THE AMAZING GIFT OF JAZZ MUSIC

October 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 1, 2022

Each month, as the packages of music pour into my post office box, I feel grateful to be one of the people listening and writing about these amazing and creative jazz project.  I remember when jazz journalists used to come out to our shows and review our performances. I recall when Leonard Feather documented jazz and jazz artists, creating legacy books. I miss local L.A. journalists like Bill Kohlhaase and Bob Camden, who came out to venues and listened to ‘live’ jazz. As this holiday season grows closer, remember to give the amazing gift of jazz.

ALEX ACUÑA “GIFTS”  – Le Coq Records                                                  

Alex Neciosup Acuña, drums/percussion/composer; Otmaro Ruiz, piano; John Pena, bass; Ramon Stagnaro, guitar; Lorenzo Ferraro, tenor & soprano saxophone; Giovanna Clayton, cello; Michael Stever, trumpet; Diana Acuña & Regina Acuña, vocals.

“Music has been a gift from God to me since I was three years old, when I started to imitate sounds with my mind, my hands and my heart!  My father and my five older brothers were my first musical heroes.  One of the main reasons I played music was to establish relationships and to share the gifts with others.  I still continue to keep nourishing the gift by shining and sharpening it with my friends, playing and displaying what we do best,” Alex Acuña proudly states his inspiration and goal in performing music.

Surrounded by an outstanding cast of musical characters, percussion master Alex Acuña offers us a diverse collection of songs that inspire and lift us. Beginning with Track #1, “In Town,” he lays down a super groove that will have you finger snappin’ and toe tappin.’  The ensemble really grabs my attention on the Joe Zawinul hit composition, “Mercy Mercy.”  John Pena offers a thrilling blues bass guitar at the introduction and Acuña throws down a funk groove that locks the band into place. Ramon Stagnaro rocks on guitar, digging deeply into the blues.

This is followed by an original Alex Acuña tune called “Amandote” that is tender, full of passion and very beautiful.  He co-wrote it with Abraham Laboriel and Rique Pantoja.  This quickly becomes one of my favorite songs on this wonderful album of music. Michael Stever adds his trumpet magic to the mix.  His composition, “Chuncho” is fun, with the percussion driving the tune in a brilliant way and the addition of voices by Diana and Regina Acuña add a festive feeling to the tune. Alex Acuña displays his mastery on percussion, shining brightly in the spotlight.

Alex Acuña is an incredibly talented Peruvian drummer and percussionist, internationally acclaimed from his work with the Mambo King, Pérez Prado, then gigging in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and later, touring with Weather Report, famous as the fusion, funk band of the 1970s.  This album reunites him with old and extremely talented friends like Ramon Stagnaro on guitar, John Pena on bass and Otmaro Ruiz on piano.  They become his cement-solid rhythm section and were part of “The Unknowns” a group he put together in 1990. This group cut a record called, “Thinking of You.”  So, there is a familiarity and cohesiveness to these musicians that shimmers and shines on every tune.  Lorenzo Ferraro is a powerful Peruvian tenor player who also plays soprano sax on the heart-wrenching ballad, “Divina.” Acuña also adds Giovanna Clayton on cello to beautifully color some of his arrangements.  This is a product sure to please and like its title, a true musical ‘Gift.”

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GRANT GEISSMAN – “BLOOZ” – Futurism Records

Grant Geissman, 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar/tambourine/shaker/composer/1965 Gibson SG guitar/ 1966 Martin OO-18 acoustic/1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop; Jim Cox, Hammond B3 organ/piano/ Wurlitzer elec. piano; David Garfield & Emilio Palame, piano; Russell Ferrante, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Trey Henry, upright bass/1968 Fender Precision bass; Kevin Axt, upright bass; Ray Brinker & Bernie Dresel, drums; Tiki Pasillas, congas/timbales/shakere; Kevin Winard, congas/bongos; Robben Ford, 1954/1959 Gibson Les Paul conversion guitar; Josh Smith, FlatV1 guitar; Joe Bonamassa, 1952 Fender Telecaster elec. Guitar; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Tom Scott, tenor saxophone.

Guitarist Grant Geissman winds back time with his “Preach” tune ambling on the scene, straight out of the 1960’s music era.  Geissman is even playing a 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar. Randy Brecker adds his more contemporary trumpet solo to the mix and it works! The song, “Side Hustle” is another throw-back tune.  There was a dance craze in the 1970s (The Hustle) that took the country by storm when Van McCoy had a big hit record called “The Hustle.” It was played in every discotheque across the globe. The Hustle was a so-called ‘Line’ dance, similar to the Electric Slide and the Wobble that are popular today.  Grant Geissman has composed all the music on this album, borrowing from various varieties of the blues. You’ll hear everything from Rock-a-Billy to ‘Down-home’ blues.   On “Time Enough at Last” he slides into a more jazz fueled blues.  Then on “Fat Back” We’re back to 1970-style blues that was popular in that day and age. Geissman adds Tom Scott to the mix on this one to pump more soul into the tune.  This is a retro album that turns back the hands of time to when soul music and jazz locked hands with the blues and groups like Les McCann and Eddie Harris soared to popularity, along with tunes like Mercy, Mercy that raced to the top of the charts.  Geissman also incorporates the 1950s and 1960s rhythm and blues grooves into his compositions. It’s a nice blend of “Blooz” for his album of the same title.

Track #6 quickly becomes one of my favorites.  Titled “Rage Cage” Grant Geissman shows off his guitar chops atop a strong shuffle beat.  A few of Grant’s licks remind me B.B. King on this tune, and Jim Cox kills it on organ! On “One G and Two J’s” Geissman has based this song on a really old record called “The Hambone”.  I started singing the words along to it. “Hambone, hambone have you heard?  Papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird.” 

This is an album rich with history, funk, nostalgia and just plain fun. The Geissman composition, “Stranger Danger” is a Straight-ahead blues that makes my foot pat and my head bob with the tempo. I hear shades of Wes Montgomery on a few of Geissman’s licks and the rhythm section is as tight as an unopened champagne bottle, and just as good. Russell Ferrante gets his message across on the black and white keys, while Trey Henry walks his bass beneath Ferrante’s exciting solo.  All the while, Ray Brinker pumps energy into the band on drums. Geissman’s title says it all.  Here you have the “Blooz” in all its colorful and versatile beauty, celebrated by Grant Geissman and his musical, merry men.

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THE ADAM LARSON TRIO – “WITH LOVE, FROM KANSAS CITY” – Outside in Music”

Adam Larson, saxophone; Ben Leifer, bass; John Kizilarmut, drums.


Saxophonist, Adam Larson offers this follow-up album to his very well-received February 2022 album, “With Love from Chicago.”  This time he celebrates Kansas City, a place he moved to in 2019 and is now a leading creative force in a city famous for jazz and jazz musicians.  Once again, Larson offers us his flying, bird-like saxophone solos with a chord less trio, leaving our imaginations to explode along with the music. This time, he features Ben Leifer on bass and John Kizilarmut on drums.  This is the second of a planned trilogy of trio recordings that each celebrates a different city and the impact that place had on Larson’s musicianship and artistry.  Leifer and Kizilarmut were not on the preceding album but are strong musicians in their own right and based in Kansas City. I find Kizilarmut exceptionally creative on drums.  You can clearly hear his technique and attention to both time and melody on the tune, “Life Cycle,” that’s a Latin composition by Larson and swings briskly through the changes.  Adam Larson’s horn sings like a bird on steroids. 

Their rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Chi-Chi” composition is fast and fun.  Ben Leifer is given time to explore his bass solo chops, accompanied duo style by the very creative John Kizilarmut’s drums. “The Jewel” settles the trio down to a slow crawl.  It’s a jazz waltz and Leifer dances along on bass and partners with Larson’s melodic saxophone.  Leifer not only roots the chords and locks in the tempo with Kizilarmut, he also takes an opportunity to play a ’cappella on this tune as a solo piece. They close the album with “Beatitudes” showcasing its pretty melody with a happy Latin-feel to the tempo arrangement. I come away wondering, when does Adam Larson breathe?  His long, legato, expressive lines of saxophone music leave little room to gasp for air.  Impressive!

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JOHN ARAM & THE UNITED UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA –“RHAPSODY IN RED” – Independent label

John Aram, trombone/bandleader; Tim Garland, composer/tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/flute; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Amy Keys, vocals; Arthur Hnatek, drums; Rob Luft, guitar; Tom Cawley, piano/keyboards; Phil Donkin, upright & electric bass; Tom Walsh & Jeff Baud, trumpet; Matthias Tschopp, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Graeme Blevins, saxophone/flute.

“Rhapsody in Red” is the first tune that dances off John Aram’s CD.  Obviously, it’s a redo of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but with a uniqueness of its own.  Reed player, Tim Garland, is the main composer and one of the featured artists in the United Underground Orchestra.  He and the 12-piece Orchestra pay tribute to George Gershwin’s masterpiece in their own, very original way.   The vibraphone solo by Joe Locke is warm with improvisation and creativity.

Track #2, “We Got a Future” is arranged in a contemporary way, with the bass (Phil Donkin) taking stage center and the vocals of Amy Keys shining like sunrays. Amy has toured as a soloist with Herbie Hancock, as well as singing with just about every pop icon on the planet.  “Black Elk” continues to showcase the warm arrangements by Garland.  This tune steps with one foot in jazz to another foot placed solidly in classical music. These are interesting and artistic arrangements by Tim Garland, reminding me of something Gil Evans would have arranged.  I keep waiting for the Miles Davis trumpet to step through the curtains.  Instead, I thoroughly enjoy the improvisation of Joe Locke on vibraphone and the Swiss-based trombonist and band leader, John Aram blazing away, showcasing his amazing talent.

“I first met Tim Garland in the early 2000s, just after he had started working with Chick Corea.  I had been really influenced by an album Tim recorded called ‘Enter the Fire.’  We recorded an album together in 2003,” John Aram recalled in his press package.

Aram wound up asking Garland if he would be interested in writing a suite of music for a band John Aram was putting together.  That group would eventually be comprised of musicians from London, Switzerland and the United States and become his 12-piece United Underground Orchestra.  This project was composed during the horrible pandemic days.

On “Ambleside Nights,” a flying saxophone takes center stage.  That saxophone and Joe Locke on vibes each take solo turns, both impressive.  This entire ensemble of musicians sounds comfortable with each other.  Perhaps because Phil Donkin on bass, Tom Cawley on piano and reed master, Graeme Blevins, have all been members of John Aram’s quintet since 2010. Graeme and John worked together and toured with Phil Collins for a time.  The composition “Ambleside Nights” is Straight-ahead bliss, fueled by the young, Swiss drummer, Arthur Hnatek. The composition, “This is Just to Say” features once again the haunting and beautiful vocals of Amy keys.  This tune leans towards the pop side.  The trumpet soaks up the spotlight on “Little Psalm.”   There is something for everyone on this creative project.  These arrangements and compositions will keep you engaged, and the musicianship is outstanding.

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OWEN BRODER – “HODGES: FRONT AND CENTER VOL. 1” – Independent label

Owen Broder, alto & baritone saxophones; Carmen Staaf, piano; Barry Stephenson, bass; Bryan Carter, drums; Riley Mulherkar, trumpet.

Although Owen Broder is fluent in soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, on this project he has chosen to display his talents on alto and baritone sax only.  One of the songs that made me fall under the ‘Broder spell’ was his baritone saxophone presentation on “Ballade for the Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters.”  It was such a sensitive and gorgeous example of a Johnny Hodges song, that I had to play this cut three times in a row. 

In case you don’t know who Johnny Hodges is, Broder explains: “Hodges was one of my first inspirations on the saxophone and I continue to be inspired by his sound and melodic approach to improvising.  As a saxophonist, I was interested in exploring Hodges’ music beyond his position in Ellington’s band, and was excited to discover record after record he made as a bandleader on which we can hear him stretch more as an improviser.” 

I wanted to post the absolutely beautiful ‘cover’ that Owen Broder played of that unusually long titled tune, but it wasn’t yet posted. His approach on baritone saxophone is lush and sensuous, really doing the Hodges composition justice. 

Johnny Hodges was born in July of 1907, over a hundred years ago, but his music and talent still bring the world great pleasure and respect.  He was the lead alto saxophonist for the Duke Ellington Big Band for several years.  His playing was respected as one of the unique and identifying musical sounds of Ellington’s Orchestra. His nickname was “Rabbit” thus the tune “18 Carrots for Rabbit” has a special ‘inside joke’ meaning. Bryan Carter excels on drums during this up-tempo arrangement.

“My generation is really a product of all that Charlie Parker brought to this music. … But Johnny Hodges has always been a big influence on my playing. I really enjoy his lyrical, melodic playing and the warm vocal quality of his approach to sound,” Owen Broder praises Johnny Hodges in his press package.

Owen Broder is a young, talented composer, as well as a gifted reed man and was recognized in 2018 by the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. He’s brought together an extraordinary group of musicians including trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, co-founder of the brass quartet called, The Westerlies, as well as a member of Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project.  Riley opens the swinging first tune on the album, “Royal Garden Blues” and trades conversation with Broder’s alto saxophone, also at moments playing trumpet in unison and, at pivotal times, harmonizing brightly with the bandleader.  Broder’s solo is smooth as fresh cream and makes for an inspired listen. I was impressed with Carmen Staaf’s piano solo. Barry Stephenson offers a happy-go-lucky bass solo on “Viscount,” a tune quite similar to the familiar composition “It Could Happen to You.”  Every song on this album not only celebrates the great Johnny Hodges but is a substantial testament to the excellent musicianship of Owen Broder himself, who takes the Hodges legacy to a refreshing, new level.

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MICHAEL HACKETT/TIM COFFMAN SEXTET featuring SHAREL CASSITY – “WESTERN SKIES” – Summit Records

Michael Hackett, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Tim Coffman, trombone/composer; Sharel Cassity, alto saxophone; Jeremy Kahn, piano; Christian Dillingham, bass; Bob Rummage, drums; Arno Gonzalez, timbale, guiro; Tony Castaneda, congas.

Trombonist, Tim Coffman first met trumpeter, Michael Hackett in the fall of 1983 when they both were playing in the Indiana University School of Music jazz ensemble under the direction of David Baker. They’ve been friends ever since.  This album began with a composition Dr. Michael Hackett wrote for his father who passed away in 2019. It is the title tune. He also decided to tribute a young student who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the spring of 2017 and unfortunately was dead in June of that same year. The student was only twenty-four.  Dr. Hackett’s friend and colleague, Will Campbell, wrote the piece and it was titled “Twenty-four” to tribute Casey Blackwelder’s years on earth. It’s a Latin flavored composition with a pretty melody.  Tim Coffman’s trombone makes a strong improvisational statement.  Once the sextet was formed and they began to record songs, this project grew from two to eight songs.  Tim has written the first song, “Blues for MH” and it swings hard, at a medium tempo. It also gives each player a chance to strut their stuff. Sharel Cassity appears on alto saxophone and presents a powerfully impressive solo.  Jeremy Kahn is spontaneous and creative during his piano solo, followed by Christian Dillingham during his bass interpretation.  Bob Rummage takes several bars to explore his drums and both Dr. Hackett and Tim Coffman shine on their respective horns. Hackett has formidable composing skills and Coffman is a sensitive arranger.  Their blended talents offer us a pleasing product.  “Esox Fables” is one of my favorites on this production, with its bright tempo followed by the title tune, “Western Skies.” Here’s a lovely tune, with Michael Hackett’s horn stage front, singing his pain and pleasure through the bell of his horn and an outstanding piano tribute by Jeremy Kahn. The one cover tune is a McCoy Tyner composition, “You Taught My Heart to Sing” and is arranged with a dancing Latin beat.  This is a good, solid jazz production from beginning to end.

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ANTONIO ADOLFO – “OCTET AND ORIGINALS” – AAM Music

Antonio Adolfo, piano/composer/arranger; Ricardo Silveira, guitar; Jorge Helder, acoustic bass; Rafael Barata, drums/percussion; Rafael Rocha, trombone; Marcelo Martins, tenor saxophone/ flute; Danilo Sinna, alto saxophone; Jesse Sadoc, trumpet/flugelhorn.

This is the first album that Antonio Adolfo offers us ten of his own, original compositions, with not a single ‘cover’ tune.  The multi-Latin Grammy and Grammy nominated pianist is a competent and passionate composer.  I applaud his decision to finally create an entire album of his original works. In the past, I have been thoroughly entertained by Adolfo’s productions tributing the work of Antonio Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Wayne Shorter, to name just a few.  Antonio Adolfo’s name is one that resonates with productions of culturally rich music and beautifully composed and arranged tunes that please the ear.  This album is no exception.  But on “Octet and Originals” you will hear eight qualified and brilliant musicians who only interpret Adolfo’s compositions. This album sparkles with joy and innovation.  His arrangements mirror a panoply of Brazilian musical styles including samba, baião, bossa, Partido, alto, the quadrilha rhythm, toada, calango, maracatu and more.  However, Adolfo’s elegant arrangements and harmonic concepts easily fit into the jazz tradition and support his reputation as a Brazilian jazz master. There is always a sense of romance mixed into his well-composed tunes and arrangements, along with Brazilian and Latin rhythms.

Opening with “Heart of Brazil” Jorge Helder sets the mood on acoustic bass, and Ricardo Silvero’s guitar joins him to create a mood.  I quickly fall in love with this tune. The rhythm section creates a plush mattress of sound for the horns to bounce upon.  When Antonio’s piano solo enters, the horns blow like curtains in a summer breeze, supportive but never intrusive. This type of attentive arranging is visible throughout. That’s another thing I enjoy about Adolfo’s talents, his creative attention to detail and musicality.  Obviously, he is full of music.  For decades he has turned out album after album and his compositions have been covered by a multitude of iconic artists like Stevie Wonder, Earl Klugh, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mends and Dionne Warwick.  His breadth of creativity combines cultures and music.  You hear this in his “Boogie Baião” composition that starts out very pop-ish and morphs into jazz as smooth and sweet as syrup on pancakes. The tune “Emau” reminds me of a Quincy Jones production and features Jesse Sadoc blowing excitement from the bell of his horn atop a cushion of harmonic horns and the bright brilliant drums of Rafael Barata.  Every tune is memorable, and each arrangement is beautifully written and executed.  “Pretty World” has one of those melodies you fall in love with and I completely understand how it became an international hit recorded by many. As a plus,  Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote English lyrics to this song in 1969 for the Sergio Mendes popular group, Brazil 66 to record.

This is quality music, once again, from the legendary Brazilian talent of Antonio Adolfo.

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JEFF DENSON, ROMAIN PILON, BRIAN BLADE – “FINDING LIGHT” –  Ridgeway Records

Jeff Denson, double bass; Romain Pilon, guitar; Brian Blade, drums.

As soon as I hear the second cut on this album, that happens to be the title tune “Finding Light” I am drawn into the tight chemistry and warm creativity of this trio.  It’s a melodic composition that gives each musician a space of their own to explore and improvise, at the same time holding down the rhythm and groove of the tune.  You can clearly hear each person adding their own distinct fire and energy.  Jeff Denson’s double bass dances and tightens up the rhythm section, locking in with Brian Blade on drums.  Blade is full of spunk and mastery on the trap drums, accenting, while all the time keeping the tempo consistent and creatively sparking and coloring the song.  Romain Pilon is compelling on guitar.  His style draws me in, like a spider to the fly.  He wraps his guitar message around me in a web of notes, melodies and technical mastery. He blends styles.  First, the French guitarist is adept at playing several styles of jazz.  He can swing with the best of them, plays bebop, and with the same ease he plays modern jazz. Also, this trio has no problem moving into realms of Avant-garde.  Sometimes I hear a bit of Wes Montgomery reflected in Pilon’s style, like during the “This Way Cooky” tune he composed for his pooch, who plays ‘tug of war’ with the leach when they go out for a walk.  The funk groove is solidly supported by Blade’s exciting drums and Denson’s bass footprints that march beneath.  “A Moment in Time” plays with the Avant-garde concept briefly and then sets the stage for some unexpected thriller moment, where a character jumps out the bushes and grabs you.  It conjures up that kind of scene.  All three of these musicians have a way of holding court together, each with their own unique dialogue, all talking at the same time, but blending sweetly like eggs and sugar in a batter bowl. They cook together. They make sense together.  They make music together.  They make magic together. No one left the cake out in the rain.  I can’t wait to taste the next tune.

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EXCITING ARTISTS SHINE LIKE SPOTLIGHTS

September 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

 September 15, 2022

STEVEN FEIFKE & BIJON WATSON – “GENERATION GAP JAZZ ORCHESTRA – Cellar Music Group

Steven Feifke, piano/co-leader/arrangements/composer/orchestration; Bijon Watson, lead trumpet/flugelhorn/co-leader; Will Brahm, guitar; Dan Chmielinski, bass; Ulysses Owens, Jr., drums; Chad LB, tenor saxophone; Roxy Coss & Thomas Luer, tenor saxophone/flute; Alexa Tarantino & Christopher McBride, alto saxophone/flute; Lauren Sevian, baritone saxophone; Tanya Darby, Mike Rodriguez & Danny Jonokuchi, trumpet/flugelhorn; Sean Jones, trumpet; John Fedchock, Javier Nero & Kalia Vandever, trombone; Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone; Kurt Elling, voice.

This album is combustible!  What could I expect when two jazz giants come together? Celebrated pianist/composer/arranger, Steven Feifke, joins talents with trumpet master Bijon Watson.  Right off the bat, they swing as hard as Jackie Robinson, blasting out with their premier tune “I’ve Got Algorithm.”

The thing that makes this Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra exceptional is that the ensemble is a mixture of seasoned veterans and younger, more contemporary musicians.  The beauty of the convergence with pianist Steven Feifke and trumpet master, Bijon Watson, is that they have created an ensemble to include their heroes, their peers and some talented young people who they have mentored. With the addition of various generations, this band becomes similar to exciting bands like the ones Art Blakey inspired, or bands that Horace Silver led.  Both hired young, talented musicians to mix into their group of elders. Starting from the first tune titled, “I’ve Got Algorithm” they excite me beyond expectations.  It’s written by Steven Feifke and features him brightly on piano. From then on, the horns carry the production featuring saxophonists, Chad LB, Thomas Luer and Roxy Coss. Mike Rodriguez is a plus on trumpet. The drummer, Ulysses Owens, jr., pumps excitement into the arrangement. This tune fills me up with pure happiness and joy.  On Track #2, enter Kurt Elling, singing his jazz vocals, like a human horn on the composition, “Sassy.”  “Inner Urge” is another up-tempo, high-spirited jazz tune that gives an opportunity for Lauren Sevian to shine on baritone saxophone and Alexa Tarantino to soar on tenor saxophone. This entire project gives both Bijon Watson and Steven Feifke opportunities to show their musical mastery.  Bijon Watson plays beautifully on the ballad, “Remember Me” and shares the spotlight with Will Brahm on guitar.  There’s something for everyone on this project. Settle back and enjoy the concert.

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STEVE TURRE – “GENERATIONS” – Smoke Sessions Records

Steve Turre, trombone/shells/composer; Isaiah J. Thompson, piano; Corcoran Holt, Derrick Barnett & Buster Williams, bass; Orion Turre, Karl Wright & Lennie White, drums; Emilio Modeste, tenor saxophone; Wallace Roney Jr., trumpet/flugelhorn; Pedrito Martinez, percussion; Andy Bassford, guitar; Trevor Watkis, Fender Rhodes; James Carter, tenor saxophone.

When I see the name, Steve Turre, I am immediately drawn to this CD because I’m certain it’s going to be amazing. I was correct.  The ensemble opens with “Planting the Ceed” and make no bones about playing Turre’s original composition straight-ahead and power-packed. The horns echo each other, the bass line establishes a repeatable melody and builds a strong foundation, cementing the tune into place. Orion Turre slams excitement into the arrangement on drums. Emilio Modeste takes the first solo featuring tenor saxophone, he solidifies the memory of 1960 jazz at its finest peak. Steve Turre comes next, like a thoroughbred racehorse out the gate.  He’s followed by Wallace Roney, Jr. on trumpet.  Isaiah J. Thompson on piano and Corcoran Holt on bass lock-in to create a strong rhythm section with Orion.  When Isaiah steps into the spotlight, he is unapologetic on piano, and clearly has his own style and creative perspective on the piano.  Track #2 is titled “Dinner with Duke” and is absolutely beautiful. Steve Turre uses his trombone to play his story in an exceptionally lovely way. Often, the trombone instrument sounds like a voice and when Wallace Roney, Jr. enters on trumpet, the two have a serious conversation. I love to hear a bass bowed and Corcovan Holt pleases my ears with his warm, wonderful sound. “Blue Smoke” is all bluesy, full of shuffle and spunk. All the music is original and written by Steve Turre except the familiar “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” arranged in a very Afro-Cuban way featuring Pedrito Martinez on percussion. Steve Turre explained this recent project in his liner notes.

“Generations represents the continuum of real jazz music culture, connected through the lens of each generation. … As far back as you can go will directly influence how far forward you can go.  Youth brings enthusiasm, energy and seeking spirit.  Age brings wisdom, control and focus.  They balance each other in a wonderful way,” Turre wrote.

I love the tribute song to Pharoah Sanders, “Pharoah’s Dance” and the staccato horn sweetness of their arrangement on “Flower Power.”  Another favorite tune is “Resistance” and I enjoyed tenor saxophone guest, James Carter on “Sweet Dreams” where the iconic bassist, Buster Williams also made a guest appearance during this pretty ballad presentation.  Here is an album packed with talent, bright, bold compositions and the excellence of Steve Turre on trombone.  It’s a musical production I will play again and again.

