fish to water.  I find a comfort level swimming in his clearly defined melodies and soaking up his rich improvisations.  The songs this quartet offers are mostly familiar and range from a swinging arrangement of “On the Street Where You Live” to the sexy ballad, “Body and Soul.”  They swing “Like Someone in Love” and shuffle through “Milestones.”  Every tune becomes a favorite and each arrangement is brilliantly highlighted by the gold-plated excellence of these musicians.

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RODERICK HARPER – “EVOLVING” – R. H. M. Entertainment, Inc.

Roderick Harper, vocals; Oscar Rossignoli, piano/percussion; Shea Pierre, Jesse Davis & Ellis Marsalis, piano; Robin Sherman, Roland Guerin & Amina Scott, bass; Chris Guccione, Gerald Watkins, Geoff Clapp & Jamison Ross, drums; Donald Harrison, saxophone; Thomas Dawson, string arrangement; Roderick Paulin, soprano saxophone; John Jones, Fender Rhodes piano.

Vocalist, Roderick Harper Muhammad, opens this album with an original composition titled “Infinite Heart” that he co-wrote with Donald Harrison.  I was unsure about this artist because of all the dissonance I heard on this first song.  Was it intentional?  Was the vocalist off pitch or were the chords strange?  But when I heard him sing, “Never Let Me Go” I had a completely different opinion of Roderick Harper Muhammad. This tune is the only one featuring the iconic Ellis Marsalis.  The Thomas Dawson string arrangement is beautiful as Harper-Muhammad pours his heart out.

When he tackled the Donny Hathaway hit record, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” he continued to make me a believer.  The man can sing.  Performing with only bass and piano, he was vocally strong.  However, I began to wish his piano accompanist had been more of a jazz pianist.  The musicians change on this recording, which also takes away from the continuity of the production and Harper-Muhammad has self-produced his project.  Sometimes an artist needs a producer to sit in the engineering booth and guide them to find the very best of themselves. That being said, the potential and vocal charm of this artist are clearly present.  He is a diamond in the rough.  But like he states in the title of this project, Roderick Harper is ‘Evolving.’ 

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TRIO GRANDE – Whirlwind Recordings

Will Vinson, saxophones/keyboards; Gilad Hekselman, guitars; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

What do you get when you mix Mexican, Israeli and British cultures into a contemporary jazz album?  It’s like a ball of colorful yarn that unravels and spins songs featuring saxophones, guitars, drums and a splattering of keyboards?  The answer is, “Trio Grande.” 

This is their debut statement and features three, inventive musicians who are working the New York music scene.  Will Vinson is British-born and plays saxophones.  Gilad Hekselman is an Israeli guitarist and Antonio Sanchez is a Mexico City native, a drummer who has been living in Queens for quite a while. Each musician is a bandleader of their own unique groups, but they come together on this recording to explore a bass-less situation.  Without a bass to ground the music, they are hoping to share a sort of musical freedom, while interjecting their diverse cultures. 

Each member is a composer.  Drummer, Sanchez composed the opening tune, “Northbound” and track 6, “Gocta,” that has a fluid, ethereal feel to it.   Hekselman’s love of song forms and melody, along with his appreciation of folk music and pop, is reflected in his composition, “Elli Yeled Tov.”  The addition of hand-claps and the isolation of instrumentation, soloing alone at first with only hand-clapping accompaniment, brings a child’s party atmosphere to mind.  I quickly learn the repetitive melody, but I notice that the rhythm patterns are more complicated than the simplistic melodic tones.  Will Vinson has composed “Oberkampf,” a brooding song with streaks of rock music threaded through the electric guitar lines.  It’s very dirge-like.  On the other side of the coin, his original song, “Upside” gives Antonio Sanchez the opportunity to play on the introduction with just his trap drums.  Once Vinson, the saxophonist enters, his composition transforms to a smooth jazz, contemporary-feel.  I found myself drawn to the song, “Firenze” by Sanchez, who takes a very melodic solo on drums. 

This is an interesting blend of cultures and music that, as Will Vinson muses:

“…The album’s magic lies in the way that so many disparate musical elements are woven together to create a coherent whole. … We’re all grounded in jazz, but all of us are also looking for other sounds and influences to bring in.”

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CARLA CAMPOPIANO – “CHICAGO/BUENOS AIRES CONNECTIONS, VOL. 11” – Independent Label

Carla Campopiano, flutes; Gustavo Cortinas, drums/percussion.

Having worked for three major record companies in the past, (United Artists/Bluenote and A&M) I know how important the cover or jacket of an album is to promotion, sales and artist development.  The artwork of Esperanza Gama certainly got my attention, with her multi-colored, decoratively painted hand on the cover of Carla Campopiano’s new CD.  Campopiano is a Chicago artist who has been blending her native Argentinean roots with jazz for several years.  On this recording she uses her flute to introduce us to several Argentine composers, sparsely using only a trio setting to explore these compositions.   It’s very South American folksy, slightly blended with jazz.  This project is dedicated lovingly to their talented vocalist, Alba Guerra, who passed away after the recording was completed. I was especially taken by her emotional delivery and interpretation of “La Pomena.” 

Carla Campopiano is a studied musician who mastered the Latin melodies and rhythms of candombe, chacarera, milonga and the tango.  She also has studied and played Middle Eastern music and found herself working with American heavy metal bands in Chicago.  As an educator, she shares her years of research into the history of tango music on a podcast that promotes Latin American artists showcasing their original music. This project invites listeners to enjoy Carla Campopiano’s warm flute talents and to be introduced to what classical music becomes when culturally combined with tangos, milongas, zambas, Argentinean composers, world music and jazz.

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AARON BURNETT & THE BIG MACHINE – “JUPITER CONJUNCT” – Fresh New Talent Label

Aaron Burnett, tenor saxophone/composer; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Carlos Homs, piano/keyboard; Nick Jozwiak, bass; Kush Abadey, drums; Esperanza Spalding, vocals.

Aaron Burnett’s album title fascinated me, because this year issues in an astrological change that hasn’t happened in twenty years.  When Jupiter and Saturn conjuncted in December, their meeting created a very bright star in the sky.  Some astrologers think that was the north star that led the wise men to baby Jesus many years ago.  On this unusual 2019 Winter Solstice occasion, this conjunction is called a Grand Mutation.  It signals a big change on Earth and for those who believe in astrology, a pathway into the Age of Aquarius.  Aaron Burnett described the album title this way:

“Jupiter Conjunct is a testament to seek and perpetuate the evolution of my consciousness and my admiration of our creator and the connection to the All through sound.”

The group opens with his ballad composition “Color Durations” that is one in nine original pieces Burnett has written for this album.  It’s meditative in feel and sound, using the piano of Carlos Homs as a catalyst that sparkles like stars on a clear night. Track 2, “The Veil,” features the close harmonies of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and Aaron Burnett on tenor saxophone.  This technique is used throughout the album.  I enjoyed the contrast during the trio performance of the Homs upper register keyboard against the rich bass sounds of Nick Jozwiak. Joel Ross adds vibraphone to the mix and its quite compelling, changing the face of the song, like adding lip gloss to a pretty model’s lovely face.  Once the mood has been set and Aaron Burnett steps into the spotlight on alto saxophone, he flushes out improvised ideas and spews his musical thoughts rigorously.  Burnett’s music is both melodic and Avant-garde.  The vocals of Esperanza Spalding, harmonizing with Burnett’s tenor sax, hooks into my ear like a gold earring.  Spalding’s scat singing enhances the production and introduces us to the melody of “Ganymede,” along with the vibes of Joel Ross, before Burnett takes over to pump the piece up on his horn.  Finally, on track 5, the song “10” races from the disc with energy and gives Kush Abedey, on drums, an opportunity to showcase his chops.  Up until this point, all the music had been pretty ‘laid back’.  I wish Abedey had put some funk into this piece or laid down sixteen or more bars of pure groove, just to lift the arrangement and let me snap my fingers to the two and four.  Sometimes ethereal is over-rated.  Aaron Burnett & the Big Machine offer an opportunity for Burnett to present his original compositions and arrangements to the world.  They repeat the song, “Ganymede” to close this album out as an alternate take.  It is one of the most interesting and charismatic songs on this project, reminding me a lot of the early art of Flora Purim with Airto Moreira. 

According to Jupiter’s conjunct status, in 2021, we are now moving into the realm of new ideas and explorations into technology.  Like the power he uses to blow his horn, we are now moving into an era propelled by the element of air.  I believe Aaron Burnett is growing into his power and talent, evolving with each new gig and every fresh composition. 

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DECEMBER ENDS THE YEAR ON A HIGH NOTE! JAZZ CD REVIEWS.

December 12, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 12, 2020

ALEX DE GRASSI RELEASES SOLO HOLIDAY VIDEO & SINGLE – Tropo Records

Guitarist Alex de Grassi has been a unique voice in the world of acoustic guitar for over four decades.  Recently he released “The Bridge” an extraordinary album of solo guitar expression.  He continues that signature sound on this single, released December 7th, in celebration of the holiday season.  His holiday single was recorded at the legendary Skywalker Sound studio in Northern California with famous engineers, Leslie Ann Jones and Steven Miller who is renowned for his work with acoustic guitarists.  Animation by Greg Browe.

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DUDUKA DA FONSECA, HELIO ALVES, NILSON MATTA – “THE BRAZILIAN TRIO – AGUAS BRASILEIRAS”- Zoho Records

Duduka Da Fonseca, drums/composer; Nilson Matta, bass/composer; Helio Alves, piano/composer.

When I hear the Brazilian trio music of Helio Alves, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca, it brightens my day.  This amazing threesome is known for performing and blending their cultural, Brazilian music with jazz in a lovely way.  They open with a song that celebrates Da Fonseca’s wife, Maucha Adner, titled, “Maucha na Praia.”  Composed by Da Fonseca, it’s quite melodic and joyful.  The Alvas piano mastery introduces us to this charming melodic samba and liberally improvises on the theme.  The second track becomes an immediate favorite of mine.  Composed by Nilson Matta and titled “Sampa 67,” it features the Matta bass during the introduction.  The bass is joined by a sparkling drum energy, then Helio’s piano dances with the melody.  This piece is a tribute to Milson Matta’s birthplace in Brazil.  I discovered that ‘Sampa’ is an abbreviation for Sao Paulo.  As the song develops, it gives space and time for each member of the trio to shine.  They often sound as if they are having casual conversations with each other instrumentally.  It’s a very intoxicating piece.  Duduka Da Fonseca is inspirational on his driving drums.  

Helio Alvas has penned “Aninha” (written for his daughter) and also their closing song, “Vila Madalena.”  This trio reinvents music from Black Orpheus with their stunning arrangement, allowing drums and bass to open the piece.  I love to hear a double bass player bow his instrument.  Matta does just that and it’s truly beautiful.  Da Fonseca’s drums propel the trilogy forward and Helio Alves dances atop the brightness on piano.  They have blended composers on this Black Orpheus trilogy of music, entertaining us in a delightful way, while featuring familiar songs by Jobim and Luiz Bonfa.  They incorporate “A Felicidade”, “Manha de Carnaval” and “Samba de Orfeu” during this medley.  The Charlie Mingus tune, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is a musical surprise package, with the solos peeling off the arrangement like brightly colored ribbons.  It’s Brazilian blues at its best.  Track 8 is a hypnotic ballad, that sooths like a lullaby.  It’s titled “Aguas Brasileiras and is written by Matta.  “Manhattan Style” is track 9, composed by Da Fonseca and leaps straight-ahead into my listening room with gusto.  It has that trademark, New York energy and is played at a speedy tempo, reminding me of meteors racing across the sky.  Like the universe itself, this music unwinds and wraps around us in a very exciting and universal way.

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GAYELYNN McKINNEY AND McKINNEY ZONE – “ZOOT SUIT FUNK” – Independent Label

Gayelynn McKinney, drums/vocals/composer; Ibrahim Jones, bass; Alex Anest, guitar; Demetrius Nabors, keyboards; Trenita Womack, vocals/percussion; Rafael Statin, tenor & soprano Saxophones/bass flute/bass clarinet.

If you love passionate, funk jazz, drummer Gayelynn McKinney has recorded just such an album.  The title is self-explanatory and the music is hot, energized, modern and melodic.  On this album, the Detroit-based musician features her own compositions and a band of musical masters who propel and infuse her arrangements.  Gayelynn’s former album was a tribute to her talented father, Harold McKinney, who was a pianist, composer, educator and bandleader until his death in 2019.  On that album, Gayelynn played all of his original compositions. 

This time around, she shines the spotlight on her own songwriting and arranging talents.  She has a wonderful sense of melody along with her gift of time as she enthusiastically compliments each composition with her drum licks. This percussive master has been playing drums since age two.  She received her Bachelor of Music degree from Oakland University, but spent most of her life rubbing her drum talents next to Detroit masters like Teddy Harris, Ralph Armstrong, Marcus Belgrave and was co-founder and member of the all-girls group, ‘Straight Ahead’ that included bass impresario, Marion Hayden.  In 2014, Gayelynn won a Kresge Artist Fellows Award with the ‘Straight Ahead’ ensemble.  Adaptable and able to play all kinds of music, she has been a sideman with a number of icons including the great Benny Golson, vocalists Diane Shure, Freda Payne, Chaka Khan, the late Kevin Mahogany and more.  She was the last drummer to tour with Aretha Franklin, where she had the honor of playing before presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton.  She also performed at the Tribeca Film Festival featuring a tribute to Clive Davis. Gayelynn is as comfortable playing straight ahead as she is funk jazz, Latin or going completely avant-garde.  For example, Ms.  McKinney has performed with the late, great Geri Allen, Larry Coryell, Rick Margitza, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Ralphe Armstrong, Steve Turre and James Carter, to list just a few.  Those genre bending artists clearly demonstrates her diversity.

Every song on this album is both entertaining and well-played.  The first song, “Stylin” is energy- propelled by Gayelynn’s dynamic drums and percussionist, Trenita Womack. The introduction tributes her Detroit/Motown roots, briefly reminding us of Stevie Wonder’s hit tune “I Wish,” before Rafael Statin takes over with his improvising saxophone.  The background vocals of Trenita Womack and Gayelynn McKinney enhance the production, singing the song’s title sporadically throughout.  On track 2, Ibrahim Jones solidifies the rhythm section on his bass, as the band invites us to meet “Space Goddess.”  I really enjoy the studio mix on this CD, as well as the mix of her repertoire.  Track 3 celebrates Jill Scott with Jill’s tune, “My Love.”  They ‘shuffle’ the neo-soul composition and it works!  Once again, Gayelynn and Trenita sing the hook.  Alex Anest takes an appealing solo on guitar.  Gayelynn’s “Gwendolyn” fusion-funk composition was written to celebrate her mother.

Gayelynn explained in her liner notes: “The quirky beat was my mother’s sassy side and the melody was her sweet side.”

There’s also a sweet nod to Bill Withers when the group re-explores his “Lovely Day” song.  They offer a delightful display of tenderness on “Peaceful Place,” another McKinney original composition. It’s the only ballad on this album, with Rafael Statin stepping away from his saxophone to supply the bass flute solo.  “Just A Little Bass and Drums” is interpreted by Ibrahim and Gayelynn McKinney using just that; bass & drums; along with Rafael Statin who adds his bass clarinet to the mix.  This arrangement features Gayelynn’s scat vocals that spice up the piece.  The title tune closes out this CD just the way it begins; tenacious and funky.  Gayelynn McKinney is ever present on her trap drums singing brightly, but never overpowering the band.  Instead, she prods, pushes and colors the music in a powerful way.   

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PATRICK CORNELIUS – “ACADIA: THE WAY OF THE CAIRNS” – Whirlwind Recordings

Patrick Cornelius, alto saxophone/composer; Kristjan Randalu, piano; Michael Janisch, double bass; Paul Wiltgen, drums.

Here is a collective of musicians, quite familiar with playing together. They were once known as the “TransAtlantic Collective.”  Fourteen years ago, Cornelius and bassist, Michael Janisch, (who is also the president of the Whirlwind record label) joined forces with drummer Paul Wiltgen and pianist Kristjan Randalu to play together as the TransAtlantic Collective and to tour.  On this project, they have reunited.  Today, they call themselves, “Acadia.” 

The music is all original, mostly composed by alto saxophonist, Patrick Cornelius.  Pianist, Randalu, has contributed track 6, “Valse Hesitante,” a melancholy ballad played quite sensitively with classical overtones.  Drummer, Paul Wiltgen” wrote “Ten Years Later,” that closed this album out, celebrating the band’s reuniting after a decade.  On the opening composition and title tune, Michael Janisch takes an exploratory bass solo that is quite captivating.  The tone and approach of Patrick Cornelius on his saxophone embraces a more relaxed, smooth-jazz feel. He reminds me a lot of Stan Getz.  His writing is quite melodic and you can clearly hear the youthful, smooth-jazz feel on “Star Party,” with Wiltgen pushing his rhythmic drums in a funk groove.  Kristjan Randalu steps into view with an improvisational piano solo that still keeps the melody front and center.  Cornelius explains that this tune is meant to commemorate a beachside star-gazing party. 

All the tunes, as well as the CD cover itself, are celebrating mother earth and her extraordinary importance to our lives.  The titles of these original compositions speak of her spellbinding beauty and remind us of the importance of earth as our home and the original mother of humanity.  You will hear tunes like “Personal Beehives” and “On the Precipice”; “Blueberry Mountain” presents a leaning towards straight-ahead jazz and “Seawall Sunrise,” is a lovely, moderate tempo’d tune with Wiltgen’s drums brushing the cymbals and recreating the tide splashing against a seawall.  On “Darkest Night” I love that they handed the melody to the bassist to introduce and once the composition is established and rooted, they let Michael Janisch get totally free on his double bass.  It’s an intriguing arrangement.  Perhaps Patrick Cornelius summed this project up best.

 “My idea was to feature the band as the lead voice, rather than myself.  There’s a definite chemistry here, not super-straight ahead, but not avant-garde either; embracing the European aesthetic, but with the ability to swing hard as well.  That’s the unique magic of this band,” Cornelius explained.

 “The Way of the Cairns” is easy-listening jazz that applauds the importance of Mother Earth and our planet in a very melodic way.

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GEOF BRADFIELD, BEN GOLDBERG, DANA HALL TRIO – “GENERAL SEMANTICS” – Delmark Records

Geof Bradfield, tenor & soprano saxophone/bass clarinet; Ben Goldberg, B flat clarinet/contra-alto clarinet; Dana Hall, drums/cymbals, percussion.

