January 25, 2023

By Dee Dee McNeil

February 4, 2023


Derrick Gardner, trumpet/composer/arranger; George Caldwell, piano; Obasi Akoto, bass; Kweku Sumbry, drums/African percussion; Robert Dixon, alto & tenor saxophone; Vincent Gardner, trombone.

A shower of drumbeats shatters the quiet of my listening room.  Kweku Sumbry introduces himself to me on percussion, playing a traditional drum piece called “Djemba Kan.” The Djembe drum comes from West African culture and is typically played with the hands. Sumbry is a member of Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets group.  During a 2021 summer of touring the coastal savannas of Ghana, this group visited historic African sites relative to the transatlantic slave trade. Trumpeter Derrick Gardner returned to America and headed for the studio.  The resulting nine tracks of his music strive to honor facets of the African diaspora and his experience in Ghana. This production titled; “Pan Africa” is meant to honor the African American ancestors.

In 1959, Jackie McLean composed a song called “Appointment in Ghana.”  Derrick Gardner and his group open with this song. Sumbry continues propelling the music forward on his goblet shaped Djemba drum. Gardner’s trumpet, Vincent Gardener’s trombone and Robert Dixon’s saxophone stab the melody into place, and I recall this tune from a Jackie McLean album I owned back in the sixties.  With the rhythm section laying down a blistering, up-tempo background, the horns each take spontaneous solos that dance brightly atop the groove.  I enjoy the tight harmonics that Gardner arranges to blend the horns and introduce us to the melody of “10,000 Ships.” The group gives voice to the millions of abducted Africans transported on ships to the Americas, to various islands and to parts of Europe on one horrific journey. Derrick Gardner has also composed the next track entitled, “The Sixth Village.” Africa has been broken up into five distinct pieces that are represented as North, South, East, West and Central Africa.  The African diaspora represents the sixth part, consequently his composition titled “The Sixth Village” reflects the sixth part. A missing piece that some politicians want to eliminate from our school systems and teaching platforms. The percussion brilliance of Sumbry unites with Obasi Akoto’s bass as they lay down an infectious African influenced groove.  George Caldwell steps into the spotlight with his flashy piano solo.  Another original composition by Derrick Gardner is his tribute song to mixed race, General Vincente Ramon Guerrero, who became the first Black Mexican, or person of African descent, to serve as President of Mexico.  He also abolished slavery in Mexico during his tenure. This Derrick Gardner & the Jazz Prophets project is full of history, legacy, spirituality and amazing music.

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LAKECIA BENJAMIN – “PHOENIX” – Whirlwind Recordings

Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone/vocals/synths/sound design; Victor Gould, piano/organ/ Fender Rhodes; Anastassiya Petrova, Fender Rhodes/organ; Julius “Orange Julius” Rodriguez, synths; Jahmal Nichols, double bass; Ivan Taylor, double bass & elec. Bass; E. J. Strickland, drums; Negah Santos, percussion; Josh Evans & Wallace Roney Jr., trumpet; Négah Santos, percussion; Josée Klein & Laura Epling, violin; Nicole Neely, viola; Cremaine Booker, cello. SPECIAL GUESTS: Georgia Anne Muldrow, vocals/synthesizer; Patrice Rushen, piano; Dianne Reeves, vocals; Sonia Sanchez, poet; Angela Davis, spoken word; Wayne Shorter, spoken word.

Composer, arranger, and alto saxophone player, Lakecia Benjamin opens this album with the voice of human rights activist, Angela Davis offering her spoken word message over Lakecia’s original music. A siren startles the silence awake. After Angela Davis’ short speech, Lakecia Benjamin enters with her horn section singing the minor melody. After the melodic introduction, Lakecia Benjamin flies free on her alto saxophone and improvises across the open space.  She has composed most of the music for her project and has invited a number of legendary guests to contribute their talents.

“When we came out from the pandemic we weren’t allowed to be broken.  We had to be these beautiful absorbent birds and get to work.  I wanted to highlight each month of that,” Lakecia Benjamin shared.

Consequently, by design, the compositions on “Phoenix” are meant to reflect the skillsets of her triumphant guests; a handful of women in jazz who have influenced Lakecia and the world. Georgia Anne Muldrow is featured vocally on track #3, (the title tune of Phoenix) that employs a rock drum backdrop by E. J. Strickland that beats the piece into place. Synthesizers color the arrangement and the jungle sounds of birds and beasts are somehow blended into the music.  Lakecia’s alto sax soaks up the spotlight like sunrays and she spits out her solo with power and determination.  On “Mercy” Lakecia has invited great jazz singer, Dianne Reeves to the party.  Who else could so beautifully and elegantly interpret Lakecia’s composition?  On this tune, Lakecia and Dianne have a musical conversation, (vocals and saxophone) where both become birds-in-flight, grabbing creativity and freedom by the root, with wings spread as they sail through improvisations. Victor Gould takes a spontaneous solo and strings are added to fatten and beautify the sound. This artist also features renowned poet, Sonia Sanchez who has made such an impact on America’s culture with her wise words.  A phone rings.  The voice of Sonia Sanchez tells us that “life goes on.  Life doesn’t end” inside a poem floating like hope above a solo double bass. “Peace is a Haiku Song” moves into another poem called “Blast” and Sanchez reminds us that peace is a human right.  Lakecia Benjamin also has invited contemporary jazz pianist and composer, Patrice Rushen to the studio.  She brings excitement and joy to the stage with a tune called “Jubilation.”  Lakecia adds her alto saxophone interpretations to these contemporary jazz arrangements.  This is a project of possibilities and performance; of artistic, musical paint that splashes melodic colors, hopes and dreams across an open sky.  This is black history and current events, melted together like warm chocolate icing on sweet cake.  It’s a delivery of opposites; the ying and the yang of what was and what is and what can be.  Lakecia Benjamin honors her mentors and the traditions that paved a path where she could walk tall.  But also, Lakecia strives to create a new way, a new music, a new hope, a fresh dream; one that she can share with the world.  Like the “Phoenix,” Lakecia Benjamin continues to rise towards bright new horizons and fly towards proud, rainbow-colored skies.

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Josh Sinton, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/alto flute/composer; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Christopher Hoffman, cello; Tom Rainey, drums.

The title of Josh Sinton’s CD, “Four Freedoms” references the freedom from fear, the freedom to be oneself, freedom to love and freedom from advertising. 

“At the time, I was thinking about the enormous debt I owe to the African-American community.  Not just for their cultural achievements, but also everything they’ve taught me about survival, self-sufficiency, community and beauty,” Josh Sinton writes in his press package.

Sinton began work on this project in late summer of 2020, after he received a grant that mandated, he create a new work documenting what he was thinking, feeling and how he was coping at that crucial time in our country’s history. For Sinton, it was a direct reference to the historical awakening Americans wrestled with in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police.  The nation was weeping in unison in the face of this horrific cruelty.  At the same time, the earth was dealing with a pandemic with millions dying worldwide. The importance of life and survival seemed to be on everyone’s mind.  Josh was inspired to begin this challenging project pulling from the well of his favorite African-American contrapuntists.  He wanted to compose songs that spoke to the sound of a political world; one that he wanted to live in.  A world where everyone could truly be themselves, but still account for and live with other individuals in harmony, and occupying the same time and space. Thus began his composing. His sense of musical counterpoint was informed by great musicians, including a diversity of artists like Henry Threadgill, Duke Ellington, James Brown and J.S. Bach. The conceptual music he created is Avant-garde, melodically lyrical and most importantly free. This reviewer has a deep appreciation for a well-played baritone saxophone.  Josh Sinton does not disappoint and has been one of the leading voices of Brooklyn’s creative music scene since he arrived there in 2004.  His talents have been utilized in the bands of Anthony Braxton, Nate Wooley and Darcy James Argue.  Additionally, Josh Sinton has led his own bands, including Ideal Bread, Predicate Trio and this current Predicate Quartet.  In 2020, he was named ‘Rising Star’ in the baritone saxophone category of the Down Beat Critics’ Poll.  Sinton’s current project offers five songs titled Step, Gateway, Blood, Shards and Violets.  Each of these compositions is reflective of this project’s title, “4 Freedoms” and strives to musically express appreciation for Black History and the continuing African American struggle and their positive contributions to society worldwide.

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CHRISTIAN McBRIDE – “HEAD BEDLAM” (single release from “PRIME”) – Mack Ave Records

Speaking of Avant-garde, contemporary jazz, bass player Christian McBride has released a single from his “New Jawn Prime” album. 

It moves from wildly chaotic to ultra cool, led by a transition on Christian McBride’s big bad bass. This arrangement features trumpeter, Josh Evans along with Marcus Strickland on saxophone and bass clarinet. The drummer is Nasheet Waits, who was on McBride’s previous Grammy nominated group recording.  I look forward to listening when McBride’s entire CD production is released in 2023.

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Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone/composer; Mobetta Ledbetter, Jason Stewart & David Pulphus, acoustic bass; Davell Crawford & Kyle Roussel, piano; Arnold Little III, guitar; Chris Severin, bass; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Glenn Finister Andrews & Herlin Riley, drums; Alexey Marti, congas; Tonya Boyd-Cannon, vocals; Glen David Andrews, whistle/vocals.

UPTOWN JAZZ ORCHESTRA: SAXOPHONES: Roderick Paulin & Scott Johnson, tenor saxophone; Amari Ansari & Khari Allen Lee, alto saxophone; Roger Lewis & Trevarri Huff-Boone, baritone saxophone; Gregory ‘Speedo’ Agid, clarinet. TRUMPETS:  Andrew Baham, Scott Frock, John Gray & Mike Christie. TROMBONES: Terrance ‘Hollywood’ Taplin, T. J. Norris & Ethan Santos. SPECIAL GUEST: Branford Marsalis, tenor & soprano saxophone.

This album is a party in progress!  The shuffle tune titled “Carnival Time” opens this newly released Delfeayo Marsalis CD.  It features Andrew Baham on vocals and a tight, harmonic horn section by the Delfeayo Marsalis Uptown Jazz Orchestra. They splash my listening space with joy.  Track #2 is another rhythm and blues-based tune that mirrors the magic of New Orleans and reflects its historic jazz roots. 

The popularity and development of jazz in New Orleans blossomed from bandleaders like cornetist, Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden. It began sometime around 1895 when Bolden formed his popular band.  His membership was similar to the Delfeayo Marsalis congregation, although smaller in size.  Buddy Bolden’s ensemble consisted of Cornet, Clarinet, Trombone, guitar, bass and drums.  Like Delfeayo’s group, Bolden’s music was full of joy and inspired dancing.  Other jazz stars that were mentored by the New Orleans jazz scene were Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Joe Oliver and Johnny and Warren Dodds, to name just a few.  Like those before him, Delfeayo Marsalis and his famous brothers were born and bred on this New Orleans jazz scene, being taught and inspired by their legendary father, Ellis Marsalis Jr.  Delfeayo seems to have music history in the palm of his hands and the bell of his horn.

The composition “Big Chief” features Glen David Andrews whistling like a flute to introduce this swinging tune.  Andrews also sings and there is a show-stopping tenor saxophone solo by Branford Marsalis. The orchestra arrangements are plush and joyful, with various drummers punching the rhythm and encouraging me to get up and dance. The song “Uptown Boogie” reminds me of a Ray Charles tune when Ray used to sing “oh-o – o -o, Mary Ann.”  Delfeayo Marsalis composed this one and takes a solo on trombone, introducing us to the melody followed by the trumpet solo of Andrew Baham.  The sensuous sax solo by Branford Marsalis is quite beautiful.  This entire album is stuffed with happiness and proudly displays the roots of jazz with New Orleans flair and gusto.  Delfeayo Marsalis has composed four of the songs on this production. Celebrated as a respected musician, composer and producer, to date Delfeayo has produced over 120 recordings.  He has received one Grammy award and several Grammy nominations.  Marsalis formed the Uptown Jazz Orchestra in 2008.  In the year 2000, Marsalis founded the Uptown Music Theatre, a non-profit organization that empowers youth.  He has also written sixteen musicals and composed over 100 songs that introduce youth to jazz.  He’s proudly reached over ten thousand students nationally with his “Swinging with the Cool School Jazz Workshops.”

“This album is a celebration of the greatness of New Orleans culture.  Mardi Gras is an interesting time because people who are not from New Orleans descend upon the city and want to have a big party. … But when everybody leaves, the community is still here. The music of Earl King of The Meters or Professor Longhair represents how they lived and who they were as humans.  We wanted to do our best to honor that legacy and besides, it’s just so funky!” Delfeayo Marsallis praises his city and his music.

If you’re looking for something to boost your day and brighten your life, every one of the dozen songs on this “Mardi Gras Day” production are well-written, perfectly arranged and full of high-spirited energy. 

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Congratulations to JAVON JACKSON, who I reviewed in my February 2, 2022 column. Javon been nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the “Outstanding Jazz Album” category.  The Saxophonist and composer released “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” and that album production is being considered by the 54th Annual Awards event.  The winners will be announced during their ‘Live’ TV special airing Saturday, February 25th, 2023 on BET.  In my column titled “Love Inspired Jazz Recordings” I described Javon Jackson’s CD as a project of love, projected through music with arms tightly wrapped around Christian music, hymns and spiritual songs.  Love has seen us through slavery and tragedy; war, death and rebirth; bondage, survival and the building of golden empires. Javon Jackson’s songs reflect a deep, historic, spiritual love.

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January 25, 2023

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 25, 2023


Joe McCarthy, drums/arranger/composer/bandleader; Vince Norman, session conductor/arranger/composer; Boris Kozlov, bass; Luis Perdomo, piano; Samuel Torres, percussion; Vinny Valentino, guitar; Andrew Gould & Alejandro Aviles, alto saxophone; Ben Kano & Luis Hernandez, tenor saxophone; Frank Basile, baritone saxophone; TRUMPETS: Nick Marchione, John Chudoba, Brandon Lee, & Alex Norris. TROMBONES: Mark Patterson, Ryan Kerberle, John Yao, & James Borowski (bass trombone).

Joe McCarthy’s eighteen-piece, New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band presents their take on the legendary Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite.  It’s quite astounding how Joe McCarthy and his ensemble manage to keep intact the original, classical, orchestral music and still add spunk and Afro-Cuban spice to each arrangement. This is an absolute mind-bending listening experience. For me, it’s one of the most creative and exceptional big band arranging I have heard in years. Drummer, arranger, bandleader Joe McCarthy has outdone himself on this project.  After all, the Nutcracker Suite is a world-renowned, well respected, musical work by the celebrated composer Pyotr Llyich Tchaikovsky.

“I knew that I could come up with something that had not been done before. … I did an enormous amount of study and preparation for The Pan American Nutcracker Suite.  My job was to honor Tchaikovsky, but also make the music true to a certain sound I was hearing.  We drew on influences from Venezuela, from traditional Chinese drumming, from New Orleans.  In one movement, we swing out of respect to Duke’s version, but we didn’t copy anything.  We’re able to transport people to a different place,” explained Joe McCarthy.

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” intrigues me with that beautiful baritone saxophone solo by Frank Basile and the incredible percussive splashes of fire and flame.  McCarthy describes his version of this popular composition as “cha cha meets 6/8 with a touch of adventure in the ensemble writing.”

Joe McCarthy has worked closely with comrade, Vince Norman to compose and arrange this masterpiece.  Although the album was released in Autumn of 2022, I could not forgive myself if I ignored the creativity and amazing beauty of this project. I’m late reviewing it, but this is timeless music in a unique and artistic way. The Afro Bop Alliance Big Band opens the “Chinese Dance” tune with a bizarre, but engaging hammering percussion.  McCarthy says that’s “Traditional Chinese drumming/”

“The groove and vibe bring a retro attitude.  I was fiddling with metallic sounds that stayed on the record,” McCarthy explained.

Joe McCarthy and Vince Norman have employed a variety of musical rhythms and grooves from all over the world.  You’ll hear a Venezuelan groove called Joropo on “Waltz of the Flowers,” propelled by Venezuelan pianist, Luis Perdomo, who set-up that groove with the beat falling on two and three beneath that lovely and familiar waltz melody we recognize. Vinny Valentino’s guitar struts to stage center and improvises freely. The Mambo rhythm is used to infuse “Trepak” and the McCarthy drums open that tune solo, grabbing the listener’s attention and fusing the arrangement with energy.  This is a hybrid work, produced by incorporating Latin rhythms and jazz excellence into a classical and historic music that is respected world-wide. Quoting from the liner notes of Michael Ambrosino:

“Channeling influences like Ray Barretto, Mario Bauza, Chico O’Farrill and the famed Fort Apache Band, McCarthy has honed percussive skills that extend beyond simply keeping time.”

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FALKNER EVANS – “THROUGH THE LENS” –  Consolidated Artists Publications, LLC (CAP)

Falkner Evans, solo piano.

You never know exactly what you are going to get when you read that an album is totally improvised music.  But with the first few verses played by Falkner Evans, on “Through the Lens” (his latest album) I am enchanted by his compositions and piano mastery.  Before his beloved wife Linda passed away, Falkner recalls how he used to sit at the living room piano and play whatever flowed out of his mind, soul and fingers.

“That sounds great.  Have you ever thought about going into the studio and doing something like that?” his wife would ask him. 

In the past he had shrugged the suggestion off.  He didn’t feel ready to approach such a project. But two years after his wife’s unexpected suicide, Falkner has embraced her suggestion and this album is the wonderful result.  He offers us a musical journey into his mindset, glistening with peace and beauty. As I listen to the first two compositions, starting with “Soul Witness,” a song over ten minutes long but never boring, I am drawn into the warmth. This improvised music by Evans radiates a gentle, piano expression of love. “Closeness … Desire” is nearly as long (09:28) and just as lovely, hypnotic and intriguing, like the first track.

“As musicians or as human beings, we’re always trying to find out what works for us, what doesn’t work for us and how we move forward.  I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I knew that I could do this,” Falkner asserts.

“Through the Lens” reveals the aching, loving emotion buried deep inside Falkner Evans.  It pours out of him like sweet honey from the comb.  Like honey, its sticky in the space between disc and ear, demanding we listen and taste the gorgeous freedom of this improvised music. Falkner Evans takes us from the tentative to the tender; from the passionate to prudence.  This is a musical bowl that Falkner Evans fills with equal parts of technique and imagination. He takes his bittersweet memories and adds an equal measure of hope to create a musical palate of bright colors and tear-drenched pastels.  The rainbow of his work is in reinventing his music, along with his life, and being daring enough to share it with the world.

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Libby York, vocals; Randy Napoleon, guitar; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Keith Hall, drums.

Over a forty-year career, Libby York offers us this, her fifth album release as a bandleader and producer. Once again, she reaches into the pile of respected composer material and extracts several of not-so-familiar tunes by popular songwriters.  She opens with the Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen tune, “Hit the Road to Dreamland.”  Accompanied by the steadfast bass mastery of Rodney Whitaker and the sensitive, accompanying guitar of Randy Napoleon, the listener is drawn to Libby’s warm vocals and her easy way of delivering a song, while embellishing the lyrics with emotion. Track #2 is a somewhat obscure Jobim tune titled “Estrada Branca” (This Happy Madness). Track #3 is the Rodgers and Hart familiar “Mountain Greenery” tune. It skips into my room at an up-tempo pace. On this arrangement, (featuring Whitaker’s bass) Libby York displays her ‘swing’ skills.

York is a Chicago native and comes from a musical family.  Her father sang with big bands occasionally and wrote a nightlife column for Northwestern University student magazine.  Both parents played piano and the house was plush with recordings by Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and others celebrating the Great American Songbook. Libby York discovered singing late in life, moving to New York and studying with renowned jazz singer, composer and activist, Abbey Lincoln.  She honed her vocal abilities by singing with New York big bands. Libby interprets an Abbey Lincoln song, “Throw it Away,” on this recording that has become a jazz standard. In fact, Libby York’s phrasing reminds me a little bit of Abbey Lincoln. Ms. York’s cool, laid-back style propels us back to the days of Peggy Lee, June Christy and Julie London. 

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WILLIAM CARN – “CHOICES” – Independent Recording

William Carn, keyboards/vocals/trombones; HiFilo (aka: Todd Pentney), keyboards; William Sperandei, trumpet; Kelly Jefferson, tenor saxophone; Jesse Ryan, alto saxophone; Ernesto Cervini, Davide DiRenzo & Larnell Lewis, drums. 

Toronto-based trombonist, pianist and composer, William Carn is one of Canada’s contemporary jazz trombone players.  He has released three critically acclaimed albums that have been Juno nominated when he was part of the band, Carn Davidson 9 (with his wife Tara Davidson).  He is also a part of the Juno winning six-piece group called ‘Turboprop.’  This latest production, by William Carn, showcases his stylistic departure from these other releases. While being locked down, because of the COVID pandemic, Carn began to explore technologically driven music.  This album was composed, recorded, and conceived by Carn at his home. Guest musicians were invited to contribute to the project from their homes via the magic of computers.  Each of William Carn’s compositions represents major events happening over the past two years and were recorded, edited and mixed remotely.  His compositions reference the fear of the unknown that came with the threat of COVID 19, the Black Lives Matter movement and Hong Kong protests, the war in the Ukraine, the death of William’s beloved cat and feelings of gratitude and love.  Opening with “Breathe In” Carn offers an introduction like a meditation tape. When the bass line kicks,  Carn’s trombone takes center stage.  It’s only a minute and sixteen seconds long, so it feels like I just took a quick breath and exhaled.  Suddenly, the tune is over and I’m disappointed, because I wanted to hear more of that sound; that melody; that groove. I think this was a major missed opportunity. “The Inertia of Complacency” is Track #2, followed by “Heroyam Slava” that sounds like a sad hymnal. It was inspired by the tragic Russian invasion and war against Ukraine. The title is in Ukrainian and translates to “Glory to the Heroes.”  “Get Up” is a strong example of the electronic, contemporary sound that William Carn is creating on this production and is my second favorite on this album. The melody lilts along with a funk drive in the rhythm section.  Carn’s trombone takes an improvisational solo, followed by Jesse Ryan providing his own creative alto saxophone solo.  The groove and mood change towards the end of this arrangement, becoming more funk-tified.  It makes for a very interesting arrangement.

William Carn’s song, “Goodbye Old Friend” is a short ballad tributing his cat. Carn ends this musical journey with a short outro titled “Breathe Out.”  Although I enjoy the tone of William Carn’s trombone, I miss the excitement and spontaneity that only a live band can offer, when they play together and exchange the magic that is created between musicians in a studio or during a ‘live’ setting. 

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Richie Goods, electric & upright bass/composer/vocals; Chien Chien Lu, vibraphone/ marimba/vocals/composer; Quintin Zoto, guitar; Allan Mcdnard, Lil john Roberts & David Frazier Jr., drums; Danny Sadownick, percussion; Big Yuki, keyboards; Shedrick Mitchell, organ/piano; Brett Williams, keyboards/Fender Rhodes; Mike King, Fender Rhodes/organ; VOCALS: Sy Smith (vocals/composer), Jamison Ross & Dr. Adolfus Lacey.

The beautiful vocal of Sy Smith snatches at my ear as her soprano floats above Richie Goods bass and Chien Chien Lu’s vibraphone on their original composition titled “Water.”  This is a perfect way to open this creative project.  It highlights the multi-dimensional, musical conversation between Goods and Lu, including Smith on this first tune.  All three have composed this piece and it’s contemporary jazz with a flair towards the unpredictable. This union between Goods and Lu began during the pandemic lock-down where they became “Connected” (bass and vibes) while hosting livestream concerts.  After this venture, they decided to work together more extensively. Both share a love for finding grooves that solidify the tunes they write and arrangements that support their creative, melodic ideas.  Goods and Lu have contributed six of the ten songs on this album.  The goal of their album is to encourage peace and love, while protesting the unwarranted violence against both African American and Asian communities. “Treasure Mountain” is Track #2, another original by the artistic pair.  This one is more ethereal with a funk beat propelled by David Frazier Jr. on drums and Goods’ rich, raw bass dancing the rhythm along.  When Chien Chien Lu’s mallets enter the picture, it brightens and colors the song. 

“Our work together has been the most natural and organic thing I have done in my career,” Goods remarked of Lu’s contribution to their partnering.

The current single release from this album is “Rain.”  This is electronic, contemporary, funk jazz that is both melodic and rhythmic.  It showcases two musical comrades, who share their compositions and their talent in a rich tapestry of creativity.  They are definitely “Connected.”

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JOE LOCKE – “MAKRAM” Label Circle 9 Records

Joe Locke, vibraphone/keyboards/composer; Jim Ridl, piano/keyboards/composer; Lorin Cohen, acoustic & electric bass/composer; Samvel Sarkisyan, drums/cymbals/composer. SPECIAL GUESTS: Doug Beavers, trombone; Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone; Eric C. Davis, French horn; Samir Nasr Eddine, oud; Bahaa Daou, riq (small tambourine); Tim Garland, soprano saxophone/bass clarinet/flute.