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DARREN LITZIE – “MY HORIZON” – Summit Records

Darren Litzie, piano/composer; Chris Deangelis, bass; John Riley, drums; Nick Biello, flute/soprano saxophone; Andrew Beals, alto saxophone.

Opening with a trio session playing the great Cole Porter song, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to” Darren Litzie shines a spotlight on his tenacious rhythm section.  Litzie sets the tone on piano, opening the piece with his talents sparkling across the eighty-eight keys.  Track #2 introduces us to Darren Litzie, the composer.  This is the title tune, “My Horizon.”  The trio adds Nick Biello on flute, who plays atop a Latin groove and explores improvisations that fly like a startled sparrow.  Darren has composed five of the ten songs he offers us.  His sense of composition is solidified by strong repeatable melodies and infectious ‘grooves.’ I enjoyed his song, “Faded Portrait” and “Blues for 3” is another trio arrangement with Thelonious Monk influence. On this tune, Darren Litzie shows off his blues chops.  John Riley is given several bars to showcase his mad drum skills. 

Litzie holds a Master of Music in Jazz Studies from the Hartt School, Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at University of Harford, Connecticut. This is an album that spotlights Litzie’s piano mastery and gives a platform for his compositions.  His ‘cover’ of the Thelonious Monk tune “Hackensack”is a nice, straight-ahead way to close this album out.

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CARMEN LUNDY – “FADE TO BLACK” – Afrasia Productions

Carmen Lundy, vocals/composer/arranger/ guitar/percussion/ keyboards/horn arrangements/backing vocals; Julius Rodriguez, piano; Matthew Whitaker, organ/keyboards/string arrangement/programming; Kenny Davis, acoustic & electric bass; Terreon Gully, drums; Curtis Lundy, acoustic bass; Giveton Gelin & Wallace Roney jr., trumpet; Morgan Guerin & Camille Thurman, tenor saxophone.

Carmen Lundy’s sixteenth album release was funded by a New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America (CMA).  Her commission was granted during the pandemic.

“My hope is that these songs reflect this time of great loss, sorrow, healing and hope for a brighter, more inclusive future for us all. Thank you to CMA for their dedication and support for the arts and Jazz Composition in particular,” Carmen Lundy explained in liner notes.

Lundy has composed and arranged all the material on this album.  She opens with “Shine A Light,” dedicated to the first responders and hospital workers who showed their selfless bravery during a time of worldwide health crisis.  The melody is catchy and has a few challenging intervals thrown-in for good measure. Melodically, these unexpected intervals do indeed shine a light on Ms. Lundy’s composing skills.  Carmen Lundy has a smooth way of mixing straight ahead and contemporary jazz. This first song is one of my favorites. “So Amazing” is very contemporary and Lundy’s voice uses its full range to sing the message with joy and competence.  “Daughter of the Universe,” showcases a blues groove and a strong bass line by Curtis Lundy at the introduction. It captures my interest immediately.  I enjoy the way Carmen doubles the vocals in specifics places and celebrates her alto voice range. This song and the one that follows, “Ain’t I Human” were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.  This was during Tubman’s struggle for freedom and equality, not only as an African American, but as a woman in a man-controlled world. The tune “Reverence” is another one of my favorites and is a referendum on privacy. Lundy’s lyrics float like colorful, revolutionary flags, above chords that set a groove pattern beneath the flapping cloth of truth. This is music with a message and Carmen Lundy is a woman with a purpose and a strong creative opinion. She is also a visual artist.  Ms. Lundy has designed the cover of her CD and it’s quite striking! To see more of her artwork, visit http://www.carmenlundy.com.

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MIRÓ HENRY SOBRER – “TWO OF SWORDS” – Patois Records

Miró Henry Sobrer, composer/trombone/co-producer; Ellie Pruneau, piano; Hanna Marks, bass; Rocky Martin, drums; Cole Stover, percussion; Zachary Finnegan, trumpet; Tim Kreis, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Farace, baritone saxophone; Ana Nelson, soprano saxophone; Elena Escudero, Francesca Sobrer & Rivkah Moore, vocals; All the musicians recorded as the chorus.

He began in the children’s choir, moved on to playing bass and finally fell in love with the trombone. From the very beginning, Miro Henry Sobrer chose a path of music. This album embraces poetic lines, translated by Sobrer’s deceased father from the Catalan language of Spain. Professor Pep Sobrer, who was a Barcelona-born scholar, writer, translator, and educator, taught Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana State University for almost three decades.  The professor passed away in 2015.  His son has incorporated his father’s work into this tender tribute album, along with his own musical interpretations and compositions inspired by the Catalan poems, his father’s legacy, and his love of music.  Miro henry Sobrer has also incorporated a tarot card into the project, both as the title of this album and another source of inspiration. The Deuces in the tarot cards, generally represent science, labor and the astrological sign of Virgo. “Two of Swords” has a divinatory significance of over-work with an inner interpretation of martyrdom. 

I listened to this album with great interest to see if the music captured the factors mentioned above. Miró incorporated his father’s passion, Spanish culture and the always present art of jazz. This is a multi-dimensional project of music and spoken word, culture and consciousness.  Miró Henry Sobrer’s trombone is smooth as satin and on “Deep Waters” you become warmly acquainted with the tone and texture of his instrument. Ellie Pruneau’s piano is light and lovely, contrasting with the trombone’s beautiful low tones and dragging us happily into “Deep Waters” with the solo she plays. All the while, Rocky Martin is prominent on his drums and Cole Stover’s percussion excellence rides, like waves beneath the bass solo of Hannah Marks. Miro Henry adds a warm blend of horns, an arrangement that sings harmonically to punctuate the piece.  

“Trinity Dance Part One” incorporates a chorus of voices that chant Hara Krishna vibes into the background.  Miro Henry Sobrer plays a sorrowful trombone song, full of passionate sadness and love notes. There is a mixture of languages during this production and for lyric translations, Sobrer directs us to visit http://www.mirohenrymusic.com. These three Trinity Dance compositions he has written are a bridge between Hindustani classical music, traditional Catalan dance music and Latin Jazz. Part Three of this triad presentation obviously celebrates the Latin influence. Sobrer’s young, talented cast of musical characters were drawn from Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music. Trumpeter Zach Finnegan, tenor sax man, Tim Kreis and baritone saxophonist, Jimmy Farace add a fullness to the mix. Although Sobrer has borrowed melodies and ‘licks’ from Oliver Nelson’s unforgettable arrangement of “Stolen Moments” and Cannonball Adderley’s classic “Autumn Leaves” arrangement, his compositions are well-written and artistic, like the concept of this album.  He was encouraged and assisted as co-producer by one of his mentors, composer, educator, Wayne Wallace, a multi-Grammy Award nominee.  You will clearly hear Miro Henry Sobrer’s influence of East Indian classical music study and his love of Latin music and Afro-Cuban music.  Miro developed his writing and arranging skills under the mentorship of Wallace and has had his arrangements performed by the Latin Jazz Ensemble at Jacobs School of Music.

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JIM McNEELY FRANKFURT RADIO BIG BAND FEATURING CHRIS POTTER – “RITUALS”- Double Moon Records

Jim McNeely, Conductor/composer/arranger; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone/composer; Thomas Heidepriem, bass; Martin Scales, guitar; Peter Reiter, piano; Jean Paul Höchstadter, drums; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn & Oliver Leicht, alto/tenor, and soprano saxophones/flute/clarinet/piccolo; Tony Lakatos, tenor saxophone/flute; Steffen Weber, tenor/soprano, baritone saxophones/flute/clarinet; Rainer Heute, baritone saxophone/baritone clarinet; Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer, & Axel Schlosser, trumpet/flugelhorn; Gunter Bollmann, Peter Feil, Christian Jaksjö, trombone; Manfred Honetschläger, bass trombone.

“The Rite of Spring,” by Igor Stravinsky, is regarded as a key work of 20th century classical music, that premiered in Paris in the year 1913.  A tribute to this extraordinary work is the central role of this “Rituals” album, played by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.  Conducted by Jim McNeely, who also composed this commissioned works specifically to feature American tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. Here is a rare listening experience. The Stravinsky “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) was originally composed using dissonant tonal structures and multi-rhythms.  The original music inspired McNeely, but he came up with a completely different concept of his own creation. Conductor McNeely not only composed the six-part “Rituals” suite for Potter, he has also arranged four pieces from the Chris Potter catalogue.

Chris Potter is one of our great American contemporary saxophonists and he becomes the main, solo instrumental voice for this project. Born Jan 1, 1921 in Chicago, Illinois, but raised in Columbia, South Carolina, his love of music led him to play guitar, piano and after hearing Paul Desmond, settle on learning to play the saxophone. As a leader, he has released twenty-three albums from 1993 to present. His amazing interpretation of “Rituals Adoration III” sets my listening room on fire.  He opens, playing singularly and flying about the melody like a wild bird across clear skies. When the Frankfurt Radio Big Band joins in, it’s dynamic and beautiful. This suite is only two minutes and eighteen seconds long, but it is thrilling and impactful. 

They smoothly slide into “Rituals Sacrifice 1” the 4th Track of this outstanding album.  This is a true mix of European classical music and the freedom and improvisational nature of jazz, America’s own, unique classical music. The arrangements of Jim McNeely give special attention to their featured artist and set an impressive stage for Chris Potter to shine and sparkle in the arranger’s brilliance. Potter’s fluidity and tone on tenor saxophone is formidable.  At times, he reminds me of the way Charlie Parker played; free, forceful and spiritually connected to a greater good. On “The Wheel” tune, Potter and the band stretch out and have some fun. This tune has a New Orleans feel to it, and the band makes me think of a house party with kids playing double-dutch on the sidewalk.  The harmonic horns talk like party-goers would, bouncing with energy.  Suddenly the tempo changes and the mood flows into another room, another time, another place.  Just as suddenly, drummer Jean Paul Höchstadter kicks the groove back into place and the party resumes.  On the song, “Wine Dark Sea,” both Chris Potter and Heinz Dieter Sauerborn solo beautifully. This album demonstrates how music crosses cultures and how similar and complimentary classical music and jazz can be.

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DOUG MACDONALD – “I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS” – Dmac Music

Doug MacDonald, guitar; Tamir Hendelman, piano; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

Doug MacDonald’s quartet rejuvenates an old tune called, “I’ll See You In My Dreams, with creativity and precision.  His guitar is beautifully supported by three of the top musicians based on the West Coast; Tamir Hendelman on piano, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums. 

This quartet’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s bluesy “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” unfolds like shiny Christmas paper over a delicate gift.  Their lovely musicianship is the present wrapped inside all that glitter and glam. On “Don’Cha Go ‘Way Mad” they shuffle on down the road, slow swinging their way along, while happily dragging the listener by the ear.  John Clayton takes a bass solo, concentrating on the melodic structure with his bow sliding against the strings in a beautiful way.  When Tamir comes in, with his funky, blues-driven solo piano, his excellence is prominent. Doug MacDonald is no newcomer to the music scene. He has over two dozen album releases as a bandleader and his crisp, individualized style on guitar always appreciates the melody. Clearly, this is the case on these nine well-produced songs.  On “My Ship” the quartet surprises us with an up-tempo Latin version of the song, highlighting the brilliance of drummer Jeff Hamilton.  Another highlight of this album is Doug’s original composition “New mark” where the group settles into a rot-gut blues introduction that snatches my attention and takes the music all the way back to its roots.  I was so happy that MacDonald chose to include his original and celebrate the blues. Then, he changes the groove and swings his way into another key and another groove that steps out of the blues and changes into a straight-ahead groove, perfect for swing dancers to enjoy and slide across the dance floor.  Clayton’s walking bass locks into Hamilton’s driving drums and the party is on!  

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GRANT STEWART QUARTET featuring BRUCE HARRIS – “THE LIGHTING OF THE LAMPS” – Cellar Music Group

Grant Stewart, tenor saxophone; David Wong, bass; Tardo Hammer, piano; Phil Stewart, drums; Bruce Harris, trumpet.

The iconic reedman and composer, Clifford Jordan, was a friend of mine and I was happy to see that tenor saxophonist, Grant Stewart, covered a few of his songs on this album, starting with “Little Spain.”  The arrangement invites a spontaneous and electrifying solo by drummer Phil Stewart.  The other Clifford Jordan tune that Grant Stewart covers is “Bearcat.”  Grant penned Track #2, “A Piece of Art,” and his liquid saxophone notes pour out of his horn like warm honey. I appreciate the tone and style of Grant Stewart on his tenor saxophone. He and Bruce Harris, on trumpet, harmonize and spar with each other at an up-tempo pace. Tardo Hammer takes an inspired piano solo, then steps out the way for the drums to spit out their rhythmic message.  “Ghose of a Chance” is a favorite tune of mine and Stewart does the song proud, slowing the pace down and caressing the melody with his horn.  On the tune, “Mo is On” they fly at jet plane speed. Grant Stewart plays “I’m a Fool to Want You” with so much passion and feeling I am overcome with emotion. This is a lovely album of music, with all the warmth and naturalness of enjoying them up-close and personal.  It feels like I’m at a local jazz spot listening to them ‘live.’  Grant Stewart’s music is intimate.

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JAZZ BRIDGES CULTURES, COUNTRIES & CONSCIOUSNESS

September 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

  September 1, 2022

ANA NELSON – “BRIDGES” – Independent Label

Ana Nelson, alto saxophone/clarinet/composer; Jamaal Baptiste, piano; Jeremy Allen & Brendan Keller-Tuberg, bass; Steve Houghton & Carter Pearson, drums; Garrett Fasig, tenor saxophone;  Bill Nelson, tenor saxophone; Marina Alba Lopez & Jodi Dunn, violin; Alice Ford, viola; Kevin Flynn, cello.

Ana Nelson has composed all the songs offered on this, her debut, full-length album.  They are variously arranged, with strong classical sensibilities featuring Ana on both alto saxophone and clarinet.  “Wanderlust” introduces the project and is a smooth, medium tempo arrangement with Ana on alto sax and Carter Pearson on drums, prodding the music ahead with creativity and zest.  He is the spice in this musical stew who plays on the first four compositions.  Ana’s warm, hypnotic clarinet opens Track #2.  The piano solo of Jamaal Baptiste is very classical with long scale-like runs and arpeggio finger paths, while the drum solo soars.  “Blue Flower” opens with solo percussion and when Ana’s sweet alto saxophone enters, a budding flower opens atop the lush, earthy piano arpeggios of Baptiste.  My ears perk up.  This is a truly beautiful composition. On track #6, strings open this song called “Let the Light In.”  Ana Nelson’s clarinet blends beautifully with the string arrangements.   This is peaceful music, like the morning sun streaming through partially closed curtains and tickling sleepy eyes awake.  At last, on Track #7, “Fruit of the Groove” invites Straight-ahead jazz to the get-together, and the stage lights up!  Here is a serious jazz arrangement that spills across my listening space and drenches me with a horn ensemble windstorm.  On this tune, she is joined by her father, tenor saxophonist, Bill Nelson, drummer Steve Houghton, and bassist Jeremy Allen.  They swing hard!

“As a classical musician who fell in love with jazz, then later discovered Brazilian music, it’s difficult for me to label this album as any one specific genre. … I view it more of a melding of music and people I love.  The title, ‘Bridges’ is my way of reflecting that cross-blending,” Ana explains her music.

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TAUREY BUTLER – “ONE OF THE OTHERS” – Justin Time Records

Taurey Butler, piano/composer; Morgan Moore, bass; Wali Muhammad, drums.

I first heard Taurey Butler, a native of East Orange, New Jersey, play piano in Singapore. We were both touring Asia, thousands of miles from home. Taurey’s power and precision stunned me as his fingers raced over the piano keys.  Clearly, he was going on to bigger and better things.  He’s currently living in Montreal, Québec Canada and this is Butler’s second release for Justin Time records.  His first was his self-titled debut recording in 2011.  The Taurey Butler trio opens with the title tune, an original composition by Butler that makes for a powerful introduction to his style and technique. Morgan Moore takes a walking bass solo and Wali Muhammad fuels the piece with shuffle drums. Track #2 is a jazz waltz Taurey titles, “Artis’ Truth.”  On the fourth tune, “On the Natch” Taurey introduces his funky blues side.  This song reminds me of the early Ramsey Lewis days, when “I’m In With the In Crowd” was popping on all the radio stations. This could have been inspired by the time Taurey Butler spent touring with the great Eldee Young, the original bass player with Ramsey Lewis. 

Butler’s arrangement on “Smile” is wonderful, artistic and inspired as he plays with time and tempo.  Morgan Moore steps forward with his solo and afterwards the trio falls into a blues shuffle that satisfies the soul.  After the bass solo, a freefall piano exploration expands my imagination and I can clearly see Charlie Chaplin racing around a black and white screen on a silent film.  While Taurey’s arrangement of the actor, composer’s song plays, it inspires my imagination and I can see the Chaplin moves.  One of Taurey’s poignant moments at the piano is on the final track, “I Can Only Be Me” written by Stevie Wonder.  Perhaps Taurey Butler summed up this musical experience best when he said:

“Revisiting the theme of this project, individuality and uniqueness, I realized this Stevie Wonder song would be the perfect way to wrap a bow on the project.  In new locations, situations and circumstances, when it’s all said and done, we have no option but to be ourselves.  We all have unique gifts and when we let them shine, we find ourselves able to navigate through any obstacle successfully,” Taurey stated in his liner notes.

This project will be released on October 7, 2022.

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TRACYE EILEEN – “YOU HIT THE SPOT” –  Honey Crystal Records

Tracye Eileen, vocals; Jeremy Kahn & Dennis Luxion, piano; Jon Deitemyer & Linard Stroud, drums; Stewart Miller & Paul Martin, bass; Steve Eisen, reeds; Raphael Crawford, trombone; Victor Garcia, trumpet.

Chicago, Illinois artist, Tracye Eileen, blasts into my listening room with the popular “I Love Being Here With You.” The first thing I note about this vocalist is that she has her own style and timbre.  Tracye doesn’t sound like anyone accept herself, and that’s a good thing. Additionally, she has surrounded herself with a wonderful group of musicians who add authenticity and art to this project.  The tune “You Hit the Spot,” swings and is kind of a homecoming for Tracye, who was raised by a jazz drummer.  Her father, Ed Smith, missed a chance to join Count Basie’s band because he was drafted into the army and sent instead to Vietnam.

“My father, an accomplished jazz percussionist, was a major influence in my life.  His inspiration many years ago led to successful roles as lead singer in my high school and college jazz bands and my continued love of jazz music,” Tracye shared.

This is Tracye Eileen’s fourth album release.  She launched her recording career in 2012 with an album called “Love’s Journey” where she sang many of the familiar jazz songs she grew up listening to at her home. She was a student at the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and the owner encouraged her talent, briefly serving as her manager and he was very supportive of her album debut.  The second album was released in 2018.  This time Tracye dipped into her soul and R&B bag, showing the world she could sing it all.  Her third album, released in 2020, delved into Smooth jazz. Today, she comes full circle with “You Hit the Spot” singing eight familiar standard jazz tunes in her own, unique way.  Producer, arranger Thomas Gunther gives her some challenging arrangements with big band sensibilities, even though this is a small ensemble. They sound powerful throughout.  For example, on “The End of a Love Affair” the band introduces the tune with an under-current of well-orchestrated blues. Tracye digs deep, selling each lyric with honest emotion.  Steve Eisen adds his saxophone solo and lifts the production a notch.  At the end of this song, Tracye Eileen shows off her range, hitting a high note that rings across the room like morning church bells.

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GONZALO RUBALCABA & AYMÉE NUVIOLA – “LIVE IN MARCIAC” – 5 Passion Records

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Aymée Nuviola, vocals/composer.

Wow.  When I listen to the first number I am enchanted by this magical duo.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba is such a rich and unpredictably creative pianist.  Aymée Nuviola is an emotional and competent vocalist who brings her style and grace to the stage with her own powerful statement. Gonzalo hears so many dynamic and exceptionally creative harmonics, that his playing is intriguing, as well as challenging.  Aymée sounds as comfortable as a warm chair by the fireplace.  This is jazz.  This is innovation, bypassing expectation or boundaries.  This is what jazz is all about, as she sings “Besamé Mucho” in Spanish, nothing is left unsaid or unfelt.  These two pull at your heartstrings and stroke your excitement.  There is a comfort level here between two dynamic artists.  They have been friends since childhood, and both are internationally respected and world renowned.  “Live in Marciac” captures a historic concert of expressive and familiar Latin jazz classics, a few original compositions and Gonazlo Rubalcab’s undeniable mastery on piano that inspires and supports Aymée Nuviola’s powerful vocals.  Her timing and improvisational moments of surprise intoxicate and command. She is an entertainer and easily communicates with the audience at their ‘live’ concert.  She has them singing, clapping, stomping with anticipation and excitement. This is a musical art experience that you will want to relive time and time again.

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BURTON/McPHERSON TRIO FEATURING DEZRON DOUGLAS – “THE SUMMIT ROCK SESSION AT SENECA VILLAGE” – Giant Step Arts

Abraham Burton, tenor saxophone; Dezron Douglas, bass; Eric McPherson, drums.

Until I read the liner notes of this album, I never knew that in 1825, Central Park was a community called Seneca Village founded by free Black Americans.  It was the first such community in the city of New York and at that time, still under Dutch rule.  It was comprised of a complex of African-owned farms north of New Amsterdam and was controlled by people considered ‘half free.’  At its peak, this community had around 225 residents, three churches, two schools and three cemeteries.  Before the inhabitants were demanded to leave and the property was deemed ‘eminent domain,’ both Irish and German immigrants were also living there.  In the mid-1850s, all their houses and those homey, small town places were torn down and the construction of Central Park began. 

When Jimmy Katz, the current leader of the innovative non-profit, Giant Step Arts project, was strolling through Central Park during the pandemic, he got an idea of producing concerts there.  The area I have described above became the area of the park he chose for this music to be presented and produced.  He created a safe, socially distant environment where people could come hear the jazz without fear.  Summit Rock is the highest natural point of Central Park and is a part of Seneca Village.  Katz hosted thirty concerts there that began in September of 2020.  Stepping stage forward during this amazing series is Abraham Burton on tenor saxophone, Eric McPherson on drums and Bassist Dezron Douglas. They recorded on June 20th of 2021.  It captures their first ‘live’ performance since the shut-down impact of the pandemic. When Abraham Burton plays “If You Could See Me Now” my heart just opened up and received his emotional delivery like earth soaks up sunshine.  It was just natural and absolutely beautiful. The interplay between Abraham and Dezron Douglas on bass was perfect.  Burton also presented a new composition immortalizing the site called “Seneca Blues.”  It’s eight-minutes and fifty-five seconds of Straight-ahead, freely improvised modern jazz.  You can feel their incredible energy on this tune and on “Dance Little Mandisa” with Eric McPherson, on his trap drums, shining brightly, like the North Star. This recording captures the trio’s excitement to play and interact with a live audience after so many months of lockdown.  This is a supreme music experience from beginning to end.

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GORDON GRDINA, MARK HELIAS, MATTHEW SHIPP – “PATHWAYS” – ABG Records

Gordon Grdina, guitar/oud/composer; Mark Helias, bass; Matthew Shipp, piano.

Gordon Grdina has recently enjoyed one of the most productive, ambitious and fruitful periods of his career.  Based in Vancouver, Canada, he launched his own Attaboygirl Record label in 2021 and he has released a plethora of artists for public consumption as a record company owner. As an artist, Gordon is a master oud player, a respected guitarist and an inventive composer and improviser.  “Pathways” is his latest production as an artist. It features Mark Helias on bass and Matthew Shipp on piano.  The trio wanders through nine of Grdina’s original compositions, treading unknown paths, using their individual instruments to whack away at the unexpected, structured music patterns and to unveil brand new tributaries of creativity.  This Avant-garde jazz cements each song into place, like a highway to someone’s dreams or someone’s fears, depending on how the listener receives their creative production.

Gordon Grdina is a JUNO Award-winning oud and guitarist, whose career has spanned continents and decades. He is highly respected in the jazz-improv world and is globally popular for his unusual envisioning of Arabic, Persian and Sudanese music through the lens of free form improvisation, Avant-garde jazz and contemporary music.  This is his second merger with legendary pianist, Matthew Shipp and innovative bassist, Mark Helias, who are both exceptionally creative and technically astute.

“I can write anything for this band,” Grdina brags.  “It’s very complex music, rhythmically, harmonically, melodically, and in the way every piece fits together.  Those guys really can do anything.  Since the last album, the group has solidified its unique sound, which is exciting to hear develop on this second record. … We met at East Side Sound three years later and picked up right where we left off,” Gordon Grdina explained.

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SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “IMAGENES LATINAS” – Ovation Rcords

Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/Musical Director; Marco Bermudez, vocals/coro/composer; Carlos Cascante, vocals/coro; Jeremy Bosch, vocals/coro/flute; Jerry Madera, bass; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; George Delgado, congas; Luisito Quintero, timbales/maracas/güiro; Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone/flute; Juan Gabriel Lakunza & Doug Beavers, trombones; Alex Norris & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpets.

I’m always sure to have a good time when I listen to an album by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  They are culturally rich, energized and powerful.  Their music simply demands you feel joyful.  Led by the great pianist, composer and Musical Director, Oscar Hernandez, this three-time GRAMMY winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra honors the tradition of great Latin music and they are a bright light on the salsa reconstruction movement.  Some of my favorite tunes on this album are composed by Oscar Hernandez including the melodic “Romance Divino” with voices and harmonic horns telling the story with gusto.  The percussion is driving and demands you take to the dance floor. Jorge Gonzalez on bongos, George Delgado on congas and Luisito Quintero on timbales, maracas and Guiro, pump the band with excitement. “Como te Amo” is a slow, beautiful mambo composed by Hernandez with lyrics by Marco Bermudez.  “Mambo 2021” is another Hernandez original with a wonderful baritone sax solo from Mitch Frohman.  Another favorite is Track #10, “Mi Amor Sincero” co-written by vocalist, Marco Bemudez and Gil Lopez.    This is an all-star band of musicians who put spice and authenticity into every note they play.  The Hernandez arrangements are superb, and the repertoire is uplifting, happy and sincere.  You will play this album more than once and come away smiling broadly every time.