On their opening tune, a Cecil Taylor composition titled, “Air” Dana Hall shines brightly on drums.  Geof Bradfield’s tenor saxophone seems to be having a friendly debate with Goldberg’s clarinet, as they trade licks and spit melodic phrases at each other.  I am intrigued.   Geof Bradfield has composed track 2.  It’s called “Tioga Street Zenith” and it unfolds dramatically and slowly, like a butterfly shaking loose from its cocoon.  The song flies into the universe, wings spread and a beautiful melody flutters from the two horns.  This entire production showcases the composer talents of both Goldberg & Bradfield, as well as the trio embracing their own interpretations of Duke Ellington and Strayhorn’s composition, “Half the Fun,” along with Cecil Taylor and Hermeto Pascoal songs.  Without the expected piano, guitar or bass as part of their rhythm section, this unusual instrumentation becomes both unique and entertaining.  I think it freed these dynamic musicians up to reach past traditional instrument performances and add their own extraordinary improvisation and internal communication with each other.  There is an overall feeling of camaraderie and comfort.  I was especially taken with “Last Important Heartbreak of the Year”, written by Ben Goldberg.  It swings hard, even without a bass player.  Reminds me of the music you would hear in New Orleans.   On “Lamentation” I enjoyed the clarinet smoothly becoming the bass line, while drummer Dana Hall stirs the pots. This is another inspiring and melodic composition by Goldberg. 

If you are in search of something new, fresh and innovative on the jazz scene, this production will totally satisfy your artistic palate.

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THE JCA (JAZZ COMPOSERS ALLIANCE) ORCHESTRA LIVE AT THE BPC WITH STRINGS THEORY TRIO – JCA Recordings

Conductors: Tino D’Agostino, David Harris, & Darrell Katz. Rebecca Shrimpton, voice; Hiro Honshuko, flute/EWI; Rick Stone, alto saxophone; Lihi Haruvi, alto & soprano saxophones; Phil Scarff, tenor & soprano sax/clarinet; Melanie Howell-Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal & Jerry Sabatini, trumpets; Jim Mosher, French horn; Jason Camelio & Bob Pikington, trombones; David Harris, trombone & tuba. 5-string violin: Mimi Rabson, Helen Sherrah-Davies; Junko Fujiwara, cello; Maxim Lubarsky, piano; Gilbert Mansour, percussion; Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith, drums; Vessela Stoyanova, vibes/marimba; Jesse Williams, bass; Norm Zocher, guitar.

This album showcases four master jazz composers: David Harris, Darrell Katz, Bob Pilkington and Mimi Rabson.  Robson is a violinist, as well as a composer, and her composition, “Romanople” opens this project.  It pulls from the polka realms at the beginning.  Mimi explains that the song is based on the days of the Roman Empire when they had two capitals; Rome and Constantinople.  These two places had little in common culturally, but she has fused the two in her arrangement, beginning with odd-metered, Turkish, folk music that morphs into a dramatic brass band interpretation with the drums pushed by the busy mallets of Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith.  Track 2 is a David Harris composition inspired by McCoy Tyner’s 1976 album, “Fly with the Wind.”  It swoops into our ears with lush, orchestrated harmonies.  Harris wrote it after imagining what it would be like if Tyner’s large ensemble (inclusive of strings and woodwinds) had met with a group of traditional Thai instrumentalists. Titled “The Latest,” this piece features a beautiful solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks, who is smooth as satin on both baritone saxophone and bass clarinet.  Harris incorporates voices at the fade of his song, with a strong melodic influence that brings to mind how Stevie Wonder used voices in his 1970s Award-winning productions.  Composer/trombonist, Bob Pilkington, embraced his composer role by using a number sequence to write “The Sixth Snake.”   This piece commemorates his 60th birthday and is based on the Japanese ‘Year of the Snake.’  It uses harmonic structure represented by the number series, 27563.

“I’m a noodler by nature,” Pilkington explains. “I like to play around with ideas and build a piece.”   

Darrell Katz offers us track 5, “A Wallflower in the Amazon.”  This composition is based on a poem by Paula Tatarunis of the same title.  It features the vocals of Rebecca Shrimpton, who shares the poetic lyrics within the orchestrated structure of the Katz melody.  It’s not a melody the average person could sing or even hum along with, because it’s a more avant-garde arrangement and production.  Darrell Katz clearly had a different conception.

“I am always trying to make the melody and words be unified.  …I really want the listener to pay attention to the words and I want the music to help them,” Katz stated in their press package. 

“Super Eyes – Private Heroes” became one of my favorites on this album.  It’s fun, full of spunk and energy, and leans more towards the bebop side of jazz. Composed by Mimi Rabson, it features a very moving and engaging violin solo that wraps the sweet violin strings warmly around the blues.  This is Rabson’s tribute to sound tracks of super hero movies like James Bond or The Incredibles.  Soloists Melanie Howell Brooks, Helen Sherrah-Davies and David Harris are the heroes who step forward to save the day and totally entertain us. 

This entire album was performed ‘live’ at the Berklee Recording Studios, with engineer Alex Rodriguez at the helm in coordination with mixing, editing and mastering connoisseur, Antonio Oliart.  Perhaps composer and conductor, Darrell Katz, summed it up best when he stated:

“Recording ‘live’ is really different than recording in the studio.  There’s a more focused energy and a sense of urgency, … a real feeling of a community working together.”

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THE ROYAL BOPSTERS – “PARTY OF FOUR” – Motema Records

Amy London, soprano; Holli Ross, alto; Pete McGuinness, tenor; Dylan Pramuk, bass. THE ROYAL GUEST VOCALISTS: Bob Dorough & Sheila Jordan; Christian McBride, bass. THE BAND: Steve Schmidt, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Steven Kroon, percussion.  THE ARRANGERS: Dylan Pramuk, Pete McGuinness & Steve Schmidt.

This reviewer has long been a lover of a’ Capella groups and vocal harmonies since listening to the street-corner, doo-wap, rhythm & blues groups singing in Detroit.  When I heard Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, I was totally hooked.  The Royal Bopsters carry on this marvelous, jazzy, vocal artform in a grand way.  Their tightly knitted voices create an electrifying group of arrangements, warm and comfortable as a cashmere sweater.   Here is a twelve-track album of swing and harmonic beauty, dedicated to one of their members, who sadly passed away in 2020; their alto singer, Holli Ross. 

The Royal Bopsters, “Party of Four” also incorporates a band into their group and pianist Steve Schmidt shows off his blues ‘chops’ on “Why’d You Do Me the Way You did?”  

I was intoxicated with The Royal Bopsters on t unes like “Daydream” (by Billy Strayhorn) which they perform a ‘Capella and the four voices are united as a single, harmonic sound.  They have such a special chemistry together.  I did not find their individual solo voices as compelling as their unified artistic presentation.  Bassist, Christian McBride is featured with Holli Ross on “Cuando Te Vea” and the group swings hard on this one, against a backdrop of strong Latin flavor.  This is another arrangement that quickly becomes one of my favorites.  Percussionist, Steven Kroon, is given an impressive time to shine in the spotlight.  “Baby, You Should Know it,” (composed by featured vocalist Bob Dorough and B. Tucker) is another spellbinding arrangement.  Also, two of the members, (Amy London and Pete McGuinness) surprise me with their original composition, “Our Spring Song” that sounds like a jazz standard.  McGuinness has also arranged several tunes on this album.  Another member, Dylan Pramuk, shines spectacularly as an arranger of the group’s music.  He has arranged seven of the dozen songs they proudly present to us.  Here is an exciting and beautifully produced album featuring magnificent vocal arrangements and special guest vocals by Bob Dorough (who passed away in 2018) and 92-year-old jazz icon, Ms. Sheila Jordan.  This is a historic album, with a uniquely selective repertoire that shows us the amazing vocal versatility of these four gifted singers and their featured arrangers.   Enjoy a masterclass in the art of vocalese. 

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MASTERFUL MUSIC BY ICONIC JAZZ MASTERS

December 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

DECEMBER 1, 2020

If you have a die-hard jazz fan in your immediate circle of family and friends, here are some suggestions for musical gifts guaranteed to please!

ELLA FITZGERALD – THE LOST BERLIN TAPES – Verve Record Label

Ella Fitzgerald, piano; Paul Smith, piano; Wilfred Middlebrooks, bass; Stan Levey, drums.

You hear the crowd roar its approval as soon as Ella Fitzgerald steps onto the stage.  She opens with “Cheek to Cheek” and her trio swings hard behind her.  This was an era when female jazz singers wore sparkling dresses and flashy jewelry. They didn’t appear on stage with background dancers, smoke billowing or videos playing behind them. Jazz vocalists didn’t need strobe lights shimmering across their stages.  Ella stood there quite queenly, confident next to her microphone, and wowed the crowd with her spectacular vocal mastery. She didn’t need any gimmicks.  In these old tapes of a concert recorded nearly sixty years ago, you hear the genius of this first lady of song.  Her genius still takes my breath away.  Track 2 has a cute lyric and it’s called, “My Kind of Boy.”  She sounds playful and knows how to present each lyric like a favorite bedtime story.  These Lost Berlin Tapes were uncovered in Norman Granz’s collection and they reintroduce us to Ella in her prime.  Recorded March 25, 1962, she’s performing in Berlin’s Sportpalast venue.  She was the first lady of bebop and Swing in her day and she retains that title in this present era.  No singer has come along who can challenge the smoothness and perfection of Ella Fitzgerald, or master her amazing vocal capabilities.  We listen as she becomes an uninhibited instrument right before our ears.  I am still amazed at her scatting abilities, where she simply becomes one of the cats in her band; a vocal instrument.  This concert was part of a string of performances all across Europe in 1962, to the enjoyment and thrill of packed audiences.  Back then, Norman Granz was a respected jazz record producer for Clef, Norgran and Verve record labels and he was also Ella’s manager.  For this concert, Paul Smith was on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks was on bass and Stan Levey on drums.  This was an important year for Ms. Fitzgerald.  She performed to fifteen thousand people at Madison Square Garden to headline a Birthday Salute to John F. Kennedy on May 19 of 1962 and also played the 7th Annual Grammy Awards in Las Vegas; a show that was televised.  She played at London’s Royal Festival Hall and in several other key concert halls worldwide. Drummer, Stan Levey recalls an unforgettable concert performance that illuminates Ella Fitzgerald’s sense of humor.

“One night, during our concert on one of these London stages, we’re playing away, just swinging, and all of a sudden from the wing this guy staggers out.  He’s got a long beard.  He’s disheveled and Ella looks at me. Do something, she says.  So, I pick the guy up and walk him off stage.  I got back on the drums and we’re playing again and here he comes.  Ella does a double take, says, Ladies and Gentlemen, Montgomery Cliff!  (he was a handsome movie star of that day!)  The audience enthusiastically applauds and then they boo me when I walk him off stage again.  It was very funny!” Stan shares the story, showing us the humorous side of Ella, because of course it wasn’t Montgomery Cliff.

This European tour happened prior to Ella Fitzgerald’s 45th birthday.  You can hear the joy and freedom in her crystal-clear tone and style.  On Track 3 she sings, “Cry Me A River” and although Ella starts the bluesy ballad in a sultry way, to my surprise the arrangement soon begins to swing right after they reach the bridge.  The happiness leaps from my CD player on “I Won’t Dance” and her London audience goes absolutely wild.  “Someone to Watch Over Me,” is performed with the full introductory verse and this beautiful ballad settles us down, but not for long.  Here comes “Jersey Bounce,” where she opens with a scat and shuffles her way through the song with Wilfred Middlebrook walking his big, bad bass and Levey strongly slapping the rhythm into place.  This is an absolute gem of a recording that sparkles with talent, history and musical magic.  It will make a wonderful gift for any jazz lover and should be on every jazz collector’s shelf.

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THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET – “TIME OUTTAKES” – Brubeck Editions

Dave Brubeck, piano/composer; Paul Desmond, alto saxophone; Eugene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums.

Dave Brubeck and his astounding quartet are the epitome of the West Coast cool-jazz scene.  The original ‘Time Out’ sessions took place in the summer of 1959.  This historic session produced an enormous amount of music.  It was recorded in the midst of a busy Brubeck touring schedule.  Several ‘outtakes’ were left behind in the studio archives, and when multi-Grammy winning producer Kabir Sehgal reviewed them, he knew they had to be released for the public to enjoy.  This project features work that has never been heard, except for that summer in 1959, when the Brubeck Quartet was laying these tunes down. 

Born December 6, 1920, appropriately this album is being released at a time when Dave Brubeck would have turned 100 years old.  Consequently, it celebrates his centennial year and the awesome fact that his music is still being played and enjoyed a century after his birth. 

“Take Five,” originally recorded June 25, 1959, was supposed to stand on its own as a drum feature.  Written in the odd 5/4 meter, it challenged the band and drummer, Joe Morello.  At that time, most of the jazz and popular music in general, was written in waltz-time or 4/4 meter.  Little did Dave Brubeck know this song would become his anthem and a popular jazz composition worldwide.  It is, in fact, one of those songs that distinguishes jazz and our American culture in a most unforgettable way.  Like Herbie Hancock said about the Dave Brubeck Quartet:

“Jazz changed everything for me, and Dave did that!  That’s because Dave was the wizard of West Coast Cool.  With “Time Out” things took off into the stratosphere,” Hancock reminisced.

This music mirrors the Brubeck Quartet’s brilliance and originality.  Compiled from discarded tracks that epitomize this historic recording session, the songs are familiar like, “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” “Three To Get Ready” or “Cathy’s Waltz.” Each is refreshingly and beautifully presented.  The group sounds brand new and reflects the innovation and integrity of each individual player, as well as the amazing composing skills of Dave Brubeck. 

Dave’s daughter, Cathy Brubeck-Yaghsizian, recalls the inspiration for “Cathy’s Waltz.”

“When my father would come home from the road, … to connect and have some family fun, he’d call a jam session.  The boys would all get their instruments and I would wiggle into a blue tutu my mother had bought for me, since I loved to dance.  You can imagine keeping up with all those crazy rhythms wasn’t easy for a five-year-old, but I tried!  I would enthusiastically whirl and knock into a coffee table or plant, then whirl again. …twirl and plop.  Twirl and plop.  I’m not sure if that is what dad was thinking when he wrote the piece, but I do remember we all had a lot of laughs at those jam sessions,” Cathy recalls in an extensive liner note reflection.

These never-before-heard tracks offer the listeners a peek into the past and a glimpse at the original Dave Brubeck quartet during its 1959 prime.  The Dave Brubeck Quartet changed the concept of jazz in their own unique way; each member becoming a true American icon.

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BILL EVANS LIVE AT RONNIE SCOTTS – Resonance Records

Bill Evans, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums.

This double set CD release features an in-depth Collector’s deluxe overview insert that includes interviews with jazz lover and comic actor, Chevy Chase.  The famed album cover designer, David Stone Martin captures Evans in a caricature and bassist, Eddie Gomez; drummer, Jack DeJohnette; pianist Chick Corea and veteran jazz critic, Brian Priestley all share opinions and memories. You really get to know Bill Evans from the lips of his friends, fellow musicians, artists and journalists.  Pulled from Jack DeJohnette’s personal recorded archives, “Live at Ronnie Scott’s” is comprised of twenty tracks and captures The Evans trio during their month-long gig in 1968.  This is the second ‘live’ Evans album to be released by Resonance Records and it’s recorded at the Ronnie Scott popular jazz venue in England. This release is also the fifth Resonance title to feature unreleased music by this historic pianist.  In fact, Miles Davis stopped in to check out the band during their stint at this popular jazz venue and quickly recruited DeJohnette for his own newly formed group, stealing him away from the Bill Evans trio. 

“The music was at a really high creative height and I’m glad I documented that and the tape was good enough for Resonance to run with it,” explained Jack DeJohnette.  “You really get a chance to hear Bill Evans stretch out.”

You will enjoy first and second takes of lovely songs like “Emily” and “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” each totally unique in their own way.  Other familiar standards include “A Sleepin’ Bee;” a rousing version of “Someday My Prince Will Come;” a tender rendition of “For Heaven’s Sake,” where Eddie Gomez’s bass beautifully accentuates the Evans phrasing, adding melodic depth to the arrangement. Gomez also soars on his bass solo and introduction to “Embraceable You.”  Jack DeJohnette shines throughout, playing with gusto and pulling the trio tenaciously along, like a locomotive engine.   

On disc two, they open with “Quiet Now” just piano on the long introduction, featuring the technical mastery of Bill Evans.  Then the bass joins him and next, DeJohnette adds his percussive coloring to the mix.  Eddie Gomez recalls their four-week gig at Ronnie Scotts.

“Jack (DeJohnette) was a good fit for the trio in the few months he was with us.  Prior to Jack, Bill’s trio had Philly Joe Jones, the great iconic drummer and that was certainly spectacular.  At that time, I was pretty young … so, having Philly Joe on one side and Bill on the other was a huge moment in my musical life,” Eddie reminisces. 

“Jack brought a lot of good points to the trio; the energy; he was very open about how to address the pulse. … That was nice. He’s really a pianist who plays drums.  That’s arguably why he fit in so well,” Eddie Gomez shared his opinion about working with Evans and DeJohnette.

While talking to Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette recalled that he actually was only with the trio six months before Miles Davis came calling.

“We played Ronnie’s after the Montreux gig. … I recorded it on a hip recorder.  I stuck the mic in the piano near Eddie’s bass and it recorded the piano, bass and drums,” Jack DeJohnette explained how this recording was made; no separation or fixing it in the studio.  It is what it is.

The second disc is as memorable and brilliant as the first, adding a couple of new standard tunes like “Alfie” and “Stella by Starlight.”  There’s also “Waltz for Debby and an exciting arrangement of “Round Midnight.”  This is another     recording that should be on every jazz collector’s shelf.

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NOAH BLESS “NEW YORK STRONG – LATIN JAZZ” – Zoho Records

Noah Bless, trombone/composer; Mike Eckroth, piano/keyboard; Boris Kozlov, bass; Pablo Bencid, drums; Luisito Quintero, percussion; Alejandro Aviles, flute.

Noah Bless is a graduate of the renowned Cincinnati Conservatory of music.  When he left Ohio to work on his Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, he fell in love with New York City and its intoxicating music scene.  He landed a gig at the Club Broadway, just a few blocks from where he lived on the Upper West Side of the city and he used to stroll to the gig on 96th & Broadway, trombone in hand.  By 1992, he was hired to tour with Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer, Mario Bauza and was part of the maestro’s 1993 record release, “My Time is Now.”  He’s also worked with such salsa stars as Oscar D’Leon, Celia Cruz and La India.  His trombone mastery quickly found its way to the stages of Latin jazz icons like Eddie Palmieri and Ray Santos, as well as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra under the direction of Arturo O’Farrill.  It’s taken a while, but this is Noah’s premiere CD release as a bandleader.

He opens with an original composition, “Chasing Normal” that is quite melodic, but moves quickly to a straight-ahead, funk fueled arrangement that spotlights the powerful piano playing of Mike Eckroth.  Track 2 focuses on the Latin side, with amazing percussive executions by both drummer, Pablo Bencid, and percussionist, Luisito Quintero.  Titled “Ganga,” this is a spirited tune that radiates a playful, party atmosphere.