Joe Locke is a master of his instrument, and after all these years as a performing vibraphonist, composer and bandleader, this project reiterates that he is still growing and expanding his creativity.  The title, “Makram” is a tribute to Lebanese bassist, Makram Aboul Hosn. This project measures the brilliance and buoyancy of Joe Locke’s fifty-plus-year career in music. It also spotlights the incredible talents of his bandmates. They open the “Makram” album with a familiar, up-tempo jazz arrangement of “Love for Sale.”  On this Track #1, Jim Ridl takes a breathtaking solo on piano, fingers racing across the piece, chasing the fast tempo, and never stumbling or wavering.  Samvel Sarkisyan is tenacious on drums, bright as a shiny piece of gold and just as valuable. Joe Locke follows this exciting, up-tempo arrangement with a beautiful ballad that he has composed called, “Raise Heaven (for Roy).” This arrangement invites horns to the table and the musical meal is bountiful. Some of Locke’s compositions and arrangements border on rock and others on contemporary fusion. Joe Locke attributes his influences on the vibraphone to Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson. Some years ago, he and Hutcherson performed a tribute concert to Milt Jackson together. I discovered this historic video (below).

The bass player has penned “Interwoven Hues” and it’s a strong composition with a bebop, straight-ahead feel.  Lorin Cohen steps forward to take an impressive bass solo after Jim Ridl sparkles on the eight-eight keys. This is one of my favorite tunes on Locke’s album, along with Joe Locke’s “Elegy For Us All,” a song that mirrors Locke’s activist-side and his concern with the dark forces that threaten democracy in the United States. Locke is concerned about attempts to roll-back decades of progress made since the Civil Rights era. Joe Locke’s tenderness and mastery on his instrument continues and is quite evident on the beautiful jazz standard by Strayhorn, “Lush Life.”  His vibraphone solo closes this impressive album with shining flair and sweet resolve.

Locke found joy in playing drums and studying piano at age eight. Five years later, he was smitten by his love for the vibraphone. He began playing in rock bands at first. As a teenager, he discovered the beauty and intoxication of jazz. This infatuation with music continued academically. He attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.  In 1981, he moved to New York City and found work as a sideman with legendary musicians like Kenny Barron, Freddy Cole, Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Eddie Henderson.  As a bandleader he has recorded nearly thirty albums and has contributed his talents, playing with notable artists like Grover Washington, Cecil Taylor, Dianne Reeves, Eddie Palmieri, Ron Carter and even the Beastie Boys. This album will surely become another strong notch in a belt that has encircled the jazz scene for over half century.

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Doug MacDonald, guitar/composer/bandleader; Bill Cunliffe & Andy Langham, piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Paul Kreibich, drums; SAXOPHONES: Kim Richmond, Alex Budman, Rickey Woodard & Glen Bergre, tenor saxophones; Tim McKay, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Mike Campagna, Dan Fornero, Carl Saunders & Aaron Janik. TROMBONES: Ira Nepus, Les Benedict, Ivan Malespin & Rich Bullock (bass trombone).

Southern California based guitarist, Doug MacDonald enters 2023 with a new release featuring his “Big Band Extravaganza.”  This is his first all-star, 17-piece jazz orchestra project that features all original music except the standard, “But Not For Me.”  Throughout his career, Doug MacDonald has released several recordings in a variety of settings, but this is his first-time recording, composing and arranging for a big band.  They open swinging hard on Doug’s composition, “Toluca Lake Jazz.”  Led by the bass of Chuck Berghofer, Track #2 is called “Rashomon” and is arranged in a light Latin way with Kim Richmond flying like a wild bird above the melodic rhythm track before Doug MacDonald enters with his guitar solo.  “Luces Azules” is soaked in the blues and “Aventura En Triadas” spotlights Doug MacDonald’s guitar talents and a lovely baritone saxophone solo by Tim McKay.  On “Desert Jazz” tenor sax man, Rickey Woodard takes stage center along with trumpeter Aaron Janik.  On every one of these nine original songs penned by MacDonald, he soaks up the spotlight on his guitar. However, he has arranged these big band charts to include the diversity of Southern California talent he has invited to the studio. The crème de la crème of Los Angeles jazz players make magic with MacDonald’s arrangements and interpret his songs with precision and creativity.

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January 15, 2023

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 15, 2023


Jesse Davis, alto saxophone; Spike Wilner, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums.

After listening to five minutes of this amazing alto saxophone player, I was wondering why I had never heard of Jesse Davis.  It could be because this album was produced on the East Coast with New York players, but more likely it’s because Jesse Davis has been living in Italy for nearly twenty years, as basically a treasure and a gift to the European jazz scene.  On this “Live” encounter at Smalls Jazz Club in NYC he merges with Peter Washington on bass, Joe Farnsworth on drums and Spike Wilner on piano to let us all know he’s back on the American scene in a wonderful way!

They open with Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy.”  Each of these stellar players takes time to introduce themselves into the arrangements with brilliant solos.  This is the kind of bebop that pulls me into the production like an ocean whirlpool.  Jesse Davis has been playing his jazzy horn for almost forty years and his tone and timing takes me back to the 1950 – 1960 jazz days when jazz wasn’t just an artform, but it was a way of life. It was a time when the hip crowd lived and breathed jazz. Jesse Davis and his quartet push the hands of the clock back to those cool days when Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lester Young, Milt Jackson, Chet Baker and vocalists like Betty ‘Bebop’ Carter and Carmen McCrae were all the rage. John Coltrane’s “Impressions” was being played on radio stations across the globe and Herbie Hancock was making history with his “Maiden Voyage.”  “All Blues” was on my record player 24/7 and Charlie Parker had set the bar high for the jazz scene to jump over and above. This quartet brings back memories of that time and place, when Horace Silver and Ahmad Jamal were stirring things up and I was dancing in Detroit blue-lit basements to “Poinciana.”   On Track #2, the familiar jazz anthem of “Ceora” features Spike Wilner showing off his mastery on grand piano. 

Jesse Davis arrived in New York City in the late 1980s from New Orleans where he had studied with Ellis Marsalis at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts.  Spike Wilner describes Jesse as “….an old man even when he was a kid.  I can’t think of any other jazz musicians from my generation as authentic as Jesse Davis.  Jesse is the real deal!” The pianist sings his bandleader’s praises.

On “These Foolish Things” Jesse Davis pours so much sweetness into the tune he could put sugar out of business.  Peter Washington struts his stuff on an impressive double bass solo.  They make this lovely old ballad brand new and shiny. On The Monk tune, “Rhythm-a-Ning,” Joe Farnsworth steps into the spotlight on drums and is dynamic. Every tune is masterfully played, and this is an album featuring great musicians and awesome jazz compositions. I will play this Jesse Davis recording over and over again.  His music makes for a very Happy New Year! 

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Trevor Dunn, bass/composer; Mary Halvorson, guitar; Ches Smith, drums/timpani/conga; Carla Kihlstedt, viola/violin’ Oscar Noriega, bass clarinet/clarinet in B flat; Mariel Roberts, cello; Anna Webber, alto flute/flute in C.

According to the Dunn press package, Trevor Dunn was born in 1968, and at age thirteen, he discovered the electric bass. Four years later, at seventeen, he co-founded the Avant-rock band, ‘Mr. Bungle.’  Ever since recognizing that music was his path, he has been torn between rock music, jazz, chamber music and the Avant-garde.  This album reflects his conundrum, moving between musical worlds like a restless hawk searching for prey. It also explores eclectic inspirations from a 1962 album by saxophone great, Paul Desmond and guitarist, Jim Hall (that was paired with strings).  Somehow, he has mixed his love of chamber music and jazz with a very unique and historic time in French Christian history, when an 18th century sect developed their music, prayers and fevered worship into forms of convulsions and miracles; sometimes orgiastic displays of the divine and often challenging, transcendent music born of séance chants. Thus, the title he has chosen for this production reflects that call to the dead and departed in the form of “Seances.”

Trevor Dunn is referring to some, historically considered heretics by fellow servants of God in the 18th century France community. After the death of a beloved deacon, the deacon’s tomb became the center of certain phenomena.  People began to say they were healed when they visited his tomb and several miracles are documented.  Eventually, the church of Saint Medard was built on that site, but closed in 1732 because of all the strange stories and consistent activity.  The Convulsionnaires were banished, but they kept up their seances in private homes.  (Note the title of Dunn’s quartet is named after them; Convulsant.)  Trevor Dunn braids that historic information into this project with musical arrangements that both intimidate and fracture the space between compact disc and the listener ears. 

Dunn explains: “The name of the band comes from a Surrealist concept.  So, when I read about the Convulsionnaires, it felt like returning back to the origins of that.  Whether you believe these miracles happened or not, the idea of mass hysteria and group belief is fascinating to me.  So, this one, weird, obscure concept became a kind of unifying principle for this album. I don’t know how much my research informed the actual music beyond the subliminal, but interesting accidents happen sometimes, and I like to grab onto those accidents.”

This is a production that crashes into space with molecular force, explodes all around the listener, floating like confetti through the air, with broken pieces of improvisation and strips of melodies that flutter in the air like a New Year’s Eve celebration.

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Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Eric Harland, drums; Matt Brewer, bass.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba has composed all the music for this Trio D’ete album and it is brilliant, like his piano playing, his orchestration, his arranging and his creativity.  When I see his name, I know I am about to experience something amazing and completely unique. This new album, by Grammy Award winning pianist, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, introduces a new trio to his fans.  The last trio production he recorded featured Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette on “Skyline” and they won a Grammy Award in 2022 for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.  I loved that album, and I find this recent endeavor just as beautiful, complex, and worthy of an award or two.  The week before Christmas, Eric Harland and Matt Brewer met with Gonzalo to discuss this project and rehearse for two days before entering the studio for a 3-day session. There is a warm camaraderie between these musicians.

“I’ve seen Matt’s evolution quite closely. He’s very open minded, curious to learn and absorb as much as he can. … We toured, including Havana Jazz Festival with Pedrito Martinez as a guest.  After the concert, Matt and Marcus (Gilmore) visited many well-known people related to Afro-Cuban religions and Afro-Cuban music and tried to absorb as much of the ambience that they could.  Matt actually bought a set of bata, and brought it to his house in New York, where he studied with Roman Diaz. That helps a lot when we play together,” Gonzalo Rubalcaba expressed.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Eric Harland have known each other since 2007, when they were part of the Monterey All-Star unit that toured the United States and they recorded one album.

This recent album opens with a tune called “Infantil,” an original composition Rubalcaba wrote for guitar legend, John McLaughlin.  The structure employs metric modulations, with staccato chords that move from funk to Latin to straight-ahead jazz. Rubalcaba’s fingers move as swiftly as hummingbird wings across the black and white keys. Harland’s drums punctuate in all the right places.

“He’s (John McLaughlin) always had the feeling of someone who has remained fresh and active and curious over so many decades, keeping the attitude of a young rebel,” Gonzalo explained the powerful and creative  arrangement he wrote that  tributes McLaughlin.

Throughout this awesome album, the rhythms are challenging and often become angular with complex timing that mixes melodies, harmonies and rhythms in various and surprise situations.  Perhaps Harland best explained this ability and complex musical challenge in the “Turning Point” liner notes.  He talks about the instant simpatico between himself and Rubalcaba.

“Gonzalo’s first instrument was classical percussion and my first instrument was piano,” says Harland. “So, we both have an understanding of harmony and also how rhythm can be moved around.  We feel the relationship between drums and piano.”

“Turning” is straight-ahead beautiful and up-tempo.  It speeds off the cd like a car hitting a patch of black ice. 

This is an album plush with brilliance, Bolero’s, unique compositions and master musicianship that showcases the mind and talent of composer/pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and his bandmates. 

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Harvie S., acoustic bass/composer; Roni Ben-Hur, guitar/composer; Sylvia Cuenca, drums.

The combination of two string instruments and a set of trap drums is comforting in its simplicity.  This trio opens with the Miles Davis/Gil Evans composition, “Boplicity.”  I enjoy the way first the guitar sings the melody and then the bass sings the next verse.  They are gently edged forward by the prodding drum sticks of Sylvia Cuenca. When the bass solos, the guitar gently chords rhythm changes in the background and when Roni Ben-Hur solos on guitar, Harvie S. walks his bass, providing a strong rhythm track to support his guitar brilliance.  On track #2, “For Duke P.” (a Bobby Hutcherson composition), Roni Ben-Hur takes off like a jet plane, doubling the tempo on his guitar and racing into the universe, accompanied by Sylvia’s steady drum beat.  The trio is straight-ahead and pushing through space with a steady drive; a musical spaceship. Even with the energy and up-tempo, there is still a feeling of warmth and comfort that radiates from these three musicians.

“We listen intently, and we play with a lot of generosity toward each other,” Roni Ben-Hur explained their warm camaraderie in the liner notes.

On “The Gentle Art of Love” their lovely ballad arrangement features a stunning solo by Harvie S. on upright bass, playing the melody and shimmering in the spotlight.  This is a beautiful Oscar Pettiford tune and while Roni Ben-Hur strums his guitar, the bass offering is like a warm blanket. It covers us with its quiet, rich beauty and warmth.  When Ben-Hur enters on guitar, he brings his own magic to the forefront.  The Harvie S. original composition, simply titled, “Ray,” features Harvie S. on bass, setting the tempo, along with Sylvia Cuenca at the top.  He introduces the melody and after one verse, Roni Ben-Hur joins in on guitar and they sing the melody in unison. It’s a very catchy, happy melody that will make you want to sing along. This song was written for the great bassist, Ray Brown.  Like Harvie S., Co-leader, Roni Ben-Hur has composed one song for this project.  It’s called “What Was” and is infused with Latin rhythm. Both Harvie S. and Roni Ben-Hur are very melodic composers. Their repertoire also sparkles with jazz standards we know and love  This album is very easy on the ears and leaves a sweet taste on your musical palate that might make you go back for one more taste.

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John Paul McGee, piano/vocals/composer; Joel Powell, bass; Tyson Jackson, drums; Michael Walton, saxophone; Zebulon Ellis, Kenneth Lowe, Wendi Henderson-Wyatt & Amber Bullock, vocals; string arrangements by Roy Cotton.

John Paul McGee may arguably be one of the most gifted, classically trained millennial piano players to incorporate gospel, jazz and European classical music into one brilliant project.  At age four, John Paul’s mother noticed her son’s ability to play and reproduce church hymns and familiar songs he heard on the radio at the piano.  She made sure he got a solid education in music to enhance his natural, God-given abilities.  Fondly called ‘JP’ by friends and family, his talents have projected him onto the stages of prominent gospel artists including Yolanda Adams, The Clark Sisters, Donnie McClurkin, and the NFL Players Choir.  He has also performed with legends like Patti Labelle, Najee and in 2014, John Paul McGee released his own instrumental holiday project called, “A Christmas With John Paul.”  That album debuted in the top 10 on Billboard’s Gospel chart. 

JP’s current release offers the listener seventeen songs that John Paul McGee has arranged, including several gospel compositions, a couple of jazz tunes, as well as one of his original compositions. I am captivated by Track #3, the familiar “Amazing Grace” gospel song, that features Michael Walton on saxophone.  It was taped during a ‘live’ concert and John Paul McGee’s piano skills glisten in the spotlight. The ensemble’s arrangement is all jazz when presenting this age-old spiritual.  It makes for a creative transformation. This is followed by “The Fount.”  The original title is “Come Thou Fount” and is a spiritual song that JP has re-arranged. It too was performed ‘live’ to a receptive and appreciative audience. His piano playing has a way of drawing the listener into the music.  The first six songs on this “Gospejazzical” album are reflections about the gift of life.  The second six songs on this project reflect  life after the human experience has ended.  On Artie Butler’s standard song, “Here’s To Life” Roy Cotton adds string arrangements to fatten the beautiful, piano accompaniment by John Paul. Featured vocalist, Wendi Henderson-Wyatt, does a lovely job of interpreting this song, often taking liberties with the melody that are quite surprising.  Her interpretation is improvisational, gospel and quite jazzy. 

This is followed by John Paul’s original composition titled “Manifest” that is introduced by a very classical, one-minute and thirty-three second “Manifest Overture.”  “When we all Get to Heaven” is another awesome combination of gospel music and jazz, with a straight-ahead feel that manages to incorporate a shuffle into the arrangement.  Joel Powell’s bass solo is outstanding.  Tyson Jackson also takes time to shine, exhibiting his talents on trap drums during this arrangement.  John Paul McGee’s fingers dance across the keyboard like acrobats.  JP’s piano playing on “The Lord Will Make A Way” features Kenneth Lowe on vocals, and reminds me of a Les McCann-type groove. This is an exciting introduction to John Paul McGee and his unique style of combining deep rooted spirituality with gospel, jazz and his classical training.  He incorporates several talented people into this production, but the star of this album is absolutely John Paul McGee and his amazing piano brilliance.

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Loren Daniels, piano/vocals/background vocals; Belden Bullock, bass; Jonathon Peretz, drums. GUEST APPEARANCE: Reggie Pittman, flugelhorn.

Pianist and vocalist, Loren Daniels, has transformed the John Lennon and Paul McCartney pop music of the 1960s into 21st Century modernized jazz.  With originality and the help of Belden Bullock on bass and Jonathon Peretz on drums, Daniels reintroduces us to familiar songs like “Drive My Car” and “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride.”   I enjoy the Les McCann-take on “Drive My Car” with a strong R&B influenced groove.  On “Ticket to Ride” Jonathon Peretz cuts loose and slams a drum solo into place that’s memorable. The funk feeling on “I’m Only Sleeping” is propelled by Bullock’s bass line and the Peretz drumsticks.  Daniels lets his voice float atop the track, soft as puffy clouds across a blue sky.  He layers background voices that keep the arrangement modern and surprises the listener. The vocal arrangements grab my attention with their closely applied harmonics.  This is a wonderful adventure into the Beatles music with delightful, new, and pleasing arrangements.  For example, “Eight Days A Week” is arranged in 5/4 time and it makes the song sound brand new.  On the fade of many of the songs, Loren Daniels shows off his scat skills.  The familiar “Come Together” tune reinvents itself with an unexpected bass line and jazzy background voices that sound like the ‘Take 6’ group. Although Loren Daniels is not a great jazz vocalist, he is an amazing vocal arranger, and he shines as a producer and pianist.  This album made me appreciate the music of McCartney and Lennon in a whole new light.

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John Bailey, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; George Cables, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Victor Lewis, drums/cymbals.

If straight-ahead jazz is your ‘thing,’ this album is one that you will certainly enjoy.  With “Time Bandits” horn master John Bailey explores the vitality of the jazz trumpet tradition.  The opening, original composition by John Bailey is the title tune.  It blasts from my CD player like the starting point of the Indianapolis 500 racetrack. These players sound, not only like masters of their instruments, but they also sound hungry to play.  This is Bailey’s third album as a bandleader and the quartet laid these tracks down at Van Gelder’s Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in early 2022.  It’s a dream team, for sure.  Bailey is proud to have each member of his trio onboard.

“George (Cables) is deeply inspiring.  He first blew me away when I heard Dexter Gordon’s ‘Manhattan Symphonie’ as a teen.  When we met, I quickly felt his warmth and generosity, both musically and personally,” John Bailey shared.

When Bailey speaks about in-demand bassist, Scott Colley, he says: “At the Village Vanguard, performing duo with guitarist Jim Hall, I could see that he was not only a virtuoso on his instrument, but also a stunningly empathic musician.  Great pitch, great swing and great ears; all qualities that musicians value highly!”

To top off the excellence of his rhythm section is the great Victor Lewis on drums.  Lewis has performed with Grover Washington, Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer and was a main stay of the Kenny Barron Quintet. He passes on his legacy as part of the faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey, inspiring drummers and coaching jazz combos.

On this project, John Bailey shows his composer skills to the maximum, starting with the title tune, then with “Various Nefarious” that is a jab at the COVID virus and the resulting pandemic with its nefarious variants.  It has a gospel feel to the arrangement which is not surprising since Bailey spent many years with the Ray Charles ensemble.  “Rose” is a twelve-tone composition, with staccato breaks and a bass/trumpet duet that opens the tune. Throughout, Victor Lewis is creative and tenacious on drums, driving the tunes forward and always on point. He takes a spirited solo towards the end of this tune that soaks up the spotlight like a bright yellow sponge.  They close with a John Bailey original titled “Groove Samba.” It’s a song that makes me glad to be alive.  A hip-shaking, foot-tapping, finger-snapping tune where George Cable dances over the eighty-eight keys, laying down not only melodic lines but grooving with blues chords and rhythmic piano excitement.  He inspires John Bailey into action on his trumpet and then provides a soulful cushion for Scott Colley to strut his bass solo. Drummer Victor Lewis smashes onto the fade like gangbusters and New Year’s Eve fireworks.    

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EDDIE PALMIERI PRESENTS SONIDO SOLAR – Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Zaccai Curtis, piano/arranger; Luques Curtis, bass/arranger; Marcos Lopez, bongos/cowbell; Reinaldo de Jesus, congas; Camilo Molina, timbales/drums; Jeremy Powell, tenor saxophone; Joe Fiedler, trombone; Jonathan Powell, trumpet/arranger; Louis Fouche, alto saxophone/arranger.  SPECIAL GUEST: Eddie Palmieri, piano.

On December 18th, Eddie Palmieri celebrated his eight-fifth birthday.  The NEA Jazz Master continues to explore his musical horizons by experimenting with new ensemble settings and investing in the younger music generation.  This album was recorded to celebrate his iconic Latin musicianship and legend by presenting an album that calls itself “Sonido Solar.”  That translates to Solar Sound.  Palmieri, who is celebrated as “The Sun of Latin Music” makes a guest appearance on track seven and eight, but for the other seven songs the production features pianist, Zaccai Curtis and his youthful bandmates. Every tune is full of joy. The remarkable happiness that salsa and Latin jazz brings to the world is reflected in this repertoire. 

“I would put my reputation on the line with these musicians and countless others that have graced my performances.  But I must say the last decade has rejuvenated me more than ever.  The young musicians that are on this musical project have given me the fortitude to write and play piano at another level,” Palmieri shares in his press package.

Favorite tunes for this reviewer are “Mambo Inn” arranged by trumpeter, Jonathan Powell.  This is a tune that will pull every wallflower onto the dance floor with a melody that’s hypnotizing.  Another favorite is the Clare Fischer composition, “Morning” that is arranged by the bassist, Luques Curtis. The brilliant percussion of Camilo Molina on timbales and drums and Reinaldo de Jesus on congas propels this music forward like a bullet train.  Marcos Lopez, on bongos and cowbell, greatly assists with the energy and rhythm.  On Track six, “Obsesion,” the percussion players are given free rein and they shine!  The horns punch the tune emphatically, lifting the arrangement with their power and precision. On “Picadillo,” a song that features the great Eddie Palmieri on piano, Luques Curtis opens the tune with a strong bass solo and Palmieri quickly soaks up the spotlight with his creativity on the eighty-eight keys. By the time the horns enter, the fire has been set and with the horn solos, the band is set aflame. The music is spicy hot. This is a nine-track production of beloved Latin jazz standards and an Eddie Palmieri and Louis Fouche original tune called “Suite 176.”  If your spirit needs lifting, just pop this CD into your player and enjoy.

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Kari Kirkland, vocals; Shelly Berg, keyboards/arranger; Peter Erskine, drums; Dean Parks, guitar; Brian Kilgore, percussion; Kevin Axt &  Carlitos del Puerto, bass; Terrel Stafford, Michael Gutierrez & Camilo Molina, trumpet; Jason Arkins & David Mason, saxophone; Brandon Bryant, trombone; Budapest Scoring Orchestra, strings.

Kari Kirkland opens this project by ‘covering’ Michael Jackson’s hit record, “I Can’t Help It” reinventing the pop smash into a contemporary jazz arrangement. Her whispery voice merges with her talented musicians, floating atop their jazzy interpretation of “Since I Fell For You” in a very sexy and vulnerable way.  The guitar solo by Dean Parks settles the blues/pop tune into a comfortable jazz arena, followed by pianist, producer/arranger, Shelly Berg’s solo.  I love the way these musicians and Kirkland reinvent these familiar pop tunes into a comfortable jazz format.  At the fade of this song, bassist Kevin Axt steps stage center with a short but dynamic presence.  There is something innocent about Kari Kirkland’s tone and presentation.  A trumpet fits perfectly, complimenting her tone and the arrangement on the Coldplay hit, “Fix It.”  When the guitar enters, the arrangement moves from jazz to rock and the background voices fatten the sound, with the drummer slamming the ‘rock’ into place.  As the child of two touring musicians, it’s not surprising that Kari landed in the music business after being a trapeze artist, a circus performer and producer, also a private chef who sang gigs at night.  There is heart and soul in her singing that comes from living life to its fullest.  It’s not that she has a stylized jazz voice or spectacular range, but it’s the honesty and sincerity you feel as she sings you these stories that draws you to the artist.  Kari Kirkland knows how to touch your heart with her emotional deliveries.  She also has chosen songs that fit her range and suit the title of this album perfectly. Her bluesy, sincere delivery of “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” makes every lyric come alive and meaningful.  Kari Kirkland knows how to sell a song. 