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MARSHALL GILKES – “CYCLIC JOURNEY”  –  Alternate Side Records

Marshall Gilkes, trombone/composer; Aaron Parks, piano; Linda May Han Oh, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Brandon Ridenour, trumpet/piccolo trumpet/flugelhorn; Ethan Bensdorf & Tony Kadleck, trumpet/flugelhorn; Adam Unsworth, horn; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Demondrae Thurman, euphonium; Nick Schwartz, bass Trombone; Marcus Rojas, tuba.

Marshall Gilkes composed the music for this creative adventure in March and April of 2022.

“I’ve had this idea, to bring these two worlds together, for quite some time and in terms of the theme, it really came to light through reflection on what’s most familiar to me.  That’s how I arrived at the idea to write a soundtrack to my daily external and internal existence,” Gilkes wrote in his liner notes.

So, this album, a musical diary of sorts, is actually a nine-movement suite inspired by Marshall Gilkes’ day-to-day life as a family man, an artist, a musician and composer. Track one, “First Light” opens like a sunrise with the horns blending warmly.   

“It’s really about the gears of life starting to turn at the beginning of each day,” explains Gilkes.

For the most part, the horns introduce us to the melody, while Gilkes is as smooth as butter on his trombone solos. Aaron Parks steps into the spotlight on grand piano and struts his stuff. Part II of this unusual suite is titled “Up and Down.”  It seamlessly flows into “The Calm” a very beautiful ballad with Linda May Han Oh taking a pensive solo on her double bass.

On “Respite” Gilkes lets his trombone shine, tackling the melody with bold tones and legato phrases. This has got to be one of my favorite tunes and arrangements.  This album is an interesting blend of classical music and jazz.  This is meditative jazz that seem to reflect the Gilkes days as full of peace and calm.  Surely, he has a couple of days when he’s feeling bluesy or just plain wants to ‘swing’ or shuffle or jump for joy.  I missed those life emotions that are such a stalworth aspect of jazz music.  Still, that takes nothing from the beauty of the Marshall Gilkes’ project, missing those elements of jazz, but reflecting a lovely album of moods and melancholy.            

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EVGENY POBOZHIY – “ELEMENTS FOR PEACE” –

Evgeny Pobozhly, guitar/compositions; Ben Wendel, saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

Evgeny Pobozhiy’s career took a promising turn in 2019.  The guitarist became the first Russian winner of the prestigious Herbie Hancock Prize in New York.  This jazz musician is hoping that his debut album can represent “Elements for Peace” during a war-torn time in our world.  He opens with a fusion influenced, high energy arrangement of a song called “Subliminal.” Evgeny Pobozhiy’s electric guitar soars and sings. This opening tune is a solid confirmation of good composition by Evgeny. He has composed seven of the nine songs on this album including “Song for my Daughter” that’s a very melodic tune.  Evgeny shows off his guitar techniques during this arrangement. The ensemble’s interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s jazz standard, “Infant Eyes,” is beautiful, as is Evgeny Pobozhiy’s featured guitar.  Another of my favorites is “Elements” the up-tempo tune that spotlights the saxophone of Ben Wendel.  The song Evgeny wrote for his wife, “Alina” is a lovely ballad that is so full of peace and love, anyone who is stressed out should just put this song on their CD player, close their eyes and relax.  Here is a wonderful debut album that introduces us to a young, talented composer and guitarist.  Meet Evgeny Pobozhiy.

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LET THE DRUMS SPEAK

August 22, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

AUGUST 22, 2022

AL FOSTER – “REFLECTIONS” – Smoke Sessions Records

Al Foster, drums/composer; Kevin Hays, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Nicholas Payton, trumpet/composer; Chris Potter, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer.

Opening with the “T.S. Monk” tune composed by Al Foster, I am swept away by the beautiful harmonics of this arrangement and the hum-along melody.  It feels like I’m listening to an old familiar standard tune.  When Chris Potter enters on his tenor saxophone, his improvisations take us on a sweet journey. Nicholas Payton adds his own magic on trumpet and Kevin Hays is dynamite on piano.  But it’s the creative and every brilliant drums of Al Foster that make this song sing in an exciting and rhythmic way. The Foster ensemble attacks the Sonny Rollins tune, “Pen-up House” like a force of nature.  They swing hard on the McCoy Tyner tune, “Blues on the Corner.”  On “Half Nelson” Chris Potter’s rich saxophone solo reminds me of Charlie Parker with his fluidity.  Potter was a member of Al Foster’s band in the mid-1990s and played on the “Brandyn” album. They are seasoned partners.

“Chris is genius level, with his own way of playing; his own style,” Foster says.

Foster was influenced by drummers Art Taylor, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Joe Chambers and Jack DeJohnette.  He also was inspired by Thelonious Monk, who he had the opportunity to play with in August of 1969 upon Wilbur Ware’s recommendation. Al Foster was a fledgling drummer when he took to Monk’s bandstand at the Village Gate and they opened for the Miles Davis Quartet that included Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

“After the third night, monk asked for a lift, then invited me to his apartment.  On the elevator, he started telling me that critics thought he couldn’t write in ¾ time.  That’s why he wrote ‘Ugly Beauty.’ He talked through his teeth.  You could see his teeth closed.  In his apartment, he showed me his cufflinks and suede shoes and then I left,” Al Foster recalls that historic meeting vividly.

Today, Al Foster has settled into his own style and brilliance. Clearly, in the last decade he has spewed out a list of memorable recordings that memorialize Foster’s admirable talent.  This album is available August 26, 2022 for public consumption.

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GEORGE LERNIS – “BETWEEN TWO WORLDS” – Dunya Label

George Lernis, drums/percussion/Santur/composer; Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, piano/voice/oud; Bruno Raberg, bass; Emiel de Jaegher, trumpet; Burcu Gülec, voice. FEATURED GUEST: John Patitucci, upright bass/elec. Bass.

George Lernis is no ordinary jazz drummer. He plays Santur, percussion and he has composed all the fascinating music on this album. “Between Two Worlds” is literally an exploration between Western culture and the Middle East.  Born and raised in Cyprus, Lernis brings inspiration from the Mediterranean and infuses this music with jazz, the ultimate music of freedom.  As an immigrant himself, the drummer expresses his cultural roots and represents the sweet fruit of hardworking immigrants who bring their hopes, dreams and culture to America.  Lernis blends his musical arrangements to embrace both worlds in a minor-chord-way. He incorporates the beautiful voice of Burcu Gülec, a spattering of poetry and instruments like the Oud and the Santur that establish his style and culture. The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music. The Santur is a percussive, string instrument like a zither or small vibraphone that is struck when played.

Opening with his original composition called “Prayer” John Patitutcci’s thick, beautiful bass supports the tune and locks arms with Lernis to create a powerful rhythm section. A poem is recited, written by George Lernis and his mother, Eliza.  It celebrates the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.  Ms. Gülec’s voice sings along with the horn lines, a human instrument demanding to be heard.  Mehmet Ali Sanlikol melodically infuses the piano into the mix and Burcu Gülec moves from the horn section to sing unison, along with the piano line.  It’s quite impressive for her vocals to try and keep up with Sanlikol’s piano brilliance and improvisational expression. There are no lyrics.  None are needed.  Pure emotion, pumps from her vocal cords and lungs, singing along with the black and white keys that fly beneath the fingers of Mehmet Ali. What sounds like miniature gongs opens track #2. I believe it is the Santur instrument.  Percussion drips into the track like honey from the cone.  Track #3 “Sailing Beyond” prefaces a suite of music representing the album’s title. Once again Burcu Gülec offers her expressive vocals to set the mood. This song is fused from a Cypress folk song called “I Trata Mas I Kourelou.”  “Origins” is the first part of the “Between Two Worlds” Suite and spotlights the Oud in all its pear-shaped beauty.  This is an album that combines jazz with Middle Eastern tradition in a unique and palatable way. 

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CRAIG DAVIS – “TONE PAINTINGS: THE MUSIC OF DODO MARMAROSA” – Independent Label

Craig Davis, piano; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

Pianist Craig Davis is on a mission to reinform the jazz community by celebrating Pittsburgh, PA jazz man, Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa.  On “Mellow Mood,” the opening tune, Craig Davis opens this song with only solo piano.  It’s a composition Marmarosa wrote when he was only fourteen years old. After Davis plays the song down, with a strong 2-feel, Clayton’s big bold bass enters along with world renowned drummer, Jeff Hamilton.  Craig Davis has chosen two legendary jazz musicians to join him during this trio tribute to Marmarosa. 

Whenever I see the name Jeff Hamilton, I am immediately interested in hearing who this amazing drummer is playing with and what he has to say.  His musicianship speaks to me.  On track #2, “Dodo’s Bounce” I would expect Hamilton to use sticks for this up-tempo swing tune.  Instead, he dances brushes across the drum skins, holding the tempo in place like super-glue, but never losing the energy.  Craig Davis trades fours with Hamilton during this skip-to-my-bounce arrangement and Hamilton shines like the super-star that he is. 

The Craig Davis project titled, “Tone Paintings” has been in the making for more than a decade.  After the talented pianist earned his master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music in 2010, Davis prepared a concert debut at The Kitano Club in New York City.  He put his show together in celebration of some of Pittsburgh’s piano icons including Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and his hero, “Dodo” Marmarosa.

“Dodo’s story really resonated with me, because he was such an enigmatic figure.  He never really got the recognition he deserved beyond having a flurry of fame in the forties,” Davis explained his fascination with the jazz pianist.

“We share similar stylistic interests.  I love bebop and of course he was a bebop innovator.  We’re both classically trained and bring those influences to our music. He also tried to push the art form forward a little bit and not just kind of settle on what was popular.  (Tommy) Dorsey didn’t like him because he was too progressive, but Artie Shaw loved it. So, here’s this guy who was boppin’ with Bird (Charlie Parker) and he was pushing the envelope at the same time. That may also have contributed to his lack of notoriety, but I respect the fact that he really cared about continuing to push boundaries within himself,” Craig Davis praised “Dodo” Marmarosa.

On the “Dodo’s Blues” tune, I hear shades of Gene Harris in the Davis piano style and John Clayton is given an ample opportunity to sing his bass solo. Jeff Hamilton opens the tune “Escape” tapping the tempo out at the top of the melodic, fast-paced tune.

The MCG Jazz record label, whose parent organization is Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG), was a place where Craig Davis’s early recording career began, way back in 1996. It was when drummer, Roger Humphries was recording his debut album, “A New Home: Recorded Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild” and Davis was part of that ensemble.  Funny that Craig Davis has come full circle today, returning to this very label to release his second album. The first was recorded on Alanna Records in 2006 and called “Out of the Gate.”  For this project, Davis has transcribed all of the Marmarosa music, compositions that have never been published.  He transcribed these Marmarosa compositions from recordings that he discovered. Marmarosa also performed extensively with Pittsburgh native and bass icon, Ray Brown, including Marmarosa’s premiere recording session as a leader in 1946. Craig Davis offers us ten “Dodo” Marmarosa original compositions and one single original song of his own that he calls “A Ditty for Dodo.”  It’s a lilting, very melodic jazz ballad. 

This is an engaging album that not only introduces us to the music of Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, but allows us to become acquainted with pianist, composer and arranger Craig Davis.  He’s in the best of company with hard-hitters like John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton as part of his swinging trio. 

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BILLY DRUMMOND AND FREEDOM OF IDEAS – “VALSE SINISTRE” – Cellar Music

Billy Drummond, drums/composer; Dezron Douglas, bass/arranger; Micah Thomas, piano/composer; Dayna Stephens, saxophones.

Billy Drummond barrels onto the set with serious energy and wailing sticks dancing on the drum skins.  The Jackie McLean tune is called “Little Melonae” and there’s nothing ‘little’ about the arrangement; it’s huge. The tempo is crazy fast and Micah Thomas let’s his fingers fly over the upper register of the piano like an excited bird.  Drummond’s rhythms propel the tune and by the time Dayna Stephens solos on saxophone, the driving energy is on fire.

“The music presented here is a snapshot of my musical vision.  Where I am today, where I’ve been and where I might be headed.  I’ve been leading various aggregations of ‘Freedom of Ideas’ for well over a decade,” Billy Drummond explains the goal and direction of this album.

”Little Melonae” … arranged by Dezron Douglas (the voice of reason), is a disciple of Jackie McLean and, for me, McLean is the epitome of a purity in music that represents freedom in the true sense of the word,” Billy Drummond expounded in his liner notes.  “When I was a youngster, I played with Jackie on two occasions, which was a dream come true.  One of my treasures is an inscription from him on one of his recordings that reads, ‘To Billy, one of my favorite drummers of all time.”

Drummond spoke about his relationship with the title tune, “Valse Sinistre” composed by the Avant-garde artist, Ms. Carla Bley.

“I fell in love with this piece while I was working with her. … I think it’s a gem.  I was incredibly fortunate to play, record and tour with Carla in various ensembles over the years,” Drummond continued to explain why he had chosen various songs for this album release.

Because Tony Williams changed the way music was played and he also changed the way that drums were played, Drummond wanted to celebrate the Williams legacy as both a drummer and outstanding composer by covering his tune, “Lawra” as a gesture of his appreciation for the gone-too-soon percussion master. 

As a composer, Billy Drummond offers us “Changes for Trane & Monk” spotlighting the warm saxophone of Dayna Stephens propelled by Drummond’s energetic drums.  When Billy Drummond pulls out a pair of brushes to interpret the soft and beautiful tune, “Laura” we get to enjoy his tender and sensuous side.  This is an album both delicious and satisfying, like a well-cooked meal with friends and family. 

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PETER KOGAN – “JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT” – Koganote Records

Peter Kogan, drums/composer; Abebi Stafford & Will Kjeer, piano; Charlie Lincoln & Kameron Markworth, bass; Geoff LeCrone, guitar; Jake Baldwin & Mitch Van Laar, trumpet; Pete Whitman, tenor saxophone; Nick Syman, trombone. Dominic Cheli, solo piano on track #9.

Right out the gate, Peter Kogan races onto the scene with a hard-hitting drum solo that introduces us to a song he calls, “Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow – Yeah!”  This composition swings hard and has a memorable melody that’s presented by the horns after several bars of a power-packed drum solo.  It’s an exciting arrangement for this quintet to play, generously spotlighting each player, starting with Kogan’s percussive power. Pete Whitman, on tenor saxophone, blends beautifully with trumpeter Jake Baldwin.  Both offer rich solo excursions that represent Straight-ahead jazz at its best.  Abebi Stafford is dynamic on piano and Charlie Lincoln holds the rhythm section in a tight grip with his walking bass lines. If you love 1950 and 1960 jazz the way I do, this song turns back time in a wonderful way. The title tune follows, “Just Before Midnight (Etude #3).”  It’s introduced by Will Kjeer on piano, teasing us with chord changes that accentuate unexpected intervals.  They lead us to an up-tempo speed. This racing tempo challenges Kogan’s septet to bring their very best to the party, and they do.  Peter Kogan propels them forward with busy sticks and appropriate cymbal crashes.

During this production, you will experience Peter Kogan in various group situations.  He opens with a quintet, moves to a septet-setting, and then to a quartet.  There is also a sextet performance and even a solo piano addition, “Song Without a Word” interpreting Kogan’s original song and played by Dominic Cheli.  Peter Kogan intentionally created different groups of musicians to express the best of his original compositions.  For example, he reverts to a quartet to play his ode to John Coltrane that’s named, “Owed to J.C.” On this arrangement, Kogan plays with the tempo to explore the pulse of the tune, employing a 15/8, Afro-Cuban rhythm during the main body of the song and during the solos. “And Another Thing (Etude #1)” is a catchy title and introduces us to a jazz waltz arrangement that allows Jake Baldwin to brightly soak up the spotlight during his trumpet solo. Peter Kogan also solos on his waltz inspired drums. Geoff LeCrone is featured on guitar during the quartet’s interpretation of “I Dream of Danny Playing Guitar.”

Kogan is a percussionist who has dabbled with various musical genres.  He’s proficient playing jazz, but he also has history with rock music and the blues idiom.  He’s backed up iconic blues musicians like Honeyboy Edwards, Lightin’ Hopkins and Floyd Jones.  In the same breath, he can stand behind a set of timpani drums in a concert hall, and has played with symphony orchestras that include the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Honolulu Symphony.  Kogan represents this type of versatility on drums.  I’m also quite impressed with his composer skills. Peter Kogan has written and arranged all the songs on this album except “Hindsight” written by Cedar Walton.  Employing his various group productions, Kogan introduces us to amazing musicians and a stunning number of his original compositions. To his credit, the Kogan music sounds like standard jazz tunes we should know and love.

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

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

Here is a conglomerate of compositions snatched from film scores that are not only interesting but entertaining.  The album opens with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” which is a familiar children’s song that is now public Domain.  Every child knows that song.  What I didn’t realize is that it was featured in the 1986 film, “Heartburn.”  They pluck the Quincy Jones tune “Soul Bossa Nova” from the Austin Powers 1997 film.  It’s driven by the Baratta drums and the Paul Rossman percussion.  Vincent Herring’s alto saxophone soars and sings us the melody over their rich percussive rhythms.  Other songs you will instantly recognize are “Theme form the Pink Panther,” “Last Tango in Paris” (from the 1972 film of the same name) and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” composition.  Arranger, pianist, Bill O’Connell gives an impressive and improvisational solo on the Pink Panther tune.  The ensemble plays an arrangement that’s Straight-ahead and flies at a fast tempo.  Paul Bollenback’s guitar solo is stellar.  Richard Baratta finally steps out front and gives us a taste of his mastery on drums.  He sends sparks of excitement through my listening room. The “Pure Imagination” song from ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ is arranged beautifully as a sweet ballad and features Bollenback’s guitar.

Baratta has a strong drum technique, and he swings hard on “You’ve Got A Friend in Me.”  Although drumming was his first creative love, he was also a gifted film producer. Richard Baratta has dozens of films to his credit including six Spider Man installments, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman and many more.  In the 1970s, he was a drummer struggling to live on a gig-to-gig basis.  When an opportunity came his way in 1984, offering him big paychecks in the film business, Richard Baratta chose film production over his percussive skills.  I’m happy he returned to drumming and combined his love of films with music.   This is a sequel to his 2020 studio debut called “Music in Film: The Reel Deal.”  It’s a wonderful concept, well-played and entertaining.  The choice of repertoire is perfect.  You’ll enjoy eleven songs on this album, performed by these awesome musicians and inspired by the skillful drums of Richard Baratta.

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STEVE GADD, EDDIE GOMEZ, RONNIE CUBER – “CENTER STAGE WDR BIG BAND” – Leopard Music

Steve Gadd, drums; Michael Abene, WDR arranger/conductor; Eddie Gomez, bass; Bruno Müller, guitar; Bobby Sparks II, Hammond B3 organ/Fender Rhodes; Simon Oslender, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Ronnie Cuber, baritone saxophone.  WDR BIG BAND: SAXOPHONES: Karolina Strassmayer & Johan Hörlén, alto saxophones; Malte Dürrschnabel & Paul Heller, tenor saxophones; Jens Neufang, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Andy Haderer, Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Ruud Breuls. TROMBONES: Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm & Andy Hunter; Mattis Cederberg, bass trombone.

From the first strains of the familiar introduction to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” composition, you’ll find your body moving to Steve Gadd’s drums and the WDR big band music.  Pushed forward by the dynamic drums of Steve Gadd, this is finger-snappin’, toe-tappin’ music. Bruno Muller’s guitar dances boldly and Simon Oslender’s piano solo is full of joy.  Gadd has reunited with bassist, Eddie Gomez and baritone sax man, Ronnie Cuber from their “Gadd Gang” days.  They join the Grammy Award-winning WDR Big Band, under the direction of Michael Abene, and the merger is magic.  Together, with this exuberant big band, Gadd and his gang reach back to pull a cluster of classics from their repertoire.  The first three tunes on this album are smokin’ hot and danceable.  Track #4 is a beautiful ballad, delivered with solos by Ronnie Cuber on his baritone sax and Eddie Gomez steps briefly into the spotlight on double bass. Trombonist, Ludwig Nuss is also featured, a WDR band member who plays beautifully.  After that song, the band is back to playing all those rhythm and blues licks, spirited and infused by Steve Gadd’s powerhouse drum presence. The tune is “Them Changes” and Simon Oslender brings his B3 organ to the party, along with Bruno Müller’s lead guitar that plants deep bluesy roots into the hard-swing arrangement.  On “Way Back Home” they let Steve Gadd loose, wrapping his funk beat like a coil winding tightly around the tune.  He holds everything in perfect place. The horn lines stutter their sweet, harmonic message across space until the rhythm guitar teases Gadd and dares him to come forward and spew his drum licks all over the place. Oh, but when they reach back and snatch that blast from the past, “Honky Tonk” they’ve got me just where they want me.  Michael Abene has arranged it as a medley, smartly incorporating this blues shuffle into the country/western tune, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” although the transition wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. The arrangement sounded very similar to the Ray Charles big band arrangement. You can’t miss with that arrangement.

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DUDUKA DA FONSECA & QUARTETO UNIVERSAL – “YES!!!” – Sunnyside Records

Duduka Da Fonseca, drums/composer; Vinicius Gomes, guitars/composer; Helio Alves, piano/composer; Gili Lopes, bass/composer.

Unlike many bandleaders who are drummers, Duduka Da Fonseca does not try to submerge his talents inside the quartet arrangements.  Duduka Da Fonseca is right up front and spectacular throughout this production. Starting with the first track, “Samba Novo” you feel his powerful spirit fueling the arrangement with exciting drum-fills and engaged sticks.  He sets the rhythm and the time, making Helio Alves fingers race over the piano keys with precision and creativity.  The two are in perfect sync. When the spotlight swerves to highlight Vinicius Gomes on guitar, Gomes is ready and eager to showcase his technique.  Afterwards, Duduka steps from the background to the forefront and tantalizes the listening audience with his mastery.  Here is a 4-time GRAMMY Award nominee, a drummer who takes the reins of his band and rides at full pace into the outer limits of jazz and Brazilian rhythms.  He also opens the second track enthusiastically, his solo drums commanding attention and painting the production in loud, vivid, dramatic colors.  His artistic sticks dance, sway and tap across his trap drums with purpose and excellence. Dom Salvador’s composition, “Transition” is a bold tune that allows the quartet to veer from the melody and explore their own improvisational solos.  All the while, the drums push and prod them forward.  Every band has to have that one inspirationally driven purpose and that one person who inspires the others and leads the way.  Duduka Da Fonseca is THAT bandleader.

All four of these bandmates are soaked in Brazilian music and culture.  Consequently, they blend warmly together like Cafezinho (a respected coffee) and ‘rapadura’ (Brazil’s popular unrefined sugar). This project is sweet, strong and entertaining. 

On the Hermeto Pascoal composition, “Montreux” Gili Lopes offers us an emotional and beautiful bass solo. All of these musicians are excellent, each in their own right. They bring their best to this project, including their original compositions mixed into a repertoire of Brazilian icons. Pianist Alves has added his composition “Bebe” to this stew of cultures and classics.  It’s a Sambossa waltz and guitarist Gomes has co-written “Exodo” that leans more towards contemporary jazz, perhaps in the realm of something Chick Corea would play.  Dynamically, Duduka’s drums color and paint the arrangement with excitement. Gili Lopes adds “West 83rd Street” to the album and Vinicius’s guitar warmly introduces us to the pretty melody. Lopes takes a bass solo to explore his own interpretation of his original song. Finally, they close with “Dona Maria” that Duduka Da Fonseca has penned. The melody is quite compelling.  When Helio enters on piano he doubles the time and skips over the keys with intention and creative purpose.  Duduka’s drums chase the black and white keys, with the energy of a playful puppy running after ducks at the lake.  His drum solo that follows is spectacular! If you are looking for a Brazilian jazz super band, look no further.

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CHRIS PARKER TRIO – “TELL ME” – M’Bubba Music

Chris Parker, drums/composer; Kyoko Oyobe, piano; Ameen Saleem, bass.

It has taken a couple of years before these three musicians could get back to the studio. The pandemic caused havoc with their lives and careers.  But it also gave Chris Parker time to compose and arrange original songs, in hopes of soon recording them.  “Tell Me” is the title of their third project together. It’s the eighth album for Chris Parker as a bandleader. Most of the compositions belong to Parker, with the exception of the opening Thelonious Monk tune that bass man, Ameen Saleem gave the nickname of “Coolypso.”  The trio swings with a very Calypso, Latin arrangement of Monk’s tune “Let’s Cool One.” Parker’s out front on his drums during the introduction and Ameen joins him on bass.  When Kyoko Oyobe adds her piano, they are complete and lock into a nice calypso groove.  It’s an unusual arrangement, but very likeable.  They Tango their way into Track #2 that Parker named “Desaparecido.”  His powerful drums keep everything moving, exciting and solid. When Ameen Saleem enters a final segment of the song by bowing his bass, it’s very electrifying.  Kyoko cements the pretty parts into the song with her fingers twirling in the treble register of the piano.

Chris Parker is a seasoned veteran on his drums.  At one point in his career, he was one of the best fusion/funk drummers around and recorded with The Brecker Brothers, “Live at the Bottom Line.”  But Chris longed to explore other percussive paths.  He heard music in his head, while the rhythm spewed from his body like the sweetest cologne. Consequently, Parker studied composition, arranging and jazz drumming.  This album showcases all of his talents, including the former funk and fusion player, as well as the more polished jazz drummer he has become. His skills have grown on the drums and now Chris Parker enjoys all the nuances and creativity that jazz has to offer, as well as the creativity and skill it takes to compose and arrange music.  Meet the complete, Chris Parker.