“Canto De Ossanha” is one of my favorites on this album of eight well-played tunes.  This arrangement is lilting and melodic, featuring the crystal-clear tone of the Bless trombone, that dances along to the group’s warm percussion rhythm.  This song blends genres, embracing Latin roots, mixed with smooth jazz on this Afro-samba arrangement.  It gives Boris Kozlov an opportunity to show-off his bass skills in a well-played solo opportunity.   I found myself hypnotically entertained by “Ligia,” a Jobim composition.  This ballad is so touching and gives Noah Bless a platform to wrap us up in his beautiful and emotional trombone tonality, tinged delicately by the ‘blues.’  This song is a gift, tenderly decorated with splashy, warm colors, trailing ribbons of holiday goodness. 

“That melodic thing has always been my strong suit,” the trombonist admits in the liner notes.  “… It’s great for ballad playing in more of a straight-ahead swing tradition.  But I found that it also applies well to playing in Latin bands, particularly on montunos, where you’re supposed to play something that’s very melodic in the clave.  So that idea, how to feel that rhythm while playing simply, but still melodically, has been marinating for years.  It’s something I’ve been working on for decades at this point.” 

It may have taken years for this album of fine music to come to fruition, but it was definitely worth the wait.  Like a sturdy redwood tree, Noah Bless’s strong, indescribably beautiful CD is a seasoned, natural creation that warmly serenades the universe.

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 THE KALEIDOSCOPE QUINTET – “DANCING ON THE EDGE” – Dot Time Records

Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone/flute/composer; Dave Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones/wooden flute/composer; Tony Marino, bass; Michael Stephans, drums; Judi Silvano, voice.

The Kaleidoscope Quintet is a group of master musicians who got together for a gig at the Deer Head Inn one November evening in 2013.  My friend and respected jazz drummer, Michael Stephans, boasts an impressive four-decade career on both coasts of our nation and worldwide.  He’s also a published journalist.  In fact, the year of this recording, Michael was promoting his “Experiencing Jazz: A Listener’s Companion.”  Both Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, master musicians and composers in their own right, contributed to his book with Liebman writing the preface.  This was to be the Michael Stephans’ launch party and it mirrors a celebratory concert performance that was happily recorded for our listening pleasure.  You can hear the appreciative audience applause as a backdrop for this Avant-garde, live jazz recording.

Joe Lovano is appreciated as one of the most inventive saxophonists in the jazz world.  Born in Cleveland, Ohio (1952) it was perhaps ordained that he play saxophone since his dad, Tony “Big T” Lovano got him interested in the horn as a child.  There is even a historic photograph of baby Joe in the arms of his mother with a saxophone cradled next to him.  Dragged along by his dad, Joe Lovano attended in-person concerts by masters like James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Young Lovano wound up joining Wood Herman’s Thundering herd from 1976 to 1979.  After attending Berklee College of Music, Joe landed professional gigs with wonderful jazz organists like Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff.  He’s worked with the who’s who of jazz artists including Ed Blackwell, Lee Konitz, Abbey Lincoln, Bob Brookmeyer, Dave Holland, Billy Higgins, Bobby Hutcherson, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock and the list goes on and on.  He’s a Grammy winner and has a long and respectable relationship with Blue Note Records.

Dave Liebman was born September 4, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York.  Early in his career, Liebman landed a saxophone/flute gig with the great drummer, Elvin Jones.  This was followed by a stint with the Miles Davis ensemble from 1970 to 74.  He’s also toured with Chick Corea and formed his own group with amazing sidemen like Kenny Kirkland, Terumasa Hino and John Scofield.  Always seeking the outer limits of the music and pushing musical boundaries, he has made a huge name for himself as an incredible improvisor and artistic composer and woodwind player.  He shares his genius, creating instructional clinic DVDs and CDs, while actively teaching at various universities.  His biography was released in 2012 and Dave Liebman has won an extensive number of awards and honors over his stellar career. 

Judi Silvano is a beautiful and extraordinary voice that acts like a third horn on this project.  She’s a singer, composer and graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with degrees in both music and dance.  As a protegee of Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee, she explores her art outside the box.  She has had a long-term collaboration with Joe Lovano and has fourteen record releases on her own.  Judi’s recorded her own original music, jazz standards and worked from duo productions to large ensembles.  She has released two records of music for meditation and healing.  Downbeat has lauded Judi Silvano as one of the top ten jazz voices and she passes her experience and knowledge on in clinical settings, workshops and at Universities worldwide.  Composing led her to pursue arranging. Her artistic talents also include painting with watercolor, pastel oil and encaustic work.  In fact, she is the designer and artist who created this Kaleidoscope Quintet CD cover. 

Tony Marino is a one of those virtuoso musicians who, as Michael Stephan explains:

“Tony is always in the moment, ready to leap into the abyss at any time. … He’s one of the most intuitive jazz musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with.”

At age thirteen, Tony Marino switched from guitar to the bass instrument and never looked back.  Morino kick-started his musical adventure by backing up a host of historic names, bringing his big bass sound to the stages of Joan Rivers, Vic Damone, Robert Goulet and Nell Carter.  He also played with jazz greats like Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Mose Allison, Phil Woods, Hal Galper, Urbie Green and John Coates jr.  But as he grew musically, and explored other directions in his musical approach, he began a collaboration with jazz tenor, Dave Liebman.  He has performed with Liebman throughout Europe, Japan, Thailand, Australia and South America.  It’s been a thirty-year musical adventure. 

This is an exciting and unique quintet, that stretches the boundaries of music to its farthest degree and, like a kaleidoscope, these musicians splash fascinating musical colors all over the listener.  They hypnotize us with their unique interaction. There are two original songs written by Joe Lovano and two compositions penned by Dave Liebman.  Stuck in the middle is the familiar tune, “There Is No Greater Love.”  Just like peering through the entertaining lenses of a kaleidoscope, the pieces of this quintet move, shape and reshape themselves before our very eyes in shiny, brilliant and memorable ways.

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JEFF ELLWOOD – “THE SOUNDS AROUND THE HOUSE” – Independent Label

Jeff Ellwood, tenor saxophone/composer; Alan Pasqua, piano/composer; Darek Oles, bass/composer; Joe Labarbera, drums; Special guest: Bob Sheppard, tenor saxophone.

Jeff Ellwood is the current Director of Instrumental Jazz Studies at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California.  After much prodding by his contemporaries, he decided to take a solo journey into becoming a recording artist and bandleader.  Ellwood carefully picked the crème-de-la-crème of Southern California’s wealth of jazz musicians.  He invited the last drummer to play with the great Bill Evans, Joe LaBarbera and his longtime friend, Alan Pasqua to man the piano.  Jeff also called Darek Oles for his recording project.  He’s one of Southern California’s first-call bass players and as a special guest, he asked saxophonist Bob Sheppard to join him on track six, a tune written by Dick Oatts (“King Henry”).  It originally featured Oatts and Jerry Bergonzi on their “South Paw” album for the Steeplechase label.  This is one of my favorite tunes on this CD.  Joe LaBarbera is given several bars to solo on trap drums and Ellwood and Bob Sheppard harmonize with each other and then each one takes a spirited solo. Another favorite is “Old School Blues,” composed by pianist and co-producer, Alan Pasqua.  It reflects a great melodic structure and it swings hard. 

The opening tune is based on one of Ellwood’s favorite jazz standards, “All the Things You Are” and he calls his song, “U.R.”.  It’s a great way to open his album and to introduce you to some of Southern California’s best jazz players.  Each takes an impressive solo on this opening production.  The composition that Ellwood has created may use the same changes as the old standard, but his melody is fresh and totally his own.

Ellwood has a smooth, mellow tone on tenor saxophone.  He admits to being greatly influenced by Rick Margitza, Dick Oatts and Jerry Bergonzi. He also admires James Moody and had an opportunity to take a lesson from the iconic, master musician before Moody died.  Track 4 is a Rick Margitza composition called “Provence” and it opens with an ‘other-worldly’ introduction by Ellwood and Pasqua.  Ellwood makes interesting tones and sounds float from the bell of his saxophone and Pasqua plays mysterious music on the piano.  Then they settle into a lilting, moderate-tempo arrangement with a melody that makes you want to hum along.  The title tune follows, composed by Johnny Mercer and Alec Wilder.  “The Sounds Around the House” is a beautiful ballad.   I enjoyed the original tune “The Honeymoon” by bassist Darek Oles.  The group is inspired on this one, pushing the envelope with bebop and improvisation ruling.  Oles is pumping strongly on his bass, providing a lush cushion beneath Jeff Ellwood’s satin-smooth saxophone solo; while LaBarbera pushes the energy forward with unrelenting drum sticks.  Alan Pasqua plays a dynamic, straight-ahead piano solo.  In this tasty arrangement, for several bars Pasqua’s piano is missing, but that adds interest to their arrangement and singularly spotlights Ellwood’s innovative saxophone.  LaBarbera is given time to explore his drums during a very melodic solo and yes; percussion instruments sing their own song and can be very melodious.  LaBarbera shows us how that happens.

They close with “For Roger” a ballad composition by organist, Joe Bagg,    that is explored and interpreted with just saxophone and bass.  It’s a lovely way to end a beautifully recorded concert of fine music.

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WOLFGANG LACKERSCHMID CHET BAKER QUINTET SESSIONS 1979 – Dot Time Records

Chet Baker, trumpet/vocals; Featuring: Larry Coryell, guitar; Buster Williams, bass; Tony Williams, drums; Wolfgang Lackerschmid, vibes/producer.

Wolfgang Lackerschmid wrote the liner notes for this album of amazing music.  He explains how this group of master musicians came together.

“After our duo recording for ‘Ballads for Two’ Chet invited me to be a member of his band.  During many concerts and tours with different musicians, mainly from Italy, France, Belgium and USA, Chet (Baker) always featured our duo.  At the Festival in Velden/Austria … we met Larry Coryell who performed with Sonny Rollins’ Quartet.  We played some of my tunes as a duo feature, also for encore.  After our concert, Larry came backstage with tears in his eyes, saying that it was so beautiful that he would love to join our duo some time,” Wolfgang recalled.

He continued, “Chet’s agent picked this up right away and suggested doing a record with the three of us plus rhythm section.  Chet said, we don’t need no rhythm section.  The agent still insisted.  … Some weeks later I received a call from Chet’s agent. Everything’s fine.  Buster (Williams) and Tony (Williams) are excited to play at this recording.”

This journalist was absolutely stoked to review Chet Baker and Wolfgang Lackerschmid’s historic project.  They open with “Mr. Biko,” a Tony Williams tune, with Buster Williams walking his bass tenaciously throughout and also offering us an inspired solo. Larry Coryell adds a bluesy guitar arrangement to the mix.  Chet Baker’s sensuous, sexy trumpet steps into the spotlight, while Wolfgang’s vibes lock into the rhythm section, creating the backdrop for a stellar performance.  Towards the end of the tune, the musicians change the mood to funk, propelled by Tony’s drums and Buster’s melodic, infectious bass line.  The Lackerschmid vibes float on top, strong as sunshine glinting on a powerful ocean wave. This is a great way to start this recording, giving each player time to expose their unique and genius talents. Track 2 is a Lackerschmid tune titled, “Balzwaltz” that features the tenor vocals of Chet Baker, using his voice as a lyric-less instrument, he becomes a vocal extension of his horn.   You hear him scatting beautifully across this musical trampoline.  The tune has a ¾ tempo bounce and gives a broad stage for Tony Williams to solo on trap drums against a bass backdrop provided by Buster Williams.  Every song on this production is well-played, meticulously arranged and interpreted by a group of jazz legends. 

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HOPEFUL, NEW JAZZ RENEWS OUR OPTIMISM

November 20, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

November 20, 2020

THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE BAND – WASHINGTON D.C. -“THE 2020 JAZZ HERITAGE SERIES” – Independent Label

Technical Sgt. Chris Ziemba, piano; Technical Sgt. Cameron Kayne, bass; Master Sgt. David McDonald, drums; Master Sgt. Geoff Reecer, guitar; Technical Sgt. Paige Wroble, vocals; SAXOPHONES: Technical Sgt. Kristian Baarsvik, lead alto/flute; Technical Sgt. Mike Cemprola, second alto/flute; Master Sgt. Tedd Baker, lead tenor/clarinet; Master Sgt. Grant Langford, second tenor/clarinet; Master Sgt. Doug Morgan, baritone/bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Sr. Master Sgt. Brian MacDonald, lead trumpet; Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Burns, split lead; Master Sgt. Luke Brandon and Musician 1st Class Jonathan Barnes, third; Technical Sgt. Logan Keese and Master Sgt. Graham Breedlove, fourth. TROMBONES:  Master Sgt. Ben Patterson, lead; Master Sgt. Jeff Martin, second; Master Sgt. Kevin Cerovich, third; Master Sgt. Benjamin Polk, bass trombone.  

Dave Richards has composed and arranged “Power Outrage” a tune that opens this dynamic, big band recording.  The United States Air Force Band (Washington, D.C.) proudly brings people together through the power of music, and powerful they are!  Colonel Don Schofield is the commander and conductor of this recording that features the United States Air Force Band “Airmen of Note.”  Their production features three iconic jazz musicians as special guests; John Fedchock, Christian McBride and Randy Brecker. They also feature the distinctive vocals of Paige Wroble, singing “Honeysuckle Rose” on Track 2 with great success, scat-singing in a free and spirited way.  John Fedchock makes a stellar solo appearance on trombone, as part of the band’s Jazz Heritage Series and their plan of action on this recording is to collaborate with some of the top jazz musicians in the world.  Fedchock’s smooth, seamless sound can be heard on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon).” These special guests are meant to call attention to the legacy of America’s original art form of jazz in a healthy and definitive way.  Also, the performances on this disc gives the listener a sample of the excellence and professionalism by Airmen stationed around the world, who’ve come together as part of this musical production.  For example, Master Sgt. Geoff Reecer, who takes a dynamic guitar solo on this familiar “East of the Sun” jazz standard.  Fedchock has arranged this Cedar Walton tune, “Ojos de Rojo.”  David McDonald solos brilliantly on drums and Ben Patterson is amazing on trombone during this arrangement.  I also enjoyed the tone and dynamic baritone saxophone solo by Doug Morgan.  Christian McBride steps into the spotlight on his bass during a self-penned composition McBride wrote called, “Getting’ To It.”  Grant Langford, on tenor saxophone and Luke Brandon on trumpet are featured.  The last three songs, on this album of twelve, feature the arranger/composer talents of trumpeter, Randy Brecker.  The final tune, “Straphangin’” was composed by Randy’s talented brother, Michael Brecker.   

“Airmen of Note” offer us a dozen well-arranged standard and original compositions that swing hard and are played beautifully.  This album is bound to reignite a passion for big band jazz and introduce you to some excellent armed service musicians who bring verve and splendor to the bandstand.

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THE MARIEL BILDSTEN QUINTET – “BACKBONE” – Outside In Music

Mariel Bildsten, trombone; Stacy Dillard, tenor & soprano saxophone; Sean Mason, piano; Ben Wolfe, bass; Evan Sherman, drums; Keisel Jimenez, percussion.

Mariel and her quintet recorded this project just before news of the pandemic, in January of 2019.  Things were looking hopeful, happy and prosperous back then.   You hear that in this recording; a joy de vivre and a mood of delight and playfulness.  At that time, Bildsten had just finished a week-long run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City, where she lives.  “Backbone” was recorded on one, cold, January night after that run at Dizzy’s.   The quintet was hot-to-trot, tight and familiar with the material and with each other.  The result is a half hour of music that features Mariel Bildsten’s trombone talents and also showcases the talents of her bandmembers. On the Kenny Dorham tune, “Monaco” they get loose and move at a brisk pace, giving Ms. Bildsten a platform to show-off her technique and spontaneity on the trombone.  I enjoyed her Bluesy arrangement of “The Man That Got Away” by Harold Arlen.  She and bassist, Ben Wolfe, take an intriguing duo walk, just trombone and bass, chatting with each other in a warm, wonderful way.  The quintet’s Latin arrangement of “The Lamp is Low” is tastily accentuated by the invigorating percussion of Keisel Jimenez and enhanced by the bright piano solo of Sean Mason. 

Mariel Bildsten is a product of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and she graduated in 2015.  She’s inspired by J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Lawrence Brown.  Ms. Bildsten has studied with Elliot Mason, Steve Turre, Vincent Gardner, Sam Burtis, Jimmy Owens, Reginald Workman, Mike LeDonne and Jane Ira Bloom.  This is Mariel’s debut release and it’s a nice introduction to the woman and her horn.  I hope to hear much more from her, perhaps with a bit more fire and groove.  But this is a strong start towards bigger and better things. 

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ALEX WINTZ TRIO – “LIVE TO TAPE” –  Outside In Music

Alex Wintz, guitar/composer; Dave Baron, bass; Jimmy MacBride, drums.

Guitarist, Alex Wintz, has composed four songs on this seven-tune recording.  He opens with his original composition, “Idris,” a piece that runs nearly ten minutes long.  However, the trio keeps us totally interested and entertained, taking this time to amply showcase the talents of each musical member.  Jimmy MacBride is fluid and creative on drums, skipping along at a moderate pace.  Towards the last minutes of this arrangement, Dave Baron provides a solid, bluesy bass line to the mix and the music of the Wintz guitar becomes a slow blues.  It’s an attention-getting moment.  Next, I can picture myself walking happily down a sunny, tree-lined street during the Wintz’s composition, “On A Summer Day.”  This trio covers Herbie Hancock’s song “Textures” on Track 3.  Dave Baron opens this piece with a bass introduction.  Alex Wintz enters on guitar and delivers the melody in a warm, distinctive way.  In this trio format, the guitarist is solely responsible for painting an intricate and detailed picture for the listener.  Alex Wintz does not disappoint.   In collaboration with engineer and producer, Evan Sutton, Wintz and his trio have recorded, using vintage recording equipment, and making this recording on an iconic piece of analog tape, using the Studer A827 machine.  Consequently, the title of this CD became, “Live to Tape” and was recorded (similar to the old days) in only one session, one take, direct to tape.   It’s a beautiful guitar trio album and the musicians fit comfortably together, like hand in glove, giving us an hour of enjoyable and well-played jazz.

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THE AUBREY WILSON QUARTET – “HONEYSUCKLE ROSE”  –

Aubrey Wilson, vocals; Chris Bruder, piano/Wurlitzer; Tom Altobelli, bass; Sean Bruce Parker, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Luis Deniz, alto saxophone; Scott Taplay, guitar.