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January 2, 2023

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 2, 2023


Eric Goletz, trombone/arranger/piano.  SPECIAL GUESTS: Don Braden, soprano saxophone; LaJuan Carter, vocals. THE BAND:  Henry Heinitsh, guitar; Jim Ridl, piano; Brian Glassman, acoustic & electric bass/contra bass; Marco Panascia, electric bass; Steve Johns, drums; Joe Mowatt, percussion.  THE STRINGS: Robin Zeh & Paul Woodiel, violins; Michael Roth & David Gold, violas; Sarah Hewitt-Roth, cello.

This ensemble opens with the familiar jazz standard, “Now’s the Time” a Charlie Parker classic.  The arrangement is hip and swings hard, featuring Don Braden on soprano saxophone.  This is an album of standards arranged by trombonist and featured artist, Eric Goletz.  Jim Ridl is outstanding on piano throughout, and he shows off his creativity and dexterity on “Just in Time.” The tune “Caravan” is arranged as a sexy, slow ballad rather than the speedy, up-temp approach of many bands.  On this tune, Eric Goletz shines on trombone. 

Goletz has a thirty-year career as a studio musician.  He’s a native of Denver, Colorado, but has been based in New York City for many years.  His father was a pianist and a lover of big bands.  Young Goletz studied classical guitar, piano and music theory starting at age six.  By age fourteen, Eric had fallen madly in love with the trombone and was certain music would be his career path.  Surrounded by a number of excellent musicians, Goletz presents standard jazz songs we know and love, arranged and inspired by his vivid creativity.  You will hear his jazzy take on pop songs like “Windmills of Your Mind” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” where Eric Goletz plays piano and trombone.  Some of my favorites on this album are “Nutville” and the R&B tinted vocals of LaJuan Carter sparkle on “Nature Boy.” His vocals are unique and powerfully delivered, with strings sprucing things up in the background.  I enjoyed the “Train Shuffle” and the jazz waltz arrangement on “Jungle Juice.”  Brian Glassman opens with the Horace Silver composition, “Mayreh” featuring a slow swing walking bass, but the arrangement soon doubles the tempo and speeds ahead, buoyed by the busy drum sticks of Steve Johns.  This quickly becomes one of my favorites, with all the bebop flair, fire, and groove that I love!

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Steve Fidyk, drums/composer/producer; Christopher Ziemba, Piano; Brian Charette, organ; Jeff Barone, Michael Kramer, Parris Spivey, & Jack Wilkins, guitar; Regan Brough Micah Jones, Nathan Kawaller, & Jack Synoski, bass; SAXOPHONES: Mark Allen, Mike Cemprola, Chris Farr, Daniel Henson, Joseph Henson, Josh Lee, Xavier Perez & Walt Weiskopf. TRUMPETS: Luke Brandon, Graham Breedlove, Kevin Burns, Andrew Carson, Thomas Eby, Tamela Fidyk, Matt Gallagher, Chris Kaplan, Tim Leahey, Tyler Mire & Fareed Simpson-Hankins. TROMBONES: Scott Blanke, Hailey Brinnel, Kevin Cerovich, Sam Gellerstein, Ian Kaufman, Jake Kraft, Randy Kapralick, Omeed E. Nyman & Harry Watters.

Drummer, Steve FIdyk and his Live Wire Broad Band have partnered with “Team No Kid Hungry” to create a project showcasing swinging, big band arrangements and Fidyk’s wonderful, original compositions.  A portion of CD sales will be donated to this worthy non-profit organization.  Opening with “Bebop Operations,” one of nine original compositions by Fidyk, the band comes storming onto the scene.   Tim Leahey steps into the spotlight on trumpet and Walt Weiskopf also pleases the ear with his tenor saxophone solo.  Track #2, “The Flip Flopper” features Brian Charette on organ and Kevin Cerovich on trombone with Steve Fidyk solid and powerful on drums, always pushing the arrangements ahead like a snowplow. 

“As a jazz drummer, I’m always searching for new, rhythmic combinations that I can integrate into my playing style (as well as my writing).  The opening phrases of “Untimely” are constructed with segments of 5/8 and 7/8-time signatures.  Each phrase is then coupled with a two-measure drum solo break that acts as a conduit for the next section of the form,” Steve Fidyk explained about his tune titled, “Untimely.” Jack Wilkins sounds amazing on guitar and the horn harmonies are arranged beautifully by Andrew Carson.  In fact, all the arrangements of these original compositions by Fidyk are tight, creative and exciting.  They exploit the merging of contemporary styles with big band swing and bebop jazz.  Fidyk’s polyrhythmic message is both engaging and tenacious.  This is his fourth date as a leader and features all-star band members pulled from popular bands like the Buddy Rich Big Band, the Count Basie Orchestra, The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau, The Army Blues, The Navy Commodores and The Airmen of Note. What’s not to love?  This product will be available in February of 2023.

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Skip Grasso, guitar/composer; Harvie S., bass; Anthony Pocetti, piano/organ/electric piano; Billy Drummond, drums.

Skip Grasso’s guitar solo floats off my CD player like a cotton-candy cloud; sweet, ethereal, and tasty to my senses.  The tune is called “Belew’s Knot” and it’s one of eight original songs on this album that Grasso has written.  “Becoming” is his album debut as a bandleader and showcases Skip Grasso’s composer talents with well-written and melodic tunes, as well as his mastery of the guitar.   Grasso has earned a Masters of Music from the University of North Texas and currently inspires others as an adjunct professor at Mount Saint Mary’s University.  He also teaches privately.  Somewhere, in whatever spare time is left, he has managed to author two books of guitar transcriptions.  One is Vital Blues Guitar: Freddie King and the other is Vital Blues Guitar: Gatemouth Brown.  Anthony Pocetti adds organ to a song called “Three Simple Truths” that blends beautifully with Grasso’s guitar.  It’s arranged as a haunting ballad, but Skip Grasso double times some of his guitar solo and the piece has a deeply rooted blues attitude that permeates their arrangement. They pick up the tempo on “Don’t Forget,” a samba composition by Grasso.  The bandleader is admired and respected in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, where he has been working consistently as a single, a trio, in jazz combos and big bands alike.  A gig is a gig is a gig, as they say. 

His quartet is supportive, and they give life to his compositions with their expert musicianship.  The happy-go-lucky tune titled “Garry on a Bike Ride” is played at a moderate tempo and there is interesting and creative interplay between Grasso’s guitar solo followed by Anthony Pocetti’s Piano offering.  The final tune slow-swings its way onto the scene and is called “Spring Forward.”  I imagine this is only the start for Skip Grasso as a recording artist, and it’s the beginning of a fine climb up the ladder towards further musical accomplishments and success.  The release date for his album is February 1, 2023.

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FRED HERSCH & esperanza spalding – “ALIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD” – Palmetto Records

Fred Hersch, piano/composer; esperanza spalding, vocals.

When you put two prolific and masterful musicians together, performing as a free-form duo, they let their improvisational ideas lead the way.  Consequently, we get a memorable and magical recording.  During this live performance, recorded in October of 2018 at the Village Vanguard in NYC, Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding (her name purposefully spelled in all small letters) offer us a glimpse into the eccentricity and freedom jazz inspires.  Both artists are at the top of their game. They have joined forces to show what two jazz musicians can do to reinterpret songs we know and love and some we may not even recognize.  For example, Fred Hersch has composed “Dream of Monk” and they present an innovative production of his original song that isn’t as familiar at the Gershwin tune, “But Not For Me.” They open their first set with this old standard.  esperanza spalding talks freely to her audience, creating soprano melodies atop the sound track that Hersch creates on Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes.”  This type of recording is both unique and captivating.  It distinguishes the real jazz artists from those who claim to be jazz musicians.  A true jazz artist takes risks and can improvise freely over chord changes without practice or memorized rehearsals.  This music of Hersch and spalding shows the art and genius of an improvised concert.  This is Fred Hersch’s sixth recording at the heralded Village Vanguard jazz club. 

“I like to live on the edge in my music, but I find myself trying things that I usually wouldn’t when I play with him, (Fred), finding new spaces to explore in the realm of improvised lyrics,” explains the bassist and jazz vocalist. 

Although esperanza spalding, as a rule, doesn’t sing standards, on this partnership with Fred Hersch she puts aside her bass and explores her vocal range, her scatting and in-person relationship with the audience. 

“I don’t think anybody’s heard Esperanza sing like this.  She’s a fearless vocalist and is one of the biggest talents I know,” Hersch sings her praises.

Fred Hersch himself, is a creative force of energy at the piano, as well as being a composer, arranger and superb accompanist. Together they jump from the recognizable to the impromptu, from the expected to the unforeseen and from the sizzling skillet to the roaring flame. Both award winning artists push the envelope edges to their maximum points of expression. They fascinate us with their creativity and startling freedom.  Neither is afraid to jump from their musical helicopter without a parachute, and they take us along, on the plunging, joyful, exciting ride to somewhere we never expected to go.

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THE HEAVY HITTERS – Cellar Music Group

Mike LeDonne, piano/composer; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone/composer; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Vincent Herring, alto Saxophone; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums; Rale Micic, guitar.

The horns enter like a proclamation calling the royal court to order.  Drummer, Kenny Washington, soaks up the attention with his amazing and dramatic drum fills.  I expect to see the king appear, like a computer generated holographic, rising from this royal recording as it spins on my CD player. These horns announce a royal entrance, then. boldly, the kings of jazz wave their instruments and make the music come alive.  This first tune comes racing at the speed of lightening, burning up everything in its path.  Mike LeDonne is formidable on piano, a force of nature!  He is also one of the main composers on this project.  On “Hub,” the title of track one, I had to play it twice to ingest all the various musical nuances and to enjoy these master musicians as they soloed.  Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet solo startles my ears with beauty and power.  LeDonne’s song, “Silverdust” sounds like a jazz standard as it shuffles across my listening space.  I’m a bebop lover, so this album becomes high on my list of excellence for the New Year.  Every song is well-arranged, and co-leader, Eric Alexander has composed two songs; “Chainsaw” that features Rale Micic on guitar and “This is Something New” that reminds me of the ‘Miles Ahead’ days.  Their tribute to Cedar Walton with LeDonne’s “Cedar Land” gives Mike LeDonne an opportunity to explore the eighty-eight keys in his own inimitable way.  Peter Washington is given a bright platform to showcase his bass skills during the tune “Bluesit” and the arrangement spotlights a drum solo by Kenny Washington.

This record was born from a close relationship between LeDonne and Eric Alexander over a twenty-five-year friendship.  They are co-leaders of this project.  LeDonne, best known for his sideman work with Milt Jackson and Benny Golson, is heralded as an astounding hard bop pianist.  Eric Alexander is known for his harmonic imagination and beautiful tone.  He’s a working studio musician with his horn gracing over eighty albums and several album releases as a bandleader.  Together, these two ‘Heavy Hitters’ offer us a smokin’ hot production featuring five other heavy-hitters and a product plush with crème de la crème of both musicianship and original compositions.

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Ann Hampton Callaway, vocals; Ted Rosenthal, piano; Martin Wind, bass; Tim Horner, drums; Bob Mann, guitar. SPECIAL GUEST: John Pizzarelli, guitar/vocals.

Ann Hampton Callaway tributes the voice, legacy and repertoire of the great Peggy Lee on this, her most recent album release.  She opens with the hit record that put both Peggy Lee, and the original recording artist, Little Willie John on the map; “Fever.”  She has plucked some wonderful standards from Ms. Lee’s recordings including “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and the R&B hit, “The Glory of Love.”  I enjoy the swing arrangement by John Proulx of “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” Additionally, there are very artistic pieces, like “Clair De Lune” that Ann Hampton Callaway arranged to include an unpublished poem by Peggy Lee is beautifully executed. Ann Hampton Callaway puts on her blues shoes and steps into the tune “Black Coffee” with emotional conviction.  “The Other Part of Me” was co-written by Peggy Lee for the 1983 Broadway Musical “Peg” with music and arrangement by Paul Horner.  “Johnny Guitar” features the mastery of Bob Mann inserting a brief, but poignant solo on guitar and Ann’s rendition of “Where Can I Go Without You?” brought back a mass of wonderful memories.  I wonder why more vocalists don’t sing this one?  It’s such a great lyric.  Bob Mann is back with a guitar solo, and he also arranged this tune.  Hampton Callaway’s vocals dance atop the bass line of Martin Wind to open her medley of “This is a Very Special Day” blended with “It’s a Good Day.”  The band shuffles this one in a happy-go-lucky-way.   Ann Hampton Callaway speaks warmly about Peggy Lee and her contributions to music in the liner notes of this album.

“Peggy Lee’s voice was one of the first to awaken my musical imagination.  Her sultry, soulful sounds were purring on my parents’ Hi-Fi from the get-go. . . .  And that inimitable voice belonged to a trailblazer who, by being tenaciously true to herself, paved the way for artists like me to forge an adventurous, creative life.  I think of her as the first famous female singer-songwriter.  In a world dominated by men, she stepped off the canary confines of the bandstand and into the spotlight, cultivating her singing and writing talents with the best and brightest in music.  Though she was a bombshell beauty, she never allowed herself to be merely an object – – she was always the ‘subject.’  Her intelligence charged her sex appeal and music with a timeless allure. . . . She was that rare jazz singer who taught me that it’s not enough to sing songs; you must live, act and become them,” Ann expressed.

Ann Hampton Callaway took those lessons to heart, as you will hear on this recording.         

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DAVE STRYKER – “PRIME” – Strikezone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar/composer/producer; Jared Gold, organ; McClenty Hunter, drums.

After the Dave Stryker trio came off an exciting summer tour opening for Steely Dan, they packaged that energy and raced into the studio to edit and master “Prime.”  On the very first album track (the title tune), they come out the gate like impatient horses at the Kentucky Derby.  Stryker sets the mood with his powerful guitar solo, followed by Jared Gold on organ who matches the leader’s tenacity.  Drummer, McClenty Hunter, as always, is a driving force for the trio.  Stryker has penned eight compositions for this project and added the standard, “I Should Care” for good measure.  This music was recorded ‘live’ and you can feel the spontaneity and camaraderie between these old friends.  Dave explained how the project came to be.

“Due to the pandemic, in lieu of travelling, we were given the opportunity to tape a show that could be streamed by the venue.  Inspired by getting the chance to play together again, after eight months in lockdown and knowing we would be in the studio, I was motivated to write an album of new music. … I decided we would record live in the studio with just one take per song and no overdubbing.  The connection, interplay and fire of the group was captured on that day and we’re happy to now share with you the music of our trio in its ‘Prime’,” Stryker wrote in his press package.

Per usual, Dave Stryker and his trio unit give us an excellent production of organ, drums and guitar mastery.  This album will be released February 3, 2023. 

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KENNY BARRON – “THE SOURCE” – Artwork Records

Kenny Barron, solo piano.

The great Kenny Barron, an NEA Jazz Master, has not recorded a solo piano album since 1981, more than forty years ago.  In the interim, he has been nominated for eleven Grammy awards.  Barron is a legend in the jazz music world and a man who breaks down walls and hurdles over obstacles to create new music and reinvent the old.  He is forever challenging himself to move forward and upward.  Kenny Barron is his own worst critic.

“Playing solo is still nerve-racking.  After the first song, it usually goes away.  It’s the initial feeling of sitting down alone.  You realize there’s no one else to cover you if you make a mistake.  You’re out there by yourself.  Which is okay.  But it always takes a minute to realize that it’s okay,” Barron shares his truth with sincerity. 

“You’re always your most critical peer.  You always hear what you missed, what you didn’t play right.  But the listener can’t react to what your intentions are.  They can only react to what they hear.  If you’re connecting with them on an emotional level, that’s what matters,” the amazing piano master explains.

“The Source” is an album consisting of four Kenny Barron original compositions and five standard jazz tunes.  “What If” challenges his rhythmic left hand to hold the tempo steady as his right hand syncopates the melody atop his almost stride piano arrangement.  Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s tune, “Isfahan” settles things down and allows the listener to catch their breath after the stunning first track.  You will hear Barron reinterpret Thelonious Monk songs, reinvent the tune “I’m Confessin’” and introduce us to his originality on compositions like the exciting Sunshower, Phantoms and the beautiful, Dolores Street, SF. His solo piano concert is masterful and entertaining.  Always brilliant on piano, Kenny Barron is a joy to behold and a talent to salute.

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CLAUDIA ACUÑA – “DUO” Ropeadope Records

Claudia Acuña, voice/Bombo Leguero; Kenny Barron, Carolina Calvache, Fred Hersch & Arturo O’Farrill, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Russell Malone, guitar; Regina Carter, violin.

The tone and talent of Claudia Acuña is wrapped in pure emotion, like a unexpected, gorgeous gift.  When you hear her songs, you feel their depth.  It doesn’t matter whether you speak Spanish or not.  She will engage you with her passion.  On this recording Claudia joins a group of brilliant musicians, recording each selection individually with one pianist, guitarist, violinist or bassist at a time.  Thus, the title of this album is “Duo.”  She and Kenny Barron open with “Media Noche” that brims with drama. Enter Christian McBride on track #2, titled “Eclipse de Luna” with his bass setting the groove and tempo during the introduction. Claudia Acuña’s voice glows atop his bass line with power and enthusiasm as she sings her story of the moon.  The tinkling of notes in the upper register of the piano signal the accompaniment of Carolina Calvache on piano during the arrangement of “Razon de Vivir.” On this unique project, seven of the songs come from composers hailing from Chile, Cuba, Argentina and Mexico, with one, “Crystal Silence” coming from the pen of Chick Corea that Claudia performs solo.  Fred Hersch joins Acuña during their interpretation of “Jurame” and it’s reflective and beautiful!  Her vocals dip and dive, sounding the way we talk when we excitedly tell a story to a friend. The melody is lovely, and their interaction unfolds like the petals of a rose; rich and fragrant.  Another stunning song was “Manifesto” that links Claudia Acuña’s performance with the magic and mystic violin of Regina Carter. This may be one of my favorites on this album of brilliance, although I do also love “Jurame.”  The violin and Acuña’s voice seem to have a natural affinity with each other, natural as two friends linking arms and dancing down the avenue. Other duets include the brilliance of Russell Malone on guitar.  There is a palpable warmth between the two artists as Claudia hums along with his warm chords. Finally, the legendary Arturo O’Farrill sits before the piano.  There is excitement and tenderness that resonates from this duet presentation, with much emotion, Latin fire and spark flying from both O’Farrill and Acuña.  Claudia Acuña closes the album out with her own composition, “Yo” playing the Bombo Leguero percussion instrument. Here is an album of art and creativity that should win another Grammy nomination or better yet, the award itself. 

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December 19, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 19, 2022


Rob Alley, trumpet/composer; Jon Noffsinger, alto saxophone/composer; Gary Wheat, tenor saxophone/composer; Daniel Western, baritone saxophone/composer; Tom Wolfe, acoustic & electric guitars; Chris Kozak, double & electric basses; Michael Glaser, drum set.

Caught in the Middle – YouTube

The Birmingham Seven ensemble immediately reminds me of the bebop era with their straight-ahead dynamics and swinging arrangements. This is the group’s premier recording, although they have been working together off and on, for over twenty-five years.  They formed this Birmingham Seven ensemble in 2006 and they are not only fine musicians, but they are fine friends too.  Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they offer eleven original compositions by various horn members in the group and every tune sounds like a jazz standard. Daniel Western has composed most of the songs, and his baritone saxophone is beautiful to my ears.  If you are a lover of music by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, these beautiful melodies, rooted in ‘swing’ and featuring dance tune arrangements is the perfect album for you.

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Santi Debriano, bass/composer/arranger; Adrian Alvarado, guitar; Mamiko Watanabe, piano; Robby Ameen, drums; Emile Turner, trumpet; TK Blue, alto saxophone; Tommy Morimoto, tenor saxophone; Ray Scro, baritone saxophone; Andrea Brachfeld, flute.

Santi Debriano is an emigrant to the United States from Panama.  He arrived here at age four, with music propelling his life and ultimately his career.  As a composer, he has translated the roots of Afro-Caribbean tradition and West African ritual into his compositions. Along with his Arkestra Bembe, bassist Debriano uses the power of music to introduce the listener to Yoruba tribal influence and melodies that celebrate food, drink, music and dance. He incorporates these cultures seamlessly into his music.

Santi Debriano & Arkestra Bembe Imaginary Guinea – YouTube

Santi Debriano is quite well-known on the NYC jazz scene as a communal practitioner, inviting jazz musicians to gather and inspire each other.  His place of music also became a sanctuary for frustrated musicians during the pandemic lockdown.  They came to play and it was during these impromptu sessions that Santi Debriano began composing the songs you will hear on this album. His imagination bloomed and grew like the endangered Quora, an off-white orchid celebrated as the National Flower of Panama.  You will enjoy the sweetness and lovely melodies that Debriano creates, using his Arkestra Bembe to translate this original music from the page to the stage. Favorite tunes on this album are: “Imaginary Guinea” and the happy-go-lucky tune titled “Spunky.”  You will have heard this music on several television shows as a show theme.  Ray Scro thrills me with his baritone saxophone solo on this arrangement. “Basilar” is another unforgettable tune with its staccato horn lines and catchy melody.  When Santi Debriano steps into the spotlight and solos, his rich, solid bass mastery is beautiful and formidable.  Andrea Brachfeld soars like a dancing butterfly on the flute with Debriano’s bass pumping the tune ahead like a steam engine. Whenever Adrian Alvarado enters to spotlight his guitar, I am both stunned and entertained by his improvisational creativity.  “Mr. Monk” sounds a lot like something Thelonious Monk could have composed and of course is a tribute to the American, genius, piano player and composer.  The final tune, “Portrait” is a solo performance by Santi Debriano where he shows his brilliance on the bass. These songs are intimate, spontaneously arranged, and they offer a platform and stage for these amazing musicians to shine warmly. Like Christmas decorations, Santi Debriano & Arkestra Bembe sparkle!

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TED KOOSHIAN, “HUBUB!” – Summit Records

Ted Kooshian, piano/electric keyboard/arranger/composer; Greg Joseph, drums; Dick Sarpola, bass/elec. Bass; David Silliman, percussion; Katie Jacoby, violin; Summer Boggess, cello; John Bailey, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone; Jim Mola, vocals.

Ted Kooshian’s fingers skip across the piano and awaken the glee and joy of this holiday season. It’s his fifth album and the first one that showcases Kooshian’s composer talents.  Every tune is spirited, with horn harmonies woven into arrangements like crochet needles into yarn.  The final product is rich, creative and warm like a Christmas sweater. Ted Kooshian started loving jazz in the seventh grade. He grew up in the Bay area of Northern California and after hearing his band director play an Oscar Peterson record, Ted was hooked on jazz.

“Man, that’s what I want to do!”  Ted Kooshian affirmed and never looked back. 

His original compositions traces chapters of his life.  For example, “Sparkplug – She Came to Play” is a tribute to his beloved eleven-year-old dog. Ted’s piano fingers race, as if they are chasing the ball that his dog is sprinting after.  There are dissonant chords, mainly during the introduction, that remind me of the canine tumbling and falling happily in tall grass. 

Sparkplug – She Came to Play – YouTube

The title track was written in 1992, upon Ted’s return to the bustling lifestyle of New York City and leaping into the “hubbub” of it all.  “Wandelen” translates from Dutch to ‘walking,’ a pastime that Ted Kooshian enjoys daily. Trumpeter John Bailey” takes a hearty solo during this animated arrangement, as does Jeff Lederer on tenor saxophone.  The only song on this album that isn’t an original is the familiar “Somewhere” composition by Leonard Bernstein. “Schiermonnikoog” is a mouthful and the title of a song inspired by the smallest Dutch North Sea island,a place he and his wife visited when vacationing in that part of the world. 

Ted Kooshian has been blending his love of music and jazz as a member of the Ed Palermo Big Band for nearly thirty years and explores his love of rock music when touring with groups like, ‘The Who’. You will hear this rock influence during his original composition arrangement of “McQueen.”  This song exposes his love of action heroes as does the tune “Shatner” that’s an ode to one of Kooshian’s lifelong heroes, William Shatner, from the original Star Trek show.   

“I’m a huge fan and have been since the sixties,” Kooshian admits. “I saw his show on Broadway twice and saw him at a Star Trek convention once.  Hopefully he’ll like this tune that I dedicated to him.”

Ted Kooshian’s talented piano hands have accompanied numerous super stars including Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Edgar Winter, Marvin Hamlisch, Sarah Brightman, Blood, Sweat & Tears and II Divo.  He’s also found work on Broadway, playing behind such outstanding hit shows as The Lion Kind, Aida, Mamma Mia and more.  If you’re in New York any time soon, you’ll find him perched behind the grand piano five nights a week at Center Bar, one floor below Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time/Warner Building.