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VOICES PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

August 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

August 15, 2022

SAMARA JOY – “CAN’T GET OUT OF THIS MOOD” – Verve Records / a SINGLE RELEASE

Ben Paterson, piano; David Wong, double bass; Kenny Washington, drums.

Here is a young jazz vocalist who embodies Ella Fitzgerald’s smooth style, adding her own succinct and unique vocal qualities to captivate our ears as she sings, “Can’t Get Out of This Mood.”   This Is Samara Joy’s single release from her upcoming album, scheduled for a September 2022 release and titled, “Linger Awhile.”   

Samara Joy is a vocalist to watch.  I am certain she will climb the ladder to fame and fortune and her voice will carry the true jazz vocal torch straight up to the stars.  She is a product of a musical family.  Her grandparents, Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, led the well-known Philadelphia-based gospel group “The Savettes.”  Her father toured with Andrae Crouch.  Consequently, her early musical influences are gospel based, but also include the inspiration from genius artists like Stevie Wonder, Lalah Hathaway, George Duke and Musiq Soulchild.  It wasn’t until she attended Fordham High School for the Arts that she discovered and fell in love with jazz.  She has already won Best Vocalist at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition and recently graduated as the Ella Fitzgerald Scholar.  Let me introduce you to 22-year-old Samara Joy, who gives me hope that jazz is alive and secure in the hands of a new, young, talented generation.

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DO’A – “HIGHER GROUND” – Outside In Music

Do’A, Vocals/guitar/piano/composer; Harold Lopez-Nussa, piano/vocals; Nando Michelin & Syhai Maestro, piano; Julio Cesar Gonzalez, bass; Shango Dely & Ruy Adrian Lopez-Nussa, percussion; Mayquel Gonzalez, trumpet.

Do’A is a vocalist with a haunting voice and a style all her own.  Her music is interesting and unique, blending Brazilian and Columbian cultures with her Albanian upbringing and elements of Albanian folk music. She sprinkles in jazz, samba and African rhythms to tantalize us with her multi-languages and honey-warm voice.  Currently, she is an artist-in-residency at the Music Center of Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.  This project introduces us to Do’A who sings, plays piano, guitar and composes.  I am enamored by her composer talents. As soon as I heard this album, I thought the hit record, the crossover, commercial, original song written by Do’A  is “Lampara.”   Not only do I think “Lampara” is a hit, but I also think “Unidad” is a strong second. Both are sung in Spanish. Her melodies are hypnotic and, although I don’t understand the language, I am still intoxicated with the songs of Do’A.  On her opening song, “Flor de Lis” she sings in Portuguese.  Shai maestro’s piano playing introduces us to an Albanian Folk Song, “Pranvera” along with Do’A’s smooth and intimate vocals in her native language.  It’s my first time hearing Albanian folk music and I find it truly delicious to my ears. On the final song, Do’A sits at the piano to play her original composition called, “Krijim,” also sung in Albanian.  This is world music with an international theme.  She sings in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Albanian to interpret the theme of her album, “Higher Grounds.” Do’A hopes that her music is reflective of the interconnected nature of the human spirit. This is her debut album and it transcends borders, genres and traditions to introduce us to Do’A the artist. Her music also calls attention to the power and to the love that music can transmit. I look forward to hearing, not only her husky, emotional voice in the future, but more Do’A compositions. 

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JOHN MINNOCK – “SIMPLICITY” – Dot Time Records

John Minnock, vocals; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Mathis Picard, piano/composer; Sean Mason, piano; Mark Lewandowski, bass; Pablo Eluchans, drums; Carolos Mena, bass.

There is nothing simple about John Minnock’s “Simplicity” album.  The songs are challenging, with technically difficult melodies, but Minnock sings them easily, fooling the listener into believing they are simple.  His vocal timbre somehow reminds me of Al Jarreau’s tone, although he has a completely different style and presence.  His band is smokin’ hot with master reedman, Dave Liebman, always a joy to hear on saxophone. The arrangements are interesting and for the most part, compliment his creativity. Pianist, Mathis Picard has composed several of these songs with lyricist Erick Holmberg and sometimes John Minnock contributing words. I love their bluesy “Cape’s End” and I’m intrigued with “Bordeaux” a song about a faraway place and a distant love that teases Minnock’s range and has a provocative melody with unusual intervals.  John sings a few standards you will recognize like “Angel Eyes,” “Maiden Voyage” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  On both the Matt Dennis tune and Hancock’s composition, Dave Liebman is given free rein to explore all the nuances of the tunes before John Minnock takes center stage and does his own unique interpretations. On the Herbie Hancock tune, he improvises without lyrics and leaves the soloing to Liebman and Mathis Picard on piano. The voice becomes a human instrument that simply colors the tune at various points.  This is art for art’s sake and since jazz reflects freedom and creativity, this is a perfect example of just that.

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SHEILA JORDAN – LIVE AT MEZZROW – Cellar Music

Sheila Jordan, vocals; Alan Broadbent, piano; Harvey S., bass.

On a cold, wintry, October twenty-fifth evening, the jazz luminary, Sheila Jordan, took to the stage of the intimate Mezzrow Jazz Club. She opens with the Abbey Lincoln composition, “Bird Alone,” accompanied by two-time GRAMMY winner, Alan Broadbent on piano and Harvey S., on bass.  Harvey S. was one of the members of the quartet she established in 1979.  That ensemble included Steve Kuhn and Bob Moses. On this project, Sheila and Harvey come full circle. Sheila Jordan’s album becomes the inaugural release of the SmallsLIVE Living Masters Series with the Cellar Music Group.  It marks the first ‘live’ recording of Sheila Jordan in nearly a decade.

Born in November of 1928 in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, Jordan has a rich legacy in jazz. Now ninety-three years old, she still can swing with the best of them. Jordan is one of the pioneers of bebop and scat singing.  In her prime, she made her mark in the jazz world by performing her unique vocal style with only the double bass.  It is said that the great Charlie Parker paid her an amazing compliment by calling her “the lady with the million-dollar ears.” Sheila Jordan dared to put lyrics to the tumbling and exuberant notes of Charlie Parker’s improvised horn parts.  Sheila went to New York where jazz was thriving and studied harmony and music theory with Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. She was always in the company of jazz greats and striving to break musical glass ceilings for vocalists.  In New York, she was a familiar face in Greenwich Village performing with pianist Herbie Nichols. Jordan recorded with icons in experimental jazz music like George Russell.  You can hear her on his album “The Outer View” singing “You Are My Sunshine.”

In the 1960s she released her own album called “Portrait of Sheila” on the popular Blue Note label.  She also played with Don Heckman, Lee Konitz, Carla Bley and Roswell Rudd. In 1975, she recorded “Confirmation” and a year later, recorded a duet album with Arild Anderson.  But her work with George Russell gives an example of her musical direction and groundbreaking vocal attitude early in her career.  That crystal clear, emotional delivery developed with nurturing from dynamic musicians like Charlie Parker, George Russell and her husband Duke Jordan.  Below, here is her interpretation of “Confirmation” on her 1975 presentation.

As a lyricist, songwriter, and for twenty-eight years as an Adjunct Professor of Music , Sheila Jordan inspired students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Vermont Jazz Center, InterplayJazz and Arts, as well as sharing her knowledge and creativity at International workshops.  This historic album become the twentieth she has recorded as a bandleader.

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PATRISHA THOMSON – “WILD IS THE WIND” – PT Designs Productions

Patrisha Thomson, vocals; Mon David, guest vocals; Steve Rawlins, piano/arranger/producer; Grant Geissman, guitar; Ken Wild, Jennifer Leitham & Bob Feldman, bass; Bernie Dresel, Bob Leatherbarrow & Gordon Peeke, drums; Brad Dutz, percussion; Scott Mayo, flute/alto flute; Tom Peterson, tenor saxophone; Michael Stever, trumpet; Ira Nepus, trombone.

Patrisha Thomson loves to sing, although she chose a career as a visual artist first and then became an educator.  Still, music and jazz were rooted deeply in her heart.  When her father passed away, Patrisha took over the presidency of his company.  With all those careers intermingling, she somehow found time for her passion to sing.  But it was much later in life that she decided to pursue becoming a recording artist.  Patrisha Thomson’s singing style is more cabaret than jazz, but she’s chosen a Bakers Dozen of familiar jazz standards to interpret. All the songs are pulled from the late 1930s through the 1940s.  Patrisha opens with the popular Ellington tune, “In a mellow Tone” where Michael Stever’s trumpet swings hard. She and her band of L.A. based musicians also cover “Dindi” and crowd pleasers like “Route 66” where Grant Geissman shines on guitar and jazz vocalist Mon David joins her as guest. Mon David puts the “J” in jazz.  Jennifer Leitham is featured on the title tune and lays her rich bass tones beneath Patrisha Thomson’s emotional delivery. Scott Mayo adds flute to the mix. Patrisha and Ken Wild open the tune, “Just Squeeze Me” made popular back in 1941, another Duke Ellington gem. “This Can’t Be Love” has a lovely Latin arrangement by Steve Rawlins. Ms. Thomson persuasively delivers Great American Songbook tunes, like “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” that the band swings and “Autumn Leaves,” as a slow ballad. Sometimes Patrisha Thomson’s voice reminds me of days I spent in Paris, listening to the emotional female jazz singers in those blue-lit European nightclubs. She even sings Autumn Leaves in French. Her finale song is an original ‘Happy Birthday Song’ she has penned herself.

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NATALIE CRESSMAN & IAN FAQUINI – “AUBURN WHISPER” – Groundup Records

Natalie Cressman, tenor trombone/bass trombone/composer/arranger; Ian Faquini, guitar/ vocals/composer.

Natalie Cressman’s mother, Sandy Cressman, is a jazz vocalist, steeped deeply in the traditions of Brazilian music.  Natalie’s father, Jeff Cressman, is a recording engineer and trombonist who recently concluded a two-decade run with Santana. They say the apple does not fall far from the tree.  In this case, that’s absolutely correct.  The twenty-something Natalie Cressman has honed her skills singing (like her mother) in Portuguese and is quite proficient, like her father, on the trombone. She’s also a composer and lyricist. Her partner on this album is Brazilian composer and guitarist, Ian Faquini. Cressman has studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Ian Faquini studied at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley and after graduating joined the faculty there. He is also on the faculty at California Brazil Camp. Clearly, both artists are super talented. Together, this duo offers a world music album of original music, with both artists contributing to the songwriting. I found their songs to be quite melodic. However, the over-dubbing of horn parts that are all quite legato often drags the music down. For example, on Track #11, “Hood River” the legato horn lines distract from what could have been a joyful, moderate-tempo tune. Some points of staccato horns could have lightened the mood and brightened the arrangement. Cressman has a light, soprano voice that is quite beautiful and Ian’s voice is a smooth baritone.  When they blend, together their sound is beautifully hypnotic. Track #2, “Rear Window” seems to be based on the chord changes of Mona Lisa, but Cressman’s voice interprets a very different melody once she sings the song and it’s lovely. When I listen to “Afoxe Pra Oxum” her voice is airy and joyful.  I wish she had incorporated some of that lightness and joy into her horn arrangements.

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ANNE WALSH – “THE ASTRUD PROJECT” –  A to Zink Music

Anne Walsh, vocals; Tom Zink, piano/arranger; Mitchell Long, guitar/cavaquinho; Kevin Winard, drums/percussion; Chris Wabich, drums; Mike Vacarro, flutes/clarinet/bass clarinet; Gary Meek, flute solos; Tony Guerrero, trumpets/flugelhorns; Andy Martin, trombone; Charlie Bisharat, violin; Tom Lea, viola; Irina Chirkova, cello.

In celebration of Brazilian jazz singer, Astrud Gilberto, Anne Walsh takes to the microphone. Astrud’s bright, clear tones helped to introduce the Bossa Nova movement of the 1960s to American audiences.  Anne Walsh, originally born in Boston and now living in Long Beach California, has a similar vocal style.  On the opening tune, “On My Mind” the happy melody dances from Anne’s lips triumphantly.  The trumpet of Tony Guerrero shares a joyful solo.  Gary Meek shines on flute during this arrangement. “Call Me” is a familiar pop tune.  Anne Walsh sings it rubato on the top and then steps into a Brazilian arrangement of this tune that is pleasant and danceable.  “Crickets” is a challenging song with swiftly moving lyric and a tempo that demands attention to both enunciation and the beautiful Latin rhythms that celebrate Brazil so naturally. Anne Walsh handles both the tempo and the Portuguese language very comfortably.  On the composition, “Take Me to Aruanda” Walsh is playful and duets with the horn.  On “Dindi” Tom Zink’s piano and the addition of Charlie Bisharat’s violin, Tom Lea’s viola and Irina Chirkova’s cello add delicate and lush beauty to this arrangement. Anne adds her own original song lyrics to the “Beach Samba” song, then scats her way through the tune.  This is Easy Listening Latin Jazz and Anne Walsh has a soothing, clear and compelling voice.

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CATHY SEGAL-GARCIA & PHILLIP STRANGE – “LIVE IN JAPAN” – Origin Records

Cathy Segal-Garcia, vocals/composer; Phillip Strange, piano.

This is a project recorded nearly thirty years ago, (1992) but it’s still fresh and exciting.  The ‘live’ performance shows off the very best of Cathy Segal-Garcia’s range and style.  It also features the wonderful and inventive piano playing of Phillip Strange.  It’s a 2-CD set, opening with “I’m In the Mood for Love” where Cathy sings the original melody, with quite a few of her own twists and complimentary turns, then stretches out to sing James Moody’s famous rendition (Moody’s Mood for Love).  This is a jazz duet that is fresh and complimentary with both artists innovative and improvising on a theme spontaneously. After all, that’s what makes jazz so wonderful.  The freedom it reflects and the intricacies of transforming the music into something fresh and new can be quite exciting. For example, they play “You’ve Changed” as an upbeat Latin number.  I enjoyed their take on “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The two musicians, offer us twenty-three songs in this double CD set. Cathy is constantly playing with time, stretching meters like taffy, but you can clearly hear the comfort level and warm camaraderie between these two musicians during this ‘live’ performance.

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MARIA MENDES – “SAUDADE, COLOUR OF LOVE” – LIVE IN AMSTERDAM with METROPOLE ORKEST CONDUCTED by JOHN BEASLEY” – Challenge Records

Maria Mendes, vocals/composer/arranger; John Beasley, conductor/arranger/orchestrator/ KeyWi/keyboards/producer/composer; Cédric Hanriot, piano/keyboards; Jasper Somsen, double bass; Mário Costa, drums/percussion.  METROPOLE ORKEST: 1st VIOLINS: Vera Laporeva, Jasper van Rosmalen, Sarah Koch, Pauline Terlouw, Christina Knoll, Saskia Frijns. 2nd VIOLINS: Herman van Haaren, Willem Kok, Ruben Margarita, Robert Baba, Xaquin Carro Cribeiro, Lonnid Nikishin; VIOLA: Norman Jansen, Mieke Honingh, Iris Schut, Isabella Petersen; CELLO: Joel Stepmann, Emile Visser, Annie Tángberg, Jascha Albracht. FLUTE: Mariël van den Bos, Janine Abbas; OBOE/ Cor anglaise; Maxime Le Minter; CLARINET: Christof May, Max Boreree; FRENCH HORN: Pieter Hunfeld.

There are few things as exciting and as challenging as singing with a full orchestra.  Maria Mendes has a voice, toned by technique and colored with emotion, that soars like another instrument atop the awesome arrangements of the Metropole Orkest conducted by John Beasley.  Mendes explores and explains the Portuguese word ‘saudade.’ This word refers to one’s desire to regain the past, hoping it will become the present again. It also represents the belief that destiny is something no one can escape. Some things are just meant to be.

“Surprisingly, I find these (meanings) comparable with love, as love can strike at any moment leaving us powerless, coloring our lives with grey as well as bright rainbow colors,” Maria Mendes explains in her liner notes.

‘Fado music’ has fused this project. It’s a music form familiar and popular with Portuguese people and fuels all those who seek nostalgic love of the past or, for that matter, love in the present. So that title of ‘Fado’ is almost a twin to ‘saudade.’  Mendes has embraced the two words during this project, combining jazz with the wonderful world of Portugal and her affection for that culture.  She offers us Portuguese Folk songs, colorfully arranged and plush with orchestration. The mastery of John Beasley as arranger and conductor shines like gold. This project is Maria Mendes’ dream-come-true album, recorded, May of 2022 in Amsterdam.  Her voice is as natural and multi-layered as the orchestra and her exquisite range soars above the instruments like a powerful bird in flight.  Maria’s range is astounding and the way she weaves jazzy scat sounds into the production is both unique and ear-catching.  John Beasley builds the production around her vocals beautifully, attentive to the details of her delivery, while all the time, enriching this amazing orchestra with his sensitive, dynamic arrangements. 

There is a photograph inside the album jacket, of a song penned expressly for Maria Mendes by Hermeto Pascoal.  He has written original, musical notes on the back of a plastic emergency exit instruction card for Maria to keep and treasure, the same way she treasures his talent and musical sensibilities. It’s a song he penned exclusively for her titled, “Hermeto’s Fado for Maria.”  She opens this arrangement with vocal scats and melodic tones, an instrument in her own right. Another favorite is track #6, the emotional ballad, “E Se Nao For Fado,” featuring Cédric Hanriot on piano. 

Here is an artistic and unusual project, infused with jazz, rich with classical overtones and culturally prominent.  it represents the Portuguese, historical, Fado folk music and the talent of Maria Mendes.  Perhaps she explained this musical experience best when she said:

“This is no Fado album.  This is no traditional jazz music.  This is an adventure that is real and can be felt by everyone, as love is.”

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JAZZ IS AN OPEN WINDOW TO CHANGE

August 5, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

August 6, 2022

One thing I know about jazz, it’s respected and revered all over the world.  It’s our sacred American folk music, created by African Americans and embraced by all cultures who appreciate the concept of pure art and freedom. The albums I have reviewed for this column, each in their own unique way, musically reverberate this notion.

MIGUEL ZENÓN – “MUSICA DE LAS AMERICAS – Miel Music

Miguel Zenón, alto saxophone/composer; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums; Emil Martinez, Edwin ‘Wechin’ Avilés, Joshuan Ocasio, Joseph Ocasio & Jeyluix Ocasio, Panderos/percussion/vocals; Paoli Mejias, percussion; Victor Emmanuelli, Barril de Bomba; Daniel Diaz, congas.

Because of this renowned saxophonists’ deep love of music, geography and history, Miguel Zenón has often wondered what the Americas, post-colonization, were like?  What did this part of the world look like before 1491?  Who lived here and how did they arrive on these lands?  His album pays tribute to that concept. Best known for his ability to blend and enhance American jazz with modernism, soaked in folk and traditional Puerto Rican music, this new music is meant to reflect Americas various cultures and their encounters with European colonists.  Often, the tunes seem to portray two instruments sparring with each other. This is extremely evident on “Opresion y Revolucion.”  The percussive excitement is palpable throughout this album.

On the opening tune, “Tainos y Caribes,” Luis Perdomo’s piano solo is fluid and energy driven. Henry Cole’s drums are an amazing source of spirit and drive as Perdomo’s fingers race up and down the 88-keys. Miguel Zenón is inspired on his alto saxophone.  The melody unfolds, rolling like a rich red carpet down the jazz improvisation path. There is the feel of native American Indian music playing beneath Miguel’s solo, beating like a tom-tom, expressed by the piano and bass.  Then Hans Glawischnig steps into the spotlight with his double bass, continuing that rhythmic mix of cultures. At the tune’s ending, Miguel Zenón’s saxophone is a bird, an arrow, a prayer whispering across a moonlit sky. 

“… two predominant societies, who were very different; the Tainos were a more passive agricultural society, while the Caribes were warriors who lived for conquest,” explains Zenón, who endeavors to capture the clashing of societies in this arrangement.

The Western exploitation of South America’s resources became Zenón’s inspiration for composing “Venas Abiertas.” He composed this song after reading the classic Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.” This is told to us in the press package, but for this innocent listener’s ears, I only hear the complexity of the arrangement, the beauty of Miguel’s alto saxophone and the dynamic percussive contributions.

Victor Emmanuelli introduces us to Track #6 with his awesome ‘Barril de Bamba’ percussion solo. He really snatches my attention. The term ‘Bambula’ is a reference to a dance brought to American shores by African slaves. Over time, ‘Bambula’ became the term for a rhythm commonly called “habanera.”  It’s prominent in much of Latin American music today. 

“It’s a thread from New Orleans to Brazil to Central America, back to Africa and across all these eras from the past to contemporary pop,” Miquel Zenón teaches us with his music.

Six minutes into the song, he arranges a sultry, sexy ballad to step forward into the mix, giving us just a surprising minute of relief from the intense energy and then races back into the original tempo, carrying us along with the band on a musical train to outer limits. His alto saxophone ends the piece with a repetitive call to action, like a warning bell from the past, flashing red light signals to the dangerous and aggressive present.

As a multiple Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, Miguel Zenón is one of a select group of musicians.  His goal of blending the often-contradictory poles of jazz freedom, creativity and tradition is to be applauded.  Zenón’s unique voice, both as a composer and on his tenor saxophone, continue to startle our senses alive.  Miguel Zenón’s music awakens something deep within the soul and human spirit. He invites us to just sit still, listen, contemplate and be open to change.

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DENNIS MITCHELTREE – “GOLDEN RULE” – Dengor Music

Dennis Mitcheltree, tenor saxophone/composer; Johannes Wallmann, piano; Jesse Crawford, bass; Bill McClellan, drums.

Dennis Mitcheltree has composed all nine songs on his recent release and the quartet opens with a jazz waltz he wrote for his son “Tai.” It’s a pleasant listen. This is Mitcheltree’s sixth album as a bandleader. He has named Track #2 after the COVID virus.  It’s called “Omicron” and gives drummer Bill McClellan a platform to showcase his percussive skills. “Sarah” is a pretty but sad ballad, with an introduction by Johannes Wallmann’s piano.  Dennis Mitcheltree has a warm tone on his tenor saxophone. He reminds me a little bit of Stan Getz.  Mitcheltree delivers this “Sarah” tribute to his girlfriend in a very pensive way, coloring the sweet and interesting melody with saxophone tenderness.  One of my favorite tunes on this album is the Mitcheltree composition “Via Dance” where the quartet lays down a moderate swing in a very finger-snapping sway. 

His tune “Bling Tone” sounds like it’s based on the standard tune “If I Were A Bell” and becomes another vehicle to allow Mitcheltree to take flight with tenor saxophone improvisation. His “Golden Rule” album speaks directly to doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  If people paid more attention to this one passage from the bible, it would quickly solve most of the world’s problems. Dennis Mitcheltree’s album is scheduled for an October 2022 release.

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  DAVE SLONAKER BIG BAND – “CONVERGENCY” – Origin Records

Dave Slonaker, composer/arranger/bandleader; Larry Koonse, guitar; Ed Czach, piano; Edwin Livingston, bass; Peter Erskine, drums; Brian Kilgore, percussion; REEDS: Bob Sheppard, alto & soprano  saxophones/flute; Brian Scanlon, alto & soprano saxophone/flute/clarinet; Rob Lockart, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Tom Luer, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Adam Schroeder & Jay Mason, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; TRUMPET/FLUGELHORN: Wayne Bergeron, Dan Fornero, Ryan Deweese, Clay Jenkins & Ron Stout. TROMBONES: Alex Iles, Charlie Morillas, Ido Meshulam & Bill Reichenbach, bass trombone/tuba.

This album of quality music opens with what sounds like a country/western music gathering and then explodes into a rich, boisterous jazz big band arrangement. It’s the title tune of Dave Slonaker’s latest recording, “Convergency,” and it’s a wonderful way to open-up this impressive production. The horns dance and sway like curtains in the wind.  Then Adam Schroeder steps into the spotlight on baritone saxophone, shining bright as sunshine. The light touch of Ed Czach’s fingers across the piano keys gives a few seconds of sweet tension release, after the much-appreciated baritone sax solo.  The amazing Peter Erskine drum solo closes this piece out with finality and brilliance.

Here is an artistic production that celebrates big band beauty in an unforgettable way.  Part of the reason for this masterpiece are Dave Slonaker’s compositions and arrangements.  The other part of the brilliance is thanks to the A-list of Southern California jazz cats.  They bring their own mastery to the party, interpreting each of Slonaker’s original songs the way a diamond cutter polishes his stones. Just listen to Larry Koonse, on guitar, deliver his solo on “Uncommonly Ground” or Bob Sheppard fly around the chord changes of “Duelity” on his alto saxophone with mad improvisation, dueling with Stout’s trumpet interpretations.  Ron Stout’s trumpet brings out his own “Inner Voices” during this composition along with Rob Lockart’s tenor sax. The trumpet of Clay Jenkins takes “A Curve in the Road” and makes me feel like I’m riding with him in his sporty coupe, speeding down an open highway. Clay’s horn is expressive, fluid and creative.  When Tom Luer’s tenor kicks into the tune, it feels like that coupe I visualize just had a gear change. The harmonic horn parts blow like a hot summer breeze and Brian Scanlon’s alto saxophone infuses this piece with very cool tones. Once again, Erskine’s tumultuous drums infuse the arrangement with high energy and slap the ending into place like the screech of brakes. Slonaker’s “A Gathering Circle” was inspired by a visit to a Native American Indian village museum.  It’s meant to epitomize a meeting place where people gather and that idea of ‘coming together.’  In a nation that currently seems so polarized, Brian Scanlon’s soprano saxophone sings like a bird of peace. The guitar improvisation of Larry Koonse is warm and wonderful. I love the circular feel to the rhythm that reminds us of the American Indian culture and propels this piece throughout Slonaker’s entire arrangement. It’s one of my favorite tunes on this album.