Aubrey Wilson has a lilting, lovely, soprano voice. This production is fresh and combines jazz with funk and contemporary arrangements that elevate these wonderful, old standards to higher heights.  Her trio is so creative and complimentary to this vocalist’s style.  They immediately captivate me with their unique approach while playing these familiar songs.  Opening their debut recording with the familiar standard jazz composition, “Nature Boy,” I am enthralled by the drum groove of Sean Bruce Parker, who firmly plants the roots of funk into the tune.  Special guest, Scott Taplay, adds his blues guitar licks to the mix.  Taplay lifts the song to new horizons with his amazing guitar solo.  He seems to imagine what Jimi Hendrix could have sounded like if he had recorded jazz.  Another special guest musician is Luis Deniz, who adds alto saxophone to the arrangements on both “I Will Wait for You” and “Lullaby of the Leaves.”   I have never heard “Honeysuckle Rose” arranged in a jazz/Hip Hop vein.  It’s quite effective and very compelling.  This Toronto-based jazz vocalist, with her band of excellence, intrigues me with their unusual arrangements.  Aubrey Wilson’s exquisite soprano vocal capabilities seals the deal. “Alice In Wonderland” is performed as a jazz waltz.  “When Sunny Gets Blue” is an easy listening experience, along with “When I Look In Your Eyes” and “Norwegian Wood.”  The vocalist’s interpretation of jazz standard, “Stolen Moments” shows us that she is indeed a jazz singer.  She starts out a ‘Capella, with no instrumentation at all except her sparkling, crystal-clear voice.  When the band does join her, they add a very contemporary spin to the straight-ahead jazz standard featuring a bluesy solo by pianist Chris Bruder.  Additionally, they give the drummer an opportunity to sing his own percussive song.  I am impressed by the piano background chords placed delicately beneath the drum solo without being obtrusive or repetitive. 

Aubrey Wilson comes from a musical background.  Her father was a vocalist with a successful barbershop quartet.  They toured across Canada and the United States.  He inspired her love of music, singing and performing.  She performed in her high school jazz band and attended Mohawk College’s Applied Music Program.  There, she met three of the members of her band; pianist, Bruder, Altobelli on bass and Parker on drums. This is her debut recording and offers us a warm introduction to the Aubrey Wilson voice and Quartet.  Sit back and enjoy their bright and uniquely different arrangements and Aubrey Wilson’s delicate vocal expressions. 

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SIMONE KOPMAJER – “CHRISTMAS” – Lucky Mojo Records

Simone Kopmajer, vocals; John de Martino, piano; Geri Schuller, piano/Hammond B3 organ/keyboards/jaw harp; Boris Kozlow & Beate Wiesinger, bass; Reinhardt Winkler, drums; Aaron Heick, soprano & alto saxophone/clarinet; Terry Myers, tenor saxophone; Dominik Fuss, trumpet; Florian Fuss, saxophone; Georg Stepanek, bassoon; Lukas Ganster, dulcimer; Heinz Steinbauer, diatonic accordion; Stefanie Sommerhofer, Katrin Kanya, Melanie Unger-ofner & Tini Kainrath, background voices. Victor Gernot, Allan Harris & Wili Resetarits, duet vocalists. The Schick Sisters, Anna Catharina & Ina Regen, featured vocals.

Simone Kopmajer has a very inviting vocal tone and a warmth to her production that draws this listener into her project, like a fireplace on a cold, winter evening.   She opens with the familiar “Santa Baby” Christmas song, once made popular by Eartha Kitt. This is followed by “Jingle Bells,” arranged in a very jazzy way.  Simone shows off her jazz chops by scatting her way through this holiday song in very inventive, improvisational and impressive ways. 

Track 3, “Leise Rieselt Der Schnee” is sung in German, a reflection of her homeland of Austria and featuring The Schick Sisters.  These sixteen holiday songs have been recorded in various studios in both the United States and Austria and cover Christmas classics from all over the world.  I am prone to the arrangements that celebrate jazz.  However, you will hear folk songs sung in German and using traditional folk music instruments.  The Latin Christmas song, “Feliz Navidad” is also included and a couple of duets, like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” featuring Viktor Gernot and Allan Harris on “The Christmas Song.”  It’s a perfect stocking stuffer, that will bring a musical celebration of the season to your household.

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SARAH ELIZABETH CHARLES & JARRETT CHERNER – “TONE” – Baldhill Records

Sarah Elizabeth Charles, vocals/composer; Jarrett Cherner, piano/composer.

The central message of this “Tone” project is perhaps, ‘love the world;’ a repeated message occurring at the end of the opening track titled, “Conscious Mind.”  This project didn’t start out with a subject or theme in mind.  It just sort of morphed into the love-lane; love in a broad sense of the word. 

“Much like the tradition of metta meditation in Buddhism, you start by practicing being kind to and loving yourself,” Cherner explained their creative concept.

When I listen to this duo music, I hear beautiful melodies, shaped like ripples in a lake, reaching out towards the far away sand.  The motion of the music is magical.  I wish I could understand the lyrics better.  Sarah Elizabeth sings beautifully, but she doesn’t always enunciate the words clearly.  Consequently, the meaning of these lovely songs gets lost in the musical interpretation and I really wanted to hear the written and sung prose.  I even put on headphones so I could better hear her words, but it didn’t help.  They should have included the lyrics in the CD jacket.  I did feel a great deal of spirituality in this project and the layering of vocals, along with Jarrett Cherner’s masterful piano playing, is both intriguing and beautiful. 

“…As you develop that heart muscle, you expand outward, you cultivate loving-kindness for your friends and family; for your acquaintances; for difficult people in your life and eventually for all beings,” Jarrett asserts. 

“Hanging on to Time” is quite lovely as a melodic composition.  I did manage to hear some of the lyrics that beg us to “welcome change with each breath” but again, the words were often lost or unclear.  On Track 3 titled, “Shine On” Sarah Elizabeth Charles sings, “No one’s perfect.  You’re better off finding something new … and shine bright as you can.”  I love the contrast of her layered alto vocals against Cherner’s piano playing.  On this song I can understand her lyrics much better as she encourages the listener to “Shine – shine on and love yourself.”  This duo’s music is hopeful, with an interesting crossover appeal to their arrangements.  On “Speak” Jarrett Cherner sounds like he’s playing an electric keyboard instead of a grand piano.  Perhaps it’s only an illusion, enhanced by the way Sarah Elizabeth Charles is singing through some electronic vocal analyzer.  This is a very artistic project and fun to listen to. As I said previously, it brings hope and entertainment in a beautifully wrapped package of sound and experimental music, sometimes sung without words.  At times, the two musicians reversed roles and Sarah Elizabeth Charles sat at the piano and played, while Jarrett Cherner sang.

“…We also experimented with reversing roles, where I would sing and Sarah would play piano, just to see what that would generate,” Jarrett explained in their press package.

On Track 5, “Wild One,” I have to eat my former words, because on this tune I can understand much of the song lyrics.  It seems that ‘love is a wild one,’ and I get that.  Sarah Elizabeth Charles is as vocally intoxicating as Joni Mitchell and just as free.  Only difference is, with Mitchell you can understand every word.  But Charles’ voice, her instrument, is pure and delightful to the ear.  Jarrett Cherner’s creative accompaniment on piano adds tension and support in the same breath, and this music is like a rare oil painting on mahogany.  It’s bright, brilliant and strong as the wood itself.  When Jarrett Cherner plays solo, it’s with such emotion and introspection that I become easily lost in his musical messages, in a pleasing kind of way.  This is an album of beauty and hope.  The music is fresh, unique and compelling.   Like the theme of this column, it makes me optimistic.

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JAZZ REFLECTIONS ON A PANDEMIC

November 8, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

November 8, 2020

FRED HERSCH – “SONGS FROM HOME” – Palmetto records

Fred Hersch, piano

During these tumultuous times of mask wearing, hand sanitizer used like a hand lotion, alcohol bottles absent from store shelves and having to distance from friends and loved ones, here is some pleasing and relaxing solo piano music to sooth our souls.  Fred Hersch was among those of us locked down and he took to Facebook airwaves, offering his friends and fans a “Tune of the Day.”  This is the results of him sharing heartfelt music with us, during our time of need, using his music to both calm and entertain us.  It also inspired this album that celebrates his “Songs From Home.” 

“It’s kind of a comfort food album with a little badass stuff in there too.  I didn’t want to make an easy listening record, but I did want to play some music that would make people happy,” Hersch explains.

You will enjoy familiar pop and jazz standards like Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, Wichita Lineman, After You’ve Gone, Solitude and When I’m Sixty-four, to name just a few of the eleven tunes on this delightful album.  Hersch has also added two original compositions to the mix.  “West Virginia Rose” is quite beautiful.  The second song is titled, “Sarabande.”  

Fred Hersch has been nominated fifteen times for a Grammy Award and is a brilliant composer, improviser, accompanist, bandleader, educator and recording artist.  His technique and sense of jazz improvisation stuffs this offering, like a brightly colored piñata, with creative gifts that bring joy and happiness to the heart. 

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ORLANDO LE FLEMING – “ROMANTIC FUNK: THE UNFAMILIAR” – Whirlwind Recordings

Orlando Le Fleming, upright & electric bass; Sean Wayland, keyboards/synthesizers; Kush Abadey & Nate Wood, drums; Philip Dizack, trumpet; Will Vinson, alto saxophone.

This funky bass line of Orlando Le Fleming opens the first cut of this production, along with the funk drums of Kush Abadey.   Bassist, Orlando Le Fleming has composed every one of the eight songs on this album. 

“In under two days in the studio, this album was all played live, with very few edits and overdubs.  The musicians are of such high quality that the risk taking paid off.  For me, the inexpressible magic of the group and moment in time was captured.  When Writing this album, I was very conscious of the improvisational sections being tailored for the specific musicians, allowing them freedom to express their quirks.  I encouraged risk taking and tried to make it fun for them without being too much of a control freak,” bandleader and bassist, Orlando Le Fleming asserted.

Philip Dizack enters on trumpet and introduces us to a melody that quickly becomes an exploration of improvisation.  This project is a warm mixture of straight-ahead and smooth jazz; funk and fusion.  Will Vinson’s alto saxophone spreads across this first tune like hot syrup on a stack of sweet, musical pancakes.  I’ll take a platter full of this “Romantic Funk” anytime.

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MAX HAYMER – “WHIRLWIND – LIVE AT SAM FIRST” – Emerald City Records

Max Haymer, piano; David Robaire, bass; Dan Schnelle, drums.

This is a delightful album of trio jazz that features the composer skills and piano genius of Max Haymer.  As a former top athlete, he attended UC Irvine on a soccer scholarship and spent four years playing Division 1 soccer.  You can hear his strength and power when he plays the piano. 

“I find that the physical act of playing the piano has a lot in common with sports.  They both require stamina and you have to physically train to perform at your fullest potential.  They both also require your composure under pressure while being fully aware of what your teammates or bandmates are doing as well,” Max Haymer explains his approach to his instrument.

The title tune, that Max has composed, is a lovely waltz.  David Robaire introduces himself to us on the bass with a long and inspired solo.  Haymer is quite lyrical in his approach to playing and composing.  He develops his melodies with care and compassion, introducing them to us note by note.  When he stretches out, his technique develops in a tenacious way with crescendos of energy and climatic, power-driven chords.   At the end of track 2, the trio’s attentive audience bursts into appreciative applause.  This album was cut ‘live’ (before the pandemic), at this stellar jazz spot, a short jaunt from the LAX airport; a club called, ‘Sam First.’ 

Haymer has been greatly influenced by his years of playing with Arturo Sandoval’s band.  He’s also the West Coast accompanist for singer, Jane Monheit.  A young Max began studying classical piano at age seven and became interested in jazz piano at fourteen.  He was a student of Los Angeles-based pianist, Tamir Hendelman during high school and continued his education at UC Irvine, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Music degree.  During his time at the Irvine University, he studied with Kei Akagi, who was a member of the Miles Davis band in the late eighties.

“Kei was an important influence on my playing and composing.  He used to say that the best melodies are the ones that fight gravity,” Max mused.

Drummer, Dan Schnelle and bassist David Robaire, are long time bandmates of Max Haymer’s.  Both have sparkling credentials, working with a number of A-list musicians before joining this trio production.  Together, they are a tight and cohesive group.  I enjoyed their interpretation of the familiar “Speak Low” tune as a warm bolero.  Other favorites are: “Gold Plated Dime” where Dan Schnelle takes the opportunity to introduce us to his prowess on the trap drums.  Another very beautiful ballad that Max Haymer composed is titled “Welcoming,” where his fingers turn into colorful, glow-in-the-dark butterflies flitting across the keys.  His exceptionally swift interpretation of “Love for Sale” showcases his technical brilliance. Actually, each tune on this project is a listening experience I enjoyed; almost like removing the silk fabric covering an artistic palette to proudly exhibit the art beneath.  We uncover his genius, song by song.

This is a passionate and dramatic pianist who finger paints vivid pictures with his musically inclined hands.   His creativity radiates bright colors that help express the energy and excitement he transmits through his piano instrument and within his well-written compositions.

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PETER LEITCH AND HIS NEW LIFE ORCHESTRA – “NEW LIFE” –  Jazz House

Peter Leitch, bandleader/composer/arranger; Peter Zak, piano; Dennis James, arco bass; Yoshi Waki, bass; Joe Strasser, drums’ Chad Coe, acoustic guitar; Phiol Robson, electric guitar; Duane Eubanks, trumpet; Bill Mobley, trumpet/flugelhorn; Tim Harrison, flute; Jed Levy, tenor sax/flute/alto flute; Steve Wilson & Dave Pietro, alto & soprano saxophones; Carl Maraghi, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Matt Haviland, trombone; Max Seigel, bass trombone. PRODUCERS: Peter Leitch & Andy Farber.

Every great album of music has a story behind it.  It’s the emotional and/or challenging times in our lives that create, with spontaneity, compositions and productions that explore our lessons of life. Ultimately, it’s with great trepidation and honesty that musicians sometimes share these musical observations. With open arms and open ears, the audience welcomes the concerts and compositions into open hearts; thankful for the cultural richness that music can bring. 

When Peter Leitch was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2012, he had a serious choice to make.  He could undergo a career-ending operation that could lengthen his life or die within months.   Eight years later, although he can no longer play his beloved guitar, he has begun a “New Life” that explores his other talents of composer/arranger extraordinaire.  Bandleader, Peter Leitch explained in his liner notes:

“The title ‘New Life’ refers not only to my own personal odyssey, but also to the music itself; to the act of breathing new life into the raw materials, the blues forms and song forms that have long been the structural basis of Black American music, and by extension and osmosis, all of American music.”

On Track 3 of Disc 1, you clearly hear the blues living inside Phil Robson’s guitar solo and a kind of Yusef Lateef blues-throw-back by Steve Wilson’s bluesy saxophone solo on “Sorta, Kinda.”  On Disc 2, it’s clearly reflected in the 12-bar blues of “The Long Walk Home” and also on “Back Story.”  Also, of note, is the Leitch tribute to iconic saxophone player and composer, my old friend, “Clifford Jordan,” (R.I.P.).

The first thing that stands out on this album is the plethora of amazing compositions that Peter Leitch has written for his New Life Orchestra.  His sense of beauty and diversity are reflected in these melodies, in a spectacular way.  It took Leitch a couple of years to compose, arrange and orchestrate this seventeen-piece ensemble project.  His goal was to write arrangements that expanded the voice of a medium-sized orchestra into a much bigger band-sound.  His carefully structured arrangements leave plenty of room for the individual musicians to improvise and express themselves in fluid and tasty ways.  This is a double set album full of carefully crafted original compositions, wonderful arrangements and a band of A-list musicians who have gathered to celebrate Peter Leitch’s “New Life” in the best possible scenario.  In addition to his original songs, Leitch has added a lovely arrangement of Monk’s “Round Midnight” tune and Jed Levy’s composition, “The Minister’s Son” as well as reimagining the Rodgers & Hart familiar standard, “Spring is Here.”  This is an enjoyable, entertaining and smooth-sailing orchestra that takes us on a cruise through musical times and tempos.  They give us a peek into the life-lessons-learned by Peter Leitch.  

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ALONZO DEMETRIUS – “LIVE FROM THE PRISON NATION” – Onyx Productions

Alonzo Demetrius, trumpet/composer; Yesseh Furaha-Ali, tenor saxophone; Daniel Abraham Jr., piano/keybass; Benjamin Jephta, upright bass/electric bass; Brian Richburg Jr, drums.

When composing this recorded production, Alonzo Demetrius had a lot to get off his chest.  He was inspired to write this music while attending classes at Berklee College of Music.  He was working on his Master’s Degree and studying with iconic drummer and educator, Ralph Peterson and saxophonist Tia Fuller.  As a college student and talented trumpeter, Alonzo Demetrius recognized that he was coming up during a conflicted and revolutionary time in our nation.  With racial injustice in plain sight and political, congressional people feeding on social injustice and private interests, Demetrius had strong feelings.  After all, we pay congress their salaries to represent we the people.

“Inspired by the teachings of political activists … as well as interviews with current and ex-convicted felons, I created this album as a reflection of my ideas based on personal experience and the experiences of other Black people in my life,” Alonzo Demetrius writes in his liner notes. 

With the horrific backdrop of a global pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake, amidst the many brutal killings of Black lives by policemen and vigilantes across our great country, Alonzo is speaking his truth through the bell of his trumpet.

“The shootings … have sparked a resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement.  Sixty years in the making, this movement has finally begun to take root in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.  With this album, I aim to continue the global conversation and provide a platform for those whose voices are often left out,” Demetrius proclaims.

Trumpeter, Alonzo Demetrius, establishes a unique style on this, his premier recording, letting the two horns (his trumpet and Yesseh Furaha-Ali’s tenor saxophone) sing in unison to establish the melodies of his compositions.  He also incorporates protest speeches by Mumia Abu Jamaal and chants from recent protest marches.  By incorporating electronics and spoken word about dilemmas of today, he establishes his activist voice and gives the listener pause for thought.  On Track 1, “Expectations,” you hear the voice of Angela Davis, speaking about prison reform, just before Alonzo Demetrius steps forward with his trumpet. He is answered by the tenor sax of Furaha-Ali, as though the two horns are experiencing a social commentary; a chat between two old friends.  Then they sing in unison, before branching off into their solo improvisations.  The solid bass of Benjamin Jeptha holds the composition together like super glue and is sensitively attached to the pointed rhythms of Brian Richburg Jr., on drums.  Track 2, “The Principle” settles down the tempo and excitement.  It’s a rather melancholy musical statement that again features the two horns singing unison melodies and occasionally breaking out in warm harmonic conversation.  Track 4 previews a speech by Mumia Abu Jamaal about ‘Movement’ and is titled “Mumia’s Guidance” to celebrate this activist’s words and struggle.  Alonzo’s entire production was recorded ‘live’ at Berklee College of Music in May of 2019. 

Alonzo Demetrius Ryan Jr. began his musical journey studying piano at age eight and singing.  By age ten, he had fallen in love with the trumpet and was focused on classical training. Believe it or not, at age eleven he formed his own jazz sextet and began seriously performing and chasing his musical dream.  In 2019 he received his Masters from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute Master’s Program.  Demetrius is uniquely recognized for his implementation of electronic processing into his ‘live’ performance package.  Many young musicians are now incorporating movies, slides, electronic enhancements and in the case of Alonzo Demetrius, activist speeches into their work.  He’s entertaining us, while tickling our brains with an educational feather.