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David Bloom, alto flute/composer/co-producer; Cliff Colnot, arranger/co-producer; Ryan Cohan, piano; Larry Kohut, acoustic bass; Jose Porcayo, bass; Ron Hall, electric bass; Dana Hall & Khari Parker, drums; Joe Rendon, congas/bongo; Luis Rosario, timbales; Albert Sierra, bongos; Donnie Simmons, percussion; David Bugher, vibraphone; Kraig McCreary, guitar; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Mike Smith, soprano & alto saxophone; Anthony Bruno, tenor saxophone; Scott Burns, Ted Hogarth & Linda Van Dyke, baritone saxophone; Mary Stolper & Jennifer Clippert, alto flute; Tim Munro & Alyce Johnson, flute; Victor Garcia & Joe Clark, trumpet; Constantine Alexander, Rob Parton, Don Sickler & Joe Clark, flugelhorns; Joe Sanchez & John Yeh, clarinet/bass clarinet; Andrew Nogal & Anna Velzo, oboe; Miles Maner & Bill Buchman, bassoon; Steve Duncan, Tim Coffman & Tom Garling, trombones; Anne Bach, English horn; Dave Griffin & Oto Carrillo, horn in F; Alyce Johnson & Jennifer Clippert, piccolo; Scott Metlicka, alto & bass flute. VIOLINS: Stefan Hersh, Brian Hong, Roberta Freier, Paul Zafer, Carmen Abelson, Rika Seko, Carmen Kassinger, Teresa Fream, Yuan-Qing Yu, Minghuan Xu, Peter Labella, Clayton Penrose-Whitmore, Baird Dodge, Robert Hanford, Sheila Hanford, Sharon Polifrone, Brian Ostrega, Myra Hinrichs & Janis Sakai. SOLO VIOLIN: Paul Zafer. CELLOS: Steve Balderston, Brant Taylor, Jocylyn Butler, Hope Shepherd, Joshua Zajac. Bass Cello: Rob Kassinger. SOLO CELLO: Steve Balderston. VIOLA: Sixto Franco Chorda, Li Kua Chang, Anthony Devroye. 

Like so many frustrated musicians during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, David Bloom found himself composing music like crazy.  It gushed out of him like a faucet, spraying his creative room with ideas and splashing those ideas on music paper. During a time when COVID 19 was ravishing the earth, Bloom composed thirty tunes.  Fifteen of these appear on this album. The ensemble opens with a tribute to one of his students who passed away during these challenging and chaotic times. It’s titled, “Mischievous Mark Colby” and features the soprano saxophone excellence of Dave Liebman. Liebman also appears on the title tune, “Shadow of a Soul.” Bloom joins him on alto flute in a moody arrangement. The composition “Samba” dances off the CD and makes me want to shake hips across the room.  Ryan Cohan is dynamic on piano. Joe Rendon adds percussive pepper and spice to the thick stew of joyful rhythms. To surprise us, Cliff Colnot has arranged strings to compliment this happy tune. Bloom has written a song to celebrate the great Eddie Palmieri titled “For Eddie P” and it swings with a Latin flair that’s flashy and rhythmic. Anthony Bruno soaks up the spotlight, playing his tenor saxophone with gusto and the percussion soars. Trumpeters Victor Garcia and Joe Clark are outstanding, acting as clear motivators for these energetic percussion players. This song will make you happy, no matter what your mood! 

For Eddie P. (Palmieri) Composed by David Bloom – YouTube

David Bloom was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and is multi-talented.  He is a composer, an educator, an artistic painter and a musician.  At age eight he was studying folk guitar and started listening to jazz at eleven years young. He has been a touring musician with several bands, but in 1981, began to concentrate all his efforts on composing. .Bloom is accomplished on alto flute. His arranger and co-producer, Cliff Colnot, is a distinguished conductor who boasts an international and respected reputation in music.  Together, they offer a project that will bring joy and excellence to the ears of any music lover.

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Gebhard Ullmann, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/composer; Steve Swell, trombone/composer; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello/electronics; Michael Zerano, drums.

Welcome to the Red Island – YouTube

I have a great love for the country of New Zealand.  It is one of the cleanest, most climate conscious countries I have visited (with the exception of Singapore) and also one of the most beautiful and pristine places on earth.  Consequently, I was eager to hear what Ullmann’s group, “The Chicago Plan” would offer musically.  Saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, Gebhard Ullmann, decided to celebrate his November 2nd birthday by releasing three exploratory and diverse records.  This production is one of them. It is an avant-garde project and spotlights the Berlin-based musician’s extraordinary talents on reed instruments. This work celebrates 65 years of Ullmann’s life and musical growth.  Steve Swell has composed half of the tunes on this album and Ullmann has composed the other half. 

Gebhard Ullmann was celebrated as one of the finest improvising artists in the world by the late, great Paul Bley. He has recorded over sixty albums, during the course of his career, nearly matching his current age. His music continues to blur the lines between improvisational freedom, contemporary classical, electric avant-garde and jazz.  In 2022, Ullman’s home country of Germany gifted him with the highest honor for music; the Deutscher Jazzpreis for Woodwinds.

“The Chicago Plan,” a transatlantic quartet, opens with a Swell composition and the title tune, “For New Zealand.”  The Swell composition features splashes of sounds and instruments that sometimes groan and roar like wild animals. In other moments, the arrangement captures the listener’s attention with moody, melodic reflections as Ullmann’s saxophone links notes with Swell’s trombone and they dance (arm in arm) across space. On Ullmann’s composition, “Welcome to the Red Island” I love the tone of his bass clarinet.  This tune is also somewhat moody. During the first half of the arrangement, I keep waiting for something to ‘jump out the bushes and grab me.’  But this classical drama piques the interest and pulls at my ear like a scolding parent.  When the trombone solo’s, the blues and jazz appear like a burglar stealing the spotlight from the classical moodiness. Gebhard and Steve are a team.  Ullmann’s musical friendship with trombone innovator, Steve Swell, goes back twenty-years. This album is a tribute, created in 2016, to draw attention to the horrible Christchurch City Mosque shootings that stunned the world.

“Steve and I have always followed our own visions, regardless of the so-called ‘rules’ that you’re supposed to follow to be successful,” Gebhard Ullmann says in his press package.

 Perhaps Ullmann sums it up best when he explains, “We always build on top of a foundation that has been laid by other musicians before us.  It doesn’t make a difference if they are musicians from the contemporary music scene, the avant-garde jazz scene, the contemporary rock scene or whatever.  If it’s good music, it’s good music, and we can find a way to build upon it.  Maybe it takes 65 years to realize that it’s all really one thing!”

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Mathieu Soucy, guitar/composer/arranger; Gentiane MG, piano; Mike De Masi, bass; Jacob Wutzke, drums; Caity Gyorgy, vocals.

Where or When (feat. Caity Gyorgy) – YouTube

Twenty-seven-year old Mathieu Soucy graduated with a degree in jazz performance from Canada’s McGill University in 2019.  He’s a blossoming jazz guitarist exhibiting his own sound and style on this, his premiere record album.  The first song is titled “Lennie’s Changes” and could be a subtle tribute to piano player Lennie Tristano, who was legendary back in the 1940s. This is a solid opening tune, that showcases a swing arrangement with a unique melody and an opportunity for each of Soucy’s musicians to step into the limelight and proffer their unique solos. Once we meet the band, Caity Gyorgy steps stage center to sing the familiar Rodger’s and Hart tune, “Where or When.”  Caity is a strong improviser and shows off her scat capabilities during this arrangement.  You can hear a lot of Ella Fitzgerald’s influence in her phrasing, and that’s a plus!   Mathieu ‘covers’ a Monk tune (Reflections) but the majority of his well-written repertoire celebrates Soucy’s own composer skills.  Here is a young, talented, up-and-coming jazz artist that I believe we will be enjoying here and into the future.

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Sam Blakeslee, trombone/electronics/composer; Chris Coles, alto saxophone; Brandon Coleman, electric guitar/electronics; Matt Wiles, electric bass/Moog synthesizer; Jamey Haddad, percussion; Dan Pugach, drums; Brian Crock, alto flute/bass clarinet.

Busy Body – YouTube

Trombonist and composer, Sam Blakeslee, has music that falls somewhere in the cracks between electronic, fusion jazz and funk.  Blakeslee explained:

“Delving into the vast world of electronic production was a way to cope with the uncertainty of 2020.”

This is Blakeslee’s second album release, and it takes a turn from chamber jazz music to a more eclectic dive into compositions that cross the lines of genre.  The title tune opens this album and is steeped in funk, perpetuated by the percussion of Jamey Haddad. The fluid alto saxophone work of Chris Coles glides over the groove and the synthesizer electronics fatten the track. When Brandon Coleman enters on electric guitar, he brings spice to the party.  His solo is on fire.  Sam Blakeslee has written all ten tunes on this project, and he incorporates electronic manipulation to diversify his arrangements. “Hollandaise Sauce” is all fusion/funk and makes me want to dance along with Dan Pugach’s drum licks, while the trombone solo of Blakeslee brightens the tune, conversing boldly with the electronics. Yes, this tune will get your body busy!  The “Wistful Thinking” group is an exploratory band project, who richly incorporate electronics into their music.  The synthesized additions are like the corn starch you stir into vegetable stew to thicken it.  It makes Sam Blakeslee’s songs pop!  They are uniquely arranged, with a young, energetic take on a more conservative jazz style. The addition of a Bass clarinet played by Brian Crock on the brief, but powerful production of “Preinterlude” is lovely. Sam steps forward on trombone during the “Wistful Thinking” tune and shows off horn talents that compliment his composer skills.  Track #5, “Klepto” leans heavily towards heavy metal rock music, with Matt Wiles driving full speed ahead on electric bass and Moog synthesizer. It’s only two minutes and twenty-seven seconds long, more like an unexpected interlude than a song.  The music and imaginative mind of Sam Blakeslee offers the jazz listener some alternative music that is both ethereal and unique. His tone and style on trombone are wonderful and his compositions demand that we fly with him, to open spaces and unusual places.

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SIRINTIP – “CARBON”- Ropeadope Records

Sirintip, vocals/vocal effects/vocoder/percussion/programming/synth bass/Thai guitar programming/deforestation & industrial programming/drill/sand/plastic trash percussion/  marimba/composer; Nolan Byrd, drums/marimba/programming synth bass/plastic trash percussion/plastic water jugs/Thai percussion programming/metal trash can/ composer; Kengchakaj Kengkamka, piano/Moog One/Moog Matriarch/Fender Rhodes/ Korg Minilogue/ Buchia 200 series modular system/ Hammond B-3 organ/ marimba/composer; Owen Broder, baritone saxophone/composer; Alex Hahn, flute; Chris McQueen, Moollon guitar; Bangkok Frogs & North Carolina Crickets, Ambient vocal performance; Daniel Migdal, violin/viola; Matthew Peterson, string arrangements; Michael League, electric bass/Minimoog Model D; Nic Hard, vocal scrubbing/synth bass programming/ electric guitar/ deforestation & industrial programming/ cube & drum programming/engineer; Mahasarakham University, Thai electric guitar/Morlam vocals/Thai percussion.

Sirintip ‘Carbon’ – Album Teaser – YouTube

Sirintip is an artist who defies boundaries and boxes.  Her whispery voice and plaintive lyrics inspire.  This project is a blend of Disco music, with pop bass lines that pump the production upward.  The first song titled “Hydrogen” jumps like fireworks from my CD player.  I can picture a smokey, blue dance hall, with speakers larger than life blowing out the walls of the room.  This song is followed by “Agi” (another original composition) that is a little more like smooth jazz than Disco, with layered tracks and layered vocals.  Sirintip uses a vocoder, percussion programming and various electronics including Thai guitar programming.  When you mix the original music, composed by Sirintip and co-writer Nolan Byrd, with assorted synthesized programs, you wind up with a refreshing and unique production that challenges the boundaries and walls of genre. This production lands somewhere between smooth jazz, pop music, Asian Disco and contemporary arrangements.  Sirintip is a master producer with knowledge of using synthesizers and a variety of electronic programs to create her unique sound and enhance her compositions. She borrows from the Hip Hop culture, and mixes in Thai and Swedish roots with a vast pool of endless imagination.  Sirintip is an internationally respected composer and lyricist.  The goal of this album is to appeal to the public and encourage a new conversation about climate change and protecting humanity’s earthly home.

“Climate change is something that affects everyone.  … I didn’t want the project to be preaching. … That’s what the news does.  I thought, what if I don’t put the message in the lyrics?  What if I compose it into the music? Then maybe people, including me, might become more curious to learn new ways for us to interact with our planet,” Sirintip explains. 

“Carbon,” is an unusual album and I’m not convinced it should be labeled jazz. Sirintip offers music that goes way beyond description.  I personally wouldn’t call her music jazz, although it incorporates an air of improvisation and uniqueness. Instead, I think Sirintip’s music leans far more towards the ‘pop’ genre. For example, on Track #12, titled “It’s Alright,” she reminds me of artist Erykah Badu, whose music blends Hip Hop with jazz and R&B.

Sirintip has a pleasurable tone of voice and her lush production, splashed brightly with electronic highlights, is quite contemporary and definitely commercial-friendly.  I applaud her vision of making the world more aware of our climate challenges and clearly, she wants to make a  difference.  This Bangkok-born singer, producer and multi-modal artist is someone to watch.  I just hope her career advisors promote her in the right lane, because she has the makings of a successful pop star.

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December 2, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 2, 2022

DIANA PANTON – “BLUE” – Independent Label  

Diana Panton, vocals; Don Thompson, piano/Fender Rhodes; Reg Schwager, guitar; Jim Vivian, bass; Phil Dwyer, saxophone; PENDERECKI QUARTET: Jeremy Bell & Jerzy Kaplanek, violin; Katie Schlaikjer, cello; Christine Vlajk, viola.

Diana Panton has a voice that’s warm like soft butter.  She has chosen a group of wonderful songs, some more familiar than others, and all with delightful lyrics containing special stories to share. She is a two-time, Canadian Juno Award winner and this album is the final installment in a trilogy of love and loss recordings. Her first release of the trilogy was titled “Pink” followed by “Red” (an interpretation in song about the passion of true love.) That was in 2015.  Now, with the release of “Blue,” she delves into heartbreak and lost love. All three releases have been carefully spread out, over a decade.

“The release dates were deliberately spread over a decade from the first to the final album in the trilogy for the music to better reflect different stages in a relationship.  I knew that my voice and perspective would be more mature if I waited to record the “Blue” album a little later in my life,” the vocalist explained.

She opens with a favorite composition of mine, “Where Do You Start?” a question that she weaves into the song with emotional believability. Then she interjects another song titled, “Once Upon a Time” and Diana Panton creates a delightful medley. Ms. Panton must have perfect pitch, because she begins this project a’ Cappella, in fine voice and emotionally charged.  About halfway through the lyrics, Don Thompson joins her on piano, and they complete the medley as a duet. Don has been Diana’s musical arranger on all of her recordings. Phil Dwyer’s saxophone brings a fresh presence to this project on her third song, “Without Your Love” that slow swings across space. During this arrangement, Diana Panton’s voice dances along and brings back memories of the 1940s swing era. Her soft, girlish voice is perfectly paired with the Sondheim lyrics to “Losing My Mind” from the 1971 musical “Follies.” I hadn’t heard “This Will Make You Laugh” composed by Irene Higginbotham.  It’s a great song with a well-written lyric that Diana Panton transmits with smooth sincerity.  Each hand-picked flower of a song is carefully unfolded by Diana’s sweet vocals, like the Alan and Marilyn Bergman & Dave Grusin collaboration, “The Trouble with Hello is Goodbye.” I enjoyed the slow bossa nova arrangement of “To Say Goodbye,” with the tinkling piano of Don Thompson sweetly coloring the piece and the addition of the Penderecki String Quartet bolsters the beauty.  Diana Panton reminds us of how important the storyline is to these wonderful compositions and pulls at our heartstrings with the stories she sings.

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Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Edward Perez, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.

During the atrocious pandemic of the 2020’s, Giant Step Arts decided to create an outdoor space for jazz to be performed in NYC.  They called Jason Palmer to come and play, offering a simultaneous recording opportunity at a very historic place on Manhattan Island.  Seneca Village was once a 19th-Century settlement of mostly African American landowners in what is today known as Central Park.  The settlement was located near the current Upper West Side neighborhood, bounded by Central Park West and the axes of 82nd Street, 89th street and Seventh Avenue.  It was the first Black American community in the city after the Dutch rule.  At its peak, the black community has approximately 225 residents, two schools, three churches and three cemeteries.  That community existed until 1857. 

It was here that the stage was set and the participating musicians took their places. The clarity and powerful, ringing tone of Jason Palmer on his trumpet called the people and quickly attracted them to this outdoors location.  Like the walls of Jericho, the invisible walls that separated us during the COVID quarantine years came tumbling down in Central Park, at the Seneca Village location. People flocked to the free jazz concerts. 

On Palmer’s first original tune, “Falling In” He plays the first three minutes a ‘Capella and then Johnathan Blake joins in on drums, making a mighty sound.  Mark Turner harmonizes on the ‘hook’ of the song with Palmer’s trumpet and Edward Perez holds the group down with his succinct bass notes, locking tightly in with Blake’s drums and additionally, soloing.  It was May 31, 2021 and the quartet was perched on Summit Rock, in Seneca Village.  Jason gave the downbeat, and the small ensemble was off and running. This was Jason Palmer’s third recording for Giant Step Arts.  He features Mark Turner on saxophone and bassist Edward Perez.  Track #2 gives the stage completely to Johnathan Blake on trap drums.  It’s an exciting nearly four-and-a-half-minute introduction to this composition “Landscape with an Obelisk (Flinck).”  When Jason Palmer and Mark Turner enter on trumpet and tenor saxophone, the speedy excitement continues.  Jason Palmer mentions in his liner notes how excited he was about this concert because it was his first gig as a leader, featuring his own compositions.  This album is lush with Palmer’s original music and the individual talents of each participating musician.  They are all exceptionally gifted musicians and bring their talents to the stage, not only to interpret the Palmer tunes, but to express their own artistry and explore innovative creativity.  This is a ‘live’ recording that would fatten any jazz lover’s collection of music.

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Richard Williams, piano/bandleader/arranger/composer; Trey Henry, bass; Bernie Dresel, drums; Brady Bills, guitar; SAXOPHONES: Eric Marienthal & Sal Lozano, alto saxophones; Brandon Fields & Dan Kaneyuki, tenor saxophones; Will Vargas, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Wayne Bergeron, Rob Schaer, Kye Palmer & Mitchell Cooper. TROMBONES: Andy Martin, Joey Sellers, Erik Hughes & Robert Todd. VOCALS: Alex Stiles, Nate Bryant, Robecca Lopez, Evon Collett, Connor Ross, Taylor Miranda, Hayley Kirkland, Dmitry Noskov, Benny Benack III, Chelsea Brooke Olson & Julie Seechuck. COMPANY B SINGERS: Hayley Kirkland, Clara Campbell, Kate Plewe. WOMEN’S CHOIR: Jean Williams, Ruth Gardner, Erika Felsted, Rose Lofthouse, Jeri Mellor& Carol Olson.  

Opening with the popular “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” Richard Williams features the smooth, jazzy vocals of Alex Stiles. Stiles is also featured vocalist on “The Christmas Song.”  Williams has orchestrated these familiar holiday songs to revisit big band jazz and Christmas orchestral music. He’s created a nice, easy-listening ride through this holiday season. 

Williams was born in Utah, but his family relocated to Salinas, CA.  As a youth, he performed in his school band beginning in early, elementary days and learned to play several instruments including trombone, clarinet, saxophones, trumpet and piano.  At a very young age he was mesmerized by the music in his mind and Richard began composing.  In college, he majored in film scoring and Japanese.  You can tell by this lush production that orchestra music is Richard Williams’ first love. He captures Christmas with a diverse choir of voices and orchestral lushness.

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Thana Alexa, vocals/percussion/additional keyboards/production; Nicole Zuraitis, vocals/keyboards; Julia Adamy, vocals/bass/synth bass; Ross Pederson, Dan Pugach & Antonio Sanchez, drums.

This trio of talented women open with a siren like chant that reminds me of the fictitious sea maidens who were purported to sing to passing sailors at sea and wrap their spell around them.  These female voices blend beautifully on “Doyenne,” their original song, as they present their specialized contemporary jazz style for our consumption. Track #2 reminds me of The Pointer Sisters and features drummer Ross Pederson propelling their tight harmonics and chant-like arrangement. Their debut recording was produced straight out of Alexa’s home studio in Queens, New York. Recognizing that the human voice is a powerful instrument and the original instrument, before instruments were even created.  These three music divas not only look spectacular, but their harmonies spill out as natural as earth, wind and water. Together they have written all the music and Nicole adds her keyboard talents. A sought-after studio musician, Julia Adamy plays the bass.  Thana Alexa plays keyboards and percussion.  After years of working together in various collaborative performances, these three women enter a space of their own called “Sonica.”  This album is fresh and unique, as the talented ladies blend jazz with elements of pop music, soul, electronics and even folk.  They throw in a spoken word piece for good measure.  A pleasant surprise was Julia Adamy’s arrangement of “Loves In Need of Love Today.” The Stevie Wonder composition is reborn in a very creative way. However, I do miss some of Stevie’s piano chord changes and the hook is totally reinvented.  Still, I look forward to their next recording to see what they come up with, because this debut product is fascinating, entertaining, well-written and just the beginning of something that may become very big.

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AKIKO AOKI – “PURE IMAGINATION” –  Independent Label

Akiko Aoki, vocals; Tim Ray, piano/synthesizer/arranger; Marshall Wood, bass; Tommy Campbell, drums; Mark Walker, drums/percussion; John Baboian, guitar/arranger; Greg Hopkins, trumpet; Ken Peplowski, tenor saxophone; Mike Monaghan, saxophone; Hiro Honshuku, flute; Mari Aoki, vocals.

Akiko Aoki grew up in Sendai, Japan but was born in Morioka.  She sang in choruses throughout her school years.  At seventeen, young Akiko performed in local television shows and by the time she turned nineteen, she was singing professionally in clubs. She came to the United States to study at the famous Berklee College of Music. After obtaining her degree, the young, talented lady returned to Tokyo, Japan where she taught in music schools and performed in a number of jazz festivals. Like many female artists, she put aside her musical touring career when she got married and started a family. Staying close to home, she raised her children, taught Japanese and voice and managed her husband’s restaurant business.  She also sang at the restaurants. After the death of her husband, Akiko was drawn back into her passion of expression and decided to record this album.  Accompanied by the Tim Ray trio and several special guests, she offers us thirteen familiar tunes.  They open with “Almost Like Being in Love.”  It’s the Ken Peplowski saxophone that takes center stage and makes this old standard swing. This song introduces us to the full ensemble, each stepping into the spotlight to give us brief solos and expose their individual talents.  I enjoyed the song “Yesterday I heard the Rain” which was fresh and new to my ears.  Akiko has a sweet voice and uses long legato lines to express her melodies and lyrics. Sometimes, when you swing a song, you have to use a more staccato technique to really capture the jazzy feel. However, when she tackles challenging songs like Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road” her legato tones gently caress each note and her emotional attachment to the lyrics is clearly evident. Tim Ray takes a long and lovely piano solo during this arrangement. On “No More Blues” she joins the horn section at the top and the band taps out a Bossa beat as Akiko sings the Jon Hendricks lyrics to Jobim’s famed composition. This production becomes a family affair when Akiko and her mother sing together on “Moondance,” on the Bill Withers classic, “Just the Two of Us” and on “Smile.”  Although this reminds one of family get-togethers where family members gather around the piano and recklessly share their hidden and unexplored talents in the comfort of their own home, it detracts from the professionality of this project.

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OUTSIDE – “A NEW BEGINNING” – Dorado Records

Matt Cooper, keyboard/drums/multi-instruments; Nichol Thomson, bass; Matt White, guitar; Francesco Sales, slide guitar; Vancho Manoilovich, drums/percussion; Cleveland Watkiss, piano; Jim Knight, additional synthesizer.

Matt cooper, who is recording again, under the name of ‘Outside,’ brings us four (4) EP tracks after a twenty-year creative hiatus.  If you are a lover of contemporary jazz and electronic music, then this recording is the perfect one to stuff into your stocking.  Matt plays both keyboard, drums and several other instruments on this project that was conceived during the 2020 pandemic lockdown.  He co-produced this beautiful production with Valentina Pahor, recording in both London and Portugal.  Writing and playing solo, the same way he did at the height of his career in 1993. Cooper offers us four beautiful compositions that spotlight his unique musical vision.

“I’ve evolved the mixture of modern and retro.  That’s the ‘Outside’ sound,” Cooper explained.

It was Matt Cooper who was one of the rebellious and creative innovators of the 1990s London music revolution.  His music was released on the experimental Dorado Label, known for their Acid Jazz and founded by Ollie Buckwell.  Dorado Records celebrates three decades in business this year.

“I wanted to make quality records that would stand the test of time.  I was blown away by Matt’s talent,” Buckwell praised the artist.