Every original composition and each awesome arrangement by Dave Slonaker offer intrigue and surprise. Slonaker’s arrangements are well-written chapters of a musical book. Like any good novel, this album has me totally engaged. Each tune becomes another intriguing page for me to read, turn with great expectation, and enjoy.

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CALVIN KEYS – “BLUE KEYS” –  Wide Hive Records

Calvin Keys, guitar/composer; Henry Franklin, bass/composer; Scott Brown, bass; Mike Blakenship, piano/composer; Gregory Howe, organ/piano/percussion/composer; Mike Hughes & Thomas McCree, drums; Gary Bartz & Doug Rowan, saxophones; Mike Renta, trombone; Steve Turre, trombone/trumpet shells; Babatunde Lea, congas/percussion.

Calvin Keys always brings something fresh and creative to the studio. This album is no exception to that rule. I remember him from his music on Gene’s Black Jazz Record label. Calvin Keys has always been able to blend jazz with funk, strong R&B grooves with Straight-ahead power, and his extraordinary and unique guitar style.

The songs on this new album are inspired and the arrangements kept me entertained and surprised. That’s what jazz is about. Reinventing music with new perspectives. Opening with “Peregrines Dive,” the saxophone mimics a falcon winging its way across the skies. The music dips and dives, with the drums propelling the energy forward. Composed by Calvin Keys with co-writers, trombonist Mike Renta, piano man, Mike Blankenship, and the multi-talented Gregory Howe, this is a brilliant way to begin a musical escapade that celebrates various grooves, moods and genres. I would have enjoyed crediting each musician for their contributions, but there are multiple bass players, drummers and pianists listed on this wonderful album of original music. I can’t tell who is playing on which tune, thanks to the CD cover design. The fault lies with the album designer, and I might add, all those low-level blue tones on the cover make it impossible to see the artists and difficult to read their names on the CD cover. What a shame! And is Babatunde’s name misspelled? Despite this less-than-stellar design of the CD jacket, the music is spectacular. Track #2, “Ck 22” is an exciting and funk-based jazz tune with a prominent bass line that becomes the melodic backbone of the tune by Calvin Keys. “Ajafika” was written by Gregory Howe, and I love the way those drums and percussion parts color this creative music. Calvin adds his electronic guitar sounds to the mix, with an undercurrent of rock and roll. Still, this arrangement makes perfect sense, even though it’s not like anything I’ve really heard lately, and I listen to music every single day.  That’s a nod and a fist pump to the genius of Calvin Keys. Many of his band members are also composers and contribute to this project in a very positive way.  That blues guitar on “Making Rain” just thrilled me to the bone. Composed by Henry Franklin and Calvin Keys, these two expert musicians shine in a trio situation, with the drummer placing tasty licks of rhythm at all the appropriate places. The title tune is another blues, with Calvin Keys wailin’ on the guitar and the horn section moaning harmonically in the background.

It’s nice to have Calvin Keys back on the recording scene. For a short while, he had to lay low and recuperate after a quadruple bypass surgery on his heart, back in 1997. However, he quickly rebounded and was on the road again promoting his album ‘Detours into Unconscious Rhythms,’ another Wide Hive Records release.  Three other albums followed. In 2005 his ‘Calvinesque’ album climbed up the jazz charts and reached #30. Calvin Keys remains relevant and working in Northern California, where he is a teacher at the Oakland Public Conservatory (OPC) and Calvin also gives private lessons. This is a strong production of creative, original jazz music and creme-de-la-crème of seasoned jazz players.

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GLENN DICKSON – “WIDER THAN THE SKY” – Naftule’s Dream Recordings

Glenn Dickson, clarinet & live loops.

Glenn Dickson’s music sounds open and ethereal, like space itself.  His music personifies the title of this unusual recording where Dickson is playing his clarinet along with recorded loops and exploring the outer limits of his own creativity. He opens with “Introit” and his clarinet sounds like a flute, like a bird, like a Leprechaun dancing through Irish fields. He inspires my imagination.  His composition, “Gentle Touch” is music that is quite meditative.  With the use of electronics and over-dubbing on work by guitarist Robert Fripp, flautist, Paul Horn and various klezmer clarinetists, Glenn Dickson builds layers of music, as sweet as cake, letting his silky clarinet tones drip like icing over the melodic dessert.  His compositions sooth and relax me. On Track #4, “Memories Lost” I get the feelings that I’m floating in space, surrounded by galaxies and stars, moons and planets.  No wonder Glenn Dickson titled this work, “Wider Than the Sky.”  His music has a feeling of spaciousness.

As a bandleader and creative artist, Glenn Dickson has recorded albums, played major jazz festivals worldwide, played with the Philly Pops and on Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet’s movie soundtracks.  He has created award-winning collaborations with Maurice Sendak (i.e., “Pincus & the Pig”) and NPR’s Ellen Kushner’s (“The Golden Dreydl”).  As a composer he has received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant.  Always looking for new and fresh ways to explore his instrument and his creativity, Dickson has toured with an eclectic rock band called Hypnotic Clambake and with Greek bands Revma and Taximi.  He uses his imagination to push the boundaries of jazz, blowing down the walls with his clarinet creativity. Glenn Dickson encourages us to think outside the perimeters that bind us.  He wants us to think “Wider Than the Sky.”

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STEVE KNIGHT – “PERSISTENCE” – Independent Label

Steve Knight, guitar/composer; Justin Peterson, bass; Jeff Stitley, drums.

Steve Knight is a Chicago-based guitarist and composer.  “Persistence” is the title of this, his debut album, and perhaps he says it all in the title.  Knight says it took him 18-COVID locked-down months to compose the opening track, “Suspects” but only twenty minutes to pen his composition, ”Real Type Things.”  He mused in his liner notes, that the tune seemed to write itself. The “Suspects” song is catchy and reminds me of Wes Montgomery’s “Tequila” hit record with his first few notes.  It soon melodically changes to offer us Knight’s own melodic path, but I can hear, in his playing, that he studied Montgomery’s guitar style. “Real Type Thing” is soaked in the blues, with Jeff Stitley pumping a funk drum lick underneath the arrangement to spur it forward. Justin Peterson, another respected Chicago jazz cat, takes a bass solo, but it’s Steve Knight’s bright guitar lines that carry this debut album into the new-artist spotlight.  His music is a mix of jazz and commercial viability. Steve Knight and his trio began working on this album during the pandemic shutdown, presenting weekly concerts from Knight’s backyard and later, their popularity inspired the city council to invite them to perform in the local park for the pleasure and appreciation of the neighborhood.

“I don’t like music that seems to be written just for other musicians.  A jazz guitarist is part poet and part athlete.  I think (George) Benson strikes the perfect balance.  He’s an incredible technician on the guitar, but his music is very accessible for a general audience,” Steve Knight explains his purposeful recording goal. 

Knight began to play guitar at twelve-years old.  He stepped off his skateboard and into music, when he became fascinated by a Sears electric guitar with a built-in, 9-volt powered amp.  He was encouraged to practice and dive into mastering his guitar chops when he was grounded by his parents for six long months.  Knight says it was a totally legitimate punishment, but the boring hours at home helped him to practice and improve his guitar playing. Knight attended  Emporia State University in Kansas and majored in theater.  But because he could play guitar and read music, he was soon invited to join the college orchestra and the school’s big band.  Always in search of artistic outlets, Steve Knight graduated college and worked in theater as a director.  He also became a professor who played jazz gigs on the side. He moved to New York City and before he could get his feet properly grounded in the Big Apple, Knight was hired by Carnival Cruise Lines to play in their dance and theater bands while sailing around the world. That’s a wonderful opportunity to tighten up your ‘chops.’ Once he planted his feet on solid ground again, Steve Knight began studying with guitar masters like Mark Sherman, Mark Whitfield and Jack Wilkins. Inspired by Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Grant Green, he enjoys teaching guitar, composing and performing.  He moved to Chicago, Ill in 2016 and joined their vibrant and demanding jazz scene.  His composition, “Chop Chop” reflects the excitement and fast tempo that Chicago always inspires.  It also showcases the technical tenacity of all three musicians, giving each one an opportunity to solo and strut their stuff. This is an enjoyable listen with the persistent spotlight shining brightly on Steve Knight and his guitar.

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FRANK KIMBROUGH – “LULLABLUEBYE, VOL. ONE”/”PLAY, VOL. TWO” – Palmetto Records

Frank Kimbrough, piano/composer; Ben Allison & Masa Kamaguchi, bass; Matt Wilson & Paul Motian, drums.

This is a tribute album that celebrates the life and musicianship of the late pianist and composer Frank Kimbrough, recorded in a trio setting.  Kimbrough unexpectedly passed away in December of 2020.  This is a compilation, double-set album that celebrates his art from 2003 through 2006. It’s a beautiful listen, featuring two different trios and Kimbrough’s exquisite composer skills.

“Everytime I play music it is a special occasion, especially when I’m playing with these gentlemen,” Frank Kimbrough once said about his choice of trio players.

You will hear Kimbrough’s comfort-level on these two CDs with his choice of two sets of bandmates.  His piano mastery is both subtle and melodic; thoughtful and creative.  Kimbrough is well-known for his 25-year tenure with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.  Soon after he arrived in New York City, during the early 1990s, Kimbrough and bassist, Ben Allison co-founded the Jazz Composers Collective. When Frank Kimbrough merged talents with the Herbie Nichols Project, that brought him to Palmetto Records and they recorded his 2001 album, “Strange City.”

Frank Kimbrough had the ability to present something that sounds quite simplistic in a rare and deeply intricate way. Take, for example, the title track of “Lullabluebye.” His composition is a 22-bar blues (not the eight or twelve-bar-blues you might expect) in the simplistic key of C.  But don’t get it twisted.  There is nothing simple about the way Kimbrough composes or arranges his music.  He just makes it sound easy.  This tune opens volume one of Kimbrough’s two-set CD and clearly introduces us to Frank Kimbrough, the pianist. I note that he is quite succinct with his musical ideas. I enjoy the way Ben Allison plays tag with Kimbrough’s piano, especially on the fade where they seem to be playfully chasing each other, using spontaneous improvisational lines. I enjoyed his composition “Centered” which is based on an augmented triad that he centered over the chord changes in various and unexpected ways. That may not mean much to you, if you aren’t a musician, but for layman ears this song sounds pensive and exploratory, perhaps like someone trying to find the center of themselves. His tune “Ode” is a tribute to Kimbrough’s friend and inspired musician, Andrew Hill. Kimbrough said this composition is based in perseverance and dignity, a high compliment to Mr. Hill. On the funk-based song “Eu Bu,” Matt Wilson is given an extended drum solo and the bass of Ben Allison is prominent, not only in the rhythm section but also as a featured instrument. Allison contributed one well-written, original song to this Vol. 1 titled simply, “Ben’s Tune.” 

On Volume Two, the disc is titled “Play.”  Track #2 is called “The Spins” and sounds like it was inspired by Thelonious Monk. It’s an uptempo waltz and Kimbrough says he wrote it in memory of Steve Lacy, but it’s very Monkish. On this second CD, Paul Motian’s drums propel the music forward and Masa Kamaguchi takes a significant bass solo during the track-two arrangement.

This is a lovely recording that musically memorializes the talented composer/pianist Frank Kimbrough. I will enjoy playing it again and again because of the peace and tranquility it exudes.

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GEOFFREY KEEZER & FRIENDS – “PLAYDATE” –  Markeez Records

Geoffrey Keezer, piano/composer/arranger; Shedrick Mitchell, Hammond B3 organ/composer; Ron Blake, tenor & soprano saxophones; Richie Goods, acoustic and electric basses; Kendrick Scott, drums; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Nir Felder, guitar; Aayushi Karnick, guitar; Elizabeth Steiner, Harp; Rachel Drehmann, French horn. VIOLINS: Lady Jess (lead/ contractor); Sara Caswell, Claire Chan, JD Hunter, Hajnal Pivnic, Curtis Stewart, Tiffany Weiss, Orlando Wells. VIOLAS: Tia Allen, Andrew Griffin, Celia Hatton & Trevor New. CELLOS: Maria Jeffers, Sasha Ono & Zsaz Rutkowski.

A sweeping string section introduces us to Geoffrey Keezer’s first original tune called “Refuge.” When the horns enter, it becomes a full-fledged orchestra.  Then the spotlight moves to pinpoint Geoffrey Keezer, sitting at the piano.  It’s a thrilling moment. His piano solo changes the entire texture of the tune and puts the “J” in jazz.  Talk about ‘opening a window to change,’ in the first twenty-four bars of this song, Keezer and his amazing ensemble of musicians take us on a magic carpet ride. Fasten your seatbelt.  Keezer and friends cover all the nuances that you look for in jazz; melody, harmony, improvisation, surprise and technical skill.  It’s all here.

“I want there to be moments on this record that make you do a double take.  I want it to be unpredictable and exciting and fun to listen to,” Geoffrey Keezer shares.  

Well mission accomplished, Mr. Keezer!  When Shedrick Mitchell appears on his Hammond B3 organ, letting Ron Blake introduce him with a straight-ahead and inventive tenor solo, I am already captivated by the variations in this arrangement.  Aayushi Karnik continues the pleasant surprises with his fusion guitar solo and Munyungo Jackson adds percussive brilliance throughout, locked in with Kendrick Scott’s drums and fattening the rhythm.  This opening song was such a mind-blowing surprise that I had to play it twice.

Track #2, I.L.Y.B.D. is spurred by the blues and there is nothing I love more than an organ playing the blues. It reminds me of nights I spent sitting in Jimmy Smith’s historic club on the West Coast and soaking up his rot-gut, jazzy organ blues. Blake swings hard on saxophone and then Geoffrey Keezer enters. His technical and spiritual merge, like coffee and cream.  I just want to drink up his amazing talent.  I know that part of the title of this tune means “I Love You Because…” but what does the ‘D’ stand for?

Shedrick Mitchell has composed the very beautiful ballad, “Her Look, Her Touch.”  We get an opportunity to hear Geoffrey Keezer expand his ferocious talents in a slow and emotional way. Ron Blake’s interpretation on tenor is both tender and expressive. The ensemble’s interpretation of Quincy Jones’ hit record composed by the Johnson brothers and singer, songwriter Siedah Garrett is beautifully reinterpreted.  “Tomorrow” never sounded so good.

This album has Grammy written all over it.

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ROGER LEWIS “ALRIGHT!” Irresistible Revolutionary Records

Roger Lewis, alto/baritone/soprano/tenor saxophones; Herlin Riley, drums; Kirk Joseph, sousaphone; Don Paul, spoken word vocals; Erica Falls, singing vocals; Michael Torregano Jr., keyboards; Mario Abney, trumpet.

Roger Lewis first saw a saxophone in his cousin Alvin Bailey’s room, sticking out from under his bed. Curious, the young boy picked it up and tried it out; blew into it; examined it; ran his fingers along its length.  The instrument stirred something deep and emotional inside of Roger.  He began to craft saxophone shapes out of rolled-up newspapers. So began his infatuation with music.

Born October 5, 1941, Roger Lewis is in his eightieth year and still going strong.  He has dedicated sixty years to music and this is his debut album as a bandleader.  It’s stuffed with spirit, memories, poetry, ghosts of the past and hope for the future. Roger is playing all four saxophones to express himself.  He’s a native of New Orleans and his music reflects that soulful, Louisiana jazz legacy.  He toured with Eddie Bo and a plethora of bands. Roger started gigging around the New Orleans scene before he was seventeen. He worked with Deacon John and the Ivories.  As part of the DDBB, George Wein signed them to Concord Records and they travelled to Europe, moving from a lounge band to playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. DDBB recorded four albums for Columbia from 1989 to 1992. Herlin Riley brings youth and excitement on his drums and the soothing voice of Don Paul on spoken word is an unexpected addition to the recording. I enjoyed the sensitive interaction of Don’s voice with Roger’s expressive saxophone improvisation. Roger Lewis has interwoven poetry, history and spirits into his horn-playing like knitting needles weaving a shawl.  His music covers us, warms us and surprises us with both its intensity and rawness.

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WOMEN WHO ARE CHANGING THE FACE OF JAZZ

July 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 25, 2022

ELSA NILSSON – “ATLAS OF SOUND: COAST REDWOODS” – Ears&Eyes Records

Elsa Nilsson, flutes/composer; Jon Cowherd, piano; Chris Morrissey, bass.

Elsa Nilsson is a sensitive and technically astute flute player and composer.  This album is her first in a series she is calling, “Atlas of Sound.” It is inspired by the human connection to locations in the natural world.  She refers to coordinates she used to record a ten-movement suite that is a tribute to nature.

“The secret is in the tempo. How slow the redwoods move.  For me to hear them, I have to slow down, stay still; really, really listen.  When I do, I find music in every movement.  There’s a melody in the rustle of leaves as the wind blows through them and they release and float to the ground; a groove in the sound of footsteps, real or imagined,” she explains.

If this description sounds abstract, like the music, it is. What I feel when I listen to Elsa’s unique original compositions is a sense of peace and tranquility.  I float away with her trio on imaginary clouds that feed the Redwoods with sheets of moisture and filter the sunrays beaming over the huge trees. On their single, “Catching Droplets” there is a touch of Arabian music in the flute solo and Jon Cowherd’s piano playing is interesting with his jazzy, swing-infused solo framed in classical technique.  On “Proof of the Unseen” I enjoy Chris Morrissey’s bass solo sparkling brightly in the spotlight.  Elsa’s original tune, “Epicormic” is more modern jazz with each musician freely improvising.  They listen to each other and are inspired by each one’s musicality.   This is the longest song of the ten she has chosen to showcase here.  They play it for over ten minutes and captivate me with their creativity, tempo changes and mood swings. Epicormic is a word that describes a shoot or branch growing from a previously dormant bud on the trunk or limb of a tree.  Nilsson’s flute almost lets you see that tiny bud grow and blossom.  This is delightful music to both meditate by and relax. It’s Elsa Nilsson’s tribute to the beauty and magnificence of the Redwood tree.

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ROXY COSS – DISPARATE PARTS – Outside In Music

Roxy Coss, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; Alex Wintz, guitar; Miki Yamanaka, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Rick Rosato, bass; Jimmy Macbride, drums/composer.

This is an album sparked with energy that merges jazz with rock on Miki Yamanaka’s opening song.  “February” is one minute and eleven seconds of pure excitement. For this “February”suite, Roxy Coss had written four songs that exemplify “The Body,” “The Mind,” “The Heart,” and “The Spirit.”  These four original compositions make up Track 2, 3, 4 and 5.  Roxy expresses her inspiration for creating this, her long-awaited follow-up album to her successful release of “Quintet” back in 2019:

“Everything for me goes back to being a woman in jazz.  That is my identity. … The different things that I do in my life are either for a certain part of me or accessing a certain part of me and they’re not integrated. Each of these pieces of the suite are the ‘Disparate Parts.’  As the project progressed, I went through the life changes of being pregnant and now, being a new mom, and felt that concept manifesting itself even more so in my own life.” Roxy Coss explained.

 “The Body” is high energy and very melodic, with a wild and fuzzy guitar part by Alex Winatz and Rick Rosato’s bass predominate and rich in the mix.  Roxy’s tenor saxophone flies above the fray, like a paper plane caught in a wind tunnel.  “The Mind” another part of her suite, is ethereal and cerebral where she and the pianist play tag with each other at the top of the tune.  Then the spotlight swoops to Miki Yamanaka on Fender Rhodes, who delivers a solo draped lightly in the blues, but is heavily saturated with modern jazz. This song screams freedom at the top of its lungs.  “The Heart” is all a flutter, with Jimmy Macbride’s drums pumping life into the arrangement.  Roxy Coss is the blood coursing through the veins of the song on her saxophone, establishing the melody.  Yamanaka is like the heart muscles driving the piece forward with improvisation. The tempo is how my heart feels after I’ve run a mile. My favorite part of this suite is “The Spirit” that gives Rick Rosato a time to shine on his bass and boldly features Roxy Coss on her tenor instrument. She offers her listening audience fourteen original compositions, inclusive of six written by her pianist, Miki Yamanaka and one composed by drummer Jimmy Macbride and “Ely, MN” composed by guitarist Alex Wintz.  The title tune, “Disparate Parts” meaning parts being essentially different in kind or incomparable, is the first composition that is truly Straight-ahead.  This tune pleases my artistic heart and becomes another favorite on this album.  Wintz takes the opportunity to solo on this one and make quite an impression, as does Macbride when they trade fours. Roxy Coss offers a little something for everyone during this production.

She says in her press package, “I’m still feeling this idea of having disparate parts of myself represented in different areas of my life, but it is even more prevalent now that I’m a new mom.”

Coss offers us musical pieces of her life journey, as interpreted by her quintet and their compositions. Like a diary, it unfolds in a very personal way.

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BEVERLY CHURCH HOGAN – “SWEET INVITATION” – Café Pacific Records

Beverley Church Hogan, vocals; Grant Geissman, guitar; John Proulx, piano; Lyman Medeiros, bass; Clayton Cameron & Dean Koba, drums; Kevin Winard, percussion; Bob Sheppard, saxophone.

Here is a singer I can tell has been singing jazz through a number of gigs and life experiences.  I believe Ms. Beverly Church Hogan when she sings, “Don’ Cha Go ‘Way Mad” and “Falling in Love With Love.” She swings and her amazing band inspires and pumps the hard bop music into John Proulx’s arrangements.  They solidly support her. This Montreal, Quebec native grew up enthralled with recordings by Frank Sinatra and Joe Williams.  She began singing as a pre-teen and was winning amateur contests at the age of twelve.  That win landed her a weekly gig singing on a local radio station.  The entertainment bug bit Beverly Church Hogan early.  She relocated to Los Angeles at twenty-one and almost immediately landed a recording contract with Capitol records.  Funny, how life can sometimes get in the way of dreams.  She was married with a baby at home when she finally secured that contract offer, but of course the record company wanted her to tour for the next 58 weeks to promote the record.  Consequently, she turned the offer down to be a stay-at-home wife and mother.

John Proulx’s piano magnificence shines during her delivery of “I Got Lost in His Arms.”  During the arrangement of “Invitation,” Bob Sheppard’s tasty and beautiful saxophone lines compliment her vocals sweetly, like hot tea and honey. Clayton Cameron tap-dances across the drums with his supple sticks on the “I’m Just Foolin’ Myself” tune and Lyman Medeiros steps forward to share a swinging bass solo.  Beverly Church Hogan seems to love singing beautiful ballads like, “When October Goes,” and “Why Try to Change Me Now,” but I particularly enjoy her ‘swing’ side the best.  You can tell she has lived these songs in her own, eighty-six years on earth. There is a believability to her melodic storytelling and what her vocals lack in control, she makes up for with emotional feeling and honesty. 

“This is the only life we’re granted and you have to take chances and follow your dreams no matter your age,” Beverly Church Hogan muses in her press package.

Bravo to that!

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XIOMARA TORRES – “LA VOZ DEL MAR” – Patois Records

Xiomara Torres, vocals/Guasa; Dan Neville, vibraphone/marimba/arranger; David Obregon, bass; Giovanni Caldas & Santiago Melo, piano; Miguel Salazar, accordion; John Benitez & Miguel Sanchez, bass; Adrean Areas, quinto; Marcel Mindinero Boku, conga/cununo/percussion; Miverr Andrés Mina Grueso ‘Timba’, Timbales/bombo; Yemayá Balafon & Ciro Silva, bamboo; John Santos & Omar Torres, Maracas; Rebecca Kleinmann, flute; Omar Julian Trujillo & Jhon Filteo, trumpet; Harlinson Lozano, saxophone; Wayne Wallace, Carlos Latoche, Adam Theis, trombone; Alejandro Escobar, cello; Maria Del Mar Castano Duque & Maria Del Mar Goyes Rojas, violin; Edmar Castaneda & Destiny Muhammad, harp; CHORUS: Nidia Gongora, Gloria Torres, Dayfa Torres, Victor Hugo Rodriguez, Mayssy Cundumi Montano, Michel Obregon, Ciara Medina Obregon, Paola Ponce, Jhon Edinson Garcia Sanchez & Ciro Silva.

Xiomara Torres sings in Spanish with passion and sincerity. Her voice is satin smooth and slides over the notes like hot oil.  The first song is “Me Quedo Contigo,” a spirited, up-tempo composition that had me dancing around the room.  It features John Benitez pumping his Latin bass line to propel the rumba rhythm. This album, “La Voz Del Mar,” has been recorded to share an extraordinary cultural heritage of a little-known region in Colombia. Dan Neville is a jazz vibraphonist and marimba player, who has spent years studying with master musicians in both Cuba and Colombia. The vocalist he features on this project is Xiomara (pronounced See-o-mar-a) Torres.  She comes from music royalty.  This album is a tribute to Xiomara’s uncle, the departed maestro and marimba player, Diego Obregon. This talented vocalist is acclaimed in the Pacific region for personifying her traditional roots and incorporating them with more contemporary musical styles including salsa, bolero, cumbia and vallenato. She was born in Guapi and based in Cali, Columbia.

“Cali is this place where there’s a unique confluence of folkloric Pacific coast traditions; salsa, jazz, reggaeton, vallenato and all these other styles.  It’s very unique and inspiring.  I think the songs on the album reflect that.  Xiomara is from Guapi and she sings with a certain swing that comes from folkloric music,” Dan Neville explained.