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NATSUKI TAMURA & SATOKO FUJII & IKUE MORI – “PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Ikue Mori, composer/electronics; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet.

“Right before the pandemic, the three of us had a European tour, followed by a recording session in New York City. …The tour was in January and the recording session took place on February 12.  Back then, we had no idea of what was coming and how different the world would become.  All of our concerts and tours were cancelled.  So, we stayed at home and talked by email and Zoom.  Then we began this project,” Satoko Fujii explained.

The “Prickly Pear Cactus” album grew out of friendship and isolation.  It is the result of devastation on the entire global community by the insidious Coronavirus pandemic.  Although these musicians worked half a world apart from their homes, on their laptops and in their individual home studios, they still found a common thread that strung them together like shiny, new pearls. Natsuki Tamura swapped sound files over the Internet, adding his trumpet parts and creative ideas.  Satoko Fujii sat at her grand piano in New York and Ikue Mori was based in Kobe, japan.  The project started with a Zoom session, when Fujii mentioned she was biding her self-quarantine time recording piano solos at home.  Mori suggested she send a sound file to him and that’s how the collaboration began.  Then they asked Tamura to add his trumpet.

Satoko Fujii is celebrated as a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and bandleader and appears on more than one-hundred albums as either a co-leader or bandleader of various Avant-garde projects.  Her projects embrace contemporary classical, Avant-rock, folk music, synthesized jazz, large ensembles and duos; even solo projects.  Natsuki is internationally recognized.  He’s applauded for his jazz lyricism and dramatic approach to playing his instrument.  His projects have included adding his trumpet to Avant-rock jazz fusion with a group called First Meeting and he’s also been bandleader of his own quartet and performed with a group called Junk Box.  He focuses on combining European folk music and sound abstraction and has recorded three albums of solo trumpet and seven duet CDs with Satoko Fujii.  Ikue Mori is a native of Tokyo and relocated to New York in 1977.  As a drummer, she formed the seminal No Wave Band DNA.  They created a new brand of radical rhythms and dissonant sounds.  In the mid-80s, Ms. Mori began to experiment with drum machines. By 2000, she was using her laptop computer to expand her signature sound and to broaden her scope of musical expression.  This is a project that is totally improvised around a theme and embellished with electronic rhythms and sound patterns that add an ethereal content to this music.  All the titles embrace nature in eclectic ways like “Guerrilla Rain” that begins with electronic sounds and staccato piano notes that scurry up and down the keyboard and chords that jump like popping corn kernels.  “Mountain Stream” squeals and roars, like a jungle habitat at midnight. And then there is “Overnight Mushroom” that runs over ten minutes long.  This is a unique, artistic journey that stimulates your mind and imagination.

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JENI SLOTCHIVER – “AMERICAN HERITAGE” – Zoho Records

Jeni Slotchiver, piano.

Here is an artistic perspective by pianist Jeni Slotchiver that spans 125 years of music, from Louis Moreau Glottschalk’s “The Banjo,” written in the 1800’s, to “Down By the Riverside” published in 1979.  Glottschalk’s compositions and style predated the era and birth of Ragtime and jazz and was influenced by Caribbean, Latin and African music, as well of slave songs and rhythms.  Jeni uses her classical piano technique and emotional delivery to celebrate music from the Civil War to Civil Rights.  Although more classically trained, than displaying the freedom and improvisation of a jazz pianist, this is still a historically important look at “American Heritage” in music.  Here are eighteen, well-played songs, interpreted by Jeni Slotchiver, and embracing the full range of American music from gospel spirituals to African American work songs and secular tunes.  With this album, Ms. Slotchiver celebrates the African American musical contribution to American culture. Of the eight composers she tributes, six are African American and two are women.

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SCOTT ROUTENBERG – “INSIDE” – Summit Records

Scott Routenberg, keyboards/programming/vocals/composer; Howard Levy, harmonica/bamboo flutes/ pennywhistle; Sofia Kraevska, vocals; Chris Whiteman, acoustic guitar; Jonathan Raveneau, violin; Phil Doyle, tenor saxophone.

This is a dramatic merger of jazz and classical music created by pianist/composer, Scott Routenberg, while self-quarantined during the 2020 pandemic.  As he sat, like many of us, reflecting on his life and experiences, Scott recalled the garden around his house that was overflowing with a variety of spring and summer flowers.  He was inspired by that colorful garden of memories and created a song called “Pentamerous;” meaning a five-petaled flower.  It becomes Track 3 of this musical production and features the sweet voice of Sofia Kraevska improvising atop the chord structure.  Routenberg has composed every song on this eleven-song project.  It’s a musical diary about his days in lock-down at his home with a room full of musical instruments to keep him busy and happy.  On May 7th, he recalled the so-called ‘supermoon’ that appeared at the height of the pandemic.  He composed “Flower Moon,” a song that encourages Scott Routenberg to take an opportunity to improvise and show his piano skills, improvising above his programmed tracks.  There is a tango-feel incorporated into this arrangement.  On “Hidden Stars” he reflects on how city life can obstruct our view of the heavens.

“Hidden Stars recreates the two time I saw just how small we really are in the universe from the top deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean and at Bryce Canyon in Utah.  Swirling, sparkling polyrhythms and swarm string swells support Sofia’s completely improvised vocalise,” he explains how this original song came about.

Ms. Kraevska’s improvised vocal melodies are quite hypnotic and memorable.  On “Home Sweet Home” Howard Levy is featured on harmonica.  Levy makes that harmonica talk, like a living, loving individual. The song moves from classical and jazz to a more Americana feel in the arrangement.  Jonathan Raveneau’s violin lends even more authenticity to this concept.  Routenberg knows how to layer grooves on the keyboard and with programmed drums and synthesizers to create moods and a stage for his guests to perform.  When interpreting his original “Fireflies” composition, for example, Scott uses various synthesized keyboard sounds to help us picture the brightly active and glowing flies he used to watch on hot July, Indiana evenings.  During his closing track, he uses the keyboard sound of raindrops on a window to amplify nature’s presence as humanity took refuge from COVID19 into their homes.  Tenor saxophonist, Phil Doyle, is a guest on this track titled, “The Day We Went Away,” but I found the featured appearance lacking in creativity.  Scott Routenberg asks us to use our imaginations while listening to his creativity, his frustrations, his joy, “Meltdowns” and “Days of Wrath” during his 2020 seclusion and unforgettable studio production.

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JULIAN GERSTIN – “LITTORAL ZONE” – Independent Label

Julian Gerstin, percussion/composer/vocals/bottles/ocarina/whistles/berimbau/ drums/shakers/ bells/wood percussive instruments and miscellaneous percussion; Anna Patton, clarinet; Steve Rice, marimba.

For this reviewer, there has always been something hypnotic, comfortable and inspirational about percussive instruments and drum beats.  Consequently, I was very interested to hear what Julian Gerstin, an expert on world rhythms and percussion instruments, had recorded.  His seventeen original songs celebrate Gerstin as a soloist on percussion.  While the world was taking protective and stressful steps through the tribulations of a pandemic, Julian Gerstin was concentrating on celebrating mollusks.  He has incorporated a number or Rasps into this production including guiro, reco-reco, quijada and even a wheelbarrow.  His shakers include oil cans, a whiskey flask, an espresso maker and cocoons (along with traditional shakers like maracas and shekere).  He performs on over four dozen instruments.   His music is dedicated to and named after his favorite mollusks.  Sea shells and mollusks dot his CD cover, inside and out.

“Over the years, I’ve enjoyed looking into tidepools with their seaweed and starfish and crabs, and especially, mollusks.  These pieces are semi-composed and semi-improvised and while inventing them I gave them molluscan names that fit their moods. … Only a few of these species, Crepidula, Littorina and Purpura, actually live in the “Littoral Zone,” Julian Gerstin explained.

He hopes that the crowded life of a tidepool evokes some spontaneous connection to his percussive sensibilities and the listener’s imagination.  Gerstin has an MFA in Music Composition and PhD in Anthropology.  He has studied percussion from a long list of international percussion masters in places like Ghana, Martinique, Cuba, Brazil, The Balkans and the Middle East.  Slip into your headphones and enjoy a very unusual and rewarding exploration of rhythm and culture.

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PAPO VAZQUEZ MIGHTY PIRATES TROUBADOURS – “CHAPTER 10: BREAKING COVER” – Picaro Records

Papo Vazquez, trombone/vocals/agogo bells/synth keyboard; Ivan Renta, tenor & soprano saxophone; Rick Germanson, piano; Ariel Robles, bass/chorus; Alvester Garnett, drums; Carlos Maldonado, percussion/congas/ Barril de Bomba/Pandero de plena/ bongos/minor percussion/chorus; Reinaldo Dejesus, Barril de bomba/ congas/Pandero de plena/minor percussion/chorus.

Papo Vazquez makes me feel joyful from the very first strains of Mr. Babu, I find myself wiggling in my computer chair and glancing towards my dancing shoes. The original music that Papo Vazquez writes is forceful, incorporating his signature fusion of jazz and Puerto Rican culture.  This album is his tenth record release as a leader and demonstrates why his four-decade career has made him a Grammy-nominated Latin music icon.  This release is a true product of the COVID19 pandemic.  His plans to record in April were derailed by the virus.  Finally, in June, when lockdown regulations loosened, he and his Mighty Pirate Troubadours started rehearsing.  This wonderful work of artistic beauty and excitement spotlights the smooth and emotional trombone of Papo Vazquez, along with his arranger and composer skills.  The seven Mighty Pirates Troubadours lend their brilliance to the project and Vazquez has invited special guests to add spice to an already red-hot project.

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CÉRÉMONIE / MUSIQUE – “WHAT HAPPENS IN A YEAR” – FiP Records

Josh Sinton, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Todd Neufeld, electric guitar; Giacomo Merega, electric bass.

As this year races to an end, Cérémonie Musique, (a trio of musicians) wanted to summarize their feelings and express their musical and emotional views referencing 2020; i.e. “What Happens in a Year.”  This was certainly no average year in the history of America.  We experienced a very challenging world pandemic that, to date, has killed nearly 300,000 Americans.  The year featured a very hot and disturbing political climate, an election for president and racial unrest.  The economy was challenged, while the government searched for a vaccine to save people.  Businesses closed and lots of people were out of work and hurting.  On top of all that, citizens were expected to live their lives in a normal, everyday fashion, and many were doing just that. The title of this album came from their guitarist, Todd Neufeld.

“I thought about three guys slogging out through these days of teaching, work, fatherhood, marriage and having this kind of musical ceremony when they met each week to make new music,” Todd shared his inspiration for this Avant-garde music and the title of their CD.

However, the original concept, by Josh Sinton, was far from what became the result of a simple studio rehearsal.

“Originally, my thought was to get the three of us together to improvise and record it.  Then, I’d go home with the field recording and turn it into compositions,” explained the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet player. 

“After our very first meeting, it was clear that the spontaneous improvisations, with their mysterious, enticing musical expression, made formal pre-written compositions superfluous,” Josh continued to analyze this very unique project and how it came about.

There is an openness and a thought-provoking essence to this modern jazz music of ‘Cérémonie Musique.’  As I sat listening to it, there were moments of unique expressiveness represented in their Avant-garde, collaborative, song development.  The trio is playing totally free, using improvisation and their camaraderie with each other, to colorfully paint this musical palate. 

“I’ve always viewed composition and improvisation as nearly identical creative activities, although the results of each can often be confused,” Josh Sinton mused.

Virtuoso bassist, Giacomo Merega, has been a popular and busy player in the New York improv and new-music scene.  He spoke about the concept of ‘ceremony’ in the title of their group.

“A ceremony is a ritual and if I didn’t have rituals, I’d be like a chihuahua in a jungle.  I wouldn’t last a day.  Among my rituals are making espresso, having breakfast with my daughter and improvising with Todd and Josh,” Merega explained in their press release.

The result of this musical meeting, and ultimate freedom of expression, is a very compelling and artistic production that captures a moment in time as three master musicians express themselves without boundaries.

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MEN IN JAZZ / 2020

November 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

November 1, 2020

KEMUEL ROIG – “GENESIS” – Independent Label

Kemuel Roig, piano/keyboard/percussion/composer/arranger; Lowell Ringel, bass; Hilario Bell, drums/percussion; Jose ‘Majito’ Aguilera, percussion; Chris Potter, Ed Calle & Roilan Vazquez, tenor saxophone; Randy Brecker, Mercy Brass, Julio Padron, Osvaldo Fleites & Gerardo Rodriguez, trumpets;  Alain Perez & Joel Hernandez, vocals; Bayron Ramos, trombone; Milton Sesenton, orchestra arranger & conductor.

Kemuel RoIg is no newcomer to music, performance, touring or recording, but this is his first jazz CD.  After touring as part of the illustrious trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval’s band, as both pianist and composer, Kemuel Roig is stepping into his own bandleader spotlight.  Eighteen years ago, he arrived in the USA from Camaguey, Cuba and settled in Florida.  With solid footing in his Christian belief, he has released four previous works that were well-received in New Age music circles and categorized as Christian music.  Roig has also established himself as a strong session man, performing or recording studio sessions with the likes of Al di Meola, Isaac Delgado, Brian Lynch, Giovanni Hidalgo and Aymee Nuviola.  But on this project, he spreads his fingers across the 88-keys and reaches for his dreams.

“Genesis” demonstrates the journey of my life thus far and is a testimony to a life spent learning about the music that I love and respect deeply; jazz!”  Kemuel Roig states.

The first track is titled “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” and it’s gleeful, featuring the drums of Hilario Bell and the percussion of Jose ‘Majito’ Aquilera.  It’s quite contemporary in arrangement and gives Kemuel Roig an opportunity to lead the ensemble in a forceful, yet melodic way, issuing in the orchestrated horns with much flare.  This song features improvisational solos by Ed Calle on tenor sax and trumpeter, Mercy Brass.  The second tune is quite beautiful, titled “Genesis 41 (Recurring Dream)” that, in the bible, translates to Joseph’s test deciphering Pharoah’s dreams.  As the story goes, Pharoah dreamed of seven fat cows coming up out of the river followed by seven lean and starving cows.  The lean cows ate up the healthy, fat cows. Then Pharoah dreamed of seven healthy corn stalks and seven thin ears of corn that appeared and devoured the seven healthy corn stalks.  Joseph warned Pharoah that Egypt would have seven amazing and plentiful years followed by seven years of famine.  And so, it came to be.  This is one of seven original compositions that Kemuel Roig has penned and his piano performance on this lovely ballad is emotional and passionate.   Lowell Ringel plays a noteworthy bass solo during this arrangement. This arrangement is performed without horns, using only bass, drums and Roig’s brilliant piano playing.  I had to play this song twice to soak up all the nuances of beauty.

You will find Kemuel Roig paying tribute to God throughout this recording, also showcasing his Cuban roots and traditions in Latin music, while incorporating jazz and Gospel music.  He also is saluting the many amazing musicians who have inspired him to become an awesome pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader. Track 3, “Pare Cochero” brings his Cuban roots to the surface and encourages me to grab my dancing shoes. Alain Perez begins to sing; the horns blare and the party begins.

“We must never forget the Genesis of our voyage.  … In its infancy, the smallest steps appeared as blurry, momentary dreams.  We must always pay humble respect to the traditions that led us to this point in history and the truth of our evolved “Genesis,” says Kemuel Roig.

“Inner Urge” is jazz at its best with bold contemporary touches.  Chris Potter sparkles brightly on tenor saxophone and Hilario Bell shows off his mastery on trap drums in a dynamic way.  Kemuel Roig plays both keyboards and grand piano.  “Conversation” featured Randy Brecker on trumpet solo and is another original composition by Roig. There is a new age kind of repetitive line that runs through this song like the wire that holds a string of pearls in place.  Brecker is the bright emerald dangling from the pearl necklace.  Roig’s piano touches represent the diamonds that dot the necklace and circle the emerald.  This is a sparkling piece of music. 

One thing happened, while I was listening to Kemuel Roig, that was very unusual.  My daughter heard this music drifting to her part of the house and came to ask me who was playing?  She said the music was touching her heart and soul.  She said it was so spiritual that she had to come ask me who it was.  That has only happened a couple of times when I’m reviewing music.  She’s very selective about music and she’s also a very spiritual young lady.  When she told me, his music had touched her soul, she held her palm across her heart with sincerity.  This happened during the final song called, “Prayer.”

That says it all!

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NOAH HAIDU – “DOCTONE” – Sunnyside label

Noah Haidu, piano/keyboards/arranger; Billy Hart, drums; Todd Coolman, bass; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophone; Gary Thomas, tenor saxophone; Jon Irabagon, Tenor & soprano saxophones; Dan Sadownick, percussion.

This album by Noah Haidu is a tribute to Kenny Kirkland, who was born September 28, 1955 and died from congenital heart disease in November of 1998.  He was 43 years old.  “Doctone” was released October 2, 2020, just a few days after what would have been Kirkland’s 65th birthday.  Kirkland was one of the dominant influences on Noah Haidu, and as Haidu said in his liner notes:

“Doctone is the first recording dedicated entirely to Kirkland’s original music.  I view Kenny as the most unique composer and pianist of his generation.  Because he died young and avoided the spotlight, his brilliant compositions have been overlooked for too long. … Kenny was known as Doctone by his close friends.  I never got to know Kenny, but after working on this project, I sometimes feel as though I did.”

Haidu opens this recording with “Doctor of Tone.”  Noah introduces the composition rubato, with only piano and drums.  It’s just a minute and twenty-seven seconds long, but serves to prepare the stage for “Midnight Silence” to enter.  That’s the title of track 2.  It moves from a sultry, pretty, moderately-tempo’d ballad to a slow swing, propelled by the great Billy Hart on drums.  Hart has worked with Kirkland in the past and has first-hand knowledge of Kenny Kirkland’s greatness. Since the 1970’s, Billy Hart had performed with Kirkland on various fusion, Afro-Latin and avant-garde projects.  Consequently, Noah felt he was the perfect drummer for this project.   

Noah Haidu’s first connection with Kirkland began in Haidu’s youth, when he was intrigued with Kenny Kirkland’s jazz solos and keyboard grooves that sparked the ‘post-Police’ tours with Sting.  With Sting Kenny recorded: The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985); Bring on the Night (1986); Nothing Like the Sun (1987), Nada Como el sol (1988), The Soul Cages (1991), Mercury Falling (1996).

Noah’s “Doctone’ production is a multimedia project.  There’s this recording, an original book by Haidu (containing interviews with many of Kenny Kirkland’s contemporaries) and a film directed by Jeffrey Chuang.  Chuang’s documentary about Kirkland’s life was released on Sept 28, 2020.