Opening with the title tune, the electronic bass line and the funk drums are infectious on “A New Beginning.”  Track two is titled “Searching, Finding” and features the beautiful, haunting talents of Francesco Sales on slide guitar.

Cooper is part of the UK soul act ‘Incognito’ acting as Musical Director and has worked as M.D. and an instrumentalist for legendary artists like Chaka Khan, Jocelyn Brown, Whitney Houston, Terry Callier, Leon Ware, Marlena Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and Ronnie Laws.

Matt Cooper’s piano/keyboard work drives this project, along with his ability to manipulate electronic rhythms that compliment his hypnotic grooves.  This is sexy music.  Pop the bubbly by a roaring fire and play this EP in the background.  Magic! 

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Kirk Lightsey, Piano; Santi Debriano, bass; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Victor Lewis, drums.

For nearly seventy years, Detroit, Michigan native Kirk Lightsey has made his mark in the jazz world as a pianist, composer and recording artist. What a blessing to hear Lightsey, in the company of his longtime and masterful friends, perform ‘live’ as part of the SmallsLIVE Living Masters Series. They open jubilantly with “In Your Own Sweet Way” letting Mark Whitfield’s guitar shine dynamically. On Track #2, “Freedom Jazz Dance” Lightsey takes the reins and rides the familiar Eddie Harris tune into my listening room, uniquely arranged and spiced-up by Victor Lewis on trap drums.  Lewis makes sure every accent, every nuance is carefully measured and rhythmically placed.  Lightsey has added a Latin groove to this arrangement that inspires me to cha cha around my room.  His original composition, “Heaven Dance” has a rich bass line that weaves its way throughout this presentation, first on the piano and then carried solidly by Santi Debriano on bass.  Whitfield’s guitar soaks up the spotlight during his solo and Victor’s drums punch the song with funk drums that give the tune a contemporary feel.  J. J. Johnson’s composition, “Lament” is a lovely ballad.  Kirk Lightsey caresses this tune with his piano tenderness and Mark Whitfield explores every bar of the song with his tenacious guitar. When Santi Debriano takes out his bow and dances it across the double bass strings, it’s a wonderful moment of improvised art. All in all, here is a historic recording by four jazz legends that represent the beauty, legacy and bountifulness of Kirk Lightsey and his inimitable quartet. 

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PATRICIA BRENNAN – “MORE TOUCH” – Pyroclastic Records

Patricia Brennan, vibraphone with electronics/marimba/composer; Marcus Gilmore, drummer; Mauricio Herrera, percussion; Kim Cass, bass.

The first thing I noticed about this unique project is the electronic manipulation of the vibraphone.  The blurred lines between quarter tones slip and slide from key to key, creating an other-worldly sound. It’s both hypnotic and beautiful.  The second thing I notice is the strange album cover, that might have made sense if the title of the album was ‘Fingerprint.’  But then, we do use “More Touch” when we feel things with our fingertips, so perhaps this black background with a fingerprint on it does imply the album title.

While attending Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Patricia Brennan participated in several percussion ensembles.  You can hear her love for percussion and infatuation with rhythm throughout this album. We are introduced to it immediately on the very first tune, “Unquiet Respect.”

“A percussion quartet is all about creating a collective texture or timbre.  At the same time, there’s a very strong improvisational culture in my hometown of Veracruz, because of the Afro-Cuban music and Son Jarocho influence,” Patricia explains.

Referring to her percussionist, Brennan says that Mauricio knows these traditions inside and out as a Cuban-born master percussionist.  He also spent four years in Mexico, soaking up their percussive culture, before relocating to New York.  Her drummer, Marcus Gilmore, is a modern jazz player who is rich in the traditions of Cuban, African and Carnatic music. Kim Cass provides the grounding element.  His bass instrument is the sturdy foundation for their music, along with Brennan’s vibraphone and marimba contributions.  Kim can also become his own lead voice, both melodic and rhythmic. His presence is clearly showcased on the compositions “Convergences” and “The Woman Who Weeps.”  All the original music of this album has been written and arranged by Patricia Brennan. The “Women Who Weep” is a song dedicated to Patricia’s aunt and godmother, Gloria, who passed away in January of 2021.  This original song represents a search for comfort during moments of despair. Each tune on this album unfolds, similar to the intriguing pages of a well-written novel.  The compositions bring surprise and intrigue, emotional connection and thoughtful phrases of beauty and mystery to the music. “Square Bimagic” reflects happiness and gaiety, dancing from my CD player like a bright, joyous party.

Patricia Brenna has performed with top symphony orchestras in Mexico while in her teenaged years. She is steeped in Classical music and was a member of several orchestras including the Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble.  Brennan’s percussive quartet explores her composing skills and unique musical capabilities.  She re-introduces us to both the marimba and vibraphone with a peek into her very creative mind.  Obviously, Patricia Brennan is a person who pushes the boundaries of her instrument with imagination and gusto.  Brennan’s music is inspirational and Avant-garde in a modern jazz, contemporary kind of way. This is visionary music and Brennan introduces us to it with stark originality.

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Joel Quarrington, bass #1; Travis Harrison, Joseph Phillips & Roberto Occhipinti, bass; Don Thompson, piano/arranger/composer.

This project opens with a magnificent bass solo, bowed by the very talented Joel Quarrington and grandly supported by Don Thompson on piano.  I guarantee, you have never heard an arrangement of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” quite like this one. In fact, I had to play it three times in a row to soak up all the awesome tenderness, technical beauty of the bass and jazzy merger of this duo, with Don Thompson at the piano. Joel Quarrington is a highly praised classical bassist.

“A few years ago, Joel called me again and this time, he was asking me to write a piece for him to play at a concert in Rochester, New York.  He told me how, on a break from a rehearsal, he’d gone to sleep under the piano and was awakened by me playing it. I was playing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and as he was listening, he was thinking that he’d like to play that song with me someday with those chords.  I’d been playing with George Shearing and Mel Torme for a few years, and Nightingale was one of their showstoppers, so I knew it really well.  The challenge for me was to find a way to write it so it would be special for Joel. I thought that going into a Brazilian feel after the melody would work nicely with the chords, and I remembered that cadenza that John Coltrane played at the end of ‘I Want to Talk About You’ so, I guess my arrangement was inspired by Mel Torme, John Coltrane and Jobim,” Don Thompson explained how this arrangement came about.

“I remember well, the first rehearsal we had for the piece.  Joel drove down from Ottawa … and came into my studio. … We just played it straight through, cadenza and all, without stopping.  Then, he asked me just what exactly I had in mind.  I said I wanted it to sound like a combination of Phil Dwyer and John Coltrane.  (Phil is one of the greatest musicians in Canada and a fantastic saxophone player) and Joel said, Oh, I know exactly what you want.  I won’t waste any more of your time now.  I’ll take it home and learn it.  And he did!  A couple of weeks later, he came back, and I think he’d memorized most of it.  It was amazing.  We played it in Rochester, and it was a huge success,” Don Thompson recalled.

This recording by Joel Quarrington is a unique and exceptional meeting of musicians from jazz and classical backgrounds.  They perform music specifically written for this project by bassist Joel Quarrington, considered one of the greatest classical bass players in the world today.  To add to that brilliance, it’s a collaboration with the great jazz artist and pianist, Don Thompson, who not only is renowned as a bassist, but is equally gifted as both a pianist and vibraphonist. This is an extraordinary listening experience.

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Chris Ruggiero, vocals; Christian Tamburr & Rick Krive, piano; Lindsey Blair, acoustic & electric guitars; Nicky Orta, electric bass; Matthew Rybicki, elec. Bass & double bass; Mike Harvey & Al Sergel, drums; Armando Arce, percussion; Ed Calle, tenor saxophone/flute; Mike Brignola, baritone saxophone/flute; Jim Hacker & Peter Francis, trumpet/flugelhorn; Francisco Dimas & Wayne Bergeron, trumpet; John Kricker, trombone; Joseph Mirrione, Leesa Richards & Jimmy Gallagher, background vocals. Tom Schizzano, additional instrumentation.

This is a warm, easy listening Christmas album.  Chris Ruggiero has a fireside, friendly vocal approach that iHeart radio has recently added to their broadcast platform.  They are showcasing his album on the national adult contemporary holiday playlist.  You may have enjoyed one of his national PBS-Television appearances, honed from the thirty-seven-city tour he just completed. Chris Ruggiero lets no grass grow under his feet or slippery snow slow his pace.  His vocals are cushioned by the beautiful arrangements of Charles Calello and Christian Tamburr. These creative arrangers reinvent several standard Christmas songs we love to hear, including some blues songs like “Please come home for Christmas” and the famed Spector pop song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”  Chris has invited the legendary Darlene Love to duet with him on “Grown-Up Christmas List” which is a beautiful song featuring a dynamic melody with a sweeping arrangement to accentuate the interesting bridge, and blossoming hook of the song. Ruggiero has a voice that can crisscross genres with ease.  His jazzy arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas “is joyful and improvisational, featuring Wayne Bergeron on an outstanding trumpet solo. Chris Ruggiero’s tenor voice is sweet, jazzy, emotional, and relaxing. Also, the musicality of this production is exceptional.

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November 18, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 18, 2022

EYAL VILNER BIG BAND – “THE JAM!”  –  Independent Label

Eyal Vilner, alto saxophone/clarinet/flute/conductor/arranger/composer; Imani Rousselle, Brianna Thomas & Brandon Bain, vocals; Caleb Teicher, tap shoes; Jon Thomas & Jordan Piper, piano; Ian Hutchison, bass; Eran Fink, drums; TRUMPETS: John Lake, Brandon Lee, Bryan Davis, Michael Sailors & James Zollar. SAXOPHONES: Bill Todd & Jordan Pettay, alto saxophone; Julieta Eugenio, Michael Hashim & Evan Arntzen; Josh Lee & Eden Bareket, baritone saxophone. TROMBONES: Ron Wilkins, Robert Edwards & Mariel Bildsten.

Born in Tel Aviv, Eyal Vilner moved to New York in 2007 and by the following year he had formed his big band.  His band became a popular accompaniment for New York City’s swing dance clubs.  The band has also appeared as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s lineup, The Guggenheim Museum, Birdland, Dizzy’s Club, Smalls Jazz Club and Minton’s Playhouse.  In fact, bandleader Eyal Vilner got so inspired watching the swing dancers, he decided to take swing dance lessons himself. This led to a venture with professional dancer Gaby Cook, who encouraged him to provide live band music as inspiration for the dancers.  That working union wound up inspiring Vilner himself.

“I get inspired by a syncopated move.  It can be just as inspiring as hearing a great musician or reading a book.  There’s open conversation between swing music and swing dancing. Both of these are forms rooted in improvisation,” Vilner explained.

The Eyal Vilner Big Band opens with the familiar Duke Ellington Orchestra tune “Just a Lucky So and So” with the contemporary voice of Imani Rousselle singing the lead lyric.  This band swings and I can see why the dancers flock to Eyal Vilner’s Big Band music. The next four tunes are penned by Eyal Vilner.  He is brightly featured on Track #2, “Chabichou,” that happens to be named after Vilner’s favorite cheese and features the composer playing alto saxophone. Pianist John Thomas is spot lit on Track #3, using licks that remind us of Thelonious Monk’s music.  “Another Time” is a song Vilner wrote many years ago when he first relocated to NYC. The polka beat behind the Monk-esck tune is a little surprising to my ear, but I admit it’s unique. “The Jam” takes us back to a swing dance mode giving Eran Fink a time to shine on drums. The idea of writing about the pandemic quarantine becomes a tongue-in-cheek comedic lyric where the quarantine word is pronounced like the word ‘valentine,’ titled, “Will you Be My Quarantine?” This song is sung by Ms. Rousselle.  It’s a creative and laughable lyric, sung to a catchy melody.  She sings the lyrics from a song co-written by Tal Ronen.

“We will spend our lonely days together.  Taking pictures of our food and wine. If you’ll just remove your mask, long enough to ask, baby, will you be my quarantine?”

This joyful Big Band also plays ‘cover’ tunes you will probably recognize like “Hard Hearted Hannah” and the 1939 hit, “Tain’t What You Do” by Sy Oliver & Trummy Young, where the band vocalizes as background voices chanting the title behind Brianna Thomas, who’s the featured lead singer. This is a song I remember Ella Fitzgerald once made popular. All in all, this album is just plain joy!

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Scott Whitfield, trombone/bass trombone/bandleader/arranger/vocals; Jeff Colello, piano; Jennifer Latham, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Rusty Higgins, alto & soprano saxophone/flute/piccolo; Kersten Edkins, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Brian Williams, baritone saxophone; Dave Richards, lead trumpet; Kye Palmer & Anne King, trumpet flugelhorn; Tony Bonsera, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Gary Tole & Ira Nepus, trombones; Rich Bullock, bass trombone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Pete Christlieb & Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Dick Nash, trombone; Brad Dutz, percussion.

This project has pulled several favorite songs from motion picture scores and titled the project, “Postcards from Hollywood.”  You will hear songs that became popular from films like Gone with the Wind (1940), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Cleopatra (1963).  Prior to his arrival in Southern California, Scott Whitfield developed a keen interest in film soundtracks.  He even wound up studying the art form at a UCLA Extension course.

“My goal with this recording is to pay homage to a cross-section of the greats, through the medium of my Jazz Orchestra West. Some of these themes will be very familiar to the listener, while others are much more obscure.  In some cases, I stayed pretty close to the original concept of the piece.  In others, the muse led me on a much more circuitous route,” he wrote in his liner notes.

They open with “The Magnificent Seven”, a main theme from the movie of the same title.  Kye Palmer makes a soaring statement on his trumpet solo and Kendall Kay is magnificent on drums.  “Sally’s Tomato” from the “Breakfast at Tiffany” film is a warm, lilting, Latin arrangement where Jennifer Latham offers a memorable bass solo and Scott Whitfield’s trombone shines, center stage.  Whitfield has included special guests in this production and familiar names on the Southern California scene like Rickey Woodard and Pete Christlieb on saxophones, Brad Dutz on percussion and Dick Nash on trombone.  The bandleader has also built a band that celebrates the wealth of Los Angeles talent including respected names like Jeff Colello on piano, and Anne King on trumpet and flugelhorn. Speaking of King, she plays beautifully while soloing during the “Tara’s Theme” arrangement as does Rusty Higgins on soprano saxophone.  Other favorites on this album are arrangements of “A Time for Love” plucked from the “An American Dream” film.  Kirsten Edkins offers a lovely tenor saxophone solo and Kye Palmer plays a mean flugelhorn.  But it’s Whitfield who sparkles and swings in the spotlight with his trombone talent.  Uniting with the strong bass support of Jennifer Latham on her upright instrument, Whitfield puts down his trombone and shows off his vocals, singing “Spellbound” from the movie of the same title.  On “The Pawnbroker” Rickey Woodard plays with his usual soulful dexterity and emotional sincerity during his tenor saxophone solo. This might be my favorite tune on the whole album.

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Jon Cowherd, piano/composer/arranger/Hammond B-3 organ; John Patitucci, Acoustic & Elec. Bass/composer/arranger; Brian Blade, drums/ composer/arranger; Chris Potter, tenor & soprano saxophone; Alex Neciosup Acuña, percussion.

The Jon Cowherd Trio expands to a quintet on the very, first composition that Cowherd has penned, “Grand Mesa.”  Cowherd, Blade and Patitucci add the stellar saxophonist, Chris Potter, to the mix along with exceptional percussionist, Alex Acuña.  Cowherd has written and arranged six out of the eight songs on this album.  I am particularly impressed with “The Colorado Experiment” where John Patitucci shines and sparkles during his bass solo.  Cowherd’s composition skill is quite evident on this tune. I love the way he begins the arrangement with just acoustic piano and his left hand and right-hand shadow boxing around the melody.  During Cowherd’s solo, Brian Blade is powerful and creative on drums, not only holding down the tempo, but coloring the bandleader’s solo with interesting and effective drum licks. Clearly, Jon Cowherd has surrounded himself with creme de la crème musicians.  Track #3 becomes one of my favorites on this album.  Cowherd’s composition, “Honest Man (For Ellis Marsalis)” is a pensive, beautifully constructed arrangement that celebrates the Marsalis music legend in a lovely way.  The title tune, “Pride and Joy,” once again expands the trio to a quintet with the percussion of Alex Acuña pumping excitement into the production.  This is Straight-ahead jazz that gives the great Chris Potter a platform to steal the spotlight during his saxophone solo.  Listen as his notes glitter and glide through the arrangement. Potter is a talent to be reckoned with, spurred ahead by the awesome drums of Brian Blade. This is another one of my favorites on Jon Cowherd’s album.  Cowherd and drummer, Blade, share a close friendship ever since they met at New Orleans Loyola University some twenty-three years ago. It was through Blade that Jon met Patitucci.  At the time, John Patitucci and Brian Blade were performing as part of the Wayne Shorter Quartet.  This album is titled as a reference to Jon Cowherd’s three-year-old daughter who, of course, is his “Pride and Joy.”  The compositions are well written, and the group’s energy is palpable. I also enjoyed the Patitucci composition, “Chickmonk” that gives Jon Cowherd not only an opportunity to play acoustic piano, but also invites him to add his talents on B-3 organ. Patitucci has arranged his original song contribution. Brian Blade is given time to play a highly creative solo on trap drums, singing his own rhythmic melody. They close with an original composition by the drummer called “Quilt City Blues.”   It features Jon Cowherd on solo piano, sounding more like a country/western tune than a blues. 

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Marco Pignataro, soprano, alto & tenor saxophones/composer; John Patitucci, bass/composer; Chico Pinheiro, guitar; Anastassiya Petrova, piano; Nadia Washington, vocals/composer; Terri Lyne Carrington, drums; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/alto flute/mezzo soprano sax/composer.

If you listen closely, you can hear the rich spectrum of rhythms, melodies, and natural sounds in our universe, as Mother Nature plays them each and every day.  There is always music around us.  The whistle in the wind.  The tinkling sound of raindrops on the roof.  The flap of bird wings disturbing space, or the splash of ocean against the shore; perhaps a solo cricket’s song. Marco Pignataro has obviously been inspired by these amazing natural Earth wonders. He has incorporated nature sounds into his “Chant for our Planet” project. Marco hopes this music will jolt us out of complacency and infuse our interest in the beauty of Mother Earth.  After all, this is the planet we call home. The Pignataro project is meant to advocate for reforming climate policies. It’s a mandate to inspire us and a plea for more care given to our world.

“Jazz music has historically been a powerful artistic medium to inspire, educate, empower and advocate for social change in our community,” Marco Pignataro explains his musical journey.

You can get a sense of his theme from the tune titles of Pignataro’s repertoire. The master bassist, John Patitucci has composed the first suite of music that opens this album.  Titled “Terra – Mare- Cielo” (Earth, Sea & Sky). It unfolds in three parts, propelled by the mastery of Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and colorfully intoxicated by the vocals of Nadia Washington. Anastassiya Petrova’s piano opens the familiar Jobim tune, “Aqua de Beber” (Water to Drink), sung in Portuguese by Nadia Washington.  Antonio Carlos Jobim reminds us that, without clean water for humanity to drink, we will not survive.  Chico Pinheiro takes a notable solo on guitar and Marco Pignataro soars on tenor saxophone. On Pignataro’s composition, “Moon Threads” I fall under the spell of his alto saxophone presentation.  This piece is very meditative, with shades of Middle Eastern minor mode influences. The legendary Joe Lovano has contributed a composition titled, “As It Should Be” that ventures into the realms of Avant-garde music. On “Irene’s Path,” Pignataro’s composition was inspired by the destructive Hurricane Irene and its horrific aftermath.  The powerful storm wreaked havoc from West Africa to the Americas, causing significant damage. 

Pignataro has surrounded himself with master musicians who play seamlessly together and with the musical intent and purpose to tackle the conversation about climate change.  Like the beauty and importance of jazz, Marco Pignataro believes the security and protection of our planet should be paramount in our minds. We must make sure our world is safe and secure for future generations and treasure it, the way we treasure jazz music. Marco Pignataro musically provides art, beauty and original music to inspire humanity towards love and respect for our planet.

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MATT ULERY – “BECOME GIANT” – Woolgathering Records

Matt Ulery, double bass/composer; Zach Brock, lead violin; Jon Deitemyer, drums; KAIA String Quartet: Victoria Moreiera & Joy Curtin, violins; Oana Tatu, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello.

If strings are your thing, this current project produced and composed by bassist, Matt Ulery, features Zach Brock on lead violin, a string quartet, his own double bass and Jon Deitemyer on drums. Nearly five years ago, Nathan Cole, First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, reached out to Ulery.  Mr. Cole was looking to feature a guest composer at the Chamber Music Festival in Lexington, Kentucky.  He wanted a piece written expressly for Cole’s string quartet, with world renowned violinist, Zach Brock acting as the violin soloist. This album is the result of that project.

“The music I write is usually recorded and released pretty quickly from when I start the process of writing it and playing it live.  So, this is the first time I’ve ever had a piece active for such a long time before recording. It’s been growing steadily between sets,” Matt Ulery explained the transitions that his compositions have made in five years.

What began as a commission for a single festival has turned into a beautiful gift that keeps on giving.  It’s a work that has unfolded across the United States, pre-pandemic.  The group, including and using the brilliant Chicago-based KAIA String Quartet, has toured and worked on their arrangements and blended their musical identities in support of the iconic violinist, Zach Brock.  Now, the suite is lovely, polished, whimsical and expertly played, culminating into this recording that was released in August of this year. Titled “Become Giant” here is nearly forty minutes of music, written in six movements, with a closing composition entitled “Shine Faintly with a Wavering Glow” that closes this album. Here is a gorgeous parlor presentation, intimate and classically infused, that highlights the beauty of string chamber music. Cuddle up next to a warm fire or a warm body and enjoy.

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Steve Tintweiss, 5-string double bass/melodica/voice/composer/bandleader; Charles Brackeen, tenor & soprano saxophones; Byard Lancaster, alto & soprano saxophones/flute/piccolo/bass clarinet; Genie Sherman, vocals/spoken word; Lou Grassi, drums/percussion.

One introspective day, Steve Tintweiss pulled a dusty tape from his shelf and listened to his ‘live’ concert recording from way back in 1980.  It was his ‘Spacelight Band’ performing a music series at the Loeb Student Center of New York University. At that time, Steve was already a respected avant-garde bassist who had performed on the final tour of saxophone icon, Albert Ayler.

Tintweiss had also played on the “Patty Waters Sings” 1969 album as part of the Marzette Watts Ensemble, characterized as a bone-chilling underground milestone.  The music on this ‘live’ historic concert production that Steve Tintweiss stumbled upon is also, at times, bone-chilling. The Spacelight Band certainly pushes the boundaries of experimental jazz. This current CD is a double disc release, offering nearly two hours of free-flowing experimentation and improvisation of the Steve Tintweiss compositions.  On the opening cut of Disc #1, Genie Sherman adds wordless vocals to the mix, exploring her high soprano notes, then swooping to her lower register. Lou Grassi opens the composition with his marching drums cementing the tempo into place.  He is known to have one foot planted in Straight-ahead jazz and the other in experimental music.  Byard Lancaster’s flute pierces the auditorium silence.  Charles Brackeen joins in, playing his tenor sax in unison with the flute and then with the voice.  Tintweiss plucks the strings of his 5-string double bass and seems to inspire Genie’s improvised vocal sounds as they become more aggressive.  When they recorded this, it was Saturday, November 8, 1980, and students with IDs gained concert access for $2.50, while the general public paid an additional dollar for admission.  The concert was funded by the “Meet the Composer’ group.  Steve Tintweiss formed this band in 1976 and they stayed together until 2003. The third track on Disc One is titled “Whistle Stop Tour” and has a catchy melody that the vocalist explores with freedom and scats.  She sometimes adds the title as a lyric and then takes liberties to explore the chord changes with her improvisational voice.  Once the music becomes more instrumental and less vocal, we get an opportune chance to enjoy each musician’s talent and technique.  On “Risk-O-Disc” Steve Tintweiss lays down a bass groove that is hypnotic and the flute of Byard Lancaster (who is a multi-reedist) is dominant and beautiful. This quickly becomes one of my favorite tunes.  If you are looking for something free and improvisational, inspired by the compositions of Tintweiss and uniquely presenting itself as a cord-less ensemble, this historic project will satisfy any avant-garde lover.

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Stephen Anderson, piano/composer/band director; Baron Tymas, guitar; Jason Foureman & Christopher Law, bass; Dan Davis & Michael Shekwoaga Ode, drums; Juan Alamo, marimba/percussion; Emma Gonzalez & Ramuné Marcinkeviciute, voice; Alex Upton, alto saxophone; Rahsaan Barber, alto/tenor & baritone saxophone.  SPECIAL GUESTS: Rachel Therrien, trumpet; Roland Barber, trombone.