“Como Una Hoguera” includes the chorus, lifting the song higher and enthusiastically. The arrangement is inspired by bright, happy horn lines.  Giovanni Caldas shines on piano. On the tune “Tio,” Dan Neville soaks up the spotlight on his marimba and the ensemble supports the arrangement with jazzy Afro-Cuban or Afro-Colombian 6/8 time, a tempo that makes your hips sway and your feet pat. This album is just pure happiness and joy from start to finish. Xiomara’s interpretation and Neville’s arrangement of the Beatles hit song, “Let It Be” is the only song performed in English, but that doesn’t matter.  Music is a universal language and every song recorded here is splendid and touches my heart. Her voice is like a sweet, soothing balm.

Dan Neville’s deep commitment to Afro-Colombian culture is evident and sparkling on this project. Xiomara Torres is the diamond in his musical crown. This production reflects Neville’s in-depth studies with Diego Obregon. Dan Neville is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, a prolific composer, performer and jazz big band arranger, who composed and arranged for the San Francisco Jazz Center’s Monday Night Big Band for seven seasons; from 2013 through 2016. He won first place in the Jazz Search West competition in 2017.  That same year, Neville released his “Tenerife” album that became a critically acclaimed success.  I believe this album will be another triumphant achievement for Xiomara and Neville.

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SATOKO FUJII & JOE FONDA – “THREAD OF LIGHT” – FSRecords.net

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Joe Fonda, bass/cello/flute/composer.

Whenever I see Satoko Fujii’s name, I know I am in for an exploratory rocket ship ride across the musical universe.  Her creative, Avant-garde arrangements, interwoven here with Joe Fonda’s composer skills and musical talents will suck you in like a black hole in space.  Their album cover even celebrates this concept with a thread of light encircling the moon, or perhaps that’s a photo of an eclipse of the sun.  Either way, that photo like their original music, invites us to question and explore the unknown and the beautiful. Both of these musicians collaborated during the pandemic. Fonda listened to Fujii’s solo piano creations posted on her Bandcamp page and came back with an interesting proposal.

“He emailed me saying he really enjoyed “Step on Thin Ice” and he actually could hear a way to create his own part to go with it.  Originally, I had played it as a solo, not as part of a duet, but he found the space to add to it and make it more perfect.  I was amazed at how great it sounded with his part added,” Satoko explained how this duo project was born.

“This is the first time I have ever done a CD like this.  I studied her tracks for weeks, making notes and tuning in to where she was coming from on each piece; what the vibe was, what the feeling was.  Then I started to play along, looking for how I might approach each song.  Every track was different,” Joe Fonda talked about his creative process.

The result is this incredible and freedom-fanned project. With the addition of bass, cello and flute, Joe Fonda boosts the spontaneity and excitement that Satoko always brings to her work.  They co-write all of the compositions but two; “My Song” is a Fonda composition and “Winter Sunshine” is Fujii’s composition. All the rest of these songs were created together.  Their ideas flow collectively, naturally, like salt and water. From the first co-written composition, “Kochi” I am fascinated by their intriguing blend of ideas and concepts.  Fonda’s basement of sound is a strong foundation, like a hundred-year-old redwood tree. Satoko Fujii’s busy piano flies about the production like a restless bird, settling on the Redwood’s branch to peck at the wood and then flying off again into space. On “Fallen Leaves Dance,” her fingers move hummingbird fast. Another of my favorites is titled, “Anticipating” where the two musicians tease space and improvise freely, often sounding like they are chasing each other, the way children do when playing tag. The sudden ending simply screams, “You’re it!”

Satoko Fujii has been challenging musical concepts and stretching boundaries since 1996, when she first burst on the scene. The beauty and freedom she and Joe Fonda have found in this duet project is stellar. Their astral association creates a solar atmosphere that invites the listener to let go and climb aboard their creative spaceship.  You can fasten your seatbelt or just float and enjoy the ride.

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HANKA G – “UNIVERSAL ANCESTRY” – Culture Bridge Records

Hanka G, lead vocals; James Hurt, piano/Fender Rhodes/co-producer/arranger;  Shedrick Mitchell, organ/piano/co-producer/ arranger; Rodney Kendrick, piano/co-producer/arranger; Rashaan Carter, electric & double bass; David Ginyard, electric bass; Sherrod Barnes, electric guitar; Marvin Sewell, guitars; Taru Alexander & Nathaniel Townsley, drums; Antoine Roney, tenor & soprano saxophone; Sisa Michalidesova, flute; Veronika Vitazkova, fujara; Keesha Gumbs & Terelle Tipton, background vocals.

Hanka G is a Slovakian vocalist. Although she has recorded other albums, this is her debut album recorded and released in the United States.  She is surrounded by a stellar group of New York-based musicians who bring their A-game to this project.  Hanka is no newcomer to the music business.  She’s a respected artist in Slovakia and other parts of Europe. Her last two albums were both nominated for “Best Jazz Album of the Year.”  Hanka G is a multi-racial Slovak nationalist and one of the first Slovakian singers to fuse Slovak folk music with jazz.  On this recording, co-producer and arranger, James Hurt, assisted her in transforming three Slovak folk songs into jazz. My favorite arrangement is on their interpretation of “Bird Has Started Singing.” It’s a beautiful tune and I think Mr. Hurt supported the melody and subject matter with his lovely arrangement.

“My latest project was framed through the lens of an immigrant in the USA trying to unite people with different musical heritages.  Regardless of our backgrounds, we all dream about love, happiness and freedom,” Hanka G reflects.

Her choice of repertoire mirrors Hanka’s deep spirituality and her love of gutsy, power-house voices like R&B diva, Chaka Khan, gospel composer/singer, Walter Hawkins and the late, great Whitney Houston. Hanka sings about universal love, relationships and the concept of being grateful.  One of her Slovak folk songs is titled “Dance Dance” and she sings it in her native tongue combined with English.

Hanka spent her childhood years in the Mongolian desert with parents who were geologists.  Some of the first melodies she learned were Mongolian.  Her father played guitar and sang. He loved American rhythm and blues, including artists like Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin.  Once her country was liberated from communism, Hanka heard and became enchanted with Motown music.  Hanka G and Cassandra Wilson became friends after Wilson heard Hanka G’s “Essence” album.  Cassandra asked Hanka G to become her opening act for Wilson’s concert in Bratislave, the capital of Slovakia.  Wilson later suggested she relocate to the United States. In 2016, the talented vocalist did just that. Hanka now resides in New York City. 

I particularly liked her rendition of Donny Hathaway’s hit record, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” with just her vocals and the accompaniment of Shedrick Mitchell. I needed nothing more than to hear her amazing voice, uncluttered by a production and powerfully sensitive.

Rodney Kendrick plays piano for her on the Abby Lincoln tune, “Throw It Away.”  The production is very funky and I enjoy Hanka’s expressive vocals, but the musical arrangement was odd in places. She swings hard on “Them There Eyes” and holds solid on her pitch, no matter what the bassist played. Here is a vocalist, greatly influenced by Chaka Khan, who manages to hold her own, flying like a beautiful, wild bird on top of tracks that sometimes challenge instead of complimenting her rich vocal style. This made me think about Betty Carter and a conversation we once had.  She told me the reason she learned to pen and arrange her own charts was because the musicians never played the tunes the way she heard them in her head. She wanted arrangements that supported and complimented her vocals as a lead instrument. I found that to be a challenge here. However, I look forward to hearing more from this talented and dynamic vocalist.

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JOY LAPPS – “GIRL IN THE YARD” – Independent Label

Joy Lapps, tenor, bass, double guitar & alto steelpan/percussion/background vocals; Andy Narell, alto, tenor & bass steelpans; Shaquila Alexander, alto steelpan; Asha Lapps, double guitar steelpan; Courtenay Frazier, organ/Fender Rhodes/background vocals/melodica; Jeremy Leadbetter, clavinet/piano; Michael Shand, piano/Fender Rhodes/background vocals; Eddie Bullen, piano/synth.;Elmer Ferrer, guitar/tres; Eric St. Laurent, guitar; Kobena Aquaa Harrison, guitars/percussion; Andrew Stewart, programmer/bass;Bruce Skerrit, melodica; Larnel Lewis, drums/background vocals; Rosendo Chendy Leon, Brian Edwards & Diego Las Heras, percussion/congas; David Richards & Magdelys Savigne, percussion; Marito Marques, balafon/kalimba; Cheliz, surdo/cuatro; Mario Allende, pandeiro; Rob Christian, tenor & Soprano saxophone/flute/bansuri; Jesse Ryan, alto saxophone; Shelka Francis, alto saxophone; Marcus Ali, wooden flute; Colleen Allen, clarinet; Tara Kannangara, flugelhorn; Dionne Wilson, lead & background vocals; Elena Rawlins, background vocals. VIOLINS: Elizabeth Rodriquez, Alaksandar Gajic & Janetta Wilczewska; Aysel Taghi-Zada, viola; Jonathan Tortolano, cello.

Joy Lapps-Lewis is a composer and steelpan master who has been called a multi-modal artist.  This is her fifth album release as a bandleader, featuring her original music and her own arrangements. Joy is a celebrated Steelband players who won the treasured Canadian Juno Award in 2016. As an artist, she has made an international statement, performing with the Calypsociation in Paris, the Birdsong Steel Orchestra in Trinidad and Tobago, and this current ensemble, Pan Fantasy, in her native Toronto, Canada.  This album is a tapestry of West African influences, Afro-Caribbean music and her soaring arrangements create a rich fabric of world music that features Ms. Lapps’ mastery playing the steelpans.  This album paints bright, happy music in lovely, loud colors. Joy Lapps is the daughter of a mother and father who came from Antiqua and Barbuda to settle in North America.  This music is saturated with her cultural roots and infused with percussive brightness. Tunes like “Morning Sunrise” cross over and are arranged in a more ‘smooth jazz’ vein. Elmer Ferrer’s guitar provides a plush pillow of rhythm for Joy Lapps to lay down her creative solo. Rob Christian’s flute happily sparks the piece, while the background voices fuel the energy. This composition sounds like a crossover hit. Elizabeth Rodriquez shines like a star playing violin during their presentation of Joy’s composition, “Serena.”  On “Sharifa the Great” Larnel Lewis shows his powerful mastery of the trap drums with a very engaging solo. The producer of this album of unique music must be acknowledged, Andrew W. Stewart, who also had a hand in arranging.  Joy Lapps is a melodic composer. If her music is a reflection of her personality, Ms. Lapps is a very happy person, indeed! This album of music is a joyful listen!

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KATHERINE FARNHAM – “ALQUIMIA” – Voice Inside Records

Katherine Farnham, vocals/piano/keyboards/percussion/arrangements/guinga/background vocals; Denny Jiosa & Andrea Canola, acoustic & electric guitars; Guinga, guitars/vocals; Roy Vogt, bass; Marcus Finnie & Rich Adams, drums; Andres Canola & Rich Adams, percussion; Nestor Torres, flute;   

If you like a boisterous, joyful production, blended into Brazilian culture with spicey Spanish influences, you will enjoy award-winning artist, Katherine Farnham.  Ms. Farnham plays piano, percussion, composes and arranges her own music.  Add to this her powerful vocals and you get the picture of a multi-talented woman.  She is a nine-time, Global Music Award winner.  The first track on this project is a “Tango” sung in English with a teasing, provocative lyric that reflects her passion for love and life.

Track two, “Onde Esta Meu Amor” is sung in either Spanish or Portuguese. Katherine “Kool Cat” Farnham is fluid in both languages and sadly, this journalist is not. Farnham is a third-generation musician who fluctuates from her foreign languages to English, giving us a hint of what this love song is about, singing: “I am so jealous of the others.  I wanted to make you jealous too.  Just so you would kiss me.  Just so you would hold me.”  She’s no newcomer to the stage or studio.  At five years old she became the leading lady in her school play and also began to sing jazz.  Her mother was a concert pianist and vocal coach for the Sante Fe Opera company. So, Katherine Farnham has deep roots and early training in music.

On this “Alquimia” album, she premieres her first duet on her composition, “A Vox do Mundo” featuring famed Brazilian guitarist Guinga, who plays and sings with her. He has a smokey, sexy voice that caresses the lyrics and is in stark contrast to her powerhouse vocals. Katherine’s elegant version of “Besame Mucho” features four-time Grammy nominee, guitarist Denny Jiosa. The piano line is a surprise and supportive of her voice during this refreshed arrangement.  Consistently, Katherine Farnham’s band is plush with excellence and energy.  The “Kool Cat” (as she is fondly referred to) was classically trained and sports a four-octave vocal range.  She has appeared on Good Morning America, NPR Public Television and Telemundo television, as well as staying busy touring internationally.  In the past few years she has garnered a staggering twelve music awards and is one of the youngest recipients of the Albert Nelson Lifetime Achievement Music Award.  I have no doubt this “Alquimia” project will also win notoriety and accolades.

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VARIOUS JAZZ POINTS OF VIEW

July 11, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 11, 2022

CHRISTIAN JACOB – “NEW JAZZ STANDARDS VOL 5/THE MUSIC OF CARL SAUNDERS” –  Summit Records

Christian Jacob, piano; Darek Oles, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.

Trumpeter Carl Saunders is one of the jazz world’s great technicians, a composer and improviser. 

“I have been writing tunes all of my life.  I had many of them sitting by the piano, unorganized and looking like a bit of a mess.  I finally decided to print them out and organize them in a folder. … Finally published them into a book which I call New Jazz Standards, which has over 300 songs. I let the artists pick whatever tunes they want to do from the book and interpret them in their own style,” Carl Saunders explained.

That’s how this wonderful album of music was created by French classical and jazz pianist, Christian Jacob, talented bassist Darek Oles and legendary drummer, Joe LaBarbera.  They open with “August in New York” at a moderate but swinging pace.  Another of the twelve Saunders’ tunes is one called “A Ballad for Pete Candoli.” It’s a very beautiful ballad celebrating this iconic jazz trumpeter who played with both the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman big bands. I enjoy the sensitive, light, airy touch Jacob has on piano.  His fingers seem to be skipping over the notes, free as uninhibited children at play.  Next, the trio breaks into a three-four tune titled “Zig Zag Waltz.”  All the Saunders’ tunes are melodic and leave plenty of room for the musicians to explore, improvise and express themselves. Oles offers a brief but awesome bass solo.  LaBarbera solidifies the waltz, first with brushes and then builds the excitement, ending with cymbals ringing and sticks flying. 

The composition titled, “The Hipper They Are the Harder They Fall” is straight-ahead bliss.  In fact, every tune on this CD is brilliantly interpreted and the trio arrangements offer something for everyone’s pleasure and enjoyment.  Other Favorites are: “A Pill for Bill” that races across space like lightening; “Dark Blanket” is a composition warm as a wool poncho and “Sweetness” is a sugar-soaked ballad begging for lyrics. Each of the Saunders compositions light up the universe, bright stars on the horizon. To me, they sound like jazz standards.

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BILL ORTIZ – “POINTS OF VIEW” – Left Angle Records

Bill Ortiz, trumpet/flugelhorn; Matt Clark, piano/Fender Rhodes; Brian Jackson, piano; Carl Wheeler, Hammond B3 organ; Marcus Shelby, bass; Marc van Wageningen, electric bass; Dennis Chambers, drums; John Santos, percussion/lead & background vocals; Javier Navarrette, percussion/background vocals; Azar Lawrence, tenor saxophone; Terrie Odabi & Christelle Durandy, lead & background vocals; Juan Luis Perez, Larry Batiste & Sandy Griffith, background vocals.

The first music arrangement of Bill Ortiz is robust and rolls out with the propulsive rhythm of Dennis Chambers, on drums, punching the funk into place.  They introduce the Eddie Henderson composition, “Sunburst” and it’s a great way to begin this album.  The trumpet of Ortiz announces the melody like a breath of fresh air and calls my ears to attention.  The arrangement dips and dives, with interludes that calm the tempo, until the drums become prominent again and continue driving the piece forward.  On Track #1, these musicians create a lovely blend of fusion with the more traditional, straight-ahead jazz.

Ortiz has his feet solidly planted in several jazz styles.  This is not surprising since he has spent forty-plus years playing a variety of music.  He toured for sixteen years with Santana and was part of that ensemble when they walked away with their multi-Grammy winning “Smooth” album. 

Bill Ortiz has recorded or performed with a long list of iconic names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Tito Puente, Pete Escovedo, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Guy, as well as R&B stars like Tony Toni Tone, TLC, En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. Each of the ten pieces of this Ortiz repertoire was chosen to become a vehicle that showcases the Ortiz personal voice on trumpet.  He explained:

“…Music makes people feel something. I wanted “Points of View” to feature important pieces that have been overlooked or forgotten; songs I felt could document the sounds and artists that were important to me in forming my voice, while updating and bringing my personal style to them,” Ortiz said.

To assist him, Bill Ortiz has selected a stellar ensemble of musicians including the flying fingers of Matt Clark on piano.  Clark is always innovative as a soloist and complimentary as a solid rhythm player and accompanist. You hear this on Track #4, “In Search of Truth,” a sweet and lovely ballad with piano lines cascading like small waterfalls. Azar Lawrence, on tenor saxophone, sings the melody in unison with Ortiz on trumpet.  On Track #6, “A Toast to the People” written by Brian Jackson and Gil Scott Heron, features Terrie Odabi on lead vocals.  She adds her special flavor to the mix and rejuvenates this Gil Scott Heron gem of a tune.  Track #9 is a favorite arrangement of mine, composed by Wayne Shorter, and titled, “Oriental Folk Song” and inclusive of the “John Coltrane” melodic line dancing through the melody.  It makes me want to sing, “John Col – Trane” over and over again. Fueled by percussive spirit, Azar Lawrence takes a star-studded tenor solo. I also enjoyed Track #3, the Wilton Felder tune, “Ain’t Gon Change a Thang” that features another inspired solo by Azar with Bill Ortiz spicing it up by adding various effects to the arrangement.  All in all, this is a delightful mix of talent and repertoire. The mastery of Bill Ortiz on trumpet and flugelhorn is consistently obvious, awesome and spellbinding.  Perhaps Ortiz described his project best when he said:

“I like players who, like me, color outside the lines and strive for exciting interactions that make people listen and react, so that every time they play it, it tells a different story and goes to fresh, unheard places.  I wanted these guys to play off each other and jump into the oblivion of the unknown.  Afro Cuban music is a huge part of my life, and I welcomed genre greats like John Santos, who could inspire me to take that passion to the next level.”

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EVAN DRYBREAD – “TIGER TAIL” – Independent Label

Evan Drybread, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; Mark Buselli, trumpet/flugelhorn; Christopher Pitts, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Scott Pazera, electric & upright basses; Kenny Phelps, drum/percussion.

Evan Drybread reflects the era of bebop, inspired by the hard bop records from back in the early popular Blue Note years.  He admires musicians like Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  These musicians inspired Drybread to compose and pursue an album that reflected his love of saxophone and straight-ahead jazz.  Drybread opens this album with a wonderful original tune he wrote titled, “Blackball.”  Although he obviously has a deep love for bebop, Drybread was actually raised on fusion.  He wrote and included a tune to express that side of his jazz affections titled, “High Priestess” incorporating electronics.  He replaces the piano with a Fender Rhodes and Drybread pulls out his soprano saxophone during this arrangement. Kenny Phelps is absolutely inspirational on drums, taking a long and exciting solo.  The composition, “The Queen of Cups” slows the energy down and invites the trumpet of Mark Buselli to express himself.  He brings a warm, lovely tone to the party.

“Tiger Tail is my most recent composition.  I have been greatly inspired by the John Coltrane Quartet and wanted to capture the energy and spirituality of his music of the 60s.  I wanted to have a big, driving bass line in 6/4 with a soaring tenor melody.  This tune, in many ways, feels like my self-portrait, especially from the last seven years of my life. It has been a period filled with both personal and musical growth, but also great pain physically and emotionally.  Like a tiger, this song shows great strength, but also vulnerability,” Evan Drybread describes the title tune of his album.

In summary, I found Drybread’s album to be both innovative and enjoyable.  His composer qualities shine. 

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PETER ERSKINE TRIO – “LIVE IN ITALY” – Fuzzy Music

Peter Erskine, drums/composer; Alan Pasqua, piano/composer; Darek Oles, bass/composer.

The first original composition by Alan Pasqua, “Agrodolce” is sultry, pensive and drenched in classical music.  Pasqua opens, playing solo piano for the first half of this arrangement.  When the other two musicians join him, Peter Erskine’s brushes brighten the tempo and Darek Oles steps up to offer us a salty bass solo that’s both lyrical and relaxing. There is something comfortable and warm about this Peter Erskine Trio.  Their ‘live’ concert music draws me in.  Their repertoire is listed on the CD in the format of a restaurant menu.  Track #2 is titled “New Hope.” It’s another Pasqua original with a laid-back tempo, but beautifully written and played. “Old School Blues” struts onto the concert scene with Darek’s bass walking briskly beneath the groove that Peter Erskine’s drums lay down. Erskine’s drumming is strong and flavorful, like a thick Italian red sauce on fresh spaghetti. It’s a delicious arrangement. I tap my toes along with his swinging beat.

This is an easy listening trio of jazz played by three iconic gentlemen and recorded before a ‘live’ audience in Camogli, Italy on November 19, 2021.  The trio was in the midst of a two-week Italian tour. It was their first tour since the coronavirus lockdown. The Peter Erskine Trio offers a lip-smacking, toe taping menu of mostly original compositions. Erskine’s pepper-hot drums splatter across their arrangements with masterful sticks and brushes. He takes several solo spaces to sprinkle his talent over the captive audience. They reward him with appreciative applause. Erskine has composed “Three-Quarter Molly” that gives another platform for Pasqua to showcase his skillful piano creativity.  The tune “Turnaround” by Alan Pasqua is more energetic and tumultuous; a perfect platform for Erskine to shine, tap and tickle his drums.  Peter’s percussion opens the famed Dizzy tune, “Con Alma” tap-dancing on skins that double time beneath Pasqua and Oles. Darek Oles spotlights his bass in a dramatic solo during this tune. As the concert comes to an end, their audience responds with explosive hand claps.  The people demonstrate how much they appreciate what they heard.  I strongly concur.

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ESTHESIS QUARTET – “ESTHESIS QUARTET” –  Orenda Records

Dawn Clement, piano; Elsa Nilsson, flute/vocals; Emma Dayhuff, bass; Tina Raymond, drums.

This is a spirited, all-female quartet.  The first tune on the ‘Esthesis’ album is titled, “Cricket.” However, it sounds more like a boxing match than a chirping cricket.  I do enjoy the energy and excitement that this quartet produces. At the intro, Elsa Nilsson chirps like a cricket on her flute and Emma Dayhuff, on bass, mimics the cricket sounds briefly. But very quickly, Tina Raymond punches the drums in all the vulnerable spots and the staccato breaks remind me of gloves swinging and colliding with flesh. Dayhuff solos on bass and the energy grows. Nilsson’s flute flies in a flurry of punches and I’m caught up in the splendid excitement these four musicians create.  When Tina takes an extended drum solo, I can clearly see the two boxers duking it out at the end of the tenth round and then, boom!  Knock-out!  The song abruptly ends. “Two Moons” is track two. The moody melody is played sweetly on Elsa Nilsson’s flute.  This arrangement is burrowed in thigh deep blues.  The story behind the title is one that celebrates an American Indian Cheyenne chief.  He traveled to Washington, D.C. many times to discuss and negotiate a future for his Northern Cheyenne people. In fact, it is “Two Moons” who is featured on the American Buffalo Nickel coin.  Dawn Clement is brightly featured on piano during this arrangement, shining with creativity. Clement and Nilsson have collaborated on “Partial” with Nilsson writing the music and Clement has penned the lyrics.  Nilsson sings.

The quartet adopted the name ‘Esthesis’ which means: elementary sensations of touch.  They were formed as a creative support group to keep compositions coming and creative juices flowing during the awful COVID-19 pandemic.  After spending several sessions together on the Zoom app, the members headed to Los Angeles and recorded this, their debut album. Dawn Clement is a Denver, Colorado-based pianist and educator.  Currently she holds the role of Assistant Professor and Area Coordinator of the Jazz and American Music Department at Metropolitan State University in Denver.  Drummer, Tina Raymond is currently Assistant Professor and the Director of Jazz studies at California State University, Northridge.  Raymond blends traditional jazz percussion vocabulary with African polyrhythms and classical percussion techniques.  You hear this powerful blending on the quartet’s arrangement of “We Watch It All Burn” written by Nilsson.  Nilsson, who is now New York City based, originally came to the States from Gothenburg, Sweden.  She is an adjunct professor at the New School Paul Rauch and performs regularly at various New York venues.  Bassist, Emma Dayhuff, is a graduate from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance and only the fifth woman to ever participate in this prestigious program.  Dayhuff lives in Chicago and is pursuing a DMA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Illinois.  She takes an extended solo journey during the “We Watch It All Burn” tune, exploring the full range of her upright bass and her unique creative instincts.  Raymond is by her side the entire way, fueling the solo piece with percussive intensity.  The song ends, like someone just blew out a candle and the burn abruptly stops.  Drummer, Tina Raymond, has composed “The Gardener” and it’s passive and precious introduction by Nilsson’s sensuous flute makes me want to gather my watering can and my spade to venture into my own garden. Like this music, there is a peacefulness to working with the earth.  The sixth and final tune on this very enjoyable musical concert is titled “Finding What’s Lost.” This song tributes Elsa Nilsson’s father, who passed away and her journey to finding a path back to life out of grief.  She vocalizes the melody, without words, in a scat-like way, dancing above the track in melodic whispers. This album was released May 27, 2022.