“I typically set out to build a cohesive statement with each album so that the pieces fit together like chapters in a book.  This project was different.  I didn’t’ work through the repertoire on many gigs or do a lot of rehearsing, though I’ve always been moved by these songs.  The result was that in the studio, I had a visceral response to material that was fresh and emotionally compelling,” Noah Haidu clarified in his press release.

Kirkland’s two most familiar compositions are, “Steepian Faith” where Steve Wilson’s soprano saxophone explores the melody on this recent recording and “Dienda”, that Noah Haidu has divided into a part one and part two.  This arrangement changes meters and tempos numerous times.  This seems to happen a lot throughout Mr. Haidu’s interpretation of these Kirkland songs.  You will hear several rhythmic ideas explored during the ensemble’s playing both “Chambers of Tain” and Kirkland’s tune, “Fuschia.”  I enjoyed the fiery, hard bop approach on “Chambers of Tain” and another one of my favorites on this project was “Mr. J.C.” that was played straight-ahead in an uncompromising way. Gary Thomas is brilliant on tenor saxophone and Noah Haidu clearly shows off his technical abilities and creativity during a tenacious piano solo.  Hart pushes and prods the music forward on trap drums with obvious energy.   Todd Coolman can be heard walking briskly beneath the excitement on his double bass.  Most of all, aside from the excellent musicianship on Haidu’s album, the public’s introduction to the composer skills of Kenny Kirkland is palpable with this new project.  Thanks Noah!

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MATT ULERY – “POLLINATOR” – WoolGatheringRecords

Matt Ulery, sousaphone; Paul Bedal, piano; Quin Kirchner, drums; Steve Duncan, trombone; Dustin Laurenzi, tenor; James Davis, trumpet.

This is the tenth album release from Matt Ulery, a celebrated composer and bandleader.  If you are a fan of the Roaring 20’s era and the sounds of King Oliver, jelly Roll Morton and/or Duke Ellington, then you will totally enjoy this album of original music, composed in celebration of that era. 

“With respect, we’d like to present this art project with joy, humor and sincerity in celebration of the innovators that helped give birth to this revolutionary age of American art music,” explained Matt Ulery.

“So Long, Toots” is one of eight compositions that Matt Ulery has composed.  It rolls off my CD player like a train pulling out of the station.  You can hear the train whistle in the horn arrangements and feel the powerful movement of a steam powered locomotive.  The trumpet of James Davis is exhilarating.  The tune, “Jelly” may be a musical nod to the brilliance of Jelly Roll Morton.  It’s a happy-go-lucky song that features Dustin Laurenzi on a smooth tenor saxophone solo with Matt Ulery’s sousaphone dancing strongly beneath the arrangement and competently replacing the double bass.  Unison horns sing the joyful melody of “Cakes” and then invite Steve Duncan to step out front on his slide trombone to solo.  Paul Bedal takes an opportunity to showcase his skills on piano. 

Ulery draws a parallel between the prohibition period that stained the 1920’s jazz age and issued in the popular ‘After-Hours’ clubs.  These private clubs sprang up to supply music and alcohol to their willing patrons.  Unfortunately, this current, pandemic, health crisis does not lend itself to crowded clubs, restaurants, concert venues, schools or almost anywhere that you can stand shoulder to shoulder with your fellow man. Today, we are advised to stand six to 12 feet apart, wear masks, don’t hug, wash your hands and carry disinfected-wipes around with you. This has probably encouraged jazz listeners to listen to a lot more music at home, both new and old.   Matt Ulery’s album is a pleasant, musical diversion.

“We didn’t expect to be releasing this record in such an extreme time of prohibition, but we’d like to invite you to put this album on, move to it, let some light in and feel free and good,” Ulery writes in his press release.

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DOUGLAS OLSEN – “2 CENTS” – Independent Label

Douglas Olsen, trumpet/flugelhorn; Dino Govani, tenor & alto saxophone; Tucker Antell, tenor Saxophone; Angel Subero, trombone/guiro; Yaure Muniz, trumpet; Tim Ray, piano; Dave Zinno, bass; Mark Walker, drums; Ernesto Diaz, congas.

Douglas Olsen has composed six out of nine songs on this, his debut recording.  He’s been a busy musician in the New England area, playing his trumpet and flugelhorn in a variety of jazz settings.  Olsen’s worked with the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra, Felipe Salles’ Interconnections Ensemble, Aretha Franklin, several Latin jazz orchestras and the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra, to name just a few.  He also leads his own Doug Olsen Quintet.

Opening with “Tailwind,” this composition encourages Mark Walker to solo distinctively on his trap drums.  It’s followed by the title tune, “2 Cents” that has a catchy melody, performed by harmonious horns at first, then parting the curtain so Dave Zinno can feature a solo on his bass instrument.  Dizzy Gillespie’s “Algo Bueno” is a spirited example of Olsen’s love of Latin flavored jazz and of course, of his admiration for Gillespie.   “Rat Race” is Straight-ahead jazz and rushes from my CD player like turnpike traffic at midnight.  It puts the pedal to the metal.  Douglas Olsen shows his mastery as the notes ripple out of the bell of his horn.  Dino Govoni follows suit, racing to the spotlight with a flurry of joyful saxophone notes.  The trumpet and saxophone hold a musical conversation, talking to each other, trading fours, then joining in the harmonic delivery of the song’s melody. The ensemble’s closing composition, “Passage” is an exciting arrangement that lets drummer, Mark Walker stretch out with spark and fire on his trap drums.  It also encourages the various musicians to fly free and improvise at their highest levels.  Tim Ray provides an exquisite interpretation on the 88-keys.  His solo reminds me of wild geese that flap and fly at an incredible pace to avoid the hunter’s bullet. 

This is a stellar premiere recording for Douglas Olsen, spotlighting his awesome strength as a composer, a bandleader and a very effective and memorable trumpet and flugelhorn player.

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RICHARD BARATTA – “MUSIC IN FILM: THE REEL DEAL” – Savant Records

Richard Baratta, drums; Paul Rossman, percussion; Bill O’Connell, piano/arranger; Paul Bollenback, guitar; Michael Goetz, bass; Vincent Herring, saxophone; Carroll Scott, vocals.

Right off the bat, the first tune flies off this spinning CD player like a fast ball. “Luck Be A Lady” roars into view as an up-tempo Samba.  It gives Richard Baratta an opportunity to introduce himself to us boldly on his drum kit.   “Everybody’s Talkin’” swings hard.  Half way through, it flips into double time and the musician’s race for the exit.  Bacharach’s familiar song, “Alfie” settles the mood and is performed as a brush-stroking ballad with the spotlight shining brightly on Bill O’Connell at the grand piano and Vincent Herring on saxophone.

It’s been more than thirty years since Richard Baratta disappeared from the jazz scene and this is his sparkling reemergence to the world he loves.  Like so many talented musicians, Baratta soon realized that a musician’s salary wasn’t always complimentary to raising and supporting a family.  So, in 1984 he became a scout for the film industry, finding locations where films could be shot.  Baratta climbed from the gig of Location Manager to the prestigious ranks of Executive Producer.  He was part of over fifty films including such gems as Donnie Brasco, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman. Most of the film world, where he worked, didn’t have a clue about his amazing drum skills, until Baratta started moonlighting at ‘The Astor Room’ in New York.  Soon the jazz world was buzzing about this talented and precocious drummer.  Lucky for us, Richard Baratta is back on the jazz scene in a very powerful way.  His trio from the Astor Room (now called George’s) has spilled over into this recording production.  There is a warm cohesion between guitarist Paul Bollenback, bassist Michael Goetz and Baratta.  Paul Rossman, on percussion, is Baratta’s cousin and longtime rhythm partner.  He has long appreciated the talented Bill O’Connell on piano and O’connell took pleasure in arranging the music they play on this project.  Vincent Herring’s saxophone adds the final touch to this energetic and expressive musical achievement. “Chopsticks” never sounded so good as when these musicians tackle it and transform the tune to a Latin classic. 

Every song on this album celebrates a film that this musical repertoire became a part of.  Remember “Luck Be A Lady” was featured in Mrs. Doubtfire“Everybody’s Talkin’” touched us in Midnight Cowboy.  “Alfie” is the title tune of the film Alfie and “Chopsticks” was in the 1988 film, Big. You will enjoy the “Theme from the Godfather” and “Seasons of Love” from the Rent movie that features the vocals of Carroll Scott.  Consequently, this prize-winning music and concept ties the two lives together of Richard Baratta (film maker and jazz drummer) in a beautiful way.  He plays all styles with ease and spontaneity.  Their New Orleans style arrangement on the Beatles familiar “Come Together” tune is spectacular.  Drummer, Richard Baratta is back and in full force! 

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DUSTIN LAURENZI’S – “NATURAL LANGUAGE: A TIME AND A PLACE” – Woolgathering Records

Dustin Laurenzi, tenor saxophone/composer; Jeff Swanson, guitar; Mike Harmon, bass; Charles Rumback, drums.

Dustin Laurenzi is a Chicago composer and tenor saxophonist.  He has a silky, smooth tone.   At times, his horn sings unison with the guitarist, like on Track 2, “Albert” and Track 4, “Blocks.”  Charles Rumback rides free and captivates with his busy trap drums, while Mike Harmon, on bass, holds the tempo in place. That’s somewhat of a reversal of roles.  The bassist solidifies the rhythm section on “Albert,” while the drums brightly color this eight-minutes of abstract modern jazz.  Track 3 is titled “Ridgeway” and is a ballad of sorts, giving Mike Harmon an opportunity to showcase his solo bass skills.  There are only five tunes on this entire album, more like an EP than a CD.  However, each song is long-winded, with the final tune, “Slate” taking all of ten minutes to play-out.   Once Dustin Laurenzi establishes his original melodies, his composition arrangements repeat themselves melodically, over and over, as he improvises on top.  Some of these arrangements leave me wanting more; more musical exploration and more innovation.

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WILL BONNESS – “CHANGE OF PLANS”

Will Bonness, piano/composer; Julian Bradford, bass; Fabio Ragnelli, drums; Jon Gordon, alto saxophone; Jocelyn Gould, vocals.

“Burning Bridges” opens this CD.  This composition is volcano hot with Will Bonness, on piano, the obvious star.  Jon Gordon is featured on alto saxophone and flies like an eagle.  The drums are given an opportunity to thoroughly explore those burning bridges and drummer, Fabio Ragnelli does not disappoint.  He’s on fire too! 

Track 2 settles these musicians down with the familiar standard, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and features vocalist, Jocelyn Gould interpreting the ballad.  At first, there is only a duo arrangement, featuring the fresh and innovative chording of Will Bonness on piano and the jazz singer.  When Jon Gordon enters on saxophone, he sweetly enhances the production.  Will Bonness has mixed up the tracks by featuring various members of his ensemble. Sometimes he features a duo and other times uses a trio of his musicians, a quartet or a quintet.  It keeps this album interesting and diversifies the production, along with his repertoire choices.  He has composed five original songs and added a smattering of familiar jazz standards like “I Love You” and Bonness even re-arranged an alternative rock song ,“Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” originally recorded by The Smashing Pumpkins in 1995. These are some of Canada’s A-team musicians.  Sit back and enjoy.

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STEVE FIDYK – “BATTLE LINES” – Blue Canteen Music (BCM)

Steve Fidyk, drums; Joe Magnarelli, trumpet/flugelhorn; Xavier Perez, tenor saxophone; Peter Zak, piano; Michael Karn, bass.

Steve Fidyk is a drummer and composer, who was inspired by his father, who played tenor saxophone.  At age eight, young Steve was encouraged to play drums by his family, with his dad, sax-man, John Fidyk, sometimes allowing him to play on gigs, as a substitute drummer, with his Pennsylvania jazz band.  While majoring in music at Wilkes University he played drums in their big band and became very interested in jazz.  He has studied with Joe Morello, Ed Soph, John Riley, Ralph Peterson, Robert Nowak and Angelo Stella.  For over twenty-one years, Steve Fidyk has been the drummer and featured soloist with the Army Blues Big Band and a premier 17-piece jazz ensemble stationed in Washington DC.  Consequently, he has performed for seven US Presidents and even more dignitaries.  He also traveled throughout the Middle East supporting our troops.

His current aggregation features some of the top players on the East Coast.  Opening with “Ignominy” an Eddie Harris straight-ahead jazz tune known for its unusual 20 measure length.  This tune gives Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, and Xavier Perez on tenor sax, an opportunity to stretch out and strut their talents across the studio stage.  Peter Zak takes a piano solo as well, but he really impresses me on track 2, written by Steve Fidyk and titled “Battle Lines.”    Zak flies across the piano keys at a rapid pace, spurred by the serious and energetic drums of Fidyk.  It’s a great tune!  This one is followed by another Fidyk original song called “Loopholes.”  It’s rooted in the blues and very funky.  Steve has composed seven of the eleven songs on this CD and each one exhibits his tenacious composer skills.  On his “Bebop Operations” composition, Fidyk introduces it to us with a distinct drum lick.  Then the horns take over. The drummer writes very melodically and his melodies always make me want to sing-along.  I did think that “Social Loafing” sounds a lot like “Social Call,” composed by Jon Hendricks and Gigi Gryce. 

When he isn’t recording and touring, he is an active member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University, The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA and serves as an educational consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Program.  Steve Fidyk is also a journalist and contributes columns on a regular basis to Modern Drummer Magazine.

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WOMEN IN JAZZ

October 26, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

OCTOBER 26, 2020

Two exceptional pianists, ANGELICA SANCHEZ & MARILYN CRISPELL, merge their talents to record a spellbinding duo piano production.  Another pianist, RINA, showcases composer talents on her debut trio recording.  Bassist and vocalist, ESPERANZA SPALDING and pianist/composer FRED HERSCH release a 5-song duo EP to raise money for out-of-work jazz musicians.  MIKI YAMANAKA plays both vibraphone and piano with her jazz ensemble.  Singer, AMBER WEEKES, has a Christmas album available and violinist, JULIET KURTZMAN, joins jazz pianist, PETE MALINVERNI to combine classical violin with jazz piano.  BRANDI DISTERHEFT plays double bass, cello and sings on her fifth album release, featuring George Coleman.  JULIA KAROSI sings without words and interprets Hungarian classical music and LAILA BILAI releases a single to celebrate Joni Mitchell’s birthday.

ANGELICA SANCHEZ & MARILYN CRISPELL – “HOW TO TURN THE MOON” – Pyroclastic Records

Angelica Sanchez, piano/composer/educator; Marilyn Crispell, piano/composer.

The moon has long been thought to represent a female embodiment, while the sun represents the male. These two extraordinarily talented women aim to show us “How to Turn the Moon.”  They use their piano tenacity to create textures, melodies, and crescendos of improvisation.  As Track 1, “Lobe of the Fly” opens this CD and you can almost hear the fly’s wings breaking the air as the two pianists sing simultaneously.  When they stop, it’s sudden and startling; like a fly lighting atop the kitchen sink defiantly.  Their fingers dance and explore the 88 keys, like insects flying wildly and trying to avoid the fly swatter.  Their piano notes paint a vivid portrait of the fly. 

On track 2, “Ancient Dream,” Marilyn Crispell plays with the piano strings, creating mood and magic.  I know it’s Marilyn because in the studio the two pianists set up their instruments facing each other with Angelica appearing in the left stereo channel of their recording and Marilyn in the right.  Angelica describes the moment and the scene in the liner notes.

“The light through the window, the dog on the couch; the little universes that Marilyn and I created in the moment … love all around. Marilyn and I each get different sounds out of the piano. …It can be tricky with two pianos, to make sure there is enough space in the music; but she and I complement one another, naturally,” Angelica says in the liner notes. 

Marilyn has been a composer and performer of Avant-garde, contemporary improvised music for over four decades.  For ten years she was a member of the Anthony Braxton Quartet and the Reggie Workman Ensemble.  Ms. Crispell is the recipient of three New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust Composition Commission.

Angelica has composed seven of the ten compositions and she and Marilyn shared composer credits on three of the songs.  Sanchez is an Arizona native.  Her goal of moving to New York City, in 1994, was to meet with similar, artistic minds like Marilyn Crispell, Wadada Leo Smith, Paul Motian and a host of other contemporaries.  She has already released a number of critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader and holds a Master of Fine Arts in jazz Arranging from William Paterson University.  Sanchez currently works as a lecturer at Princeton University. 

Angelica Sanchez opens track 3 with a flurry of notes, some that are painted quite bluesy, other’s that are very classical in nature.   This composition is called “Calyces of Held” and caused me to go to my dictionary to try and interpret this title.  In zoology, a calyx (plural is calyces) is a cuplike cavity or structure.  In Botany, calyx is the sepals of a flower that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud.   This duo is much like a blooming flower, colorful and delicate; growing into maturation before our ears.  They offer music to enjoy in the garden of our minds.  This is music to think by.  Music that inspires meditation or floats from our sound system while we are writing, reading or cleaning house.  This is woman music; she-ro music; people music; creative and spontaneous piano jazz.  This is Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell testing space and showering sound into the universe.  They are showing us “How to Turn the Moon” and offering a musical spaceship.  They dare us to explore and take an uninhibited ride.

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RINA –“RINA” – Yamaha Music Entertainment

Rina, piano/composer; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jerome Jennings, drums.

Rina’s piano talent is warm and richly rooted in European classical music.  She introduces us to her composition, “Tale of Small Wishes,” that she composed, based on the story of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, ‘The Little Match Girl.”  Rina said she wrote this after being touched by emotions while reading about hardship.   Born in Japan, but currently based in New York City, Rina holds a degree from Kunitachi College of Music, where she studied with master pianist Makoto Ozone.  In fact, her mentor, Makoto Ozone, produced this album.  As a student of Berklee College of Music, Rina received a full-scholarship to attend this Boston music conservatory and she graduated in 2018.  She explained her motivation to record.

“On this album, I wanted the music to be authentic; to represent myself, not only as a musician but also as a person.  It is still jazz, but rather than having the feeling of listening to a jazz album, I want people to be able to connect with my emotions through the stories I am telling.  I hope my music will create a positive vibe for listeners, who can then go on and connect with and reflect upon their own feeling in an honest way,” Rina explained.

For Track 2, “Shadows of the Mind” Rina explained:

“We face the unknown and we have to confront it on a daily basis.  This song expresses my state of mind going through these challenges.”

It starts out energetically, with the drums of Jerome Jennings spurring the moment.  The bass of Yasushi Nakamura pumps up the arrangement and walks briskly beneath Rina’s straight-ahead tune.  The trio swings hard on this one, led strongly by Rina’s piano brilliance.  All three players walk brightly into their individual solos to exhibit their unique talents.  “Journey” continues to swing and shows-off Rina’s melodic individuality on this song describing her life’s journey.  Jennings is given plenty of opportunities to show-off his drum mastery, trading bars with Rina, as though they are having a serious conversation.  “With You Always” is a jazz waltz, with the piano and the bass singing the pretty melody in unison.  Then Nakamura is given time to speak his truth on the double bass.  Rina described her arrangement.