For a small ensemble, this group has a very big band sound. They are an interactive ensemble, comprised of faculty and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Their goal is to demonstrate jazz as a living art form and bring awareness publicly to the rich history of jazz. The project opens with “What Now?” a composition by pianist and band director, Stephen Anderson.  Stephen’s piano solo is wonderful.  Enter special guest, Rachel Therrien, a female French-Canadian trumpeter, composer, producer and winner of the 2015 TD Grand Prize Jazz Award at the renowned Montreal International Jazz Festival.  She also, in 2016, won the Stingray Jazz Rising Star Award.  Her tone is as smooth as fresh frozen ice and just as cool. Juan Alamo is stellar on marimba and Rahsaan Barber’s saxophone strength is prominent.  Barber is the Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies and Saxophone at the University of North Carolina.  He’s played with a plethora of musicians including Christian McBride, Brian Blade, The Temptations, Delfeayo Marsalis, the famed Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the iconic Taj Mahal, pop star Cyndi Lauper, gospel legend, Kirk Franklin and gold record artist Meghan Trainor, to list just a few.  As you can see, his horn is a diversified tool and he competently crosses genres.  On this first cut, you meet the musicians, who step up to interpret Stephen Anderson’s composition, giving it their very best.  The second track is also an Anderson composition, “False Pretense,” where you get to enjoy Anderson’s piano solo, sometimes richly infused with the blues.  We also get to meet drummer, Michael Shekwoaga Ode, on this tune.  He is masterful on his instrument, given free rein to explore excitement and creativity on his drums.  At the fade, he steals the spotlight during a memorable drum solo. As a Nigerian American composer, drummer, bandleader and educator, Mr. Ode was born in Philadelphia but spent developmental years in North Carolina.  Michael received a scholarship to study at Oberlin Conservatory under jazz legend, Billy Hart.  Track #3, “Adversities” features the beautiful vocals of Ramuné Marcinkeviċiuté.  Bass player, Christopher Law takes a solo and soaks up the spotlight, while drummer Dan Davis sounds spectacular on this cut.  “Open Sesame” is composed by saxophone master, Rahsaan Barber and arrives in a splash of a Straight-ahead jazz arrangement.  This time the bassist is Jason Foureman, who steps forward with confidence and creativity on a melodic solo, followed by the composer on his saxophone, exploring all his improvisational possibilities. On Disc #2, the “Latindia” tune composed by Barber turns up the Latin Heat and gives percussionist Juan Alamo an opportunity to shine.  I love the baritone saxophone that Barber uses to color this arrangement. Baron Tymas has written “Looking Up” and uses his piece to showcase his mad guitar skills.  I love the addition of Alamo’s marimba.  On the standard song, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” the composition recalls the voices of both Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.  Although Emma Gonzalez has a lovely voice, I don’t believe she sold us the lyrical content.  It’s a woman who loves her man, in spite of his behavior.  It’s a story of painful, unconditional love and Emma sounds pretty, but not believably distraught.  All in all, Disc 1. & Disc 2 of this double disc set of music is entertaining, well-written and arranged, as well as played and interpreted by a group of excellent musicians.

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Tobias Hoffmann, co-producer/composer/conductor; RHYTHM: Vilkka Wahl, guitar; Philipp Nykrin, piano/synthesizer; Ivar Roban Krizic, double & electric bass; Reinhold Schmölzer, drums/electronics; SAXOPHONES/WOODWINDS: Patrick Dunst, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Andy Schofield, alto saxophone/flute/clarinet; Robert Unterköfler, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Martin Harms, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Jonas Brinckmann, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet.  TRUMPETS/FLUGELHORNS: Dominic Pessl, Bernhard Nolf, Felix Meyer, Simon Plötzeneder, Jakob Helling. TROMBONES: Kasperi Sarikoski & Daniel Holzleitner, trombone; Robert Bachner, trombone/euphonium; Johannes Oppel, bass trombone/tuba.

The title tune, also the album opener, is dynamic. The orchestra soars.  Tobias Hoffmann, the composer and conductor of this entertaining orchestra says, “This is one of the most challenging compositions I have ever written. … I am very proud that this composition was awarded the 3rd prize at the Bill Conti Big Band Contest of 2021, which was organized by the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers based in Los Angeles.”

The thing that struck this journalist, about his composition, was the many layers of emotion and mood changes Hoffmann’s music projected.  The tenor saxophone solo by Robert Unterköfler is beautifully executed and puts the ‘J’ in jazz.  “Elegy” slows the tempo to a sweet ballad that features the horn section only, no rhythm section.  No problem.  They don’t need one. The closely knit harmonies of the horn section run beautifully through this project, like an uninhibited river.  “Awakening” is a composition that’s dark and brooding.

Tobias Hoffmann recorded this project in Vienna, Austria, the last week of August 2021. The conductor was born in Goppingen, Germany in 1988.  He quickly discovered his passion for music and began to seriously play saxophone during high school.  He studied at the University for Music, Drama and Media in Hannover and graduated from Prins Claus Conservatorium Groningen in the Netherlands with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 2013. Hoffmann also studied Jazz-Saxophone at the Musik und Kunst Universitat Wien, and also studied Jazz Composition and Arranging, receiving a Master of Arts degree with distinction in 2015.  Tobias Hoffmann’s compositions have won numerous awards.  A sample of that is on Track #5, “Relentless” that won first prize in the “Original Composition, Large Ensemble category at the 2022 45th Annual Downbeat Student Music Awards.”  Patrick Dunst is the main soloist on alto saxophone.  I enjoy a good baritone saxophone solo and Jonas Brinkmann is given the opportunity to strut his stuff on the straight-ahead composition titled, “Trailblazers.” 

You will enjoy the brilliance of an amazing orchestra, along with the unique arrangements of gifted composer, Tobias Hoffmann, who has a warm place in his heart for horns and the beautiful music they make. 

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Skip Wilkins, piano; Dan Wilkins, saxophones; Tony Marino, bass; Bill Goodwin, drums.

Here is a project bursting with bebop.  You hear the joy played by veteran pianist and composer, Skip Wilkins, after a too-long hibernation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Like so many, Skip Wilkins found himself on lockdown at his home in the Delaware Water Gap. Wilkins had just completed a recording that featured his son Dan on saxophone and his regular and longtime friends and musicians, Tony Marino on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums. The project had been scheduled for release in 2020, but the pandemic was raging and there were no tours planned to promote their album.  With unexpected time on their hands, the locked-down musicians practiced, played solo, learned new tunes and waited.  This recent release is titled “In The Stars.” It includes a carefully chosen repertoire that celebrates jazz master Phil Woods, a friend and musician that Skip played with frequently as a member of the Festival Orchestra. The Wilkins Quartet breathes new life into classic songs, some familiar, but many underappreciated gems that they have polished up.  This album sparkles like stars, with well-arranged, great American tunes played by a fan-friendly quartet. 

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PAUL MARINARO – “NOT QUITE YET” – Independent Label

Paul Marinaro, vocals/composer; Mike Allemana, guitar/arranger; Tom Vaitsas, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B3 organ; John Tate, bass; George Fludas, drums; Jim Gailloreto, flute; Rajiv Halim, clarinet; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone; Raphael Crawford, trombone; Marques Carroll, trumpet; KAIA STRING QUARTET: Victoria Moreira & Naomi Culp, violin; Amanda Grimm, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello. Alyssa Allgood & Sarah Marie Young, backup vocals.

Opening with the popular Mel Torme & Robert Wells composition, “Born to be Blue,” Marinaro’s voice is cushioned by this lush big band arrangement. The dramatic production supports Paul Marinaro’s voice as it splashes onto the scene.  With waves of rhythm guitar, provided by Mike Allemana (who is also the all-star arranger of this project), Track #2 sets the tone and creates a Brazilian rhythm tempo.  The Jobim tune, “Someone to Light Up My Life” is effervescent.  Singer, Paul Marinaro has a style all his own.  It’s a good thing not to sound like anyone but yourself.  Marinaro’s voice may be familiar to his Chicago, IL audiences and probably to New Yorkers who have enjoyed his jazzy style at the Birdland Jazz Club in NYC.  However, his vocals are new to me.  I find Paul’s voice fresh and pleasant to the ears.  His choice of repertoire shows off his ability to swing hard and to sell a lyric.  “Make Me Rainbows” is a perfect example of this, with the delightful lyrics written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman to a John Williams melody.  On the David Bowie tune, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” Paul Marinaro is elbow-deep in the pop genre.  I can tell that Marinaro is influenced by the platinum recording artist, David Bowie.  He has plucked the title of this album, “Not Quite Yet,” from a Bowie song called “No Plan.” Which, by the way, Paul also covers this Bowie tune on his album.  He includes the blues tune, “No One Ever Tells You,” showing another side to his voice. I think Paul knows that If you claim to be a jazz singer, you have to be able to sing the blues.  He accomplishes that musical style with ease.  I appreciate Marinaro’s tender tones, like the ones that caress the lyrics during his presentation of “The Island.”   Sometimes his style reminds me of the tremolo voice of Johnny Mathis, but Marinaro definitely has his own style.  At times, his big, long, legato notes overpower the emotion of his interpretations and become more vocal technique instead of emotional surrender.  A big plus are the arrangements of Mike Allemana that shine and sparkle like Christmas tree ornaments.  These arrangements definitely decorate the singer’s repertoire in a beautiful way.  Paul Marinaro and his ensemble offer fourteen songs, several pulled from the great American songbook.  As a songwriter, the vocalist has collaborated with A. Barosso on a tune called “Searching” that displays great lyrics, a strong melody and is delightfully arranged as a Bossa Nova. Marinaro also introduces us to not so familiar tunes like the great song “On A Wonderful Day Like Today.”  Paul Marinaro puts happiness into the moment and hope into our hearts.

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November 5, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 5, 2022


Gustavo Cortinas, drums; Meghan Stagl, vocals/piano; Erik Skov, guitar; Katie Ernst, upright bass; Emily Kuhn, trumpet.

In 2021, Gustavo Cortinas released Desafio Candente, an album that earned a place on the Jazziz Magazine list of the Best Releases of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album also becomes an award winner. This time, the subject matter is focused on the immigrant experience in the United States.  The CD album cover features a seesaw with two brown children riding on the playground equipment.  The body of the moving seesaw is stuck through a fence that divides Mexico and the United States.  Gustavo’s music begins with a piece titled, “I Hope You Have a Good Phone Call Today” sung by the light, bright voice of Meghan Stagl.  Her delivery is appealing, honest and innocent-sounding, very much like a child’s voice.  Her soprano vocals drew me into music.  All of Gustavo’s music is pleasing to the ear.  His compositions are well-written and have a definite groove.  But of course, they would have a groove, because Gustavo Cortinas is an amazing drummer.  His creative rhythms propel this production and enhance his compositions. Gustavo has also written the lyrics to his songs.  Some are performed in English and others are sung in Spanish.  Gustavo explains his concept and inspiration for this music.

”Kind Regards gives life, through music, to words that attempt to build bridges and understanding in times of borders and ignorance; words that focus on our feet and the dust on which they walk, instead of the stars under which they dream,” the bandleader and composer shares these words of wisdom in his press package to describe this lovely, musical work of art.

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AHMAD JAMAL – “EMERALD CITY NIGHTS / LIVE AT THE PENTHOUSE (1965-1966) – Jazz Detective / Deep Digs Music Group

Ahmad Jamal, piano/composer; Jamil Nasser, bass; Chuck Lampkin, Vernel Fournier & Frank Gant, drums.

It’s a funny thing, but just two days ago I was searching my amazing album collection for an Ahmad Jamal record to enjoy. I found a recent album by Mr. Jamal, but the newly arranged “Poinciana” on that album did not satisfy me the way the one I loved from the 1960s did.  So, I was thrilled to receive this double set, two-album release of Ahmad Jamal’s Trio performing ‘Live’ in Seattle at “the Penthouse.”  There the song, “Poinciana” was, on CD #2, Track #4 in all its glory!  There is just something so hypnotic about that drum lick and that bass line that merges with Ahmad Jamal’s awesome piano playing. To my ears, the 1960s rendition is perfection just the way it is.  Of course, the ‘live’ rendition is not exactly like the one on my old licorice pizza album of yore, (1958 “Live at the Pershing”) but it’s close and I found great satisfaction listening to music that I grew up with in the 1960s.

These recordings take me back in time to 1963 through 1968, when a series of performances at The Penthouse, located not high up in the air, but a club on the ground floor of the Kenneth Hotel.  This project was being recorded ‘live’ for KING – FM radio. The concerts were hosted by famed disc jockey, Jim Wilke.  At that time, Charlie Puzzo Sr was the owner of the Penthouse and engineered these recordings.  Currently, his son, Charlie Puzzo Jr., keeps his father’s jazz tape collection safe and archived. Thankfully, Mr. Jamal was happy with these recordings and approved their current release.

Born July 2, 1930, Jamal was referred to as a child prodigy.  He was trained in both European and American classical music by respected singer and educator, Mary Caldwell Dawson. She founded the Negro Opera Company. Meantime, by fourteen, Ahmad Jamal was playing all around Pittsburgh and was a card-carrying member of the local Musician’s Union. Ahmad left home in 1948, touring with the George Hudson Big Band and consequently settled in Chicago, Illinois. He garnered deep respect from his peers, as well as those following in his esteemed footsteps.  In fact, Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography:

“All my inspiration comes from Jamal,” Miles quoted.  “He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages … I loved his lyricism on piano.” 

On records, Miles Davis proved his appreciation for Ahmad Jamal’s talents by recording songs Jamal made notable like, “A Gal in Calico” “New Rhumba” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

Ahmad had his own view on the music he was playing.  Quoted in his liner notes of this CD he said, “I studied Ravel, Debussy, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum along with all my other European works; Czerny and so on.  So, I never called it jazz.  I called it American classical music.  I started playing American classical music at three years old… Now, I’m ninety-two.”

I can let greater voices than mine speak for Ahmad Jamal’s historic and intriguing music. When they asked Ramsey Lewis for his opinion on the iconic pianist.

“He uses the whole 88-keys on the piano.  With many jazz piano players, the left-hand comps and the right hand does a lot of work. … Ahmad is one of the ‘both-hands’ piano players.  Left hand, right hand.  Ahmad can take care of business,” Ramsey Lewis sang his praises.

Jon Batiste said, “When you hang with Jamal, you realize he’s a spontaneous composer, in the same way that someone would improvise a solo.  He has the ability to compose at that level of hyper speed.”

Kenny Barron said, “The first time I heard Ahmad, I was in high school.  I was getting ready to go to bed and I had the jazz station on.  This was in Philadelphia, where I’m from, of course.  And this song came on, ‘Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In)’ which I remembered from having heard Theresa Brewer do it.  So, it was a song I knew and somebody was playing piano on it.  As I was listening, I was asking myself, “Who the hell is that?” Because it was just so unbelievable.  The radio announcer said it was Ahmad Jamal, whom I’d never heard of before.  It was on Ahmad Jamal’s album, ‘Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing/But Not for Me.’  Theresa Brewer’s record was a hit when I was in junior high school.  And then I heard Ahmad Jamal’s version on the radio and the piano trio, and I just couldn’t believe it. I immediately went out and bought the record the next day, because it was just so fantastic.  And I’ve been an Ahmad Jamal fan ever since then.”

Me too, Kenny Barron.  Me too!

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Julius Rodriguez, piano/Fender Rhodes; drums/organ/moog bass/producer/composer/arranger; Ben Wolfe & Philip Norris, double bass; Joe Saylor, Jongkook Kim, Giveton Gelin & Brian Richburg Jr., drums; Morgan Guerin, electric bass/saxophone; Daryl Johns, bass; Marian Cameron & Samara Joy, lead vocals; Vuyo Sotashe & Nick Hakim, background vocals; Hailey Knox, vocals; Giveton Gelin, trumpet.

The new single from the Julius Rodriguez album is the Stevie Wonder, Morris Broadnax song, “All I Do” and it features Rodriguez’s childhood friend and singer, Mariah Cameron.   She sings the lead on a very well-produced arrangement of this gold-record-song.  Ms. Cameron has a crystal-clear voice that rings with power.  Julius wows us on both drums and piano, an obvious master on both.  Referred to in several press releases as a rising jazz phenom, Julius Rodriguez brings us a new perspective on the Wonder song and rejuvenates it in his own unique way.  His drumming is as impressive as his piano skills and he’s also a gifted composer.

Applause opens the initial tune on this album.  The listener joins the ‘live’ audience as part of the enthralled ears that soak up this Rodriguez music.  Julius Rodriguez swings hard on the piano as he and his trio introduce us to “Blues at the Barn,” an original composition with Philip Norris chasing Julius’s piano agility on his fast-moving, double bass.  Joe Saylor adds tenacious drums to the mix.  In my opinion, they could have left the short “Interlude” piece off the album.  It doesn’t add anything to the brilliance of this overall project.  The first single release from “Let Sound Tell All” is “Gift of the Moon” and it is the fourth track on this project. “Two Way Street” is a dance between the saxophone of Morgan Guerin and Julius Rodriguez on piano.  This tune moves seamlessly into the album’s title tune, “Let Sound Tell All.”  “Where Grace Abounds” features Julius Rodriguez on both organ and piano, playing a song that sounds like a religious standard.  The arrangement changes halfway through when the drums of Brian Richburg Jr., lay down a funk groove.  The composition, “Elegy (For Cam)” opens with the bass line of Philip Norris setting the tempo and groove.  Julius Rodriguez lends a tenderness to his piano playing that touches the soul.  The vocals of Hailey Knox round out the production, playing sweetly in the background, they fatten the production.  The thing about the Rodriguez compositions is that they sometime take a surprising turn, using tempo and production skills to change the arrangement suddenly and creatively.  This is the case during the very beautiful presentation of this song.  “In Heaven” was written by Darlene Andrews and is sung soulfully by Samara joy. This song and arrangement moved me!  The sensitive piano playing of Julius Rodriguez is as heartfelt as Ms. Joy’s amazing vocal presentation.

Julius Rodriguez closes with a very short tune called, “Philip’s Thump” which could be a tribute to his bassist, Philip Norris.  The bassist is certainly thumping away during this arrangement.  It’s only one minute and four seconds long, but every note is perfectly effective in this brief time. Perhaps Rodriguez will develop this into a full-fledged, extended arrangement for the next recording.  I look forward to it.

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SeaJun Kwon, bass/composer/bandleader; Erez Dessel & Jacob Hiser, piano; Avery Logan & Charles Weller, drums; Aaron Dutton, alto saxophone; Jacob Schulman, tenor saxophone; Michael Prentky, tuba.

Korean-born and New York based, SeaJun Kwon enjoys exploring “micro-naps” in his music.  You may ask, “What is a micro-nap?” 

Kwon explains, “A micro-nap is an example of non-linear and broken moments.  Usually, these extremely short, non-linear moments are dense, noisy, and full of energy.  … This album reflects my emotional frustrations, non-linearity, the transience of feelings, and the emptiness of noise, as well as my attraction to them.”

SeaJun’s band features three horns upfront and an Avant-Garde presentation.  He enjoys the sextet format, because it exists somewhere in between a small, intimate group and the intricate arrangements demanded by larger bands.  As an exchange student, SeaJun Kwon came from Seoul, South Korea to study computer science and machines.  At that point, he was tinkering with an electric bass, but he didn’t consider the bass a career option. That quickly changed.

“I really liked listening to jazz.  So, I took a lesson on acoustic bass.  It became serious when I realized that I really liked learning it.  I had no formal music education before that.  From that point on, I had to learn everything very fast!” Kwon explained.

Kwon graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory (NEC) and settled into a Brooklyn lifestyle.  He’s been leading the group ‘Walking Cliché Sextet’ since 2019 and it’s made up of fellow students from his NEC days. Track #1 features a piano that at times sounds like a music box. As the intensity grows, this concept changes into a more aggressive arrangement. Track #3, the growling, title tune, pretty much capsulizes the entire Avant-garde project of unexplainable, unpredictable music. The addition of Michael Prentsky’s tuba is a fresh touch and tone. Although the sextet members obviously are interpreting cord changes composed by SeaJun Kwon, they push boundaries with their ability to veer into realms of improvisation and often dissonance that challenges these arrangement walls. The musicians boldly repaint these abstract, musical portraits.  The sextet members step outside the box.  On Track #4, there is a monumental drum solo by Avery Logan that ends the piece. Track #5 titled “Rumination” settles the ensemble down to a slower pace and spotlights a lovely saxophone solo that opens the composition.  Both track #6 & #7 are part of a suite that Kwon calls “Transient.”  For me, it conjures up imaginative pictures of a mad scientist, standing amidst a huge pot of steam and possibilities.  This music paints test tubes in my mind and swirling, whirling centrifuges of sound and motion. Jacob Hiser plays piano on this composition and repeatedly stings the keys with a continuous, circular melody.  He changes the mood of the piece, using his left hand to darken the emotion with the bass register. This climatic piece is repetitious and titled, “Trio interlude.”  It lasts over seven minutes.  The final part of this suite culminates with the “Transient” title and lets the horns lead the way.  These last two closing pieces of the ‘Transient Suite’ fall, like puzzle pieces, into perfect place.  There is something quite beautiful about their finality. Where, in the earlier pieces, I was sometimes tempted to lift the invisible victrola needle from the licorice-pizza spinning beneath, I now find myself quite interested and enthralled by this composition, with the pianist pulling random lines from Duke Ellington’s A-Train and the sextet finally sounding like a connected and beautiful jazz ensemble that comes together as a whole.  I play this final composition again, for good measure.

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Mariel Mayz, solo piano; Leo Brouwer, composer.

Leo Brouwer is an acclaimed Cuban composer and conductor.  He has been heralded as a modern-day Mozart.  His compositions and arrangements have spanned formats from quartets to orchestras.  Since Brouwer is a masterful guitarist, who was classically trained, many compositions are written expressly for guitar.  He also writes for solo piano and that’s where Mariel Mayz come into the picture.

This original music is dramatic, deeply emotional, and beautifully played by pianist, Mariel Mayz.  This CD is completely composed by Leo Brouwer.  It opens with ten suites of music under the banner of “Diez Bocetos” and composed by Brouwer between 1961 and 2007.  Each Piece is titled after a Cuban visual artist.  From the title of the album, I expected a rhythmic, very Latin-fused production.  Instead, I found this music to be delightfully meditative and some of the pieces are very easy-listening, soothing, and peaceful.  In fact, while listening, I nearly nodded off.  “Nuevos Bocetos Para Piano” translates to new sketches for piano and consists of three Brouwer pieces he composed and completed more recently in 2021.  They were sent to Mayz in early 2022.  Mayz, as a gifted pianist who liberally shares her artistry and technical ability during this solo performance.  The blending of these two unique talents is vividly on display and they both shine brightly in a rich, multi-colored spotlight.

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Jeff Coffin, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone & electro saxophones/Tarogato/piccolo/ alto & bass flutes/C flute/clarinet/bass clarinet/melodica/vocals/percussion/coke bottles; Vincente Archer, Tony Hall, Michael League, Stefan Lessard, Felix Pastorius, Alana Rocklin, Jonathan Wires and Chris Wood, bassists; Richard Aspinwall, Mike Baggetta, Robben Ford, Marcus King, Bob Lanzetti, guitarists; Keith Carlock, Kris Myers, Jordan Perlson, Derrek Phillips, Chester Thompson & Derico Watson, drums/percussion; Jeff Babko, Nigel Hall, David Rodgers, Buddy Strong, & Chris Walters, keyboards. Emmanuel Echem & Bill Fanning, trumpets; Ray Mason, trombone; Bernardo Agular, Brazilian percussion; Michael League, Moroccan Frame drums; Sarah Ariche, vocals/Ngoni; Jennifer Hartswick, vocals; DJ Logic, turntables.

If you are a lover of contemporary jazz, Jeff Coffin’s new project will satisfy your soul.  Opening with “Vinnie the Crow” we take flight, funky wings spread upwards and racing towards outer space.  If you’re willing and ready, this music will carry you along.  The sing-song melody is full of joy and makes you want to sing along to this Jeff Coffin composition, co-written with Alex Clayton.  In fact, other than this collaboration, Coffin has singularly penned all ten songs on this funk-driven exploration into modern jazz.  Jeff Coffin has contracted a variety of amazing players to participate on this project. Listed above are eight bass players, seven drummers, five guitar players, four keyboardists, Moroccan vocals, Brazilian percussion, a set of Middle Eastern frame drums, a turntable artist, multiple horns, an ice cream truck, a Hungarian Tarogato, an African Ngoni and a Partridge in a pear tree.  Lol.  Just kidding about the Partridge.  Not to mention, Jeff Coffin spotlights his talents on soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and electro saxophones.  He also plays the Tarogato, the piccolo, alto and bass flutes, the C flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, melodica, and he adds vocals to the list, percussion and even plays coke bottles.  The man’s talents overwhelm me. This production took two years in pandemic isolation to create. Coffin says each component felt like an unexpected jigsaw puzzle piece that fell perfectly into place.  Favorite tunes are: Vinnie the Crow, Ruthie (featuring Jeff Babko on keyboards and Bob Lanzetti coloring the piece with his electric guitar licks), Tip the Band, (a soulful funk piece), Behind the 8 Ball, Busting Out All Over, (where Derico Watson & Jordan Perlson pump their percussive drums and push energy into this arrangement along with Coffin’s saxophone), and the very Middle Eastern arranged composition titled “When Birds Sing” with Jeff Coffin showing off his vocal skills.  This album is stuffed with joy!