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HENDRIK MEURKENS THE WDR BIG BAND – “SAMBA JAZZ ODYSSEY” – Zoho Records

Hendrik Meurkens, harmonica/composer/arranger; Michael Philip Mossman, conductor/composer/ arranger; SAXOPHONES: Johan Hörlén, Pascal Bartoszak, Olivier Peters, Paul Heller, Jens Neufang. TRUMPETS: Andy Haderer, Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Ruud Breuls. TROMBONES: Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm, Andy Hunter, Mattis Cederberg. RHYTHM: Paul Shigihara, guitar; Billy Test, piano; John Goldsby, bass; Hans Dekker, drums.

Hendrik Meurkens is a German born, New York City based composer and harmonica player, with his own unique, recognizable sound and inspired by a deep love of Latin jazz.  Over his illustrious career, he has traveled to a number of countries and those influences of cultures and historic experiences is reflected in this album, “Samba Jazz Odyssey.” The big band opens with the Meurkens’ flamboyant composition, “A Night in Jakarta.” In my mind, I can still picture the colorful garments of Indonesian women with covered heads and I can hear the angklund instruments of Indonesia, locked melodically into my memory.  Meurkens competently captures the colors and energy of this Indonesian capital with the arrangements conducted by Michael Philip Mossman, a Grammy-nominated arranger.  Paul Heller on tenor saxophone and Raphael Klemm on trombone are brightly featured soloists, along with the harmonica brilliance of Meurkens himself. This is the beginning tune of a vivid voyage through samba jazz, featuring the composer skills of Meurkens.

Track #2 is titled “Manhattan Samba” and dances its way onto the scene, propelled by the able drums of Hans Dekker. Pascal Bartoszak on flute adds a light touch to the piece, with the horns pumping staccato beneath the excitement.  The Meurkens original tune, “Prague in March” is one of his compositions that has been ‘covered’ by many accomplished artists including Claudio Roditi, the popular Brazilian trumpet player. It’s a slow, sexy samba with a lovely melody that Meurkens wrote just before he immigrated to the United States and one year after the Berlin Wall fell.   “Sambatropolis” is a joyful composition, arranged so that Johan Hörlén, on alto saxophone, can engage in a lilting conversation with the harmonica of Meurkens.  I also love the baritone saxophone lines written into this arrangement that help keep the mood buoyant and happy. Meurkens was on a ride from Denver to Aspen, Colorado and while travelling through the American West, he was so inspired by the Rocky Mountains and their natural beauty that he composed “Mountain Drive.” The motion and movement of this tune makes me want to get in my car and head for the highway.  Conductor Mossman has composed a tune that lets the big band act as if they are a local jam session.  “You Again” spotlights Andy Hunter on trombone and Mattis Cederberg on bass trombone.  Jens Neufang, on baritone sax, gives us a true bebop influenced solo and Hans Dekker pushes the band forward on his powerhouse drums.  Paul Shigihara takes a noteworthy guitar exploration and Rob Bruynen soars on trumpet.  It sounds like a true jam session.

Every composition, every arrangement and each of these competent and talented musicians make this an album meant for your listening pleasure.

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DAN OLIVO – “DAY BY DAY” – Ava Maria Records

Dan Olivo, vocals; Ian Robbins, guitar; Lyman Medeiros, bass/ukulele/vocals/arranger; Joe Bagg, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Kevin Winard, drums/percussion; Kyle O’Donnell, tenor saxophone; Jamelle Adisa, trumpet; Garrett Smith, trombone; Renee Myara Cibelli, vocals.

Dan Olivo has a smooth, comforting voice; one you might hear and enjoy at a supper club or an intimate jazz room.  He has surrounded himself with an amazing cast of musicians who create tight, jazzy tracks and feature bright, outstanding instrumental solos.  Dan has chosen a dozen familiar songs for his repertoire.  He sings each one with sincerity and the well-written arrangements by Ian Robbins compliment Olivo’s vocal delivery.  Dan Olivo opens with the title tune, and the band swings as hard as a big band.  Olivo has a strong handle on music, having played saxophone in his Junior high school band and beyond.  It was during that period of his teen life that Dan was introduced to Harry Connick Jr.  Young Olivo watched and listened in awe as Connick Jr. fronted his big band and the teenager felt that he could do that too.  Soon he was also listening to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Michael Bublé. You clearly hear these influences in this album presentation. I enjoyed his rendition of the Latin flavored tune, “Sway” competently colored by the drums of Kevin Winard.

Olivo is also an actor with work in theaters, on film projects and appearances on television shows.  He blends his love of acting with his love of music, picking tunes like the 1924 song, once performed during Vaudeville stage acts called, “How Come You Do me Like You Do?” and the popular tune from the Broadway play, “The Great Magoo” titled “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”  He delivers each composition with crystal clear enunciation and this male vocalist could be categorized as a new-comer to the ‘crooners’ society.  By the way, he also does a good job of swinging his way through tunes like “L.O.V.E.”, “I’m Walkin’” and the up-tempo version of “Time After Time.”

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NATE WOOLEY – “ANCIENT SONGS OF BURLAP HEROES” – Pyroclastic Records

Nate Wooley, trumpet/composer/amplifier. COLUMBIA ICEFIELD: Mary Halvorson, guitar; Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar; Ryan Sawyer, drums. Mat Maneri, viola; Trevor Dunn, electric bass.

In the wake-up call of the 2022 Supreme Court of the United States, the determination to expel environmental protection laws, this album seems particularly important.  Trumpeter, Nate Wooley, has joined forces with Mary Halvorson’s dynamic guitar, Ryan Sawyers power-house drums and Susan Alcorn’s creatively played pedal steel guitar.  They copiously interpret his original compositions. 

“I Am the Sea That Sings of Dust” is eighteen-plus minutes of sounds and music that seem to reflect nature and predict some kind of bleak destruction or disintegration. You will hear the seagull’s song in this composition and the wind; the sea gently roaring like a sleeping giant and even raindrops.  It was such an interesting production, I played it twice.  According to Nate Wooley’s press agent, this music is meant to describe the gravitational force of a shifting glacier.  It utilizes an hour-long platform.  The production seems to be warning us about the possible catastrophic results of not loving and protecting mother earth.  Are we simply watching the natural beauty of our planet unravel? Are we ignoring glaciers melting, shifting, floating away?  Mat Maneri adds his viola to the mix and the screech of strings against the Ryan Sawyer drums becomes cataclysmic, with instruments sounding like wind gusts in an ice storm.  Ten minutes into this suite of music, the mood changes to a pensive, quiet alternate universe, where Nate Wooley’s trumpet appears, muted, like sunrays through a shuttered window.

This production features a suite of compositions, interpreted as three titles.  “A Catastrophic Legend” was penned by Wooley as a love letter to his mentor, Ron Miles, who passed away in March.  The final title is called “Returning to Drown Myself Finally” and is based on a Swedish religious song called “Nu ar midsommar natt.” All in all, this project, like the album cover itself, is dark and ominous.  The Wooley compositions and improvised trumpet parts melt into amplification, feedback, vocalization and sometimes disturbing music that ruffles the spirit and tickles the brain.

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MATTHEW MUÑESES – “NOLI ME TANGERE” – Next Level Records

Matthew Muñeses, alto saxophone/composer; Miguel Zenon, tenor saxophone; Zubin Edaji, trumpet; Stu Mindeman, piano; Clark Sommers, bass; Dana Hall, drums.

According to reedman, composer and educator, Matthew Muñeses, he has composed music to interpret his impressions of the Phillipines’ revolt against Spanish control in 1896.  The opening track, “Alin Mang Lahi” expresses the 19th Century Filipino desire for sovereignty. Both this track and the second track are based in minor keys and brightly powered by the drums of Dana Hall and the saxophone of Matthew Muñeses. “Kundiman ni Rizal” is a love song generally sung by a young man to the desired woman of his dreams. Both compositions are written by José Rizal.  This ballad had a melody penned by Francisco Buencamino, who put music to the poetry of Rizal. Clearly Matthew Muñeses admires Jose Rizal, who is a poet, novelist and National hero of the Philippines.

Four songs on this production are composed by Matthew Muñeses and represent parts of the suite he wrote.  The Muñeses publicist says that a Rizal Novel titled “Provoked” inspired Matthew to write this suite of music in 2019. Those four compositions blossomed into this recording. Not only does this music intend to call attention to the early Filipino revolution, it also is a musical means of calling attention to continuing racism and separatism that Muñeses has experienced as a Filipino man growing up in America.  Songs from the composer’s suite titled, “Noli me Tangere” features compositions like “A Son Returns” and “Cruelty and Injustice.”

This suite refers to Matthew’s own soul-searching and him coming to terms with his racial mix, being half Filipino and half American. The piano solo by Stu Mindeman is quite stunning and inventive on Cruelty and Injustice (the second tune in the Muñeses suite).  Dana Hall also takes a notable drum solo during this arrangement. Matthew Muñeses hopes to connect the history of Philippine independence from Spain to the post-colonial Phillippines and finally, to the current battle for justice in America existing in the 21st Century.  His suite, “Noli Me Tangere” is a musical call for a more equitable and fair society.  Part three is titled “Education for All” and the fourth and final part of the suite is “Revolution and Liberation” which seems to take us back to the original premise of the 1896 through 1898 revolution.  Sadly, the circle of discontent just seems to repeat itself, whether on European soil, in the islands, in Asia, in America or in this music.

This is modern jazz, with the Muñeses and Rizal compositions providing chord changes that encourage improvisation and freedom.  The music is the revolving door we keep pushing forward.

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SEARCHING THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF JAZZ

July 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 1, 2022

ALEXANDER SMALLS – “LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER” – SmallHouseProductions/Outside In Music

Alexander Smalls, vocals; Joseph Joubert, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Cyrus Chestnut, piano/B3 Hammond organ; Kevin Hays, piano/Fender Rhodes; Reuben Rogers & Ben Williams, upright & electric bass; Ulysses Owens jr., drums/percussion/co-producer; John Ellis, tenor & soprano saxophone/bass clarinet.

A deep spiritual bass line opens the song, “Wade in the Water” until Alexander Small’s emotional, baritone voice takes stage center.  His vocals are rich and remind me of the ferocious male choir soloists I heard in church; the ones who sang spiritual tunes with gusto, love and power; the ones who had backgrounds in operatic singing.

The second and third tracks feature instrumentals. They highlight the outstanding musicians on this recording, who make the music shine. One of my favorite tunes by Sonny Rollins is “St. Thomas.”  The band has arranged this jazz standard with joy and tenacious energy; first featuring a solo by Kevin Hayes on piano and then Ben Williams on bass.  John Ellis sings his reed song on saxophone and Ulysses Owens Jr., takes a spirited solo on drums.  They follow this with the familiar “Watermelon Man” composition by Herbie Hancock. John Ellis makes a thrilling bass clarinet appearance on “God Bless the Child.” Cyrus Chestnut is featured pianist on this recording and has added his original composition, “Rent Party” as a delightful solo piano piece.

The artist and vocalist, Alexander Smalls, was once a highly respected opera singer. In 1977, he gained international attention, winning a Tony Award and a Grammy for his contributions to the Houston Grand Opera cast that recorded “Porgy and Bess.” Then, his life journey suddenly turned up a path towards becoming a culinary artist.  His love of spiritual music perhaps inspired the title of this album (Let Us Break Bread Together) and also reflects his transformation into the professional world of cooking.  Today, he is celebrated as a renowned chef.  Consequently, this inspired project embraces jazz as a spiritual bridge between Alexander’s love of cuisine and his vocal interpretation of spiritual music.  When he sings, “Let Us Break Bread Together” it is both a prayer and an offer to share the intimacy of both his music and a meal. He makes it comfortable to take a seat at his musical table. 

Small’s rendition of the traditional spiritual “Hush” is beautifully delivered, as is “Poor Little Jesus” with the piano accompaniment of Kevin Hayes tasty and creative.  Ben Williams provides a stunning bass background during the spoken word of Alexander Smalls as he recites the Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

“Think about the richness of a melody,” Smalls encourages our introspection. “Think about how a melody starts in one’s soul, one’s mind, one’s spirit. People bring these extraordinary sounds sometimes from the depths of who they are,” the artist explains.

Surely Mr. Alexander Smalls has done just that; pulled from the depths of his own soul, exhibiting infectious emotion and talent during this presentation. He shares his spiritual experience with us and inspires the listener with both this spiritual recording and his formidable voice.

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BRIAN LANDRUS – “RED LIST” – Palmetto Records

Brian Landrus, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/flute/alto flute/bass flute; Nir Felder, guitar; Geoffrey Keezer, Fender Rhodes/organ/piano/synthesizers; Lonnie Plaxico, electric & acoustic bass; John Hadfield, percussion; Rudy Royston, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Ron Blake, tenor saxophone; Steve Roach, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Corey King, vocals.

Often times, music is used as a method of calling attention to some cause or life challenge.  Baritone saxophonist, reed master and bass clarinet player, Brian Landrus, has composed and arranged fifteen tunes dedicated to the preservation of some of our endangered, Earth creatures. This is Brian’s eleventh album released as a bandleader. It reflects his spiritual connection to earth and the animal kingdom in a warm, jazzy way.

“I’ve been an animal lover since I was a little kid.  I recently began researching the many endangered species on our planet.  It broke my heart to learn that there are only eight vaquitas, sixty-seven Javan rhinos and fewer than 850 mountain gorillas left on earth. Spreading awareness of this tragic global situation is part of the impetus for this album,” Landrus explains in his press package.

Each composition title exemplifies this purposeful album of music.  Landrus opens with “Canopy of Trees” that has a very orchestrated, smooth-jazz feel.  You can picture a forest of green, with the Landrus horn becoming the prowling creature beneath the lush canopy. On the title tune, “Red List” John Hadfield’s driving percussion energy fuels the arrangement, along with Rudy Royston on drums. Landrus delivers strong melodies and arranges the horns with tight harmonies that balloon the music like helium. The small ensemble sounds much bigger than it is and lifts me.  As I listen to the “Giant Panda,” composition, tenderly featuring a delightful Landrus bass clarinet solo, or “Tigris” pumping us up with a bright tempo and featuring the beautiful guitar talent of Nir Felder, the composer transmits the beauty and importance of protecting all life on earth with his music. He gives us a taste of his flute talents on “The Distant Deeps” and features the warm, husky vocals of Corey King.  I note that His arrangements exhibit the diversity of genres, embracing Straight-ahead jazz in some parts, (especially when Landrus is soloing) blending in easy-listening horn arrangements to buoy the tracks, along with smooth jazz grooves. For example, when he arranged “Save the Elephants” the jazz arrangement embraces a reggae beat. As I soak up this music, my imagination conjures up the elephant families lumbering along towards a drinking pond. Brian Landrus offers us music that is much like life itself, multi-faceted, colorful, uniquely different and beautiful. 

When he’s not composing or recording, Brian Landrus has taken his saxophone talents on the road with other jazz acts such as Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, George Garzone, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and his mentor Bob Brookmeyer. Landrus is not only a multi-talented musician who has mastered several reed instruments, but he’s adept at various musical genres.  Brain has toured with national pop acts like The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Coasters, The Drifters and Martha Reeves.  He holds a doctorate from Rutgers University and is currently on faculty at the School of Music, California State University Sacramento.

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JAKE LECKIE – “THE GUIDE” – Ropeadope Records

Jake Leckie, double bass; Nadav Peled, acoustic guitar; Elizabeth Goodfellow, drums.

“The Guide” is an acoustic folk-jazz trio with bandleader Jake Leckie at the helm on upright bass.  They open this recording with the title tune, bathed in the blues and slowly unfolding like a lyrical love ballad. Track two is titled “Patience” and features Nadav Peled on his acoustic guitar, dancing across the strings like an acrobat.  All eight of these compositions are composed by Jake Leckie and were recorded old school, on 2-track analog tape. They used no headphones, no isolation booths or overdubs.  This is live music that’s interactive, creative and improvisational.  This trio of musicians play spontaneously. On the “Patience” tune, Elizabeth Goodfellow is given a platform to shine on her trap drums.  This recording celebrates organic, acoustic music, along with creative compositions that are melodic and pleasant to the ear, like the tune “A Thing of Beauty.”  Track #6, “The Good Doctor” allows Jake Leckie to step out front and explore his rich, deep, double bass instrument.  This is a very Latin sounding composition.  The guitar is drenched in Spanish-sounding lyricism.  I wish the drummer had double-timed the rhythm to lift the arrangement and to move away from the same kind of tempo as the songs before this one.  A Samba or Cha Cha groove would have enhanced this well-written, original song, and would have accentuated the unexpected but tasty breaks in Jake’s arrangement.  A fresh, Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm dancing beneath Leckie’s bass solo could have been brilliant.  What I found missing in some of these songs was ‘the groove’ that my listening ears kept longing to hear.  The tune, “Adobe” finally slams into a funk groove with Leckie walking his upright bass and Goodfellow slapping the swing into place. Leckie’s composer skills are continuously impressive. The final tune could have been a real show-stopper with its up-tempo racy speed and strong jazz changes.  A spotlight is provided for Elizabeth Goodfellow to shine in, highlighting her drum skills.  However, the jazzy momentum and spiritual excitement that this composition inspires gets lost in the production.  I think a jazz drummer like the late, great Ralph Peterson, or like cutting edge female drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington or the iconic Jeff Hamilton could have elevated this project to a higher level.

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TOM COLLIER – “THE COLOR OF WOOD” – Summit Records

Tom Collier, vibraphone/marimbas.

Tom Collier has been heralded as “One of the best jazz vibraphonists on the planet” by Scott Mercado, a Modern Drummer Magazine contributor.  Collier offers us a solo album, exploring his talents and creativity on three different marimbas; a 1948 Musser Canterbury marimba, a Adams Soloist Model and a Yamaha Model 6100 marimba.  Each song unfolds, like the path amid a forest of tall trees.  His concept is warm and brown, “like the color of wood,” also the title of this album.  Beginning with five reflections on wood, he plays a suite of music that explores his talents as both a marimba player and a composer.

“Inspiration for ‘Five Reflections on Wood’ is based on art and activities from Ruthi Winter, Cindy Kelsey, Jim and Mary Burdett and Adelle Hermann Comfort. … and musical inspiration for over fifty-one years (and still counting) from my lovely wife, Cheryl,” Tom Collier expresses in his liner notes.

This artist shows how layering his marimba talents and expanding his solo horizons, demonstrates he can paint an album with the brilliant colors of a sunrise or capture the sounds of nature with his mallets.  When I listen to Tom Collier’s music, I see vivid images of raindrops kissing the petals of Bluebells and purple Irises.  He inspires me to look for stardust sprinkling down from the big dipper and his songs glimmer like moonglow in love-filled eyes, especially when he interprets Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” composition.  With songs like the Hank Williams favorite, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” Collier reminds us that a well-written song crosses genres and can easily relax in the lovely arms of a jazz arrangement.  His original songs, like “Genesee” and “I Haven’t Seen the Rain” wrap the listener in a blanket of comfort and warmth. 

His song “Hopscotch” is happy and carefree, like a child jumping between the chalk lines on a city sidewalk. This is a musical tribute to the higher good in us all and the spiritual beauty that a master marimba player can bring to his instrument.  In so doing, he lifts us all to an elevated standard of peace, joy and happiness. 

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JOÃO LUIZ – “FROM SPAIN TO SAO PAULO” – Zoho Records

João Luiz, guitar: Sergio Abreu, 1997; Strings: Augustine Regal Blue.

I always have great admiration and respect for an artist who records an album of solo work.  In this case, not only is João Luiz performing solo, he is also covering famous, classical compositions and doing so displaying mastery on his classical Sergio Abreu guitar.  Sergio Abreu is a Brazilian guitarist and respected guitar maker. Almost all of this classical repertoire are originally written for guitar.  Although I rarely review classical music, this album was so striking and beautiful, I felt compelled to sing praise to the talents of Mr. Luiz.  Particularly since my article is titled “The Spiritual Side of Jazz” and surely this solo guitar music is sparked by spirit and jazz is inclusive of European classical music, along with Blues, American slave songs and the gift of improvisation. That is the one thing missing in this awesome recording; the beauty of improvisation.  In classical music, most of the time the pieces are played as written, without venturing off into improvisation.

This album opens with “Largo non Tanto, Op. 7” written by Fernando Sor, a nineteenth century Spanish composer.  João’s intimate interpretation of both this opus and the “Minueto Op. 25” that follows becomes a wonderful way to introduce us to his mastery of the guitar. The Luiz performance seems effortless and precise.  It is quite amazing to hear a solo guitarist perform with such sincerity and power, yet never echoing a squeak on the fretboard. This is the sign of a master musician. Guitar players will know exactly what I mean.  Some of these songs have been arranged by João Luiz, like “Serenata Espanola” that was composed originally for piano by Joaquin Malats, who was a Barcelona-based pianist.  João Luiz’s chords roll and the ascending lines are quite different from the original arrangement of this familiar classical composition. Perhaps there is a bit of jazz improvisation in this album.

Whether you are a jazz lover or an appreciator of classical music, here is a magnificent guitar presentation that celebrates music “From Spain to Sao Paulo” and pays homage to Spanish composers from the 19th and 20th century.   Two-time, Latin, Grammy-nominated guitarist, educator and composer, João Luiz, began to play the popular music of his native Brazil professionally during his childhood.  He was later trained in classical guitar by his mentor, Henrique Pinto. João’s interests include bridging Classical, Jazz, and Latin American music as a performer and composer.   João is equally at home with classical, Brazilian, jazz and world music. 

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DANA FITZSIMONS WITH BILL GRAHAM AND BRANDON BOONE – “FAULT LINES” – Independent Label

Dana Fitzsimons, drums; Bill Graham, piano; Brandon Boone, bass.

Dana Fitzsimons has been an ardent fan of free-style jazz for years.  Although he started out as a touring musician, the drummer soon had a young, growing family and decided to get his degree from William and Mary Law School. He then pursued a legal career.  However, Fitzsimons never discarded his love of music and today he is both a recording artist and a successful trusts and estates attorney. 

His trio includes two popular musicians who are mainstays on the Atlanta jazz scene.  Pianist Bill Graham has been teaching jazz, improvisation and composition for nearly fifteen years.  As a composer, he has contributed several songs to this album. Bassist, Brandon Boone is a touring musician with both Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. 

“The music we wanted to make requires a lot of close listening and allowing the music to take you wherever it wants to go, untethered from strict ideas about time, form and harmony.  With all this freedom, it was important to me that the music still be rhythmic and lyrical so that the music invites the listener in, even for people who are not accustomed to free jazz,” Dana Fitzsimons explained his musical concept.

“Slant Anagrams” is the opening track of this project.  It was composed by Bill Graham and is a sort of tribute piece to the iconic Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian.  It’s the most Straight-ahead jazz track on the Fitzsimons album.  Rodgers and Hart’s famed “Where or When” tune is the only standard they cover.  The trio also plays the Joni Mitchell tune “Amelia.”  However, the other nine tunes were composed by either Graham or Fitzsimons. Track #3, titled “Crystals” was composed by all three musicians of the trio and it stretches imaginatively, each member contributing their own slice of creativity and improvisation.  The result is as sweet as a piece of fresh-baked pie.  “Ice Bridges Before Road” is dramatic and Graham plays with the upper register of the piano, using it to paint images of ice into the arrangement, along with the colorful drums of Fitzsimons.  With the exception of “Where or When”, arranged beautifully as a ballad with drifting tempos and legato movement; these pieces of music are more abstract than structured.  The musicians play off of one another, reacting and improvising generously during these free-form exchanges.  Their songs are like moods, changing and growing provocatively without structured charts to hold the music tightly in place.  Time and tempos change and flood into each other with tsunami-like strength or soft and whispery like hummingbird wings.  The music on Fault Lines is inventive, spiritual and strikingly free.  Like the California Fault Lines themselves, it may shake something loose inside you, without a warning, and with the unexpected power of an earthquake.

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SIMEON DAVIS GROUP -“NARRATIVES & NOCTURNES” – Outside In Music

Simeon Davis, Saxophone/Flute/Composer; Tyler Thomas & Rachel Azbell, vocals; Maria Wellmann & Alex Hand, guitars; Holly Holt, piano/keyboards; Jake Chaffee, Electric Bass; Josh Parker, drums; Aramis Fernandez, congas; Maxima Santana, trombone; Jonathan Shier, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jess Meadoer, violin.

This album is a collection of “Narratives and Nocturnes” brought to life by the Simeon Davis Group.  Exemplified by the titles of the Davis compositions, we are introduced to a cast of characters, places, moods and animals that live inside the mind of Simeon.  Opening with “The Diver” this arrangement is driven by a strong bass line and becomes part of a holistic storytelling experience that transcends genre norms.  The tune is structured more like a suite than a singular song.  It moves through moods and tempos like a restless bird exploring a foreign forest or perhaps a “Diver” searching through a ship wreckage beneath the sea.  There are lots of synthesizer accents and horn lines that leap and jump like notes on steroids.  In the same breath, there are some very beautiful parts to this arrangement that are soothing and melodic.  A voice accents the melody at the beginning and towards the end of the piece, singing wordlessly along with the instrumentation.  I am extremely impressed with the Davis composition, “Seven Come Wednesday” that recalls the brilliance of Chick Corea.  The addition of Tyler Thomas on vocals, singing throughout like a horn and the percussive brilliance of Aramis Fernandez coloring the arrangement along with the effective drumming of Josh Parker, turn this tune quickly into one of my favorites on this project.  The composition “Eden” features the sweet tenor voice of Tyler Thomas singing the melody in unison with the instrumentalists.  It explores the funk genre, with Parker’s drums slapping the groove into place and in your face. “Pleiades” uses handclaps and rhythm to propel the violin stage center. It’s a very lovely composition and continues to herald Simeon Davis as a gifted composer.  Holly Holt uses the piano to compliment and buoy the delicious violin solo by Jeff Meadoer.  I am absolutely captivated by the creativity and unique production that this Simeon Davis Band brings to his project. Simeon Davis lends several bars of his saxophone talent to this tune and “Pleiades” quickly becomes another one of my favorites. I listen to music all day, every day, but I’ve not heard something like this band in many moons. It’s refreshing! 