“I wrote this song with a message to my father saying, I’m always with you, even if we’re apart. … I imagine the bass as my father and the piano as myself, spending time together.”

Rina’s composer talent is obvious on this, her debut recording.  She covers the gamut of musical styles, soaring on “Foxglove” with a very intense Latin groove and a joyful tempo. “Eternal Eyes” represents her melancholy side and is a beautiful ballad, sweetly interpreted by her dynamic trio.  It was rewarding to hear Yasushi Nakamura pick up his bow and play his beautiful bass instrument like a cello.  Jerome Jennings is featured on “J.J’s Painting” and shows off his drum chops,  briskly playing brushes.  

I enjoyed every song on this album.  Here is an up and coming star on the horizon, sparkling with hope and anticipation; talent and determination.  Most importantly, she is sharing a special part of her heart and soul with us.  If we listen closely, we can understand her genuine, musical stories.

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ESPERANZA SPALDING AND PIANIST/COMPOSER FRED HERSCH RELEASE A 5-SONG DUO EP

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has had such a devasting effect on the jazz community, visionary vocalist, bassist and composer, Esperanza Spalding, wanted to do something to help struggling musical artists.  Renowned pianist and composer, Fred Hersch also wanted to support his fellow musicians. so, the two made a plan.  Esperanza put down her bass and just brought her beautiful and free-spirited voice to the party. Fred Hersch joined her on the grand piano with all his brilliance on display.  They recorded and released this EP, unfortunately for us, it sold only in the month of June, 2020.  The sales and donations went to support the out-of-work jazz community.  Besides raising much-needed funds for this vital cause, they performed the recording ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and that provided a rare opportunity for listeners to enjoy this singular and thrilling collaboration between two amazing and gifted musicians.  I salute their hearts, that beat as huge as their talents.  Perhaps this will be an inspiration to others who would like to help struggling musicians through this challenging time.  In this case, all funds and donations went to the Jazz Foundation of America, a group that has been critically impacted by this ongoing crisis.

Esperanza Spalding is a four-time Grammy Award recipient and a lover of all music, especially improvisation-based productions that emerge from the African American culture of jazz.  You clearly hear this love of freedom and improvisation during Spalding’s performance with the legendary, Fred Hersch.  This was the first time I ever heard Esperanza Spalding perform singularly, as a vocalist, without her arms wrapped securely around her double bass.  She did not disappoint!  Ms. Spalding has taught at Berklee College of Music and Harvard University and is currently in the process of writing an opera in collaboration with the legendary, Wayne Shorter.

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MIKI YAMANAKA – “HUMAN DUST SUITE” – Outside In Music

Miki Yamanaka, piano/vibes/composer; Anthony Orji, alto saxophone; Orlando Le Fleming, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums.

This is Miki Yamanaka’s follow up album to her acclaimed piano debut CD, “Cellar Live,” released in 2018. She was inspired to compose this current production by Hungarian American conceptual artist, Agnes Denes’s photograph of “human Dust.”  The photo is of a mound of human remains after cremation.  After Miki Yamanaka first saw this photo on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was moved to compose the “Human Dust Suite.”  Each movement represents a body part.  In her description, each composition title symbolizes something greater that leads to happiness.  For example, “Tummy” is inspired by a love for food and nourishment.  The Human Dust Suites are placed in the middle of her production and bookended by three songs on each side of these individual suites.  “Pre School” is the first song on her album and it was inspired by the Lee Konitz song, “Contrafact.”  

A year ago, Miki made a New Year’s Eve resolution to compose a song each month.  From January to April, she did pretty well.  Track 2 is one of those compositions and was inspired by Mulgrew Miller’s “Epicchords” song.    It’s titled “March”, which has nothing to do with a marching tempo or drum arrangements, but instead features Anthony Orji on’s alto saxophone.  This is straight-ahead jazz with Miki power-packing her improvisational attack on the keys.  On Cut 3, “First Day of Spring” Orlando Le Fleming offers us a bass solo that explores the chord changes in a slow and tender way, with Jochen Rueckert giving both intentional restraint and sensitive support on trap drums.

As I mentioned above, Ms. Yamanaka’s “Human Dust Suite” is composed of five individual suites; Brain, Hatsu, Tummy, Feet Go Bad First and Party’s Over.   In her liner notes she talks about the photograph that inspired these five suites.

“When I saw the photos of human cremation, I thought that everyone will look the same after we die; race, gender, occupation or success won’t change how we look when we get cremated.  I just would like to deliver this message.  Everyone dies and all we can do, ‘til the time comes, is to enjoy life fully.”

This journalist is hard-pressed to find the beauty in cremated body parts, however there are some beautiful, musical moments on this album. Yamanaka establishes herself as a thoughtful composer and is quite prolific on her instruments.  She surprises me on Tracks five through seven, adding vibraphone sounds to the mix that are over-dubbed atop her piano playing.  She offers us modern jazz, ballads and straight-ahead tunes that celebrate Miki Yamanaka’s personal life lyricism.

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AMBER WEEKES – “THE GATHERING” – Independent Label

Amber Weekes, lead vocal/background vocals; Mark Cargill, string & horn arrangements/producer/ arranger/solo violinist; Josh Nelson, Eddy Olivieri & Tony Capodonico, piano; John B. Williams, Kevin Brandon & Adam Cohen, bass; Nathaniel Scott, Fritz Wise & Sinclair Lott, drums; Jacques Lesure, Doug MacDonald & Paul Jackson Jr., guitar; Andrew Carney, trumpet; Richard Heath & Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Rickey Woodard, saxophone. Nio Wilson, Marcus D. Cargill & JoAnn Tominaga, background vocals; Ernie Fields Jr., bagpipes; Gregory Cook, celeste; Andrew Carney, trumpet.

Amber Weekes has a bell clear voice, perfect for the ten holiday songs she interprets on her debut Christmas album. The gift is ours.   Opening with “The Christmas Waltz” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, enhanced by the muted trumpet of Andrew Carney, this is a lovely song that many have overlooked on their holiday albums.  Amber Weekes introduces us to the lyrics with her perfect enunciation and pleasing tone.  Mark Cargill adds strings and horns, like a satin pillow for Amber’s voice to lie upon.  On her rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Amber pulls out every nuance of this arrangement, with tones warm and smooth as Christmas taffy.  This vocalist throws in a familiar jazz standard “My Romance” and then continues reminding us of the holidays with songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Silent Night.”   She performs “Some Children See Him” by Alfred Burt and it was a new song to my ears, with a lyric about Jesus being visible to the youth.  The bagpipes by Ernie Fields Jr., were a pleasant surprise in this arrangement.  The title tune was composed by Mark Cargill & Gregory Cook.  This melody is catchy and Amber Weekes penned the lyrics.  Cargill performs a stellar violin solo.  They employ background voices that sound child-like and are sung in unison.   I enjoyed Amber’s bluesy arrangement of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.”  Her musical ensemble swings on “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow.”  Amber Weekes and her Los Angeles musicians offer us a little bit of everything to brighten up our holiday season.

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JULIET KURTZMAN & PETE MALINVERNI – “CANDLELIGHT-LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA” – Independent label

Juliet Kurtzman, violin; Pete Malinverni, Steinway grand piano.

This is a striking and emotionally infused album featuring violin and piano.  Juliet Kurtzman, who grew up in Houston, Texas, came from musical roots.  Her family was packed with pianists, but the little girl was drawn to the violin.  At age seven, she was studying with renowned violin teacher, Ms. Fredell Lack.  At the young age of fourteen, she debuted as a soloist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.  At seventeen, she continued her studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, becoming one of only two violinists accepted Internationally.  She has toured Europe as a symphonic violinist.  Juliet Kurtzman brings her classical talents to this recording with Pete Malinverni, who brings his jazz piano stylings to the studio.

Juliet has become a dedicated teacher for a dozen years, working at the 92nd Street Y, Kaufman center and the Special Music School.  As she passes her gifts forward, she looks with pride at her prize-winning students, who go forward, winning competitions and joining many prominent music conservatories.  While Juliet Kurtzman passes the baton, lucky for us, she has still taken time to record this beautiful duo album of music.

Pianist Pete Malinverni grew up in Niagara Falls, New York.  He started out studying classical piano and was later drawn to jazz.  Currently, he chairs the Jazz Studies program at Purchase College Conservatory of Music – SUNY.  He’s played in trios, small and large ensembles and solo.  Pete also was part of a Gospel Choir group.  On this production, he endeavors, quite successfully, to bridge the worlds of classical music and America’s indigenous artform of jazz.

“What unites us is stronger than those things that divide us.  Art that emanates from, and is directed to the heart, has always been important.  But now, as our world has come to a once-in-a-generation dual reckoning with mortality and injustice, the essential nature of art in service to human connection is ever more apparent,” Pete Malinverni gave us a glimpse into why he created this work of art.

The opening tune, “Pulcinella” was composed by Malinverni, and sounds like a very sexy tango.  The Kurtzman violin is the ballerina in a tango skirt, swishing delicately, but powerfully, across the polished floor.  Pete Malinverni adds the rhythm and groove on his Steinway grand piano.  On Track 2, the song is “Candelights” by Beiderbecke.  Pete’s piano is a tender reflection of the poignant melody that Juliet coaches from her violin.  It sounds as though the violin is weeping, emotionally.  Malinverni’s piano beautifully layers the melody with lush chords, giving solid confirmation to Beiderbecke’s composition.  They also interpret another one of Bix Beiderbecke’s compositions titled, “Davenport Blues.”  Beiderbecke was an American jazz cornetist, pianist and songwriter who was influential in 1920.  In fact, there are three other songs by that composer included in this production.  They also play Scott Joplin’s “Solace” song and offer their interpretation of the jazz standard, “Body and Soul,” where Malinverni finally stretches out during a solo piano interlude that mirrors shades of Thelonious Monk and the pianists of the 1930s.  “Por Una Cabeza” is a passionate tango, where the duo magnifies their talents. 

“Our collaboration characterized by a breadth of emotional and musical expression, and fueled by the joy of making music together has been a revelation for both of us,” Malinverni admits in his press package.

Their collaboration was certainly a lovely and artistic way for me to spend an Autumn evening.  This album will be available November 13, 2020.

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BRANDI DISTERHEFT TRIO with GEORGE COLEMAN – “SURFBOARD” – Justin Time Records

Brandi Disterheft, bass/vocals/composer/cello; George Coleman, tenor saxophone; Portinho, drums; Klaus Mueller, piano.

Brandi Disterheft is a young, Juno-award winning bassist, composer and singer who has teamed with two octogenarian musicians; the iconic tenor saxophonist, George Coleman and the legendary Brazilian drummer, Portinho.  She also includes pianist, Klaus Mueller, who was born in Germany, then raised in Japan, Chile and Brazil.  He brings all that international, cultural richness, along with being a classically trained musician. 

Track 1 is an instrumental, written by Jobim, and celebrates the album’s title, “Surfboard.”  Mueller’s finger’s surf across the 88 keys, floating brightly above the rhythm tapestry that Portinho weaves.  Portinho is fondly known as the James Brown of Brazilian funk Samba.  On Track 2, Brandi previews her vocal tenacity and songwriter talents.  Frankly, I was disappointed to hear her sing lyrics obviously lifted from the old standard, “Something Cool” i.e.: “I don’t ordinarily drink with strangers” and the story is uncomfortably the same as June Christy’s hit record, even though it’s called “Prelude to Coup de Foudre.”  The melody is lovely and her soft, girlish voice sings it very well.  It’s followed by “Coup de Foudre” another original composition with lyrics about a one-night-stand.  George Coleman’s stellar tenor sax solo boldly lifts this song arrangement and he’s a wild bird in flight on “My Foolish Heart.”  Ms. Disterheft takes a short, but appropriate bass solo on this beautiful ballad.  She also steps into the spotlight on the Moacir Santos/ Telles tune, “Nana,” giving us a little longer, Latin-flavored solo, while Mueller brings the blues into play during his piano solo. “Manhattan Moon” is another Disterheft original composition, with prose lyrics.  I like the way she harmonizes vocally with her bass.  This is another song, strongly Brazilian flavored, as is “Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair” (an Oscar Pettiford composition).  On her tune, “One Dream” Brandi Disterheft opens with an attention-getting bass solo. Her light, soprano voice, against the deep bass of her instrument, creates a startling duo.  When the band enters, once again we recognize what beautiful melodies Ms. Disterheft writes.  Her lyrics remain more prose than rhymes, often without a ‘hook’ and that creates a somewhat unique songwriting stye of her own.   

This is Brandi’s fifth album as a bandleader.  The pandemic gave her time alone to work on this production.  Before the terrible COVID19 madness, Brandi Disterheft was busy working every single night.  She spent a lot of time playing with the recently departed pianist, Harold Mabern, who grew up with eighty-five-year-old, George Coleman in Memphis, Tennessee.  They were friends.  Disterheft has taken two palms full of standard jazz songs and whipped them into a Brazilian theme in a lovely way.  She lives in Vancouver, Canada, but the pandemic has kept her housed and quarantined in New York City.  She actually moved to New York to study with the great bassist, Ron Carter.  Her mom was a Chicago-born jazz organist.  Her Aunt Angie is a Grammy winning session singer in Los Angeles.  So, her roots are steeped in music.  She had the honor to be bassist on the “Pleased to Meet You” album by Hank Jones.  Debbie includes the Jones original, “Del Sasser.”  She has also been continuously working with drummer and mentor, Portinho for a decade, with emphasis on Brazilian musical roots. Finally, they have recorded together and the results is this entertaining “Surfboard” album.

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JULIA KAROSI – “WITHOUT DIMENSIONS” featuring BEN MONDER – Challenge Records Int

Julia Karosi, vocals/composer; Ben Monder, guitar; Aron Talas, piano; Adam Bogothy, bass; Bendeguz Varga, drums.

The first song, the title tune, opens like an airliner at the starting gate.  The soft roar of the engine; that expectant feeling you have as you taxi down the runway; the sound of the rubber wheels on the tarmac, rolling with purpose, forward. The ensemble’s  musical instruments create the mood. Then enters Aron Talas on piano, followed by the warm vocals of Julia Karosi.  She sings without words, becoming a solo instrument. 

“I always wondered whether music belongs to any of the dimensions as theorized in the ‘standard model’ in modern physics.  I summarized my subjective answer as the title of this album,” Julia shares.

  This is an album that celebrates voice as an instrument.  I wouldn’t call Julia Karosi a jazz singer or a scat singer, because scat singers improvise on a theme.  Karosi is singing the melodies as written and incorporating her Hungarian heritage into the mix by drawing on her decades-long study of composer Bela Bartok, employing her classical roots and then adding a vocal concept without lyricism.  With the stellar accomplishments of her ensemble, Ben Monder on guitar, Talas on piano, Adam Bogothy on double bass and Bendeguz Varga on drums, her ensemble unleashes a host of musical possibilities and imaginative productions, many in a minor key.  Julia Karosi has composed the first two songs and the last five on this project.  Much of the music sounds very Middle Eastern.   In between her original music, she sings a “Hommage to Bela Bartok”, including an English translation (by Peter Bartok) of the “Bluebeard’s Castle Prologue” that Julia recites, like prose, atop the avant-garde ensemble music in the background.  It sounds like she’s speaking in Hungarian.  You will find the English translation inside the CD jacket. The musicians accompany with electronic guitar and crescendos of excitement that roll like a restless tide splashing against the sand.

As a vocalist, poet, composer, (perhaps even actress, as noted in her emotional delivery of Track 4), Julia Karosi brings us her experimental project, to exhibit why she is one of the most called-upon vocalists in her country and one of the premier, contemporary interpreters of Hungarian music.  But is this jazz?  That must be answered by the ears of the beholder.  I do not know Hungarian music well enough to hear if Julia is truly improvising.  Most of the music sounds as though she is singing an established melody, often times singing it in unison with her musicians. However, in this reviewer’s opinion, without the necessary and exceptional addition of ‘improvisation,’ a crucial element of what distinguishes music as jazz, any production without such freedom of improvisation misses the jazz mark.
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LAILA  BIALI – “BOTH SIDES NOW”

Laila Biali, piano/vocals.

Laila Biali has the tone of an angel and her piano accompaniment is beautifully executed on this Joni Mitchell standard tune that we fell in love with in 1966 and beyond. Singer, songwriter, pianist, Laila, has a lovely way of connecting with her listening audience.  Some artists can only do this in person.  However, Laila’s emotional delivery jumps from her single, solo release as though she’s standing in our living room, singing singularly to us. This woman of jazz and pop has performed from Carnegie Hall to Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in China.  She recently received the SOCAN Music Songwriting Award and in 2019 won the Canadian JUNO Award (similar to our Grammy Awards).  This current release is in celebration of Joni Mitchell’s birthday on November 7th and is a heartfelt experience not to be missed.

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OUTSTANDING JAZZ ARRANGERS & COMPOSERS

October 14, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

October 13, 2020

JIM WALLER BIG BAND – “BUCKET LIST” – Independent Label

Jim Waller, arranger/composer/tenor & soprano saxophones/ Hammond XK-5 organ; Chris Villanueva & Andy Langham, piano; Jason Valdez, electric guitar; Jim Kalson, electric bass; Georgie Padilla, congas/percussion; Will Kennedy, drums; Joe Caploe, timpani; Bill King, lead alto saxophone/flute; Adam Carrillo & Matthew Maldonado, tenor saxophone; Brian Christensen, alto saxophone/flute; Dr. Joey Colarusso, baritone saxophone; Libby Barnette, French horn; Karlos Elizondo, lead trumpet; Dr. Adrian Ruiz, Al Gomez, Lee Sparky Thomason  & Curtis Calderon, trumpets; Jaime Parker, lead trombone;  Gilbert Garza & Mark Hill, trombones; Matthew Erickson & Dr. Martin McCain, bass trombones; STRING SECTION: Anastasia Parker, concertmaster; Dr. Stephanie Westney & Eric Siu, Violins; Yang Guo & David Wang, viola; Ken Freudigman, cello; Jacqueline Sotelo, vocals.

Some might consider Jim Waller an over-achiever.  He is a competent player of alto & soprano saxophones, the trombone, organ, piano and is a well-respected arranger and composer.  No wonder that he found himself eager to put together a big band to interpret his original compositions and play his arrangements.  The “Bucket List” album presents a number of familiar standard songs with five of Waller’s original songs included.  You could say this 21-piece Jim Waller Big Band is a big accomplishment from his personal bucket list.