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Jason Kao Hwang, Tucker Barrett solid-body electric violin with a Richard Barbera bridge, Atomic amplifier 12 multi-FX processor (overdrive, distortion, fuzz, wah-wah, phaser, whammy, pitch shift, delay); J.A. Deane, electronics (Sensei Morph touch controller, Spacecraft granular synthesizer software, Akai MPC Live Digital Audio Workstation).

When I heard this album, I felt as though I was being transported from Earth to outer space.  It’s an Avant-garde production with emphasis on electronics.  J.A. Deane was an electronic master.  Unfortunately, he passed away before this album came to fruition.  Dino (as his friends called him) had a long history of being in the music business, starting with a stint with Tina Turner.  In the 1980s, he was playing with the Butch Morris Ensemble.  More recently, after the death of his longtime partner, Colleen Mulvihill, J.A. Deane left Denver, Colorado and moved into a tiny house placed in a remote, rural field in Cortez, Colorado.  His mission was to write and complete his biography. In December of 2020, he sent the finished product to his friend and fellow musician, Jason Kao Hwang.  In return, Hwang sent J.A. Deane a couple of his duo albums, including one with Karl Berger.  That was a recording Deane was particularly drawn to and he soon contacted Jason to suggest they record a duo project together.  That’s how this album came to be.

“Despite the pandemic, we agreed to collaborate.  I heard his zoom concert for the Red Room in Baltimore.  Dino’s phantasmagoric symphonies, vivid and luxuriant, with unique sounds, were stunningly beautiful. … Dino proposed that I send him five to ten minutes of solo acoustic violin improvisations.  He would work with it, then send me tracks to overdub.  In March of 2021, I sent him my tracks.  Every track on this CD, from both Dino and myself, are completely improvised,” Jason Kao Hwang reminisced.

I am completely in awe of Jason Kao Hwang’s lovely and quite unique approach to playing the electric violin. He masterfully incorporates his spontaneous creativity and technical abilities into the modern music that he and J.A. Deane have composed.  Hwang’s most recent releases include “The Human Rites Trio” and “Conjure.” Both recordings have received critical acclaim.  I completely understand why the El Intruso International Critics Poll voted him #1 for violin and viola music recordings in 2012, 2013, 2018, 2019 and 2020. His rich, sensuous sound punctuates this current production with beauty and surprise.

J.A. Deane was a pioneer of live electronics.  He worked for some time with a popular San Francisco art/punk band called ‘Indoor Life.’  Deane originated the technique of ‘live sampling.’  He often incorporated this technique live and onstage.  Today, live sampling permeates this generation’s music.  Deane would record members of the band singularly while they were performing live, then manipulate the audio and play it back as though it were an instrument.  He also created theatrical sound designs for many artists. He and his longtime love (Colleen) created over fifty works of musical art.  Other artists who he collaborated with are Sam Shepard and Julie Hebert.  In November of 2020, J.A. Deane published his book, “Becoming Music: Conduction and Improvisation as forms of QiGong.”  In 2021, J.A. Deane transitioned from this world to the next, but he leaves behind a legacy of electronic music and innovation for us to enjoy.

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Clark Sommers, bass/composer; Matt Gold guitar; Dana Hall, drums/cymbals; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet/soprano & tenor saxophone.

Bass man, Clark Sommers is a huge fan of Donny Hathaway and was greatly influenced by Hathaway’s bassist, Willie Weeks.  So much so, that Clark composed a song to honor the bass player that he titled, “Weeks & Weeks.”  He also draws inspiration from Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.  These are all rock, pop and rhythm and blues stars, popular for their innovation and energy. But Sommers music is not necessarily energized and leans heavily into contemporary jazz.  His ensemble opens with a waltz feel on “Also Tomorrow” that introduces the players in Sommers band, each stepping forward to showcase their talents during solo spots.  I try to figure out what the drummer is doing on this tune and I’m left puzzled.  The ¾ tempo is being played by the ensemble, but not accented by the trap drums. This music is not lively or particularly dynamic, which is surprising since Clark Sommers clearly notes artists he admires, and they are each very powerful and full of vitality.  This production, on the other hand, is very ‘laid-back.’  Where his heroes are famous for their ‘groove,’ I found the groove lacking on many of these tunes.  However, the intent is there.  The compositions by Sommers are well-written.  On “James Marshall” Track #2, Sommers opens the piece on his double bass and hands the spotlight over to Matt Gold on guitar.  This piece is saturated in the blues, but again, the groove just never shows up.  The horns appear and they are strong with emotional solos, but once again I’m frustrated with what Dana Hall is playing on drums.  “Second Guesses” is a straight-ahead jazz number with arrangements that accentuate breaks and are meant to highlight the catchy melody.  Once they get into the meat of the matter, the saxophone is off and running. This tune quickly became one of my favorites on this album. Another favorite is the joyful “Silent Observer” that doesn’t play silent at all.  With just the woodwind instrument and drums performing a duet, Dana Hall finally shines and Geof Bradfield soaks up the spotlight in a shiny and talent specific way.  This is a great tune and a powerful arrangement.  It should have opened this album.  The musicians sound in perfect synchronization with each other and the song itself is a formidable composition by Sommers.  Other favorites: “Invisible Arrow” and “Nichols on the Quarter.”

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Eric Vloeimans, trumpet; Will Holshouser, accordion.

Here is a duo album that features the unusual combination of trumpet and accordion.  The accordionist is based in New York and the trumpeter is best-known in his native country of the Netherlands.  Eric Vloeimans has won four Edison prizes, which is their Dutch Grammy.  He’s quite famous in Europe and has toured through the continent of Asia, as well as the United States working with artists like Mercer Ellington, John Taylor, Peter Erskine, various orchestras and of course his own group.  Both musicians share an eclectic musical background and the music that I hear is steeped deeply in the European classical realm.  Both are respected composers, and they have each added their own compositions to this project.  The challenge for me is that one of the premises of jazz is the ability to improvise on a theme. That’s what has immortalized jazz to the attentive ears of the world.  Also, jazz was born of slave songs, gospel and blues music. This root of the music developed into ‘swing’ and ‘shuffles’ and eventually Avant-garde, modern jazz, bebop and more.  When I listen to Vloeimans and Holshouser, I hear two amazingly and technically talented musicians, but am I listening to jazz?  Their music is made up of original compositions and I hear the chord changes and melody, because I too am a musician.  Then I wait to see if they are going to improvise on their themes or swing or shuffle along.  I do hear the blues on Track #5, “Innermission 2,” composed by Eric Vloeimans.  Every song up to that point is clearly classical and not what I would call jazz.  This album reflects a chamber music concept without the strings. As mentioned in their press package, “…several pieces range from introspective, almost Schubert-like meditations…”  “Redbud Winter” begins as an up-tempo composition reflective of a type of folk music and composed by Will Holshouser.  It moves through a number of tempo and mood changes, the way a soundtrack for a motion picture might move.  I have heard Will Holshouser perform with his trio and with Musette Explosion. These groups remind me of polka bands. I was looking forward to hearing Track #10, dedicated to Louis Armstrong, and I enjoyed this ballad drenched in New Orleans soulfulness.  At last, an arrangement and production that sounds like jazz music.  However, for the most part, “Two for the Road” is an interesting musical concept played by two acclaimed musicians, who are quite innovative, but I wouldn’t necessarily put this entire album into a jazz category.

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Jason Yeager, piano/synthesizer/composer; Jay Sawyer, drums; Danny Weller, upright & elec. Bass; Yuhan Su, vibraphone; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Lucas Pino, clarinet/bass clarinet/tenor saxophone; Patrick Laslie, tenor saxophone/flute/bass clarinet; Alphonso Horne & Riley Mulherkar, trumpet & flugelhorn; Mike Rahie, trombone.

Jason Yeager is a New York based pianist/composer and a committed educator.  He is currently Assistant Professor of Piano at Berklee College of Music in Boston. For this project, he chose to celebrate novelist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born November 11, 1922. Vonnegut Jr. was an American writer, famous for his dark humor and satirical novels.  Within his five-decade career, he successfully published fourteen novels, three short-story collections, five plays and five nonfiction works.  He died in Manhattan on April 11, 2007.  This year, the journalist would have turned one-hundred years old. Jason Yeager is a big fan!  He has turned the pages of many Vonnegut books and decided to pay tribute to this novelist by composing eleven new compositions for Vonnegut’s centennial.  The release will happen on Vonnegut’s birthday (Nov. 11th) at the Vonnegut Library and Museum in Indianapolis, IN.  Jason knew that Vonnegut once had a secret desire.  The author had voiced it aloud saying:

“What I would really like to have been, given a perfect world, is a jazz pianist.  I mean jazz.  I don’t mean rock and roll.  I mean the never-the-same-twice music the American black people gave the world,” Vonnegut once announced.

So, jazz pianist, Jason Yeager, decided to gift the spirit of Vonnegut with this suite of music. He was inspired by the science fiction novels Vonnegut created.  Cut #1 is titled, “Now It’s The Women’s Turn” and it’s a beautiful, melodic piece with a lilting drumbeat provided by Jay Sawyer and an outstanding clarinet solo by Lucas Pino.  When Jason Yeager enters the piece on piano, he brings his double fisted charm to the party. It took Yeager nearly a decade to compose all these songs.  This first one reflects what Yeager thinks is one of the underrated masterpieces by Kurt Vonnegut titled ‘Bluebeard.’  “Ballad for Old Salo” is moody and written for a character that appears in several of Vonnegut’s stories; a character that has one huge eye and stands two feet tall and in need of love. Yeager’s piano solo during this arrangement is quite classical and Yuhan Su’s vibraphone brings a sweet touch to the arrangement.  The horns used in these arrangements are lushly provocative and beautifully cushion the melodic solos.  Yeager says that he sees Kurt Vonnegut something of a Thelonious Monk figure in the world of fiction.  He broke a lot of literary rules and it took time for both artists to become accepted and with wide audience appeal.

“Monk is one of my musical touchstones and Vonnegut has a similarly unique voice and is unapologetically himself,” Yeager asserts.

“Kilgore’s Creed” is a straight-ahead composition that depicts a scientist character from Vonnegut’s “Timequake” novel and was described as the journalist’s alter-ego.  “Unk’s Fate” employs a march tempo to mirror the Martian military march that takes place in “Sirens of Titan.”   In “So It Goes” Yeager adds spoken word voices that repeat the title and grab the attention from the Avant-garde background music tinkling behind the voices. Yeager also gives us a taste of the blues in his piano excursions. Speaking of blues, “Blues for Billy Pilgrim” digs deeply into another one of Vonnegut’s characters from his World War II novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.”  All of these Yeager compositions certainly makes me want to read the books of Kurt Vonnegut. What a wonderful tribute to the author’s brilliance and creativity, with a whole musical jazz album devoted to exploring his characterizations. Here is a truly unique project, one that explores all the nuances of jazz and introduces us to an American literary author through the composition skills of Jason Yeager. Impressive!

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LUIS DENIZ – “EL TINAJON” – Modica Music

Luis Deniz, alto & soprano saxophones/composer; Rafael Zaldivar, piano/keyboards; Roberto Occhipinti, acoustic bass; Ahmed Mitchel, drums/vocals; Adis Galindo, vocals; Jorge Luis Torres (Papiosco), percussion/congas/Bata drums.

The sound of Luis Deniz’s horn is so sweet, it stops me in my tracks.  At first, the arrangement has the Deniz alto saxophone soloing alone, but then the percussion joins him, smoothly, like horse hooves against cobblestone. There is something historic, archaic, tribal in this arrangement. The saxophone notes soar and flutter, a restless bird in flight.  This tune is titled “Reflexiones” and introduces us to this gifted artist, Luis Deniz.  There is no full rhythm section on this opening composition by Deniz. No need. Jorge Luis Torres is enough to accompany the bandleader, Deniz.  Jorge’s brilliant on percussion.  The rhythm section steps stage center on Track #2, “La Ceiba de Mayuya” where we meet Roberto Occhipinti on double bass, Rafael Zaldivar on piano and trap drums played by Ahmed Mitchel.  The pianist reminds me of butterfly wings flapping wildly across sky and space.  The original music of Luis Deniz is intoxicating and hypnotic.  Track #3 employs the voices of the band members, chanting and reflecting Afro-Cuban roots on “Rumba Para Camaguey/Equality.”  This is the debut album from Luis Deniz, a Cuban-born, Toronto, Canada-based saxophonist. The album’s title, “El Tinajon” reflects the name of a clay pot, brought to Cuba by the Spanish in the early 1500s.  These pots were originally used to collect rainwater and for Luis, they represent his humble beginnings and the importance of water to the survival of humanity and consequently, the survival of human art.  None of us can live or be productive without water.   His compositions are beautifully written and mirror his musicality and polished technique.

“As a composer, I really just let myself write what I hear.  I’m not preoccupied with compositions sounding hard, difficult, or anything of the sort.  To me, music is about people, and songs should reflect emotions,” Luis Deniz reflects in his press package.

I agree with his sentiments.  Clearly, he has succeeded in his intent. * * * * * * * * * *


October 28, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

Oct 28, 2022


Russ Hewitt, solo/rhythm/tres guitar/composer; Bob Parr, bass/keyboards; Elijah M. Parr & Walfredo Reyes jr., drums; Efren Guzman & Raphael Padilla, percussion; Nuno Bettencourt, Marty Friedman, Jorge Strunz, Tri Nguyen  & Ardeshir Farah, guitars.

Russ Hewitt brings us a very Spanish influenced CD of original compositions that dance and sway with Latin rhythms.  You will hear his ten-track creativity expressed by a number of competent guitarists, including Russ himself. His strong rhythm section includes two master percussion players, Guzman and Padilla.  The opening tune, “Allende,” sets the tone of this production.  During Hewitt’s compositions, you will hear samba beats along with montuno, milonga, rumba, Flamenco rhythms and more.  On Track #2, the title tune, “Chasing Horizon” features the guitar mastery of Nuno Bettencourt, whose name you might recognize from his best-known work with the rock band ‘Extreme.’ On this arrangement, he plays a nylon guitar, instead of his electric one. He and Russ Hewitt slap the rhythm into place, going toe-to-toe on their guitars with the percussive players. Raphael Padilla has played with the Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan, and Shakira to name just a few.  Efren Guzman’s percussion playing has colored the music of Andrea Bocelli, Armando Manzanaro and Alejandro Fernandez. This Flamenco number rumba’s across my room in 7/8 time, dragging joy by the hands and spreading it all over my listening room.  Hewitt’s collaboration with various talented guitarists keeps this project interesting and fueled with unexpected energy.  A powerful slap of drums opens a song called “Vivir Libre” featuring another guest guitarist. It’s Marty Friedman, known for his work with the heavy metal Megadeth band.  This song is soaked in montuno rhythm. You will be pleasantly surprised when the song “Amor Perdido” features a visit from the Bucharest All-Star Orchestra.  Recorded at the Savannah Street Studio and the SGO Music Factory in Bucharest, Romania, this is an album featuring several talented guitarists, along with Russ Hewitt himself and showcasing Hewitt’s awesome composer skills.

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GENE ESS – “AH – BOP” SIMP Records

Gene Ess, guitar/composer; Scott Colley, acoustic bass; Clarence Penn, drums.

It’s been four years since Gene Ess released an album on SIMP Records.  This time, the guitarist has chosen to record as a trio with Scott Colley on bass and Clarence Penn manning the drums. Ess, a native of Okinawa, Japan is a former member of the Rashied Ali Quintet and has played alongside luminaries like Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Henderson, Carlos Santana and Archie Shepp to list just a few.

“To me, the trio is a huge challenge, as the guitar is completely naked in the sonic landscape.  It’s harder for me than solo or duets, as the nature of the guitar makes it very difficult. So, I was pushed by the challenge. Also, having a chord less accompaniment to my solos was fresh,” Gene Ess explained his feelings about this project.

Gene Ess composed all this music while in Tokyo.  Because of COVID, he had to wait in Japan until it was safe to return to New York.  Once back in the ‘States’ Ess contacted bassist Scott Colley for this project.  Scott was the bass player on a European tour with Tony Moreno years before, in the mid-90s.  They clicked. Clarence Penn was the drummer on Gene’s last three recordings, so it was a no-brainer to add his talents to the mix.  The concept of Gene’s compositions and the basis of this album was creating a ‘song cycle’ with the eight compositions. This concept is popular with classical composers like Schubert, Schumann and Mahler.  A ‘song cycle’ exhibits unifying features of the music, using musical procedures that require a type of coherence, but also has many variations. The first tune, “Ah Bop” does just that; it bebops into my listening room in a Thelonious Monk kind of style. Clarence Penn surges on drums, pushing the song ahead like a freight train. Ess uses open strings to pluck the melody out and Colley walks his bass beneath the arrangement, tightly holding the trio in place.  The next song is simply titled, “Waltz” and becomes a stage for Scott Colley to explore an impressive bass solo.  “Yuki” is a very beautiful ballad with a particularly familiar sounding melody.  It allows Gene Ess to take time with his guitar in a tender, pensive way. Yuki can be a female name, but it also translates in Japanese to ‘snow.’ However, I find this composition to be warm, rather than winter cold, and thoughtful, perhaps a little melancholy too.  Gene Ess has a clean, clear tone on his instrument and his solo fades into Scott’s bass solo flawlessly, allowing Ess to provide chorded guitar rhythm for Scott Colley to briefly bounce upon.  Ess goes from beauty to a beastly arrangement on “Array” that puts distortion on his clean, clear guitar tones and shows a whole new musical personality. The time is set in 5/4 and this tune dabbles with a hard rock style, like jazzy toes dipping in unfamiliar waters and finding them too cold to stay. This must be the cyclic variations that Gene Ess explains in his liner notes.  Then they play “Dark Blues” with a classic West African rhythm called Bembe dancing beneath the ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz feel of this tune.  The drums fly, like gazelles racing across African plains, and Scott’s bass walks swiftly, supporting the dynamic Ess improvisational solo. The chord changes might be blues inspired, but the tune wanders off into other musical territories.  Each individual solo that features the trio members, is like a painting we pause to explore and admire.  I find myself searching for the meaning in each of these cyclic songs and enjoying the trio’s rich and colorful presentation. 

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JUSSI REIJONEN – “THREE SECONDS / KOLME TOISTA” – Challenge Records International

Jussi Reijonen, fretless & electric fretted guitar/classical guitar/oud/composer/arranger; Vancil Cooper, drums; Kyle Miles, acoustic & fretless bass; Utar Artun, piano; Keita Ogawa, percussion; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Layth Sidiq, violin; Bulut Gülen, trombone; Jason Palmer, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Jussi Reijonen’s music is dramatic. He is a master fretted and fretless guitarist, an oud player, and a composer/arranger. This project is his follow-up album to an acclaimed 2013 recording debut. This CD is transcultural and reflects Jussi Reijonen’s vast experience living in a variety of world places. Jussi is Finnish, born in Rovaniemi, Finland, but has lived in Jordan, Tanzania, Oman, Lebanon and most of his adult life in the Boston and New York communities of the United States.  In his music, you will hear Middle Eastern influences, generously mixed with  African and American music, as well as incorporating his own Nordic roots. This sophomore album features a 9-piece ensemble meant to reflect his international awareness and various cultural influences. There are three Americans in his band, along with a Turkish trombonist and pianist,  a Jordanian/Iraqi violinist Layth Sidiq, who lends his talents, and Naseem Alatrash who is a Palestinian cellist.  Keita Ogawa is a Japanese percussion player.  Together, these international musicians bring Jussi Reijonen’s multi-cultural music alive.

Like so many people, while hunkering down during the pandemic, Jussi Reijonen took that solo time to find clarity in his thoughts and music.  This album reflects an inspired story of his own internationalism, including a lost and found cultural awakening and Jussi’s solidarity with his individualism.  These compositions have become a suite of music he calls “Three Seconds” or in his Finnish language, “Kolme Toista.”  A lot can happen in three seconds, and this space of time also represents three strangers and the revelations they experience that gives each a new outlook on life. Perhaps an introspection into three personalities contained in one body. A blossoming.  A change of mind, body, and soul.  Jussi’s brand, new music represents all of this. 

Opening with “The Veil” a strong influence of Middle Eastern music runs through the arrangement like a silver ribbon. The bass of Kyle Miles opens this piece. In the background, Layth Sidiq’s lovely violin generously colors the music.  There is harmony and dissonance, drama and excitement, like a lover’s quarrel.  Vancil Cooper’s drums first spur the composition forward and then calm the moment for Utar Artun’s piano to offer a solo conversation that settles the argument amiably. Keita Ogawa’s percussion brilliance makes every moment memorable. Thanks to Jussi’s arrangement, the horns harmonize smoothly in the background to soften the mood.  This opening composition by Jussi Reijonen sets the tone and mood of this very inspired album of music. Jussi offers us music without boundaries. It’s orchestrated to both entertain and surprise us. Meantime, in whatever spare time this artist has, Jussi is a member of the New York Arabic Orchestra and is also an educator in both the United States and Europe. When he isn’t exploring the outer spaces of his mind, instruments and creativity, Jussi Reijonen currently splits his time between Amsterdam, Boston and New York City.

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Jim Witzel, guitar/composer; Brian Ho, Hammond B-3 organ; Jason Lewis, drums; Dann Zinn, tenor saxophone.

Bay area guitarist and composer, Jim Witzel, offers the listener a combination of his modern jazz compositions and a handful of cover tunes including “I Love You, Porgy” and “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.”  Inspired by a group of guitar players who he labels, ‘the Great Eight,’ Witzel grew to love the guitar listening to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny.  Today, seasoned and strong in his own talent and style, Witzel opens with the swinging, title tune, “Feelin’ It” that he composed. It sets the tone for his energetic Straight-ahead music.  Jim’s trio follows up with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” that also ‘swings’ hard, inspired by the Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall version.  Witzel let’s us catch our breath when he performs the Lennon/McCartney hit song, “Norwegian Wood,” arranged at a moderate tempo with his guitar singing the lovely melody in a smooth, crystal-clear way. Witzel has a warmth to his style and a precise technique that brings clarity to any melody, before exploding with improvisation. Jim grew up in San Rafael, California and started practicing guitar as a preteen.  In high school, he began to study jazz guitar with well-known Bay Area educator and artist, Dave Smith.  Jim Witzel spent a decade in the Los Angeles area, paying dues freelancing with notable jazz players like Bob Sheppard, Scott Colley, Henry Butler, Richie Cole, Casey Schuerell and Clay Jenkins.  At the same time, he was working clubs and concerts with busy saxophonist Dave Lefebvre and his six-piece jazz-fusion group. This new album features Witzel’s awesome composer talents.  His song “Beyond Beijing” sounds like a jazz standard and so does “Ms. Information” inspired by Wayne Shorter.  This is another hard-hitting, Straight-ahead jazz tune that’s rooted in the blues.  Witzel’s arrangement invites Dann Zinn to competently explore his tenor saxophone for our listening pleasure, after a rousing solo guitar performance by Jim. This original composition by Witzel also spotlights the talents of Jason Lewis on drums.  I enjoy the camaraderie between Brian Ho on Hammond B-3 organ and Witzel’s guitar.  One of this reviewer’s favorite things is an organ trio. This one is spectacular.  I love the way they have arranged “If Ever I Would Leave You” as a Bossa Nova that gives Brian Ho a platform to shine and showcase his organ excellence. The tender, passionate way that Jim Witzel plays “I Loves You, Porgy” is stunning and memorable. As he plays a clean, clear melody line, he accompanies himself on rhythm guitar. Witzels’ style and technique sparkles, clearly showing us he needs nothing more than his guitar to both entertain and please our ears. Every tune on this album is well-played, beautifully arranged and Jim Witzel’s original compositions are well-written and remind me of hard-bop days in a very wonderful way.

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Tim Fitzgerald, guitar; Tom Vaitsas, piano; Christian Dillingham, bass; George Fludas, drums; Victor Garcia, trumpet; Greg Ward II, alto saxophone; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone.