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CALEB WHEELER CURTIS – “HEATMAP” – Imani Records

Caleb Wheeler Curtis, alto & soprano saxophones/composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums.

The title tune “Heatmap” is a reference to where the action is happening.  Curtis composed the music for “Heatmap” during an artist residency and retreat in 2021.  Perhaps it was the get-away inspiration, the natural splendor of nature surroundings or the solitude that inspired him to write these ten, amazing jazz tunes. The result of that retreat is formidable music.

“…I like music with space in it.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea of throwing everything at the wall, which, in theory, sounds bigger and more confident.  But I wanted to appreciate the sound of the music in the air.  You can hear the detail in the playing and really hear the musicians as people.  And I’m working with three singular musicians whose playing has real weight,” Caleb explained.

Pianist, Orrin Evans, opens the title tune with a very classically colored introduction.  The thrust of Gerald Cleaver’s drumsticks pushes the arrangement forward and creates momentum.  Once the excitement has soared, Caleb Wheeler Curtis enters with an energetic and restless saxophone.  His solo is both melodic and innovative.  The group cools down with Track #2 titled, “Tossed Aside.”  Cleaver keeps the rhythm light and double-time, dancing beneath the melody like gently moving ocean waves, along with Eric Revis, perfectly in-step on bass.  This celebrated bassist has history with the pianist (Evans) and this musical relationship led Caleb Wheeler Curtis to Eric.  Prior to meeting Caleb, Revis played with Luques Curtis his Brother, recording on his CD. After that, Revis expressed interest in working with this saxophonist and artist. They are a good match.

There is freedom and fluidity throughout this album of original Caleb Wheeler Curtis music.  He allows his bandmates to dance on the chord changes, like acrobats at the circus, swinging from one bar to the next in perfect precision and astounding us with their various twists and turns.  For example, on “Limestone” the Curtis saxophone tumbles over the rolling drums of Cleaver in staccato reed notes and streams of improvisation.  His soprano sax sounds almost flute-like on “Trees for the Forest,” a ballad where Caleb and Orrin (on piano) duet quietly out-front. Cleaver percussively colors in the background and Eric’s bass falls like dark, green leaves on a forest floor. “Trembling” leaps into a speedy tempo, with four musicians racing around the CD like cars on a track. Caleb’s saxophone ‘cuts time’ on top of the energy. The music of Caleb Wheeler Curtis takes you on an adventure. This production is an unexpected rocket ship ride.  Just give yourself to the music and watch the universe explode with promise.

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THE ROAD STRAIGHT AHEAD

June 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 25, 2022

CLEMENS GRASSMANN – “GRASS MACHINE” –  Independent label

Clemens Grassman, drums/composer/arranger; Cole Davis, bass; Chris McCarty, piano; Chris Bittner & Sam Dillon, tenor saxophones; David Milazzo, alto saxophone; Aaron Bahr, trumpet.

The path of jazz has widened and merged; forked and wandered to new and various places along the pandemic way.  But the road ‘Straight-ahead’ remains one that I love the most.  This new project by Clemens Grassmann and his Grass Machine takes us on the long and precious road to ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz.  Starting from the very first tune titled, “Re.Cursive Op.Timization” I am in love with this recording.  Lately I’ve been inundated with music by drummers who not only play music but title themselves composers.  I have to say this is the best album composed by a drummer that I have heard in the past two years.  Many of the other projects I listened to had troubled melodies, no bridges, and were more like ‘loops’ than songs.  Clemens Grassmann has developed each song to its maximum creativity, with chords that allow his fellow musicians to improvise comfortable and creatively.  This first song holds my ears prisoner and then comes “Chicken on a Trane.” I assume this is a testament and a nod to the talents of John Coltrane.  It is a bright and boisterous tune that features Aaron Bahr on trumpet, David Milazzo on Alto Sax and Bittner and Dillon on tenor, blowing their hearts out with intricate harmonics.  Bahr steps out from the ensemble to solo and we are off and running at a vigorous pace.   He is followed briskly by the saxophone players, each stellar in their own spotlight.  Cole Davis takes a noteworthy solo on bass and all the while, Clemens Grassmann does what he seems to love.  He pumps the music up on his drums.  Grassmann never allows the rhythm to slack up, the tune to become boring or the energy to dive.  I am swept along with the musicians, enjoying every creative moment.  Chris McCarthy shows his superb talents on piano and then the bassist and Grassmann hold court, talking to each other like an attorney with his client.  Oh yes – throughout these arrangements you will hear musical conversations and arrangements that are both challenging and energized.

I must also compliment the art director and designer, Hollis King.  The CD cover is a winner!  I would pick this up and want to listen to it any day of the week.  I do wish the credits on the back cover had used a larger font for seasoned eyes.  All of the musician names should be in bright lights, because they all deserve it!

When Clemens Grassmann walked into the studio to record this project, they told him:

“We left the drums the way Billy Hart had set them up,” Grassmann recalled. 

“As I entered the drum booth, I had never felt such a sensation; a magical mix of devotion, humility and excitement.  To record my music at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studios, in the exact same room that gave birth to John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme,’ Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ or Wayne Shorter’s ‘Adams Apple’ … ,” the young drummer shared his awe in the liner notes and I could almost hear him sigh. 

“As the pandemic shut down NYC, it offered a vessel to pour my emotions into, assemble a group of extraordinary musicians and create a connection back to the roots…” Clemens Grassmann summed up exactly what this jazz journalist was feeling. 

Straight-ahead and back to the roots!

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PECK ALLMOND QUARTET featuring ED KELLY – “LIVE AT YOSHI’S 1994” – Eastlawn Records

Peck Allmond, tenor saxophone/trumpet/producer; Ed Kelly, piano; John Wiitala, double bass; Bud Spangler, drums; SPECIAL GUEST: Kenny Brooks, tenor saxophone; R.J. Spangler, co-producer.

Peck Allmond is proficiently multi-talented.  He plays trumpet, saxophone, flute and is often in demand for his valve trombone talents, clarinet and bass clarinet mastery. This is an historic album, tracing back to 1992 when Peck made a move from the Bay Area to Brooklyn, New York.  With all his skills and himself, a competent band leader and composer, he quickly became a highly sought-after sideman.  A year later, on July 5, 1994, Allmond returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform at the famous Nightclub, Yoshi’s.

“Hearing this lovely music now, with a distance of three decades and 3,000 miles, I’m grateful.  Grateful I grew up in the SF Bay Area, where an incredible public school music program allowed me to fall in love with jazz,” Peck Allmond wrote in his album liner notes.

This magnificent tribute to the straight-ahead jazz of the 1990s opens with Peck Allmond flying through the changes of the Sonny Rollins tune, “Tenor Madness” quick as a 747-jet plane.  Ed Kelly takes a spirited piano solo.  Ed was a highly respected musician on the Bay Area jazz scene who performed with Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and many other iconic names.

“Ed Kelly was … a mentor. He, of course, is one of the giants of Bay Area jazz; true royalty. I had been listening to him since high school.  When he began hiring me a lot around 1987, I felt unready to play with him.  But he was patient.  Playing with him and just hearing him each night was a masterclass,” Peck Allmond recalled.

The band is inspired by Allmond at the lead and the able drums of Bud Spangler.  Spangler made his debut in Detroit, Michigan first, as a radio personality and music producer.  He added musician to those credits, playing and producing for such labels as Strata Records and Tribe Records.  In the Bay area, Bud Spangler continued his radio career at both KJAZ and later, KCSM radio as a disc jockey, producer and engineer. Spangler produced several Grammy-nominated recordings, including work with Shirley Horn, Denise Perrier, Mimi Fox, Ed Reed, Mary Stallings, Cedar Walton and more.  His drum talents are a welcome addition to the swing and straight-ahead spirit of this music. 

The bass solo on “Like Someone in Love” showcases John Wiitala’s awesome creativity and talent. John was a member of Peck’s regular working band for years.  There is a special camaraderie and comfort between the two.  Wiitala has also performed with James Moody, Jessica Williams, Arturo Sandoval and Joe Henderson to list only a few.  Peck’s solo on this tune, as well as all the others, is clever and hard-bop to the bone.  Allmond weaves in a piece of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” seamlessly.  Listen for it. When the band silences, to let Ed Kelly soak up the spotlight, he mesmerizes me and the ‘live’ audience with his solo piano brilliance.  This band is smokin’ hot!  Everything on this album is dynamically played and soulfully infused with each musician’s raw emotions.  For example, their interpretation of the blues ballad, “I’m confessin’ (that I Love You)” with Allmond’s sexy saxophone caressing our ears, hearts and minds is impressive.  Wiitala’s upright bass dancing beneath the mix in the sweetest way.  At the second half of this tune, Allmond picks up his trumpet and blows our minds with his brilliant talent on this horn too. I am totally entertained by the follow-up of Ed Kelly’s solo piano arrangement on “Moment’s Notice” and the group’s unique interpretation of the familiar tune “Invitation.”  This is an album of music I will play over and over again.  What a sparkling, historic gem for any jazz collection!

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NYO JAZZ – “WE’RE STILL HERE” – Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute

Sean Jones, Artistic Director/trumpeter/bandleader; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; RHYTHM: Tyler Bullock II & Hannah Mayer, piano; Kai Burns, guitar; Aidan McCarthy & Ryoma Takenaga, bass; Colman Burks & Koleby Royston, drums. REEDS: Ebban Dorsey, Alto & baritone saxophones; Connor MacLeod, alto saxophone/flute; Emre Tekmen, alto saxophone; Ephraim Dorsey & Matthew Garcia, tenor saxophone; Noa Zebley, baritone saxophone. TROMBONES: Braxton Hart, Denali Kauffman, Oliver Tuttle, Kenji Wagner & Darien Baldwin, bass trombone. TRUMPETS: Cameron Davidson, Kellin Hanas, Nathan King, Levi Rozek, Ace Williams & Jonah Hieb, trumpet/flugelhorn. Gianna Pedregon, violin.

“The big band has always been America’s orchestral format and one of the most wide-ranging ensembles ever devised,” said Artistic Director and bandleader of NYO Jazz, Sean Jones.

Here is a rich, swinging basket full of original tunes and delicious arrangements performed by NYO Jazz (an extension of the National youth Orchestra) in all their big band beauty.  Opening with a Miguel Zenón composition entitled, “Oyelo” this group of outstanding music makers lets us know, right off the bat, that they are not only still here representing big bands, but they are swinging as hard as ever.  The energized Zenón composition features Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone, singing her song atop the ever-spirited drums of Colman Burks and a horn section that swells and fills the piece with energy.  Kenji Wagner is featured on a notable trombone solo and Jonah Hieb adds his sweet trumpet talents to the mix.  Track #2, “Mr. Jones and Co.” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and composed by Ayn Inserto.  It moves like the fast-pasted Pennsylvania turnpike, with the horns hitting their harmonic, hard-bop chords with precision and gusto.  The curtains part and Sean Jones steps out front featuring his exciting trumpet solo.  It is with the Sean Jones leadership that NYO is showcasing the astonishing potential of these super talented, young musicians; many who are only between sixteen to nineteen years old.  These special, youthful talents will soon find themselves touring and carrying the ever-evolving tradition of big band jazz around the world. Their goal is to impart knowledge and the pride of playing jazz, a music that is America’s indigenous musical artform.  Sean Jones realizes it is up to those who have come before these young people, to inspire and help them climb securely upon the shoulders of jazz veterans like himself.

“I try to make sure that the students bring their whole selves to jazz – – their minds, bodies, souls, spirits; so that they can offer the best versions of themselves in the music. Jazz is ultimately about individualism. I try to make sure they are being themselves, while respecting the tradition of jazz … making sure it is preserved for generations to come,” Sean explains some of his technique.

Under the direction of Jones and sometimes joined by Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling, the NYO (launched in 2018) has already toured Europe.  These gifted students have already performed in some of Europe’s most prestigious concert halls and festivals. They’ve also toured Asia, debuting their big band jazz in Taichung, Beijing, Shanghai, Zhuhai and Hong Kong.  Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious.  When you listen to this album, you will not think that these are students of jazz.  They sound seasoned and confident.  The title tune, penned by the iconic trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon, is expressive.  It includes orchestra, vocal participation as Wycliffe prods and inspires the band to repeat after him on this Mardi Gras influenced music.  Music that makes you want to dance and shout. The “Hambone-hambone, have you heard” line is offered by the horns.  Then Wycliffe sings out and the voices repeat after him, letting the listeners know (with syncopated handclaps and a band that swings hard) this NYO Jazz group means it when they say, “We’re Here to Stay!”

Below is a video of the NYO Jazz performing the great Ralph Peterson piece “The Art of War.”  See for yourself why I’m so excited about this magnificent organization.

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JOHN LEE – “THE ARTIST” – Cellar Music

John Lee, bass/composer; Carl Allen, drums; Miles Black, piano; Cory Weeds, tenor saxophone.

Bassist John Lee is an in-demand player on the Vancouver, Canada jazz scene.  South Korea born, John Lee has established himself as a respected multi-instrumentalist in his Canadian community and beyond.  It was time for him to record an album.  He questioned himself about which instrument to choose and showcase on his debut recording project, because he is a master of many instruments.  Lee plays not only double bass but is quite proficient on drums, piano, organ and guitar.

“I’ve never considered any instrument to be my main instrument.  So, it was very difficult to choose what I would play on my first record,” he admitted in his press package.

Only twenty-eight years old, John Lee demonstrates a musicality and talent far beyond his nearly three decades on this earth.  He is sensitive and creative on the bass, while also proffering his composer skills and arranging strengths for our consumption.  The result is an album that is both delicious, refreshing and delightful.

Surrounded by brilliant sidemen, who are also independent artists in their own rights, the group opens with Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul Leo” tune.  John Lee’s acoustic bass sets the groove with Carl Allen joining him on drums.  This tune is the whistle that sets the quartet off and running.  They are competent and straight-ahead.  Cory Weeds races around on his tenor saxophone.  Weeds is a frequent collaborator with John Lee and also a respected mentor. He appears on only three of the eight songs recorded.   Miles Black brings brilliance to the party, his piano notes dancing like confetti sprinkled around my listening room.  John Lee takes a big, beautiful, but brief, bass solo and also closes the tune out soloing.  His music reminds me of a guest leaving the party feeling happy and fulfilled.  Track #2 is “Carl’s Blues” and spotlights the power and drive of Miles Black at the piano.  Carl Allen is fluid and driving on the drums, a percussive inspiration, continuously inspiring his fellow players.  He solos brightly during this trio track and, for our listening pleasure, let’s his awesome talents soar. I can see that John Lee relishes hard bop, swing and straight-ahead jazz in a most obvious way.  His music infuses me with energy and joyful feelings.  Each one of these players is absolutely and uniquely gifted. They make this project one that thrills and satisfies the listener.  I enjoyed the blues tones they added to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.”

“The musicians I chose to play with me all understand where I am coming from musically and not much had to be worked out in the studio.  We just went in and swung our asses off,” John Lee boasted.

I absolutely agree with him!  This quartet swings non-stop.  When they do take a breath, for instance, on the composition “Life is a Beautiful Thing” (an original song by John) their tenderness and attentiveness to detail and each other touches me like a warm hug.  John Lee is given an opening solo to establish the lovely melody and then hands the torch to Miles Black.  His sensual approach to this John Lee composition is admirable.  However, it’s the sweet and very poignant solo of Lee’s double bass that sings this well-written melody into my heart.  The trio is swinging again on one of my favorite tunes, “September in the Rain.”  Carl Allen’s drum licks sound like rhythmic raindrops on a tin roof and Miles Black is stormy and succinct on piano.  When John Lee enters to sing his solo, his bass becomes sunshine after the storm.  The title tune, “The Artist” is a great way to describe this multi-talented musician.  John Lee’s album introduces us to a young man on the rise.  Like a many-faceted diamond, Lee is bound to show us his multi-musical sides (on this project and those in the future) shiny and sparkling inside a jazz universe that eagerly awaits his promise.

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FELIPE SALLES – “TIYO’S SONGS OF LIFE” – Tapestry Records

Felipe Salles, tenor saxophone/arranger; Zaccai Curtis, piano; Avery Sharpe, bass; Jonathan Barber, drums. Tiyo Attallah Salah-El has written every composition.

It takes strength and determination to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole, and to still develop a creative outlet while keeping your self-respect. The late saxophonist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El managed to become a prolific composer, author and activist while serving a life-long sentence inside a Pennsylvania State prison. He spent nearly half a century incarcerated before dying in 2018. Somehow, with the efforts and determination of a prison abolitionist named Lois Ahrens, today we can hear Salah-El’s music.  Ms. Ahrens is the founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and they provided blank sheets of music paper to Mr. Salah-El in 2005.  The composer quickly reciprocated by filling those blank sheets with his original compositions. 

Now, thanks to the talented tenor saxophonist and arranger, Felipe Salles, with Zaccai Curtis on the piano, Avery Sharpe on bass and Jonathan Barber stroking the drums, the music of Tiyo Attallah Salah-El is available today for public ears.  This is an album of extraordinary music, personifying straight-ahead jazz.  This quartet of musicians brings the composer’s work to life in a brilliant way. 

Starting with “Toetappin’ Tastey,” this composition is seven minutes and six seconds of a hard swinging jazz waltz.  Avery Sharpe walks his double bass into the spotlight, singing his creative solo until Zaccai Curtis takes over on piano.  Jonathan Barber’s powerful drums hold the piece rhythmically in place.  On Track #2, a “Blues to Change Your Views – On Stage in a Cage” we hear music that embraces bebop and offers the listener a well-written, sing-along melody. Salles is brilliant on tenor saxophone, establishing the melody and stretching out with his own unique improvisations on the theme.  The quartet swings harder than a Joe Louis punch. 

“When Lois contacted me, out of the blue, what interested me was the opportunity to make a musical connection to things that I actually cared about that were not necessarily musical.  We refer to incarceration as a correctional system, but it’s really just a punishment system, one that doesn’t treat people with dignity,” Felipe Salles expressed in his press package. 

“The system is so distorted that it becomes very difficult for anybody to succeed in being reformed.  So, prison just becomes a place where people rot and get worse and worse,” Salles concluded.

In the case of “Tiyo’s Songs of Life,” this composer was not the average prisoner.  He never gave up and the prison system did not break him.  His music is extraordinarily potent, with original songs that sound like jazz standards and titles that reflect hope, love and fortitude. Felipe Salles, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, uses his tenor saxophone to interpret these songs with sincere emotion and tenacious talent.  “Steppin’ Up” is arranged in a Latin format and “Live a Life of Love” recalls the days of John Coltrane’s inspired music at the arrangement’s introduction.  “My Love is Deep Inside” was composed for Lois Ahrens and it’s a lovely ballad.  On the tune “12 in 5” Avery Sharpe is brightly featured on bass and the ensemble challenges us to count the time.  This production is full of surprises and the arrangements by Salles are inventive and entertaining.

Felipe Salles is a professor of Jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  He has been teaching there since 2010. Salles is also an active musician with his musical credits embracing a long list of major names who he has played or recorded with since 1995.  Salles has released eight critically acclaimed recordings as a bandleader. I found his ambitious CD/DVD set titled, “The New Immigrant Experience” to be groundbreaking and inspiring. That work took on an activist tone and dealt with the topic of immigration, employing an explosive big band to interpret the topic. Lois Ahrens made a wise choice sharing Tiyo’s song charts and original music with Felipe’s magnificent quartet.  These four gentlemen have certainly honored the spirit and artistic brilliance of Salah-El’s music.

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KALI RODRIGUEZ-PEÑA – “MÉLANGE” – TRRcollective

Kali Rodriguez-Peña, trumpet/composer/arranger; Gabriel Chakarji, piano/keyboards/Fender Rhodes; Bam Bam Rodriguez, acoustic & electric bass; Zack O’Farrill, drums; Victor Pablo Garcia, congas/barril/percussion; Kazemde George, tenor saxophone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Gina D’Soto & Jeremy Bosch, vocals/ Aruan Ortiz, piano.

Cuban born trumpeter, Kali Rodriguez-Peña, showcases his composer talents during this beautifully produced Straight-ahead jazz album.  His passion and tenacity fuel this project.  His power-driven group opens this album with a Wayne Shorter tune, “Yes or No.”  These musicians come out the gate like Kentucky Derby racehorses.  Track #2 reminds me of the music of Thelonious Monk combined with something Charles Mingus might compose.  It is an original composition by Kali titled, “A Student is Not a Disciple.”  Kali Rodriguez-Peña, currently based in the New York City area, has been polishing this band for the past five years.  The title of his album, “Mélange” is a French word for ‘mixture’ and Kali feels it succinctly describes his music, drawn from bebop and post-pop, Cuban timba, salsa and rumba and the world music of India and the Caribbean.

“They say most people listen to music today – the playlist – is a mélange of different albums and artists,” explains Kali. “I call it 21st century music, millennial music or playlist mode music,” he says.

As I soak up Kali’s music, the arrangements of his original tunes stretch the boundaries of just Straight-ahead into the freedom of modern jazz.  On his “La Historia de Erendira” composition, Kali’s beautiful trumpet playing takes the spotlight.  This song is full of energy and ebullience, inspired by Kali’s wonderful mastery of his instrument.  When he hands over the solo position to Gabriel Chakarji, on piano, he offers us a moment of brilliance and energy-driven improvisation.  On the traditional tune, “Drum Mobila,” I enjoy the lead vocals of Gina D’Soto singing in Spanish with Kali Rodriguez-Peña tastily interjecting his trumpet voice into the mix.  It’s as though Gina and Kali are having a serious and very personal conversation. This arrangement is hypnotic. On the familiar standard, “Like Someone in Love” Kali offers a very Cuban musical take on this arrangement, with a hot, percussive, double-time drive and Kazemde George sings his tenor saxophone song atop the rhythmic joy.   Chakarji’s piano solo cools the heat, but never lessens the energy.

Kali Rodriguez-Peña is a fresh voice on the jazz horizon, beaming like an orange and gold sunrise and promising us new music, fresh ideas and determined excellence.

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PLANET D NONET – “LIVE AT THE SCARAB CLUB: TRIBUTE TO BUDDY JOHNSON” – Eastlawn Records

Michael Zaporski, piano; Matt LoRusso, guitar; Shannon Wade, string bass; RJ Spangler, drums/bandleader/background vocals/announcer; Justin Jozwiak, alto saxophone; Jim Holden, tenor saxophone/musical director; Goode Wyche III, baritone saxophone; James O’Donnell, 1st trumpet/co-leader/background vocals; Charlie Miller, trumpet; Tbone Paxton, trombone/lead vocals; Camille Price & Leonard King, vocals.

One ‘swinging’ afternoon in Detroit, Michigan, at the Scarab Club, drummer RJ Spangler led an all-star band of Motown musicians in a ‘live’ performance concert.  The thing that made this concert so unique was that the group, “Planet D Nonet” was performing songs by 1940’s popular pianist, singer, songwriter and big band leader, Buddy Johnson.  It was 2018 when this album became a tribute to Buddy Johnson as these musicians recorded sixteen of his original tunes.  These songs were radio and dance hall favorites back-in-the-day.  Buddy Johnson was popular during the evolution of rock and roll, a music that borrowed from rhythm and blues.  Johnson’s music was a bridge between original R&B and the new rock music that became popular in the 1960s.  He employed big band jazz harmonics, swing and shuffle rhythms, along with catchy lyrics that please enthusiastic audiences and dancers alike. 

Planet D Nonet has contracted Camile Price, Leonard King and Tbone Paxton to sing some of these lyrics that helped make Buddy Johnson’s songs so popular.  The trumpet of James O’Donnell invites the first song, “South Main” to shuffle into the Scarab Ballroom.  The horns are arranged in a 1940 big-band-way and encourage swing dancers to the dance floor.  Michael Zaporski has a light, melodic touch on the piano and Shannon Wade makes a brief, but impressive double bass solo statement.  “Dr. Jive Jives” is a slow swing tune with bandleader and drummer, RJ Spangler, egging the ensemble on with his powerhouse ‘two and four’ rhythm.  The horns swing too, giving us a familiar, repeatable melody to sing along with.  Johnson’s music always offered his fans music they felt comfortable humming along with; melodies they could enjoy.  You clearly hear this in “Hello Sweet Potato” with vocals by Tbone Paxton.  In the 1940s, this was the popular and commercial music of the day.  You hear the boogie-woogie infused arrangement of “Walk ‘Em” next.  It features the guitar of Matt LoRusso with a warm, tight-knit horn section.  Goode Wyche III plays a spirited baritone saxophone solo on “Crazy ‘Bout a Saxophone” and the tune is just plain fun!  There’s a chorus of voices shouting, “Go – go – go” that the audience enjoys, shown by their loud, spontaneous applause.  Track #7, “Lil Dog” is a finger-snappin’, hand-clapping arrangement by Matt LoRusso and we get a generous taste of the blues on Buddy Johnson’s tune “Root Man Blues.”  It’s sung with emotional sincerity by Leonard King.   

This project is a wonderful, historic tribute to the talent and legacy of Buddy Johnson.  Although it is not ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz, Buddy’s music is a bridge between the 1930’s speakeasy jazz and the 1940’s rhythm and blues scene.  It’s what was happening just as Charlie Parker’s career was taking off, before Straight-ahead jazz was brought vividly to the public’s attention.  Things began to change after those trail-blazing arrangement Parker made to the tune “Cherokee” and I would say bebop developed and then Straight-ahead jazz.  Buddy Johnson came after speakeasies, when jazz was blossoming and just before bebop transformed and Straight-ahead was born.

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