Waller’s first original opens this album and is titled, “Samba for Suzell.”  It dances onto the scene and features a spirited tenor saxophone solo by composer/bandleader, Jim Waller; a strong piano improvisation by Chris Villanueva and a spunky drum solo featuring Will Kennedy, (a former member of the Yellow Jackets).  The familiar showstopping song penned by Peggy Lee and William Schluger, “I Love Being Here With You,” is well-sung by Jacqueline Sotelo, who adds her scat vocalise to the mix. Her vocals are also dynamic and gospel-rich on the band’s rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.”  This entire album offers a delightful mix of Latin, ‘swing,’ blues, waltzes and ballads. All fourteen compositions are arranged beautifully and played well.  Other favorites are: “Waltz for Laura,” a Jim Waller composition; their Bluesy introduction on “Rhapsody in Blue” with the various time changes enriching the arrangement and their closing composition written by Jim Waller, “This Is It.”

Jim Waller was born in Santa Barbara, California and attended Fresno State College.  He formed a successful surf group who called themselves The Deltas.  They recorded two albums in the 60s. In the 70s he changed directions, becoming an important member of the groundbreaking jazz/rock octet called “Los Blues.”  They were a popular working group in Las Vegas from 1967 to 1973.  Waller arranged their music and produced an album for the United Artists Record label.  In 1977, he moved to San Antonio, Texas where he joined a group called “Road Apple.”  He also became a sideman for a number of legendary performers like Etta James, Marvin Gay, Bill Watrous, Willie Nelson, Richie Cole, Paul Gonsalves and Pete Fountain.  He’s currently a well-appreciated educator and owns a recording studio where he stays busy producing both music and jingles.  With the release of this album, he can cross another accomplishment off of his “Bucket List” and add to his biography, ‘success as a big band leader.’

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WALTER WHITE – “BBXL” – Independent Label

Walter White, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer/arranger; Gary Schunk, piano; James Simonson, Rubin Rodriguez & Jack Dryden, bass; Jeff Trudell & Graham Hawthorne, drums; Oscar Cruz, congas; Pablo Batisto, percussion; SAXOPHONES: Tristan Cappel/alto; Donnell Snyder, tenor/baritone; Alex Foster, soprano/alto/tenor; Ron Blake, alto/tenor; Steve Kenyon, baritone; TROMBONES: Conrad Herwig, Dave Masko, Adam Machaskee, Altin Sencalar, Chris Glassman & David Taylor; TRUMPETS: Wayne Bergeron& Ken Robinson.

Walter White composed the first track, titled “Atlantic Bridge.” In liner notes, he explains the title as an imaginary bridge between Galicia, Spain and New York City.  The catchy tune is based on a Galician bagpipe melody.  White’s lush arrangement has a big band propensity with the sounds of Spain juxtaposed against a bebop feel.  The ensemble comes out swinging hard and Alex Foster offers a sparkling soprano saxophone solo.  “Blue Rondo a la Turk” begins with a royal horn announcement after which, Gary Schunk’s piano steps into the spotlight, bold and bluesy.  This is another dynamic arrangement by Walter White that paints the face of this Dave Brubeck jazz standard with brand, new make-up.

“I was excited to arrange Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” as a commission for the Detroit Jazz Festival’s Tribute to Brubeck.  Chris Brubeck showed me his dad’s chord voicings, which I incorporated into the chart.  Not many piano players can handle a part as difficult as this as well as Gary Schunk,” Walter White explained.

There are two more familiar jazz standards that follow including Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and Horace Silver’s popular “Nica’s Dream.”  This was originally arranged for Maynard Ferguson’s band.  At one point in his colorful career, White was a member of Maynard’s aggregation, proudly swapping double high C’s with Maynard and being featured as a soloist by his boyhood idol.  He also played with the Woody Herman orchestra, Harry Connick Jr., the Mingus Big Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, the Manhattan jazz Orchestra and Arturo Sandoval.

Then comes a Walter White original, “Portus Apostoli” performed with just Schunk at piano and White’s trumpet taking center stage at the introduction.  You can marvel at all his Dizzy Gillespie-type high notes that whistle from the bell of his horn.  Walter White plays with concentrated emotional connection a warm, vibrant tone.  Another of his original compositions closes this record out titled, “Yo Conecto.” It’s a spirited, Latin-flavored piece with background voices that chant the title as Walter White’s trumpet dips and dives above the invigorating horn section.  This tune is named after an ancient seaport near Noia, Spain.  It was written as a tribute to White’s friend, Kenny Wheeler, who had a profound impact on Walter’s playing and writing.

“Rick Margitza’s elegant tenor solo is a highlight as he melodically navigates the complex chord changes,” White compliments one of many iconic players who make up his big band sound.

Because it took two-years, at various studios and locations around the globe, you will notice the listing of several and various musicians who participated in this work of art.  Many are band leaders in their own right. This is an all-star effort that elevates Walter White, the trumpeter, arranger and composer as another one of our unsung heroes in jazz.  His dexterity and emotional delivery on his horn is memorable throughout.  White’s arrangements are lush and beautifully executed.  You can feel the excitement soaring from your CD player.  Perhaps White himself sums up the experience best when he said:

“After all the tracks were recorded, I got back to my studio and felt like a hyped-up kid on Halloween night dumping out my stash to tally up the goodies.  I got a lot of king-sized treats!!”

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CÉSAR OROZCO & KAMARATA JAZZ – “ROOTED FORWARD” – Independent Label

César Orozco, piano/keyboard/composer/arranger/lead vocals; Rodner Padilla, elec. bass; Gabriel Vivas, double bass; Pablo Bencid, drums; Jorge Glem, Venezuelan cuatro; Diego ‘El Negro’ Alvarez, batcusion/ Cajon/Afro-Venezuelan drums (cumaco, clarin & laures); Fran Vielma, congas/guiro/Afro-venezuelan drums; Roberto Moreno, congas/quinto/chekere/clave/cata; Troy Roberts, tenor  & soprano saxophone; Antonio Luis Orta, tenor, soprano & alto saxophone; Tyler Mire & Alex Norris, trumpets; Luke Brimhall & Natasha Bravo, trombone; Marcial Isturiz, lead vocals; Zamira Briceno & David Alastre, backing vocals.

“When I started to plan the album during the summer of 2019, I thought it was time to do an album that could showcase my composer and arranger side a little bit more than I had on the previous ones,” César Orozco affirmed in his press package.

With this production, Orozco has incorporated roots of traditional rhythms from Venezuela and Cuba.  You will hear Cuban danzon, son, chachacha, Venezuelan joropo, merengue and Afro-Cuban styles, obvious and beautiful, weaved into these arrangements, along with contemporary harmonies, sweet tastes of big band salsa, a mixture of meters, tempos and the key element of jazz; that exhibits improvisation galore.  On Track 1, The horns rule. Their harmonic arrangement blasts open the stage drapes and the song, “Heavy Waver” features a stellar trumpet solo by Alex Norris propelled by brilliant, percussive energy provided by Diego Alvarez and Jorge Glem’s cuatro.  The addition of Jorge Glem’s Cuatro instrument adds spice to this production.  The instrument is very close to a guitar sound.  Next, the ensemble pulls back the curtains for César Orozco to showcase his piano magic.  His hands move like a wand across the keyboard, spinning out melodic notes and improvisation.  The tune is happy, exuberant and is one of seven songs penned by César Orozco.  This album spotlights his composer strength.  It is steeped in various hot rhythms and lovely, flavored melodies that our ears soak up and enjoy.  These songs are invigorating and reflective of Orozco’s rich culture.  At the same time, these arrangements move forward into a more contemporary and modern jazz world.  This is reflected in the album’s title, “Rooted Forward.”    César Orozco has cleverly orchestrated this music to not only entertain, but to embrace the best of both worlds.

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RAPHAEL PANNIER – “FAUNE” – French Paradox

Raphael Pannier, drums/composer/arranger; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone/musical director; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Francois Moutin, upright bass; Giorgi Mikadze, classical piano.

Opening with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” composition, drummer, Raphael Pannier, displays a certain fearlessness.  The song starts out so beautifully poignant and emotional with Miguel Zenon’s alto saxophone pushing loneliness through the bell of his horn.  When Aaron Goldberg solos on piano, he continues the emotional rendering.  Beneath all that emotion is Raphael Pannier, pushing, prodding, electrifying us with his technical skills on the drums.  As Zenon weeps and moans with his horn, Pannier takes a spirited percussive solo.  Then, Francois Moutin walks up on his double bass and the studio goes absolutely quiet.  Just the plucking fingers of Moutin, telling his bass story with intention and grace.  This is a stellar arrangement!

Raphael Pannier was born in Paris in 1990 and started playing drums at age five.  By thirteen, he was performing professionally and soon earned a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston.  He honed his skills with the exceptional tutelage of jazz drum legends Terri Lyne Carrington, Ralph Peterson Jr., and Hal Crook.  Currently living in Harlem, New York, Pannier is always pushing himself to learn more, study more, and create more.  He completed his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music and attended the competitive Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  He received a scholarship to study with Mark Turner and Alex Sipiagin at the “Generations” workshop in Switzerland and won 1st prize in the Six Strings Theory Competition organized by Lee Ritenour, legendary guitarist.  Always inquisitive, for a while Pannier performed a unique fusion between jazz and Mugham.  Mugham is a traditional, highly complex music from Azerbaijan.  On this debut album, “Faune,” he displays his artistic vision as a drummer and composer.  Pannier also showcases his composer skills, spotlights his drumming mastery and balances his music between traditional jazz, his French culture and classical roots and Modern jazz.   His musical director’s Puerto Rican and Latin jazz traditions blow from the bell of Miguel Zenon’s horn.  He adds spice to the project.  This is Pannier’s premiere recording as a band leader and he sought out the warm tradition and brilliance on piano that Aaron Goldberg brings to his project.  He wanted the hot, Latin excitement that Miguel Zenon interprets on his saxophone and the freedom and exceptional creativity that self-taught bassist, Francois Moutin offers.  Additionally, Raphael enlisted the talents of Giorgi Mikadze, who is a classical Georgian Pianist, to solidify the traditional classical scores they play on this album.  So, there you have Faune; an album title that translates to ‘wildlife’ or animal spirit in a mythical sense.  This is a reference often made to French painters and the modernism of Debussy and Mallarmé.  In a beautiful way, Raphael Pannier colors and paints with his drum sticks and brushes.  You hear him, even on ballads like his composition “Lullaby” always coloring the music with interesting rhythms and techniques.  On his original composition, “Midtown Blues,” Raphael dances and taps, accenting the breaks and shuffling fluidly beneath Moutin’s intriguing bass solo.  Pannier has penned seven compositions for this debut release, including a very exciting introduction into the Miles Davis jazz standard, “ESP.”  The production gains momentum, as the quartet plays, taking off into space like a swarm of startled Starlings or frightened Doves.  Goldberg shines during his piano solo.  The composition, “Fauna,” is very pretty, very classical and as always colored vividly with Pannier’s creative drums.  Giorgi Mikadze adds his classical touch on Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Baiser de L’Enfant Jesus,” and Ravel’s “Forlane” composition.  But my favorite is the contrasting between classical and jazz, when Zenon’s saxophone brightens Mikadze’s piano interpretations on Raphael Pannier’s tune, “Monkey Puzzle Tree.”  This is a complex and very well produced album by a budding star on the jazz drummer horizon.

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BEN ROSENBLUM – “NEBULA PROJECT: KITES AND STRINGS” –  Independent Label

Ben Rosenblum, piano/accordion/composer/arranger; Wayne Tucker, trumpet; Jasper Dutz, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet; Rafael Rosa, guitar; Marty Jaffe, bass; Ben Zweig, drums/percussion/ conductor; Jeremy Corren, piano; Jake Chapman, vibraphone; Sam Chess, trombone.

Ben Rosenblum is a composer/arranger who has written eight of the ten songs on his third album release as a bandleader.  “Kites & Strings” is the first album where he is featuring his arranger talents and his original compositions.  They are songs he’s been writing over the past ten years.   The first tune, inspired by Cedar Walton’s jazz standard, “Bolivia,”is developed from a propulsive bass line by Marty Jaffe.  Once a chord vamp enters, Wayne Tucker lays down a catchy melody on his trumpet.  The song, titled “Cedar Place,” is presented in an up-tempo 7/4meter, where Rosenblum, on accordion, can dance freely. 

Track 2 is the title tune, “Kites and Strings.”  During this arrangement, I can almost see the buoyant kites floating above my head, bobbing in the wind.  The vibes of Jake Chapman add an ethereal climate to this arrangement and Rosenblum’s sensuous accordion adds an ‘old world’ flavor to a contemporary sound.  Rosenblum has surrounded himself with legendary jazz cats who have both encouraged him, inspired him and mentored his talents.  In high school, he connected with his first mentor, Israeli-born pianist, Roy Assaf.  It was Assaf who connected Rosenblum to the amazing drummer, Winard Harper, and Ben became part of Winard’s jam session house band.  Veteran vocalist, Deborah Davis, took young Rosenblum under her tutelage wings and the songbird taught him how to accompany a singer. Davis recommended the budding jazz pianist to famed bassist, Curtis Lundy and Curtis became another mentor.

“He was somebody who provided tough love in a way that was great for my development,” Ben Rosenblum recalled.

“I needed to hear about getting my left hand together and being rhythmically solid, how to lead a piano trio and the importance of listening to certain recordings.  I also received some beautiful instruction from Bruce Barth at Columbia and Frank Kimbrough at Juilliard.  I continue to learn the most playing with other people,” he asserted. 

He also studied with Vitor Goncalves and several accordion masters before touring Europe with New York-based, Croatian jazz vocalist, Astrid Kuljanic.  This “Nebula Project” is a culmination of Ben Rosenblum listening, learning, and growing into the multi-talented musician, composer, arranger and bandleader he has become.  He credits the musicians in his current group for helping him explore new horizons and interpreting his arrangements and compositions, inserting their own flavor and talents in a relaxed and natural way.

“I love playing with them so much!  They’re willing to be as adventurous musically as I want to be.  … I want to explore a lot of different styles.  Two of them have a deep knowledge of traditional jazz and hard bob and how to swing, but they’re willing to spend the hours to learn about, say, Brazilian music in a deep way,” Ben Rosenblum praises his ensemble members. 

You hear their camaraderie and individual talents throughout this production.  There is Puerto Rican Guitarist, Rafael Rosa; trumpeter Wayne Tucker, borrowed from his recent tour with vocalist Cyrille Aimee.  Wayne brings an R&B/hip hop groove to their bandstand.  Woodwind player, Jasper Dutz, is classical-minded.  Bassist, Marty Jaffe has been touring as part of Rosenblums’ trio along with drummer Ben Zweig for several years.  They cement the rhythm section like polished marble.  The addition of Rosenblum’s piano and composing skills, plus his accordion talents, bring a very European and Latin American texture to their contemporary musical arrangements. 

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YELLOWJACKETS – “JACKETS XL + WDR BIG BAND – Mack Ave Records

Russell Ferrante, piano/Fender Rhodes/Synthesizer; Bob Mintzer, tenor saxophone/EWI/flute; Dane Alderson, bass; William Kennedy, drums. WDR BIG BAND MEMBERS: Paul Shigihara, guitar; TRUMPETS: Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Andy Harderer & Ruud Breuls; TROMBONES: Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm, Andy Hunter & Mattis Cedarberg; SAXES, WOODWINDS: Johan Harlen, Kristina Brodersen, Olivier Peters, Paul Heller & Jens Neufang. PRODUCERS: Bob Mintzer, Joachim Becker & Christian Schmitt.

How exciting to hear the Yellowjackets performing with the world-famous WDR Big Band.  The Yellowjackets are celebrating their 25th album in a nearly four-decade history of electro-acoustic music.  This production spotlights the merging of electronic jazz and traditional jazz, made clearly evident when they joined forces with this Cologne, Germany-based big band. All of these original songs have been penned by Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer and former bassist with the quartet, Jimmy Haslip.  A few of the compositions recorded here also feature other co-writers.  For example, Yellowjackets’ drummer, William Kennedy, helped write their tune, “Mile High” along with Bill Gable.  This track showcases a very contemporary arrangement by Bob Mintzer, who also solos on this number, while Kennedy makes his drums talk back to the big band horn section.

Mintzer has been with the Yellow jackets group since 1990 is also the principal conductor of the WDR Big Band since 2016. He’s arranged seven of the ten tunes on this album.  Vince Mendoza arranged the other two compositions.

“The four of us are the most adaptable musicians I’ve ever worked with; any setting, any style, we know we can do it.  As for the WDR, they’re one of the best large jazz ensembles in the world.  I knew the two groups would make for a nice marriage,” Bob Mintzer shared. 

Mintzer is right.  This merge of these musical talents creates a rich, plush, orchestrated sound with tangible funk and their contemporary, spicey flavor still front and center.  On the Mintzer composition, “Red Sea” Russell Ferrante is brightly featured on piano. The horn arrangements push the groove forward like wagon wheels, rolling their harmonies around in a forward and aggressive manner.  

Track 5, “Even Song” is a mixture of funk and country/western, with tinges of gospel music woven throughout.  This is a Vince Mendoza arrangement and it features the funky guitar of Paul Shigihara as a guest soloist, along with Mintzer soloing on tenor sax, Alderson on electric bass and Ferrante on piano. Another favorite tune of mine is “Dewey.”  I thought Paul Heller’s tenor solo was stellar on a new song penned by Russell Ferrante titled, “Tokyo Tale.”  They close with the joyful “Revelation” song co-penned by Lorraine Perry.  Russell adds his blues chops to the mix on the piano and the big band swings grandly.

It was fun listening to the Yellowjackets with a big band partner.  They complement each other and lift the music.  Some of the familiar songs by the Yellowjackets, (extracted from other album releases), have been rejuvenated on this project.  Perhaps Mintzer summed it up perfectly when he stated:

“It was like putting a new set of clothes on.  This represents how the Yellowjackets play now.” 

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 BEN ZUCKER – “FIFTH SEASON” – Amalgam Records

Ben Zucker, vibraphone/composer; Mabel Kwan, piano; Eli Namay, bass; Adam Shead, drums.

Currently based in Chicago, Illinois, this is the debut recording for Ben Zucker.  He is lauded as a multi-instrumentalist, composer and improviser.  Surrounded by proficient musicians and his composer charts, Ben Zucker went into the studio with an open mind and encouraged active collaboration with his fellow peers. Their goal was to create something new and free.  Track 2 is the beginning of a suite of five songs that reflect this album title, (Fifth Season).  It reminded me of this approaching Halloween season.  At times, I can imagine some horrific monster jumping out from behind a creaking door.  Eli Namay, builds the excitement and suspense on his bass, with the vibes of Ben Zucker relaxing the listener with beautiful melodic improvisation and Mabel Kwan coloring the production on piano. This song features sudden, stark breaks that come in crescendo waves of energy.   Throughout, Adam Shead is dynamic, tasty and supportive on drums.  Track 3, is “Fifth Season II” and Track 4 is “Fifth Season III.” This suite of music builds Zucker’s improvisational concept.  There are pieces that are beautiful and show the mastery of these musicians and other moments of shock and surprise.  This is a quartet that freely explores all the possibilities in experimental music.  Zucker’s compositions are pulled, like cayenne taffy, stretching individual freedoms of expression hot, sweet and spicy.

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