Tim Fitzgerald is a Chicago-based guitarist and bandleader.  For more than two decades, Tim has studied, transcribed and been inspired by the work of Wes Montgomery.  Tim and his group even borrowed the name for his band, “Full House,” from a Montgomery composition. The band and their incredible arrangements do not disappoint!  They open with “S.O.S,” arranged by trumpeter, Victor Garcia. They perform this Straight-ahead Montgomery tune with zest and vigor. Over the years I have enjoyed a number of Chicago musicians who always bring energy and excitement to the bandstand.  After all, Chicago has spawned legendary talent like Nat King Cole, Herbie Hancock, Bud Freeman, Benny Goodman, Gene Ammons, Ramsey Lewis and a host of guitar greats and blues icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamsons, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.  Now, Tim Fitzgerald joins the brigade.  George Fludas opens their first arrangement with a flurry of drum sticks that solidly set the tempo in place. Fitzgerald’s solo is a stream of improvisational runs that settle into a groove supported by the rich harmonies of the horn section.  These guys really swing.  I’m intoxicated by their music.  Each horn players steps dynamically into the spotlight and you get to know Victor Garcia on trumpet, Greg Ward on alto sax, and Chris Madsen on tenor.  Tom Vaitsas soaks up the spotlight on piano and absolutely matches the energy of Full House on the eighty-eight keys.  The drummer also takes every opportunity to show off his percussive skills.  You will be properly pumped up after listening to Time Fitzgerald’s Full House ensemble.  Tim has arranged the Montgomery favorite, “Four on Six” and I enjoy his technique and smooth, fluid guitar playing.  All ten songs celebrate the composing skill of the icon, Wes Montgomery, but also act as a stage for these Mid-western musicians to shine. The group was founded in 2015 and their main goal has been to carry-on the Wes Montgomery legacy.  The drummer, George Fludas, had a direct connection to the legendary guitarist.  He was a former sideman with Buddy Montgomery, a brother of Wes.  On “Far Wes” you’ll get the opportunity to enjoy Christian Dillingham’s melodic double bass solo.

“This record is a love letter to Wes.  I knew I didn’t want to sound like West,” Tim pauses.  “Not that I ever could.  But I knew I wanted to get close to his music and eventually take that inspiration and do my own thing.”

Mission accomplished!  Every tune on this recording is packed with punch and creativity. Not only will you admire and appreciate their reimagining of Wes Montgomery’s tunes, but you will relish these tight arrangements and excellent musicianship.  I hope that Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House septet gets on ‘the road’ and lets more people hear and enjoy their brilliance.  

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JOHN STEIN – “LIFELINE” – Whaling City Sound

John Stein, guitar/composer; Keala Kaumeheiwa, John Lockwood, Dave Zinno & Frank Herzberg, bass; Ed Lucie, bass guitar; Greg Conroy,  Dave Hurst, Yoron Israel, Matias Mingote German & Zé Eduardo Nazario, drums; Pedro Ito, percussion; Daniel Grajew, Jake Sherman, Koichi Sato & Koichi Sato, keyboards; Ken Clark, Hammond organ; Alexandre Zamith, piano; David “Fathead” Newman, saxophone/flute; Phil Grenadier, trumpet; Fernando Brandão & Rebecca Kleinman, flute; Evan Harlan, accordion; Ron Gill, vocals.

This is a double set album, offering two discs of amazing guitar music to enjoy with many tunes not only played by, but also composed by John Stein.  On Disc #1, he opens with his original composition titled “Up and at ‘em” that swings and dances across my listening room. At the top, he and the iconic David “Fathead” Newman on saxophone open the arrangement with a duet of guitar fluidly talking and interacting with the reed instrument.  They set the groove along with Greg Conroy on drums.  When Keala Kaumeheiwa enters on bass, the complete ‘straight-ahead’ jazz settles into an up-tempo swing groove. On Disc #2, they open with the popular jazz standard “Nica’s Dream.”  Once again, the energy is palpable.

With this “Lifeline” release, John Stein celebrates several decades of his musical career.  After his recent retirement from Berklee College of Music (as a professor since 1999) he decided to take some time to synthesize his remarkable body of work into this compilation.  Track #2 on this Disc #1 is a Bossa Nova with a melody that seems to have been inspired by “The Good Life.” It’s titled “Brazilian Hug” and it’s a delightful tune, this time with Zé Eduardo Nazario pumping life into the tune on drums with Frank Herzberg on bass. Daniel Grajew adds an inspired keyboard solo. This is followed by the familiar and beautiful tune, “Invitation.”  Once again, the musicians play musical chairs.  This time, Koichi Sato is on the keyboards and John Lockwood is the bassist.  Zé Eduardo Nazario remains consistent on drums.

What you will hear on this double set album is hand-picked representation from fifteen albums that John Stein has released.  You can soak up all the rich, warm sounds of the Gibson archtop jazz guitar that Stein plays.  He chose this guitar because of his predecessors.  I’m talking about Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green who also played that instrument.  Surprisingly, Stein didn’t start studying jazz seriously until he was thirty.  In 1980, he enrolled at Berklee as a student.  He had played in a bunch of bands earlier in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and later, crisscrossed the band scene in Vermont for ten years. But he wasn’t playing jazz.

“I was living in a cabin in the woods and learning to be a carpenter.  At the same time, I was in a number of bands in Vermont; rock, country rock, and folk rock.  Eventually I wore that music out.  I wanted to grow musically and gravitated towards jazz,” John Stein shared in his liner notes.

I would never have guessed that John Stein was a late bloomer to jazz.  His sound and tone are both technically spontaneous and proficient.  But it’s his emotional power that’s plugged into Stein’s guitar and radiates beauty that touches my heart.  This album reflects what a marvelous composer John is, as well as a noteworthy guitarist.  He has composed eight of the thirteen songs he offers us on Disc 1.  “Jo Ann” is Brazilian to the bone, while “The Roundabout” adds Koichi Sato on organ-keyboard, who plays around with the blues, giving John Lockwood a spotlight on his bass solo. Their treatment of “Green Dolphin Street” is a Bossa Nova surprise.  I don’t think I’ve heard “On Green Dolphin Street” played with such a lovely Latin arrangement. John Stein also invites Ed Lucie to play bass guitar and the two guitarists have a wonderful way of complimenting each other.  Mike Connors is the drummer this time around. On Stein’s “Recoleta” tune, the accordion is a sweet addition and Evan Harlan colors the music with a European jazz flavor.  I’m so happy I was introduced to John Stein and bask in his talent on these recordings.  On “Weaver of Dreams” Stein plays solo guitar and accompanies Ron Gill’s jazz vocals. The duet is a nice way to end the first disc.

Listening to this album, pulled from the several recordings he has made over his lifetime, made me feel as though I know John Stein. Enjoying his compositions and arrangements is as delicious as sopping my biscuits in thick gravy and smacking my lips, with the pure pleasure of tasting this delicious offering.

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Finally, to close out this column, I add the amazing music of a group of Asian musicians who bring forward their traditional cultures, with arms gently wrapped around jazz and improvisation.  These musicians raise awareness of the AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander music and movement.  The music they offer is made up of string instruments.  The unique thing about their presentation is the lack of harmony.  They are melodic, but not arranged in the traditional way we harmonize with each other when playing instrumental jazz.


Amjad Ali Khan & Amaan Ali Bangash & Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Wu Man, pipa; Shane Shanahan, percussion.

Both Wu Man and Shane Shanahan are the founding members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad project.  Those are incredible credentials. Wu man, who plays pipa on this project, continues to be active touring and teaching as a member of the popular Silkroad Ensemble.  Amjad Ali Khan has incorporated his two sons into the production.  Both Ayaan Ali Bangash and Amaan Ali Bangash follow in their father’s footsteps and play the sarod.  For those who are unfamiliar with either the pipa or the sarod, the pipa is a string instruments dating back to the Han dynasty, over 2,000 years ago. Players hug the instrument to them in an upright position. The pipa is made of wood, pear-shaped, with a fretted fingerboard and four strings. You might think of it as the great, great grandfather of the guitar. The sarod is also a string instrument, looking like a very long-necked banjo and held in a similar fashion. It’s an East Indian instrument, very important as a concert instrument in Hindustani music and often accompanied by the tabla drums.  The sarod has a narrower wooden body, covered with goatskin and it features a fretless, metal fingerboard.  This is the key factor in enabling the slides that are essential to East Indian music. Using these instruments, this ensemble parts the curtains and walks onto the world stage, ably accompanied by percussionist, Shane Shanahan.

As these unique instruments are played, the musicians transcend expected jazz boundaries and cross world borders.  This album brings us music from thousands of years ago that developed in China and India.  The odd thing about this music is that the instruments do not harmonize with each other.  They concentrate on individual melodies and share solo conversations with each other. But as their liner notes remind us, ‘harmony’ is joining together, not just musically but as a people and ‘harmony’ is the blending of cultures.  The title of this project, “Music for Hope” says it all.

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October 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 15, 2022


Samara Joy, vocals; Ben Paterson, piano; David Wong, double bass; Kenny Washington, drums; Pasquale Grasso, guitar; Kendric McCallister, tenor saxophone; Terell Stafford, trumpet/flugelhorn; Donavan Austin, trombone.

Samara Joy is a voice that will mesmerize and throw us back to the 1940s, a time when we were intoxicated by the sound of Ella Fitzgerald. She has a voice that reflects many Fitzgerald nuances, as well as Sarah Vaughn influences.  Samara’s vocals are smooth as butter and her replica of horn player riffs melts across these arrangements like honey on hot toast.  Clearly, she isn’t exactly copying the Vaughn and Fitzgerald sounds, but instead has incorporated their specialties into her own style with careful precision.  If I were to hear Samara Joy on the air waves, I would quickly recognize her tone and voice.  That’s a plus! It moves her out of the realm of normal female vocalist into the echelon of recognizable jazz stylist.

Opening with “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” Samara Joy swings competently and with ease. Her vocal smoothness is as comforting as warm lotion on a masseuse table.  While I tap my feet to the beat, I’m comfortable and relaxed listening to her silky presentation.  Pianist, Ben Paterson opens the familiar Nancy Wilson tune, accompanying Ms. Joy as she presents the introduction to “Guess Who I Saw Today.” When the other’s join in, I notice and enjoy guitarist Pasquale Grasso carefully and unobtrusively placing his complimentary licks beneath Samara Joy’s storytelling. On the Fats Navarro composition, “Nostalgia, (The Day I Knew)” Samara reminds me of Annie Ross, from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross fame.  She actually covers a tune by Jon Hendricks and Qusim Basheer, “Social Call” and does it her way.  One of my favorite tunes sung by the great Gloria Lynne was “Sweet Pumpkin.”  I was eager to hear how Samara Joy would interpret this one and she did not disappoint.  Like Gloria, she ‘swung’ the tune, but in her own sweet way. Other familiar songs we know and love that Samara Joy covers are “Misty,” and Monk’s “Round Midnight.”  There is a lovely duet with guitarist Pasquale Grasso on “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  You will find something for everyone on this introduction to a jazz vocalist who I believe will be around for decades. I predict, this is a young lady who will grow to be as popular and as respected as her iconic predecessors.

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Jean Baylor, vocals; Marcus Baylor, drums; Terry Brewer, piano/keyboards; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Keith Loftis, tenor & soprano saxophones; Darren Barrett, trumpet.

There’s nothing like a ‘live’ performance to spotlight the true talent and professionalism of an artist.  The Baylor Project captures the excitement and improvisational power that appearing before a ‘live’ audience can inspire. I’ve been looking forward to the return of this exciting ensemble that features the amazing talents of husband and wife, Jean and Marcus Baylor.  The Baylor Project has charisma and their outstanding live performances have brought audiences to their feet worldwide.  They are former winners of the 53rd NAACP Image Award for their “The Baylor Project – Generations” album in the Outstanding Jazz Vocal category.

On this current ‘live’ recording, they were hired by Gabriel Hendifar, who is the Artistic Director of APPARATUS, a New York based interdisciplinary design studio that explores the relationship of lighting, furniture, and objects in their environments.  With the addition of a ‘live’ band and vocalist, the artistic Mr. Hendifar added groove, tone and color to his event. 

Gabriel explained, “All the elements of performance should be integrated.  Nothing could be left to chance; all must be directed toward the same end.”

Gabriel Hendifar designed the room, the stage and the setting for a three-day-reveal.  Like the improvisational music that jazz is famous for, this was a one-time experience. With American music creating the substance and American stylized art creating the mood, patrons were in for a treat. The Baylor Project covered it all. This album incorporates their musical message including religious standard songs like “Lord Keep me Day by Day” (an instrumental) and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” sung by Jean Baylor. “Call of the Drum” features Marcus Baylor on trap drums and recalls the African heritage deeply instilled in America’s people of color culture. This three minute and twenty-five second solo by Marcus Baylor spotlights his talent and agility.  This is followed by the entry of trumpeter Darren Barrett, who plays an introduction to Jean Baylor’s reappearance to sing “Tell me a Story.”  This song is a lyrical reimagining of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” Jean’s soprano voices dances across the room like a ballerina, leaping gracefully, flying through space on the pointed toes of contemporary jazz.  The appearance of Keith Loftis on soprano saxophone ‘wows’ the crowd and they respond with great applause. Marcus Baylor’s drum solo also creates excitement and inspires the crowd to erupt in whistles and handclapping. 

Jean Baylor’s vocals on the standard Sarah Vaughn hit record, “Tenderly” Is a showstopper.  At first, accompanied only by Terry Brewer’s sensitive piano, during the over eight minutes of this presentation, you will be thoroughly entertained by the saxophone of Keith Loftis and an awesome, melodic bass solo by Yasushi Nakamura. Here is a ‘live’ experience, captured as a recording, that shares the appreciation and one-time-only performance of jazz musicians, unafraid to explore their creativity and the magic of a moment. 

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Kirsten Lambert, vocals; John Brown acoustic bass; Jim Crew, piano; Dan Davis, drums; Nels Cline, Scott Sawyer & Bill Frisell, guitar; Will Campbell, saxophones.

The first two songs on this production are pretty pop-ish, but the vocalist’s voice is magnetic.  Her fresh, musical innocence is evident and compelling.  Track #3 grabs my attention titled “The Woman Who Walks the Sea.” It’s a beautiful jazz waltz tune with a memorable melody.  Kirsten Lambert nails the intervals of this jazzy melody.  There is a naturalness to her vocal composure, like someone sitting on the front porch and singing because they love to sing. “Occasional Shivers” is another well-written composition, with Will Campbell adding his saxophone licks as colorful fillers between Kirsten’s melodic lyrics.  Most of these songs are ballads, written and produced by Chris Stamey.  It becomes a project that seems to be a way to promote the composer’s work, hand in hand with introducing Kirsten Lambert’s voice. It’s an album, more like a well-produced demo, that draws interest to the composer’s songs. “Insomnia” is another ballad.  The repertoire makes it a sleepy-time production featuring easy-listening arrangements.  “Song for Johnny Cash” is a Country Western ballad that is perfectly sung by Lambert’s smooth jazzy tones.  She rejuvenates the song, along with the saxophone of Will Campbell, and they reinvent it into a jazz arrangement.  Kirsten Lambert could easily sing Country Western music or pop songs. Her style remains multi-fluid. One of my favorite compositions by Chris Stamey is “I Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love with you.”  I just wish these musicians, and the producer, had added more variety to the arranging, perhaps adding a Bossa Nova beat behind one of the ballads or a shuffle. Finally, “There’s Not A Cloud in the Sky” puts the swing groove into place.  All in all, these are well-written songs by composer, producer Chris Stamey that are competently showcased by the vocalist, Kirsten Lambert.

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TAWANDA – “SMILE” – Resonance Records

Tawanda, vocals; Josh Nelson & Tamir Hendelman, piano/arrangers; Kevin Axt, bass; Gene Coye & Ray Brinker, drums; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Gary Meek, saxophones. SPECIAL THANKS: Mirabai Daniels.

In June of 2021, this hopeful, talented jazz vocalist tied for first place in the ninth Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.  The judging panel included respected vocalists Carmen Lundy and Vanessa Rubin, along with jazz bassist, Christian McBride.  They all co-signed Tawanda’s obvious talent. This is her debut album, and she has refreshed several, beautiful songs, some we recognize from contemporary releases like Sting’s “Sister Moon” where she digs deeply into blues roots, or the Barbra Streisand popular song, “A Child is Born” arranged as a jazz waltz, but somehow misses the mark as jazz.  She covers Maureen McGovern’s pop tune, “Bring Back My Dreamer” and it stays in the pop idiom.  However, singing at a speedy pace, Tawanda sings the Billie Holiday standard, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”  She shows us her scatting possibilities by trading fours with the drummer and this is a jazz arrangement supporting a jazz vocalist. Tawanda seems to be searching for what type of vocalist she wants to be, pop, cabaret or jazz?  Tawanda has a palatable second-soprano warmth to her voice, at times reaching into a rich alto range and on this project, she is surrounded by amazing musicians who put the spark into these arrangements.  However, although pleasing, there was not the fire and excitement in this voice to make it burn brightly, or to single it out from the pack of jazz singers trying to be heard.

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Roberta Donnay, vocals/producer/co-arranger; Mike Greensill, piano/arranger; Ruth Davies, bass; Mark Lee, drums; José Neto, guitar; David Sturdevant, harmonica; MB Gordy, percussion.

At the first phrase of “Roberta’s Blues” you hear the tone and phrasing that brings to mind jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie.  This is an album that celebrates Ms. Dearie’s music using the talent and voice of Roberta Donnay.  She has a similar, little-girl innocence to her vocal presentation, one that Dearie always exhibited.  Award-winning Roberta Donnay has released this, her tenth album to remind us of the iconic Blossom Dearie and her jazz legacy.

Donnay is more than just a vocalist.  As a composer, she was recognized by the prestigious ASCAP Composers Award for her song, “One World” selected as a world-peace anthem for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. She frequently performs with the Prohibition Mob Band, a swing dance band that portrays, with costumes and music, the era of speakeasies back in the 1920’s and 1930s.  Her “Bathtub Gin” EPK exhibited this side of her musical repertoire.

“Blossom-ing!” is a fresh labor of love for Donnay, who features a similar vocal style as her predecessor, but adds her own sassy tone and bluesy interpretation to this repertoire. On “Just One of Those Things” Roberta Donnay features her unique vocal styling, opening the tune as a duo with only bassist Ruth Davies.  When the rest of the band joins them, they go from a dramatic rubato to an up-tempo swing. It’s a terrific arrangement. Guitarist, José Neto introduces us to the song, “Inside a Silent Tear” before the Latin drenched drums of Mark Lee enter and propel this song forward.  Donnay has an easy, nonchalant way of selling each song and dramatizing each lyric.  She’s chosen sixteen songs associated with Blossom Dearie for this album, including the popular “Peel me A Grape” and tunes from the great American Song Book like “Someone to Watch over Me” and “The Party’s Over.” Roberta Donnay can swing with the best of them and when she sings “Plus Je T’Embrasse” she swings while singing in French. There’s a deep-rooted blues tone to her songs and these two embellishments (blues and swing) are what truly solidifies Donnay as a real jazz singer.  Although we often think of a blues singer as having a deep, growling powerhouse voice, Roberta Donnay shreds that stereotype with her kittenish, playful vocal style.  Her ability to sing fluidly in French and English expands her territory and garners her international possibilities and audiences. The other thing I like about Donnay’s style is that she doesn’t over-sing the songs or use long, legato lines, fancy runs or tricks to express herself. Roberta Donnay is simply unique in her style, solid in her presentation and honest in her delivery.

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Kate Baker, vocals/composer; Vic Juris, guitar/composer.

There’s nothing as vulnerable and intoxicating as guitar and voice, especially if they are both master musicians.  This is the case with Kate Baker and Vic Juris.  They open this delightful album with a song titled, “God Only Knows.” 

“Having Vic as my husband and collaborator on the bandstand made ours more than a musical partnership and more than a marriage,” Kate Baker informs us in her liner notes.

They had been performing as a duo for two decades and after the twenty-year performance schedule, decided to record themselves so they could sit back and hear what their responsive audiences heard. They entered engineer Paul Wickliffe’s recording studio with the plan to lay down six tunes.  It was kind of like a woodshed tape, one they could listen to and improve upon.  Vic Juris, a guitar giant, and an influential educator who acted as a ‘first call’ studio sideman for more than forty years was prone to scoff at rehearsals. Juris encouraged his wife, with the beautiful voice, to find freedom in the moment instead of rehearsing a set pattern of presentation.  Together they are as fluid and strong as a rushing brook rippling across shiny, multi-colored stones.  Their music brings peace and comfort.

Baker too is an educator, a vocal coach and planted her feet in contemporary music as well as jazz. Their uncommon musical symbiosis leaves audiences floored, but totally satisfied.  The diversity of their music is pleasant and appealing. On this album, when they move from a lovely, jazzy presentation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” transitioning to the song, “Black Crow.” In other words, from jazz to what could have been a 1960 rock record doesn’t even ripple our appreciation pool.  Songs like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a duo artistic masterpiece.  Their repertoire is a lesson in ‘song selling’ by Kate Baker.  The way she approaches the melodies, the improvisations and her sharing of lyrics is stunning, honest and sung like the seasoned vocalist she is.  Just listen to her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” tune and how Kate seems to relate to those poignant lyrics and trust us with the message.

In late December of 2019, Vic Juris passed away after a brief but valiant battle with nuero-endocrine cancer.  His untimely death, at age 66, shocked his loved ones and the music world. His career included a twenty-year gig in saxophonist Dave Liebman’s band.

“When we were thinking about songs to do, we wanted to do all new tunes and there was no theme.  But in reality, the theme was there all along.  But neither of us knew what was coming.  I think the spiritual world was giving us a message,” Kate Baker reflected.

We, the listeners, are blessed to hear the purity, love and camaraderie that is captured on this couple’s debut album.  Produced by guitar great, Dave Stryker, “Return to Shore” spotlights some of Vic Juris and Kate Baker’s innovative duet magic.  It also captures the outstanding guitar gift that Vic Juris had, his technique and creativity shine, along with his sensitivity to accompanying his wife and longtime partner, Kate Baker, in a tasty, comfortable, and improvisational way.  

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JUDY NIEMACK – “WHAT’S LOVE?” – Sunnyside Records

Judy Niemack, vocals/composer; Peter Bernstein, guitar/composer; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Doug Weiss, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Eric Alexander, alto saxophone.

Guitarist, Peter Bernstein and vocalist, composer Judy Niemack have collaborated on the first two songs on this “What’s Love?” album.  As co-writers, they parade their talent and songwriting skills for this production.  The opening song, “Feelin’ It in Your Bones” is well-written and splashed liberally in the blues. It’s a strong jazz tune with a well-composed lyric.  The chord structure is perfect for these musical players to strut their stuff and showcase their individual talents.  It begins with Peter Bernstein taking his guitar solo, followed by the flying fingers of Sullivan Fortner on piano. Doug Weiss makes an inspired statement on double bass before Judy Niemack re-enters the song.  This entire album showcases Niemack’s strength as a composer.  She has penned ten of the thirteen songs she offers the listener.   Additionally, she ‘covers’ the jazz standard “For All We Know” and the Tina Turner hit record, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”  The third cover is “Born to be Blue.” Judy Niemack’s talents abound on the Internet, but for me, it’s her songwriting talents that sparkle.  Quite a few of her original compositions are very well written. Favorite original compositions are Track #1, “Just When I Thought” and the ballad “With You” that she performs with just Bernstein’s guitar to accompany her.

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Nica Carrington, vocals; John Proulx, piano/arranger/producer; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.

It’s pleasant to hear a voice so pure, so clear and unpretentious.  Nica Carrington brings a freshness to old standards, starting with “Skylark.”  With the accompaniment and arrangements of pianist John Proulx, they begin as a duet and the other musicians join in later.  Carrington offers no vocal acrobatics or intricate riffs and runs.  As a child, she was infatuated with Frank Sinatra and his wonderful way of lyrically telling stories.  She has incorporated that quality into her own style and presentation.  Her honesty shines through on tunes like the obscure Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday composition, “Left Alone” and the more familiar, “When Sunny Gets Blue” or “We’ll Be Together Again.” Carrington has been a long-time jazz fan for years.  Before the COVID lockdown, Carrington had begun taking vocal lessons.  She had always wanted to sing, but finally decided to hone her naturally beautiful voice. Once teacher and student could no longer meet in person, she went Online looking for a Plan B.  That’s when she discovered L.A.’s very own, John Proulx.

“He’s so supportive and encouraging, so I took a chance and asked him if he would work with me on an album.  It turned out to be a great move,” Nica mused.

Proulx became her arranger and producer for this project, bringing on board the wonderful Chuck Berghofer on bass and renowned drummer, Joe LaBarbera.  Both are popular session musicians who have worked with people Nica Carrington had only heard on records.  Berghofer has played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee and even Carrington’s favorite, Frank Sinatra.  Labarbera was a member of the Chuck Mangione Quartet and has worked with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer and Toots Thieleman, to list only a few.  The awesome thing about working with John Proulx, he is not only a gifted pianist, but he’s an amazing vocalist himself, with several albums to his artistic credit. So, surrounded with this trio of historic excellence, Nica Carrington plunged into the work of creating her own jazz legacy.  The one thing I love about Nica Carrington’s voice is her warm intimacy and ability to connect with her audience.  It’s her truthfulness, when she sings these songs, that draws the listener into her space.  Her voice dials back to a time when the object of singing was to tell the song’s story and share personal passion by being vulnerable.  This is a voice you will remember and the old standards she sings will make you believe you are hearing these songs for the first time.

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